This week in 1985, Smalltown Boy, the debut single from UK gay dance trio Bronski Beat, hit #1 on the Billboard dance chart for its only week. The tortured lyrics, haunting melody and heartbreaking video (which depicts a gay bashing) made the song an immediate gay anthem worldwide and it remains a staple of gay nightclubs today. My roommate and I happened across the import 12″ of Smalltown Boy in the summer of 1984 and spent the next year collecting every possible mix and 12″ sleeve from around the world. I can vividly recall the first day we brought it home and played it dozens of times, pronouncing each playing more profound that the last. Quite simply, there had never been anything remotely like it. The video was directed by Bernard Rose, who also did Relax and Two Tribes for Frankie Goes To Hollywood. It got scant airplay on MTV, no doubt to its content, and we took to recording MTV overnight until we finally captured it. It’s 25 years later and I’d still put Smalltown Boy in my lifetime Top 10.
CATALOG: Smalltown Boy hit #3 on the UK pop chart, #48 on the U.S pop chart. Its follow-up, Why?, was also about gay-bashing and reached #5 in the UK. Other notable singles were their cover of It Ain’t Necessarily So (1984), and their collaboration with Soft Cell’s Marc Almond on a cover of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love (#3 UK, 1985). Lead singer Jimmy Sommerville left that year – after only one album with Bronski Beat – to form the Communards, but several months later Bronksi Beat had another hit with new lead singer John Jon in Hit That Perfect Beat (#3 UK, #3 US dance). I recall being so overcome by hearing Hit That Perfect Beat at Washington DC’s Lost & Found that summer, that I actually co-howled the “ow ow owoooo!” part on the dance floor, much to the embarrassment of my dance partner. John Jon also left Bronksi Beat after one album and in 1989 the band had their last big hit with their third lead singer, Jonathan Hellyer, when they collaborated with Eartha Kitt on Cha Cha Heels, which was based on a line from John Water’s Female Trouble. Cha Cha Heels was intended to be recorded with Divine, but she died in 1988 before the record could be made.
TRIVIA: Smalltown Boy has been covered by handful of pop artists such as Tori Amos, but for some reason it has become a popular song for heavy metal bands. Check out cover versions by Depressive Age, Paradise Lost, The Fire, and a fairly faithful take on the song by the Atomic Bees.
RELATED: Bronski Beat was one of the first pop acts to tackle LGBT rights in their lyrics, from the stage, and in their liner notes. The liner notes on their debut album, The Age Of Consent, listed the disparity between heterosexual and homosexual ages of consent in countries around the world, although MCA Records deleted the information from the U.S. version in its second pressing once they realized what it was about. The 12″ of Smalltown Boy had the phone number for London’s gay teen switchboard scratched into its center.