Between late 1979 and the end of 1989, there were nearly 500 (real) one-hit wonders of the 80s that reached the BILLBOARD Hot 100 just one time, a list that includes Soft Cell, Gary Numan, Timbuk 3, The Church, Nik Kershaw, The Buggles, The Waitresses, Ultravox and two different bands named The Silencers. Once a week, I’ll highlight a (real) one-hit wonder for you.
Also, on Sunday, June 12, 2016, my dear friend and former Portlander Michelle Fire Eater will make her first appearance on my little radio show, STUCK IN THE 80s (on WMPG Community Radio), in 9 years, and with a kick-ass theme show she thought of a couple of years ago – THE HEAVY 80s – it wasn’t all bubblegum, you know…
THE HEAVY 80s will feature songs that actually had substance to it, and covered a vast number of subjects including drug abuse, rejection, racism, homophobia, bullying, teenage depression and suicide, alcoholism, feminism, child abuse, homelessness, poverty, difficulties for farmers in the Midwest, media sensationalism, Apartheid, The Cold War, The Vietnam War, AIDS, the Kennedy Assassination, and protests against war, dictators and more.
This week on the blog, I’ll highlight some of the songs Michelle and I will be featuring on THE HEAVY 80s.
In 1983, singer Jimmy Somerville formed the London Synthpop trio Bronski Beat with Steve Bronski and Larry Steinbachek, both of whom played keyboards and did percussion. They signed a recording contract with London Records after just nine live gigs. They were all openly gay, and their songs reflected as such.
By the following year, several European countries had reduced the age of consent for homosexual acts to 16, but for whatever reason, the age remained at 21 in the United Kingdom. And Bronski Beat found the title of their first album. (BTW, the age of consent in England, Scotland and Wales – regardless of sexual orientation- was lowered in to 16 in 2001. In Northern Ireland, it was lowered to 16 in 2009.)
THE AGE OF CONSENT featured 10 songs, including a cover of George Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” (mixed with “Johnny Remember Me”), the anti-gay prejudice song “Why?”, and the brilliant first single, “Smalltown Boy.”
I humbly admit the first time I heard “Smalltown Boy” in the Summer of 1984 (at the now long-defunct Happy Wheels roller rink in Central Maine; about a mile from where I am typing this). And I was impressed. I’ll proudly admit that. At first, though, it was the amazing Synth-dance sound that drove me to pick up the single, but then I learned what it was actually about, and I continued to be impressed.
“Smalltown Boy” has long been a gay anthem, and brings up issues of rejection for being homosexual, plus homophobia, loneliness and bullying. A lot of dark subjects covered in the guise of a 5-minute, kick-ass Synth-dance song; no easy feat.
In a ranking of the 100 Best Singles of 1984, ROLLING STONE said this of “Smalltown Boy”: “The tumultuous Synthpop anthem gives listeners encouragement [to] run away because ‘The love that you need will never be found at home.’ It’s easy to hear why [Bronski] Beat’s hissing drums and keyboard loops found a heartbeat in clubs, but the ‘It gets better” message’ keeps [Jimmy] Somerville singing it to this day.”
Well, it didn’t take long for the U.K. (where it reached No. 3) and the world to unite over “Smalltown Boy.” It reached No. 1 in Belgium and Holland, and the Top 10 in Australia, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand and Switzerland. In Canada, it reached No. 11 and was certified Gold, and in the U.K. it was certified Silver.
Over here in the U.S., “Smalltown Boy” took a bit more time for radio stations to embrace it, and it eventually debuted on the BILLBOARD Hot 100 the week of Christmas 1984, spent a week at No. 48 in early March 1985, and an impressive 16 total weeks on the chart. It also spent a week at No. 1 on BILLBOARD’s Dance chart in February 1985.
The band would go on to have five more U.K. chart hits (three of them reaching the Top 10, and giving the band three more Silver records), but “Smalltown Boy” was the only entry they would have on the Hot 100. Jimmy Somerville left the band after the debut album, and went on to form The Communards, releasing two albums, generating a pair of 70s covers (Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and The Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye”) that ended up being moderate hits here in America.
I’m not gay, but I was bullied in school, especially junior high school, and I’ve heard other folks say over the years how this song helped get them through school. I’ve always loved “Smalltown Boy,” I’ve always loved dancing to it, and I’ve always had a lot of respect for Jimmy Somerville and Bronski Beat and what they and “Smalltown Boy” did for the gay community (and the dance community, for that matter), and for anyone else who has felt threatened and bullied for whatever reason. And for that, I thank you…