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‘Run away, turn away’: The story of Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy

After the death of Bronski Beat co-founder Steve Bronski, Kevin E G Perry looks back at the band’s landmark 1984 debut single

Friday 10 December 2021 12:14
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<p>Bronski in 1996</p>

Bronski in 1996

After news broke that Steve Bronski of synth-pop trio Bronski Beat had died at the age of 61, the band’s singer Jimmy Somerville was moved to reflect on their time making music together in the Eighties. “He was a talented and a very melodic man,” Somerville tweeted. “Working with him on songs and the one song that changed our lives and touched so many other lives, was a fun and exciting time. Thanks for the melody Steve.”

As it happens, the song that changed the lives of the band and their fans was the very first single they put out. Released in 1984, “Smalltown Boy” remains an immaculate dancefloor gem, which tells the story of a young gay man leaving provincial homophobia behind in search of a new life in the big city.

It’s fitting, then, that the band formed after they’d made their own pilgrimages to London. Like Bronski, Somerville grew up in Glasgow in the Seventies before heading south. He was 19 when he arrived in the capital in 1980, and lived in squats in the West End for three years until a friend suggested they move into a shared house in Brixton – with Bronski and fellow aspiring musician Larry Steinbachek. “We moved in with them… and that’s how we met,” Somerville told the Australian music show Countdown in 1984. “We hadn’t intended to form a band, that happened later.”

Steinbachek built himself a bedroom studio where he and Bronski could experiment with synthesisers, but the fledgling band’s sound only really came together when the pair overheard Somerville recording himself singing for the 1983 documentary Framed Youth: The Revenge of the Teenage Perverts. The short film project followed members of the London Gay Teenage Group, including Somerville, as they conducted street interviews with members of the public about their views on homosexuality. Bronski and Steinbachek quickly realised that Somerville’s celestial falsetto was just what their sound needed. “Jimmy got in on the act,” Steinbachek told Countdown. “We discovered that he could sing, and he discovered that he could sing.”

Just months later, on 12 September 1983, the trio made their live debut at Heaven in London as part of “September in the Pink”, London’s first lesbian and gay arts festival. It was a time when gay artists were just starting to become more visible in the cultural mainstream, a trend that was galvanised that October by the release of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax”, along with its debauched music video set in an S&M club. Progress came in fits and starts: both song and video were swiftly banned by the BBC, but nevertheless the song went on to sell two million copies. It remains the sixth best-selling single in British chart history.

The “Relax” video was directed by Bernard Rose, who was hired by Bronski Beat the following year to create the visuals for “Smalltown Boy”. The director recalls how groundbreaking it was at the time that both acts were “out” in public. “There were a lot of artists [in the Eighties] who were gay but not open about it, like Boy George, George Michael, Freddie Mercury, Elton John – these people we now think have always been out, but they were not out in 1984, and they were all at the height of their fame,” Rose told Yahoo Music in 2019. “Frankie Goes to Hollywood were really the first ones who came out and said, ‘Well, yeah, we’re gay.’ And it caused a shockwave, but it also didn’t hurt them – it did the opposite. It propelled [“Relax”] to being huge… Bronski Beat were around before that happened, but their record came out after, and they were coming out into a market where the Frankie thing had already happened. So in a sense, I don’t think it was like their thunder was stolen, but they weren’t the first. But I do think their approach was much more politicised and much more serious.”

While the “Relax” video had been deliberately provocative, full of leather bondage gear and featuring a Caligula-like emperor, the video for “Smalltown Boy” is a starker and more grounded short film that viscerally brought the song’s narrative to life. The “Smalltown Boy” is played by Somerville, who we see making a pass at a handsome diver at his local swimming pool. Later, outside a snack bar, he is ambushed and subjected to a vicious homophobic attack by the diver and his friends. He is effectively outed to his parents when a police officer escorts him home with bruises on his face, so makes the decision to leave home. In a particularly cruel moment, his father hands him money for his journey but refuses to shake his hand, and turns away from him. Although the story is heart-wrenching, it concludes with a note of optimism: the boy’s friends, played by Bronski and Steinbachek, join him on the train and the video ends with the three disembarking in London, a brighter future now hopefully ahead of them.

When it was released in June 1984, “Smalltown Boy” was an immediate hit, reaching No 3 in the UK, No 1 in the Netherlands and Belgium and No 1 on the US dance chart. The song opens ominously, with a dark synth beat, lifted by the brighter topline – an instantly recognisable darting melody – before bursting into resplendent, defiant life. Somerville sings a sustained “cry” before the stark lyrics delivered in that plaintive vocal: “You leave in the morning with everything you own in a little black case/ Alone on a platform, the wind and the rain on a sad and lonely face.”

The success of “Smalltown Boy” led to Bronski Beat signing a deal with London Records; in December 1984, they released their debut album The Age of Consent. The title referred to the fact that, by 1984, the age of consent for “homosexual acts” remained at 21 in the UK, while countries around Europe lowered it to 16. “We listed inside the sleeve the ages for homosexual and heterosexual intercourse in every country around the world and when you saw it written down the discrimination was astonishing,” Somerville told The Guardian in 2006. “We printed the number of the gay switchboards across Britain on the record sleeve and they were swamped as a result.” Even as gay people became more culturally visible during the Eighties, they continued to be discriminated against by the government. Four years after the release of “Smalltown Boy”, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party passed the notorious Section 28 laws, which banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools and public libraries. That legislation would not be repealed until 2003.

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Steve Bronski (left), Jimmy Somerville and Larry Steinbachek performing in San Remo, Italy

As for Bronski Beat, Somerville left the band in 1985 to form the Communards, while Bronski and Steinbachek, joined by new vocalists John Foster and Jonathan Hellyer, released three further records between 1986 and 1995. Steinbachek died following a cancer diagnosis in 2016, the same year Bronski revived the band and released a reworked version of their debut album titled The Age of Reason.

Although he enjoyed a long career, it’s likely that “Smalltown Boy” will prove Steve Bronski’s most enduring legacy. It’s a timeless pop hit that also represents a landmark in advancing gay visibility in British culture. Yet Bronski told Classic Pop Magazine in 2019 that the band that bore his name had not initially set out to change society. “We were just three openly gay men writing songs about our lives,” he said. “A lot of people in our community just happened to relate to our songs, which was amazing.”

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