Author: Richard Smith
Source: Melody Maker
Publish date: December 12 1992
RICHARD SMITH examines the contribution of gay culture to the development of rock’n’roll and argues that it has never been fully acknowledged.
“ALL rock’n’roll is homosexual” - Richie, Manic Street Preachers
If you want to know what rock’ n’ roll would sound like without any gay input, imagine a Michael Bolton record playing for ever. Gay men have been instrumental in shaping the direction the music’s taken over the years. But although their position has been central, it’s also been extremely fraught. Because they can be, have to be, or are made invisible, theirs has been a secret history. All rock’n’roll isn’t homosexual, it’s ambiguous ambivalent - ambisexual.
It’s made people ask questions - “Is he or isn’t he?” or “Is he a she?” - but has rarely seen them answered. It’s hinted and denied but rarely specified. The grand total of out gay men to have performed on “Top Of The Pops” (as good a yardstick as any) barely scrapes into double figures. Yet that programme, like pop itself, has been absolutely riddled with camp, androgyny, male effeminacy and moral outrage.
Much of the shock of the new wave of ambisexual acts (Suede, Manic Street Preachers, Fabulous, Army Of Lovers, Right Said Fred) comes because things have been disturbingly quiet on this front since the Gender Bender explosion of the early Eighties. But the ambisextrous have always shown this alarming tendency to radiate and fade away. Their secret history makes it seem as if they’ve come out of nowhere and thus dooms them to going straight back there. Gay men are in the unique position of being central yet marginalised; informing mainstream culture, but rarely making any real in-roads into it.
Each time something that they’ve fostered crosses over, they’re left standing in the shadows unloved. With the roots denied, it ceases to have any meaning beyond being a fashion and is thus doomed to rapidly fall out of favour and out of sight in the way that fashions always do.
You can’t talk about or trace a “gay music” in the same way you can “black music”. At best, gay men have been allowed the stuff that no one else wants. Because the rock snobs of the Seventies despised Disco, it could be dismissed as “faggot music” (“Disco Sucks”), yet the gay origins of its more fondly regarded modern counterpart, House, which are if anything more distinct, are denied.
Early punks were more than happy to take inspiration from ambisextrous Americans like Lou Reed, Patti Smith and The New York Dolls, and to take refuge in gay clubs. But when punk properly got underway over here, gay men were only allowed to ride in on its coat tails, attaching themselves to an aspect of its outlook that would afford them a voice - either through outrage (Jayne County) or political comment (Tom Robinson).
“I THINK the world is ready for a true fairy” - Jobriath, 1973
The ambisexuals act as shock troops, testing and contesting the climate for the out gay acts that follow in their wake. In the Seventies, the world could cope with the fey campery of Marc Bolan and David Bowie but, despite the gay glam rockers assertion to the contrary, it still wasn’t ready for a true fairy.
The first mass breakthrough wasn’t to come until 10 years later, when the Gender Benders were swiftly followed by Erasure, Bronski Beat, Frankie Goes To Hollywood et al. Even Boy George, whose image had previously been more asexual than ambisexual.
“I WOULDN’T has missed that f***ing bender for anything” – Anonymous fan after Erasure concert
Gay stars can be liked in spite of their sexuality, or because of a reading of it that perpetuates the myths the fan most needs to believe. Their position is difficult and they’re guaranteed a hard time. No more so than if they’ve politicised their homosexuality. Few artists have been so persistently vilified and ridiculed as Jimmy Somerville, as if audiences are happy to be entertained by him but don’t want to hear about the problems he articulates. It’s a very English attitude - they don’t really mind what you do, as long as you’re discreet about it, as long as you don’t frighten the horses.
Little wonder then that, for many, the ambisextrous star is even better than the real thing. And no wonder they arouse such suspicion and contempt from gay men - who view them as either gay cowards or straight thieves.
The former are dismissed as traitors, taking an easier option than fully coming out. The straight thieves steal from gay culture and appropriate its imagery to embellish their act with a little of the erotic exotic. This is the kind of aural voyeurism The Velvet Underground perfected - posing as a sodomite, wearing the dresses, but rarely having to suffer the consequences.
Of course, pop’s always been about plunder, but what grates is that this debt is rarely acknowledged. And when such things are taken up by those who aren’t fully immersed in the culture from which they’ve sprung, they never get it quite right. Camp goes from being something specific but indefinable, to something meaningless.
Content to only touch the surface, everything they do rests not on conviction but artifice. Is there really any difference between what Brett from Suede is doing and what The Black And White Minstrels once did? If it’s only an act, are audiences allowed the luxury of laughing along with it before going merrily queer bashing into the night?
At its worst, ambisexuality is a mask straights use to boost sales. For Paul Morley, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s homosex was no more than another marketing device. Used and abused like this, much of the time this particular gay man will be left screaming “Come out or fuck off.”