To end LGBT History Month, 2013, and to look forward to 2014’s theme, Music, singer-songwriter Andi Fraggs rounds out the LGBT Heroes series.
Jimmy Sommerville – Musician
by Andi Fraggs
As a musician, music has always been the most important thing in my life. So many artists have made an impression on me: Madonna, Toyah, The B-52s, Kate Bush, Abba, Julee Cruise, to name but a few. With his incredible and unique voice and writing talent, as well as his powerful work involving human rights, one artist has touched my life with his music in a way no one else has: Jimmy Somerville.
Jimmy released his first single, the now classic ‘Smalltown Boy’, with Bronski Beat in 1984. To achieve a top 3 single in the mid ’80s with a song about a boy growing up gay in a small town was an impressive achievement. I don’t think it would have happened when I was growing up, so I don’t know how they managed it then. With the subsequent Bronski Beat releases ‘Why?’ (surely the greatest gay rights anthem of all time, a song which I now perform in my own live shows), ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ and the album Age of Consent, came even bolder statements. Of course, Jimmy wasn’t the only person responsible for the musical and visual greatness of Bronski Beat, with members Larry Steinbachek and Steve Bronski equally in control.
Now, what you have to bear in mind is that I was growing up in the late ’90s/early ’00s, and in the midst of coming out – I was 12 when I came out and suffered the consequences greatly, having to leave school at 14 because of homophobic bullying – I was frantically searching for something I could relate to. There was nothing until one day I ventured into a second hand shop and there was a big pink triangle on the front of the Bronski Beat album.
I had read up on LGBT history and recognised the pink triangle. I was instantly hooked on the fantastic music and I also loved that the band had listed the unequal age of consent for gay men all around the world in the sleeve-notes. As I began to buy each release, I also loved the statements written in the sleeve-notes and on the covers, a theme which Jimmy would later continue with The Communards and his solo releases. As a final farewell to his Bronski Beat years, Jimmy recorded a duet and a massive hit with Marc Almond – another inspiring and creative gay artist. Their voices complemented each other perfectly on the track ‘I Feel Love/Johnny Remember Me’ – surely one of the campest duets in music history. After that, Jimmy departed Bronski Beat, who went on to achieve success with a new lineup and another gay classic ‘Hit That Perfect Beat’, as well as releasing a single with Eartha Kitt.
Jimmy formed another politically driven band, The Communards, with Richard Coles. The first Communards single release ‘You Are My World’ showcased Jimmy’s vocal talents. The group appeared on Channel 4’s cutting edge music show The Tube, with Jimmy openly singing about a ‘boy’ who was his world. The track made the top 30, but greater things were to follow as the group released a string of massive hit singles, including the biggest selling single of 1986 ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’, featuring Sarah Jane Morris. The Communards carried on politically where Bronski Beat left off, performing songs about the Thatcher government (‘Breadline Britain’) and domestic violence (‘Tomorrow’).
In 1987, the group released their second album Red and, in my opinion, one of the greatest singles of all time. ‘For A Friend’ was about Jimmy’s oldest friend, a prominent gay rights activist called Mark Ashton, who died only 12 days after being diagnosed with HIV in early 1987. All of the band’s proceeds were given to Mark Ashton’s AIDS charity, but the record company refused to donate their profits. Jimmy and Richard appeared on breakfast show TV:AM to discuss Radio 1’s failure to playlist the track, despite strong initial sales. Jimmy put it down to the fact that the song was about a man dying of AIDS. Later in 1988, the band went on to release their final single, another strong political LGBT rights track called ‘There’s More To Love Than Boy Meets Girl’ which again made the UK Top 20.
Following on from The Communards, Jimmy went on to release further hit singles, including a cover of the Sylvester classic ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’. He made further gay and human rights statements with his music, with artists such as Sinead O’Connor appearing in the video for the 1990 single ‘Read My Lips (Enough Is Enough)’. The video for the single featured ‘ACT UP’ slogans throughout, and it’s another example of how much Jimmy has done for the LGBT community.
In 1991 Jimmy was nominated for Best Male Artist at the Brit Awards and continued to have chart hits into the mid ’90s. In 1995 he made number 1 on the U.S Club charts with ‘Heatbeat’. As recently as 2001, his ‘Best of’ album made the UK Top 30 albums chart and he retains a strong and loyal fanbase, releasing new music online and through his website. His voice is still as powerful as it was in 1984. Ultimately, his music has lasted the test of time and to this day gets played on the radio and in clubs – although personally I don’t think he gets enough credit from the gay scene for how much he has done. I, for one, am eternally grateful for the way he has used such a platform to promote gay rights. His music has been a huge influence on my own as well as my approach to life.
Thank you Jimmy!