Sunday 2 October 2011

Giving head, sad young men, and sing-a-long-a Tom Robinson

Paul and I went along to the long-awaited second part of The Vinyl Closet yesterday afternoon. Madame Arcati and I went to the first one back in February last year for LGBT History Month (read my blog of that occasion, which incidentally the organisers GALHA used in their publicity for yesterday!), and we loved it, so I guessed we would be in for another treat.

The Gay & Lesbian Humanist Association (GALHA) crowd are a lovely and eclectic mix of people. Unfortunately they were holding their AGM immediately prior to the event, which over-ran by an hour. They evidently have lots to talk about! However, having already spent a couple of hours sunbathing (in October!) in the rose garden in Regent's Park earlier that afternoon, I was not too upset to find myself topping up the tan outside The Dolphin Arms off Red Lion Square while waiting...

Anyway, eventually we mosied in to the twee Conway Hall where our eminent experts and performers Ted Brown and Brett Lock were champing at the bit to get started. The remit for the last event was to cover gay-themed music from the early part of the 20th century to the landmark of Stonewall in 1969. The parameters of yesterday covered the music from that point onwards, starting with the free-and-easy 70s. So it was inevitable, really, that the polysexual world of Lou Reed would provide a brilliant opening number (sung with a smooth, soulful twist by Mr Brown):

Remarkably uncontroversial despite its content, the duo explained how when Walk On The Wild Side was first played, mainstream society at the time had very little understanding of the terminology used by Mr Reed (described as "the American version of Polari") so did not realise that "looking for soul food and a place to eat" is a direct reference to seeking sex with black men, and even the references to "giving head" did not register as the phrase was not common parlance at the time. So the song was not widely banned, and became (quite rightly) a critically-acclaimed all-time classic.

Changing the mood somewhat, Brett and Ted turned their attention to a most poignant song (beautifully sung) - the Ballad of the Sad Young Men, originally written for the "beatnik musical" The Nervous Set by Fran Landesman. Sung from the perspective of a female character, commenting on her gay friends' lives, its references to "sad" men and "playing at making love" were obviously roundly criticised - but as Ted observed, when Ms Landesman wrote it, this was probably well before any kind of gay life was possible in public for fear of arrest and persecution, so we have to make allowances. Here's every "sad young man"'s favourite diva Shirley Bassey, jazzing the song up for a very knowing audience...

Sing a song
Of sad young men
Full of rye
All the news
Is bad again
Kiss your dreams

All the sad young men
Sitting in the bars
Drinking up the night
Missing all the stars

All the sad young men
Through the town
Drinking up the night
Trying not to drown

All the sad young men
Singing in the cold
Trying to forget
That they are
Growing old

All the sad young men
Choking on their youth
Trying to be brave
Running from the truth
Autumn turns
The leaves to gold
Slowly dies the heart
Sad young men
Are growing old
The cruellest part

All the sad young men
Seek a certain smile
Someone they can hold
For just
A little while
Tired little girl
She does the best
That she can
Trying to be gay
For a sad young man

While a grimy moon
Blossoms up above
All the sad young men
They play
At making love

Misbegotten moon
For sad young men
May your gentle light
Guide them home again
All the sad
Sad sad young men

In complete contrast, next up the focus crossed back across the Atlantic to "Swinging London", and to the genius of The Kinks (and we wonder where they got that name from?). Lola is indeed a bizarre song which, despite its lyrics involving the relationship between a man and a transvestite, was only ever banned by the BBC because it name-checked a brand (Coca-Cola - the lyric had to be re-recorded as "cherry cola").

I met her in a club down in old Soho
where you drink champagne and it tastes just like Cherry Cola
C-O-L-A Cola.
She walked up to me and she asked me to dance.
I asked her her name and in a dark brown voice she said, "Lola"
L-O-L-A Lola, lo lo lo Lola

Well, I'm not the world's most physical guy,
but when she squeesed me tight she nearly broke my spine
Oh my Lola, lo lo lo Lola, lo lo lo Lola

Well, I'm not dumb but I can't understand
why she walks like a woman and talks like a man
Oh my Lola, lo lo lo Lola, lo lo lo Lola

Well, we drank champagne and danced all night,
under electric candlelight,
she picked me up and sat me on her knee,
She said, "Little boy won't you come home with me?"

Well, I'm not the world's most passionate guy,
but when I looked in her eyes,
I almost fell for my Lola,
Lo lo lo Lola, lo lo lo Lola

I pushed her away. I walked to the door.
I fell to the floor. I got down on my knees.
I looked at her, and she at me.
Well that's the way that I want it to stay.
I always want it to be that way for my Lola.
Lo lo lo Lola.

Girls will be boys, and boys will be girls.
It's a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world,
except for Lola. Lo lo lo Lola. Lo lo lo Lola.

Well I left home just a week ago,
and I never ever kissed a woman before,
Lola smiled and took me by the hand,
she said, "Little boy, gonna make you a man."

Well I'm not the world's most masculine man,
but I know what I am and that I'm a man,
And so is Lola.
Lo lo lo Lola. Lo lo lo Lola.

Once the closet doors had begun to creak open in the world of theatre with the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain's powers of censorship over drama in 1968, overt sexuality began to make its way onto the British stage - not least with the ground-breaking Hair:

Of course, this new-found freedom was not to the taste of the puritanical Mary Whitehouse and her "Festival of Light" cronies, whose homophobia knew no bounds. But when they found a popular ally in Cliff Richard, he became the target of huge amounts of ridicule from the burgeoning ranks of the Gay Liberation front, not least for his ludicrous hit Goodbye Sam, Hello Samantha, which prompted loads of drag queens to don "half male, half female" attire to mime to the song at his concerts. Madam Cliff (who, incidentally, has been living with a male "spiritual adviser" for more than thirty years) soon withdrew his public support for the Whitehouse cause... [NB this blog remains a "Cliff-free zone"]

Ted and Brett, continuing their journey through the 70s, reserved a huge degree of criticism for Dame Elton John, who despite alluding to "The Wizard of Oz", spangly outfits and (at least) bisexuality, still recorded a very anti-dyke song for his seminal album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. With such lyrics as these it is no surprise they were angry:

Poor little darling with a chip out of her heart
It's like acting in a movie when you got the wrong part
Getting your kicks in another girl's bed
And it was only last Tuesday they found you in the subway dead

And who could you call your friends down in Soho
One or two middle-aged dykes in a Go-Go
And what do you expect from a sixteen year old yo-yo
And hey, hey, hey, oh don't you know

It was obvious an event of this nature would have to feature The Killing of Georgie (Rod Stewart's attempt at being gay-friendly - I have actually always been a bit wary of the song). As our hosts did point out, even though the protagonist ends up dead (as was the clichéd end for so many gay characters in song, film and literature over the years), at least there is a degree of sympathy involved (even if the sympathy does not seem to extend to mentioning the fate of Georgie's boyfriend)...

From death and negativity to the birth of the "fight-back", we were encouraged to sing along one of the most pioneering and unapologetic of all songs - Glad to be Gay by Tom Robinson Band. Originally written in 1976 for Gay Pride (and banned by the BBC for years), it has had many re-writes in order to remain topical (I heard Mr Robinson singing it at Pride 1985, when one of the targets was the Thatcher Government). Ted did the song justice, in its original version.

The British Police are the best in the world
I don't believe one of these stories I've heard
'Bout them raiding our pubs for no reason at all
Lining the customers up by the wall
Picking out people and knocking them down
Resisting arrest as they're kicked on the ground
Searching their houses and calling them queer
I don't believe that sort of thing happens here

Sing if you're glad to be gay
Sing if you're happy that way

Pictures of naked young women are fun
In Titbits and Playboy, page three of The Sun
There's no nudes in Gay News our last magazine
But they still find excuses to call it obscene
Read how disgusting we are in the press
The News of The World and the Sunday Express
Molesters of children, corruptors of youth
It's there in the paper, it must be the truth

Sing if you're glad to be gay
Sing if you're happy that way

Don't try to kid us that if you're discreet
You're perfectly safe as you walk down the street
You don't have to mince or make bitchy remarks
To get beaten unconscious and left in the dark
I had a friend who was gentle and short
Got lonely one evening and went for a walk
Queerbashers caught him and kicked in his teeth
He was only hospitalised for a week

Sing if you're glad to be gay
Sing if you're happy that way

So sit back and watch as they close all our clubs
Arrest us for meeting and raid all our pubs
Make sure your boyfriend's at least 21
So only your friends and your brothers get done
Lie to your workmates, lie to your folks
Put down the queens and tell anti-queer jokes
Gay Lib's ridiculous, join their laughter
'The buggers are legal now, what more are they after?'

Sing if you're glad to be gay
Sing if you're happy this way

Limited for time (especially with a late start), Ted and Brett brushed over a number of significant gay artists with merely a mention. Marc Bolan and David Bowie were referenced in the Lou Reed/Elton John slots, and now, on reaching the 80s, Marc Almond, (the then still closeted) George Michael, Boy George, Jimi Somerville and Holly Johnson were only tantalisingly waved in front of us. If not any of them then who would they choose to feature, we wondered? As it turned out, it was of course that most lyrical of effete artists (who has remarkably, alone amongst the 80s artists mentioned, never actually "come out") Morrissey, with his paean to an attempted cross-generational seduction This Charming Man...

Apparently, the line "A jumped-up pantry boy who never knew his place" is borrowed from the 1972 film adaptation of Anthony Shaffer's 1970 homoerotic play Sleuth, in which Laurence Olivier plays a closeted author and Michael Caine his desired "bit of rough". The "return the ring" line refers to the older man's advice to the younger hitch-hiker not to get married but to be with him instead. Like all Morrissey's lyrics however, everyone interprets them differently.

And so, reluctantly The Vinyl Closet 2 rolled towards its conclusion with this favourite of the boys, Freddie Mercury's coming-out number Somebody To Love, of which Ted gave a silky smooth rendition to finish the set.

This was another remarkable and excellent event, and one that Paul and I were really pleased to have gone to. Brett and Ted are apparently planning more (and longer) outings for a combined version of The Vinyl Closet 1 & 2, and asked the audience for suggestions for songs they should include. Paul and I of course immediately suggested Bowie, but there are thousands of others that could fit the bill...

They are also planning a new website, which we will look out for, and rather hope there will be another in the sequence of "Vinyl Closets" to bring us up-to-date.


  1. This sounds like a brilliant afternoon/evening … although I wished reading it and I'm sure you wished being there, what other songs they would have sung and which tales they would have told if they'd started on time.
    The Smiths did toy with being overtly homo-erotic in the beginning, You Handsome Devil being a clear example before deciding to go down a slightly more opaque route.

    Anyway sounds like a brilliant night xx

  2. Paul and I loved it (as you can possibly tell, you missed a treat), and yes, we all wished it had been longer. However, the depth of knowledge and understanding expressed by Ted and Brett must surely have further outings. I wait with bated breath... Jx

  3. well keep me in the loop if they do announce any more x


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