Playing only electronic instruments and singing unequivocal gay lyrics in a window-rattling falsetto, this London trio burst full-blown onto a complacent music scene in 1984. Scottish-born Jimmy Somerville (who left the following year to form the Communards) has a piercing voice which he can modulate for greater appeal (as on “Junk”); the band plays a powerful and unique breed of techno-dance, with room for such digressions as George and Ira Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and Giorgio Moroder-for-Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” Far more blunt and sexy (the cover image and sleeve notes are similarly plain-spoken) than Tom Robinson’s old records (to which the group surely owes a cultural debt of gratitude), The Age of Consent is an invigorating, courageous and memorable album.
Underscoring the Bronskis’ club and dance orientation, Hundreds & Thousands offers lengthy remixes of four album cuts (“Why,” “Smalltown Boy,” “Junk,” “Heatwave”) plus the non-LP “Run from Love” and “Hard Rain.” Horns have been added, and all the tunes extended to the six-minute-plus range; the cassette and CD contain two more.
Replacing Somerville with John Jon, a competent but far less distinctive singer, Bronski Beat managed to make Truthdare Doubledare, a halfbaked progression from the first album. “Hit That Perfect Beat” is exactly the same kind of hi-NRG dance excitement favored by post-Bronskis Somerville, but the rest of the record attempts to diversify in upscale dance directions that don’t quite pan out. While the songs continue to address gay issues (“Dr John” is about AIDS; “We Know How It Feels” and “Punishment for Love” both concern societal pressures), the lyrics are vague and subtle enough to be overlooked by casual listeners.
When Somerville formed the Communards with classically trained pianist Richard Coles, many assumed the new group would take an even more determined political stance than the Bronskis’ gay activism. Indeed, the pair participates in the Socialist Red Wedge movement but, graphics aside, you’d never know it from their records.
The first track on Communards is an over-the-top hi-NRG remake of “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” Thelma Houston’s 1977 hit; the remainder mixes boring dance music with overly precious arrangements (strings, horns and the orchestral kitchen sink in spots) of songs that occasionally lean towards light opera. Except for those whose homophobia intrudes, the lyrics about sex and romance are merely tired and trivial. Worse, the group’s best asset is squandered: Somerville’s inimitable voice is totally unsuited for this halfbaked material. (The CD adds a song and a remix.)
Endorsing disco’s ongoing commercial viability, the duo did a breathless version of “Never Can Say Goodbye” (following Gloria Gaynor’s interpretation, not the Jacksons) on Red, a thoughtful, melodic album that is as likable as the first is cloying. Stephen Hague’s keyboard-oriented Eurodance production (half of the record; Somerville and Coles did the rest) is more conducive to the much improved material, trimming the rococo excess for a slicker, more appealing sound.
By the end of 1987, the format-happy duo had issued 34 discrete singles and EPs. The deluge persevered until Somerville quit to go solo.
While reasserting his outspoken social and political stance, Somerville’s first solo album maintains the non-stop modern dance momentum with catchy percolating hi-NRG grooves (played and produced by a variety of collaborators, including Hague and Steve Parr) over which he engagingly delivers romantic lyrics of love and loss. (The album also includes a version of Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and a French number which Somerville does twice.) The anthemic and catchy “Read My Lips (Enough Is Enough)” specifically addresses the fight against AIDS; “And You Never Thought That This Could Happen to You” artfully makes a gay-rights statement. Using the combined power of dance and pop to argue for rational behavior could be nightmarish, but Somerville pulls it off with amazing skill.
Covering all three phases (and four albums) of Somerville’s career to date, The Singles Collection begins with “Smalltown Boy” and ends with “Read My Lips,” sandwiching fifteen tracks by the Bronskis, Communards and JS solo in between. The only non-LP tune is a lovely soul-reggae cover of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody.”