Bronski Beat ‘The Age of Consent’ by Paul Flynn
Illustration by Fernando Monroy
Paul Flynn is an author and journalist. He is Senior Contributing Editor at Love magazine and a columnist at Grazia and Attitude. His first book, Good As You, a personal and pop-cultural mapping of the thirty years preceding British legal gay equality in the UK came out in 2017, published by Ebury.
“Bronski Beat’s debut ‘The Age of Consent’ was first released in October 1984. It is the British gay record that has since accrued most mythical status. Under a gay label boss (Colin Bell, at London Records) the three gay men quickly fashioned a record what was closely aligned with gay men’s rites of passage. The odd thing was that along the way, something so specific made temporary, global stars of three ordinary, working class boys who’s first motives were political, not musical. The album started as a bunch of demo tapes made for a pro-Gay Rights rally by the Greater London Council. It ended up on Top of the Pops, MTV and Japanese radio. On October 26th, ‘The Age of Consent’ comes out once more, re-released, re-mastered and sensitively repackaged with bonus materials, remixes, rarities, session work. Earlier this summer I was asked to pen some thoughts for prospective new sleeve-notes for the re-issue. This record came out when I was 13 years old. It laid out documentary emotions, song by song, beat by beat, on how to navigate life as a gay man, at a time when turning into one felt like it might be just about the most ostracizing thing in the world. I wrote the following notes in less than two hours one morning. Because I know how much the record means to me, I know how much it means to gay progress itself.”
Paul Flynn, October 2018
While serving as British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher gave an interview to Woman’s Own magazine. During the conversation she made a casual aside. ‘There is no such thing as society,’ she said, calmly delivering a fatalistic new mantra for greed-is-good capitalism. Pop music is the opposite of politics. It is fantasia and lust, not administration and bureaucracy. It dresses better, has catchier choruses and enjoys a purpose of casual disruption. It is communal by nature. Pop’s primary collective interest, when it is at its most potent is disordering society. Sometimes, it even works.
So, ‘The Age of Consent’. The breath-taking first mic drop moment of Bronski Beat’s debut happens early. Jimmy Somerville, Steve Bronski and Larry Steinbachek set out their stall on patient zero. In the middle eight of the opening song Why?, a glorious electronic disco rebuff to gay-bashing, singer Jimmy Somerville launches precipitously into his astral falsetto. ‘You and me together,’ he sings, repeatedly, changing only his register for full effect, ‘fighting for our love.’ The line neatly summarises the album’s noble intent. Romeo and Romeo were given wings, instructed to take flight.
‘The Age of Consent’ is a journeyman record which is indivisible for the fight for British gay equality. It is every bit as brave and war-torn as Bruce Springsteen in all his blue-collar drag. It is a working-class record, a kitchen sink vignette, a sloganeering button badge, a protest banner at the front of a march and a pair of disco hot-pants rollerblading under the open legs of its enemy. It is the sound of the people fighting back against injustice, being on the right side of changing times. It is the sensual noise made making one’s way to the middle of a dancefloor while public morality begins to redistribute for the wider good.
‘The Age of Consent’ is pop’s New Testament for British Gay Pride, drawn at a time when gay men were not just foresworn enemies of the State but in the grip of a devastating new health pandemic, too. We were the scourge of the press, the love that dare not speak its name, the beaten in the playground, the small pockets of volcanic emotion communing under subterranean mirror-balls. We had one representative in the Houses of Parliament who dared say it. The record arrived, at full tumescence in 1984, the same year US Secretary of State for Health Margaret Heckler identified the HIV virus as the cause of AIDS. The timing of the record gives it the potency of a time-capsule. But its timelessness is its true weaponry. It was a precursor to all the change that was about to come.
It is as impossible to imagine British gay culture without ‘The Age of Consent’ as it is the plays of Oscar Wilde, the films of Derek Jarman and the agit-prop politics of Peter Tatchell. The delivery of the record, a swaggeringly audacious iron fist in a velvet glove works as a direct travelogue, an emotional towpath in one young man’s journey from loneliness to togetherness, victimhood to heroism. From Why? to I Feel Love.
In the communal pop exchange between artist and audience that one man becomes everyman. At that moment, ‘The Age of Consent’ becomes society. Society begins to re-route. A door is opened with this beautiful, bruised masterpiece, with its bloodied nose and swinging hips, for transparency, beauty, hope, desire and equal love.
The great skill of the new communion of Somerville, Bronski and Steinbachek is to place the listener directly in the room with each song. They are not omniscient narrators of their world or gods guiding the ropes of their individual marionettes. They are in it, living it, rolling inside its thematic meaning.
Intuited through the blue-eyed wonder of Jimmy’s sly vocal pirouettes, they take the punch in Why? and stand on the train platform worrying about the love that they need that will never be found at home in Smalltown Boy. They’re watching the same crappy TV advertising on Junk and dancing to the tap-shoe rhythm track of Heatwave. If politics needs rewiring, so does religion, too. They’re questioning the bible with a male voice choir on It Aint Necessarily So, led by a singular, defiant clarinet. They are part of the insoluble trade-off between lust and commerce in Love and Money and, nearing the record’s rock-hard climax, they are led by their collective eyes, heart and groin in the sex of Need A Man Blues.
Bronski Beat were a new template for pop action, a direct reframing of the pop star. The man on the TV singing the best songs in the world right now no longer had to be a giddy fantasy on which to hang an audience’s dreams. Now he could be a man who looked and sounded just like you, saying the things you wanted to say a little more soulfully, with that touch more clarity. Jimmy was pop’s hall of mirrors tromp l’oeil effect in which his audience became a little taller, bolder and braver in reflection.
The actual age of consent for gay sex between men, to which the title of this gripping and dramatic debut alludes, was 21 in 1984. Famously, the record lists the ages for consent in every country around the world on the inside jacket, an educational tool that presented its own skilful political sideswipe. We were five years lagging tardy behind our heterosexual friends. Those five years can be a long time to wait when you have those Need A Man Blues. As a representative cornerstone of prejudice, there was no more enshrined emblem than the battle to catch up. Eventually it would happen, too. Britain changed. ‘The Age of Consent’ hurried it along a little.
When Bronski Beat received the first acetate 12” copy of Smalltown Boy, their heroic first single to the offices of London Records, they took it tout suite down to Heaven, the gay club under Villiers Arches that was as much a spiritual home to the band as it was their peers. This was the sprung dancefloor on which they had heard the Hi-NRG classics of wailing American divas that their records took tender tuition from. They handed the record over to the DJ Ian Levine. He played the full 12” excursion once. Upon bringing the house down, he played it again, twice.
It might have been in that very moment that the journey of Smalltown Boy becoming a kind of national anthem for Gay Britain, its many friends and allies began. From the striking opening keyboard figure to the imploring refrain of ‘Cry, boy, cry’ it has become a conduit to the male emotional facility. The song has endured with astonishing resonance. It lives online in the hundreds of Youtube covers, by suburban kids dreaming of city escape, far from all gay.
Smalltown Boy and Why? have both become film stars in recent years. The latter featured in the pivotal ‘Pits and Perverts’ scene in Pride, the brilliant tale of the Gays and Lesbians Support the Miners group who coalesced at Gay’s The Word bookshop in Bloomsbury, London during the miner’s strike. The latter formed a spinetingling backbone to Robin Campillo’s 120 BPM, about the formation and efficacy of the ACT-UP! movement in Paris.
You see, that’s the thing about society. It isn’t isolationist. It is inclusive, broad, tough and tender. It is about feeding the five thousand with a couple of loaves and fishes. It is about telling a little story, personal and heartfelt and wondering whether that resonates with someone else. The story is passed on. And in it, we eventually see ourselves, conjoined by the same pressures of our brothers and sisters in song.
A mythic album will always accrue mythic stories around it. And so it went for Bronski Beat and ‘The Age of Consent.’ The band lasted barely 18 months, start to finish. Smalltown Boy was a hit everywhere around the world. A record fashioned in protest had to end in conflict, of some sort. It only added to the hero’s travelogue of the record. The brevity of their story kept Bronski Beat locked in a moment. The fanning of its universality, embracing new audiences with each generation that passes suggests there is no more perfect a British protest suite. Pop stars will come and go. ‘The Age of Consent’ will live forever.
Fernando Monroy is a Mexican illustrator currently studying in México city. His work references pop culture, reflecting the work of photographers, designers and fashion. Out Magazine named him one of twenty young queer artists to watch.