Friday, May 18, 2018

"Smalltown Boy" / Bronski Beat

In my 1980s music burrow, I never discovered this song, never knew it existed. Way too disco-ey, way too drum-track auto play for my tastes, and so idiosyncratically British that, living by then in New York, I quite possibly never heard it at the time. (On the other hand, if Culture Club made it across the ocean....)

I can't even remember how it eventually swam into my consciousness a couple years ago. But it is now an indispensible part of my road trip playlist. This is the song I save up for the end of a long highway drive -- and when that synth intro kicks in, I can't help it, I always giggle like mad.

Just look at this video, and try to reconstruct how bold it must have felt back in 1984 (the Orwellian echoes of that date seem all too appropriate). That's lead singer Jimmy Somerville, he of the to-die-for falsetto, playing the starring role. He and his co-founder, keyboardist Steve Bronski were both Glasgow lads, back when Glasgow was all gritty and grayness, before it rediscovered its Rennie Mackintosh cool. Imagine being a gay boy growing up there. No wonder getting out of town seemed like their only option.  
What grabs me about most this track is, strangely enough, the very synth-laden over-produced sound that made me hate most music of the 1980s. Why does it work in this song when it repels me in so many others?
It's all circular hooks and refrains, repeated in a sort of minor-key trance. It's heavy on the reverb (I picture cold deserted concrete underpasses), though every once in awhile a shrill wail of despair erupts -- only to be beaten back down to the trudging mono-beat and those see-saw two-note phrases, "Run away, turn away, run away, turn away, run away." Running away is a knee-jerk reflex, a survival tool, and I'm feeling boxed in myself, claustrophobic and paranoid and -- oh, wait, is THAT what it feels like?
"You leave in the morning with everything you own in a little black case /  Alone on a platform, the wind and the rain on a sad and lonely face" -- it's damn haunting. It's an anthem for outcasts and misfits of all stripes, gay and otherwise. He's crossing a sort of Rubicon; who knows if he'll ever come back. My bets are he won't.
And yeah, the song goes on for 5 minutes, which is longer than a song should be. But somewhere in there I get hypnotized by the repetitions, by that insistent rhythm track, and lose my moorings. I'm numbed, I'm panicking, I'm fighting for air.

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