Monday, 25 March 2013

Bronski Beat 'Smalltown Boy'

Chart Peak: 3


All this year, Radio 2 are running a documentary series called The People's Songs, which makes the lofty claim of revisiting British social history through the lens of popular music. 'Smalltown Boy' was the subject of the latest episode, which offers such a thorough overview of the song and the culture it was released into that it doesn't leave me a lot to say (one reason this post is so late). Coincidentally, the song also shows up in this recent post at the AV Club about adults-only pop videos from the early days of MTV, although the content of this one is notably less salacious than most of the others featured. Interesting side-note that virtually all those videos are by British acts.

For those not in the know, the song was of course the chart debut of Jimmy Somerville, and an early taste of the lyrical themes that resonate throughout his career; it's about growing up gay in a small town and having to move away to a big city to find acceptance and start a new life. But you don't have to be gay or from a small town to be affected by it - strictly speaking, even the Glaswegian Somerville is only one of those things. I was too young to understand or appreciate the song at the time, but whenever I hear it now I'm assaulted by the beautiful sadness of it. Though obviously derived from the disco and hi-NRG sounds popular in gay clubs at the time, the song has a haunted, mournful tone achieved through a simple synthesiser line; the combination of purely electronic instrumentation and emotively human melodies reminds me somehow of Kraftwerk. Only in the middle section does the song break into a more forceful sound, presumably to indicate the Boy's hopes for his new life, and even that's undermined by the fact that Somerville's lyric at this point is "Cry boy cry!" Finally the song goes back to where it started with a repeat of the first verse, which may be intended to suggest that the Boy needs to move on again - or maybe it's addressing a different character, one of the many who found themselves needing this kind of escape and, despite the strides we've made in the past thirty years (and for that matter, the ones we already had in the preceding thirty) still do. Throughout the song, the fact that the lyric is in the second person adds an intimacy, and it's also interesting that the subject matter is never stated directly. Possibly this was to some extent a commercial decision but it does also lend the song a greater universality and perhaps makes it easier for a broader audience to sympathise.

Even though the final fade is a bit of a non-ending, the one significant flaw to the track, Side 2 of Now 3 has a strong claim to be the best-ever side of a Now album. But will Side 3 keep up the quality?

Also appearing on: Now 4
Available on: The Age Of Consent

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