Songs of 84: Smalltown Boy / Bronski Beat

Music meant a lot to me as a child. The year 1984 has a shedload of great records that have stayed with me and I still enjoy listening to, however many of them often remind me of ghosts from the past. This was the year I was in 3rd grade at school, and it was the year of my educational career where everything turned for the worse – both academically and socially.

I cannot remember exactly how it happened. Either I became more esoteric in my tastes and diverged too far outside of what was considered “normal” by my peers, or a switch went off in the heads of my peers once we all turned 8 and they all turned nasty, I don’t know. It was probably a bit of both. However, all I remember is that people I thought were my friends all of a sudden were not any longer, and they made sure I knew about it.

At the time, most people had no idea about concepts like “neurodivergence” or “bullying”. I certainly didn’t. The former was just waved away as being “weird” and the latter as being “character building”. “Toughen up – we all went through it”. I just knew life at school – as an outcast, the bottom of the pack, that one kid that everyone needed to be seen to be better than – sucked. I learnt very quickly that asking for help from teachers meant not that the negative interactions ceased, but that they became clandestine, and often much worse. This has the effect of rendering my voice redundant, as it didn’t achieve anything. I had to retreat into my shell for my own protection, and to put up with it all and to shut up.

Without getting bleak about it, this is not designed to be a tale of victimhood. I refuse to consider myself anybody’s “victim”. Rather, this is designed to be a story of the redemptive power of music. Music struck emotional chords in me unlike anything else. Even now, when I hear a song I first heard on an old 7” single as a young kid, “Union City Blue” by Blondie, the joyous feelings come back. Music also had the unintended purpose of giving my insular and voiceless self words that I couldn’t muster up on my own. I had a collection of singles, one of the most powerful was “Positively 4th Street” by Bob Dylan, whose lyrics struck right at the heart of my existence:

“You’ve got a lot of nerve, to say you are my friend

When I was down, you just stood there grinning…”

I then heard a track on the radio that felt like a beacon from beyond. A synth-pop tune with a heavenly male falsetto voice floating over the top, with a chorus of:

“Run away, turn away, run away, turn away, run away…”

There was, and remains something soothing about “Smalltown Boy” by Bronski Beat. I grew up in a small town, and went to a small town public school, where small town kids make the lives of the weird kids difficult, often for want of something better to do.

“Pushed around and kicked around, always a lonely boy…

…they hurt just to make you cry…”

Yep, that was all too real. It was a reflection of what I dealt with, day in and day out, and getting progressively worse until the end of year 6. By then I couldn’t wait to get out of that place and away from those people.

In an interview with a Dutch TV channel, Bronski Beat singer Jimmy Sommerville mentioned that although the band members were openly gay, and the protagonist in the song “Smalltown Boy” was gay and a victim of homophobic bullying, he tried to make the song a bit less specific and vague enough to be relatable to anyone – gay, straight or otherwise. Homosexuality, while legal in the UK at that point, was still very much taboo. I wasn’t gay, and I’m still not, but didn’t matter. The song hit me hard and its lyrics said what I wanted to say under my own steam. It soothes the pain when plenty of other methods didn’t.

If only privately, I was empowered.

Jimmy Sommerville didn’t last long as the front man for Bronski Beat. He left after tensions boiled over following the cancellation of a single in 1985. He went on to form another outfit called The Communards and had a hit reinventing the Thelma Houston disco smash “Don’t Leave Me This Way”. Steve Bronski recruited John Foster as the new Bronski Beat singer and issued two more singles that were Australian hits in 1986 – “Hit That Perfect Beat” and “C’mon C’mon”, however it is “Smalltown Boy” that arguably is their enduring legacy.

David Kowalski, a writer and podcaster, is celebrating songs that turn 40 this year.

Tags: | | | | | | | | | |