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LGBT Music

We Are Family: Exploring the History of LGBT Music

We caught up with Bristol-based publisher, editor and author Darryl W. Bullock to talk about some of the issues covered in his new book, David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music

With Bristol Pride in full swing, the city is alive with theatre, film screenings and, of course, the march this Saturday – all in commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall riots, and celebration of our diverse LGBT+ community. Music is at the heart of it all, so we chatted to author Darryl W. Bullock about new book David Bowie Made Me Gay100 Years of LGBT Music and the importance of championing influential LGBT artists throughout history…
TBM: In a nutshell, why is this book an important read?

DWB: There have been thousands of books on music, but very few which look at the history and influence of LGBT musicians outside of obvious genres like cabaret or disco. LGBT people have been massively important in the development of popular music, and it’s about time the pioneers were given due credit. Plus we lost so many icons in 2016: I wanted to get people’s stories down on paper while they were still around to tell them.

Why do you think there was such a fixation on forcing artists such as David Bowie to commit to one sexuality or another?

Prurience? People like to assign labels, to put people in boxes. One’s sexuality shouldn’t be important, but outing and normalising can make it easier for others to be comfortable about being out and to understand that their own feelings are perfectly normal. Also, thanks to programmes like Top Of The Pops, Bowie took ambiguous sexuality into people’s front rooms. In a Britain where most people thought of gay men as looking and acting like Larry Grayson or Danny la Rue, that was rife with racism and homophobia, that was outrageous!

Bowie brought sexual ambiguity straight into British living rooms 

Why do you think music has been such a large part of LGBT+ culture throughout history?

Music is a large part of every culture. There’s nothing inherently different in the way that the LGBT+ community use, make and celebrate music, although, as I suggest in the book, knowing that there are other LGBT+ people out there making music can help people feeling isolated within their own families or communities to feel part of something much bigger. It’s something to draw strength from.

Mainstream artists now more than ever can be seen as a commodity, a brand and a product to be bought and sold by marketing and record companies. Is there ever a danger of using an artist’s LGBT+ sexuality/identity, rather than their music, to sell albums? 

Oh God yes, and it happens all of the time. You only have to look at the way certain records were advertised in the gay press in the ’70s and ’80s to see that is nothing new. There have been plenty of mediocre bands who have been given a leg up by the LGBT+ community and more still who began their careers playing in gay clubs. Take That were originally marketed almost exclusively to a gay audience, for example.

LGBT musicOpenly gay rockers Handbag found a safe space in which to ‘camp it up’ within the glam rock genre, image courtesy of Paul Southwell collection

Is there still a sense of artists needing to ‘come out’ to fans nowadays? Or do you think audiences are more focussed on the music?

The individual artist should be able to decide if they ‘need’ to come out or not. Luckily audiences seem to care less and less about someone’s sexuality so long as they make great records. John Grant is a prime example of a gay artist whose music is intrinsically ‘queer’, yet his audience is made up of a mix of straight and LGBT+ people drawn to his incredible voice and lyrics, not who he happens to sleep with.

John Grant is one artist with a diverse audience who appreciate the sound of his music, rather than his image or sexuality

Music is often described as a ‘universal language’ – will we ever reach the stage where the music, rather than the image or sexuality of the artist, is the pure focus?

Hopefully, but we’ll have to wait until people stop buying the kind of papers who fill their pages with scandal rather than news, or stop watching television shows that parade the vulnerable in society as early evening entertainment. It won’t happen in my lifetime!

“When one country in the world threatens straight people with death simply for being straight, then you can have Heterosexual Pride events. Nowhere in the world is it illegal to be heterosexual, yet homosexuality is still punishable by death in at least 10 countries…”

‘Heterosexual Pride Day’ was trending on Twitter last week. How do you feel about this? Is there a sense that people are still unaware of the history of Gay Pride and it’s significance – something which does not apply to the ‘straight’ community?

It’s ludicrous. When one country in the world threatens straight people with death simply for being straight, then you can – and should – have Heterosexual Pride events. Nowhere in the world is it illegal to be heterosexual, yet homosexuality is still punishable by death in at least 10 countries. Our government does business with Saudi Arabia, yet you can be stoned to death there simply for being in love with someone of your own sex. Pride began as a political event; sometimes people need to remember that we still have a fight on our hands. The idea of Heterosexual Pride demeans the work that people have done over the years to win basic civil rights for the LGBT+ community, and the work we still have to do to secure those same rights for all individuals across the globe.LGBT Music

The Campaign for Homosexual Equality march – London Pride 1974, image © LSE Library

Why do you think there has been a broader acceptance of gay men within music? Transgender artists, for example, are rarely seen within the mainstream music industry.

That will happen: one of the biggest selling albums of the late 1960s was by a trans artist. But musicians should be judged on their merit; we need a society that values all musicians irrespective of their sexuality. If a trans artist makes a great record then we should value it as a great record, not as a curiosity by someone whose sexual identity makes them different. If audiences have been more accepting of gay men making music that’s simply because there are more visibly gay men making music. Visibility is the key here, and if there were more visibly Trans artists making music – or being signed – then we would see them and hear from them more often.

“Pride began as a political event; sometimes people need to remember that we still have a
fight on our hands”

Do you believe music has helped to change attitudes towards the LGBT+ community? If so, how?

Yes: having people prepared to be out and open has been invaluable. People are scared of the unknown: when an artist you know announces that they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans then the chances are that they will take a good section of their audience along with them. Did anyone stop listening to Elton John when he came out? Of course not. The first album Ricky Martin released after he came out sold better than his previous two.

Thinking about the concept of ‘gay music’, genres like disco, musical theatre and Wham!-esque pop spring to mind. Are artists nowadays breaking these stereotypes and associations?

Completely; artists are less confined, more willing to experiment and collaborate with others. Going back to John Grant, for example, his music embraces rock, folk, country, disco and electronica, and there are moments when, to me, his songs sound like they could have been written by John Lennon. The Pet Shop Boys have helped a number of gay and gay-friendly artists out of career slumps – they rescued Boy George from full on career suicide – and LGBT+ artists like Anohni, Rufus Wainwright, Sia, Bright Light Bright Light, the Scissor Sisters and countless others have shown that there are no restrictions on what you can do, who you can work with and in what genres you can succeed.

The ’80s synth sounds of the Pet Shop Boys broke stereotypes and inspired artists like Boy George

It’s easier to see how LGBT artists have shaped more modern music and culture but what can you tell us about the way they shaped it in earlier eras, for example, during the growth of jazz and blues?

LGBT+ acts were an essential part of the jazz and blues era. Tony Jackson, an out-gay black piano player and composer, was mentor to Jelly Roll Morton, who many consider to have been the father of jazz; Duke Ellington’s principle composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn was an out gay man too. During the early blues years Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were the biggest stars of the era, and both were bisexual. They laid the foundation for other queer jazz and blues artists including Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, Nina Simone and Clare Teal.

LGBT musicEarly blues pioneer Ma Rainey was bisexual, and hugely influential on later singers such as Nina Simone

Disco music was closely associated with underground, gay clubbing culture in the ‘70s before it broke into the mainstream, where it was ‘straightwashed’ for a mainstream audience. Does this practice still take place today?

I think that happens less so now; disco went ‘straight’ when the major record corporations saw that they could make money out of it by selling it to middle America. There are certain genres, country especially, where artists are ‘encouraged’ to hide their sexuality if they happen to be LGBT+, but even in country music that is happening less and less, as I discuss in the book. It saddens me when artists like Elton John cannot or will not record songs about their own lives, but you have some amazing up-and-coming talent happy to be honest and open. k anderson is a prime example of a gay man who writes achingly beautiful and honest songs about being a gay man. His song ’14 Year Old Me’ is a masterpiece.

k anderson’s ’14 Year Old Me’

How did the appearance of music videos affect the issue of sexuality in the music industry?

In all the wrong ways, I think. When you look back at some of the earliest videos shown on MTV, you had lots of creative, artistic stuff but also plenty of misogynistic and sexist videos too. I think the original video for ‘Relax’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood broke some taboos, and its influence can still be seen – the video for the Scissor Sisters hit ‘Filthy/Gorgeous’ is pretty much a remake – but that wasn’t shown in the States, they had to come up with something less ‘in your face’. LGBT+ artists had to make safe videos that were palatable to the masses. Even as recently as 2002, the sight of two girls kissing in the video of t.a.T.u’s ‘All The Things She Said’ was still seen as shocking.

The original ‘Relax’ video from Frankie Goes to Hollywood was controversial and hugely influential 

Which story in the book do you personally find the most interesting and inspiring, or troubling?

The most interesting story was probably John ‘Smokey’ Condon’s, who went on tour with the Doors and hung out with John Waters’ Dreamland troupe. He recorded some incredibly ‘out there’ gay-themed records, and has some hilarious but potentially libellous tales of the excess of the ’70s record industry to tell. Despite the knock-backs he’s really lovely man who I can now class as a friend. The most troubling stories are still being written; the intense homophobia being faced every day by people in Jamaica, in Russia, in China, throughout much of Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere where they face persecution, beatings, imprisonment and even death just for being LGBT+.

Was it the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation act that prompted you to write it now?

Not really, although as I wrote more of the book the political struggle LGBT+ people have faced over the last century became more and more important to the story. It was the death of David Bowie that really sparked this in to life. I had always been a bit of a fan but not at all obsessive, and I was amazed at how deeply affected I was by his passing. I hadn’t been that moved, or saddened, by a celebrity death since the assassination of John Lennon when I was 16 – and I was obsessed with The Beatles. The idea for the book came from seeing how deeply others had been affected by Bowie, and realising just how massively influential he had been on much of what has happened musically in the last half century.

“The idea for the book came from seeing how deeply others had been affected by Bowie, and realising just how massively influential he had been on much of what has happened musically in the last half century…”

Do you think the original message of Pride has been lost somewhat in recent times?

Yes I do; Pride and politics are inextricable for me. But things evolve. Sometimes I feel that people need to be reminded about the struggle we faced and that others still face, but then again who doesn’t like a party? And even if you take out the politics, Pride is still important for our community’s visibility. Pride has a huge corporate element, but as Dale Wakefield (who set up Bristol’s Gay Switchboard back in 1974 and was one of the co-organisers of Bristol’s first ever pride in 1977) reminded me recently, Pride could not have happened in the first place without the support of the bars and clubs.

LGBT music

Poster advertising GLF fundraiser, 1970, image © LSE

What did you think of the #LoveHappensHere poster campaign?

I think that some of the posters used in the campaign to promote Pride in London were misjudged, especially the ‘Homophobia is Sooo Gay’ one. Using gay as a pejorative is always wrong, and whoever thought that was ok, that it would appeal to ‘da yoof’, was way off the mark. But again, things change and people evolve. People think of Katy Perry as an advocate for LGBT+ rights, yet her first hit was a song called ‘Ur So Gay’, which did exactly the same thing. If we’re going to castigate one person for making a wrong decision where do you start?

How will you be celebrating Pride this year, are you going to the Bristol event?

My husband and I will be joining a bunch of our friends on the March, as we do each year. I’ll wear something loud, we’ll drink some beer, have a few laughs and remind ourselves of how lucky we are to live in a fantastic city like Bristol with a brilliant, fortnight-long Pride festival that people work so hard on each year.

David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Year of LGBT Music by Darryl W. Bullock will be available to purchase online from 7 September. You can also read his popular blog here, and find out more about Bristol Pride here.

Featured image: David Bowie mural in Brixton, photo © Darryl W Bullock