Queer Noises 1961-1978: From the Closet to the Charts
he one characteristic which unifies Queer Noises 1961-1978: From the Closet to the Charts—a diverse ragbag of mostly obscure, limited release tracks—is that all concern themselves, in one way or another, with aspects of the American and/or British gay experience. More remarkably, compiler Jon Savage has succeeded in assembling material which is almost exclusively written and performed by gay men, and aimed at an audience of other gay men.
As the tracks are arranged chronologically, what emerges is a kind of oral history of the nascent gay movement, from its underground beginnings to its emergence into the popular consciousness. Consequently, the themes which predominate are markedly different from the stock ways in which gay “issues” were handled by the mainstream straight media. There are refreshingly few “victims” here. No one is blackmailed, trapped in a loveless marriage, eaten up by self-loathing, or even beaten to a pulp by The Evil Homophobes Who Oppress Us From Every Corner. Best of all, and contrary to tacitly accepted Hollywood convention, no one dies.
Instead, we are presented with a series of truthful testimonials to a more everyday gay existence—to life as it was actually lived. These are songs of longing, lust, tenderness, pain, fantasy, hope, and celebration. Many are intentionally comic—and a few are unintentionally hilarious along the way.
As a social document, the collection is a great success, and a valuable piece of material for any queer theorist. However, as a rewarding musical experience, there are some serious barriers facing anyone who wishes to listen to it in full for more than a couple of plays.
The selections are at their most consistently strong during the opening sequence of nine songs from the 1960s. A pronounced seam of vaudevillian sauciness and downright bitchiness runs through most of them, as a largely closed community opts to create its own entertainment. Best of the bunch is the deliciously filthy “Kay, Why?,” performed by The Brothers Butch, and almost certainly influenced by the camp, subversive banter of Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick as “resting actors” Julian and Sandy, on the BBC’s weekly Round the Horne radio show. It’s a thinly disguised ode to the properties of KY Jelly, that perennially essential anal lubricant, masquerading as a lovelorn lament. (“Why did you have to make a mess of me? Why did you slip through my fingers? Oooh!”)
Elsewhere, there are two selections (“Florence of Arabia” and “I’d Rather Fight Than Swish”) from the astonishingly prolific Camp Records: a small underground operation running out of Los Angeles, whose entire back catalogue is available for download via the web. It’s truly thrilling to discover stuff like this, and a case could have been made for devoting an entire album to similar material. It’s also interesting to note how the occasional use of non-PC terms such as “freak” and “fairy” fail to offend in this context, and to compare this with the re-appropriation of the term “queer” in the early 1990s.
Unfortunately, things begin to come unstuck once we reach the early 1970s, as represented by a motley bunch of bargain-basement obscurities whose lengthy absence from view cannot solely be accredited to homophobic attitudes in the dominant host culture. In the copious and highly informative sleeve notes, we are told of licensing difficulties with a number of better-known artists, which blocked their inclusion—and maybe here is where the pinch is most keenly felt. David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” would have worked wonderfully well (“She’s so swishy in her satin and tat”), as would the still unreleased “Cocksucker Blues” from the Rolling Stones (“Where do I get my cock sucked? Where do I get my ass fucked?”).
Instead, we are inflicted with toe-curling horrors such as Michael Cohen’s dirge-like “Bitterfeast,” the amateurishly mixed C&W knees-up of Chris Robison’s “Lookin’ for a Boy” (“very popular in the New York clubs of the day,” so we are told, although one has one’s doubts), and the inexplicably revered cult figure Jobriath, once again providing ample evidence of the true reasons behind his catastrophic commercial failure. Perhaps worst of all is “Coochy Coo” by Polly Perkins: the collection’s one female vocalist, and its sole nod towards the lesbian experience. As a glitter-rock plagiarism of Dion’s “The Wanderer,” delivered in the rasping, gravely tones of the Sunday lunchtime pub singer, it communicates nothing of value, and its inclusion ends up smacking of the sort of well-meaning “here’s one for the ladies” tokenism that subsequently led to the Tom Robinson Band’s excruciating “Right On Sister.” (Robinson is another notable omission.)
“Coochy Coo” also exemplifies another problem for the listener—namely, that it sometimes takes a concentrated effort of will to divine any “gay” content from the material at hand. Allow your concentration to lapse for a moment or two, and you’re simply left with an assortment of undistinguished and imitative period pieces. This particularly blights the closing section of punk/new wave choices, although Black Randy & The Metro Squad’s “Trouble at the Cup” is redeemed by an arrestingly sleazy defiance.
There are still some gems to be found among the dross—most notably from the overlapping worlds of soul, funk, and disco. The late Dave Godin, curator of the fine Deep Soul Treasures series, is credited as an advisor to the project, and his hand is surely evident in the unearthing of tracks such as the rousing “Closet Queen,” from the Chairmen of the Board’s Harrison Kennedy. “Closet queen, you’re alright,” assures Kennedy, over an addictively catchy stop-start acoustic riff. “Come into the light, where you can be seen,” he continues, with a rare and touching benevolence for a mainstream soul artist.
This theme is continued with the album’s standout cut: “Ain’t Nobody Straight in L.A.”, from the post-Robinson Miracles. “Homosexuality is a part of society,” they coo, as a heavenly flute trill underpins the song’s essentially carefree feel. “I guess that they need some more variety; freedom of expression is really the thing!” The track ends with the cheerfully heterosexual band members debating whether or not to visit a local gay bar, and eventually deciding in the affirmative. (“But, you know, some of the finest women are in the gay bars!” “Look, gay people are nice people too, man!”) As with “Closet Queen,” what initially strikes the listener as gawkily ridiculous soon converts to the genuinely affecting. Which of today’s R&B acts would risk unambiguous statements of this nature? At times like this, one is tempted to wonder how much true progress has been made.
The album concludes, almost inevitably, with Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” the first major hit single by an openly gay act, here re-contextualised as a moment of triumph for gay culture, ushering in a new era of visibility and acceptance—but you can probably collate your own history from here, as the signposts are clearly marked. It is to the lasting credit of Savage’s wildly uneven but fascinating compilation that this hitherto shadowy first chapter can now be filled in.
Reviewed by: Mike Atkinson
Reviewed on: 2006-10-04