Reviews: The Jimmy Somerville Reissues – Bronski Beat, The Communards and Solo Somerville
The old adage has never been more shockingly true than when it comes to the music of Jimmy Somerville. Throughout an uncompromising career, Somerville has deftly blurred the lines between politics and music, deploying his piercing falsetto to sing eloquently of social ills against a dance-pop backdrop. Somerville came to prominence in 1984 as a member of Bronski Beat, a group of three young gay men who were determined to make their mark despite the social climate in Thatcher-era England. After just one album, he then teamed with another kindred spirit, Richard Coles, to become half of The Communards. That group thrived for two albums including a self-titled smash that took Europe by storm. Never content to remain stagnant, however, Somerville embarked in 1989 on a solo career that continues to this day. Demon Music Group’s Edsel label has rolled out the red carpet for Somerville via a series of 2-CD deluxe editions of his first five albums: one with Bronski Beat, two with The Communards and two solo. All find Somerville reflecting on the same themes, finding new ways to express his most passionate beliefs through the medium of popular song.
Produced by Mike Thorne, Bronski Beat’s The Age of Consent draws fully on the experience of being a young, out gay man in a challenging time. Though the band’s time with Somerville was short (Steve Bronski and Larry Steinbachek, then partners in life and music, carried on without their lead vocalist and primary songwriter), The Age of Consent packed a power that lasts to this day. That the album isn’t heavy-handed is one of its greatest accomplishments. It travelled far beyond the traditional confines of electropop and made its message of tolerance loud and clear. The album’s title extended to an enclosed list of ages of consent around the world for “lawful homosexual relationships between men” (reprinted in full in the Edsel edition), and even the band’s logo was loaded with the iconography used in World War II Germany to identify homosexuals.
For Somerville, Bronski and Steinbachek, this wasn’t the love that dare not speak its name. They proudly spoke it out loud. Jimmy Somerville’s concerns in opening track “Why” are still, sadly, relevant today: “Contempt in your eyes when I turn to kiss his lips/Broken I lie, all my feelings denied/Blood on your fist/Can you tell me why?” He fearlessly targeted the hypocrisy of homophobes, too: “You in your false securities/Tear up my life/condemning me/Name me an illness, you call me a sin/Never feel guilty, never give in!” Set to a throbbing pulse of brass and electronics, Bronski Beat’s hi-NRG debut had plenty of danceable, joyful moments in its music. But it’s the lyrics that are unforgettably direct, and Somerville’s scream was a shattering one. (Even his voice was run through the Synclavier, also a favorite instrument of none other than Frank Zappa.)
“Screaming” catalogued the indignities suffered by the singer, and indeed, many gay men then and now: “My closet-ness, and pain/My lying, my deceiving/My rivers keep on crying…” Another deeply personal, sad lyric put through a pop prism, “Smalltown Boy,” opened Side Two and defied all odds to become a hit for the group. A striking music video starring Somerville brought to life the song’s realistic depiction of rejection and homophobia. But Somerville’s effortless falsetto voice could handle a wide range of material and themes. “No More War” is on the nose, but broadened the scope of the LP. A cover of George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from the folk opera Porgy and Bess was hardly de rigeur in 1984, but Bronski Beat jumped into it with gusto. Sure, the melody was given a glossy, modern sheen. But a sinuous clarinet and jazz piano kept it rooted in the past even as the lyrics, questioning the veracity of certain Biblical tales, added the appropriate relevant dimension. The musical invention continued with “Heat Wave.” Though the song didn’t give the other, same-titled songs by Irving Berlin and Holland/Dozier/Holland a run for their money, it did feature a nifty tap dancing solo from future West End star Caroline O’Connor, plus more of Somerville’s vocal pyrotechnics and a slinky, inviting track.
Beginning a trend of Somerville disco covers is a doffing of the hat to Donna Summer with an over-the-top (heavenly chorus and all) rendition of “I Feel Love.” Bronski Beat performed it as a medley with “Johnny Remember Me,” a 1961 western-sounding Joe Meek track originally recorded by John Leyton; Somerville was at his most mock-operatic. Throughout these tracks, themes of love and lust, alienation and desperation, pathos and cruelty all are felt, but ultimately, Somerville is singing of dignity, too.
Each album in Edsel’s series includes an array of B-sides and extended mixes joining the album on the first CD and extending onto the second. The deluxe Age of Consent includes an entire second album entitled Hundreds and Thousands. That 1985 album includes both remixes of Consent songs as well as the planned single “Run from Love/Hard Rain.” Of the fourteen other bonus tracks, “The Potato Fields” is a calm, shimmering instrumental, and “Cadillac Car” travels to Ventures-esque retro-rock territory. (Alas, the “Smalltown Boy” B-side “Infatuation/Memories” is referred to in the booklet text as appearing on the set, but it hasn’t actually been included.)
After the jump: Somerville forms The Communards, and flies solo!
Teaming with classically-trained musician Richard Coles (also openly gay), Somerville founded the Communards, described in Graham Ames’ new liner notes as a “political group that happened to make music.” Communards today appears a more self-consciously serious effort than Age of Consent, but it shares that album’s hallmark of coating provocative lyrics with a pop sheen. But The Communards were bigger and bolder than Bronski Beat, adding more acoustic instruments to the multi-layered productions.
If Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” was a highlight of Bronski Beat’s debut, The Communards turned their attention to another disco favorite, “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” Popularized by Thelma Houston, the song was actually born in Philadelphia via Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. The Communards added the big, husky vocals of Sarah Jane Morris to their stellar Hi-NRG version which became the biggest selling single in the United Kingdom in 1986. (Always designing their songs to thrive in the dance format, The Communards also issued “Don’t Leave Me This Way” as a massive 24-minute “Gotham City Mix.” That version included a separate song, “Sanctified,” as part of the whole. The Edsel reissue oddly includes only Parts 1 and 3 of that mega-mix to end all mega-mixes. “Don’t Leave Me” is also heard as part of a “Multi-Mix” medley, another of the whopping seventeen bonus tracks.)
Communards’ original songs, though, remain the album’s greatest asset. Coles’ piano is a major part of the new style, and he and Somerville wrote all of the new material together. Somerville’s message has not been blunted since Age of Consent. On “Disenchanted,” he remains a shoulder to cry on, and one can’t help but believe that Somerville wished the characters he was writing about had more reason not to be disenchanted and angry: “Hey there, boy/This prejudice and ignorance we can overcome/I’ll be your friend, I’ll be around/I’ll be everything you need/Disenchanted, angry young man…” Somerville’s wail is haunting on the tender, emotionally honest “La Dolorosa” and “You Are My World,” both of which excitingly break out of the ballad mold. Coles’ instrumental flourishes bring new dimension to the romance of “You Are My World” and “Forbidden Love,” with its familiar but important cry that “Our love is like forbidden fruit/But we take each bite with pride, not shame.” There are even more explicitly political tracks, too. The mournful “Reprise,” with its somber strings, is bitingly dedicated to Margaret Thatcher, and “Breadline Britain” is an evocative modern-day successor to the likes of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.”
It’s not all moody, though. The standard “Lover Man” offers a cabaret diversion, as does B-side “Sentimental Journey.” That Glenn Miller classic is among the complete set of B-sides featured here, also including instrumentals, an alternate, and a live performance. These flips echo the themes of the album tracks, whether the kiss-off to an ex-lover in “Johnny Verso” or the blunt statement of “The Message,” written by Somerville and Const Giannaris another political statement that doesn’t mince words: “Safe sex is good sex…and don’t blame the queers!” Some might still sympathize with the thought that “There’s a storm on the right/A wind blowing cold/It freezes our hopes and cuts to the bone…” Communards, too, cuts to the bone.
The deluxe edition of 1987’s Red also includes the complete live album Storm Paris from the same year. With new producer Stephen Hague (New Order, Pet Shop Boys) and an expanded group line-up that had been wowing audiences on tour (eight honorary Communards!), Red was a defining Euro-dance record, sleekly updating disco for the Hi-NRG crowd. Expectedly, though, its soundscape is a diverse one. Somerville and Coles’ “Tomorrow” has a more electronic, less orchestral sound as it chronicles domestic abuse in song. The catchy, anthemic “TMT ♥ TBMG” opines that “there’s more to love than boy meets girl,” asking, “How can one man decide the fate and destiny of innocent lovers?” With gay marriage still a hot topic in the United States today, the question has never been more important. For a Friend” is a touching tribute to a friend stricken with AIDS.
“Matter of Opinion” brings big beat pop to the record with a strong horn arrangement, while piano flourishes still, naturally, appear courtesy of Coles; “Lovers and Friends” is driven by the instrument. And why not reinvent Clifton Davis’ Motown classic “Never Can Say Goodbye” for yet another generation? (The Jackson 5 song had already been famously made over once before by Gloria Gaynor!) A great song always remains a great song.
The bonus tracks are, par for the course, as fascinating as the album itself. Counting the live version on Storm Paris (included in its entirety on Disc 2), “Never Can Say Goodbye” is heard six times! Shep Pettibone’s remix, with its calliope-like repetition, clocks in at more than eleven minutes alone. The “San Paulo” mix brings a Latin flavor to the song, as does the spicy “Jalapeno” mix for the bright positivity of “TMT ♥ TMBG.”
Richard Coles frequently seized upon the opportunity to use B-sides for his decidedly non-pop music, including the aptly-titled “Piece of Saxophone” and the classically-inspired “Romanze for Violin, Piano and Hedgehog,” with Sally Herbert on violin. A couple of standards were also reworked, such as the understated, acoustic piano-and-voice rendition of the Judy Garland classic “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” and a barroom-style, saloon version of “When the Boy in Your Heart is the Boy in Your Arms.”
In the liner notes for Red, Somerville says “Live was always better,” and now you can decide for yourself with the first release of all eight of the Storm Paris tracks on one collection. Material from the Communards’ first two albums was performed in front of a very receptive audience, and Somerville’s relish at being the frontman is evident. A big, boisterous sound is delivered from the forces of the Communards’ considerable ensemble.
Soon, though, the Communards partnership of Somerville and Coles dissolved, and Somerville found himself at a crossroads. As he recalls to Graham Ames in the notes to 1989’s solo debut Read My Lips, he was rather angry: “I was watching people who were known to be supposedly radical or leaning to the left or even gay, making music, and I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t want to put their frustration or their politics or their anger into music, to sing something or do something.” Somerville, of course, had hardly been quiet about his sexual orientation or political beliefs, but he channeled his anger into music once more. Read My Lips is a confrontational, out-and-proud statement by an artist unafraid to put his money, and music, where his mouth was.
The title track of Read My Lips implored listeners to take action, in some of Somerville’s most blunt and plain-spoken lyrics: “Here we are and standing our ground/And we won’t be moved by what they say/So we’ll shout as loud as we can/’Til they hear our demands! Money is what we need, not complacency!” He defiantly continued, “Finding cures is not the only solution/And it’s not a case of sinner absolution/So we’ll fight with love and pride…” in a big, bold statement of his, and the album’s, intentions. Somerville even quotes a disco classic on his own modern update: “Enough is enough is enough!” Another track, “And You Never Thought This Could Happen to You,” is just as direct: “There’s a power we command, if united we stand, fighting for our rights!” Somerville was out for no less than a revolution, and realized the power of art (and killer beats!) in achieving his goals.
Not that Read My Lips is all agitprop. There are two versions of Serge Gainsbourg’s French translation of “It’s Hard to Say Goodbye.” Lyrically directed at a soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, it took on new meaning in Somerville’s rendition in the era of AIDS. The “Madame Tata” mix was originally released under a pseudonym for fears (not unfounded, according to the artist) that his music was being harshly-received by critics due to his politics, and it reappears on the LP along with a shorter version. Matters of the heart are also paramount in the warm, universal “Heaven Here on Earth (With Your Love),” “My Heart is in Your Hands” and “Don’t Know What to Do (Without You).” The wistful and sleekly soulful “Don’t Know What to Do” is unique thanks to the appearance of Luke Tunney’s Burt Bacharach-recalling flugelhorn. Simon Elms’ jazzy trumpet distinguishes “Rain.” A joyous song is tempered with sadness in Somerville’s recording of the disco star Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” Sylvester was a casualty of AIDS, and Somerville paid tribute to his indomitable spirit in song. A true sense of empowerment permeates Read My Lips.
Bonus tracks are typically plentiful. The Bee Gees’ classic “To Love Somebody” was recorded for a compilation album by Somerville and appears four times, in a “Definitive Mix,” a “Dub Mix,” a BBC “unplugged” rendition and an instrumental (though not in the Singles Collection initial version, it seems). The unplugged version shines the brightest, as the purity of Somerville’s voice comes to the fore with the Gibbs’ beautiful melody. Both parts of Kevin Saunderson’s mix of “Comment Te Dire Adieu” are included, plus remixes of “Read My Lips,” “Rain” and “Run from Love.” In 1991, Somerville revisited “Smalltown Boy” and “Why” in new mixes, both of which have also been culled from singles to appear here. There are also B-sides galore: the sweet ballad “Tell the World,” the sardonic and political “Not-So-God-Almighty” (with Somerville stretching to include verses in Spanish as he weighs in on the United States and Nicaragua!), the angry “Desire” (“No one’s got the right to tell me where and when I kiss my man”) and the pensive, dramatic and cabaret-esque “Stranger.”
After a sabbatical from the music business, Somerville returned with his second solo album, 1995’s Dare to Love. He didn’t veer far away from the kind of music his fans would expect, and the fire hadn’t ceased burning in him as a passionate voice for equality. The album was also a reaffirmation of Somerville’s considerable gifts.
The lead single “Heartbeat,” a U.S. No. 1 dance track written by Matt Rowe, Thomas Watkins and Richard Stannard, almost veers into retro-disco Bee Gees territory, but the message is clear: “There is nothing in our world we need to hide.” This intensely personal album also includes the tender “By Your Side,” haunted by the specter of AIDS, and the title track, with Somerville taking on a classic soul style with organ-style keyboards and gospel-esque backing vocals as he spine-chillingly wails, “Where is the crime in love?” The most misunderstood track on Dare to Love is “Alright,” a paean to sexual pleasure with a man who “looked like a porno star, some kind of Adonis.” In the new interview contained in the liner notes, Somerville defends the song, which isn’t advocating sexual freedom so much as recounting one personal experience: “I wasn’t going to be ashamed of it.” Both “Dare to Love” and “Alright” were among the songs on the album co-written by Somerville and Gary Butcher, as was “A Dream to Love,” the track Somerville calls “my ecology song, my song of life.” Another widescreen production filled with fervor, it affirms, “Don’t let hope fade away,” a mantra to which Somerville certainly adheres.
A lite ska beat permeates “Hurts So Good,” a song popularized by Millie Jackson, and another cover, “Someday We’ll Be Together” (best known in its rendition by Diana Ross and the Supremes) takes on a new dimension. It’s filled with sunny hope, parallel to the simple charms of the Butcher/Somerville “Come Lately,” an enjoyably up-tempo ode to a lover. Despite its serious themes, the album is remarkably upbeat, with Somerville capturing what he calls “a crossover of emotions” as he was falling in love with one friend, Robert, while facing his friend Hugo’s death of AIDS-related illnesses at the same time. That spectrum of emotions comes to vivid life on Dare to Love.
Dare to Love has been expanded by fifteen bonus tracks spread across both discs, including B-sides “Been So Long” and “Love You Forever” (the flips of “Hurts So Good”), “Nothing Said, Nothing Done” (“By Your Side”) and “Up and Away” (“Heartbeat”). The balance is filled with 12-inch extended remixes and a particularly lovely live BBC “unplugged” performance of “Cry.”
Edsel has been tackling the catalogues of many eighties icons with a vengeance, from The Jesus and Mary Chain to The Beat, Everything but the Girl and Suede. The Jimmy Somerville series is every bit the equal of those other titles, a must-have for completists and an enjoyable experience even for those who haven’t previously immersed themselves into his singular ouevre. (Edsel’s designers, project manager Val Jennings and project coordinator Phil Penman should all be recognized for matching a unique design to each individual series of reissues.) All titles are lavishly packaged with essays from Graham Ames and full lyrics, while the sound has been remastered by Phil Kinrade at Alchemy. With this “everything but the kitchen sink” approach, each offers a deep selection of music that’s meaningful, topical, political, explosive and ultimately enjoyable. Jimmy Somerville penned a song on Dare to Love called “Too Much of a Good Thing,” but these titles certainly don’t qualify for such a description. Kudos to Edsel for reissuing these albums that likely inspired so many others, too, to “dare to love.”
All titles may be ordered via the links above or by clicking each album cover! And don’t miss the opportunity to win a full set of these reissues: just click HERE for details!