1983: The Last Great Year of Pop

From the gender-bending antics of Eurythmics and Culture Club to the propuls­ive syn­thpop of Depeche Mode, New Order, and the Human League, was there ever, asks Mark Simpson, a more spec­tac­u­lar time for music?


(Originally appeared on Out.com, 18 Feb, 2014)

IN 1983, THE YEAR that McDonald’s intro­duced the Chicken McNugget and the second Cold War was at its height, the world very nearly ended when large NATO exer­cises were mis­taken by an extremely jit­tery USSR for pre­par­a­tions for a new Barbarossa.

More omin­ously, com­pact discs went on sale in the United States and Europe, the first com­mer­cial mobile tele­phone call was made, and the Internet as it’s known today came into exist­ence. Oh, and Carrie Underwood was born. In other words, while the world itself didn’t end in 1983, all the neces­sary means were inven­ted for bring­ing about some­thing much worse: the end of pop music.

Which, rather like the best pop itself, is a bit­ter­sweet thought to savor, since 1983 was unques­tion­ably the finest year for pop music ever.

1983 was also — per­haps not so coin­cid­ent­ally my final year at high school, and instead of study­ing for my exams and think­ing about what I wanted to actu­ally do with my life, I’d taken to hanging around hi-fi shops on my way home, hyp­not­ized by the LED and LCD equal­izer dis­plays on the latest sound sys­tems. I fell head over heels in love with a Technics SL-7 turntable. There were vari­ous reas­ons for its quasi-sexual appeal: The total sur­face area was no big­ger than an LP sleeve, and the turntable had a really cool lin­ear arm track­ing inside the lid that was auto­mat­ic­ally oper­ated with but­tons at the front. It was very futur­istic; like a giant, clunky, ana­log CD player, before any­one I knew had a CD player.

But the real reason for my infatu­ation with the turntable was the 12-inch of Eurythmics’s “Love Is a Stranger” that its cun­ning sales­man slapped on at full volume. Not only did the oth­er­worldly, driv­ingly sequenced synth sounds and Annie Lennox’s oper­atic range superbly show­case the sound dynam­ics of the product, the lyr­ics Lennox breathed, seem­ingly in the back of your mind, were the ulti­mate hard sell:

And I want you / And I want you / And I want you so.”

Pop music in the early ’80s was a stranger in an open, gilt-edged, glam­or­ous, sleekly designed car, tempt­ing you in and driv­ing you far away. And not only in Eurythmics songs; the Smiths’s second single, “This Charming Man,” also released in 1983, fea­tured that same car-driving stranger offer­ing Morrissey a ride. This year was a pre-Fall moment when everything and any­thing seemed pos­sible — because it was. The neck-strainingly rapid devel­op­ments in music-making tech­no­logy meant that no one really knew what they were doing until they’d actu­ally done it. Every record was a rev­el­a­tion. A mir­acle. There were no rules because there was no manual. Invention was king.

Eurythmics recor­ded their sopho­more album, Sweet Dreams, for example, on a simple TEAC eight-track in an attic, without any of the fix­tures of a pro­fes­sional stu­dio. The title song was recor­ded in a single take, with Lennox impro­vising most of the lyr­ics on the spot and David Stewart tap­ping on half-filled milk bottles to pro­duce that chim­ing sound as Lennox sings “Hold your head up / Keep your head up.” In this new land­scape, record com­pan­ies had little choice but to indulge their prodi­gies in their pixie boots with their pixie powers. (Although that didn’t stop “Love Is a Stranger” from being yanked off the air dur­ing an early trans­mis­sion on MTV by exec­ut­ives who con­fused Lennox for a transvestite.)

This was also the era of the wiz­ard pro­du­cer: industry legends like Martin Rushent, who fash­ioned the sound of the Human League, and most fam­ously Trevor Horn, former lead singer for the Buggles, who pro­duced ABC’s stun­ningly beau­ti­ful 1982 album, The Lexicon of Love, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s pound­ing 1983 single “Relax,” a siren call to closeted young gay teens if ever there was one. Horn, who deftly deployed the dark magic of the fam­ous Fairlight sampling syn­thes­izer, was noth­ing less than a cre­ator of brave new sonic worlds. (Appropriately, Horn’s 1979 Buggles single “Video Killed the Radio Star” was also the first to be aired on MTV when the chan­nel launched in 1981.)

Early ’80s British syn­thpop — or “new wave,” as it was known in the United States — was madly ambi­tious and uto­pian, offer­ing an ana­log dream of a digital future. And it soun­ded gor­geous. In fact, it soun­ded much bet­ter than the prop­erly digital future did when it actu­ally arrived, with greater pro­cessing power, a few years later. It was also much bet­ter than drugs or sex, which turned out to be piss-poor sub­sti­tutes for pop music when they finally showed up at the end of the dec­ade in jeans at an acid house rave some­where in a field near Manchester. Synthpop — or “new pop” as the genre was more broadly dubbed by the music journ­al­ist Paul Morley at the time — was the glor­i­ous cul­min­a­tion of the 1970s’ aes­thetic revolts of glam and punk rock. It was pop music at its most fun, its most dance­able, its most pre­ten­tious, its most gender-bending, and its most fashionable.

The 12-inch single was a main­stay of syn­thpop, which in many ways car­ried on where disco (for which the 12-inch was inven­ted) left off after America murdered it at the end of the ’70s. The greater treble and bass response afforded by 12-inch singles demon­strated the new record­ing, mix­ing, and lav­ish pro­duc­tion tech­niques all the bet­ter — and made it hip-twitching. Today, if you listen to exten­ded mixes from that era, espe­cially the ones with the long intros with, say, a single sampled snare drum play­ing for sev­eral minutes, you often won­der where people got the time. But back then, before the Internet and mobile phones ruined everything, they were the height of indul­gence. They were a way of mak­ing the bliss­ful per­fec­tion of the pop single last forever, instead of just three minutes.

Our sixth-form com­mon room didn’t have a Technics SL-7, but it did have a battered 1960s mono Dansette record player. Undoubtedly, the most played record on it in 1983 was New Order’s epoch-making, four-to-the-floor new wave disco track “Blue Monday,” which was, in a cal­cu­latedly haughty ges­ture, only avail­able as a 12-inch single and infam­ously not included on the album Power, Corruption & Lies (though with a trans­port­ing track like “Your Silent Face,” whose final kiss-off lyric is “You’ve caught me at a bad time, so why don’t you piss off?” I wasn’t com­plain­ing about the album). It became the best­selling 12-inch single ever in the United Kingdom. It’s dif­fi­cult, in a post-“Blue Monday” world, to under­stand the seis­mic impact of that New York hi-NRG sound recycled glor­i­ously through Manchester mel­an­choly. We played it so many times we had to weigh the ancient chisel of a needle down with putty to stop it from jumping.

Other 1983 syn­thpop singles that got played to death either in the com­mon room or in my bed­room included the deli­ciously silly “Blind Vision,” by Blancmange; the sur­pris­ingly polit­ical “Bad Boys,” by Wham!; the sub­limely whiney “Everything Counts,” by Depeche Mode; the cutesy-funky “Rip it Up,” by Orange Juice; the fant­ast­ic­ally pre­ten­tious and pom­pous “Visions in Blue,” by Ultravox; the hair-prickling “Song to the Siren,” by This Mortal Coil; the tan­trummy torch song “Soul Inside,” by Soft Cell (their last hur­rah); the toe-tapping, fringe-flapping “Too Shy,” by Kajagoogoo; the plaint­ive but insist­ent “Come Back and Stay,” by Paul Young; the rev­ving synth-reggae of “Electric Avenue,” by Eddy Grant; the beat­ing beauty of “All of My Heart,” by ABC (released in 1982 but so big that it hogged much of 1983, too); the delight­fully absurd synth-goth of “The Walk,” by the Cure; the stolen kisses of “Our Lips Are Sealed,” by Fun Boy Three; the bitter-sweet “Church of the Poison Mind,” by Culture Club; the exhil­ar­at­ingly obscure “Burning Down the House,” by Talking Heads; the lip­sticked charm of “(Keep Feeling) Fascination,” by the Human League; and, of course, David Bowie’s Nile Rodgers–produced smash “Let’s Dance,” a record that man­ages some­how to be both crim­in­ally dance­able and strangely aus­tere, like the White Witch of Narnia on roller skates.

With records like that as the soundtrack to our teen­ager­dom, is it any won­der that we thought ourselves the cat’s meow?

Bowie had, in many ways, made the glam­our and swish of syn­thpop pos­sible; he was cer­tainly the styl­istic inspir­a­tion for the romantic wing of new wave (many of whom, how­ever, chose to sing like Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry), fam­ously bestow­ing his bene­dic­tion on Steve Strange and assor­ted Blitz Kids in the video for 1980’s “Ashes to Ashes,” dressed in a Pierrot cos­tume, being fol­lowed by a bull­dozer. By 1983, Bowie had finally achieved the stateside suc­cess he had longed for through­out the ’70s with his “Serious Moonlight” tour, becom­ing part of the “second British Invasion” of new wave acts.

The second British Invasion — which, by the way, was almost cer­tainly the last — was more suc­cess­ful than the first, chan­ging the American aes­thetic as well as musical land­scapes. Schooled by ’70s Bowie, British new wave acts like Duran Duran were mas­ter­ful at draw­ing atten­tion to them­selves onscreen and got sat­ur­a­tion expos­ure on the newly foun­ded MTV. Although their hit single “Girls on Film” was released in 1981, it wasn’t until an MTV-friendly “day ver­sion” was reis­sued in March 1983 that the video became a staple on the chan­nel, along with “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “The Reflex.”

The syn­thpop sound and kooky styles of those quirky Brits became the hall­mark of ’80s MTV, and even­tu­ally made its way into the clas­sic ’80s high school movies of John Hughes. British new wave was espe­cially pop­u­lar on the West Coast and with Los Angeles’s KROQ sta­tion — and con­tin­ued to be long after new wave had been rolled back in the U.K. (When I vis­ited Los Angeles for the first time in 1990, I couldn’t quite believe that all this British syn­thpop was still being played so much — and in such a sunny place.)

It didn’t hurt that many of the Brit syn­thpop bands were also very easy on the eyes. The women, like Lennox, could be very hand­some, and the boys could be very pretty — Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet cer­tainly were, with the pos­sible excep­tion of their lead sing­ers. In the promo for “Everything Counts,” the seem­ingly sweet Essex boys of Depeche Mode look like they’re in a Bel Ami video, albeit with clothes.

For my part, I had a crush on the fresh-faced Edwyn Collins from Orange Juice and Bernard Sumner from New Order (it was a long time ago), who I always thought sang like a boy cry­ing in his bed­room with the win­dow left delib­er­ately open. Also Curt Smith from Tears for Fears, who was pre­pos­ter­ously pretty, even with those mini pig­tails. There was some­thing about the boy­ish vul­ner­ab­il­ity and sen­su­al­ity of syn­thpop that went with their kind of looks — there was def­in­itely a sexual ambi­gu­ity in the sequenced air.

Unfortunately for Smith, he also looked a bit like a lad at school I was hope­lessly in love with. It was a requited but uncon­sum­mated affair — which meant, of course, that it was end­lessly orgas­mic. I listened to the Tears for Fears album The Hurting, par­tic­u­larly the heart­felt yearn­ings of “Pale Shelter” — “You don’t give me love / you give me cold hands” — much, much too much, and heard things that weren’t really there. I even wrote to them via their record label, thank­ing them for dar­ing to write such openly homo­erotic lyr­ics — and received a dip­lo­matic let­ter of acknow­ledge­ment back from a PR agent inform­ing me that Curt and Roland would be very pleased to hear their music “meant so much.”

But of all of the pretty early ’80s boys — or girls — Marilyn, a.k.a. Peter Robinson, was per­haps the pret­ti­est. A star of new romantic stomp­ing ground the Blitz club when his mate Boy George was work­ing in the coat check there, he finally got a record deal in 1983 and had a hit with the catchy single “Calling Your Name.” Finally the pop charts had a male gender bender who was sexy instead of mimsy, fam­ously describ­ing him­self as “Tarzan and Jane rolled into one.”

But a line had been crossed. Sadly, the story of Marilyn is also the story of the end of the high sum­mer of synthpop/new wave. We had traveled too far and too fast in that stranger’s open car — the brakes were being applied. Margaret Thatcher, whose much vaunted “Victorian val­ues” were to include a ban on gay pro­pa­ganda, was reelec­ted by a land­slide in June 1983, thanks largely to the vic­tory of the British armed forces over Argentina in a far-flung colo­nial out­post. Her bosom buddy Ronald Reagan had mean­while essen­tially put the West on a war foot­ing against the “Evil Empire,” as he dubbed the Soviet Union. And Dr. Robert Gallo had isol­ated a virus he named HTLV-III, which had snuffed out Klaus Nomi and Jobriath in that same year. We now know it as HIV.

The deli­cious “art fag” dec­ad­ence of new wave — or “that queer English shit” as it was some­times known — was clearly doomed in the mil­it­ar­istic, mater­i­al­istic, AIDS-terror cli­mate of the mid-1980s. Male vul­ner­ab­il­ity and sexual ambi­gu­ity were now fatal weaknesses.

Marilyn’s second single, “Cry and Be Free,” a bal­lad released in 1984, was doing well until he appeared, pout­ing, on Top of the Pops in a glit­tery off-the-shoulder num­ber. There was a vis­ceral reac­tion as a nation recoiled from its own arousal. His single plummeted. His third, the iron­ic­ally pres­ci­ent “You Don’t Love Me,” stalled at num­ber 40 on the U.K. charts. The career of the most beau­ti­ful boy in British pop was over.

And so, essen­tially, was new wave, ban­ished by a mid-’80s coun­ter­re­volu­tion of guitar-led rock. Disco sucked again, and it gave you AIDS. And Bruce bloody Springsteen was the biggest thing on the U.K. charts in 1984. Yes, it’s true that Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s spunk­tacu­lar dance track “Relax” finally hit num­ber 1 in January 1984, but it had been released in 1983 and was banned by the BBC in 1984. Frankie went on to have more hits that year in the U.K., includ­ing, most fam­ously, ‘Two Tribes,” which sat­ir­ized the threat of the Cold War turn­ing hot, and cer­tainly sold a lot of T-shirts. But for my pocket money they def­in­itely peaked with “Relax.”

My school days ended in the sum­mer of 1983, and with them my exquis­itely doomed love affair. Synthpop, as it turned out, was also doomed. So you see, con­trary to what the his­tory books tell you, the world really did end in 1983 — but at least I got the Technics SL-7 turntable for my 18th birthday.

I ended up play­ing the Smiths on it a lot — and their eponym­ous first album, released in January 1984, com­plete with young Joe Dallesandro’s naked torso on the sleeve, was very def­in­itely the homo­erotic bon­anza I’d mis­taken Tears for Fears’s The Hurting for, albeit a cel­ib­ate one.

In a sense, the Smiths were the ulti­mate new wave/new pop band, one who eschewed syn­thes­izers for gui­tars, which lead singer Morrissey, an über fan of glam and punk, pro­fessed to hate. This turned out to be a smart move that kept them in busi­ness until 1987 — and Morrissey, as a solo artist, to this day. But I sus­pect the Smiths were only allowed to hap­pen at all because, des­pite their enorm­ous fame today, they were a very well-kept secret in the ’80s, barely troub­ling the British top 10 and effect­ively banned from day­time radio airplay.

The Smiths were semi-underground new wave, oth­er­wise known as indie.

Dear Hero in Prison — Quotes From Morrissey’s Autobiography

Well, I’ve read that book. You know, the fastest-selling music bio­graphy ever.

And while it would be hideously indec­or­ous of me to review it – espe­cially since Morrissey was kind enough not to men­tion my bio­graphy of him – I will say this:

It cer­tainly didn’t dis­ap­point.

In lieu of a review, here are some espe­cially cher­ished lines. Because of course, everything that he says rings true-oh-oh-oh.

Morrissey Reading

On his hometown

…we live in for­got­ten Victorian knife-plunging Manchester, where everything lies wherever it was left over one hun­dred years ago.

On his big head

Naturally my birth almost kills my mother, for my head is too big, but soon it is I, and not my mother, on the crit­ical list at Salford’s Pendlebury Hospital.

On being Irish Catholic

…we Irish Catholics know very well how rauc­ous hap­pi­ness dis­pleases God, so there is much evid­ence of guilt in all we say and do, but non­ethe­less it is said and done.

On school punishment

You touch me and my mum’ll be down,’ I warn Miss Dudley. I am nine years old.

On Myra Hindley

Tormentedly, every­one appears to know someone who knew Myra Hindley, and we are forced to accept a new truth; that a woman can be just as cruel and dehu­man­ized as a man, and that all safety is an illusion.

On George Best

My father takes me to see George Best play at Old Trafford, and as I see the apo­ca­lyptic dis­turber of the peace swirl across the pitch, I faint. I am eight years old. Squinting in the sun, it is all too much for me, and I remem­ber my father’s rasp as he dragged my twis­ted body through the crowd and out into the street, caus­ing him to miss the rest of the match.

On Lost in Space

Dr Smith’s voice is the caustic cat­ti­ness of a tetchy dow­ager rising in pitch as each line ends, hands a-flutter with away with you, my child intol­er­ance. Major West, on the other hand, will kick to kill. My note­pad rest­ing on my lap takes the scribbles of unspoken truth: effem­in­ate men are very witty, whereas macho men are duller than death.

On being caught by a teacher with a New York Dolls album sleeve

LOOK AT THIS!’ she deman­ded of every­one, ‘LOOK AT THIS!’ and every­one looked at this. ‘THIS is sick­ness. These are MEN mak­ing them­selves sexual for OTHER MEN.’

On del­ic­ate boys and rough girls

In King’s Lane a sporty Welsh girl lands me such a power­ful clenched-fist blow that I fall to the ground deafened. ‘What was THAT for?’ I said, sight­less with sore­ness. ‘Because I like you and you won’t look at me,’ she said – as if what she had done might improve the situ­ation. It didn’t.

On 1970s teen­age sex

Honeypots sprawled like open graves, their own­ers doing noth­ing at all other than let­ting you. The call of duty is all yours – to turn on and get off; to hit the spot and know the ropes; to please and be pleased; as the own­ers of such Bermuda Triangles do … noth­ing.

On 1970s porn

Female nud­ity is gen­er­ally easy to find – if not actu­ally unavoid­able – but male nud­ity is still a glimpse of some­thing that one is not meant to see. In mid-70s Manchester there must be obsess­ive love of vagina, oth­er­wise your life dooms itself forever.

On Top of The Pops

All human activ­ity is fruit­less when pit­ted against the girls and boys singing on pop tele­vi­sion, for they have found the answer as the rest of us search for the ques­tion. I will sing, too. If not, I will have to die.

On AE Housman

Housman was always alone – think­ing him­self to death, with no mat­ronly wife to sig­nal to the watch­ing world that Alfred Edward was now quite alright – for isn’t this at least partly the aim of scor­ing a part­ner: to trum­pet the men­tal all-clear to a world where how things seem is far more import­ant than how things are?

On Patti Smith

In a dream state I watch her explode as she takes on the les­bian con­tin­gent at the front who are call­ing to Patti to ‘come out’ (where to? from what?), and they heckle her in almost every song.

On Sparks

Ron Mael sat at the key­board like an aban­doned ventriloquist’s doll, and brother Russell sang in French ital­ics with the mad urgency of someone tied to a tree.

On being banned by his best mate’s mum

I pon­der on how I could pos­sibly be con­sidered a bad influ­ence, since I am neither bad nor remotely influ­en­tial. It is not as if, at this age of 18, I designed dresses under the name Violet Temper. It is not as if I sought a career in exotic dan­cing, or read jokes aloud at funer­als. I had never even once been drunk. My main con­cern in life was to find some­where that could make spec­tacles in less than an hour.

On Sandie Shaw

I had col­lec­ted all of Sandie’s slap-bang singles of the 1960s, and thought that they per­fectly tra­versed the cheap and loud sound of east London skirty jailbait.

On the North

…the north is a sep­ar­ate coun­try – one of wild night land­scapes of affec­tion­ate affliction.

On Success

…there is Paul Newman, sit­ting quietly at the door of his Sunset Marquis villa; there is Patricia Neal, frail but smil­ing at La Luna res­taur­ant on Larchmont; there is Paul Simon, sit­ting with Whoopi Goldberg, to whom the unem­ploy­able Stretford canal-bank cleaner is intro­duced. This all could be a dream, yet it is not sad enough to be a dream.

On Rough Trade Records

These are the days when almost any unsigned artist that I favor instantly awakes to find Geoff Travis sit­ting at the foot of their bed, a short-form agree­ment between his teeth. It’s a com­pli­ment, of sorts.

On David Bowie

David quietly tells me, ‘You know, I’ve had so much sex and drugs that I can’t believe I’m still alive,’ and I loudly tell him, ‘You know, I’ve had SO LITTLE sex and drugs that I can’t believe I’m still alive.’

On life with the boxer Jake Walters

…every minute has the high drama of first love, only far more exhil­ar­at­ing, and at last I have someone to answer the telephone.

On Jake’s belly

I am pho­to­graphed for Creem magazine with my head rest­ing on Jake’s exposed belly. ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ asks new man­ager Arnold Stiefel. ‘No?’ I say in a small voice. ‘Well, that’s a very intim­ate shot.’ ‘Oh?’ I say, baffled. ‘A man doesn’t rest his head on another man’s stom­ach,’ Arnold goes on. ‘No?’ I answer, all adrift on the cruel sea.

On that November Spawned a Monster video

Tim had asked me to do the entire November spawned a mon­ster video naked. I explained to him that this would be impossible since my entire lower body had been des­troyed by fire in 1965. His expres­sion remained wide-eyed with belief as he replied, ‘Oh.’

On his fans

As I watch and study, I am mirrored by a hand­some legion of the tough and the flash, and with this vis­ion all of my efforts succeed.

Will Morrissey Have The Last Laugh — Again?

 ‘Has any book in recent memory not actu­ally about wiz­ards pro­voked so much interest?’


Mark Simpson on the most eagerly-anticipated music bio­graphy ever.

C4 News, 14 October, 2013

MORRISSEY HAS ALWAYS enjoyed the last laugh. His entire career has been based on it. Back in the 1980s, when he was in his pomp as the pom­pa­doured front man of The Smiths – and loudly reject­ing everything the 1980s stood for – Morrissey was asked if he thought that suc­cess was a form of revenge. “Absolutely and entirely a form of revenge,” he agreed. But revenge for what? “Well, for everything, on every­body,” he replied. “So now I can just sit back every night — when Minder is fin­ished — and just chuckle, deafeningly.”

Right now he must be chuck­ling so deaf­en­ingly the neigh­bours are com­plain­ing to the coun­cil. Wherever it is he lives these days.

His much anti­cip­ated, much delayed, much-discussed eponym­ously titled auto­bi­o­graphy is sweet revenge indeed. Has any book in recent memory not actu­ally about wiz­ards pro­voked so much interest? Before even its exist­ence was cer­tain? Before any­one seems to have read the thing?

Whatever its con­tents — and your guess is as good as mine — Autobiography is already stamped with Big Mouth’s trade­mark scorn. The photo on the book jacket (pic­tured), offer­ing the world his not insub­stan­tial chin. The appar­ent absence of review cop­ies, ensur­ing his crit­ics will have to pay to have their ha’pence worth — and every­one and my mother has an opin­ion on Morrissey.

But the best and biggest joke of all is that it doesn’t mat­ter what they scribble. Or in a way, what he’s writ­ten: Morrissey has suc­ceeded in get­ting Penguin to put his mem­oirs out as a Penguin Classic. The Bard of Stretford is some­where between Montaigne and More. Someone who has always been openly obsessed with turn­ing him­self into a “liv­ing sign” (and the Amazon blurb men­tions the word “icon” twice) – is now offi­cially an instant clas­sic. Penguin say so. So there.

A flab­ber­gas­ted lit­er­ary world has rushed to remind Morrissey that he just hasn’t earned it yet, baby. But in actual his­tor­ical fact he already has.

Before he found some­thing much more reward­ing to do, the young, lonely Steven Patrick Morrissey wanted noth­ing so much as to be a writer. From his box bed­room in his mother’s coun­cil house in sub­urban Manchester this auto­di­dact who left school at six­teen typed out screeds to the NME, and pamph­lets about his twin obses­sions, glam punk band The New York Dolls and James Dean. His mother was a lib­rar­ian, and he fam­ously quipped later: “I was born in Manchester Central Library. In the crime section.”

But Johnny Marr came call­ing and Morrissey became one of the most unlikely, most lit­er­ary of pop­sters — using pop music as a giant fax machine to tell the world the story of his life: insist­ing that his lyr­ics, which often “bor­rowed” from the writers he admired, be prin­ted on the record sleeves. I wouldn’t be entirely sur­prised if — and part of me hopes — his mem­oir turns out to be just his col­lec­ted lyr­ics, with some hand-drawn tit­iv­a­tion in the margins.

And what lyr­ics! Morrissey is unques­tion­ably the greatest lyr­i­cist of desire — and thus of frus­tra­tion — who ever moaned. If a young Oscar Wilde, another one of Morrissey’s idols, had heard The Smiths he wouldn’t have bothered writ­ing plays. He’d have formed a band.

But part of the drama of Autobiography, part of what makes his book such an event that pro­vokes such curi­os­ity from all sides, is that des­pite turn­ing it into great art, and becom­ing a global star, the actual details of Morrissey’s private life have remained res­ol­utely private. Which is a shock­ing, almost inde­cent achieve­ment in a cul­ture as sure of its enti­tle­ment to know everything as ours is today.

Perhaps it’s just sour grapes on the part of a writer who was never a pop star, but hav­ing cre­ated this mys­tique, this cher­ished iconic status through his art and through his quaint obses­sion with old skool star­dom in an age of mere celebrity, can it, I won­der, sur­vive con­fes­sion? Can prose com­pare to bloody poetry? Will he kiss and tell? Will he settle scores? And has Penguin dared to edit him?

But most of all, will he finally say “sorry” for steal­ing away the hearts of a generation?

Polymorphous Perversity & One Direction Fandom

Fame, fame, fatal fame. It can play hideous tricks on the brain.

Last week C4 aired Crazy About One Direction a doc­u­ment­ary about ‘Directioners’, feb­rile fans of the glob­ally – some would say crim­in­ally – suc­cess­ful real­ity TV assembled UK boy band One Direction, or ‘1D’ if you’re typ­ing with your thumbs.

Larry StylinsonLarry 2

They were all teen­age girls. Now, I’m sure there are male Directioners out there (and that would make for an inter­est­ing doc in itself), but I reckon many of them would turn out to be quite a bit older than teen­agers. In fact, I might be a male fan of 1D – if quite lik­ing ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ and think­ing the blond one would make a cute car dash­board gonk counts.

But of course, ‘quite lik­ing’ doesn’t count. At all. Timed to cash in on the cash-in release of This Is Us their remark­ably boring-looking band movie this was a TV doc about OMG!!! LOVING!!!!!! 1D. About crayzee teen girl fan­dom, with beat­ing hearts hov­er­ing sweetly, expect­antly, men­acingly over ‘i’s. About extra­vag­ant pro­fes­sions of undy­ing, breath­less, piti­less devo­tion for people you’ve never met – along with not entirely ser­i­ous threats to top your­self or lop off limbs if they don’t acknow­ledge you. And hanging around the arse-end of con­cert sta­dia for hours and hours on the off-chance of scream­ing at a blacked out minivan which may or may not con­tain a mem­ber of 1D accel­er­at­ing away from you.

Not to for­get play­ing all this up for the cam­eras – some­thing teen girl pop fans have been wise to for gen­er­a­tions: e.g. that immor­tal, always-recycled clip of a girl out­side a David Bowie con­cert in the 1970s sob­bing gently and com­pletely uncon­vin­cingly to cam­era about not get­ting to meet Ziggy – and, when she spots the camera’s atten­tion wan­der­ing towards other fans, sud­denly cry­ing MUCH LOUDER.

So far, so Bay City Rollers. This doc’s main update on this now very famil­iar trope seemed to be that thanks to social net­work­ing fans can now mon­itor their idols con­stantly on Twitter, search­ing end­lessly for clues as to their where­abouts and feed­ing their ima­gin­ary rela­tion­ship with them. But watch­ing teen girls watch­ing their idols’ Twitter feed wait­ing impa­tiently for the next status update which may or may not be pos­ted by a mem­ber of Simon Cowell’s PR team isn’t exactly great TV.

1DDemented as this kind of fan­dom may seem in its main pro­fessed hope – that the beloved will love you back or even notice you – it isn’t per­haps quite as irra­tional as it seems. After all, this unreal­ity really brings fans together.

Much was made in the doc of the fact that most of the girls inter­viewed don’t have boy­friends. But it didn’t bother men­tion­ing the fact that they do have girl­friends. Lots and lots of girl­friends. Who all want to have Harry Styles as their boy­friend. Or at least, enjoy think­ing they do. But, of course, the chances of this desire ever being put to the test are rather slim. So everything remains end­lessly, exquis­itely uncon­sum­mated. It’s the per­fect romance, really. And it’s part of 1D’s job descrip­tion to remain always (or for a couple of years or so) avail­able for the fans’ end­less yearn­ing – and pur­suit. 1D are elec­tric hares at a musical grey­hound track run by Simon Cowell, but with fussier hair.

So the fans may or may not be single but are far from lonely because they have everything in com­mon with one another, with the ‘pack’ – shared excite­ment yes, but most espe­cially deli­cious dis­ap­point­ment, which is after all what pop music is all about. Though, to be fair, the look on the face of one of the girls when another fan was proudly show­ing off phone pics of her smugly beam­ing face next to vari­ous indul­gent over-moussed 1D chaps accos­ted in some hotel recep­tion was not exactly what you’d call sis­terly. (And the DIE BITCH! tweets some 1D fans like to send to girl­friends of band members,or bomb threats sent to magazines that run inter­views with the band they dis­ap­prove of, def­in­itely aren’t.)

TT 1

The fun of being girls together assert­ing an act­ive, quite pos­sibly aggress­ive sexual interest in pretty, pout­ing, pack­aged, pass­ive boys is some­thing I encountered full-frontal way back in 1994 when I wrote a piece about Manchester boy band Take That play­ing Wembley Arena at the height of the teen feed­ing frenzy sur­round­ing the grin­ning Manc lads in leather har­nesses. I spoke to a group of ram­bunc­tious girls (and a mum or two) who’d come down from the North to lust after the boys. I asked them who their favour­ite was:

HOWARD!” “ROBBIE!” “MARK!” “JASON!” they all scream at once. “Mark’s brill ‘cos ‘e’s so short an’ sweet an’ lovely an’ ‘e looks like you could do any­thing you like to ‘im!” “Howards’ ace ‘cos ‘e’s got pecs, and ‘cos ‘e’s got a BIG PACKAGE ‘e’s REALLY, REALLY, WELL-ENDOWED!!” How do you know? “You can’t miss it when ‘e comes on stage!!” says Lucy. “It just about pokes yer eye out!,” adds Lucy’s Mum, help­fully. Pardon me, but didn’t The Sun tell us recently that mums were shocked by the new saucy TT show? “I am shocked,” she admits. “I expec­ted them to get their kit off!!”’

As another pretty boy bander from Manchester who knows a few things about fan­dom and gender reversal (and most of whose fans were male) put it: She wants it Now and she will not wait, but she’s too rough and I’m too del­ic­ate…. It’s a sober­ing thought that the women hav­ing the time of their life at the Take That gig nearly twenty years ago and bay­ing for Howard’s BIG PACKAGE would be the moth­ers and grand­moth­ers of today’s 1D fans.

Which brings us back, I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear, to bum­ming. By far the most mem­or­able sec­tion of Crazy About One Direction and the part that caused the most con­tro­versy examined the phe­nomenon of ‘Larry ship­pers’, 1D fans who fan­tas­ise about a rela­tionship between Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles writ­ing pas­sion­ately romantic or out­right erotic stor­ies, com­plete with eye-popping illus­tra­tions. Harry Tomlinson, the beast with two very shapely backs. One Direction fans can be very poly­morph­ously per­verse.

Larry kiss

 ‘Shipping’ seems to be an update on ‘slash­ing’ – the long-established fanfic tra­di­tion of women writ­ing storylines for one another that bring male celebs or fic­tional char­ac­ters together for their enjoy­ment: e.g. Spock/Kirk, Starsky/Hutch, Sam/Frodo finally glor­i­ously con­sum­mat­ing, if you like, or even if you don’t like, a hid­den sub­text. And yet this was the part of the doc­u­ment­ary that was gen­er­ally seen as most ‘bizarre’. C4 played up to this with a slightly sniffy voi­ceover that intro­duced ship­ping Larry with the line ‘…and they have funny ways of show­ing their love.’

What’s really ‘funny’ is that man­love for ladies, the female ver­sion of men’s enjoy­ment of woman-on-woman fantasy, is as old as pop music. From The Beatles to The Bay City Rollers to Wham to Take That boy bands have slyly exploited the girl­ish fantasy of cute, coiffed boys who live together and out of one another’s fashionably-styled pock­ets, usu­ally super­vised by a gay male father figure/manager. Boy bands are a kind of gay porn for girls. Wham were expli­citly told by their man­ager Simon Napier Bell to flirt with one another on stage to get the girls hot (advice that George Michael seems to have taken to heart). Take That took things a be-thonged step fur­ther and were test-marketed on gay men before being offered, with their heads rest­ing on one another’s shoulders – no doubt exhausted after all that dan­cing around and slap­ping their arses on stage – to teen girls.

Twenty years on it’s not neces­sary to test mar­ket a boy band on The Gays any more. Everyone seems to know the for­mula. How to do ‘gay­ness’. Including of course the boys them­selves, whose ten­der­ness and phys­ical affec­tion for one another is much more ‘nor­mal’ and ‘nat­ural’ for their met­ro­sexu­al­ised gen­er­a­tion than it was for the Take That one. Thanks, in part, to Take That.

You could argue that the Larry ship­pers are only join­ing the dots that have already been drawn – very close together – by 1D’s man­age­ment and the whole his­tory of boy bands. As one girl put it, “I think the man­age­ment secretly love Larry.”

Though admit­tedly some of the Larry shippers/slashers are a trifle over-zealous, insist­ing that Louis and Harry REALLY ARE, LIKE, TOTALLY!!! shag­ging one another’s brains out non-stop and that any girl­friends that come along are JUST A DIVERSION, SHEEPLE!!! As one fan put it in the doc, “A lot of the fans wouldn’t be so jeal­ous if they had a boy­friend instead of a girl­friend.” Or per­haps it’s bet­ter to find a way of believ­ing that the doll-like boys are, des­pite plenty of evid­ence to the con­trary, stick­ing to your storyline – rather than fol­low­ing their own.

But what’s really ‘crazy’ is the way so many people have failed to see and hear the lit­er­ally scream­ing evid­ence of the grav­it­a­tional pull of man­love for ladies and the voyeur­istic, highly kinky ‘female gaze’ power­ing it.

A few years ago a UK TV pro­du­cer friend of mine tried vainly to pitch a doc­u­ment­ary pro­posal we’d put together about women’s interest in man-on-man action and the huge but largely unspoken role it had played in shap­ing a lot of pop cul­ture. Apparently the response was always the same: baffle­ment. Followed by a cer­tain amount of unease. Followed swiftly by total and no doubt highly reas­sur­ing scep­ti­cism that such a phe­nomenon exis­ted at all.

Oh, but it does. It really does, guys. Like, TOTALLY!!!

Stretch Jeans & Synthpop: The Human League’s ‘Dare’

By Mark Simpson

(Originally appeared on Culture Kicks, June 5 2013)

 IN THE EARLY YEARS of the 1980s stretch jeans were all the rage. Stretch jeans and The Human League’s Dare. Both were revolu­tion­ary but prac­tical and, when wrapped around youth, snugly-smugly invin­cible. I was sweet 16 when Dare was released in 1981 and it con­firmed all the psychoses of teen­ager­dom. We thought the future belonged to us and our arrog­ant thighs, with our denim/spandex mix and new-fangled dance-orientated synth-pop. We thought we were so fuck­ing clever. So fuck­ing fuck­able. And we were so fuck­ing right, even if our future didn’t turn out to be quite so cool and snug and fun as we thought it would be.


In the early years of the 1980s stretch jeans were all the rage. Stretch jeans and The Human League’s Dare. Both were revolu­tion­ary but prac­tical and, when wrapped around youth, snugly-smugly invin­cible. I was sweet 16 when Dare was released in 1981 and it con­firmed all the psychoses of teen­ager­dom. We thought the future belonged to us and our arrog­ant thighs, with our denim/spandex mix and new-fangled dance-orientated synth-pop. We thought we were so fuck­ing clever. So fuck­ing fuck­able. And we were so fuck­ing right, even if our future didn’t turn out to be quite so cool and snug and fun as we thought it would be.

Dare had the effrontery to stretch the sparse, avant-garde, elec­tronic dreams of the early, pre-1980 split, art skool Human League around pop music, disco and every­day desire. It was a per­fect, thrill­ing, highly sexy fit. There’s a simple, time­less test of whether pop music is any good or not: can it be played really loudly at a fair­ground while you’re being spun around by a tat­tooed lad on the Waltzers?

To this day, whenever I hear the open­ing bars of ‘Love Action (I Believe in Love)’, the bit which sounds like hip fly­ing sau­cers talk­ing to one another before the hip-wiggling bass line kicks in, the hairs still obed­i­ently rise on the back of my neck and I’m all giddy and spotty and about to spew up my Merrydown again.

Dare is one of the greatest pop albums ever made, and quite pos­sibly the greatest UK dance album. It changed what pop music could be. It changed what the world was going to be. This thrice-platinum album was wildly suc­cess­ful and influ­en­tial, cool and high street, arty and com­mer­cial, on a scale that has never really been repeated and can never be, now that pop music is essen­tially a spent force. And this cul­tural colos­sus (with a little help from Virgin Records) came out of the post-industrial wreck­age of ‘Steel City’ aka Sheffield. Not London, not Manchester, but the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire. Tyke pop.

The Vogue–styled album gate­fold cover, with The League’s dev­ast­at­ingly pretty and pro­voc­at­ively made-up lead singer – and now unchal­lenged cre­at­ive director/dictator – Phil Oakey as front-cover girl, with Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall, the pretty school­girl dancers/backing vocal­ists fam­ously recruited by Oakey in a Sheffield nightclub called Crazy Daisy’s, barely man­aging to com­pete on the inside. (Philip Adrian Wright, the only sur­viv­ing non-Oakey mem­ber of the pre-split Human League, was not given the Vogue treat­ment.) It was a work of pop art that Factory Records, just over the Pennines, might have envied – if they weren’t so post-punk puritanical.

Listening today, over thirty years on, almost noth­ing has aged about this album, recor­ded at the very apo­gee of syn­thpop and its ana­logue day­dreams of a digital world – this, after all, is what ‘syn­thpop’ was before digital tech­no­logy actu­ally finally arrived years later, and ruined everything. Those Korgs and Rolands were ana­logue. It is much, much easier to make syn­thpop music now, and almost every­one does. But none of it has any heart.

The first track, ‘The Things That Dreams Are Made Of’, an anthemic invoc­a­tion of desire, exhorts the listener to ‘do all the things you ever dared’. The stir­ring foot­ball chant chorus—‘These are the things! These are the things! The things that dreams are made of!’—is under­cut by the almost banal mod­esty of the detail of those dreams: ‘New York, ice cream, TV, travel, good times’. But that’s the intox­ic­at­ing drama of Dare: a uto­pian soundtrack with a down-to-earth, sub­urban ‘good time’ vibe. ‘Everybody needs love and affec­tion. Everybody needs two or three friends.’ By the aus­tere, highly polit­ical post-punk stand­ards of a Thatcher-ravaged, deeply recessed 1981, Dare deman­ded the impossible.

The new, purged Human League’s first off­spring was very much Oakey’s baby. It really was Phil talk­ing, hav­ing rid him­self of dis­sent­ing voices of Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, who went on to form Heaven 17 (and take on that fas­cist groove thang). Phil’s inim­it­able bari­tone suf­fuses the album – a voice as dis­tinct­ive as the sound and the look. A voice so dis­tinct­ive, in fact, that like many from that era, it’s impossible to ima­gine it suc­ceed­ing today. Except per­haps as a nov­elty act to be voted off before the finals.

Martin Rushent, the synth-pop pro­du­cer brought in to make good the loss of the tech­nical skills of Ware and Marsh, should almost be cred­ited as a fifth band mem­ber on Dare. His vir­tu­oso deploy­ment of synths and sequen­cers effect­ively adds another lead vocal to the tracks, while the intro­duct­ory bars are micro over­tures that instantly announce the irres­ist­ible genius of each song. Is there an album any­where that has bet­ter, hook­ier, more out­rageously sash­ay­ing intros? ‘The Things That Dreams Are Made Of’, ‘The Sound of the Crowd’, ‘Open Your Heart’, ‘Love Action’, and the Sheffield nites­pot oper­etta of ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby?’ – da da da-da dum da da da DUM! You know exactly what’s com­ing and you can’t wait. Much like love itself.

The final track ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby’ became of course the Human League’s best-selling single and 1981’s Xmas Number One, selling over 2 mil­lion cop­ies world­wide. It is also the most per­fect pop song ever made, run­ning the sub­lime gamut from epic to trashy and back again, with a sing-along chorus that is the purest dis­til­la­tion of all pop lyr­ics ever: ‘Don’t you want me baby? Don’t you want me, OHHHHH!’ After that there really is noth­ing more to be said on the subject.

DYWM’ brings per­fect ‘clos­ure’ to Dare’s theme of pur­su­ing dreams. Oakey plays a Svengali fig­ure spurned by his cre­ation, voiced pitch-perfect by Susan Anne Sully and threatens: ‘Don’t for­get it’s me who put you where you are now and I can put you down too.’

She’s ‘dared’ – and doesn’t need him any­more. But the biggest Dare of all was Oakey’s. Everyone thought boffins and band founders Ware and Marsh were the brains of the out­fit and Oakey would fall flat on his pretty-boy face after the 1980 split. Phil was work­ing not as a cock­tail wait­ress but as a hos­pital porter when Ware found him in 1978, and turned him into someone new.

But his worst turned out to be bet­ter than their best.

The Dame Edna Experience Goes West

The intox­ic­at­ingly tal­en­ted DEE, alias Jonathan Paul Hellyer, is per­form­ing his last ever Sunday show at London’s Royal Vauxhall Tavern this Easter week­end. Fame has finally found him, pos­sums, and he’s mov­ing to America. To salute him, his new life and the end of an era for London’s gay scene, I thought I’d post this appre­ci­ation from the early Noughties


(Independent on Sunday, 23 September, 2001)

By Mark Simpson

I have a con­fes­sion to make. I’ve been hav­ing an affair. For some time now I’ve been sneak­ing off to a slightly smelly Victorian drag pub in South London every Sunday after­noon to see a per­former called ‘The Dame Edna Experience’. And every Sunday I’ve exper­i­enced… well, this is very embar­rass­ing. True Love.

What does the Dame Edna Experience, aka Jonathan Paul Hellyer, do? Well, he tells a few dirty jokes, and then he sings some cheesy love songs, which he often makes fun of as he’s singing. In a black Basque, stock­ings horn-rimmed glasses and a blue-rinse wig. But some­how, he takes you from the base to the sub­lime to the ridicu­lous and back again leav­ing you bewitched, bothered and bewildered and won­der­ing what Barry Humphries did to deserve the accolade.

Everyone in the place – and it is sold out every week – is trans­fixed by him. Even the shirt­less gay club­bers com­ing down from their weekend’s rav­ing stop chew­ing their gum and stare, slack-jawed.

To say he’s merely ‘funny’ or ‘has a great voice’ would be a libel­lous mis­rep­res­ent­a­tion. Hellyer has a tal­ent that seems to encom­pass the entire range of human emo­tion – and gender. He doesn’t just sing songs such as ‘Angels’ and ‘Think Twice’ note per­fect, and in a voice uncan­nily like Celine Dion or Robbie Williams. He breathes some­thing into these pon­der­ous dit­ties that trans­forms their cheapness into some­thing dan­ger­ously potent in a way that Baz Luhrmann would envy. Distilling Robbie-ness and Dion-ness into some­thing intox­ic­at­ing that the artists them­selves could never quite be bothered to do.

So when he per­forms the irk­some char­ity ver­sion of ‘Perfect Day’, ren­der­ing every­one from Lou Reed to Tammy Wynette, Bono to Ronan, Elton to Heather Small so intensely the ori­gin­als seem coun­ter­feit, you find your­self absurdly moved and amused – as much by the power of your own response as any­thing else. And when he finally pulls off that blue wig and those glasses and lets us look into his eyes you notice that this divine trick­ster is young and attract­ive too, those legs rather shapely in those stockings.

Such a per­fect Sunday. I’m so glad I spent it with you. You made me for­get myself – I thought I was someone else. Someone good.

We've Loved These Days

The Anti-Christ Has All The Best Tunes

The P2P revolu­tion is like Gutenberg plus Protestantism plus Punk all rolled into one highly com­pressed file, by Mark Simpson

Sean Fanning

 (Independent on Sunday, August 2001)

Perhaps the best thing about digital music is that it doesn’t only make listen­ing to music more con­veni­ent and less irk­some: it actu­ally does part of the tire­some job of listen­ing for you.

ISO-MPEG Audio-Layer-3 — mer­ci­fully shortened to MP3 — is the digital file format for music exchanged on the Internet and very pos­sibly the acronym of doom for the record industry. It is a form of extreme algorithmic com­pres­sion of sound files that uses “psy­choacous­tic” mod­els that account for what listen­ers actu­ally notice when they hear music or other sounds. “Unnecessary” data is stripped away to make the file as small as pos­sible to facil­it­ate easier stor­age or upload­ing and down­load­ing. In other words, MP3 anti­cip­ates and inter­prets mu­sic for the listener before she or he actu­ally hears it.

Of course, this job used to be per­formed by record com­pan­ies, with their A&R men and mar­ket­ing depart­ments. But, like so many before them, they appear to have been auto­mated out of a job—dis­pensed with by algorithms, the Internet, and a bunch of geeky kids in their bed­rooms. A whole class of inter­me­di­ar­ies and author­it­ies have been liquidated.

The Internet has often been com­pared to Gutenberg in its im­portance. However, after read­ing John Alderman’s detailed account of the online music revolu­tion, Sonic Boom: Napster, P2p and the Battle for The Future Of Music, John Alderman, I have a hunch it’s more like Gutenberg plus Protestantism plus Punk—all at once, in a highly ‘com­pressed’ form.

Thanks to the per­sonal com­puter and the Internet, every man is now at home with his god—downloading The Sex Pistols’ EMI. The cor­rupt, uncool suits and cas­socks who used to inter­cede have been swept aside and the Word can be enjoyed dir­ectly and free from dis­tor­tion, com­pressed by pure, clean math­em­at­ics, not dogma. The free ex­change of information—which is all that digital music amounts to in cyberspace—is the credo of what one might call the Nettist Movement: the true believ­ers in the web and everything it represents.

To many Nettists, any­one who attempts to stand in the way of this Reformation Superhighway is the Papist Antichrist, or the fas­cist re­gime. And of course this means any­one who doesn’t share their holy zeal—anyone who is non-Nettist. Record com­pan­ies are about as non-Nettist as you can get. After all, they have most to lose from the free exchange of digital music. All their fright­fully expens­ive CD print­ing presses, dis­tri­bu­tion deals and back cata­logues melt at the press of a but­ton in someone’s bed­room. If indul­gences no longer have to be bought but can be plucked from the air instead, then where is the tem­poral wealth and power of the record busi­ness to come from?

For the record com­pan­ies, the lead­ers of the MP3 revolu­tion are seen as heretics who have to be made examples of; burnt at the legal stake so that oth­ers may not be temp­ted to stray. Against the cries for info free­dom, their law­yers invoke the Mystery of copy­right. Digitising music, just as print­ing the Bible in German did, puts it within the grasp—and control—of the laity. And like the lead­ers of the Counter-Reformation, they see them­selves as act­ing in the interests of the people they burn.

You think I exag­ger­ate? You think I take this Reformation, Counter-Reformation meta­phor too far? Well, just listen to Edgar Bronfman Jr., heir to the mighty if not exactly holy Roman Seagram Empire, quoted here by Alderman: “I am war­ring against the cul­ture of the Internet, threat­en­ing to depop­u­late Silicon Valley as I move a Roman legion or two of Wall Street law­yers to lit­ig­ate. I have done so… not to at­tack the Internet and its cul­ture but for its bene­fit and to pro­tect it”.

Is Shawn Fanning, the boy who at nine­teen foun­ded Napster, the fam­ous MP3 file-sharing “peer-2-peer” online ser­vice, a Luther for our times? And is Napster his Wittenberg Theses, nailed to the door of the music industry? For a while, in our accel­er­ated cul­ture, it looked that way. Twelve months after the launch of Napster in June 1999, there were over 200,000 souls pray­ing in his church nightly. By the end of 2000 there were over 50 mil­lion registered users and Fanning was a very fam­ous young man indeed; his crim­in­ally young, beatific face shin­ing out from the cover of magazines.

But Fanning was no ideo­logue or evan­gel­ical; merely an American boy who saw a need which he believed his soft­ware could fill. From his time spent chat­ting on the Net, he knew that people were eager to trade music files, but find­ing good music was the prob­lem. He joined with two online pals, only slightly older than him­self, to solve this with smart code. To­gether they wrote the Napster pro­gram, which allowed users to share files by plug­ging their com­puters, in effect, into a giant, global network.

Because Napster hos­ted no music itself (the files were stored on user’s com­puters and traded), it was hoped by Fanning et al that they would be free from any taint of blas­phemy and heresy in the form of copy­right viol­a­tions. They were very wrong. In the open­ing blast of what was to prove a mer­ci­less bar­rage, the fear­some Recording Industry Associa­tion of America filed a copy­right law­suit against Napster in Decem­ber 1999, just six months after it had launched.

And who could blame them? For the record industry Napster was a dis­aster of, well, bib­lical pro­por­tions. Practically a whole gen­eration of col­lege kids who didn’t even have to pay for the col­lege com­puters or the Internet con­nec­tions they down­loaded the MP3 files with, stopped buy­ing CDs. Not only was Napster free, Napster was easier than going to a record store and it was even easier than order­ing CDs online. Emusic.com, an e-tailer of digital music, was reduced to giv­ing away MP3 play­ers (worth $150) to any­one who bought just $25 worth of music.

A year and a half on, under the epic weight of vari­ous law­suits and in­junctions brought by the record industry and Lars Ulrich of Metallica, who fam­ously dis­covered that three unfin­ished ver­sions of a song he had been work­ing on had been traded on Napster (along with his entire back cata­logue), the Church of Shawn Fanning is not what it was. Napster got into bed with record giant Bertlesmann— one of the few record com­pan­ies to respond to the MP3 revolu­tion with any­thing other than pub­lic burnings—in an attempt to turn Napster into a legal, main­stream, subscription-only ser­vice which, cru­cially, paid roy­al­ties to performers.

The issue of intel­lec­tual copy­right and reward­ing artists is a thorny one and not so easy to dis­miss as “record com­pany greed.” Ulrich is cer­tainly not the only pro­fes­sional rock and roll rebel to take indig­nant offence at the “crimin­al­ity” of online file trad­ing. Ultimately though, the feel­ings of artists or even record com­pan­ies may not count for very much. In a sense, file trad­ing is what the Internet was designed for—and it was also designed to sur­vive some­thing even more destruct­ive than a music com­pany law­yer: nuc­lear war.

There is per­haps a tad too much jar­gon in Sonic Boom for the IT agnostic, and the nar­ra­tion doesn’t always quite match the raci­ness of the title or the import of the revolu­tion it docu­ments, but it’s a valu­able, insight­ful book for any­one inter­ested in where our cul­ture is headed.

The Nettist Movement itself con­tin­ues its onward march undaun­ted. Napster and Fanning may have recan­ted, but most of his 50 mil­lion dis­ciples that Bertlesmann hoped to con­vert into more ortho­dox cus­tom­ers have left and are now pray­ing at lesser known online P2P sites. And there are always new, more con­vin­cing Luthers. Programmer Ian Clarke, for instance. He believes vehe­mently that inform­a­tion should be free. But he isn’t going to try too hard to con­vince you with words; he’s won the argu­ment already with code by design­ing a sys­tem called Freenet which allows users to post and retrieve files with com­plete anonym­ity. Unlike Napster, there is no cent­ral server—this is a church which really has no walls and whose con­greg­a­tion is invisible.

Clarke likes to tell report­ers that he couldn’t take Freenet down if someone put a gun to his head. Which is all very well, but Alderman doesn’t tell us what Clarke would do if Edgar Bronfman Jr. sent a Roman legion of Wall Street law­yers after him.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2001

Little Richard’s Big, Glam Legacy

Next month, on December 5th, Richard Wayne Penniman, bet­ter known as Little Richard, The King of Rockin’ ‘n’ Rollin’ Rhythm & Blues Soulin’, turns 80.

Whether or not Mr Penniman inven­ted rock ‘n’ roll as he has often loudly and boldly claimed – and, to be sure, he’s got a bet­ter, pret­tier claim than most – it’s as obvi­ous as the eye­liner around his lips that this son of a boot­leg­ger from Macon, Georgia inven­ted glam rock. Way back in the ‘uptight’ 1950s.

The King-Queen of Rockin’ ‘n Rollin’ may pos­sibly have been inspired in his style by the early 1950s ton­sured ‘bad-boy’ TV wrest­ler Gorgeous George (who also influ­enced James Brown and Muhammad Ali), but wherever he got it from he def­in­itely stole, to quote Oscar Wilde — he didn’t waste his time bor­row­ing. With his imper­i­ous pom­pa­dour, his sequinned capes, his out­rageous ges­tures, his shrieks, his full make-up and false eye­lashes, he chan­nelled a fun, furi­ous, flam­ing effem­in­acy that bore down on the charts like a scream­ing, squeal­ing steam train.

Wisely, the charts sur­rendered, uncon­di­tion­ally. From 1955–57 he had four­teen hit singles and three num­ber ones.

Lu-CILLE! You won’t do your sister’s will!” came blar­ing through the house like a pack of rabid dogs. It was as if a Martian had landed. My grand­mother stopped in her tracks, face ashen, bey­ond com­pre­hen­sion. The antiques rattled. My par­ents looked stunned. In one magical moment, every fear of my white fam­ily had been laid bare: an unin­vited, scream­ing, flam­boy­ant black man was in the liv­ing room. Even Dr Spock hadn’t warned them about this.’

– John Waters

Unlike Gorgeous George, how­ever, the queer­ness of Little Richard wasn’t just a pose. According to Robert ‘Bumps’ Blackwell the pro­du­cer behind his first hit ‘Tutti Frutti’, the ‘min­strel modes and homo­sexual humour’ of Richard’s ori­ginal lyr­ics had to be bowd­ler­ised for the main­stream. “Tutti Frutti, good booty”, for instance, was replaced with the slightly less sod­om­it­ical “Tutti Frutti, aw-rooty”. (There’s also spec­u­la­tion that the hits ‘Long Tall Sally’ and ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ may have been about transvestites.)

Little Richard didn’t though bowd­ler­ise his private life, at least not dur­ing his 1950s hey­day. According to his author­ised bio­grapher Charles White in The Life and Times of Little Richard on tour he would host swinging parties that were so swinging they were orgies. He would invite men back to his hotel and enjoy watch­ing them have sex with his girlfriend.

So when racist groups such as the North Alabama White Citizens Council alarmed by his enorm­ous, unpre­ced­en­ted pop­ular­ity with white teens put out state­ments on TV, warn­ing that “Rock ‘n’ Roll is part of a test to under­mine the mor­als of the youth of our nation. It is sexu­al­istic, unmor­al­istic and … brings people of both races together’, they weren’t entirely wrong.

Little Richard, like many people, had a com­plic­ated sexu­al­ity. Complicated by both his self-described ‘omin­sexual’ tastes – he has had affairs with both men and women – and also by his devout evan­gel­ical Christianity, incul­cated by his adored mother, which has led him to, ahem, turn his back on his homo­sexual side for much of his post 1950s life. Unsurprisingly, many gay people regard him with resent­ment as a result.

He gave an uproari­ous inter­view in 1987 to uber­fan film dir­ector John Waters – whose fam­ous pen­cil mous­tache was inspired by Richard’s own iconic lip-fur – in which he announced, not without found­a­tion, that he was not only the archi­tect of rock and roll but ‘the founder of gay’:

“I love gay people. I believe I was the founder of gay. I’m the one who star­ted to be so bold tel­lin’ the world! You got to remem­ber my dad put me out of the house because of that. I used to take my mother’s cur­tains and put them on my shoulders. And I used to call myself at the time the Magnificent One. I was wear­ing make-up and eye­lashes when no men were wear­ing that. I was very beau­ti­ful; I had hair hanging every­where. If you let any­body know you was gay, you was in trouble; so when I came out I didn’t care what nobody thought. A lot of people were scared to be with me.”’

In the same inter­view he con­fesses the source of his inspir­a­tion for his unortho­dox use of his mother’s cur­tains. Not Gorgeous George, but rather His Holiness:

I idol­ised the Pope when I was a little boy,” he says rev­er­ently. “I liked the pumps he wore. I think the Pope really dresses!” But there were other, more low-down eccle­si­ast­ical fash­ion cas­u­al­ties who seemed a big­ger influ­ence. “There was Prophet Jones of Detroit – he used to walk on this car­pet. They would spread this car­pet out of the limo and he would walk on it. When I got fam­ous, I had the guys just spread­ing car­pet for me to walk on, and they would kiss my hand… and I used to like to live like that.”

Happy birth­day, your Most Royal Magnificent Rockin’ Holy Highness!!




At Muhammad Ali’s 50th birth­day cel­eb­ra­tion in 1992. Ali: ‘The king!’ Richard: ‘I love you. Happy birth­day, baby’:

Check out the full length packet shot at beginning:

Update 5/12/12:

BBC Radio 2 today aired a doc­u­ment­ary about Little Richard with lots of (archive, I think) inter­view foot­age with the great man him­self. It also revealed that his friend the late 1940s jump blues singer Billy Wright, who helped arrange his first record­ing ses­sions, liked to curl his hair, wear make-up and some­times threw his panties in the audi­ence. So Gorgeous George is right out of the window.…

It also repor­ted that a fourteen-year-old David Robert Jones — later known as David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust — atten­ded one of Little Richard’s UK gigs in the early 1960s, at which the show­man pre­ten­ded to die on-stage, before resur­rect­ing him­self with: “A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-wop-bam-boom!”

The Prettiest Punk

Definition of PUNK (Mirriam Webster Online)


archaic : pros­ti­tute


[prob­ably partly from 3punk: non­sensefool­ish­ness


a : a young inex­per­i­enced per­son : begin­nernovice; espe­cially : a young man

: a usu­ally petty gang­ster, hood­lum, or ruffian

c : slang : a young man used as a homo­sexual part­ner espe­cially in a prison


Pretty Vacant’ (or ‘Vay-CUNT!’ as Mr Lydon sang it in his best Richard III) is my favour­ite Sex Pistols track. Because it advert­ises how punk rep­res­en­ted above all an aes­thetic rebel­lion, even and espe­cially when it told us, with a face care­fully dis­tor­ted by a stage sneer, it was anti-fashion, anti-beauty. It was really glam rock again, but after hav­ing been to art school – and with the lin­ing turned inside out.

Because the Sex Pistols were very pretty. In a Dilly meat rack kind of way.

Punk the­at­rics aside, it’s also just a very good pop song. Glen Matlock wrote ‘Pretty Vacant’ after hear­ing Abba’s ‘SOS’ (which hap­pens to be my favour­ite Abba song too). Matlock’s con­tri­bu­tion to the Sex Pistols has often been under­es­tim­ated – cer­tainly his pop sens­ib­il­it­ies and work ethic seemed to embar­rass the rest of the band.

So he was given the boot and replaced by John Lydon’s best mate Sid Vicious for the ‘Pretty Vacant’ promo. Sid’s job seems to have been mostly to stand around flash­ing his cheekbones and look­ing… pretty vacant. Which he did very well. (Though I per­son­ally would have saved my fat­test, most appre­ci­at­ive pro­jectile gob for the fine-featured blond drum­mer Paul Cook ham­mer­ing away reli­ably at the back.)

This clas­sic promo clip of ‘Pretty Vacant’ was included in a line-up of punk era tapes from Auntie’s vaults in ‘Punk Britannia at the BBC, part of BBC4’s ‘Punk Britannia’ doc­u­ment­ary series – provid­ing some­where for old punks to hide from the Diamond Jubilee.

To be hon­est, I’m get­ting almost as tired of doc­u­ment­ar­ies about punk rock as I am of Royal Jubilees. Punk is begin­ning to be like ‘The War’ that Johnny Rotten et al com­plained hear­ing about all the time when they were grow­ing up. But I still watched it.

And I was struck again by how male (and how white) punk was. Only three or four of the twenty or so acts col­lec­ted here have women in them at all, let alone female leads. Part of the reason why the great late Poly Styrene per­form­ing ‘The Day the World Turned Day-Glo’ and Siouxsie Sioux’s ‘Hong Kong Garden’ seem like such stand out songs here. Perhaps because they weren’t try­ing too hard to be punk and weren’t afraid to be poppy they were actu­ally bet­ter punks.

For all the revolu­tion, anarchic energy and DIY cre­ativ­ity of punk — which did ulti­mately help open up the ‘industry’ to women — there was also a lot of con­form­ity. Very phal­lic con­form­ity that looks even more dated now than the prog rock it was rebelling against. On stage, young sweaty skinny men jump­ing up and down shout­ing and urgently strum­ming their gui­tars. In front of the stage, sweaty skinny young men pressed against one another, jump­ing up and down and ejac­u­lat­ing phlegm at the sweaty skinny young men on stage.

Not that there’s any­thing wrong with that. And if I’d been old enough I would have had a whale of a time in the front row. But after a while it does get a bit tired. Especially when we now have web­sites for this kind of thing.

Anyway, get­ting back to the theme of my favour­ite Pistols track ‘Pretty Vacant’… it would prob­ably have been faintly heretical to some to ask it at the time, but who was the pret­ti­est punk?

Since punk was mostly a boy thing — and Siouxsie Sioux for instance was more mag­n­fi­cently ter­ri­fy­ing than ‘pretty’ - I’m really ask­ing of course who was the pret­ti­est boy punk (or ‘young man used as a homo­sexual part­ner espe­cially in a prison’ as the dick­tion­ary defin­i­tion of punk has it).

So, was it:

Billy Idol, with those extraordin­ary pouty, envel­op­ing lips that invited as much if not more than they snarled?

Orgasm addict Pete Shelley, the (openly gay) boy next door whose beguil­ing, big, brown Manc eyes fol­lowed the cam­era as it dol­lied round him?

Or Dave Vanian, whose heav­ily made up slicked back look seems to have pre­figured New Romanticism (and whose name sounds like a mannered ana­gram of ‘vain’)?

Or Paul Weller, who had the angri­est, most appet­ising Adam’s apple in the busi­ness and a beauty spot on his lip?

Or how about Ian Curtis, the spas­ming James Dean of punk?

One thing’s for sure. It def­in­itely wasn’t Bob Geldof. (I’m not post­ing a pic­ture of him here as that would only spoil the enjoy­ment of the others.)

It’s all a very sub­ject­ive busi­ness this pret­ti­ness thing, isn’t it? And I’ll bet you will have your own nom­in­a­tions, pos­sibly writ­ten in felt-tip pen or carved in your school desk. But on the basis of the TOTPs per­form­ances cap­tured in ‘Punk Britannia at the BBC’ I’m strongly inclined to give the Prettiest Punk prize (a fiver and a cheese bur­ger at Wimpys) to Bernie Masters of Eddie and the Hot Rods. ‘Do What You Wanna Do’ is a great and time­less song. It’s also ‘pretty’ instructive.

As he jumps around, bar­ing his defined torso, thrust­ing his groin and wig­gling his butt, Masters is chan­nel­ling Mick Jagger of course, per­haps with a little Iggy Pop thrown in – but, as that great con­tem­por­ary Svengali Louis Walsh (that’s punk sar­casm by the way) likes to say over and over again on ‘X Factor’: he makes it his own.

And it’s the most fetch­ing, most sexual, most Dilly-esque per­form­ance in this line-up.

Teeth and everything.

Long Hot Punter: Paul Weller’s Topless Video Revisited

Scourge of The Eton Rifles Paul Weller was send­ing out quite a state­ment to his die hard Jam fans in this video for his 1983 Style Council single ‘Long Hot Summer’, shot on the River Cam in Cambridge. Acting the big posh poof­tah in a punt.

Like almost every­one in the UK in the early 80s the young Modfather had fallen madly in love with the beautifully-shot 1981 ITV adapt­a­tion of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited – much like today’s Downton Abbey, but with believ­able, inter­est­ing aris­tos, a script, and an actual point.

Oh, and a seduct­ive homo­erotic storyline in which two young hetero men fall for one another sur­roun­ded by the Baroque splend­our of Castle Howard, Yorkshire. Charles Ryder’s long hot sum­mer with the dec­ad­ent Sebastian Flyte opened up a whole new realm of sen­sa­tion for a gen­er­a­tion emer­ging from the con­crete rubble of 1970s Britain. Even for the son of a taxi driver and a cleaner from Woking like Weller.

I some­times won­der, con­sid­er­ing the bathetic com­par­ison between Brideshead and Downton, and the gen­eral, glor­i­ous queer­ness of early 80s pop cul­ture, whether the notion of ‘pro­gress’ is just a illu­sion we cling to make the dimin­ish­ing returns of life more bear­able. (And by ‘we’ I mean ‘I’ of course.) Though much less tech­nic­ally soph­ist­ic­ated, Weller’s Brideshead trib­ute video ‘Long Hot Summer’ video knocks LMFAO’s ‘Sexy and I Know It’ into a banana hammock.

Rather won­der­fully, wank­ing seems to be the focus of this promo, along  with the attend­ant nar­ciss­ism and homo­eroti­cism of Paul’s dis­play of top­less, oiled-up self-pleasuring for the cam­era – lying on his back for most of the video whilst his fully-clothed chum labours behind him. Thirty years on, and after all the slutty, spor­no­graphic advert­ising cam­paigns of the last dec­ade, Paul’s petu­lant passiv­ity in this video is still jaw-dropping.

Understandably, Style Council gui­tar­ist Mick Talbot is driven to play­ing with his pole and gnaw­ing passing wil­low trees in frus­tra­tion. Fortunately for him relief is at hand — a little later pretty Paul allows him­self to be spit-roasted in his punt by the drum­mer and the guitarist.

Whether lolling on his back, fin­gers trav­el­ling down his flat abdo­men, or dan­cing bare­foot, Weller’s whip­pet thin body reminds us of what British young men looked like before Ronald McDonald and Mens Health redesigned them.

Or maybe I’m just fall­ing prey to the intox­ic­at­ing nos­tal­gia for a bet­ter, more golden time that per­meated Brideshead.

What Happens When a Giant Brain Meets Kylie?

Genius, pop Svengali, the­or­eti­cian of cool: Mark Simpson gets to grips with the man who really listens to ‘La la la, la la la-la la…

(Originally appeared in Independent on Sunday 03/08/2003)

What do you hear when you listen to ‘Can’t get you out of my head’? This is a bit of a trick ques­tion as you prob­ably don’t listen to ‘Can’t get you out of my head’. Not because, like most hit pop singles that are played end­lessly on the radio, in shops, pubs, hos­pit­als and clubs for a while, it is now some­thing that you would never actu­ally play your­self, except maybe at a drunken New Year’s party. But because it was never meant to be listened to in the first place.

It was pop music assembled with fiendish cun­ning and cal­cu­la­tion out of over-familiar cliches (rather like Kylie’s voice, and rather like Kylie her­self) to be a hit. By being some­thing you hear but don’t listen to, don’t need to listen to. Background music to dance, drink, shop and die to. If you find your­self actu­ally listen­ing to a pop single, then it has failed. Pop music today is some­thing people hear while doing some­thing or going some­where more interesting.

Unless your name is Paul Morley. Mr Morley has actu­ally listened to “Can’t get you out of my head”. And as the begin­ning of his new book ’Words and Music: A his­tory of pop in the shape of a city’ (Bloomsbury) makes clear, he was not dan­cing, drink­ing, shop­ping or dying to it, but sit­ting in his room. Alone. Mr Morley, to be sure, is some­thing of a genius; he is also a very strange man. He appears to have actu­ally listened — not heard, listened — to almost all the music you might file under “Popular”. This is no mean achieve­ment; argu­ably it’s a very per­verse one. What’s more, Mr Morley has done it with a very large brain indeed.

Here’s just one of the many, many fecund para­graphs in Words and Music about what he hears when he listens to ‘Can’t get you out of my head’:

The song is a fluid thing of deep, deep­en­ing mys­tery, per­haps because what could be so corny, a pop song about love and desire, which doesn’t mean any­thing bey­ond its own lim­ited world, has become some­thing so pro­found. A pop song about love and desire that suc­ceeds in com­mu­nic­at­ing mil­lions of unique things about the unlim­ited worlds of love and lust. It’s about how every­day life and love are a shift­ing set of com­prom­ises between the ordin­ary and the extraordinary…”

I’ve always admired Paul Morley, and for that reason I have never actu­ally, prop­erly listened to Paul Morley before. I have often heard him and been very glad to hear him while I did some­thing else more inter­est­ing, but I’ve never really paid close atten­tion before. Words and Music is the first time I’ve sat alone in my room with him and really listened. Unlike Morley’s jour­ney with Kylie, I’m not so sure that this has only enhanced my affection.

It isn’t the way that he writes — which is all too fre­quently stun­ning. Or the inex­haust­ible con­nectiv­ity of his mind, which has more ideas per sen­tence, per phrase, per comma, than most writers have in their entire lives. It’s just that, like the mean­der­ing nar­rat­ive and delib­er­ately über-pretentious con­ceit of this book, I’ve lost track of what the point of Morley is. Perhaps though, this is my fault. You see, I have also lost track of what the point of pop music is.

Once upon a nos­tal­gic time, pop music was inves­ted with far too much mean­ing. This was the late 1970s and early 1980s, Morley’s hey­day as a rock critic, when he coined the phrase New Pop to describe a kind of pop that was smart and super­fi­cial, pro­found and com­mer­cial all at once. In other words, pop music at that time was made in the image of Paul Morley. Little won­der then that he actu­ally entered the Matrix, via pro­jects he was involved in to vary­ing degrees such as Art of Noise and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and trans­figured him­self into a pop star/Svengali/theoretician of cool.

However, since then pop music, which once seemed so import­ant, so pre­cious and so other-worldly at the same time as deli­ciously vul­gar, has swal­lowed everything and become the world, and has inev­it­ably become, like us, rather less inter­est­ing than we thought. Like Kylie, it is bland, shiny, ser­vice­able, very pro­fes­sional and for the most part entirely undeserving of ser­i­ous thought.

Morley knows about this prob­lem. It is after all his prob­lem. Hence the poser on the back of his book: “Has Pop Burnt Itself Out?” Hence the book is (very) loosely based around the (delib­er­ately über-pretentious) con­ceit of Morley driv­ing in a Smart car with Kylie towards “a vir­tual city built of sound and ideas” while try­ing to con­vince her to allow him to write a book about her. It’s all very ironic, but it is also, I’m sorry to say, ulti­mately a bit pathetic too.

Morley of course knows this as well. His very large brain under­stands everything, but it most par­tic­u­larly under­stands that writ­ing about music is as stu­pid as “dan­cing to archi­tec­ture”. In fact, it’s rather easier to ima­gine Morley dan­cing to archi­tec­ture than actual music, which would be really ridicu­lous. Actually, the trouble with this book is not that it’s like watch­ing someone dance to archi­tec­ture, but that some­times it’s like watch­ing your dad dance to architecture.

Music is a form of archi­tec­ture. Especially the kind of pop­u­lar music that Morley is most inter­ested in: the cool, struc­tured, math­em­at­ical elec­tronic music which began with Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, and which influ­enced his favour­ite bands New Order and Human League. And also ‘Can’t get you out of my head’, which steals from all of these.

As Morley puts it in his groovy archi­tect boogie:

It is an eleg­ant demon­stra­tion of the way that all great music is about a rela­tion­ship between sound and silence, between hold­ing and let­ting go, between motion and pause.”

The archi­tec­ture of Morley’s own book is, how­ever, a mess. Even the blurb has no struc­ture: “part novel, part cri­tique, part his­tory, part con­fes­sional, part philo­soph­ical enquiry, part ulti­mate book of musical lists”. If it were a build­ing, Words and Music would be con­demned. As a piece of pop it would not be reques­ted on the main dance­floor, but it might pos­sibly make the chill-out room.

Of course, this is delib­er­ate too. Words and Music is ambi­ent, often dazzling prose that never really arrives any­where, least of all a “vir­tual city built of sounds and ideas”. Morley is Eno via a word­pro­cessor rather than a syn­thes­iser. As Morley writes on his hero: “Eno, to edit a long story short, coined the word ‘ambi­ent’ to describe a kind of intel­lec­tual easy– listen­ing music. An easy-listening music that has cer­tain levels of dif­fi­culty in its make-up. A back­ground music that you could take — as a weighty pro­voca­tion — or leave — as a sound drift­ing around its own pretty pointlessness.”

Likewise, to edit a long, long story short, Morley’s prose drifts around its own pretty pointlessness.






Sexy and I Show It: Parading Cadets (& Olympic Divers)

Last year metrodaddy declared the LMFAO dance hit ‘Sexy and I Know It’ an anthem  for the Jersey Shore/Geordie Shore/The Only Way is Essex/The Hunks/Men’s Health Magazine gen­er­a­tion of met­ro­sexy young men and the meta­phor­ical (and not so meta­phor­ical) spangly Speedos they’re flaunt­ing them­selves in.

But I have to say I was a tad ambi­val­ent about the heav­ily ironic hip­ster promo video.

Fortunately, it’s been remade by non-hipsters. In shape non-hipsters. Cadets from the USAF Academy, no less. Now, in case any­one objects that this is con­duct unbe­com­ing future officers (and appar­ently some kill­joys have) per­haps we should remem­ber that one of the lesser known mean­ings of ‘cadet’ is ‘pimp’. Though here of course they’re pimp­ing their own bod­ies. Like the rest of today’s young men.

Not to be out­done, US Navy cadets have also taken up the chal­lenge (see below). Which do you think is sex­ier? And which one knows it most? Air Force or Navy? Or neither? So far I haven’t been able to loc­ate an Army or USMC ver­sion — but some­thing tells me it won’t be long.

Tip: Roger Clarke and  Towelroad



UK Olympic diver Tom Daley and his chums have recor­ded their own Speedo-tastic ver­sion (I espe­cially like Tom’s Carmen Miranda moment):

The Breathtaking Beauty of Rod Stewart’s ‘The Killing of Georgie Parts I & II

I recently chanced upon this clip of Rod Stewart singing (or lip-synching) ‘The Killing of Georgie Parts I & II’ on a late-night BBC4 re-run of a Top of the Pops from 1976. I was com­pletely trans­fixed. Not by nos­tal­gia though, for a change. Bizarrely, scan­dal­ously I don’t recall see­ing or even hear­ing this well-known clas­sic before.

I have a bit of a blind spot about Rod Stewart. As a kid I hated bal­lads. They were bor-ing. Like the kissy-wissy bits in films. And by the time I got into pop music in a big way Stewart was the Bawling Balladeer. I did go to see the Stewart musical Tonight’s the Night with a friend when it opened in 2003. Alas, it was writ­ten by Ben Elton and so I had to leave at the first interval.

But I found myself utterly mes­mer­ised by Rod’s per­form­ance here. It’s undoubtedly one of the best to-camera per­form­ances I’ve ever seen by any artist. Literally breath­tak­ing. And although the song per­haps owes a debt to ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, pro­duced by David Bowie four years earlier in 1972 (the gay/outsider jour­ney to New York on a Greyhound bus, the doop-doop back­ing…), I think David would give his non-dilated eye to have done this.

The song tells the story – remem­ber when songs did that? – of a gay friend of Stewart’s who, rejec­ted by his fam­ily after explain­ing that ‘he needed love like all the rest’, moved to New York where he ‘soon became the toast of the Great White Way’ – but was cut down in his prime dur­ing a ran­dom mugging.

It’s not so much the subject-matter (a true story, appar­ently) that got me. It’s the aston­ish­ing per­form­ance itself, which in its fear­less extra­vag­ance and beauty seems the per­fect trib­ute to his fallen friend. It’s as if Stewart, the work­ing class foot­balling lad and lady-killer, is show­ing you with his drag queen ges­tures and shin­ing andro­gyny what Georgie the show queen gave him, what he lib­er­ated in him.

It’s there in the lyr­ics, of course:

He said “Never wait or hes­it­ate
Get in kid, before it’s too late
You may never get another chance
’Cos youth a mask but it don’t last
live it long and live it fast”

But it’s much more ‘there’ in Rod’s ‘gay aban­don’ in front of the cam­era and Marlene Dietrich eyes.

I’ve watched the clip sev­eral times now and the final line to ‘Part I’ – ‘Georgie was a friend of mine’ – delivered with arms stretched out open-palmed towards the audi­ence, towards the world, and that unswerving, heavy-lidded gaze gets me every time.

The ‘Part II’ coda is a frank, almost embar­rass­ing expres­sion of love and loss, mourn­ing and mel­an­cho­lia. Rod weeps for his lost friend:

Oh Georgie stay, don’t go away
Georgie please stay you take our breath away

But by tak­ing our breath away too, at the height of his youth, his beauty and his tal­ent, Rod ensures Georgie – and the glam­or­ous gay­ness of the pre Aids 1970s – also lives forever and never goes away.

No mat­ter what Rod him­self was to turn into, as the mask of youth slipped.

The MetroseXY Movement

Hip hop has its own Andrej Pejic. The rap­per DPhill Spanglish Man is rebelling against the rap-ismo dress code with some­thing he dubs the ‘XY Movement’ which accord­ing to this report, ‘encour­ages men to get in touch with their fem­in­ine sides by don­ning lip­stick and other items, like floral print tights, typ­ic­ally worn by women.’

A lot of people feel like a lot of col­ors or tight clothes is homo­sexual. I feel like it’s more of an expres­sion of me,” said Philips, adding, “The only obstacles are in your mind, that’s the way I feel. I had to break down those bar­ri­ers in my mind to where I was just con­fid­ent enough to do it.”

And Philips’s girl­friend, Joy Nguyn, is just as con­fid­ent, even though she hears neg­at­ive com­ments all the time.

I get mostly neg­at­ive com­ments, ‘Oh, he gay… That’s not cute. Guys shouldn’t wear lip­stick or tights,’ but I really don’t care,” she said, adding, “It’s fine. I wear lip­stick. He wears lip­stick. We share lipstick.”

Or as Pejic put it:

It’s not like, ‘Okay, today I want to look like a man, or today I want to look like a woman,’ ” he says. “I want to look like me. It just so hap­pens that some of the things I like are feminine.”

Tip: Paul

Eric de Saade’s Swedish Leather Act

Alas, our boys in Blue didn’t quite con­vince enough view­ers last night in Düsseldorf that they are beau­ti­ful enough to wear the Eurovision Crown, and des­pite their lib­er­ated lyr­ics they looked very, er inhib­ited — frozen with fear, actually.

But they did man­age a much bet­ter show­ing than the UK has done in years. Even man­aging to occupy the top vot­ing spot for a brief tan­tal­ising moment (prompt­ing a messy snog from Lee Ryan on an alarmed cam­era lens that couldn’t back away in time — I of course fain­ted on the spot).

Eurovision 2011 ended up being a con­test between warb­ling Azeri chintzy bridal romance and leathered up Swedish fist­ing. I was sur­prised that Sweden got as many votes as it did since even I was a bit scared by the up-your-arseness of their act.

It was reas­sur­ing, in a way, that chintzy bridal romance won the offi­cial com­pet­i­tion in the end. After all it was silly old Eurovision. But Sweden’s ‘Popular’, a song about the irre­press­ib­il­ity of a young leather boy’s desire to be desired, was the one that people will actu­ally remember:

Spread the news
I’m gonna take the fight
For the spot­light, day and night

Eric Saade nearly rep­res­en­ted Sweden at Eurovision last year with ‘Manboy’, a song pos­sibly even more met­ro­sexy than ‘Popular’.

I Can. I Will. Be Bluetiful.

James Dean, the lost bisexual love-object of the 1950s, fam­ously denied being homo­sexual, but explained that he ‘didn’t want to go through life with one hand tied behind his back.’

Probably it’s just because I have a weak spot for Lee Ryan, the cheeky blue-eyed Essex boy who sings in a dreamy fal­setto — and I know this makes me deeply unhip — but I rather like Blue’s ‘I Can’, the UK’s entry for next week’s Eurovision Song Contest. I hear in it a kind of met­ro­sexual anthem, about men express­ing things and hav­ing exper­i­ences that they really weren’t sup­posed to until recently.

Untying that hand — and wav­ing it around a lot in time to the music.


I can

I will

I know

I can untie these hands

Boybands played an import­ant role in the spread of met­ro­sexu­al­ity, with Take That most fam­ously evan­gel­ising the male desire to be desired in the 1990s, turn­ing a gen­er­a­tion on to the charms of pierced nipples, leather har­nesses and eager male sex-objectification. It seems none of Take That were, des­pite the many rumours, gay. But Take That as a band were very gay indeed. Their gay man­ager took the gay male love of the male body and sold it to mil­lions of teen girls – and boys. All that baby oil helped loosen up ideas about masculinity.

London croon­ers Blue were in many ways the slightly more bor­ing Noughties suc­cessor to the tarty Manc lads. Duncan James fam­ously came out as bisexual a couple of years back, mak­ing him one of a very small club of out celeb bisexual males (so small I can’t think of any oth­ers off the top of my head).

But it’s not as if the oth­ers, espe­cially Lee, are act­ing par­tic­u­larly hetero in this video for ‘I Can’. At the begin­ning Lee appears to be shag­ging Duncan from behind, though never los­ing eye-contact with the cam­era of course. And in fact a year ago he admitted/boasted to hav­ing had MMF three­somes with Duncan, whom he ‘loves to bits’.

When I first began writ­ing about the sub­ject in 1994 I talked about met­ro­sexu­al­ity being the male com­pli­ment of female bi-curiousness (then called ‘les­bian chic), but quickly shut up about it when I real­ised no one wanted to hear that. And while met­ro­sexu­al­ity did in some ways cul­tur­ally stand in for male bi-curiousness — it’s his jeans not his ass I fancy — by encour­aging an aware­ness of male beauty and attract­ive­ness amongst men in gen­eral it ended up mak­ing the expres­sion of male bisexuality/bi-curiousness much easier. ‘I can’.

Blue recently did a homo­erotic, Du Stade type nude shoot for Attitude magazine (with Lee look­ing by far the most saucy), and have prom­ised another one if they win Eurovision. Those hands have been untied already.

So much so that when the foxy ladies join them at the end of the video, and the heav­ens open, sug­gest­ing per­haps some kind of pan-sexual gang-bang, they don’t really con­vince as objects of the camera’s gaze – next to the full-wattage met­ro­sex­i­ness of Blue.



I’m obvi­ously a bit slow this week. It’s only finally dawned on me what’s going on with the lady dan­cers in the video.

They’re Blue’s ‘fem­in­ine side’. All tied up in bond­age at the start of the video they end up ‘untied’ and freely mingling/merging moistly with the boys.