Out of the Closet

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Pop music historian Jon Savage spoke to Noel Halifax about his new collection of gay pop music from the 1960s to the 1980s.

A few years ago I compiled a record called England's Dreaming to accompany a book I had written about punk. I enjoyed doing that so much that I approached the record company with an idea of releasing a compilation of weird old gay records.

I started hunting out these early gay records about 15 years ago when a friend gave me a recording by the Kay Whys. This was my introduction to a whole genre that I had not come across before. It was gay records made for the gay market in the period before homosexuality was legalised in Britain. The records came from the clubs that existed in London. They referred to and sold to the gay market, and they were not just witty Noel Coward-like songs but more raw and now almost totally forgotten.

The first real packager of pop music in the post-war era was Larry Hart, who was gay but never came out. There was also the music producer Joe Meek and also the Beatles' producer Brian Epstein. So the history of early pop and rock music has a gay connection. But the history of gay people and popular music goes back further to the traditions of theatre and music hall, both of which offered a degree of sexual freedom.

My compilation From The Closet to the Charts is only part of the story. A comprehensive history of gay people in pop music would have to answer more difficult questions of what types of music appeal to who and why. It would have to explain why gay people find meaning in records made for straight people. And there are loads of tracks that we couldn't include because we couldn't get the rights for them. So there's no David Bowie, and we couldn't get "Cocksucker Blues" by the Rolling Stones. But that is the nightmare of trying to put together this type of album.

As a history, the compilation is cut in half by the dramatic political and cultural changes of the late 1960s and 1970s. In 1967 homosexuality was legalised in Britain, and in 1969 there was the Stonewall riot against anti-gay police in New York. It was during this period that you started to get positive representations of gay people in the mainstream, and the whole pop world and society changed. You see that on this album. I have also discovered obscure records by openly gay artists from the country and western tradition of that time.

Lots of straight music people got really into gay culture because it provided them with an alternative to lad culture - it allowed them to be a little more free.

When I was young you had a choice between things like sport and pop. It always amazes me that some people think that sport is cool and groovy, when it is not - it is boring. The choice was, "Did you want to be like those running around with bad short hair and awful clothes?" or, "Did you want to be like the Kinks who made a raucous noise, looked beautiful and wore great clothes?" That pop culture could offer those choices is one of the things I like about it. That freer alternative world continued through the 1960s to the era of David Bowie and punk, and beyond.

But of course it can also do the opposite. During the last ten to 15 years there has been a right wing backlash against that freer space in popular culture - against the freedoms of the 1960s and 1970s. You can see that in some contemporary black music such as gansta rap, which is horrible about everything. But it wasn't always the case. In the 1970s the Miracles, a New York black pop act, could make records like "Ain't Nobody Straight in LA". It was an example of a mainstream black record that was openly pro-gay. It is hard to think of any current R&B black artist doing anything similar today.

There were also attempts to "de-gay" disco music. For example, in the film Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta meets some gay boys and hisses at them defiantly, as if to de-gay disco. But the reality was the opposite: disco originated from the coming together of Latinos, blacks and gays. Disco produced some brilliant music in 1974 and 1975. But then not only was it "de-gayed" it was also watered down by the major record companies so that in the mid-1980s everyone did a disco record.

The rise of a lad culture in the 1990s was a determined attempt to roll back the successes of the gay movement and feminism as part of the right wing counter-attack. One of my worries about contemporary gay pop is that it seems to be fitting a model of what gay pop music is. In pop today it's okay to be a bit of a queen, but why can't there be a gay geezer?

From the Closet to the Charts - Queer Noises 1961-1978 is out now on Trikont records.