In the early 1980s, against the backdrop of laborious social and political upheaval, Jimmy Somerville took the world of popular music by storm. The legendary singer stormed the charts and had a string of Top 10 and No.1 hits with the bands Bronski Beat and The Communards.
From his vehemently political working class roots to his sudden stardom and his visceral attachment to Soho, the iconic singer sat down with us in an exclusive interview and revealed a number of heartfelt, intimate details concerning his journey so far.
Madame Soho: Hi Jimmy, Can we begin by asking you where you’re from?
Jimmy Somerville: I was born in Glasgow in 1961, in a place called Ruchill. It was a sprawling tenement housing estate.
MS: What’s the first record you remember hearing?
JS: I’m a child of the 60’s, so my ears were part of a culture of radio and the explosion of British pop music. I can’t pinpoint a particular record, but it probably would have been The Beatles’ Twist and Shout or Rock around the Clock by Bill Hayley and the Comets. They would have been two records my mum was playing.
MS: Which musician has inspired you most?
JS: Again, it’s hard to say, but female vocalists gave me something special. It wasn’t any one woman in particular, but lots of different ones. And I think at that time in the 60s, especially with blues and jazz, women were able to express themselves emotionally far more than men were; I think I tapped into that.
MS: How did it feel coming from a working class background to being rocketed to stardom?
JS: From being on the dole, squatting and being part of a subculture within a subculture, then suddenly becoming famous was different for me. Not because I’m special, but because I used it as a political platform. I never grew up thinking I want to be in a band and be famous. Everything was by accident. I had awareness and I was in a space that I could use for my own political ends. But very quickly I realized I had also given away my anonymity. Because I came from a working class background, I had certain values around money. I couldn’t get my head around the fact that I was making so much of it; so I had to find ways to make it unjust. Our success happened really quickly and the amount of money I started earning didn’t sit too well with me. Also, because I didn’t really understand what was happening I didn’t really know how to go about being sensible. So it was an interesting period in that respect.
Coming from these working class, Trotskyist politics to suddenly being famous and being in a situation where I was around people that were very upper-class and educated – like the record companies for example, felt pretty strange. Some of them were very cynical and manipulative, and not very generous with whom they were. It was a very interesting period for me.
MS: So you felt like an outsider?
JS: Yes definitely, that’s the best way to describe it really. But it was very intriguing because I was getting lots of attention. Where I am now as a person and when I look back, I can see why I liked it. It was tapping into issues around self-esteem. I could do no wrong really because everyone loved me at that time. It fuck’s your head because you start to get this feeling that you’re invincible. It changes your perception of who you see in the mirror and what you think of yourself.
MS: Your hit, Smalltown Boy, with Bronski Beat was a phenomenal record. Can you tell us a bit about the story behind it? Was it inspired by the social politics of the time?
JS: Back in the 1980s, Ken Livingstone, before he became mayor, was head of the GLC. In 1983 the GLC decided to fund a gay and lesbian arts festival, which was the first time in the country anything like that had ever happened. It was called September in the Pink. Nobody had ever associated arts and culture with gay and lesbian people – they had always thought of us in terms of sex or in the context of clubs or somewhere behind dark windows.
We were part of an underground scene that had broken away in around 1982. We took over a pub in Islington and formed a club called Movement in the basement. It was on a Saturday night, and it was the first time Gay and Lesbian people could break away from a growing commercial scene. In Movement we would dance to things like Simple Minds, David Bowie, Brian Eno and Talking Heads and stuff that wasn’t Disco related. Because of that music, it started to bring people into that underground club with other political ideas which were to the left and became this cultural hotspot for ideas: social politics, music, and the politics of sexuality. So from this little club called Movement a whole fashion change started to happen within the gay and lesbian subculture.
When we first started going to this club we were squatting in Brixton and Larry from Bronski Beat, who was a telecoms engineer, loved synthesizers. But because of this festival, an advert went out in all the papers about making a documentary film by and for young gays and lesbians about what it means to be young, gay and lesbian. So we got involved in the making of this film, and during that process, Richard Coles (The Communards) and myself were good friends, especially in our politics.
Richard was classically trained and from a different social background and he helped me. I sang into a drum machine, and then one of the women in the film project knew Larry and Steve. They heard this and asked me if I’d be interested in singing with them. I thought it was exciting so I agreed. First we just messed around a bit, and then we formed Bronski Beat. We did some gigs around the festival and suddenly this buzz started. Soon after the record companies started to come and see us. We did five gigs and then had a record deal. Then Smalltown Boy was put out. It happened really quickly.
Smalltown Boy was coming from a political ideal I had, and it was a narrative of social realism. Also it was one of the first pop videos ever to be made that was telling a story in 3 minutes, like a socio-documentary, drama narrative in the essence of British filmmaking, about social pop. That was kind of groundbreaking; and the fact I had this voice that was counter-tenor with these synthesizers. The thing about Smalltown Boy is that it comes from the heart – and that’s why I think it resonates with people. People tap into the emotion of the song, and it was a real cry and that’s why I think it’s so powerful. The whole history of the song is that it comes from a passion for change in politics and society. It’s real heartfelt stuff.
MS: How would you describe Soho in the 1980s?
JS: My first experience of Soho is so concise and all in an afternoon. I got the train from Glasgow, the day before my 18th birthday, to Euston. Went from Euston to Piccadilly Circus and did a punter as a Rent Boy, then went into this club called Spats, which is just on the outskirts of Soho. Then suddenly, four boys came up to us, pinned us up against the wall and told us if they saw us down Piccadilly again on their patch they would rip our heads off. That was my first introduction to Soho.
But as time went on, I ventured further into Soho. In the 1980s there were so many more local independent shops and a community of people who lived there. During the day Soho was a place where people ate, drank and worked. Then at night you had all these one-night underground clubs. I remember one of the early ones I went to – The Pink Panther in Berwick Street; it was totally chaotic. Then there was Comptons which was a really old pub. Nowadays, Comptons has a big see-through window but years ago it was all blacked out. I found Soho really exiting back then. It was a great place for clubbing and drinking.
Historically, I have a strong attachment to Soho. There was a much more visible gay underground than Glasgow and I found that incredibly exciting. Soho was really important to me. It was dark, but it was 1982 and things were on the cusp of change. It was just as AIDS was hitting the UK and there was this change in people’s attitudes and politics – and the possibility of a gay politics was becoming more visible. But suddenly you had this illness come in from America that nobody knew anything about, and that changed the whole political arena really. But for me, in the 1980s Soho was a stomping ground. You’d come into Soho and just go wild. What was really interesting was that you had all this activity with local people and really well established businesses and cafes that had been there for decades – the area was seeped in history. But Soho – my stomping ground – became smaller and smaller because I was just getting barred from all the pubs. There was nowhere I could go in the end, but that was part of the journey.
MS: Could Soho be described as a way of life?
JS: Soho, for me, could be described as a history. In the 50s, 60s and 70s Soho was building its notoriety then in the 80s we added to its history. It’s funny because you have the city of London’s square mile, and then you have the square mile of Soho – and they are like chalk and cheese, the polar opposites of each other. Soho was the place that you went if you felt marginalized – and we definitely did. We went to Soho because there was a cluster of gay bars there. The feeling of coming into Soho was incredible. I lived round the corner in a squat near The British Museum but the anticipation and the build up of going into Soho was amazing. Even now, and even though they’ve changed loads of it, when I come into Soho I feel like I’m being moved by something – like history.
MS: Soho has historically been London’s epicenter for marginalised social groups. How important is Soho’s culture to you ?
JS: Soho for me was about sex, drugs, food, culture, community and history. It’s a mixture of those things and has been that way for as far back as the nineteenth century. For every generation, there’s been some really important culture born in Soho. Like in the 1950s you had Paul Raymond’s Raymond Revue Bar, then the porn industry. People would come here for titillation but then they would also come to Soho to feel part of. Soho has always had its tourists, but then it’s also had the people who would seep into the fabric of Soho. The people who never came to have a look, but rather came to Soho to just be. I was one of those people, I became a part of Soho and wasn’t on the margins – I dived in headfirst.
MS: Do you think the corporate takeover of London is ruining independent artistic integrity – especially in Soho?
JS: London has always been a financial center and is built on banking etc. But now the boundaries of where that happens has changed. It’s all about bricks and mortar. What they don’t understand is when they move into areas like Soho they think that by cleaning it up and repackaging it it’s still going to be Soho. But it wont be, it will just be a name. It will lose everything that it was; and that’s the sad thing about corporate takeovers of areas. The same thing happened in Soho in New York. What it seems to me is that they clean it up and sanitize it so people don’t feel scared to be there and for me that’s really sad. Corporate London is doing everything it needs to survive, and that corporate world is all based on bricks and mortar. It’s about buying the name of Soho, wholesale, and cleaning it up and thinking that it’s still Soho. They’ll repackage it, sell it and it will survive under a different guise. But it will appeal to people who want to feel safe and somehow think they’ve been to Soho. And the saddest thing is that they don’t even know the half of it – they’ve never been to Soho.
I’ve come to accept that in 20 years time it will be different. It will just be a name on a map. So it’s now a part of my history and core. It’s important that those memories and experiences of what Soho was are recorded because it’s been eroded. You just have to look at the area around Center Point where the Astoria was. In that one corner alone, something like four historical, well established gay bars and clubs have gone. A part of Soho’s culture and history has gone – it’s been wiped off the map. There also seems to be some kind of intolerance towards letting places just be and evolve without interference from other authorities. The whole idea of Westminster Council cleaning everything up is really sad. Like the excuse they used to close down Madame Jojo’s – there was a fight outside there but there’s probably more to it than that – it’s real estate and will probably be turned into loft apartments. The outsiders will buy them and rent them out to people – they won’t be living there. People will think it’s glamorous to live in a loft in Soho but won’t realize what they’re cutting by changing Soho. Every time they make these changes they’re cutting something away from Soho. It’s like chopping down a beautiful, wild garden.
There’s still lots of fashion and creativity in Soho, but corporatism is ruining the area. Because the rents are going up, independent shops are being squeezed out. And those are the places where the creative culture happens. And in the landlords putting up the rates and rents, those people can’t afford to have the places where the creative ideas, the individuality and the originality is born. The only people that can afford the rents are the corporations – the chains. And that really is the sad part.
MS: What inspired your recent album?
JS: I did an album in the summer called Homage, and it’s a tribute to the music that played such an important part of my youth. Before Bronski Beat, I came to London as a little soul boy – and that’s why these underground places like Soho are so important to me. Anyway, my taste was eclectic. I could listen to Donna Summer and David Bowie but I was a soul boy. I had a wedge, and the whole soul boy look. And then when I met new people down here, the hair came off. I shaved it and started messing around with 1950s clothes and getting into rockabilly and all that kind of stuff. That happened purely through London and purely through Soho because of all the eclectic bars and stuff. So the album is my homage to the music. The genres of disco, acoustic and live are still important to me. When I used to go to Club Bang at The Astoria it was all about disco, as was Spats, and Legends down in Wardour Street. The essence of it musically is that organic thing, because that’s what Disco and soul is for me – organic and live. So the album is a homage to my past. Also, it’s allowed me tap into my past and gauge where I am now – so it’s also about my journey.
MS: What does the track, Strong Enough from Homage signify?
JS: My whole journey from Glasgow to London came to a very abrupt brick wall about 3 years ago, when my issues with addiction took me to a very dark place. Once I got myself into a way to recover from that, I also got freedom to believe in what I can do. And that was the first time, musically, that I’d ever done that. Even in the past, certain songs with Bronski Beat and The Communards were real cries but I’d always be brought back down by my addiction. It would lead to self-destruction and self- sabotage. But on this album I’ve written 12 tracks and they’re all finished. I felt they were finished, I believed they were finished, and I let them go. But within that I was able to write about where I am, who I am, and the track Strong Enough is a kind of sum-up of my recovery. But also, like what I’ve always tried to do in my music, is make it accessible and allow people to say ‘I identify with it.’ And that’s what that song is about: what recovery can do, what it can give, and trying to put the theme of a rock bottom in Disco. Not knowing where to go or what to do then finally finding the way out. And to do that in four minutes, I’m really pleased , because I think it works well. It’s coming from the heart.
MS: What is your artistic and personal vision for the future?
JS: To actually believe that I have the freedom and ability to see something through. Also to have faith, be creative and know that it’s coming from the heart.
Photos by Ki Price Words and Interview by Ray Kinsella
What an exceptional interview from Jimmy and glad to say that I’ve identified with his music since Smalltown boy