The perils of being a pop star

In this guest post Gareth Davies explores what the gay anthem “Glad to be Gay” meant to him growing up, and trying to work out which labels did, or did not apply to him.

All too often a lifetime’s work, a collection of varied styles and moods, can be boiled down to one or two tracks that stick in the popular imagination. How does that feel if you set out to be a great musician, and you’re defined by one or two songs?

Over the last couple of years I’ve seen a number of bands playing the festival circuit, revisiting their greatest hits. Some give the impression they’re having a great time, accepting the stage their careers are at. Doctor and the Medics have gone from being eccentric one hit wonders to being a lovable party band who thrive on covering familiar songs in a pub rock style.

Others look as if their past hits are an embarrassment; watching Toploader do Dancing In The Moonlight as an afterthought amongst forgettable tunes off their new album was an uncomfortable and inauthentic experience for the audience as well as for the band.

It’s hard not to empathise with bands though. The process of releasing a hit single is tough enough, and no-one’s a perfect judge of what will sell and what won’t, as any band who’ve seen a DJ flip their single and make a hit out of the b side can tell you. For an artist to become famous for a song that isn’t representative of their other output can’t be easy.

I was thinking about this in my kitchen the other morning, as a radio DJ tried to explain to his sidekick who Tom Robinson was.The DJ tried to sing the chorus of 2468 Motorway. I would have sung Glad To Be Gay, but only because that was one of at least three or four Tom Robinson songs I would expect anyone else to recognise.

Glad to be Gay was a landmark song for many reasons, in 2016 it is sometimes hard to remember that, in 1977, queer was a pejorative word, poof was commonplace and gay was hardly known as a way of describing being. Glad To Be Gay was revolutionary, but in a subtle, singalong kind of way that could have even the straightest of audiences with their hands in the air, swaying to the chorus. From the first time I heard 2468 Motorway I was a Tom Robinson fan. It didn’t take long to realise that the Tom Robinson story was slightly more complicated than just upbeat rock and roll like 2468, or the singalong joy and anger of Glad To Be Gay, with a soupcon of post punk guitar thrashing along the way. That wasn’t the story you would read in the papers though.

No matter what else he did, Tom Robinson was famous for being out, and for being glad to be gay. Never mind that the song itself was laconic, sarcastic, bitter and happy by turns. ‘It’s a bit more complicated than that’ was a way lots of us described more than just a protest song amongst many protest songs in the Robinson repertoire.

Glad to be Gay was a landmark song for many reasons. From 201, pre-Trump, it is sometimes hard to remember that, in 1977, queer was a pejorative word, poof was commonplace and gay was hardly known as a way of describing being

Tom’s early material was multi faceted; observational slice of life songs like Martin or 1967 were more like The Kinks than the Sex Pistols, and even when Tom Robinson Band were playing fast, rockier songs they sounded more like an old school rock band than a punk outfit. Too Good To Be True summed up one phase of my life perfectly, and the guitar solo remains a little slice of perfection. I didn’t fall in love with Tom’s songs because I was struggling with my own sexuality, but because they sounded like he was struggling with being a man, and so was I.

I’d listened to lots of blues, lots of music of all genres, but when I heard tracks like Coldharbour Lane or 1967 (both from the under-rated Cabaret 79 album) I felt as if Tom was surfacing issues around my masculinity, my ways of being a man, and of being more than a label. Look beyond the gay label, and the pronouns, and Coldharbour Lane can be about any man who’s ever wondered if alcohol and clubs are the way to be loved, or lovable. Having grown up in a valleys town where youths like me fought out their frustrations in the violent streets outside pubs and nightclubs how to be a man was the most important question for me, not who I would have sex with next.

It was an odd time to be a pop star. There were plenty of acts far camper than Tom Robinson, far more explicitly referencing gay style or mannerisms. From the gay disco style of the Village People to the leather boy Tom of Finland look of Judas Priest’s Rob Halford all those much more visually gay acts had one thing in common;. They didn’t talk about it. Mainstream stars like Elton John (with whom Tom Robinson collaborated, on the acidic Sartorial Eloquence, and the bowdlerized Never Gonna Fall In Love Again) or Freddie Mercury subscribed to don’t ask, don’t tell as a way of getting by. Tom Robinson, who did nothing more than tell the truth, was the gay pop star and lightning conductor for the inquisitive public gaze.

I didn’t fall in love with Tom’s songs because I was struggling with my own sexuality, but because they sounded like he was struggling with being a man, and so was I.

I didn’t understand Tom Robinson’s point about gay liberation not being about labels (he sang, in a revised version of Glad To Be Gay, after his marriage ‘if gay liberation means freedom for all, a label is no liberation at all’) until I stopped and thought about the human problem. Paradoxically, the people who helped me most with that were Harvey Proctor and Matthew Parris, both conservative MPs and gay. If I had a pound for every one of my 80s friends who asked ‘How can you be gay and a Tory’ I’d have retired long ago. Gay Tories were object lessons in the extent to which sexuality and values, were separate and distinct. Once I’d accepted that, I was free to think about values irrespective of sexuality. Sexuality was just one label, and as revealing about the obsessions of those who sought to apply it to others as it was to the individuals it was applied to.

A quote from Erich Fromm comes to mind. “If I perceive in another person mainly the surface, I perceive mainly the differences, that which separates us. If I penetrate to the core, I perceive our identity, the fact of our brotherhood.” If you turn that quote around, you might see that if you only perceive the surface, you might identify similarities that are only skin deep. Even the act of being interested in someone else’s sexuality reveals that sexuality matters a lot to the inquirer.

Good music, in my opinion, helps the musician expose their core, the values that make them what they are. From Tom Robinson I learned that it was possible to talk about vulnerability and to be honest about weakness, which was a positive, and, as a negative, that in that world, in those years, if you surfaced issues around your sexuality, that was all the tabloid world would see.

Every DJ who can only whistle 2468, or name-check ‘Glad To Be Gay’ (but not whistle the tune because they’ve never, ever sung along to it, just in case you were wondering darling….) is a reminder of the triumph of the surface over the multi-dimensional reality. The risk every recording artist takes is that all the world will remember is the tune that the old greys can whistle, not the person who lies behind it.

Follow Gareth on Medium (@GarethDavies)

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