The Singles Collection 1984-1990 (London 1990)
UK Chart Position – 4
This 17 track album was released six years into the hit making career of Jimmy Somerville by which time he had scored hits as lead singer in two groups, Bronski Beat and The Communards and had success as a solo singer. It brought Jimmy’s single releases up to date from 1984’s “Smalltown Boy” to his version of “To Love Somebody” which climbed the charts alongside this album. Sales of this release were strong across Europe and it also stalled at the number 4 position in Germany, France (where it was awarded a Platinum Disc) and Switzerland and hovered just outside the Top 5 in the Netherlands.
Jimmy is a unique performer. Blessed with an angelic falsetto and a no-nonsene attitude which sometimes set him apart in the music industry. He’s been quick to move onto new ventures in the past which could have been of some detriment to his career. He’s an under-rated artist, who got a lot of stick from the media, not ready to embrace an out-gay man with a scorching falsetto voice. Now thirty-three years on from that first hit Britain’s biggest selling artist world- wide is an out gay man with a falsetto voice. It’s been a long journey from Somerville to Sam Smith and this album shows how good this inspirational performer, Jimmy Somerville is.
From Somerville to Smith – a natural progression?
The debut hit kicks off this CD and although back in 1984 it sounded on the surface very much like typical electro-disco a listen to the lyrics told a very different story. “Smalltown Boy”, written by the band, told the largely autobiographical tale of Jimmy’s escape from Scotland to London because he wasn’t able to live the life he wanted, the “run away/turn away” hook of the chorus got under the skin but it was the verses that packed the most punch. “Mother will never understand/why you had to leave/for the love that you need”. The whole thing is tinged with sadness and loneliness as although the only option has been to escape you are left with the feeling that issues raised have not been resolved.
The video which showed a “queerbashing” (as it would have been termed then) at a swimming pool further hit the message home. This was all quite revolutionary back in 1984, we had never heard such sentiments in a hit song (the closest being perhaps Rod Stewart’s “The Killing Of Georgie” which was from a third person point of view and Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side”, with its short stories of those who needed to escape). Here was a first-person account from an openly gay group at the time when homosexuality remained very much in the closet in the music business. Just a few months before we had Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s brashly sexual “Relax”, a song which most listeners would have not had much of an idea as to what was being implied (before the BBC ban which gave it endless publicity), which had been pretty much an evolution of the sexual freedom which the Village People had suggested but were never really able to deliver upon. Both these acts might have veered towards being cartoonish to the average listener yet Bronksi Beat’s first offering felt very real and more than a little chilling.
Paul Flynn’s recent impressive survey of gay Britain “Good As You” took as its starting point an episode of “Top Of The Pops” where Frankie and Bronksi both appeared which changed the direction of the twelve year old viewers life as he was sat in front of the television in his living room in Wythenshawe. “Smalltown Boy” is perhaps one of the most significant songs of the 80’s. It certainly caught the public attention reaching number 3 in the UK, it topped the charts in Netherlands, and Belgium, was a Top 10 hit in amongst other territories Australia, Canada, Germany, France, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Switzerland and even made the US Top 50.
Any doubts that Bronski Beat were a novelty act were dispelled by the big selling album “The Age Of Consent” and three further hits with Somerville as lead singer, all of which are included on this album. “Why?” got to number 6 in the UK which also aired the injustice of inequality in gay relationships and the impossibility of being able to show affection in public. This was a stridently political song at a time when AIDS was causing widespread panic and vilification of gay men. The song builds to an almost hysterical vocal which chills the blood.
Bronski Beat – Larry Steinbachek, Jimmy, Steve Bronski
“It Ain’t Necessarily So” was a much calmer track, a cover of a fifty year old Gershwin song from “Porgy and Bess”. Cover versions would feature quite frequently in Somerville’s career in all its incarnations and this early example shows him off as a real song stylist. The song itself is a lesson in not believing everything that we are taught. It reached number 16 in the charts and the video featured young Londoners who I was familiar with at the time, a couple who I knew quite well. I completely lost touch and I have always wondered if they escaped the decimation of London’s gay youth during the early days of the AIDS crisis. Because of this I’ve always found this song overly melancholy.
Jimmy with Marc Almond
The fourth hit saw Bronski Beat paired up with Soft Cell’ s Marc Almond for the odd idea of putting two Donna Summer songs “Love To Love You Baby” and “I Feel Love”, two of the greatest disco numbers of all time with the old John Leyton hit “Johnny Remember Me”. I’m sure they know what’s going on here, but I was never sure. This dynamic pairing became a Top 3 UK hit in 1985 and came from Bronski Beat’s second album “Hundreds And Thousands”. This might sound like a criticism, but the vast majority of Somerville’s hit covers do not live up to the originals but really that’s because he chose to cover such iconic songs which are peerless in their own right. In a number of cases these covers did better than the original versions.
Richard and Jimmy – The Communards
In 1985 Jimmy Somerville quit Bronski Beat over what was no doubt musical differences and teamed up with classically trained Richard Coles to form The Communards. His original group had another very good Top 3 hit without him with “Hit That Perfect Beat” and should have made the Top 3 at least when they paired up with Eartha Kitt for “Cha Cha Heels”, perhaps one of the gayest Top 40 hits of all time (#32 in 1989) which would only have made any sense to those who had seen John Waters’ cult movie “Female Trouble” which starred Divine.
It was the pairing with Coles which saw Somerville reach his creative peak, even though they are best known for cover versions. “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was the third Communards hit and is the second track on this CD after “Smalltown Boy”. The song had been part of a chart battle in the UK nine years earlier when the original Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes track did battle with a blistering disco version by Thelma Houston, which had topped the US charts. Both versions are great and the song is an absolute classic which had seen Thelma’s version adopted as an unofficial theme song for the AIDS epidemic in the US. The Communards version takes the best of both versions and teams Jimmy up vocally with Sarah Jane Morris, whose rich jazzy voice proved an effective blend with the male falsetto. They looked an unlikely pairing on TV performances but the British public took this new version to heart and it reached number 1 for four weeks in September 1986, becoming one of the biggest hits of the year. It also topped the charts in the Netherlands and became Jimmy’s first and only US Top 40 hit, scraping in at number 40.
The following year the Communards were raiding the golden oldie box again with another song which had already had at least two superb versions. Originally written for the Supremes by Motown writer Clifton Davis it was handed over to the big money-makers the Jackson Five and took them to number 2 in the US Billboard charts. The UK had a more muted response to this track but within three years it became one of the early classics of the disco era with the glorious version by Gloria Gaynor who reached number 2 in the UK and 9 in her homeland. The Communards version is very much in the spirit of Gloria’s with its hi-hat drum beats and reached number 4 in 1987.
The Communards were far more than a covers band, however. When their debut album was released I bought it on vinyl and felt it was one of the greatest UK albums of all time (although it was recorded in the legendary Sigma Studios in Philadelphia). The timing pretty much matched with my own personal coming out and this seemed like a soundtrack to my new life and provided hope, reassurance as well as an understanding that things would be challenging. The sublimely joyous love song “You Are My World” (showing off Coles’ classical credentials) became a hit twice (#30 in 1985 and #21 as a remix in 1987). “Disenchanted” got one place higher than the Communards debut and the excellent “So Cold The Night” combines a feel of real eastern promise with one of the only hit songs about voyeurism. The album also contained a couple of non-single gems in “Reprise” and the Billie Holliday standard “Loverman” sung as a duet with Sarah-Jane Morris.
The second Communards studio album “Red” was almost as good. The biggest hit was “Never Can Say Goodbye” but hit singles were scored with “Tomorrow” (UK#23) and the elegiac beautiful “For A Friend” (UK#28), with its lovely piano work, a personal response to the AIDS crisis written in tribute to Richard and Jimmy’s friend Mark who had another marvellous tribute in 2014 when he became the central character of the movie “Pride”.
The Communards final top 20 hit “There’s More To Love” was released at the time when Margaret Thatcher’s Clause 28 of the Local Government Act had been enshrined by law. This clause made it illegal to for local authorities to “promote homosexuality” a ridiculous piece of legislation that had the effect of bringing together gay and lesbians as a community and a force to be reckoned with for the first time. “Lovers And Friends” and “C Minor” were two great tracks from “Red” which do not appear on this CD as they were not released as singles.
The Communards split up in 1988 with Richard going on to become the Reverend Richard Coles, a well known face on British television as a presenter of programmes both religious and non-religious. He most recently made a short-lived attempt to lift the glitterball prize on “Strictly Come Dancing”.
Jimmy the solo artist actually kicked things off in 1989 with a duet with June Miles-Kingston. Not sure what the thinking was behind “Comment Te Dire Adieu” but it is was one of the few French language hits by British artists. The song had previously been recorded by Francoise Hardy and had started off life as a song in English which had been released by Vera Lynn! Somerville’s version got to number 14 in the UK charts and, unsurprisingly became a Top 3 hit in France.
Sylvester – originally (Mighty Real)
It was back to the cover versions again to pay tribute once again to an out-gay man with an incredible falsetto voice from earlier years. Sylvester had lost his own battle against AIDS in 1988 and in early 1990 Jimmy was back in the UK Top 5 with his biggest solo hit to date. “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” is another cover which didn’t eclipse the original but it was great to have this tribute to another great under-rated star. “Read My Lips (Enough Is Enough)” (UK#26) is a great Disco-orientated track with a message about funding for AIDS treatments. His version of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” reached number 8 in the UK and saw him back in the Top 5 in Austria, New Zealand and the Netherlands and was released alongside this album. The other new track “Run From Love” was less successful as a single.
These seventeen tracks are joyous, thought-provoking and moving, pretty much in equal measures. Jimmy has continued to periodically put out solid albums over the years. His last “Homage” released in 2015 was a gem of a disco recording and should have seen him back in the upper reaches of the charts. His peak, commercially and creatively may have been with his association with Richard Coles in the Communards but this album proves there is a lot more to enjoy.
The Single Collection 1984-90 is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £19.99 and used from £1.00. In the US it is available from $0.82. Other Jimmy Somerville/Communards/Bronski Beat compilations are available to buy and stram on Spotify in the UK.