The poignant 1984 gay anthem embraced by Gen-Z

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Getty Images Bronski Beat (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images

Forty years after it was released, Bronski Beat’s queer anthem Smalltown Boy has found a new generation of fans with its heartbreaking yet hopeful message.

When Pride Month arrives every June, gold-plated gay anthems come to the fore at marches, parties and even on coffee shop playlists. Some are joyful and defiant – Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, Diana Ross’s I’m Coming Out, Sylvester’s You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) – while others are more poignant and yearning. Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy, which is currently enjoying a major renaissance on TikTok 40 years after its initial release, definitely sits in the latter camp. “Smalltown Boy is a song that anyone who is queer can relate to,” says Neil Prince, a DJ who plays at LGBTQ+ venues in London and beyond. “It’s also a brilliantly produced piece of pop.”

Written by the British synth-pop group’s three founding members, singer Jimmy Somerville plus keyboardists Steve Bronski and Larry Steinbachek, Smalltown Boy tells a heartbreaking but in some ways hopeful story that has resonated with successive generations of LGBTQ+ people. Feeling lonely and persecuted in his small town, the song’s protagonist, a young gay man, heads to the city in pursuit of acceptance and revelry. “Mother will never understand why you had to leave/ But the answers you seek will never be found at home,” Somerville sings in his astonishing, piercing falsetto. When the chorus arrives, it feels like fraternal advice: “Run away, turn away, run away, turn away, run away.”

When it was released as Bronski Beat’s debut single in May 1984, Smalltown Boy became a huge hit in the UK, peaking at number three. It also cracked the top 10 in Australia, Canada, France, Italy and West Germany (as it was then known) while climbing to a very creditable number 48 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the subsequent four decades, the evocative quality of its ringing synth riff, driving bassline and emotionally charged vocal hasn’t dimmed, which makes it catnip for music supervisors working in film and TV. This year, Smalltown Boy has featured in Netflix’s hit stalking drama Baby Reindeer and the Kristen Stewart-led lesbian thriller Love Lies Bleeding. In the last five, it’s also been used in episodes of Euphoria, It’s a Sin, Élite, White Gold and Narcos: Mexico. 

But now, thanks to a TikTok trend predicated on its nostalgic appeal – which has acquired the rather self-explanatory title #80sdancechallenge – Smalltown Boy has returned to the UK charts at number 51. To mark its 40th anniversary, Bronski Beat’s label London Records have also readied a digital reissue for this later this month, pairing the original 1984 song with a brilliant, slow-building “rework” by DJ-producer ABSOLUTE.

Getty Images Bronski Beat's debut single was written by the group's three founding members, Jimmy Somerville, Steve Bronski and Larry Steinbachek (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images

Bronski Beat’s debut single was written by the group’s three founding members, Jimmy Somerville, Steve Bronski and Larry Steinbachek (Credit: Getty Images)

The London-based musician, real name Ant McGinley, admits it was “kind of terrifying” to put his own stamp on this timeless classic. “I wanted to keep the essence of the original because it’s so powerful and iconic, but just add energy and elements that would sort of propel it into the new generation,” he says. He also believes Smalltown Boy remains incredibly compelling because every individual component is “powerful” in its own right. “I could have just done the rework with just the synth part, just the vocal or just the bassline – they’re all so catchy,” he says. Neil Prince agrees, calling Smalltown Boy “the finest synth-pop” of its era.

‘Being part of something uplifting’

Though Smalltown Boy has been hailed as an all-time great gay anthem by publications including Billboard and Rolling Stone, its current popularity on TikTok doesn’t really lean into its queerness. Instead, Bronski Beat’s song has become the soundtrack for a dance trend in which Gen Z and millennials challenge their parents to show off their finest 1980s-style dance moves. It’s impossible to pinpoint why Smalltown Boy became the go-to song for this trend, which began taking off in early May, but ABSOLUTE suggests that Bronski Beat’s old-school analogue synth sounds give it an edge. “Lots of producers are still using analogue synths today because of their richness – I love using them in my music,” he says.

Smalltown Boy felt so real and wasn’t sugar-coated in any way – Ian Wade

Some might argue that this TikTok trend – often showing middle-aged parents in family kitchens or living rooms – inadvertently “straightwashes” an inherently gay pop song about escaping that very life. But it’s worth noting that Somerville has given it his blessing. In a post shared on 25 May, the 40th anniversary of Smalltown Boy’s initial release, the singer said the challenge has “made me smile and warmed my heart”. “Everything is going so crazy in the world – there’s so much that’s terrifying,” he continued. “But here on TikTok, there’s all these people finding the moment to have a bit of fun, and all these older people reliving some memory and being part of something uplifting.”

Getty Images Smalltown Boy's power hasn't dimmed in the 40 years since it was released (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images

Smalltown Boy’s power hasn’t dimmed in the 40 years since it was released (Credit: Getty Images)

In the same post, Somerville spoke eloquently about the song’s origins and ongoing relevance as a LGBTQ+ rights anthem. “[We were] three young gay men: out, proud, in your face, and we had a message,” he recalled. “That message now still resonates 40 years later [because] we seem to be regressing. [In] so many places, rights are being chipped away at and there’s a real surge of homophobia, aggression and discrimination towards anyone who basically wants to be themselves, and love who they choose.”

Music writer Ian Wade, the author of 1984: The Year Pop Went Queer, says it was clear from the start that Smalltown Boy was an “important” pop song as well as a “great” one. He believes the powerful accompanying video, which shows Somerville looking admiringly at another boy in the local swimming pool, but then being beaten up by the same boy and his friends, helped to drive home the song’s message. “It felt so real and wasn’t sugar-coated in any way,” says Wade, who is particularly moved by the “realistic interactions” between Somerville and the actors who play his parents. “You see the tears and upset of his mum but also the gentle hostility of his dad, who hands Jimmy some money but won’t shake his hand,” he notes. In a 2015 interview, Somerville said the video was conceived as a mini “socio-documentary”, which was a “groundbreaking” idea at the time.

Getty Images Released in October 1984, the group's debut album was pointedly titled The Age of Consent (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images

Released in October 1984, the group’s debut album was pointedly titled The Age of Consent (Credit: Getty Images)

The singer also suggested that Smalltown Boy continues to resonate because it was “a real cry” for acceptance and understanding. “The whole history of the song is that it comes from a passion for change in politics and society,” he told lifestyle blog Madame Soho in 2015. For Somerville, Bronski Beat were the product of a politically charged underground scene that splintered from London’s growing commercial gay and lesbian scene in 1982. After Somerville recorded a song called Screaming for a seminal documentary about this movement, 1983’s Framed Youth – The Revenge of the Teenage Perverts, Bronski and Steinbachek asked him to make music with them. All three were former “smalltown” boys: Somerville and Bronski moved to London from Glasgow in Scotland, while Steinbachek hailed from Southend-on-Sea on England’s south coast. 

Embraced by a new generation

Bronski Beat soon attracted attention after making their live debut at 1983’s September in the Pink, a gay and lesbian arts festival held at LGBTQ+ venue Heaven in London. “We did five gigs and then had a record deal – then Smalltown Boy was put out. It happened really quickly,” Somerville told Madame Soho. As their profile rose, the band doubled down on their political agenda. Their second single Why was a stirring dance floor anthem about overcoming homophobic prejudice – “Name me an illness, call me a sin, never feel guilty, never give in,” Somerville sings over driving hi-NRG beats. Released in October 1984, a month after Why, the trio’s debut album was pointedly titled The Age of Consent. Many European countries had by this stage reduced the age of consent for MSM (men who have sex with men) to 16, but in the UK it remained five years higher than for heterosexuals at 21.

Sadly, The Age of Consent would remain the only album made by Bronski Beat’s founding trio. Somerville left in 1985 and went on to enjoy success first as a member of The Communards, a duo he formed with classically trained musician Richard Coles, then as a solo artist. Released in 1986, The Communards’ dazzling cover of Thelma Houston’s disco classic Don’t Leave Me This Way topped the UK singles charts and reached number 40 on the Billboard Hot 100.  Following Somerville’s departure, Bronski and Steinbachek recruited a new vocalist, John Foster, whose initial stint with the group lasted until 1987. Two years later, the new duo iteration of Bronski Beat teamed up with famously vampish singer-actress Eartha Kitt for the campy club track Cha Cha Heels, which peaked at number 32 in the UK.

Getty Images Bronski Beat's only surviving member, Jimmy Somerville, went on to find success with The Communards, then as a solo artist (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images

Bronski Beat’s only surviving member, Jimmy Somerville, went on to find success with The Communards, then as a solo artist (Credit: Getty Images)

Even more sadly, Somerville is now the only surviving founding member of Bronski Beat. Steinbachek passed away in 2016 after battling cancer, while Bronski died in 2021 from smoke inhalation sustained during a fire at his London flat. Still, there’s no doubt that this remarkably enduring song cements their musical legacies. “So many [people] have told me personally how it touched or changed their lives,” Bronski told Gay Times in 2018. Smalltown Boy has also been embraced by a new generation of LGBTQ+ musicians: country singer Orville Peck gave it a twinkly Nashville twang in 2020; a year later, Bloc Party singer Kele Okereke released a plaintive, guitar-driven cover version.

Prince believes Smalltown Boy will always resonate with LGBTQ+ listeners in particular because it “taps into the possibility of moving away to a big city where you’re not going to get picked on and you can be openly gay, or at least a bit more openly gay”. Wade agrees, saying the song’s core message “hasn’t really dated”. Though we live in a world with “more allies and understanding” of queer lives, Wade points out that “there are still kids out there who aren’t so lucky”. For this reason, whenever we hear Somerville sing “run away, turn away, run away, turn away, run away,” it is impossible not to be moved.

1984: The year pop went queer by Ian Wade, is published on 18 July.

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