Absurd Pop Romance, gay, Hatful of Hollow, Morrissey, Pansy Division, queer, Quite Contrary, Sing If You're Glad to be Gay, The Smiths, Tom Robinson, Total Entertainment, Undressed, What Difference Does It Make, Wish I'd Taken Pictures
It was 1982. I was 17, gay as springtime, and loved rock and roll. Musically at that time I would find myself caught between different worlds – there really wasn’t any place to call home. That same year a friend of mine and I snuck into our first gay bar. I thought it was going to be great, to finally be somewhere full of other gay people. But I just couldn’t get past the terrible music. It was all tuneless dance beats, nary a guitar or a melodic hook in sight. I thought of myself as pretty well informed about all kinds of music even then but all night I didn’t recognize a single song. Years later I would come to appreciate why gay popular culture had evolved as it had, why a certain kind of music dominated the scene then. But at the time I experienced it as incredibly alienating. Just another place I didn’t fit in.
In early 1980s, gay was a no go zone for music, a one way trip off the charts and into commercial oblivion. Sure, David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Elton John had dabbled in public bisexuality in the 1970s but when that fad passed it was back to ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ for gay musicians trying to have a career in music. There were a few stark exceptions: Pete Townshend’s “And I Moved” and “Rough Boys” from 1980s Empty Glass, Joe Jackson’s “Real Men” from 1982’s Night and Day, and Tom Robinson’s fiercely political “Glad to be Gay,” which I first heard as a solo acoustic performance on the 1980 album The Secret Policeman’s Ball. But these performers were either not gay or not really focused on giving voice to gay experience.
And then came The Smiths. There may have been acts that I liked more at the time but none affected me as profoundly as this Manchester quartet. I found a copy of “What Difference Does it Make” in the discard pile at my radio broadcasting school and it blew my head off. The guitar hook immediately had my full attention but the lyrics were also startling – this was my life in a rock and roll song, something that had never happened before. I immediately set out to find more and picked up the BBC sessions/compilation album Hatful of Hollow. The fall of 1984 was all Smiths, all the time. The songs were so obviously about working class gay experience – “William, It Was Really Nothing,” “This Charming Man,” “Handsome Devil,” etc. – that it was painfully embarrassing to see Morrissey equivocate about his sexuality in later interviews. British artists in the 1980s seemed divided about taking a stand on gay identity with Morrissey and the Pet Shops Boys avoiding the issue while others like Bronksi Beat wrote powerfully direct songs like “Small Town Boy.” Later Smiths albums were definitely more oblique about sexuality, but it didn’t matter. The early recordings broke through a barrier of rock and roll masculinity, proving to be as exciting as any previous three chord wonder. Others would take note.
Many years later a friend gave me a copy Pansy Division’s Wish I’d Taken Pictures. Now here was the ‘out and proud’ gay rock and roll I had wanted The Smiths to be. Talk about flaunting it – this legendary San Francisco queercore band is hilariously in-your-face about their gay lives. Going back in their catalogue, their 1993 debut Undressed spoke directly, often intimately, about gay sex, gay dating, really anything you could describe as gay experience in both tender and amusing ways. No more Smithian innuendo, just refreshingly frank talk on tracks like “Boyfriend Wanted,” “The Story So Far,” and “Surrender Your Clothing.” Though their sound owes a lot to the California’s pop punk groove of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Pansy Division oscillate between a more hardcore guitar attack and an almost Jonathan Richmanesque playfulness in terms of emotional honesty and a more low key poprock sensibility.
With seven albums of original material there is simply too much to review here but I could easily single out a host of songs from across their catalogue. From the early period I would note the above-mentioned songs from Undressed, “Don’t Be So Sure” and “Kevin” from 1996’s Wish I’d Taken Pictures, and “Sweet Insecurity” and “Used to Turn Me On” from 1998’s Absurd Pop Song Romance. The band branches out stylistically in the new century with some new guitar sounds and song structures. 2003’s Total Entertainment comes on like a rush of adrenaline with a new sonic mix on tracks like “When He Comes Home,” “Not Good Enough for You,” and “First Betrayal,” while 2009’s That’s So Gay pumps the politics quotient on “Some of My Best Friends” and the ‘not taking ourselves too seriously’ factor on “Dirty Young Man” and “Pat Me on the Ass.” 2016’s Quite Contrary album mimics the cover of their Wish I’d Taken Pictures record released twenty years earlier, replacing the strapping lads of the original with the band’s now aging selves, though they still seem to be cavorting and having a good time. The song themes too reflect their present gay circumstances with issues like the ongoing religious attacks on queers in the US in “Blame the Bible” or aging in “(Is This What It’s Like) Getting Old.” Being from Canada, I have to high five Pansy Division’s ode to our great white north, “Manada” which manages to name check a host of Canadian cities and laud out boys, with versions in both English and French! These guys are a class act.
In the end, the question remains: is it really that important whether a band is gay or not? Yes and no. As I’ve grown older, more comfortable and confident about who I am, I don’t necessarily need to be surrounded by reflections of myself. I love all kinds of music regardless of sexuality or any other kinds of identity markings. But when we are young it is terribly important to see ourselves in popular culture. To be invisible in the world is to be invisible to ourselves. To have our hopes and dreams, heartaches and disappointments given expression in culture is to be part of the broader world. Indeed, to identify across our differences requires first that those differences be articulated. Perhaps it is easier for a rock and roll gay boy today. I hope so, though we should never underestimate how hard it is to be different. Despite the gains in social tolerance, western societies remain profoundly conformist in a host of ways.
Nobody really needs to help The Smiths sell any new product. As one wag noted, for a band critical of rampant consumerism, they have proven to be very adept at packaging and repackaging their material in the most stylish and collectible way. On the other hand, I suspect Pansy Division are probably not in a position to buy an island any time soon. So do visit the boys, share a laugh, and of course spend some money.
Photos of 17 and 24 year old Dennis Pilon by David Curnick and Michael Willmore.