FFifty years ago this month, a fortnight of concerts, lectures and clubs to mark the third anniversary of the police raids on New York’s Stonewall Inn culminated – on July 1, 1972 – with the first march of the pride of the UK. About 700 LGBTQ+ people marched from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park, waving banners and demanding their civil rights. There were no carnival floats, no rainbow-adorned drag divas, not even a pride flag, and no music to accompany the protesters either.
But British activists already knew how important music was to this new community. The Gay Liberation Front had been holding nightclubs and dances for 18 months before the march, and 1,200 people descended on Kensington Town Hall shortly before Christmas 1970 for Britain’s first publicly advertised gay nightclub, filling the place at full capacity, with 500 revelers refused at the door. There were no LGBTQ+ groups and no artists were making records for LGBTQ+ people; at least most of the artists playing those early dances – including David Bowie, Hawkwind and Pink Fairies – were sympathetic to the cause of gay liberation, but the records turned were the same ones you’d hear on the contemporary singles chart.
That would soon change, and as annual Pride events began to spread across the country, artists and songwriters inspired by the gay liberation movement began making music specifically for LGBTQ+ audiences. Here are some of those songs that tend to get forgotten.
Everybody Involved – A Gay Song (1972)
It’s a toss up of what would be the world’s first gay liberation record: many would say Madeline Davis’ Stone Wall Nation, written in March 1971, predates the UK release A Gay Song, first performed this year. But with lyrics by Gay Liberation Front activist Alan Wakeman, A Gay Song is the first recording by a British band to explicitly address the LGBTQ+ community in a positive way.
It appeared on the album Any/Or by a collective known as Everyone Involved and featured GLF volunteers on vocals. Covering themes such as ecology, world peace and free love in a catchy folk-rock arrangement, Any/Or also included a second gay-themed song, A Sad Song, sung by Gillian Dickinson of the quartet Folk Solid British Hat Band. “I felt extremely proud to be involved in this. It was a magical moment,” she explains.
“There were different people, that’s why we called it Everyone Involved. Freya Hogue, who was in Sunforest, an all-female group; Arnolpho Lima Filho, bassist for Brazilian rock band Os Mutantes… We had James Asher, Jane and Peter Asher’s cousin, on drums, and everyone was playing for free. The idea was to give the album… We were terribly idealistic and young, but it was a wonderful thing.
Starbuck – Do You Like Boys (1973)
Starbuck were two members – Brian Engle and Martin Briley – of the 1960s psych-rock band Mandrake Paddle Steamer: A Studio Project, recording material written by Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley, which found success in 1964 with the Honeycombs. No 1 Have I the Right, produced by Joe Meek, “was an echo of the closing words of Radclyffe Hall’s classic lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness: ‘Give us the right to exist too,'” Howard recalled. “Alan and I have always wanted our songs to reflect something of our personalities and we liked the song Do You Like Boys, which could appeal to both gays and girls. »
According to Briley, “to promote this song, we were flown to Germany for a tour of what turned out to be gay clubs”; Gay News highlighted its “potential to become a nightclub favourite”. But despite Starbuck’s appearance on TV shows, including Lift Off with Ayshea, neither that nor their next two 45s troubled the Top 40. Post-Starbuck, Briley and Engle appeared on the Rocky’s soundtrack. Horror Picture Show, and Briley has written songs for dozens of artists including Monkee Peter Tork, Celine Dion, ‘NSync and Pat Benatar.
Steve Elgin – Don’t Leave Your Lover Hanging Around (Cher) (1974)
As a lady of pantomime, dripping with innuendo and complete with pub piano and an Ain’t She Sweet chorus, this single sparked controversy: Elgin’s team suggested the BBC had dropped its plans to feature Don’t Leave Your Lover Lying Around (Cher) as Record of the Week on David Hamilton’s show due to overtly gay lyrics, leading his manager to fight his way to Broadcasting House and pinning copies of Gay News to bulletin boards throughout the building.
Despite his efforts, the single was a flop, and no record telling a story from an LGBTQ+ perspective would trouble the UK charts until 1978 – (Sing If You’re) Glad to be Gay by Tom Robinson , which charted (as part of the EP Rising Free) in February 1978, reaching number 18. At that time, Elgin was fronting the new wave Steve Elgin and the Flatbackers, “a rock band with a difference” according to the scene, with our man supported by four musicians.
Valentino – I Was Born This Way (1975)
Apart from members-only clubs, pub back rooms and the occasional gay-friendly dinner and dance, there were no permanent gay nightclubs in Britain until Bang! opened in Charing Cross in 1976. That didn’t stop the public from feverishly grabbing the LGBTQ-themed records whenever they appeared and demanding that DJs spin them.
One such record was Valentino’s I Was Born This Way, which also proved to be a hit on the Northern Soul scene. It was the only 45 released on Gaiee Records, founded by the song’s co-writer, Bunny Jones, owner of a beauty salon with several gay employees. “I named the label Gaiee because I wanted to give gay people a label they can call home,” she once said. After the record burst on the dance floor and Bunny sold 15,000 copies in the back of his car, Motown bought it out.
Billed as “the first gay disco single”, Billboard magazine noted that “feelings about the record are mixed, as some think it is offensive; others think it’s a great cut. Without a doubt, it’s a strong disco record”. Valentino himself told Gay News, “It’s just music with a message. I’m not forcing anyone to be gay and likewise no one is trying to make me straight. Although Valentino’s recording failed to enter the mainstream, the song was later covered (more successfully) on Motown’s main label by Carl Bean, and, later still, its sentiment immortalized. by Lady Gaga.
Handbag – Just Raped (1977)
Almost a decade before Bronski Beat, Handbag were the first gay trio in Britain to win a recording contract, when, in 1975, David Arden – son of famous hardman music mogul Don Arden and brother of Sharon Osbourne – signed them to Jet Records, home of ELO and Ozzy Osbourne. The band was about to hit a rough patch: that year, a gig with lesbian band The Stepney Sisters was scrapped following a bomb threat, and the much-vaunted album recorded for Jet n was never released, but they were able to write and perform the soundtrack for the documentary film David Is Gay.
In 1977 the band presented demos for a second album, songs with a heavier edge like the punk-influenced live favorite Just Raped, and soon after were headlining a gay party. weekly at London’s legendary punk venue, the Roxy. “The Roxy’s clientele was like any other night,” says Handbag’s Paul Southwell. “Teenagers trying to find themselves. Even though the club was a shithole, I remember Handbag had a great night there, the kids really enjoying us.
Unbeknownst to them, these raw demos emerged in Italy as an LP titled Snatchin’, later repackaged as The Aggressive Style Punk Rock. “I never would have let it out, with someone on the cover with a swastika on their face, but I had no control over it,” Southwell says.
Ova – Lesbian Fight Song (1979)
Musicians Rosemary Schonfeld and Jana Runnalls met in 1976 and quickly fell in love. Driven from their home by drunken neighbors, they ended up in a squat with members of the Brixton Faeries commune where, inspired by the burgeoning female music scene in the United States, the duo began performing under the name of Dykier Than Sky High Forever Band.
By 1978 they were recording, first as the Lupine Sisters (a nod to Monty Python), then as Ova, releasing their debut album in 1979. The Lesbian Fighting Song, influenced by Yoko Ono , with its rallying cry “you men better watch out… We’ll fight the power, you hold us down” became a live favourite, and over the next decade Ova toured Europe and America and released three more albums through female collective Stroppy Cow records.
From the outset, they wore their political beliefs on their sleeves. “The political perspective helped make sense of our personal experiences,” says Rosemary. “We naturally started writing about what was going on in our lives. Gay, lesbian and feminist movements were taking off, and our politics and music became inextricably linked. We realized that there was a real thirst for political songs written and performed by lesbians. We all shared a burning desire to perform, create and develop our music in a safe environment. Women still did not have the freedom to form and lead groups. It was a fight to be allowed to be anything other than the dazzling singer in front of a bunch of men.