This is the 23rd post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
All the members of synthpop trio Bronski Beat — singer Jimmy Somerville, keyboardist/percussionist Steve Bronski, and keyboardist/percussionist Larry Steinbachek — were openly gay. Much of the band’s 1984 debut album was about being gay, right down to the album’s title, “The Age of Consent,” which was a reference to Britain’s age of consent for two people of the same sex. At that time, the age of consent for gay sex was 21, though many western countries had lowered it to 16.
Bronski Beat’s biggest hit was “Smalltown Boy,” a song about a bullied young gay man who leaves his family and hometown to find acceptance elsewhere. The song mirrored the experiences of Somerville, who left Scotland in the early ’80s to come to London. But the song’s accessibility gave it worldwide appeal: the song’s single reached Number 1 in Belgium and the Netherlands, Number 3 in the UK, and the top 10 in Australia, Canada, France, Ireland, Italy and Switzerland.
The beat and keyboards made “Smalltown Boy” a dance song, but its ability to fill a dancefloor belied the poignancy of the lyrics:
You leave in the morning with everything you own
In a little black case
Alone on a platform, the wind and the rain
On a sad and lonely face
Mother will never understand
Why you had to leave
For the answers you seek will never be found at home
The love that you need will never be found at home
Run away, turn away, run away, turn away, run away
Run away, turn away, run away, turn away, run away
Pushed around and kicked around, always a lonely boy
You were the one that they’d talk about around town
As they put you down
And as hard as they would try, they’d hurt to make you cry
But you’d never cry to them, just to your soul
No, you’d never cry to them, just to your soul
In a 2014 interview marking the song’s 30th anniversary, Somerville said, “I was motivated by a passion and a real heartfelt anger and frustration about discrimination… And the fact that, because of who I was, especially at that time, I could suffer at the hands of legislation, as people all over the world were.”
Of course, LGBTQ people can still suffer at the hands of legislation all over the world. But, just as David Bowie had done with “Rebel Rebel” and so many of his songs, Somerville and Bronski Beat had a mainstream hit highlighting the lives of LGBTQ people who had been pushed to the fringe. By making this danceable synthpop song, Bronski Beat put LGBTQ bullying on display at a time when there was no social media, no “It Gets Better Campaign,” no safe spaces.
The subsequent cover versions had the obstacle of following Somerville. His voice, a distinctly gifted falsetto, gave the song its sense soul, both in the sense of passion and the genre. The covers might not have matched Somerville’s voice, but they attempted to make up for it by playing up the other parts of the song: sadness, anger, or danceability.
Canadian a cappella group The Nylons covered “Smalltown Boy” on its 1996 album, “Run For Cover.” The first 20 seconds of the cover was muted sample of rain, thunder, and woodwinds, possibly meant as a literal audio depiction of “Alone on a platform, the wind and the rain.” Though the main singer did not alter any of the lyrics, the background singers added loops of “Smalltown boy” and “He’s never coming back.” Bronski Beat’s version only had Somerville’s lone voice, but the multiple voices and harmonies in The Nylons’ version indicate something that the original didn’t: the smalltown boy would indeed find a sense of community, and thus, a sense of hope.
The limited edition of Paradise Lost’s 2002 album “Symbol of Life” featured a guitar-driven version of “Smalltown Boy.” The track was a ’90s Goth kid’s dream, as it blurred the boundaries of metal and industrial, sounding like something Type O Negative would have released had Peter Steele ever been open to remixes or anything danceable. The other cover on the limited edition “Symbol of Life,” a remake of Dead Can Dance’s Xavier, was equally dark in tone.
Polish duo Milkshop covered “Smalltown Boy” on its 2006 album, “Marzyciele.” Between Izabela Krakow’s ethereal, jazz-like vocals and Piotr Krakowski’s shimmering keyboards, Milkshop sounded reminiscent of Everything But The Girl. And like that duo, Milkshop had a decade-agnostic sound, as its take on “Smalltown Boy” featured both Wham-esque saxophones and airy synthesizers. Somerville’s chorus of “Cry, boy, cry” was sad and painful, but Krakow sounded soothing and comforting when she sang those words. Her restraint and lack of anger gave the song the feeling of safety, as if she were volunteer herself and Krakowski to be the smalltown boy’s new family.
The opening of José González’s “Smalltown Boy” sounded very similar to the beginning of his cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” from a few years earlier. And like that cover, González’s take on “Smalltown Boy” was a bare acoustic version that stripped away any of the danceable parts and left only the melancholy, introspection.
The Hot Stewards, who we looked at when discussing “The Loco-Motion,” made a career out of covering pop songs, mainly from the ’80s, in a style that combines electropop, pop punk, and glam. The band’s 2007 album, “Cover Up,” featured a sampling of covers of the who’s who of ’80s synthpop. The band’s take on “Smalltown Boy” injected a sense of swagger, as if singer William Steward was leaving the small town not because he felt rejected by his family or bullies, but because he rejected them. With pounding drums and snarling guitars, the song played up one of the most poignant parts of the original — “Run away, run away, turn away” — treating it as a fist-in-the-air chant, in which the once-victimized narrator now had all the power.
German metal band Atrocity combined gentle piano, crunchy guitars, operatic backing vocals, headache-inducing drums, and orchestral strings for its rendition of “Smalltown Boy.” The song was the second track on the band’s “Werk 80 II,” a covers album that also had the band’s takes on Depeche Mode, Eurythmics, Talk Talk, and Simple Minds.
Singer Saranayde has described her music as “Shirley Bassey on Speed,” which aptly describes her soulful influence and hints at her frenetic, drum machine-driven beats. Her “Smalltown Boy,” on 2008’s “Freak 4 Speed,” sounded is she was channeling CeCe Peniston at a late-’90s rave. What separated it from other Daranude-inspired dance tracks was her voice, imbued with a soul and empathy that’s not always heard in bass-driven Hi-NRG music. Her high notes on “No, you’d never cry to them, just in your soul” were almost as goosebump-inducing as Somerville’s rendition.
Irish singer Sharon Corr, who had performed with her siblings in The Corrs, recorded “Smalltown Boy” for her debut solo album, “Dream of You.” Corr recast the song as a ballad that spanned over five minutes, building up from soft pianos to soaring strings during “Run away, turn away.” From the opening piano to the electric guitar solo at the end, everything about Corr’s version felt purposeful. There was nothing in there that wasn’t emotionally stirring, whether that emotion be pity, regret, or sympathy.
“Smalltown Boy” worked surprisingly well a jazz-tinged rocksteady reggae song, appearing on Italian ska band The Orobians’ 2011 album “Slave to the Riddim.” Modeling themselves after The Skatalites, the band’s members — an ever-rotating cast of Parliament and Funkadelic proportions — have made it their mission to spread Jamaican music. That mission statement is quite apparent in its “Smalltown Boy,” a mishmash of slow reggae and danceable ska. Beyond the infectious sax and trumpet section, particularly shined in the background as Luca Vezzoli crooned, “Run away, turn away,” the subtle bass and guitar highlighted the band’s attention to detail. For being Italian, these guys approximated the Jamaican sound very well.
London-based indie pop band Autoheart featured “Smalltown Boy” on its 2012 single for the song “Control.” Whereas Bronski Beat’s version was a medium-to-faster-paced dance song, Autoheart’s stripped down piano version took its time, letting the song breathe and stretch out for more than five minutes. Before Jody Gadsden sang a single note, Simon Neilson’s minute long piano intro gave the song had a somber feel. Gadsden painstakingly worked through the lyrics, giving weight to each word. Halfway through, Gadsden was joined by backup singers, whose “Cry, boy, cry” was as heartbreaking as it was beautiful.
Australian electro band Divine Knights’ version of “Smalltown Boy” was a faithful — maybe even too faithful — cover that sounded like a 2010s remake. Which is not to say it was flat or not enjoyable. The instrumentation sounded like an update, but the innovation was alternating the verses between a high-pitched voice and a deeper voice. The effect sounded like two people volleying back and forth, and like The Nylons’ version, didn’t sound as lonely (or as sad).
To celebrate the first anniversary of its “Sounds of the 80s” show, BBC Radio 2 released “Sounds of the 80s: Unique Covers of Classic Hits,” featuring covers that had appeared on the first year of the program. British singer Dido, probably best known for her songs “White Flag” and “Thank You,” performed an acoustic version of “Smalltown Boy.” For the first minute and a half of the clip, an unseen guitarist played while Dido only sang. But once she got to “But you’d never cry to them/Just to your soul/No, you’d never cry to them/Just to your soul,” she picked up her guitar and began playing. The vocal performance alone was beautiful, but the video was worth it just for being able to see how visibly moved Dido got throughout the song.
For the 30th anniversary of “Smalltown Boy,” Somerville re-recorded the song, this time as a stripped-down ballad, featuring only him and a pianist. As emotional as the song was the first time around, with Steinbachek’s and Bronski’s backing instrumentation, this version was even more piercing. There was no production or dance track to obscure the opening, so his falsetto “To your soul” sounded even more haunting.
Dance artist Kate Ryan, who had represented Belgium in the 2006 edition of the Eurovision contest, covered “Smalltown Boy” in 2015. Her version, renamed “Runaway (Smalltown Boy),” was a dance track, but unlike Saranayde’s bass-heavy version, Ryan’s sunny cover was not a thumping dance club banger. The steady handclap beat throughout the sang gave it a danceable pace, but her vocals were restrained enough to make it sound mournful and introspective. Her video was almost as literal a depiction of the lyrics as Bronski Beat’s original, but instead of showing a gay teenager getting jumped and leaving town, Ryan’s video showed her masking her depression and loneliness while sitting around a campfire with friends.
Unlike many songs from the same era, “Smalltown Boy” does not sound dated. It has aged wonderfully, in part because the themes it tackled have never stopped being relevant. Even at a time when gay, lesbian, and bisexual people enjoy rights that seemed unfathomable in 1984, there are still many forms of discrimination that leave LGBTQ people feeling as bruised, bullied and victimized as the titular character in “Smalltown Boy.” Gay and lesbian kids might have more resources than they did 32 years ago, but the recent controversies on bathroom bills have shown that many LGBTQ people will still not feel at home where they grew up, because like young Somerville, they “could suffer at the hands of legislation.”
You can listen to these songs and previously discussed cover songs in a Spotify playlist.