New Times,
New Thinking.

Pop’s gay revolution

How stars from Little Richard to David Bowie used their sexuality to set popular culture free.

By Jude Rogers

The final sentence of this kaleidoscopic book drops like a bomb. It may be odd to start a review there, at the end of a near-quarter-century trek through the impact of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer performers on pop culture. But it’s striking that what happened only two years after the book’s cut-off point in 1979 – a syndrome diagnosed in five men in Los Angeles that devastated the immune system, before its rapid, terrifying progress around the world – is not even alluded to until the last page. The omission of HIV/Aids is clearly a decision by Jon Savage, one of the most feted British music writers of the past 50 years, to throw detail not on the fates but on the lives of so many remarkable individuals.

Many chose to present their true selves – in full or in part, in public or performance – in the face of likely reactions of horror or violence. This book reminds us what this took from people: so much spine, spunk and guts. Savage is well equipped to tell their stories. His writing career began in punk-era fanzines, after an Oxford Classics degree and while he was a trainee solicitor, before he became a mainstay of the weekly papers and an author, with his book on punk, England’s Dreaming, in 1991. Ever since, he has applied a rigorous, archaeological curiosity to culture in books such as Teenage and 1966. His tone is academic but accessible, serious but softly lacquered.

The book’s cover, with its neon bubble-writing bursting out of a matte-grey background, suits the bright, buoyant ideas he documents emerging from the gruelling, postwar world. Its title – The Secret Public – shares a name with one of his early fanzines, made with artist Linder Sterling, full of images that explored consumerism, urbanism, gender and sexuality. He’s reused it, he writes in the preface, “because for so long the topic of homosexuality and the realities of homosexual life remained secrets, albeit open ones”.

Savage’s thesis is that the emergence of pop in the mid 20th century as an arena of play offered alternative realities and “visions of the future”, and allowed the liberating qualities of pop music to offer a form of freedom for everyone: “not just gay men, lesbians and trans people, but young heterosexual men and women who didn’t accept the standard definitions offered, indeed imposed, by the dominant culture”.

A 1983 piece he wrote for the Face magazine, about a rise in androgynous stars like Grace Jones, Annie Lennox and the Human League’s Phil Oakey, also reveals why pop got away with this. Gender play was being “heard in one of the only places it can [be heard], exactly where it is thought not to matter, because it’s only pop”. The lightweight, throwaway quality ascribed to songs that fill so many radio stations, playlists and internal jukeboxes has allowed so much of it to be slyly, effectively political.

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The book is built around five evenly spaced “particular moments in history”: rock ’n’ roll’s 1955 explosion, the 1961 early rumblings of Britain’s pop scene, 1967’s year of legalisation, David Bowie’s dazzling 1973, and the disco/punk peak of 1978. This structure allows Savage room for excavations into rarely seen magazines, unpublished interviews and (more than 50 pages of) cultural footnotes. This approach is thrilling and nourishing, even if some bigger names occasionally fade from view in the laser focus on the moment.

But first, to the stars who get their dues, such as Richard Penniman, AKA Little Richard, who arrives like a lightning bolt from outer space with his signature song, “Tutti Frutti”, in 1955. It’s remarkable how fresh his single still sounds, although Billboard magazine didn’t think much of it (it came in sixth, Savage notes, in its weekly R&B review round-up). I find it shocking to remember that he died only four years ago – underlining how rock ’n’ roll’s thunderous power has been around for just over a lifetime.

The odds were against Penniman too. He was disabled, born with his right leg shorter than his left. His biggest influence was an openly gay R&B singer, Billy Wright, who worked as a female impersonator. Penniman’s father was shot dead at a local bar, meaning that his son had to wash dishes at a Greyhound bus station to help keep his family afloat – at this sink, he wrote “Tutti Frutti”, “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Long Tall Sally”.

Savage is adept at selecting granular detail, capturing the impact of the opening phrase of “Tutti Frutti” (awopbopaloobop awopbamboom) at a syllabic level. He explores the link of its “bop”’ to the emergent bebop jazz scene; remembering a street performer Richard would’ve known, Bamalama; and describing its final two syllables as having “the force of a fist, a blow, an explosion – a caption from a superhero comic – and they leave no doubt to Richard’s intention”.

His precise insights add a contemporary power to what are historical figures, from the bisexual, partially deaf 1950s star Johnnie Ray – whose “desire for self-revelation went hand in hand with his whole approach of emotional honesty and nakedness: by displaying it so openly, he expressed a vulnerability unique in popular culture” – to 1970s disco colossus and “cosmic genderf***” Sylvester, who became a star with the 1977 release of “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real”.

Savage nails the radical appeal of well-known figures, such as the Beatles manager Brian Epstein and enduring poster boy James Dean, whose ambivalent sexuality “helped to define the parameters and possibilities of youth culture”. Dean pops up again at the start of Bowie’s chapter, in an unpublished 1972 Sunday Times profile by the writer Michael Watts. “He was a very passive, gentle person,” Bowie says of Dean, “and an experimenter all the time.”

The way people reappear through this book shows how carefully woven its threads are, emerging on the surface of the fabric when you least expect them. To follow the gay, Australian entrepreneur Robert Stigwood’s story from his involvement, as pop manager, in John Leyton’s dramatic 1960 single “Johnny Remember Me”, to his producer role in the late-1970s cinematic juggernauts, Grease and Saturday Night Fever, for example, is to have a passenger seat on one of many fascinating individual journeys.

Satisfying, too, is how Savage sets these cultural shifts in the context of media reaction. Much of it is hostile, from the Sunday Pictorial’s 1952 series “Evil Men” (the first major exposé in the UK of “the homosexual problem”) to Anne Sharpley’s 1964 Evening Standard series about “London’s hidden problem” (which emboldened the Homosexual Law Reform Society to lobby the newly elected Labour government to push for legalisation). Some other coverage is supportive, like the BBC’s 1967 series Consenting Adults, presenting sensitive interviews of gay men and women, while we get a ringside seat as ITV battles to show David Bailey’s documentary about Andy Warhol, and wins.

Lesbian performers have less space in this book, which is its only deficiency – though it is true that they clearly had less power and influence in pop, and Savage notes consistently how they were left out of contemporary debates. It still feels unsatisfying to have one of Britain’s biggest 1960s stars, Dusty Springfield, lumped together with the very different Janis Ian and Janis Joplin in one chapter, while Lesley Gore, a huge star in 1963, is also missed out, perhaps as a casualty of the book’s structure.

Dusty does reappear later, however with some eye-popping quotes from later interviews (“[So] many other people say I’m bent, and I’ve heard it so many times that I’ve almost learned to accept it,” she told the Evening Standard in 1970). Also featured are the SCUM Manifesto feminist Valerie Solanas, The Joy of Lesbian Sex author Bertha Harris, and the writer Maureen Duffy, whose dazzling 1969 novel The Microcosm, set around the real Chelsea lesbian club the Gateways, peppers several chapters deliciously.

Trans performers have space to sparkle in the Warhol sections: Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn being memorably celebrated in Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”, an international hit in 1972.

The book’s final flourish, taking the reader inside the gatefold sleeve of Sylvester’s 1979 Living Proof album – its cast of gay men “frozen in their fabulousness” – makes you long for Savage to do a sequel. What does he make of contemporary LGBTQ+ artists such as the late Sophie, the French pop star Chris (known professionally as Christine and the Queens) or Sam Smith? Given that Savage writes about “the full onset of consumerism” in the 1950s that resulted “in a mindset – conflated at the time with that of the psychopath – that wanted everything immediately”, how does he assess reactions to fluid sexuality and gender, which get such full expression in today’s online culture?

But the introduction of this book states, very clearly, that it is not a “definitive survey of gay culture in pop music”. These are topics for further generations to investigate themselves, and they will have to, Savage notes. Why? Because this book is “an inspiring story, but a cautionary one, as these battles will have to be fought all over again”. Hats off to him for landing the first blows so elegantly and powerfully.

Jude Rogers is the author of “The Sound of Being Human: How Music Shapes Our Lives” (White Rabbit Books)

The Secret Public: How LGBTQ Performers Shaped Popular Culture (1955–1979)
Jon Savage
Faber & Faber, 784pp, £22

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[See also: The young prole rebels of Dexys Midnight Runners]

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This article appears in the 10 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, All Change