Simon Napier-Bell: Gay Culture’s Musical Roots
Simon Napier-Bell: “In 1985, while making the film of Wham! in China, director Lindsay Anderson sounded off on the subject of tolerance. “I loathe it,” he yelled, smashing his fist into his palm.
“Tolerance is what you give noisy children. It’s what you give a mother who can’t control her crying baby. To be tolerant is simply to be patronizing. For blacks and gays and Jews and every other minority, what’s needed is NOT tolerance. It’s indifference. Complete bloody indifference.”
Tolerance certainly wasn’t something Lindsay showed much of, especially for his own homosexuality, the subject that set him off that day. He was also intolerant of pop music, and the whole music business for that matter, yet there he was in China directing a film about a pop group with an openly gay manager and a not so openly gay singer. However, if gays one day find themselves in Lindsay Anderson’s nirvana of complete indifference, it will be the music business that takes much of the credit.
From the beginning, the backstage area of pop was a haven for gays – TV producers, set designers, clothes designers, stylists and especially managers. Mostly the artists themselves were not gay, which gave their introduction to gay culture all the more impact.
Straight kids met up with gay managers and found themselves liberated from the strictures of their dull families. Encouraged to be outrageous, they threw themselves into it with abandon. The Beatles’ girlie hairstyles and pretty clothes were the result of Brian Epstein’s influence. Jimi Hendrix’s stage act of sexual intercourse with his (very masculine) guitar was suggested by Kit Lambert, the Who’s manager and owner of Track Records. Mick Jagger’s androgenous movements and puckered lips flowed directly from his fascination with Andrew Oldham, the Rolling Stones’ (then) camp young manager.
By the seventies, the gay influence of pop’s backstage people had become even more visible. Marc Bolan dressed himself in women’s clothes from second-hand shops, David Bowie performed oral sex with his guitarist’s Stratocaster, and even the straightest of groups like Slade, Mott the Hopple, and Sweet, covered themselves in make-up and frilly clothes. It wasn’t just the dressing up either – it was the talk, the behaviour, the camp affectation. Stanley Booth, touring with the Stones at the time, said, “We got faggier by the day. You never saw a more limp-wristed bunch of sissies.”
With the music industry projecting such a strong homosexual ambience, a couple of stars thought it a good moment to come out. Elton John, who was gay, hedged his bets by saying he was bisexual. David Bowie, who was bisexual, went for the max by announcing he was gay.
Others, who were neither of these things but found their tastes outside the norm, took advantage of changing attitudes to become more open about their preferences; Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page was no longer so secretive about partying with transvestites. Nor was Sid Vicious. After a gig in Texas, journalist John Helstrom remembers him in the hotel with a busty blonde, asking her, “Am I going to suck your cock or your c**t?”
This creeping acceptance of all things gay led us comfortably into the eighties where right from the start a whole lot of artists were openly ‘out’ – Steve Strange, Marc Almond, Boy George, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Erasure. But it was Elton’s battle with the Sun that finally did the trick.
At first, when he was accused of throwing cocaine parties and having sex with rent-boys, the public found it sensational. But after several months with the papers full of it, people got bored. By the time the Sun settled, the words ‘rent boy’ and ‘gay’ had become so over-used the public hardly noticed them.
Ten years later, when George Michael was arrested for almost indulging himself with an LA cop, the tabloids sensed this change in public attitude. “He was gorgeous,” George told (TV chat show host) Michael Parkinson, trying to make people understand. And to some extent he succeeded. The public was beginning to get used to it all; being gay was no longer shocking, or even surprising.
Robbie Williams was the last pop star to tease the public with the ‘is-he-or-isn’t-he’ theme. Since then, Will Young has shown everyone that, frankly, being gay can be rather dull.
Now, with gay marriage approved by parliament, being gay is so ordinary even Lindsay Anderson might feel able to come out. The reason he never did, I’m sure, was because being in the arts he knew his homosexuality would be tolerated. And that was the one thing he couldn’t bear.
Today, though, we’re surprisingly close to what he would have wanted. Complete, liberating, indifference.”
Simon Napier- Bell’s next book is TA-RA-RA-BOOM-DE-AY a complete history of the music business.