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Good As You

Good As You charts the UK's long and often bumpy road to gay equality. Paul Flynn explains how Holly Johnson, one of the narrative's most prominent protagonists in the 1980s, changed his own teenage life, and the national culture.

I suppose it was just a temporal accident that the year I turned teenage two pivotal gay figureheads appeared on Top of the Pops and the front cover of Smash Hits. But to a mind spiralling with the possibility of what life had to offer outside a grey, rainy world that pivoted on Saturday afternoons spent leafing through the vinyl at Wythenshawe library’s record department, it felt exactly like magic.

There was a point somewhere between the angry, sad falsetto of Jimmy Somerville and the mischievous sex of Holly Johnson that felt like a perfect distillation of a gay adult life. There were other figures seeming to support their contention in more clandestine terms, not yet ready to talk transparently about their differences. But the clues were all there.

Because Holly and Jimmy were doing the talking for everyone, some amazing men acted as a fantastical supporting cast to the gay protagonists. There was Morrissey, the Smiths’ singer, who opened his career with a record sleeve depicting a bare man’s buttocks and a B-side called ‘Handsome Devil’. Pet Shop Boys, whose first number one ‘West End Girls’ hid its light in plain sight on another B-side, ‘A Man Could Get Arrested’, a song about the lively gay cruising ground at London’s Brompton Cemetery.

On 10 August 1984 I turned into a teenager. The kind of teenager I turned into was one who, each Sunday, would write down the charts in a stolen lined schoolbook from St Paul’s, an all-boys Catholic high school in Manchester’s crumbling garden suburb Wythenshawe. I was the first boy at the newsagent’s two doors down from the chippy on the parade of shops on Wendover Road every alternate Wednesday, 45p in hand, ready for the new issue of Smash Hits.

I told my mum I didn’t want to join the Boy Scouts that year, firstly because I didn’t want to join the Boy Scouts, and secondly – and most importantly – because the scouts clashed with the essential Thursday night double bill of Top of the Pops and Fame. We didn’t yet have a video recorder, the exciting new machine that could change time and space on telly.

All of that stuff, pop music, TV and the attendant cultural doors they opened into nightlife, fashion and art – everything that suburbia wasn’t – seemed so monumentally important back then. It was not the sort of business you’d give up being in full knowledge of in order to learn how to tie knots, light fires or pitch tents with the added, unspoken potential undercurrent of being molested by a light-fingered Akela who hadn’t reconciled his past with the thrilling reverberations of the modern world.

I suppose it was just a temporal accident that the year I turned teenage two pivotal gay figureheads appeared on Top of the Pops and the front cover of Smash Hits. But to a mind spiralling with the possibility of what life had to offer outside a grey, rainy world that pivoted on Saturday afternoons spent leafing through the vinyl at Wythenshawe library’s record department, it felt exactly like magic.

There was a point somewhere between the angry, sad falsetto of Jimmy Somerville and the mischievous sex of Holly Johnson that felt like a perfect distillation of a gay adult life. There were other figures seeming to support their contention in more clandestine terms, not yet ready to talk transparently about their differences. But the clues were all there.

Because Holly and Jimmy were doing the talking for everyone, some amazing men acted as a fantastical supporting cast to the gay protagonists. There was Morrissey, the Smiths’ singer, who opened his career with a record sleeve depicting a bare man’s buttocks and a B-side called ‘Handsome Devil’. Pet Shop Boys, whose first number one ‘West End Girls’ hid its light in plain sight on another B-side, ‘A Man Could Get Arrested’, a song about the lively gay cruising ground at London’s Brompton Cemetery.

 

Top of the Pops was teaching me the lessons a Catholic education couldn’t

 

There was Pete Burns, the gothic gob-on-a-stick who had turned the plaintive gender-bending prettiness of Boy George and Marilyn into something like a brilliant, brave nightmare and appeared all the more amazing for it. Here was Freddie Mercury doing the hoovering in a wig, moustache and patent leather miniskirt. Black Britain had the smooth posturing of Andy Polaris singing ‘Love Is just a Great Pretender’ and Imagination’s Leee John gliding across the floor in a lamé jock strap.

George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley parleyed something between friendship, brotherhood and unrequited love in Wham! With his Lady Diana hairdo and leather jacket it wasn’t hard to figure out why George’s guilty feet had no rhythm or what exactly the different corner was that he might eventually turn. Marc Almond was trailblazing an idea of self-invention and queerness that could shift from fragility to brutality in a couplet. Billy MacKenzie sang in a transcendent croon that brought Italian-opera levels of heartbreak to Thursdays. These were not figures at the margins of British culture. They were its home-grown stars.

Amid songs of men’s pretence, desire, denial, corruption and complicity, ‘Smalltown Boy’ and ‘Relax’ rose straight to the top. Seeing first Holly Johnson batting a balloon back from his face and grinding his hips to ‘Relax’, then Jimmy Somerville’s engagingly shy shuffle to ‘Smalltown Boy’ did something direct to me. It stopped me feeling alone. The reading materials and pictures in magazines only backed up what was perfectly obvious from their art. These were men who talked about the details of gay life with candour. They were unlocking doors. Within the loose narratives of both songs was everything I needed to shove me through the tricky terrain of pubescence in the often faltering knowledge that everything would probably turn out OK. That is how heroic meaningful pop music can be when it chimes at the right time with the right person.

At 12 years old in 1984 in south Manchester, I was used to hearing gay men being the butt of the joke. We couldn’t have sex legally until 21. Homosexuality had become weirdly merged in the suburban mindset with the old bloke whose house you were told to stay away from and strangers opening doors and asking kids if they wanted a lift in a rusting Ford Cortina. The thought of marrying was unimaginable unless as a shoddy compromise to keep you in the closet. The advent of AIDS added a particularly crucifying new twist to the tale of homosexuality equalling a tragic end.

The early choice from where I was sitting, before Jimmy Somerville and Holly Johnson offered a warm embrace from the TV screen, looked something like this: don’t act on being gay and be unhappy, or act on it and end up beaten up, slagged off, laughed at and almost certainly dead.

 

To my 12-year-old mind, Jimmy Somerville and Holly Johnson did not look queer at all. They didn’t look fairyish, nancyish or anything like the punchline to an untold joke. They looked brave

 

Sometimes gay men becoming the butt of the joke was just because, yes, men who look and sound different can be funny, and sometimes just because British pop culture was in such a state of stilted infancy no one had worked out that, while often it’s fun to be cruel, cruelty hurts. It has consequences.

I grew up on the other side of the Arndale Centre from Bernard Manning’s Embassy Club, a place that now feels like a Situationist joke but was part of the social climate in Manchester then, whereby anything that was not white, straight and male was fodder to be torn apart. An imaginary line was drawn up between them and us, straight and gay. It didn’t make any sense to me.

No one knew then that this predominant British culture was extinguishing itself and that a decisive move for gay men, from being enemies to friends of the state, was beginning at full pelt. Bronski Beat and Frankie Goes to Hollywood felt like its rallying cry. They were my first hints that men didn’t have to stand passively watching the status quo, that we could fight back with intelligence, provocation and sincerity. Top of the Pops was teaching me the lessons a Catholic education couldn’t.

When the idea of homosexuality is inherently ridiculous in culture, a dialogue forms in your little teenage brain. It says, OK, I get it: those older men that don’t marry, that talk and walk funny, can’t throw a ball properly and might do things that will send them straight to hell do seem to be a bit scared of life; those men like John Inman and Larry Grayson, even their executive predecessors, the Carry On elder statesmen Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey, they’re funny because they’re different. But what if you feel a bit different, too? Do you just get used to the idea of being laughed at? Is that it?

To my 12-year-old mind, Jimmy Somerville and Holly Johnson did not look queer at all. They didn’t look fairyish, nancyish or anything like the punchline to an untold joke. They didn’t seem punishable or there to be laughed at. Hitting the cranial hotspots scrambling at every identity issue in adolescence, they looked like the thing I least expected gay men to look like. They looked brave.

Telling the truth is a hard business. One of them would likely not have been enough. If these songs, three listens in and glistening already like national anthems, had occupied my brain space in isolation, they might have represented an anchorless life raft. Perhaps if each one of Holly and Jimmy’s alumni that kept their sexualities to themselves on Top of the Pops and in Smash Hits had come to be seen in their honest context rather than in the half-light of a closet door, well, that might have helped. But good pop fortune meant Holly and Jimmy arrived as a twin attack. They opened a conversation others wilfully shied away from, delivering the next generation, my generation, the full and complete confidence to be as good as you.

More about the author

Good As You

Paul Flynn

In 1984 the pulsing electronics and soft vocals of Smalltown Boy would become an anthem uniting gay men. A month later, an aggressive virus, HIV, would be identified and a climate of panic and fear would spread across the nation, marginalising an already ostracised community. Yet, out of this terror would come tenderness and 30 years later, the long road to gay equality would climax with the passing of same sex marriage.

Paul Flynn charts this astonishing pop cultural and societal U-turn via the cultural milestones that effected change—from Manchester’s self-selection as Britain’s gay capital to the real-time romance of Elton John and David Furnish’s eventual marriage. Including candid interviews from major protagonists, such as Kylie, Russell T Davies, Will Young, Holly Johnson and Lord Chris Smith, as well as the relative unknowns crucial to the gay community, we see how an unlikely group of bedfellows fought for equality both front of stage and in the wings.

This is the story of Britain’s brothers, cousins and sons. Sometimes it is the story of their fathers and husbands. It is one of public outrage and personal loss, the (not always legal) highs and the desperate lows, and the final collective victory as gay men were final recognised, as Good As You.

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