An Interview With Jimmy Somerville

Gay politics always came first for him, Jimmy Somerville tells Cary Gee, but his new disco release is the album he always wanted to make.

It’s been 30 years since Jimmy Somerville sang about the loneliness of growing up gay in a small town. The violent homophobia, bullying and familial rejection so painfully portrayed in the accompanying video to Smalltown Boy, a frightening reality for any gay man who dared to play the hand that they had been dealt. Lady Gaga, global emissary for “little monsters” everywhere wasn’t even born, and gay men living in the UK had far more to worry about than whether or not they should match their wedding outfits.

Does it feel like thirty years to Jimmy?

“If you put it all into context, look at everything that has happened since, then yes, it does feel like 30 years. But the fact that Smalltown Boy is still so powerful, still hanging around, means that it’s not really my song anymore. It hasn’t been for a long time. Smalltown Boy has its own power. It’s there, it exists, and people tap into it and connect with it. I’m very proud of it. It’s a special thing to create something like that.”

Hasn’t gay life progressed to the point where the song is now an historical footnote?

“The great thing is that the song wasn’t just a hit because gay people listened to it. It was such a universal song. It appeals to the emotions, to the heart, and still has the power to move people. I still receive letters from gay men telling me how it got them through school, university, a hard time dealing with their sexuality. At its essence is a heartfelt plea that ‘I need to discover who I am.’ That takes a lot of courage, a lot of truth, a lot of searching, but the journey is a journey everyone has to take. Because it’s such a part of my own story the emotional cry in the song is very potent.”

Does Smalltown Boy still resonate? Maybe everything is OK now?

‘If I could bottle that sentiment and sell it I’d be a rich man! No, everything is not OK now. We’re talking about establishing a human colony on Mars and yet here on planet Earth we can’t even tolerate each other, and allow people to simply live the life they want to live. We’re so busy sticking our noses into each other’s noses we can’t just get on with life. That’s still very much the case today.

“People feel they have a right to take a stick to someone’s head purely because of who they love. Legislation protects us, and there has been a change of attitude, but a huge section of society, while abiding by the law, would prefer us not to have these freedoms.”

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If that’s the case then why are more gay men not up in arms?

“When things are OK for the majority of a group of people, when life is comfortable, they quickly forget what went before that comfort. As a gay man, and a socially aware man, I feel that comfort could so easily be taken away, particularly during times of economic and political upheaval. I always keep my eye on the ball.”

Talking of politics, Jimmy must have felt immense pride on seeing the now infamous Pits and Perverts fundraising gig, which Bronski Beat headlined at Camden’s Electric Ballroom, featured in the film Pride, which tells the true story of how a group of lesbians and gays raised money for the families of striking miners.

“I didn’t go to see the film. It would have been too emotional. I think I’ll just get the DVD, watch it at home and cry. For me it was more than just a film about miners. The lead character Mark, (Ashton, who died of Aids in 1987, aged just 26) was my best friend. When I came to London we struck up a friendship. We were inseparable for years. Double trouble. There’s still a lot of grief and mourning I haven’t yet processed. For people who had to hide Aids-related illnesses from friends and lovers.”

So is there anything from those grim times that Jimmy misses?

“Yeah. The fact I could still do what I wanted and then have the energy to do it all again the next day!” he says, laughing. “I can’t do that anymore.”

Jimmy will be 54 in June, which makes his new album all the more remarkable. Homage is much more than just a lavishly produced disco extravaganza. Featuring lush arrangements, Chic-style bass hooks, filthy horns and more strings than the Love Unlimited Orchestra, all topped off with Jimmy’s astonishing vocals, the album is tighter than Madonna’s Brits cloak, and, says Somerville “the record I always wanted to make.”

“I didn’t want to do a pastiche, just dip my toe into disco. I wanted to completely immerse myself. It was a fantastic experience. Uplifting, and celebratory. It also gave me a better understanding of the politics of the time. The whole ‘disco sucks’ movement wasn’t just a bunch of rednecks who decided they didn’t like disco. It was a white heterosexual American backlash against blacks, gays, all minorities who had suddenly found a voice and become visible.

“Disco wasn’t just about glitter balls, it was about something much bigger. It was about social change. I kind of knew this but now I understand it much better. If you are doing something musically that you love, you can really bring people with you. All of the musicians (on Homage) didn’t just turn up and play, they really gave something of themselves — love, consideration, enthusiasm — and you can feel it from beginning to end. It’s the first album I’ve made that I can listen to from track 1 to track 12 and say, “That’s good, that’s great. I’m happy.”

Jimmy Somerville White t-shirt-1

The last time I bumped into Jimmy was backstage at an 80s pop festival, after he had just pulled the rug out from under the feet of Rick Astley with a barnstorming, show stealing medley of hits. How well did Jimmy get on with his contemporaries back in the day?

“I was known as little big mouth. People steered well clear of me. I laughed when Boy George told me, ‘I was so scared of you.’ I looked up at him, he’s a big guy, and said, “You’re scared of me!” He said, “Yeah, your f**king mouth!’

“It was an interesting period. I didn’t go into music to be a pop star, to be successful. My involvement in gay politics came first. The music was just a vehicle, a megaphone. I was very different to everyone else who put their careers first. I didn’t really understand or respect that enough. I was telling everyone, ‘I know you’re gay, you should be telling everyone else that you’re gay.’ I was an angry young man!”

And now?

“I can still get angry, but I’ve a much better way to process that anger nowadays, to do something more positive with it. Long gone are the days of ‘my way or no way’.”

So when did this accidental pop star discover he had a voice to sing with?

“I only discovered I could sing a year before the release of Smalltown Boy.”

Did he enjoy his fame at all?

“I can look back now and reflect upon it. There were highs and lows, madness and joy. Incredible experiences. But when I realised I had sold my anonymity, that really f**ked my head up for a long time. It’s a very bizarre thing to do. Yet we now live in an age when so many young kids are so greedy for celebrity they don’t care how much they degrade and humiliate themselves to get it. It’s baffling, mind boggling.”

To explain how you regain your anonymity would, says, Somerville, take a whole other interview.

“But it’s been scientifically proven that the rush you get from being famous is exactly the same as taking a gramme of cocaine, highly addictive and it f**ks up your head. When you lose that adulation you begin to look elsewhere for that fix. I’ve had some amazing times and some very difficult times but I don’t regret any of it. That was then and I can’t change it. Now I find that freedom through reality. For a long time I felt unable to perform without some mind-altering substance in my body. But when I perform sober I have a better connection; with my voice, the audience, and myself.”

Somerville enjoys “reunion” tours — because “everyone is there just to have fun. To hear the songs and remember important moments in their lives. There is always such a great atmosphere” — but he’s looking forward to performing Homage live.

“I’m hopefully going to get some musicians together and sort out some live shows, but it takes money. It’s expensive to organise, so if anyone reading this has a lot of spare cash and fancies being my personal bank get in touch!”

Homage may be a brilliant album to shake your booty to, but like all great records there’s much more to it than that. Somerville describes the introduction of gay marriage as conservative with a small “c” but lurking in the background is Conservative with a massive “C” which is quite frightening.

“There’s a track on Homage called Travesty which is aboutwelfare war’ and I truly believe the most  vulnerable in society are going to feel it even more if the Conservatives win another election. It’s sad that we live in such a wealthy country, where we can afford to support a nuclear arsenal but not a teenager on our streets who has to beg for some sort of existence. I don’t see the point in a long-winded discussion. For me it’s very simple. We can afford it, but we don’t do it.”

In fact, for this particular singer, “Politics and music have always mixed. Music is how people have told their stories. In America they had bluegrass, in the North of England, folk. In Ireland and all over the world songs have been a way for people to talk about their lives and their struggles. As far as I’m concerned it’s a match made in heaven.”

But can’t he just write a pop song?

“I’ve always been labelled ‘a gay pop star’, that makes it political right away.”

I ask what he’s listening to at the moment and he flips his iPod on. It’s all there from the Andrews Sisters, and Tina Turner, through to Sparks, John Davis and the Monster Orchestra, Bobby Womack and Amanda Lear. “There’s always some Amanda Lear,” he says.

Big-mouthed he may be, but Jimmy Somerville knows a bloody good tune when he hears one. So do I, and Homage is filled to bursting with them.

Homage by Jimmy Somerville is out now

Go to jimmysomerville.co.uk for tour dates