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The Secret Public by Jon Savage review – how pop drove LGBTQ+ liberation

The Secret Public by Jon Savage review – how pop drove LGBTQ+ liberation

‘The dancing was of the usual superlative quality. Them queers sure can break a leg.” So went a report from a dance organised by the Gay Liberation Front in New York in 1970, quoted in Jon Savage’s new book. With kaleidoscopic detail and exhilarating verve, he tells the intertwined, transatlantic story of pop and the struggle for LGBTQ+ emancipation. The narrative stretches from 1955 and the emergence of Little Richard – the rock’n’roll pioneer who from boyhood was known as “a sissy, punk, freak and faggot” – to the ascent of the gender-blurring disco star Sylvester in 1978, whose anthem You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) Savage aptly describes as “a major gay liberation statement”.

Savage is a former music journalist for Sounds who wrote England’s Dreaming, a history of punk published in 1991 that is still unsurpassed, and several other weighty cultural histories, including 2007’s Teenage: The Creation of Youth about the emergence of the teenager as a social and cultural category. The Secret Public, however, reads like the book he was born to write – it even takes its title from a fanzine he made in his punk youth with the mononymous collagist Linder, and speaks to the taboo around homosexuality which the bravest pop stars did their best to dispel.

In the turbulent 24 years the book covers – during which pop music passed through a scarcely believable transformation from raw rock’n’roll, through soul, psychedelia, glam and punk, to futurist electronic disco – LGBTQ+ men and women went from living in the shadows, threatened with violence, ostracism and blackmail, to visibility, if not exactly universal acceptance. That visibility came courtesy of glamorous figures such as David Bowie and James Dean, as well as gay icons such as Grace Jones and Donna Summer, who despite being straight, expressed and embodied a community’s dreams and desires.

Some queer pop stars hid in plain sight, such as Johnnie Ray, whose “complete absence of emotional restraint”, Savage says, was deeply shocking in the early 50s, when “real men did not cry”. Others, such as Dusty Springfield, were endlessly goaded about why they didn’t have partners of the opposite sex, escaping the prurience of the press in underground gay clubs such as Gateways in London. Yet there were others, most famously Bowie, who decided not to hide but to flaunt his queerness, a decision that arguably liberated a generation.

The chapter on Bowie is thrilling, demonstrating this book’s ability to cast an entirely new light on subjects that may previously have seemed overfamiliar. Through meticulous and often revelatory research, Savage demonstrates that while Bowie certainly realised that coming out as gay to Melody Maker would make for good copy, he was also part of a sexually fluid, theatrical milieu which he didn’t want to disavow, even in 1972. “The guys that I know as friends are very positively gay, and I couldn’t lead that kind of existence in the papers saying I had Sophia Loren last night and it’ll probably be Raquel Welch tonight,” Bowie explained to the Sunday Times that year. As Savage puts it, “He understood that a new decade demanded new openness and frankness about human life that had been hidden … and in this was part of a wider cultural and political movement.”

That movement was desperately needed: the first half of The Secret Public shows queer people attempting to accommodate themselves in a brutally repressive world. The creativity, style and wit of the gay mods who were so influential to British fashion; the entrepreneurial manager Larry Parnes with his stable of outlandishly named stars such as Billy Fury; Telstar producer Joe Meek’s space-age pop records – they were visionaries, but no match for the unforgiving disapproval of society, backed up by repressive laws. There was also precious little gay representation. Savage unearths a notable exception in Do You Come Here Often?, an instrumental that, two minutes in, suddenly bursts into what he calls “a gay-club scenario, highlighting an intense, bitchy dialogue between two nitroglycerine queens”. Meek, its producer, put it on the B-side of the Tornados’ 1966 flop single Is That a Ship I Hear?, “a rare triumph … that few people noticed but one that gave him great satisfaction.”

The book’s guiding star is perhaps Andy Warhol, at once a frontman due to his own art, an impresario for the Velvet Underground and his “superstars”, most of whom were gay and trans, and an enthusiastic participant in the disco scene as a regular at Studio 54. In 1967, Savage suggests, Warhol was “the most famous homosexual in America”, who went on to put the most transgressive aspects of gay life on full display in films such as Flesh and Trash, and also in the songs of the Velvet Underground, for whom he acted as producer – inspiring Bowie, who went on to helm Lou Reed’s classic and extremely queer 1972 album Transformer. Naturally, this also provoked a backlash. When David Bailey made a documentary about Warhol in 1973, rightwing campaigner Ross McWhirter sought to ban it from British TV. He was unsuccessful, and the scandal garnered it an astonishing 14 million viewers.

The depths of Savage’s research is one reason why this book feels so definitive. As well as hidden B-sides and underground films, he excavates long-lost gay artefacts and personalities, from early 70s LA “drag rock” performers Les Petits Bon-Bons to the pioneering lesbian author Maureen Duffy’s 1966 novel The Microcosm, an avant-garde mosaic of voices from Gateways. He also details the rare instances in which homosexuality was discussed seriously on TV or in the mainstream press. In January 1965, Savage notes, ITV’s This Week “attempted to answer the questions of ‘What is lesbianism? What causes it … and can it be cured?’ Presenter Bryan Magee found the women he interviewed quite unwilling to accept the framing of their lives as a social problem.”

In its expansive sweep, The Secret Public shows the way gay rights progressed with a series of leaps forward followed by brutal pushbacks – a pattern that perhaps continues today. The fabulous final sections guide the reader vividly through the New York gay clubs that incubated disco, which turned into a national, then global craze, reaching its commercial zenith in the shape of the Bee Gees, who were managed by Robert Stigwood, one of a clutch of hugely influential gay managers driving pop music behind the scenes. However, a network of white, straight rock DJs responded to disco’s dominance with increasing vehemence, culminating in Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in Chicago in July 1979, in which disco records were burned and crowds rioted. Savage discusses this ominous incident in detail, but ends his story just before Aids turned gay enclaves like San Francisco, which pulsed to the sounds of electronic disco by local stars such as Sylvester and Patrick Cowley, into graveyards.

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Savage handles his mountains of material with total authority and control, and in the course of doing so reveals the way that pop music was able not just to point the way to a more liberated existence, but also to realise dreams that had previously seemed unreachable. As he writes in the introductory chapter, “the real play of pop was that it had the ability to liberate 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”. It’s to be hoped that Savage will continue his queer history. After reading The Secret Public, it’s hard to imagine another writer doing it better.

Source: theguardian.com