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When Steve Bronski, who has died aged 61 following a fire at his home, formed Bronski Beat with Jimmy Somerville and Larry Steinbachek in 1983, the British synth-pop trio brought overtly political comment to the electronic dance songs they wrote and performed.
The American magazine Spin described them as “perhaps the first real gay group in the history of pop”.
Their debut single, “Smalltown Boy”, stormed up the British chart to No 3 the following year with a hypnotic mix of Bronski and Steinbachek’s melodic synthesiser lines, offbeat percussion and Somerville’s falsetto vocal repeating: “Run away, turn away, run away, turn away, run away.”
The inner groove on the 12in version of the single had the telephone number of the London Gay Switchboard etched into it and the song told the tale of a homosexual teenager leaving behind his home town, family and prejudice for a new life in London. The promotional video portrayed all three band members being beaten up by a homophobic gang.
It came from Bronski Beat’s first album, The Age of Consent (1984), which featured songs directly relevant to the gay community and reached No 4 in the charts.
The LP’s inner sleeve listed, alphabetically from Austria to Yugoslavia, the age of consent for gay sex in more than 30 countries around the world and noted it to be “completely illegal” in some countries such as Russia and Ireland. Overall, though, it highlighted discrimination in Britain, where the age was still 21, compared with 16 for heterosexuals.
In 2019, Bronski told Classic Pop magazine: “We were just three openly gay men writing songs about our lives.”
He and his bandmates had two more top 20 singles from the album. “Why?”, dedicated to playwright Drew Griffiths, murdered in a homophobic attack in 1984, was followed by “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, from George and Ira Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess, where it is sung by a black drug dealer questioning the literalism of the Bible.
For their fourth hit, they reworked the album medley of the Donna Summer hit “I Feel Love” and John Leyton’s No 1 “Johnny Remember Me” to include Summer’s disco classic “Love to Love You Baby”. With a catchier musical backing track and Soft Cell singer Marc Almond duetting with Somerville, it hit No 3 in the chart.
Following tensions within the group, Somerville left in the summer of 1985 to form The Communards, although he was featured on “Run for Love”, which had already been recorded with the intention of being released as the next single.
Instead, it was featured on the album Hundreds & Thousands (1985), which sold well despite consisting mostly of remixes from the first LP.
When vocalist John Foster – credited as “Jon Jon” – replaced Somerville, the group had two more top 20 hit singles, “Hit That Perfect Beat” (1985), also featured in the film Letter to Brezhnev, and “C’Mon, C’Mon” (1986), as well as a successful album, Truthdare Doubledare (1986).
But Foster then left and Bronski Beat went through several vocalists – including Jonathan Hellyer when they toured the US and Europe – before disbanding in 1995.
Bronski, the group’s guiding light, kept the memories alive by teaming up with singer Stephen Granville and “programmer” Ian Donaldson – who had played keyboards with the band in the 1990s – to rework The Age of Consent, retitled The Age of Reason, in 2017.
He was born Steven William Forrest in 1960 and grew up in a council house in the Castlemilk area of Glasgow. Later, he took his stage name from a character in German author Gunter Grass’s 1959 novel The Tin Drum.
While working by day as a labourer and stagehand, he spent evenings playing bass guitar in a country and western group.
After moving to London, Bronski entered a relationship with Steinbachek, then a BT phone engineer, and moved with him into a flat in Brixton where Somerville also lived.
Steinbachek had built a four-track music studio in his bedroom there and he and Bronski experimented with synthesisers. When they discovered that Somerville could sing, they began adding keyboard parts to his vocals.
Somerville suggested performing as a band after discovering that September in the Pink, an LGBT+ arts and music festival, was being planned in London. They put together a demo tape that landed them a spot.
For the rest of autumn 1983, the band performed in pubs and were distinctive for Bronski and Steinbachek standing behind their twin synthesisers, with Somerville front of stage.
A fourth member, a bass guitarist known only as Fred, was dispensed with after two performances when the others decided they preferred playing as a trio.
After only nine gigs – including one on the same bill as Billy Bragg – they were offered a recording contract with music journalist Paul Morley’s ZTT label but turned it down, saying he wanted to market them on the basis of their sexuality (he succeeded in signing Frankie Goes to Hollywood).
Instead, they went with London Records, which released their songs on the Forbidden Fruit label.
They also headlined the 1984 Pits and Perverts concert at London’s Electric Ballroom to raise funds for the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners campaign, an event included in the film Pride 30 years later.
Performing “I Feel Love” as an encore at another benefit gig during the miners’ strike, Bronski dressed in drag, wearing a silver wig, six-inch red stilettos and a green goddess body stocking.
After Somerville’s departure, apart from Hundreds & Thousands (1985), Bronski Beat released only one other album, Rainbow Nation (1995), with Hellyer on vocals, before splitting up. Their unreleased 1987 LP, Out & About, was made available online in 2016.
They also duetted with Eartha Kitt on the single “Cha Cha Heels”, which skirted the British top 30 in 1989.
Bronski continued in the music business as a producer for artists in the US and Belgium, and remixed All Living Fear’s “Stranger to None” and Electrobronze’s “Flowers in the Morning” (both 2007). From 2000, he spent a decade living in Thailand.
Steinbachek, who moved to Amsterdam and became musical director of a Dutch theatre company, died of cancer in 2016.
Bronski suffered a stroke shortly after the release of The Age of Reason album.
Steve Bronski, musician, born 7 February 1960, died 7 December 2021