Published on August 31st, 2016 | by Martin Aston1
Breaking Down the Walls Of Heartache: How Music Came Out
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Martin Aston explores popular music’s queer DNA, drawing together the lives and records of the first singers and songwriters to defy the illegaility and bigotry of their time, to tell the story of how music ‘came out’.
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“All rock’n’roll is homosexual,” Manic Street Preachers once claimed, and stuck it on a T-shirt.
The band might have overstated the case, but you can’t beat a good slogan. Yet popular music’s queer DNA is inarguable, from Elvis in eye shadow to k.d. lang’s female Elvis; from the far-reaching influence of Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’, the Velvet Underground and Bowie’s bisexual alien Ziggy Stardust; from Frankie Say ‘Relax’ to house music godfather Frankie Knuckles; from Kurt Cobain in a dress to lesbian icon and couture model Beth Ditto, from trans trailblazer Anohni to current hip-hop trailblazer Frank Ocean.
Yet, for decades, gay and lesbian performers preferred the safety of the closet, whilst homosexuality was illegal, or through the homophobia after Gay Liberation – only in 2014 did an ‘out’ gay pop star, Sam Smith, top the US chart. Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache is the first book to tell the story of ‘how music came out’, a definitive social and musical history that spans 100 years, starting in the British music halls and Harlem’s blues clubs of the early 20th century. Many of the first performers to defy the laws and morals of their time have never been documented in print, such as the 1950s lesbian rockabilly trio and 1960s gay soul siren, the first gay country band, and the only true gay glam rockers and punk rockers, the pioneering queer rappers and the first trans musicians. These hidden pioneers, alongside their famous counterparts, provided vital coded clues at a time when there were no, or very few, role models, Step forward, please, as Fred Barnes, Tony Jackson, Bruz Fletcher, Frances Faye, Billy Wright, the Roc-a-Jets, Jackie Shane, Lavender Country, Handbag and Fifth Column, among other trailblazers.
Aston’s ambitious and comprehensive narrative unfolds over one hundred years, against a backdrop of social and political shifts, as gay liberation transmuted into LGBT+ rights and pushed for visibility and equality, from 1920s liberalism through to the closet of post-war years, the eventual breakthroughs of the Sixties, the permissive Seventies, the mainstream invasion and AIDS crisis of the Eighties and the advances of the Nineties and Noughties. The love that once dared not speak its name now sings, and on daytime radio to boot.
The story ends with the omnipresence of LGBT+ performers across all music genres but expressions of LGBT+ life in Africa, the Middle East and Russia signify how the journey from illegality and bigotry to freedom is far from over.