Breaking Down The Walls Of Heartache: How Music Came Out
October 13th 2016
Martin Aston explores popular music’s queer DNA, drawing together the lives and records of the first singer and songwriters to defy the social and political conservatism of their time, to tell the story of how music ‘came out’.
“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 and 21st century trans ‘future feminist’ Anohni.
Yet most of the first performers to defy the social and political conservatism of their time and reveal the truth about their sexuality were typically the least visible, such as the Fifties lesbian rockabilly trio and the Sixties gay soul renegade: the seventies gay country music band and the real gay glam and punk bands of the era; the first queer rappers and trans rockers.
Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache is not only the first book to tell the story of how music ‘came out’, but to shed light on these hidden pioneers alongside their famous counterparts, who provided vital coded clues at a time when there were so few role models, and homosexuality was outlawed, or simply declared the truth about their sexuality. Step forward, please, pioneers such as Fred Barnes, Tony Jackson, Bruz Fletcher, Frances Faye, Billy Wright, the Roc-a-Jets, Jackie Shane, Lavender Country, Handbag and Fifth Column, trailblazers all. Aston’s ambitious and comprehensive narrative unfolds over one hundred years, against a backdrop of social and political shifts, as gay liberation transmuted into LGBTQ 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.
Aston also documents the retrogressive steps in Russia and parts of Africa, where songs that bravely encapsulate the LGBT+ experience while homosexuality remains a crime, punishable by lenghty prison sentences and public-mob violence, signify how the journey from illegality and bigotry to freedom is far from over.