Have you got Lesbian Fighting Song? The Pride anthems that time forgot

From the glam-punk of Handbag to the ultra-camp Steve Elgin, award-winning gay music historian Darryl W Bullock picks out deep cuts to play at this year’s Pride celebrations

Fifty years ago this month, a fortnight of gigs, talks and discos to mark the third anniversary of the police raids on New York’s Stonewall Inn culminated – on 1 July 1972 – in the UK’s first Pride march. About 700 LGBTQ+ people ambled from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park, waving banners and demanding their civil rights. There were no carnival floats, no rainbow-bedecked drag divas, not even a Pride flag, and no music to accompany the protesters either.

But British activists already knew how important music was to this new community. The Gay Liberation Front had been organising discos and dances for 18 months prior to the march, and 1,200 people descended on Kensington town hall shortly before Christmas 1970 for Britain’s first publicly advertised gay disco, filling the place to capacity, with 500 revellers turned away at the door. There were no LGBTQ+ bands, and no artists making records for LGBTQ+ people; at least most of the acts playing those early dances – including David Bowie, Hawkwind and Pink Fairies – were sympathetic to the cause of gay liberation, but the discs being spun were the same ones you would hear in the contemporary singles chart.

That would soon change, and as annual Pride events began to spread across the country, artists and songwriters inspired by the gay liberation movement began to make music specifically for LGBTQ+ audiences. Here are some of those songs that tend to be forgotten.

Everyone Involved – A Gay Song (1972)

It’s a toss-up as to what would be the world’s first gay liberation record: many would argue that Stone Wall Nation by Madeline Davis, written in March 1971, predates the UK release A Gay Song, first performed that year. But with lyrics by Gay Liberation Front activist Alan Wakeman, A Gay Song is the first recording by a British act to explicitly address the LGBTQ+ community in a positive way.

It appeared on the album Either/Or by a collective known as Everyone Involved, and featured volunteers from the GLF on vocals. Covering themes such as ecology, world peace and free love in a rousing folk-rock arrangement, Either/Or also included a second gay-themed song, A Sad Song, sung by Gillian Dickinson of folk quartet the Solid British Hat Band. “I felt enormously proud to be involved in that. It was a magical time,” she explains.

“There were various different people, which is why we called it Everyone Involved. Freya Hogue, who was in Sunforest, an all-female band; Arnolpho Lima Filho, the bass player of Brazilian rock band Os Mutantes … We had James Asher, the cousin of Jane and Peter Asher, on drums, and everyone played for free. The idea was to give the album away … We were terribly idealistic and young, but it was a wonderful thing.”

Starbuck – Do You Like Boys (1973)

Starbuck were two members – Brian Engle and Martin Briley – of 60s psych-rock band Mandrake Paddle Steamer: a studio project, recording material written by Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley, who first hit the big time in 1964 with the Honeycombs. That band’s Joe Meek-produced No 1 Have I the Right “was an echo of the closing words of Radclyffe Hall’s classic lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness: ‘Give us also the right to our existence’,” Howard recalls. “Alan and I were always keen to make our songs reflect something of our personalities and we liked the title Do You Like Boys, which could appeal equally to gays as well as girls.”

According to Briley, “to promote this song we were flown to Germany on a tour of what turned out to be gay discos”; Gay News highlighted its “potential to become a disco favourite”. But despite Starbuck appearing on TV shows including Lift Off with Ayshea, neither this nor their two subsequent 45s troubled the Top 40. Post-Starbuck, Briley and Engle appeared on the soundtrack to the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Briley has written songs for dozens of artists including Monkee Peter Tork, Céline Dion, ‘NSync and Pat Benatar.

Steve Elgin – Don’t Leave Your Lover Lying Around (Dear) (1974)

As camp as a pantomime dame, dripping in innuendo and complete with pub piano and a chorus of Ain’t She Sweet, this single sparked controversy: Elgin’s team suggested that the BBC had dropped plans to feature Don’t Leave Your Lover Lying Around (Dear) as record of the week on the David Hamilton show because of the obviously gay lyrics, leading his manager to inveigle his way into Broadcasting House and pin copies of Gay News on noticeboards throughout the building.

Despite his efforts, the single was a flop, and no record that told a story from an LGBTQ+ point of view would bother the British charts until 1978 – (Sing If You’re) Glad to be Gay by the Tom Robinson band, which charted (as part of the Rising Free EP) in February 1978, reaching number 18. By that time, Elgin was fronting new wave act Steve Elgin and the Flatbackers, “a rock group with a difference” according to the Stage, with our man backed by four female musicians.

Valentino – I Was Born This Way (1975)

Outside members-only clubs, pub backrooms and the occasional gay-friendly dinner-and-dance venue, there were no permanent gay discos in Britain until Bang! opened its doors in Charing Cross in 1976. That did not stop audiences feverishly grabbing hold of LGBTQ-themed records whenever they appeared and demanding that DJs spin them.

One such record was I Was Born This Way by Valentino, which also proved to be a hit on the Northern Soul scene. It was the only 45 issued on Gaiee records, founded by the song’s co-author Bunny Jones, a beauty salon owner with several gay employees. “I named the label Gaiee because I wanted to give gay people a label they can call home,” she once said. After the disc broke big on the dancefloor and Bunny had sold 15,000 copies from the back of her car, Motown bought her out.

Advertised as “the first gay disco single”, Billboard magazine noted that “feelings on the disc are mixed, as some think it is offensive; others feel it is a great cut. Without a doubt it’s a strong disco record”. Valentino himself told Gay News: “It’s just music with a message. I’m not forcing anyone to turn gay and in the same way no one is trying to turn me straight.” Although Valentino’s recording failed to cross over into the mainstream, the song was later covered (with greater success) on Motown’s main label by Carl Bean, and, later still, its sentiment immortalised by Lady Gaga.

Handbag – Just Raped (1977)

Almost a decade before Bronski Beat, Handbag were the first out gay trio in Britain to win a recording contract, when, in 1975, David Arden – son of notorious hardman music mogul Don Arden and brother of Sharon Osbourne – signed them to Jet Records, home to ELO and Ozzy Osbourne. The band were in for a rough ride: that year a gig with lesbian band the Stepney Sisters was abandoned following a bomb scare, and the much-vaunted album recorded for Jet was never issued, but they did get to write and perform the soundtrack to documentary film David is Homosexual.

In 1977 the group laid down demos for a second album, songs with a heavier edge such as the punk-influenced live favourite Just Raped, and soon after they were headlining a weekly gay night at legendary London punk venue the Roxy. “The clientele at the Roxy were similar to any other night,” says Handbag’s Paul Southwell. “Teenagers trying to find themselves. Although the club was a shithole I do remember Handbag having some great nights in there, with the kids really liking us.’

Unbeknown to them, those unpolished demos emerged in Italy as an LP titled Snatchin’, later repackaged as The Aggressive Style Punk Rock. “I would never have let that go out, with someone on the cover with a swastika on his face, but I had no control over it,” says Southwell.

Ova – Lesbian Fighting Song (1979)

Musicians Rosemary Schonfeld and Jana Runnalls met in 1976 and quickly became romantically involved. Driven out of their home by drunken neighbours, they ended up in a squat with members of the Brixton Faeries commune where, inspired by the burgeoning women’s music scene in the US, the pair began performing as the Dykier Than Sky High Forever Band.

By 1978 they were recording, first as the Lupin Sisters (in a nod to Monty Python), and later as Ova, issuing their debut album in 1979. The Yoko Ono-influenced Lesbian Fighting Song, with its rallying cry of “you men better watch out … We’re going to fight the power, you hold us down” became a live favourite, and over the following decade Ova toured Europe and America and released three further albums via women’s collective Stroppy Cow records.

From the outset, they wore their political beliefs on their sleeves. “The political perspective helped make sense of our personal experiences,” Rosemary explains. “We naturally started writing about what was happening in our lives. The gay, lesbian and feminist movements were taking off, and our politics and music became inextricably linked. We realised that there was a real hunger for political songs written and performed by lesbians. We all shared the burning desire to play, create and develop our music in a safe environment. Women were still not allowed the freedom of forming and leading bands. It was a fight to be allowed to be anything other than the eye-candy singer fronting a load of men.”

• Darryl W Bullock is the author of The Velvet Mafia, winner of the 2022 Penderyn music book prize. His new book Pride, Pop and Politics is published by Omnibus Press on 9 June

Darryl W Bullock

The GuardianTramp

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