When Berlin Found Its Gay Anthem - OZY | A Modern Media Company

When Berlin Found Its Gay Anthem

When Berlin Found Its Gay Anthem

By Eugene S. Robinson

Marc Almond and Jimmy Somerville performing in 1985.
SourceDavid Redfern / Getty


Because the song sometimes really does remain the same.

By Eugene S. Robinson

Shooting someone a glance, a look, a visual hello should not be fraught with difficulty. Perpetuation of the species and all that. Until, that is, one of those someones is a man and the other is also a man, who has taken offense.

In 1984 the very out, synth-pop band Bronski Beat — lead singer and lyricist Jimmy Somerville, Steve Bronski and Larry Steinbachek — recorded “Smalltown Boy,” a song that dealt with the beating that followed the aforementioned rejection, along with the familial shunning and the fleeing of a small town for the kindlier climes of 1980s London. A gay anthem was born.

With Somerville’s soaring falsetto, “Smalltown Boy” soared in the charts — as high as No. 1 in Belgium and the Netherlands, No. 3 in the U.K. and Germany, and the top 10 in no fewer than five other countries — with its nod to the overwhelmingly sad and way too common fact that “the love that you need will never be found at home.” And then the ringing refrain — “Run away, turn away, run away, turn away, run away” — that set the scene for scores of teens leaving their own small towns for a freer future amid the like-minded in hipper, more progressive urban settings.

Cynics will read that “happened” with arched eyebrows, and many have called bullshit on the encounter being happenstance.

“It was really a great time for LGBT artists,” says disc jockey Marlon Kasberg. For the first time since Elton John’s tearful coming out and subsequent suicide attempt, the Tom Robinson Band, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Marc Almond and more were laying down markers for being unrepentantly gay. “It was punk as fuck in absolutely not caring what people thought about their sexuality,” Krasberg says.

That, and “Smalltown Boy” just kills. No wonder that a busker in Berlin picked it as his go-to for making a little cash one day. The same day that the song’s author happened to be walking by. While cynics will read that “happened” with arched eyebrows, and many have called bullshit on the encounter being happenstance, when Somerville joined the street warbler it was a pleasantly chilling reminder of the power of music to move. 

Since “Smalltown Boy” was written, age of consent laws have changed so gay teens have legal protection for doing what teenagers do, same-sex marriage is legal in the U.K., and Somerville? Still killing it as evidenced by his 2015 disco-driven record Homage.

And this.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories