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Duo Has Necks On The Line

January 11, 1987|STEVE HOCHMAN

The Issue and the Voice.

The former is gay activism and the latter is Jimmy Somerville's falsetto, and when it comes to talking about the London-based rock group Communards, it's virtually impossible to avoid focusing on these two things.

But as Somerville and Communards co-founder Richard Coles sat in the top-floor lounge of a Hollywood hotel, it initially seemed that these were the last two things they cared to discuss. After about five minutes of insisting that the group originally stood for nothing in particular other than just "to be fun," though, Somerville acknowledged the social and political nature of the music.

"I suppose what it comes down to in the end is two gay socialists," he said.

"What started out as just fun became more serious," Coles added. "Either we could have succumbed to it or taken it into account and developed accordingly."

"But we can't let it govern our lives," insisted Somerville. "As soon as you stop enjoying something, you ought to question it."

Communards (the name comes from a 19th-Century romantic revolutionary movement in Paris) was formed in the spring of 1985 after Somerville had ceased to enjoy leading the similarly oriented Bronski Beat. That group had international hits with such gay-themed electro-disco songs as "Why?" and "Smalltown Boy," but with success came a drift away from political concerns, and Sommerville was dissatisfied.

Teaming with long-time friend Coles, a classically trained keyboardist and composer, Somerville sought to recapture the fun of Bronski Beat's early days. Still, it is the gay activism that remains central to the Communards' music.

"I think it's important because of AIDS and the fear, and it's being blamed on the gay community," Somerville said.

"We don't see ourselves as a single-issue band," Coles insisted. "But in a way we feel pressured to stress it because no one else is doing it. We try to give the whole gay image."

"It's not just sex and disease, it's compassion and feeling," added Somerville. "For us it's a bit depressing. I suppose it's putting our necks on the line."

When the group was scheduled to perform in Paris last fall, the risk of being an openly gay act was demonstrated quite clearly.

"They had to evacuate the building for a bomb scare," Coles said, but added that most of the backlash is limited to isolated incidents with individuals. "No one's organized a mass burning of our records, but I'm curious to see what happens here (in the United States). I'm sure we'll only be perceived as a threat if we get bigger here."

Despite huge success in Europe and Great Britain and in American dance clubs, Coles and Somerville do not anticipate mass appeal here. For one thing, there are no plans to tour this side of the Atlantic before early 1988. (A brief December tour was limited to shows in Los Angeles, Toronto and New York).

Any large-scale success here, the two believe, will likely happen despite, rather than because of the gay identification.

"Ultimately, people have to like the music," Coles said. "They have to respond to the tunes."

With the Communards' music, what most people respond to first is Somerville's voice. To some it is a remarkable instrument, to others a novel freak of nature, and to still others a grating annoyance.

It is hard to imagine that this small, fidgety redhead--who speaks with a thick, not particularly high Glaswegian accent--can produce the piercing tones heard on such songs as a remake of Thelma Houston's mid-'70s disco hit "Don't Leave Me This Way." Even on stage at the group's Palace show, where he and Coles were backed by a one-man, seven-woman group, it wasn't easy to reconcile the singing with the singer.

In any case, Somerville's voice is the most prominent musical feature of the Communards, as it was in the Bronski Beat, and tends to be the thing that draws listeners to--or puts them off from--the group. And like the gay issue, it tends to blind people to any other aspect of the music.

"It does get a bit frustrating," Somerville said. "I'm seen as just this voice, but I do have other abilities. I can program equipment and write melodies. And Richard is dismissed as just an accompanist. So it does get depressing."

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