thu 18/04/2019

Queer as Pop, Channel 4 / The Joy of Abba, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Queer as Pop, Channel 4 / The Joy of Abba, BBC Four

Queer as Pop, Channel 4 / The Joy of Abba, BBC Four

From gay scene to mainstream? Meanwhile, in Sweden...

David's representative on Earth? Angie Bowie was one of many eloquent contributors to 'Queer as Pop'Sharp Jack Media Limited

Queer as Pop (****) was as much about social as musical history, and Nick Vaughan-Smith’s film told its story with a combination of outstanding archive material and some incisive interviewees, the archive taking fractionally more of the weight. Subtitled “From the Gay Scene to the Mainstream”, it started loosely in the Sixties, then jumped back and forth across the Atlantic until the present day as the story demanded.

It started from the premise that gay clubs were the places that played the best music, and that it was gay artists who were pushing the stylistic boundaries, which were then duly taken into the mainstream (whether the spirit of the gay inspirations was adopted to the same extent as the style was another matter entirely). Compromises appeared at every juncture as commercial pressures came into play.

There were plenty of revealing details, when such overlaps approached absurdity: the Village People’s “In the Navy” nearly used as a recruitment song by the US Navy until someone dropped a hint, or the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West” becoming a football favourite. And the story of how Wham! was selected for a landmark British pop tour to China in the early days of that nation’s opening up to the outside world, chosen over Queen after the former group’s manager circulated a dossier detailing the latter’s allegiances to Communist party bosses.

Managers were manipulating images left, right and centre in the attempt to jump on the mainstream bandwagon, while stars defended themselves against media revelations with varying degrees of success. Have we moved on so much these days that the opposite effect is working? “Can you pre-package a gay anthem?” looks a pretty redundant question when it comes to Lady Gaga. Comments were both considered and strongly felt, among the most eloquent coming from Jimmy Somerville (pictured, above right), who offered a closing meditation on whether gay people can ever now create a music that won’t eventually be assumed into a wider identity. It's up to artists like Mykki Blanco (pictured, below left) to prove it might still be possible.

Pretty much all the appropriate musical eras were covered. If there was a seminal moment, at least in the UK, it may have been David Bowie’s hug with Mick Ronson on Top of the Pops! in 1972 (at least Robert Elms thought so). David stayed off camera here, but his wife Angie more than made up for that absence, not least with her memory of returning home from New York one day to find Bowie and Mike Jagger hanging around naked. (“You did it in my house!” she responded memorably to accusations of having later leaked that story. “Suck on it!")

We saw the styles glide by – New Romantics, Hi-NRG, House emerging in Chicago, which had been the scene back in 1979 of the “Disco Sucks!” burning of disco records, then Acid House in the UK. Often the glamour was most impressive when the surrounding cityscapes – New York in the mid-Seventies, London in the early Eighties – looked bleakest.

The memorable dates were clocked off, too: the 1969 Stonewall riots taking place, so appropriately, on the day of Judy Garland’s funeral, and the appearance of Studio 54 in New York; in London, Bang! opened in 1976, followed by Heaven three years later. Though the real scene-changer, the arrival of AIDS, can’t be defined by a date.

Thankfully Queer as Pop was history rather than thesis; the latter approach would have crumbled anyway when we reached rave culture, when, pace Elms again: “It was gay, it was straight; it was black, it was white”. Impressive both as a succession of individual stories, and for interweaving tendencies, musical and social alike, the only regret with Queer as Pop was that it had to be told so quickly. Another hour at least would have more than repaid the richness of the material.

Harder to say that of Ben Whalley’s The Joy of Abba on BBC Four (***). It's territory that has been mined comprehensively enough over the years, and you felt any more would have been stretching it. Again, it was the archive that stood out, though it was fascinating to hear more on the Swedish context from which the group emerged, which was far from friendly. Abba as the Antichrist – who would have thought? – or the group’s music vids, from Lasse Hallström, with use of what the director called “Bergman faces”.

Theirs was disco that never sucked, which along the way (interestingly) earned musical plaudits from Elvis Costello and The Clash. No one interviewed here was denying the sheer emotional power of Abba at their best. This history was colourful and somewhat headline-style, though, judging by some of the contributors, you suspect there’s a thesis or three being written as we speak on Abba’s significance in all sorts of ways the group could never have imagined.

Comments

Oh not the "I found David in bed with Mick" 'revelation' again! How many times has Angie trotted out that story??The woman is an idiot, liar and a complete attention whore! She's on her fourth or fifth husband now but still calls herself Bowie because no one would give a toss about her if she didn't use the name Bowie and trot out her tired old stories. What a total wingnut! I bet Bowie is eternally grateful that she is no longer a part of his life and their son Duncan too!

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