5
Jan 10

THE COMMUNARDS – “Don’t Leave Me This Way”

FT + Popular45 comments • 14,001 views

#576, 13th September 1986, video

As a straight man it’s easy for me to be complacent about this, but the Orwellian “THE COMMUNARDS ARE BANNED” business at the start of this video looks completely ridiculous to me now, and the fact that it does suggests genuine and positive social change. Around this time I remember reading a tabloid article suggesting that gay men be interned offshore, Anthrax-island style, until AIDS had burnt itself out: an extreme expression of the panic and fear surrounding the disease – and of who much of the public wanted to blame. From one angle it was a time of increasing, indulged, and with Clause 28 ultimately government-sanctioned homophobia, a lurch back between the several steps forward of 60s decriminalisation and 00s equality legislation.

Jimmy Somerville very much emerged as a pop star against this background – out and proud, making records with Bronski Beat about growing up gay, his falsetto keening over “Small Town Boy” as a lament and rebuke for the provincial towns which drove out young men like him. He was always a serious man, even when he made surging, celebratory records like this one. Partying was in itself political. In fact what gives “Don’t Leave Me This Way” its odd grain is the contrast between Somerville’s slightly aloof, elevated performance and the gusto the arrangement seems to demand.

Without that sense of hedonism the record feels too effortful. Somerville is acting the choirboy in a gospel song, floating over the listener when he needs to lift them up with him, and without his support the rest of the band try for Sylvester and end up closer to Black Lace – uncomplicated, manipulative party music. That whomping great hands-in-the-air “Whoooooooooooaaa – BABY!” is the least subtle moment all year, which probably explains why “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was ’86’s top-selling single. The sonics have aged terribly, though – it all sounds so thin now, which would block the song’s instrumental lunge for ecstasy, even if you didn’t leave it convinced Somerville is no fun to dance with.

5

Comments

  1. 1
    Tom on 5 Jan 2010 #

    I’d like the sleeve if it didn’t remind me of microwaved spaghetti shapes.

  2. 2
    punctum on 5 Jan 2010 #

    In late August, as “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was climbing up the chart, we were at Edinburgh for the Festival (and mostly for the Fringe) and watched a superb concert by the Happy End, who were a sort of deliberately ramshackle socialist big band mixing up Brecht, Bley and Brotherhood of Breath. They released a couple of albums, which were fair, but really they needed to be experienced live. Their singer was Sarah Jane Morris, a tall, gangly redhead with a penchant for hats, earrings and tunics, and she skipped excitedly through the semi-improvised melee, suddenly breaking into “My Baby Just Cares For Me” but putting great emphasis on “she” and “her.” Her subsequent solo cover of “Me And Mrs Jones” unsurprisingly had radio programmers running fervently in the opposite direction.

    You can therefore tell how the balance worked in terms of Sarah Jane, the tall, deep-voiced gay singer, and Jimmy Somerville, the short, falsetto-voiced gay singer, and how such a combination, in tandem with an instantly recognisable anthem from more innocent times, would have led to 1986’s best-selling single. Certainly few artists deserved a number one more than Somerville; unapologetically militant and passionate about his sexuality and politics, and with an utterly individual style, it is, even now, hard to underestimate just how important the original Bronski Beat were at the time of their emergence. They were the necessary conscience of the dying days of New Pop, and especially for that uniquely gay pop summer, and for their unambiguous realism they were voted 1984’s Best Newcomers in the Smash Hits Readers’ Poll, with double the votes of Frankie. Where Morrissey cleverly teased around the sexuality issue, Somerville raged about the reactions he got “when I turn to kiss HIS lips.” But the records were playlisted on radio and TV, and the only stench of complaint came from the NME, whose Chris Bohn mumbled that “no one gives a toss what they get up to in the dark, and that’s what bothers them,” which review succeeded in losing that august journal thousands of readers (and yet Bohn idolised DAF!).

    However, it didn’t last, and by 1986 Somerville had quit Bronski, formed the Communards with Richard Coles and needed a big hit. At that time Bronski Beat Mk II, with new lead singer John Foster, were actually ahead of the Communards commercially, scoring a top three smash with “Hit That Perfect Beat,” whereas the subtler likes of “You Are My World” and “Tomorrow” barely scraped into the Top 30. So “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was necessary, and it’s rather sad to note that nearly all of Somerville’s subsequent major hits, whether with the Communards or as a soloist, were cover versions; the only original to make the top ten was the follow-up, the shiveringly brilliant lonely voyeur’s lament “So Cold The Night,” with producer Mike Thorne recapturing that electrosleaze template which he had perfected with Soft Cell.

    Thorne also produced “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” and while it’s an agreeable enough romp through the Gamble/Huff standard, with Somerville and Morris’ voices dovetailing well into and out of each other, and a few nice production touches – the backwards bassline in the mid-section breakdown, the piano motif which uncannily foretells that of a certain 1988 number one, and the “aaaaaaaaahhhhh!” which leads to the final key change – the production itself is disappointing; yet again we have that shrill, trebly, bottom-free sound and those migraine-inducing, distant horn sections, as well as a general feeling of proto-Jools Holland jamming. So the final verdict is: a nice idea, but dully realised.

    And, as an addendum, I do feel it important to point out that, despite the disappointing run of chart-toppers, this was in fact a relatively healthy time for the charts; elsewhere in the lists of this period we find the likes of “Human,” “Word Up,” “Walk This Way,” “Panic” and “Nasty,” all revolutionary pop singles in their own differing ways, not to mention “Love Can’t Turn Around” which may well have been the most revolutionary of the lot.

  3. 3
    thefatgit on 5 Jan 2010 #

    Not much to add here. 5 is about right. Maybe a more overtly Hi-NRG production would have got a 6.

  4. 4
    Steve Mannion on 5 Jan 2010 #

    Re #1 I think they’re channelling Grace Jones on the sleeve at least.

    The cover of ‘Comment Te Dire Adieu’ wth June Miles-Kingston has enjoyed a bit of a revival with me recently.

  5. 5
    lonepilgrim on 5 Jan 2010 #

    I’ve not seen the video before – I suspect it was a bit too militant for TOTP – although Big Brother looks like he’s just wandered off of Old Compton Street.

    I love the song but the production is lacking in syncopation compared to the Harold Melvin or Thelma Houston versions which when I heard them mixed together by a DJ provided a disco epiphany for me back in the early 80s.
    I too saw SJM with the Happy End in 1986 and a couple of years ago, at a friend’s house, I met Richard Coles, the piano player, in his latest incarnation as a Vicar. I kept thinking I recognised him but couldn’t figure out why until my friend explained after was he’d left. IIRC he subsequently turned up in that role on HIGNFY – probably as a nod to Ian Hislop’s resemblance to Jimmy Sommerville.

  6. 6
    RichardBK on 5 Jan 2010 #

    Rather than seeing this as a desperate attempt at a big hit to establish Somerville’s new band, I think it’s easiest to explain as a straightforward sequel to Bronski’s cover of ‘I Feel Love’ from the previous year, which was almost as big a hit. That one also featured Jimmy’s falsetto contrasted with a lower-pitched gay counterpart, in that case Marc Almond. The only purpose of either record – neither Thelma nor Donna needed any sort of update in 1986 – was to identify both songs as ‘gay anthems’ – a concept that I think was only just emerging at that time. Both records seem to be saying, simply – here, this is us, and we will, defiantly, carry on being ourselves.

    As you say, there’s an obvious viral reason why such clear statements were needed in 1985/86. Of all the anthems The Communards could have picked, perhaps he chose this one for the line ‘I can’t survive, I can’t stay alive without your love’, which is ambiguous enough to offer a little bit of politics to those who are interested, without unduly alarming the dancing suburban teenagers who bought the 12 inch (including me obviously).

    It was important and enjoyable in 1986, but there’s no need for anyone to play this instead of the Harold Melvin or Thelma Houston versions now. I’d stretch to a 6, maybe.

    The Other Communard, Richard Coles, is now a Church of England minister and it seems he has a gig presenting BBC1’s Songs Of Praise show next Sunday. He’s still in the anthems business, then.

  7. 7
    David Belbin on 5 Jan 2010 #

    Hadn’t heard this for twenty years and not much to add to the above, except what’s Somerville been up to in the last 18 years? AFAIK he’s not worked the revival circuit and his latest album (first since ’95) is only available as a download on iTunes.

    I spotifyed this, rather than pulling out the single, and ‘You Are My World’, which is on 12″ in the attic, came up next. It holds up pretty well, even at 160 kbps. Got loads of radio play, as I recall, but was too gay for 1985, I guess. I’d be interested in seeing a TV drama about what it was like to be in a gay pop band as AIDS emerged, rather than the dismal John Hurt drama (a redundant sequel to ‘The Naked Civil Servant’) that was on last week, looking at this era through an especially unrevealing prism.

  8. 8
    Izzy on 5 Jan 2010 #

    I’ve seen Jimmy Somerville twice recently: once headlining a RaiUno Saturday night spectacular, on in the background when I was out for a pizza last summer; and once (probably a few years back now) exiting Arrivals at City Airport, trailing a gaggle of tall, raucous girls in his wake.

    This latter event prompted me to check out the video for this tune. I still really like the song, but the video is horribly forced and joyless, despite the efforts of his strapping co-vocalist.

    I hate that tear on the sleeve too, and the colours and the font at the top … in fact the whole thing’s a nightmare, other than the band logo, even though it looks fine at first glance. It’d have to be a fine record to get me to buy something like that.

  9. 9
    Billy Smart on 6 Jan 2010 #

    Hm, I find this particularly unpleasant to listen to now, simultaneously blaring and shrieking. I am duty-bound to report that I liked The Communards a lot at the time though, and bought both albums. What was I thinking? I liked the politics more than anything else, I think, a sense of commitment and toughness that I found romantic. Somerville’s vocal stylings are certainly pretty original, and the ‘What’s that?’ factor outweighed the car alarm aural discomfort that they can induce at the time.

    These days I find the cover versions beyond redemption, having heard the patently superior originals, discovered all the sass and sensuality that the Communards subsequently disemboweled from the source. I’ve been wary to go back to them, but I rather suspect that I’d still be impressed by Disenchanted and Tomorrow as songs if I heard them again, even if I was wishing that somebody else was singing them.

  10. 10
    Billy Smart on 6 Jan 2010 #

    Number 2 Watch: Two weeks of Jermaine Stewart’s ultra-1986 safe sex anthem ‘We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off’, then two much more enjoyable weeks of Five Star’s ‘Rain Or Shine’- perhaps their greatest moment (it’s either that or ‘System Addict’)

  11. 11
    Billy Smart on 6 Jan 2010 #

    TOTPWatch: The Communards thrice performed ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ on Top Of The Pops (who also showed the video on four occasions);

    4 September 1986. Also in the studio that week were; MC Miker G & DJ Sven, Bon Jovi, Farley Jackmaster Funk and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Gary Davies was the host.

    18 September 1986. Also in the studio that week were; Timex Social Club, Michael MacDonald, OMD and Cameo. Peter Powell & Steve Wright were the hosts.

    25 September 1986. Also in the studio that week were; Amazulu, Farley Jackmaster Funk and Loose Ends. Janice Long was the host.

  12. 12
    TomLane on 6 Jan 2010 #

    This snuck in at #40 in the U.S. I like Jimmy Somerville, but this is pretty standard dance stuff. The 5 is the right score.

  13. 13
    swanstep on 6 Jan 2010 #

    5 seems a very generous score to me since this cover *is* utterly redundant, and yet, and yet, one does want to give Somerville something like a ‘lifetime pass’ for ‘Small Town Boy’ and its astonishing, haunting vid.. I get chills even now just thinking about it. Amazing stuff.

    I’d add to #2, punctum’s aside about on-going revolution in music at the time: Metallica’s Master of Puppets, which came out in March 1986. Their original wunder-bassist, Cliff Burton, was then killed in a bus crash in September (i.e., while this Communards song was at the top of the charts), bringing down the curtain on Metallica’s early pomp.

  14. 14
    glue_factory on 6 Jan 2010 #

    After the synthetic, electronic charms of Bronksi Beat, something about the piano on this made it seem far too earnest and “school assembly” for me. Still, it wasn’t all bad, weren’t early 90s electro-poppers Banderas lurking amongst the band in the video?

  15. 15
    punctum on 6 Jan 2010 #

    1986 was an amazing year for music really. Whether Big Black or Marshall Jefferson or Schoolly-D or the Triffids, there was something going on just about everywhere. But, as ever, such activity isn’t always reflected in the number ones.

    #6 – The “I Feel Love” medley was an extremely political statement; in fact it was a deliberate protest against Donna Summer and her then recent (alleged) remarks (from the born-again Christian perspective) about Aids being God’s punishment to gays.

  16. 16
    lonepilgrim on 6 Jan 2010 #

    I’d agree with Marcello – there was some good music around in 1986 – Prince with ‘Parade’, The Bangles, Working Week’s ‘Companeros’, Anita Baker’s Rapture, Miles Davis ‘Tutu’ as well as various singles.

    I associate the year with listening to stuff on my Walkman which as a late adapter I’d only got that year. Being able to soundtrack the world with albums (particularly the latter two above) and mixtapes seemed wonderful.

  17. 17
    MikeMCSG on 6 Jan 2010 #

    These lot took over from Mungo Jerry as the most physically unattractive collective ever to top the charts. You had Mr Potato Head and that malnourished nerd Richard “Everyone cool was actually gay” Coles and then her – that ginger-haired Sasquatch. It was probably easier for him to hit the high notes with her continually mashing his toes with her size 10s.

    That such an uninspired cover was the year’s bestseller shows what a dismal year (for the charts) this was.

    This reminds me of my sojourn on the unemployment register, watching a lot of TV, seeing those bloody “Tell Sid” adverts for the British Gas sell-off and worrying about whether the bus de-regulation would affect the off-peak tickets I used to get about.This was when my hatred for Thatcher really hardened.

    I also got a lot of those rejection letters that ended “We have kept your details on file until a suitable vacancy arises”. Has anyone in the history of the world ever got a job as a result of being plucked from “the files” ?

  18. 18
    punctum on 6 Jan 2010 #

    Blimey, “Tell Sid,” a con trick for which we’re still paying. Then there was the Aids-as-Iceberg ad, the Big Bang, the M25, “I am convinced that our time is desperately short” (Billy Graham, as sampled on Tackhead’s “Mind At The End Of Its Tether”) and a hardcore winter (’86-7) which justifies my now saying that kids today, don’t know they’re born, call this an Arctic freeze, etc.

  19. 19
    Conrad on 6 Jan 2010 #

    I have not heard this record for 20 plus years, and have absolutely no desire to – particularly in the light of the comments above.

    I prefer to let it remain a happy association – not a record I bought or even really liked but one which will always remind me of my first week at university, as it was inevitably played in the freshers week discos. So, this conjures up memories of litsoc and ‘signature’, DH and CH, and much much more besides

  20. 20
    MikeMCSG on 6 Jan 2010 #

    #18 Yes, you’re right about that winter. I remember going through the snow to an interview in St Helen’s and hoping I’d get it because nobody else showed up. I didn’t but of course they kept me on the files.

    Actually I think that winter saved Rochdale’s League status;it was the first season of automatic relegation to the Conference (and the play-offs) and we had 4 home games called off. These were played at the end of the season and we won them all thus climbing to safety. Just a shame that it wasn’t Burnley who went down instead but you can’t have everything !

  21. 21
    thefatgit on 6 Jan 2010 #

    Swanstep @13 I still listen to Master Of Puppets regularly. One of the most enduring albums from the ’80s for me.

  22. 22
    Jungman Jansson on 6 Jan 2010 #

    Oh, it’s not that bad, is it? I like the piano, I like the horns, and I don’t think it sounds unpleasantly thin at all. Cover versions are nearly always a tricky business, but this version is good enough for me. I would gladly dance and flail my arms about to it.

    That winter was truly brutal. But the summers surrounding it were worse. If I remember correctly, there hardly was any summer in ’86 – more like a long, cold spring that just went straight into a long, cold autumn. I don’t think ’87 was much better.

    SwedenWatch: Strangely, it didn’t chart at all – neither on the sales chart nor on Tracks. Bronski Beat did fairly well on the Tracks chart (both with and without Jimmy Sommerville), and a few of the later Communards singles also made their way in, so I don’t really know why.

  23. 23
    will on 6 Jan 2010 #

    In Southern Britain the summers of 85 and 86 were both largely damp and ‘orrible. 87 was only slightly better and 88 was remarkable for its long extended periods of greyness.

    As for the Communards, I actually think this is quite a spirited cover. But while I’m sure Somerville and Coles had the best of intentions you could argue this starts an unfortunate era in disco archeology that would end with various SAW acts doing unspeakable things to Blame It On the Boogie, Celebration etc.

  24. 24
    LondonLee on 6 Jan 2010 #

    Nice bit of synchronicity that this should come up the same week the USA finally lifts it’s draconian 20+ year ban on people with AIDS entering the country (and, um, the same day I wrote something about “The Killing of Georgie” on my blog.)

    It’s spirited sure but a song this big and full-throttle needs the big-chested power of a Teddy Pendergrass to really do it emotional justice. Seems a bit of an easy ploy to get a hit, wack a modern beat over an old disco anthem.

  25. 25
    wichita lineman on 6 Jan 2010 #

    … and the summer of ’89 seemed to last for about 6 months, handy for the musical climate.

    Nothing to add on this except the follow-up So Cold The Night is far better, with frosty oboe replacing cavernous brass, and the most klezmer-influenced melody in the Top 20 since Graham Gouldman’s sixties hits for Wayne Fontana (Pamela Pamela) and The Yardbirds.

  26. 26
    anto on 6 Jan 2010 #

    Re#10 Good to hear “Rain or Shine” mentioned pop magic. In much the way some people like the Monkees better than the Beatles I always preferred 5 Star to the Jacksons. They were one of those pop acts where amateurism and professionalism met at precisely the right point.

    As for ” Don’t Leave me This Way ” it’s one of those tracks where different people probably have their own favourite bit for some it might be that long long intro, others might like the AAAAHHHHH bit before the chours or Richard Coles seemingly impromptu piano interjections or the brass section etc.

    My personal favourite is when the lady with the deep voice sings

    COME SATISFY ME – COME SATISFY ME-HEE-HEE

  27. 27
    Matthew on 6 Jan 2010 #

    A track that takes me straight back to my childhood, being 11, almost 12. Didn’t realise it was a cover, absolutely no inkling that there was any kind of gay agenda (or indeed gayness at all!) going on; can’t help but break into an 80s-nostalgia grin whenever I hear it. It is beyond criticism now for me, as I hope today’s terrible pop music will be for the thirty-somethings of the 2020s and 30s.

  28. 28
    Billy Smart on 7 Jan 2010 #

    Light Entertainment Watch: The Communards were a regular UK television presence for a few years;

    FRIDAY NIGHT LIVE: with Harry Enfield, Nick Revell, The Panic Brothers, The Hooters, The Communards (1988)

    LATE NIGHT IN CONCERT: with The Communards (1988)

    LIVE FROM THE PALLADIUM: with Donna Summer, Barry White, Tom O’Connor, The Communards (1987)

    THE MONTREUX ROCK FESTIVAL: with Whitney Houston, Smokey Robinson, Alison Moyet, Boy George, The Cure, The Communards, Mel & Kim, Terence Trent D’Arby, Samantha Fox, Robbie Neville (1987)

    SATURDAY LIVE: with Ben Elton, The Communards (1987)

    THE TUBE: with Jools Holland, Paula Yates, The Communards, Ken Russell, Edna Crepaldi, Robin Jones, Smiley Culture, Buddy Curtis & The Grasshoppers, Edwin Starr (1985)

    THE TUBE: with Jools Holland, Paula Yates, Kurtis Blow, The Psychedelic Furs, Alice Cooper, The Communards (1986)

    WHISTLE TEST: with The Judds, The Communards (1987)

    WOGAN: with The Communards, Judi Dench, Gordon Thomson, Noelle Walsh (1985)

    WOGAN: with The Communards, Ross Davidson, Monsignor Bruce Kent, Roy Kinnear, Bill Paterson (1986)

  29. 29
    tim davidge on 7 Jan 2010 #

    These guys once did an ad for a Paris radio station. The strapline?
    “NOUS SOMMES LES COMMUNARDS!”

  30. 30
    Izzy on 7 Jan 2010 #

    I don’t think much of Jimmy’s moves in this video. The whole thing’s most unsatisfying. Jimmy’s being watched like in the ‘Smalltown Boy’ video, but it’s not obvious why. A horrible key change. Jimmy couldn’t work a crowd with presence like that. His big strapping co-vocalist probably could (her performance is excellent), but she seems content to just revolve around her weedy pal. An ecstatic gig, but in a fully-lit warehouse – which breaks up hurriedly when even brighter lights are turned on. Again, why exactly?

    The saving grace (other than the kids, who look quite cool) is that unintentional standard of the 80s video – the appearance of mobile communciation equipment. But even that’s a bit rubbish, as it seems to be used only to tip off some people who are in the same room.

  31. 31
    Ben on 11 Jan 2010 #

    I used to get confused between The Communards and The Commitments.

  32. 32
    Erithian on 11 Jan 2010 #

    Have to say that hearing this again just reminds me how much I absolutely love it. I may not be the prime audience for it, but what’s the use of a big gay anthem if it’s not life-affirming and inclusive? Love the way the voices interplay (Sarah Jane’s more impressive than Jimmy’s but they complement each other in a really odd kind of way); love the instrumental break (what James Hamilton used to call zingy cymbal schlurping I think, Mike, and a fab piano bit); and you’re right, that “aaaahhhh… BABY” takes it all to the next level.

    The video (which I’ve never seen in full either) is an oddity, that Big Brother figure looking a bit like Charles Bronson the high-security prisoner, and the subplot, though I’m sure it was a message about oppression by The Man, is a bit of a distraction – as a straight-up performance video it’s fantastic.

  33. 33
    Mark M on 30 Jan 2010 #

    So tonight’s odd ’80s pop postscript was Richard Coles and P Morley on The Review Show, as I believed it’s been rebranded, discussing angels(!) among other subjects, followed by Durutti Column playing some kind of tribute piece to Tony Wilson. Hmmm…

  34. 34
    Tiffany on 11 Feb 2010 #

    This is still one of my all time favorite records. I disagree it sounds thin, on my iPod it cranks up rather nicely thanks!

    Also, I came via Metafilter. This is a great project!

  35. 35
    Realmusiclover on 11 Mar 2010 #

    There’s a reason music of the eighties remains the antithesis of the word fag, its sad when you cant let it slip into oblivion where it belongs.

  36. 36
    Tom on 11 Mar 2010 #

    You don’t actually know what antithesis means, do you?

  37. 37
    swanstep on 12 Mar 2010 #

    ‘Antithesis’ means the antithesis of what he thinks it means (haw haw). Realmusiclover also appears to have failed to grasp that freakytrigger/popular is the antithesis of a site or project that’s slavishly devoted to some particular decade’s output.

  38. 38
    Jimmy the Swede on 12 Mar 2010 #

    …ergo, Realmusiclover is the antithesis of a real music lover.

  39. 39
    Anonymous on 20 Nov 2010 #

    COMMUNARDS – (2006) THE PLATINUM COLLECTION…

    I think your post is similar and trackback it. Thanks…

  40. 40
    ceo on 18 Jul 2013 #

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  41. 41
    thefatgit on 18 Jul 2013 #

    This isn’t the Hot Love thread, ceo.

  42. 42

    […] lets a woman run away with his song. This was “uncomplicated, manipulative party music,” in Tom Ewing’s words: 1986’s biggest selling single, a number one dance record and Top Forty hit in America. […]

  43. 43
    mrdiscopop on 10 Dec 2014 #

    I remember Simon Mayo playing this on Radio 1. When it got to the final, crucial “aaaaaaaah”, he cut to the Toy Dolls’ cover of Nellie The Elephant.

    At the age of 11, I thought this was hilarious. Still do, really.

  44. 44
    Mark G on 11 Dec 2014 #

    I’m laughing even thinking about it.

  45. 45
    Adam on 27 Mar 2015 #

    3 for me… Third-rate major-key lift of Tragedy.

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