Thursday 1 August 2019

The Rites of Hadda

Photo by Jack Latimer
I freely admit that the Rites of Hadda was a band that had completely passed me by; in fact, I would know nothing about them had singer Wasp not decided to contact me and send me a copy of the band’s debut album, Witchpunk. I’m very glad he did.

Describing themselves as an “anarcho-pagan-gothic-stoner-witchpunk band”, Rites of Hadda formed as the result of a weekly jam night in a North London squat. Originally a seven-piece, but now down to a core membership of four, the band define their sound as “a blend of heads-down occult-tinged punk rock with a melodic, pop edge”, with their lyrics taking in everything from social commentary about capitalism and government, to much more personal and visceral subject matter. Led by former drag artist Wasp, the line-up of Rites of Hadda is completed by Alex (guitar and bass), Tom (bass and guitar) and Matthias (drums).

The band has been active since 2015, and in that time they have played with the likes of the Hawkwind-affiliated band Krankschaft, electro-rock band Electric Cake Salad, and Active Slaughter (the punk band that reformed after a six-year hiatus in 2016). They have gigged around the country and have played at festivals including FRIEND Festival (a benefit for the Friend Farm Animal Sanctuary in Peckham), and Queer Spirit. Witchpunk was recorded in London in 2018 and was produced by Tom Shot, who had previously worked with punk band the Exhausts. The album was preceded by a CD single, From The Blow.

The seven tracks on Witchpunk reminded me immediately of both Hawkwind and the Sisters of Mercy, had either of those groups been led by a queer drag artist! It makes a nice change for the usual mix of autotuned dance music I get sent, and its yet further proof that there are out-LGBTQ artists working in every field of music.

“Before the band, I was living in a squat and being an activist,” Wasp explains. “During that time my health collapsed, and I needed an outlet to express myself. A friend of mine I knew from our long term involvement with Queer Pagan Camp encouraged me into jamming and singing and I just thought, ‘fuck it’!”

Established in 1998, Queer Pagan Camp (QPC) is a self-managed annual camp based on the principles of inclusion and honesty. Queer pagans come from a variety of pagan paths and from all forms of gender identity and sexuality: the camps welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans (LGBT), heterosexual, gender-queer, asexual and non-binary people, in fact however you choose to identify you are welcomed. QPC looks at pagan practices from a queer perspective, exploring and creating queer myths and mysteries and challenging practices which do not fit within queer pagan, earth-honouring values. It’s a safe environment that gave Wasp opportunity to discover his muse.

“I had found my voice chanting queer pagan chants round the fire into the nights at QPC,” Wasp tells me, “so that kind of vibe remains a big influence on me. A combination of things had stopped me being creative in the past but the experience of being ill drove me to write more and to ignore a lack of confidence to get on with doing what I wanted to.”

Photo by Jack Latimer
Although most of the band is heterosexual, Wasp himself identifies “as queer: it would be fair to say we could be described as queer-fronted, but the rest of the band put as much into this project as I do, and I feel there needs to be an identity for such allies, beyond just allies!” It’s true that the band is very much a collective affair, each musician bringing his own experience and influences to the group, including everything from punk bands Crass and The Poison Girls to the space rock psychedelia of Spacemen 3, and heavy metal in the guise of Motorhead and Judas Priest, another act fronted by a queer singer.

The band is currently planning the follow up to Witchpunk, and recently issued a digital-only two track single. Recorded in March this year, and again produced by Tom Shot It's Time to Riot is a punk/metal thrasher, a musical incitement for queer kids to rise up against the system. The Right Time to Die is a dark confessional, with a saxophone break that reminds me of X-Ray Spex or similar 70s punk acts. Have a listen here. “It has been picked up by lots of podcasts and punk radio stations that aired songs from Witchpunk,” Wasp explains, saying that the new EP should follow before the end of the year. To hear more, catch them at the Gunners pub in Highbury on August 16, or at the Punk For The Homeless benefit in Nottingham on October 26.

Friday 28 June 2019

Aaron Porter

Everything is moving at such a fast pace these days, that by the time you’ve written something its already out of date. With David BowieMade Me Gay I made a conscious decision to only cover the period between 1916 and 2016; maybe one day I will produce an updated version covering the years following, but for now these ludicrously sporadic blog posts will allow me space to write about new – and, above all, interesting - LGBTQ acts I discover.

London-based singer Aaron Porter has just issued his third single, Sorry, an upbeat R&B /pop song that documents a painful breakup, Sorry juxtaposes the defeat of a failed relationship with the euphoria that comes through standing up for oneself and finally saying no.

“How many times can you be apologised to before the word sorry starts to lose its meaning?” Aaron asks. “I wrote Sorry at a time when I refused to accept another apology from my ex, a bunch of roses couldn’t cut it by that point. Words without intent are literally just a bunch of meaningless letters. If you mean it, prove it.” This latest single follows the earlier successes BOY (which Gay Times called “a queer slice of R&B, dance-pop perfection”) and I Wanna Let Love. Music trade magazine Billboard was suitably impressed: “On his debut track “Boy,” up-and-coming pop singer Aaron Porter shows off every sensual trick in his arsenal.”

Aaron’s songs are all based around his life and the things he has learnt to deal with from heartbreak to sexuality to his internal struggle with showing who he really is and the effects of toxic masculinity. His approach to songwriting is forever changing as he discovers new elements to his creativity and new sources of inspiration. Raised by a single mother who helped develop his passion for music when she sang along with her son to Toni Braxton, Whitney Houston and Prince, young Aaron was accepted to The BRIT School to study musical theatre for his A Levels. Moving to London, he began working as a professional dancer, exploring the burgeoning fashion and music scenes and building a second family around himself of young LGBTQ creatives.

Since his first single – which singer Adam Lambert also included on his Pride playlist for Apple - he has been on the road, playing shows across the UK and Europe and is lined up to play Flat Iron Square in London on 6 July as part of the capitol’s annual Pride festival. Called “A role model for LGBTQ youth” by Gay Times, Aaron says that “It’s practically human nature for people to put things or people in boxes, [but] I urge you not to do so to me. I’m out here just doing me; I probably won’t fit your mould and honestly don’t plan to.” This young man is going to go far.

Tuesday 28 August 2018

Matt Alber, All-Bear

“I write songs and make records in my bedroom and share them on stages and in living rooms (and sometimes middle schools) around the globe. I sing about boys and crushes and brotherhood and getting lost in the woods on purpose and some other things. I was often chased home from school. My parents hated each other for a long time. I was terrorised by so-called Christians who told me God wouldn't love me if I was gay. There was a plethora of shitstorms, but I survived. I coped in the ways I knew how. They weren't always the best ways. I got sober. Things feel a lot clearer now.”

Sounds like that could be John Grant talking, doesn’t it, but its Matt Alber, a singer-songwriter, film maker and activist who was born in Kansas, raised in St. Louis but is now – according to his own website - based in Portland. A friend recently introduced me to Matt Alber: not in person, you understand, although I’m pretty sure if we were to meet we’d have plenty to talk about. No, he posted a link to one of Alber’s songs on a Facebook group we both follow, and after listening I spent most of the rest of the morning dipping in and out of Matt’s back catalogue. I heartily recommend you do the same.

As a youngster Matt was a member of the St. Louis Children’s Choir, and from 1998 to 2003 he was a member of San Francisco’s Grammy-award winning male vocal ensemble Chanticleer. Chanticleer, who celebrate their 40th anniversary this year, was founded in 1978 by tenor Louis Botto, who sang with the group until 1989, and served as Artistic Director until his death from AIDS in 1997. Alber is unashamedly gay, as the video for his song End of the World (see below) makes abundantly clear. Upon leaving Chanticleer he tried out for a US TV series, American Pride, a talent show aiming to find America’s first out-gay country-western star. Producer Larry Dvoskin had clearly had never heard of Lavender Country. Alber was picked for the show, but American Pride never made it to air.

Alber's first album, Nonchalant, was released in 2005. Five of the tracks on the low-key, independent release were re-worked for his major label debut, Hide Nothing, which appeared three years later through Tommy Boy Silver Label. Silver Label was set up by the hip-hop specialist to concentrate on ‘dance’ music, according to a story in Billboard, but the imprint quickly became known for issuing singes and albums by LGBT artists, including Alber and Rupaul, as well as gay-themed soundtracks (Queer as Folk) and compilations.

With touches of electronica, lots of keyboards and some deeply personal lyrics, Alber’s voice and songwriting style drew favourable comparisons to Rufus Wainwright and John Grant, and he is happy with the comparisons. “I’m honoured,” he told interviewer Gregg Shapiro from “I love Rufus. I think he’s one of the best songwriters around. I love his melodies. If people think that I remind them of him, I think that’s a huge compliment.” End of the World, the lead single from the album, went viral after gay entertainment television channel Logo TV put the accompanying music video on heavy rotation. He looked all set for a stellar career but working in for a major company did not agree with him; he wanted something smaller, more intimate. Silver Label was wound down shortly afterwards.

Alber followed Hide Nothing with 2011's independently-released Constant Crows, an album that is dominated by acoustic guitar and piano sounds, and which found him experimenting with a more laid back, reflective style. He made his London debut in 2013, at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, and in 2014, the same year that the Lincoln Center in New York invited Matt to perform on their esteemed American Songbook series, he issued the album Wind Sand Stars. The following year he was selected by the U.S. State Department to act as a musical ambassador to Russia, Hungary, Kosovo and the Sudan, where he taught recording techniques to young artists in Khartoum, and helped one of the students, Eimoz, raise money to pay his tuition fees and to record some of his songs professionally.

Matt’s most recent release, Live in San Francisco is a fourteen-track, digital-only collection recorded live at San Francisco’s Swedish American Hall in 2016. He is also involved with the Matthew Shepard Foundation, the charity set up in the wake of the brutal, homophobic murder of 21-year-old Matthew. This year, to mark the 20th anniversary of Matthew’s death, he has been touring the U.S. with the Conspirare ensemble, performing in composer Craig Hella Johnson’s oratorio Considering Matthew Shepard. As if that wasn’t enough, he is also the co-producer of Room To Grow, a documentary featuring real-life stories of LGBTQ youth.

Saturday 7 July 2018

Made in Bristol

Several times over the last couple of years I’ve been asked about big-name LGBT recording artists from my home town. Sadly, I’ve been at a loss to think of one that made any kind of impact. Until now.

Russ Conway was a huge star in Britain in the 50s and 60s, our Liberace if you like (he didn't!), although Russ eschewed the glitz and glamour for a jaunty sweater as he plinked and plonked at his tack piano at a time when Winifred Atwell and Mrs Mills were also demonstrating their chops.

Conway (not to be confused with the Canadian-American actor of the same name) was also homosexual, at a time when, like Liberace, to come out would have killed his career stone dead.

Born Trevor Herbert Stanford, on September 2nd, 1925, Conway placed 20 piano instrumentals in the UK Singles Chart between 1957 and 1963 and scored two Number One hits. Discovered by producer, songwriter and A&R man Norman Newell, Russ was born in Bristol, and, as a youngster, won a scholarship to Bristol Cathedral Choir School. But the troubled young man was unhappy, and a difficult relationship with his overbearing mother (how stereotypical!) caused huge issues. When he was 13, he was cast in the school play as Maid Marian, and his mother made him a dress and hired a blonde wig. The story goes that, day following his first performance, she made him put on dress and wig and marched him through the streets of Bristol, on to a bus and into a photographer's studio to have his picture taken. Almost as soon as he had left school he began to get in to trouble, and on his 15th birthday he was sentenced to three years in Borstal after stealing money from his employers, a local firm of solicitors.

Luckily his incarceration was not wasted, as he used the time to teach himself how to play piano. He would always claim that, prior to this, he had only ever taken one piano lesson, when he was just four years old.

Conscripted into the Royal Navy during the Second World War, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) as a signalman in a minesweeping flotilla, and after the war he joined the Merchant Navy. He was discharged in 1948 on health grounds: a recurring issue with a stomach ulcer.

Conway was talent-spotted while playing in a London club, and signed to EMI's Columbia label by Newell, who had him spend the next few years writing songs and providing piano accompaniment backing for other artists on their roster, including Gracie Fields and Joan Regan. He recorded his first solo single, Party Pops, in 1957; the medley of standards reached Number 24 and stayed on the charts for five weeks. His fifth and sixth singles, Side Saddle and Roulette, both went to Number One. Russ quickly became a fixture on light entertainment TV and radio shows, he appeared at the London Palladium on several occasions and became a regular on the Billy Cotton Band Show, one of TV’s most popular variety shows. for several seasons.

Sadly, Conway’s career was blighted by ill health; in 1963 he had a nervous breakdown and, in 1965, was blindsided by the first of two strokes which prevented him from performing. In 1968 he announced his retirement. He was also a drinker and a heavy smoker, getting through up to 80 cigarettes a day. His lifestyle brought him close to bankruptcy, and in 1970 he attempted a comeback, signing with Chapter 1 records for his first album of new material since 1966.

After he was diagnosed with stomach cancer in the late 1980s, he founded the Russ Conway Cancer Fund. Even after his diagnosis he kept working: although his years of chart success were long over, he was still a popular live draw; in 1992 he was awarded the Lord Mayor of Bristol’s Medal for his charity work and his contribution to popular music, and in 1994 he appeared, as himself, in the French and Saunders Christmas special, playing in their spoof of the hit film The Piano. Although he did not come out during his lifetime, in interviews he occasionally touched on his sexuality, telling the Daily Mail’s Nicola Tryer that “It doesn't surprise me that people question my sexuality. I question it myself. I haven't the faintest idea what it is. I was certainly no angel in my younger days and I have tried everything there is to try. Now I have learned to live alone without being lonely.” In his late 50s/early 60s heyday it would have been impossible for the family favourite to be open about his sexuality, and newspapers talked about his blighted love life: a WREN who was posted to a different ship, a girl from South London that left him, and Hazel, who died after a minor operation while he was away on tour. Away from the headlines Russ was a frequent visitor to several of London’s underground gay bars, including Soho’s Golden Guitar Club, part owned by impresario Larry Parnes. According to scene gossip, he once had an affair with another hit artist at Columbia…

Russ Conway died on November 16th, 2000, just two weeks after his last public performance and two months after he issued his last album, Old and New. He was 76. His funeral service was held at Bristol’s historic St Mary Redcliffe church on December 6th; Elton John, whose own piano playing style had been influenced by Conway, sent a wreath. The service was followed by a cremation at South Bristol Crematorium. A tribute concert staged at the city’s Colston Hall the following year raised £11,000 for local cancer charity St Peter's Hospice.

Here's a clip of Russ playing Side Saddle on the Billy Cotton Band Show

And here he is again, playing Lucky Five in the Michael Winner movie Climb Up The Wall

Monday 4 June 2018

Ms Jackie Shane

Numero/Jackie Shane
Jackie Shane is another of those artists I knew next to nothing about before I started writing David Bowie MadeMe Gay. Jackie retired from the stage in 1971 but her career was resurrected shortly after the book came out, thanks to the Chicago-based Numero Group, who issued a double LP/2CD collection of her work in October 2017.

Jackie Shane is a pioneering transgender singer but, to my eternal shame, there was very little reliable information available about her when I was researching the book. In fact everything I read lead me to believe that Jackie identified as male, which lead to the most flagrant episode of ‘deadnaming’ in the book.

Deadnaming, put simply, is referring to a trans person by their birth name (and, by default, sex). In the book I called Jackie ‘he’ because I did not know any better. Jackie was certainly born male, but she performed as a woman at a time when to do so was unthinkable, and since her reappearance, after almost half a century away from the spotlight, she has made it clear that she always identified as a woman. So, for anyone still questioning my choice of pronoun, I’m sorry but I’m happy to be able to put that right for once and for all.

Born in Nashville in the early 1940s, Jackie knew from the age of five that she was different, but says that, growing up in Nashville she never had a problem with people struggling to accept her sexuality. Shane always knew she was a woman, though others didn’t always identify her as such. ‘At five years old, I would dress in a dress, hat, purse and high heels and go up and down the block – and enjoy it.’

Jackie was a talented singer who sang like James Brown or Otis Redding but whose look would put both Richard and Esquerita to shame. Her mother and grandparents accepted her, and her schoolmates and even her church seem to have had little problem with someone whose birth certificate said ‘male’ but who knew better. It was racism that drove her north, to Canada, where she became a star, working the clubs, appearing on TV, making records and so on.

Numero/Jackie Shane
Around 1960 she joined saxophone player Frank Motley’s touring band before moving north of the border. A regular performer at Toronto’s Saphire Tavern, part of the city’s infamous Yonge Street strip, Jackie made no bones about her sexuality. She covered the William Bell song Any Other Way, and when she sang the line ‘Tell her that I’m happy, tell her that I’m gay/Tell her that I wouldn’t have it any other way’, the inference was clear.

When Cash Box magazine reviewed Any Other Way, in January 1963, the reviewer made it clear that, as far as he was concerned, Ms. Shane was all woman. Labelling the disc a sure-fire hit, he wrote that “Jackie Shane… puts her heart into her delivery of a touching slow beat cha cha.” Billboard awarded the single four stars. Cash Box also loved the follow up, In My Tenement, claiming that “Shane… can make the national scene with this one. It’s a steady driving romancer with a social awareness theme that the songster delivers in emotion-packed manner.” [Cash Box, 6 July 1963]

In April and May 1964 she appeared at the Californian Club in Los Angeles, with Little Richard’s backing band, the Upsetters, just a few months before Jimi Hendrix joined their ranks. Jackie and Jimi already knew each other, performing together when Jimi was a member of the house band at Nashville’s New Era club. The Varsity, in a piece on Toronto’s nightclub scene, wrote that at the city’s Brass Rail club on Younge Street “upstairs Frank Motley and his crew perform, with little Jackie Shane doing the vocal. Is he or isn't she? Only its mother knows for sure…”

Although Any Other Way was a massive local hit, reaching Number Two on Toronto’s radio charts in early 1963, it failed to score nationally. Shane recorded just six 45s and one album (taped live at the Saphire and released in October 1967) before she left the city for good. Unusually, the sleeve notes to Jackie Shane Live made knowing reference to her sexuality: ‘the only problem is when Jackie suggests “let’s go out and get some chicken after the show”, you can’t be sure what he has in mind’; ‘people who deserve your friendship will accept you for yourself’.

She was approached by Motown and Atlantic records; George Clinton wanted her to join Parliament… but after ten years of playing the game she disappeared, tired of touring and of being harassed by other band members. From the early 70s until last year no one heard from her. Rumours were that she had died. Then last year, Numero collected the majority of her recordings together and re-issued them as a double LP and she resurfaced. She’s 77 years old and thinking about going out on the road again. As she says: ‘People have come up to me and said, “Jackie thank you. You made it possible for me to have a life.” That’s why I was there.’

Numero/Jackie Shane
One television appearance still exists: grainy 1965 footage of Jackie with Frank Motley and his band performing Walking the Dog on a late night Nashville chat show. She looks amazing, with her hair piled high in a pompadour that emulates Little Richard, with full eye make up, earrings, a sequinned top and feminine collarless jacket. Jackie looked like no one else making records at the time, yet for some unknown reason she did not record again after 1969. Leaving the showbiz life behind, she moved back to Nashville, where she shared a home with her aunt and lived openly, albeit reclusively, as a woman.

The Numero album, Any Other Way, collects almost all of her recordings, including every studio side and all of the tracks from Jackie Shane Live. However, Jackie also recorded two tracks in the early 1960s that found their way on to the album The Original Blues Sound of Charles Brown & Amos Milburn, issued by budget label Pickwick around 1965. Slave For You Baby and Chickadee have been unavailable for decades, and do not appear to be on YouTube currently either. So here they are: grab ‘em while you can!

You can find Jackie’s full discography, and read more about her incredible career, at

Download Slave For You Baby HERE

Download Chickadee HERE

 All images copyright The Numero Group/Jackie Shane

Monday 28 May 2018

Oli Spleen

copyright Iona Dee Photography
Some months after the hardback edition of David Bowie Made Me Gay hit the shelves, I was contacted by a singer from Brighton. I had been unaware of the work of Oli Spleen (a.k.a. Oliver Speer) up until that point, a fact that pains me; had I known of Oli’s body of work I would definitely have wanted to include him in the book. I now, thanks to the man’s generosity, am the proud owner of copies of almost all of his physical releases.

Artist, performer, songwriter and charismatic frontman, Oli Spleen has been making music for two decades now, as a solo artist and in bands including The Flesh Happening, Spleen and Pink Narcissus. You’d probably class most of his discography as Queercore: it’s an uncompromising style of music whose brutality makes it nigh on impossible to get radio play, but it’s one that is honest, intelligent and playful. Always a contrarian he is currently working on a new album, to be called Gaslight Illuminations, which will be more at home with fans of Marc Almond, Bertolt Brecht, Scott Walker and Jacques Brel.

Oli’s first release (as Oliva Spleen) was the track Formaldehyde, Thalidomide, Hermaphrodite, from the 1999 spoken word collection Saltpetre 1. That was followed by a brace of cuts on the 2001 compilation Drowning By The Sea, and a further track on the various artists collection Trains Across the Sea the same year. “While I would write poems and songs as a child and teen it was a near death brush with AIDS on the millennium that drove me to feel compelled to express my pain and frustration through music,” he explains.

The first incarnation of The Flesh Happening formed in the summer of 2003, around the same time that Oli launched his first novel, Depravikazi. “My idea was to create a band that combined all the in-your-face confrontational energy of punk with the performance and theatrics of glam as well as taking influence from performance artists such as Leigh Bowery,” he says. With a repertoire that included songs with titles such as Anal Joy, Shit on Me and Hitler and Jesus, and a propensity to strip that would have embarrassed the Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Flesh Happening were never going to find mainstream success, something Oli himself realised after meeting a PR specialist. “The first thing she said to me was ‘the most important thing is to be yourself,’ and then, when I mentioned I was gay, she said, ‘Oh, I don’t think you should be gay’!” The band split up in the summer of 2008 after issuing a CD EP and the 7” single Kamikaze/Waste. Several of the songs written by The Flesh Happening were later re-recorded by Oli for his 2008 album Spleen & The Flesh Machine.

Soon after the band split, Oli met guitarist Paddy Longlegs, and a new group, Pink Narcissus, was born. “The Flesh Happening had mostly explicitly queer subject matter: with Pink Narcissus I made the decision to write songs that weren’t specific to gender or sexuality. This decision was as much a response to my sexuality and gender identity as the songs with queer specific subject matter were,” Oli says.

copyright Iona Dee Photography
Named after the 1971 American arthouse drama concerning the erotic fantasies of a gay male prostitute, the duo added bass player Cod Riverson and drummer Cookie Allen, evolving a sound that drew heavily on influences from David Bowie, Jane’s Addiction, Iggy and the Stooges and the like. Pink Narcissus demonstrated a much more mature, accessible, sound, evident over three mini album/EP releases, Pink Narcissus, Block Your Ears Shield Your Eyes and Blood on the Page. The band, which now includes guitarist Lilith Ghost, issued its most recent album, the seven track, digital only collection Pig Miracle Day, on 6 October 2017, four years to the day that the title came to Oli in a dream. Alongside his work with the band, Oli has continued to work on solo projects, including the 2013 album Fag Machine – which saw him embracing electronica - and, more recently, an atmospheric cover of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights.

Oli’s sexuality is central to his work. “I don’t think I would be making music at all if I wasn’t queer,” he tells me. “If I were straight I wouldn’t have had to question my existence so fundamentally or gone through everything that lead me toward music in the first place. I’d imagine I would have had a far more conventional path. While I tend to identify more with women I don’t have a problem with the fact that I am perceived as male. It was my friend, trans activist Fox Fisher who first made me aware that non-binary was even a thing. Whilst the definition fits how I perceive myself I don’t enforce non-binary pronouns, it is simply how I feel inside.

“I have felt far more welcomed and understood by the trans community than I ever did in the more mainstream gay scene. Last year Pink Narcissus got to perform Brighton’s Trans Pride but the regular Brighton Pride has shown no interest in what I do whatsoever and doesn’t seem to support and nurture local live music at all.” It was this lack of acceptance that led him and a friend to launch Fag Machine, an LGBTQ club night in Brighton, showcasing acts that fall outside of the mainstream, or that have been marginalised by the commercialisation of the city’s gay scene. “The trans community seem to intrinsically understand the importance of giving a platform to authentic local talent: Fag Machine was a big hit with that crowd.”

Identifying as non-binary, or gender neutral, growing up in Hastings, on the south coast of England, his earliest musical influences were a little unusual. “The first record I owned was the album for Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock, my favourite TV show as a child,” he says. “Fraggles were an underground species of colourful bohemian Muppets who had a deep connection to music. In those formative years Fraggles were my friends, culture, and religion. All I wanted to be when I grew up was a Fraggle.

“Then when I was thirteen Nirvana broke big and I discovered Jane’s Addiction, a band that resonated with me as I felt they had Fraggle-like sensibilities. Both of these bands opened the doors for me to discover other music, from Leadbelly to Bad Brains, Sonic Youth, Pixies, Bowie, Iggy, The Velvet Underground and many more.

Through Bowie I discovered Jacques Brel and the French ‘chanson’ song writing tradition, with its deeply poetic lyricism. Later Leonard Cohen also deeply appealed to me for his lyrical ability as did Nina Simone for her raw intensity as a performer. Bands from X-Ray Spex to Can to The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band also went into the mix of influences that shaped The Flesh Happening.”

He was often beaten up for being ‘different’, as he explained on his own blog: “As a child at school under Thatcher’s Section 28 [the hateful, anti-gay legislation which came in to law 30 years ago this week], I was always told that homosexuality was ‘unnatural’. Subsequently I thought that there must be something terribly wrong with me.

“I was spat at daily throughout secondary school and as a teen I was repeatedly beaten up on Hastings’ streets. Looking androgynous as I did back then it wasn’t safe to go out at night, if I wasn’t attacked by gangs of youths I would often be stopped and searched by police who bizarrely thought I was trying to solicit clients as a male prostitute whilst wearing a dress. Throughout those years I was deeply unhappy and repeated attempted suicide.”

Luckily those years are long behind him, and his next album promises to show listeners another side of the multi-faceted artist. “It's going to be very different… but I think it's the album I always wanted to make,” Oli says of Gaslight Illuminations, which he is recording with current collaborator Mishkin Fitzgerald, of Brighton-based indie rock band Birdeatsbaby. “The title references a theme that runs through many of the tracks. My ex was addicted to crystal meth and would do that gaslighting thing where he would accuse me of things (which he himself was doing) and make me question my own sanity. The ‘Illuminations’ part is inspired by cabalistic notions of light and dark, how the darkness of the themes within the songs is turned into the light of inspiration in the form of the songs themselves.” The album will be available soon on both vinyl and CD.

Here's the video for Time, from Pig Miracle Day. You can listen to the whole album, or, better still, pay for a copy, at 

And here is Tranquillised Lives, from Oli’s solo album Fag Machine, available to download at

You can see more of Oli's videos at

Photos of Oli by Iona Dee. Copyright Iona Dee Photography 
All rights reserved: used by permission.

Wednesday 23 May 2018

Charlie and Ray

I’m excited to announce that the paperback version of David Bowie Made Me Gay will be issued in the UK on July 12. To celebrate this, I am starting a new blog.

I’m incredibly proud of David Bowie Made Me Gay, but I’m also aware that, due to various constraints, there are a number of LGBTQ artists I was unable to include. Some of this was down to length, some down to the amount of time I had available for research, but some simply because I could not include everybody. If I’m honest, some of this was also due to only discovering some incredible LGBTQ artists after I had submitted the manuscript. The principle aim of this blog is to highlight those acts that were missed in the book, or perhaps deserve more coverage than I was able to give them at the time.

And I’m kicking everything off with Charlie and Ray, who I first discovered, if memory serves, at J.D. Doyle's essential Queer Music Heritage site.

Charlie and Ray were a vocal duo from New York, who initially came to prominence at the famous Apollo theatre in Harlem. The Apollo held a regular amateur night; one evening Charlie and Ray decided to enter and so popular were they that they not only won that night, but they topped the audience vote for the following four weeks. The duo’s breakneck delivery, high camp falsetto and general onstage presence won them a huge local following, and although it was no secret that the pair were gay, their audience either ignored the fact or simply did not care. Bridging the gap between rhythm and blues and rock ‘n roll, Charlie and Ray were performing what we as doo-wop years before the term had been coined.

In late 1954 the pair signed to talent agency Shaw Artists, who immediately placed them with the Broadway-based Herald Records, established in the summer of 1953 by Al Silver, Jack Angel and Jack Braverman. Angel had his own publishing company, Angel Music Inc., and signed Charles Jones (the Charlie of Charlie and Ray) as a songwriter. The duo’s first single, I Love You Madly was issued in October 1954. Within 10 days the initial pressing had completely sold out, with Detroit, Nashville, Los Angeles and New York record stores reporting healthy sales, and other acts were scurrying to get cover versions out: white vocal act The Four Coins scored a hit with the song in early 1955, but sadly although the original sold well, Herald did not have the distribution necessary to make Charlie and Ray’s version a national hit.

Charlie and Ray would issue seven 45s (their earliest releases were also available on 78) during their career, and despite the fact that they’re all wonderful, sadly none of them would trouble the charts. Like many other songwriters, Charles Jones often fell foul to unscrupulous people within the music industry: in March 1955 he registered the copyright of four songs, Certainly Baby, Dearest One, Guess I’m Through With Love and Oh Gee, Ooh Wee, yet when Certainly Baby was issued as the plug side to the duo’s third single, the label credit claimed that the song had been penned by Frank Slay Jr. and Bob Crewe. Crewe and Slay certainly produced the track, and the pair also received writers’ credits on other Herald releases, but in this instance it seems they were given the credit in lieu of payment for their production services. It was a neat trick that would not have cost the Herald team a cent, but meant that Charles Jones would never see any royalty payments for his composition.

Charlie and Ray were “easily the most unique duo of the nineteen fifties and light years ahead of their time,” according to music historian C.J. Marion, who saw them play at the Rockland Palace in Harlem, in early 1955. “I was a bit taken aback by the hip rolling, pocketbook swinging entrance (being all of 14 years old at the time), but once the music started and the crowd got into it, what a show! I remember writing a letter to Alan Freed and asking a gender-oriented question about Charlie and Ray but never receiving an answer…”

Although none of their discs were national chart hits, many of them received heavy radio play, and this in turn lead to some lucrative live engagements for the boys. In June 1955 the duo performed at the Apollo as part of Tommy (Dr. Jive) Smalls’ six times daily rock n’ roll package. The opening show found the crowds lined up in double columns around the block, and similar demonstrations of the line-up’s popularity took place at most of the other shows throughout the week. Jack Schiffman, son of the owner of the Apollo Theatre, said that ‘everyone connected with the show is well pleased with the results and we definitely would not hesitate to book Tommy Smalls back in the very near future.’ As well as Charlie and Ray, Dr. Jive’s imposing roster included The Moonglows, Herald stable mates The Nutmegs, Bo Diddley, the Four Fellows, and Buddy Johnson. Dr Jive brought a similar package back to the Apollo in August, and shortly after that they were off with Lou Krefetz’ “Big Ten Review”, a 40-date tour which kicked off in St Louis on 26 August and visited cities throughout the east, midwest, south and southwest, with Faye Adams, Big Joe Turner, The Clovers, Bo Diddley, Gene and Eunice, and Etta James and Her Peaches among others.

No sooner was that tour over than they were playing a 15-hour spectacular at the Carnegie Hall (October 29), the venue’s first ever rock ‘n roll show, with Faye Adams, Bo Diddley, Etta James, Joe Turner, the Clovers and more. A week later they were on Cashbox magazine’s list of the Most Promising New Vocal Combinations of 1955. Between these tours and jamborees Charlie and Ray managed to fit in regular headlining dates in Atlanta and at the Apollo. Over the next few years they would continue to be a popular live draw, although their discs failed to break nationally. In May 1957, in a last ditch attempt to have a hit, Herald reissued I Love You Madly (this time backed with a new song, Sweet Thing) but it again failed to chart and the duo were dropped. The following month they began a week-long booking at the Apollo, part of Dr. Jive’s big rock and roll show, playing until the Fourth of July alongside acts including Donnie Elbert, the Sensations, the Heartbeats, the Charts, the Jesters and Roy Brown and his band.

It seems as though, disillusioned by their lack of success, Charlie and Ray decided to part ways – or stop touring together – for now, at least. They issued one more 45, for TEL Records around 1959, but when this too proved to be a flop they stopped performing altogether. Then, out of the blue, in late 1964/early 1965 the duo resurfaced, playing the All Gold Oldies Show at the Apollo with Screaming Jay Hawkins, but that was the end: a disc that appeared on Josie under the name Charlie and Ray was by a different act.

It’s a huge shame that Charlie and Ray are all but forgotten these days: they deserve our attention not only for making some truly great vocal sides, but for being that rarest of things, an openly LGBTQ act at a time when so few performers dared to be so honest. Says C.J. Marion: “Charlie and Ray were unabashedly gay and black, which taken in the context of the first Eisenhower era, made them an act apart in more ways than one. They presented themselves as not drag queens, which was a popular method at the time, but as straight looking singers with a singular delivery. Add to this mix the fact that they could produce some of the hardest rocking tunes of the time and you get an unforgettable pair of performers.”

Most of their sides were collected on the compilation I Love You Madly, sadly the final two TEL sides are missing from that collection, and they do not appear on YouTube either. So here you go: here are both sides of the final Charlie and Ray 45, just for you!


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