From 1984 to 2024: A detail from the original ‘Smalltown Boy’ single. Image: Ralf Liebhold / Alamy

Smalltown boy, bigtime resonance

The 1980s hit is reaching across the decades to grip the hearts of young people today 
June 5, 2024

There is a certain sweetness to the latest TikTok trend: off-camera, youngsters play a song for their parents and ask them to dance however they would’ve danced to it in the 1980s. On screen, hips coil, arms swing, faces lift; the delight of bodies finding themselves again.

The song is Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy”, which turns 40 this year. The story of a young gay man leaving home for the big city, it reached number three in the UK, and topped the US Dance Club chart, launching the career of vocalist Jimmy Somerville.

To be a boy in a small British town in 1984 was a complicated matter. While the decade broadly embraced a form of heteronormativity and hypermasculinity, there was a musical counterbalance in the form of acts such as the Smiths, Wham!, Culture Club and the lingering flickers of New Romanticism. With it, there came a fluidity in gender, sexuality and dress that was challenging to many, particularly outside the major conurbations.

“Smalltown Boy” spoke directly to this tension. Its success came alongside that of “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, which reached number one and spent 42 weeks in the Top 40, despite being banned by the BBC for its overtly sexual lyrics.

Something was changing, but progress was slow. In April that year, Customs and Excise raided gay and lesbian bookshop Gay’s the Word, seizing hundreds of books deemed obscene. As awareness of HIV/Aids spread, stigma and suspicion towards the gay community grew. Other inequalities stood fast: in the autumn, Bronski Beat released their debut album, The Age of Consent—its title a reference to the fact that, in the UK, the age of consent for gay sex stood at 21.

The idea of restrictive smalltown life—that a young person has to leave home to form an independent identity—is familiar in rock and pop

But the song found a broader appeal, too. The idea of restrictive smalltown life—that a young person has to leave home to form an independent identity—was a universal one, and familiar in rock and pop—it’s there in The Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” and Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and Dylan’s “I Was Young When I Left Home”.

That idea had also propelled much of the punk and New Wave movements, the rejection of suburbia and conformity, the bucking of social norms and niceties. In writing “Smalltown Boy”, the three members of Bronski Beat had reached back a few years to this time—the band’s Larry Steinbachek once said the song had arisen out of an attempt to play a cover of the Sex Pistols’s “Pretty Vacant”.

According to the Pistols’s Glen Matlock, “Pretty Vacant” was itself a rough grasp in the direction of “SOS” by ABBA, released a few years earlier. Although its context was more personal, “SOS” was similarly a song of absence and rejection. Matlock took both its melancholy and its melodic charm and infused it with the energy of 1977, with Richard Hell’s Blank Generation, the three-day week, IRA bombings. It was, he said, “a primal scream kind of thing: we don’t know what we’re gonna do, but we’re gonna do it anyway.”

“Smalltown Boy” begins in a similar emotional space: “To your soul, cry, cry cry,” Somerville sings. And though his voice is more countertenor than scream, the impulse is much the same. In its opening scene, our hero stands alone on a railway platform with everything he owns in a small black case, his departure spurred by the knowledge that “the answers you seek will never be found at home”. He doesn’t know where he’s going, but he’s going anyway.

It’s interesting to think of where the UK was at that moment—miners’ strikes, Thatcherism, unemployment at a record high. The sense that the country itself was beginning to fracture; its small communities and the industries that had bound them in peril. The rejection expressed in the plaintive call and discordant notes of Bronski Beat’s song chimed not only with those who identified with its specific story, but with a feeling of exclusion and impotence felt more widely across society.

How strange to hear it again today, to consider the things that have changed and those that have not over the course of 40 years. In these days of rising unemployment, rising LGBTQ+ hate crime, the young fleeing small towns for cities, in a new era of exclusion and impotence… to wonder just how different it is to be a smalltown boy.