Excavating the Closet
It’s best to approach Queer Noises as a historical document to derive any amount of listening pleasure from it. Spanning 1961-1978, these rare and obscure songs, compiled by renowned music journalist Jon Savage, provide a disturbing (but realistic) depiction of how gay men perceived themselves during an era when the American Psychiatric Association included “homosexuality” on its list of mental disorders (it was removed in 1973). The liner notes appropriately warn, “This CD tells a story of hard-won freedoms that remain all too fragile”. Given the time period this collection covers, Queer Noises doesn’t make for easy listening.
But that doesn’t mean it should be unlistenable. In theory, a collection of rare songs that reflect a generation of gay male history is compelling. Music is an essential anthropological tool, capturing the pulse of people at a particular place and time. The volatile fight to earn civil rights—that the LGBT community is still fighting—makes for quite a soundtrack. Unfortunately, Queer Noises only half succeeds in presenting a satisfying time capsule of how gays moved from the “closet to the charts”.
Primary among the collection’s shortcomings is inferior sound. Most of these songs have a raw, bootleg quality. Whether due to licensing difficulties or a tight budget, too many tracks simply sound lifted from well-worn vinyl. To be fair, the crackles and pops lend a certain “authenticity” to the recordings on display. The muffled sound of “At the Black Cat”, for example, gives the impression that this 45-year old snippet of a drag act in San Francisco was only recently unearthed. The sonic imperfections on the CD are endearing at first but there’s no reason not to have a “clean” version of The Kinks’ “See My Friend”.
Whereas other collections of this kind contain mainstream songs by gay icons, Queer Noises contains songs written by, for, and/or about gay men (the exception is Polly Perkins’ “Coochy Coo”, though one imagines a drag queen performing a saucy burlesque version of it). As products of their time, these songs do little to construct a positive gay identity. Queer Noises indicates that the only explicit representations gay men had of themselves on vinyl in the 1960s amounted to gay minstrelsy: the characters are predatory (“Florence of Arabia”), desperate (“Eros”), outrageously campy (“I’d Rather Fight than Swish”, “Nobody Loves a Fairy When They’re Forty”), and vituperative (“At the Black Cat”, “Do You Come Here Often?”). The music is grating. Hearing these songs twice is simply one time too many.
The gay community was forever changed one night in June 1969 when police raided the Stonewall Bar in Greenwich Village, New York City. Tired of being harassed and degraded, the habitués fought back. The ripple effect was large and loud. New York’s first gay pride march, organized by the Gay Liberation Front, followed in 1970. Gay was “good” and the music representing this particular period on Queer Noises improves upon the caustic, one-note stereotypes of the early 1960s material. Harrison Kennedy’s “Closet Queen” (as in “Closet queen you’re alright!”) is pleasant enough acoustic pop-rock with a sunny melody. “I’m a Man” by Jobriath—the first “out” rock star signed to a major label (Elektra Records)—explodes with glitter-rock bombast while the swinging beat of Valentino’s “I Was Born This Way” signifies the first gay anthem of the disco era. They are loud, proud, and liberated statements.
One of the more remarkable tracks on Queer Noises comes from the Motown vaults. In 1975, The Miracles, sans Smokey Robinson, recorded “Ain’t Nobody Straight in L.A.” It’s the only track on the collection that observes gay life from a heterosexual point of view. Over a quasi-Latin beat, the band members debate whether or not to hang at a gay club. The final consensus? “Gay people are nice people too, man. Yeah, let’s go!” In his comments about this track, Jon Savage posits, “One wonders how the Miracles’ message of tolerance would go down today, even if a major R&B act were to record it.”
The message of tolerance is short-lived on this collection, however, as a trio of mid-‘70s punk tracks prove: The Ramones’ tragic tale about a male hustler (“53rd and 3rd”), Black Randy & The Metro Squad’s documentation of police violence against gays on “Trouble at the Cup”, and “Nobody Loves You When You’re Old and Gay” by Dead Fingers Talk show the gritty underbelly of gay pride in the 1970s.
Closing the collection is the most well known of all tracks on Queer Noises: “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” by Sylvester. To hear his voice soar high above the celestial Eurodisco beat clears the palate after digesting the dank and degrading slices of life compiled by Savage.
It must be said that Queer Noises brims with good intentions. Savage did exhaustive research to contextualize each track and find rare images of the artists and corresponding cover art. Queer Noises doesn’t attempt to whitewash the oppression against the gay community and that is, indeed, commendable. It’s a history that must be told with all its pain and glory. Just because a song is historically relevant, though, doesn’t mean it’s a great piece of music. Most of these songs should have remained in the closet.