Notes & Queries by David Herkt


Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache: How Music Came Out!

Martin Aston’s just-released Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache: How Music Came Out is one of those books that seems to have been a long time coming. It is a history of the popular music which has been produced by queer musicians over the last hundred years.

With stories ranging from the bisexuality of some early Black American Blues artists to singer, song-writer and rapper, Frank Ocean, via the 1930s Pansy Craze, Disco, Glam Rock, Punk, and lesbian folk, it is a comprehensive and all-embracing story.

Martin Aston is a story-teller. Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache is a history based on human lives and what happened in them. It is also a narrative of how individuals and groups struggled to express their sexual preferences through music, often at odds with a society or a recording industry.

Sometimes Aston’s history involves repression and silence. At other times, the closet door opens and songs and artists were able to reflect upon themselves and their world through the lens of sexual preference or gender diversity.

Aston is a widely-published British music journalist and writer. His books include Pulp (MacMillan, 1985), Björkgraphy (Simon & Schuster, 1996), and Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD (The Friday Project/Haper Collins, 2013).

Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache will become and remain the standard work on the queer music and musicians for some time. Aston’s research is broad and detailed. He provides anecdotes and illustrations, and sometimes surprising revelations about the sexual lives of the musicians and singers who are so much a part of our culture.

The following is an edited version of an email conversation that took place recently. Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache: How Music Came Out by Martin Aston (Little, Brown Book Group) is available as a hardback with a 16 pp colour insert.

                                                                                 - David Herkt



'Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache' is one of those books that once you've read it, you wonder how we survived without it. It suddenly becomes very strange to think that it has taken so long for us to have such a broad, readable, and complete overview of a century of popular music as produced by gay, lesbian, and transgendered artists. It is 560 pages, covering scores of musicians, and a full range of genres. It is informative, entertaining, frequently moving, and often surprising. What was the direct impetus to write it?

There had been various music compilations through the years, such as Sissy Man Blues, but it wasn’t until 2006 that a CD, Queer Noises 61-78: From the Closet To The Charts, compiled a list of songs that had no genre focus, only that it was about gay life. It began in 1960, with a clip of drag queen and pioneering activist José Sarria from The Black Cat bar in San Francisco, and ended with Sylvester’s disco classic “You Make Me (Feel (Mighty Real)” in 1978. But I was deep in magazine/editor mode, and not planning to write more books. I’d done a couple in the Nineties, and realised that I enjoyed getting out of the house occasionally, a luxury that writing books rarely allows…

Then in 2012, I was asked to write an ‘evolution of gay rock’n’roll,’ for the UK monthly magazine Attitude, and that, combined with Queer Noises, was like a wake-up call. By then, I’d gone freelance again, and started writing a book (Facing The Other Way: The Story of 4AD) about the iconic British independent label) and it dawned on me that a book about the history of music from a gay and lesbian – or queer, or LGBTQ – perspective was another book that I badly wanted to write.

 Preceding books had tackled the subject, but only as a series of essays - starting with US writer Boze Hadleigh’s The Vinyl Closet: Gays In The Music World, 1991. He aimed to do for music what the late Vito Russo did with Hollywood in his landmark book (and later, film documentary) The Celluloid Closet, the conversation about the achievements and influence of gay, lesbian and bisexual singers and musicians, and naming names - though he listed the most obvious, famous artists, included gossipy interview material from anonymous sources, and, bizarrely, finished up with chapters on ballet and film!

In the Nineties, UK writers John Gill’s, Richard Smith and the late Kris Kirk wrote far better books, but similarly kept genres such as glam, disco and punk separate (likewise various academic studies, such as Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology). But in light of the forthcoming fiftieth anniversary of The Sexual Offences Act 1967, which finally decriminalised male homosexuality (albeit in only England and Wales, and between two consenting adults over the age of 21), a palpable sense of LGBTQ history – the journey taken, and the advances made, and in some instances, regressions – was in the air, and it struck me a book that needed to be written too, as it hadn’t been done before, and certainly not as a chronological narrative, which fulfilled the function of explaining how popular music came out of the closet.

One satisfying aspect of the book was the reclaiming of many forgotten artists. I chose to focus on the pioneers, in their era and across the genres, who were first to declare themselves, either by force of personality or deed, despite the legal and moral restrictions of the day.

So it’s a book about the likes of Bruz Fletcher, Frances Faye, Billy Wright, the Roc-A-Jets, Jackie Shane, Alix Dobkin, Handbag, and many more, but also more famous names such as Little Richard, David Bowie, Bronski Beat, k.d. lang, because they were pioneers too. I don't feel gay icons like Kylie or adopted gay anthems like Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ have any part in this history, though Rod Stewart’s ‘The Killing of Georgie’, does. Stewart wasn’t gay, but his song was the first to describe a gay man, and sympathetically, and even feature the word ‘gay’, in a Top Three single.

Those kind of landmarks are recognised in my book, but it’s much more than just a ‘timeline’, I see it more as a social history as well as musical. I had begun with a ‘story of gay rock’n’roll’ angle, and then realised that the roots of rock’n’roll are in the blues, and as the Sissy Man Blues compilation will tell you, there were gay, lesbian and bisexual themes in 1920s blues, as part of the so-called Harlem Renaissance. So I started, in earnest, in the Twenties (actually, earlier than that, just to see what was out there), and realised I had a hundred-year history on my hands. That’s when I knew I wouldn’t be leaving the house much, except to do interviews…

Ma Rainey - Prove It On Me Blues (1928)

They said I do it, ain't nobody caught me. /  Sure got to prove it on me. / Went out last night with a crowd of my friends. / They must've been women, cause I don't like no men…”


Kokomo Arnold - Sissy Man Blues (1934)

"Woke up this mornin' with my business in my hand... If you can't send me a woman, send me a sissy man..."

- - - - -


Why do you think we have waited so long for a book like this?

The answer is... I can't say for sure. Even for me, it took a long time for the idea to germinate. But I think it's something to do with the fact that popular music hasn't the same credence in queer culture as film, literature, poetry and theatre; when people think of 'gay popular music', it's disco/techno, chart pop, i.e shallow and throwaway, Kylie and boy bands, etc. Certainly, there's enough evidence that, traditionally, gay men (and I'm talking generally here) did not demand, or consume, music that mirrored the complexity of their emotions; they preferred the sound of liberation, escapism, etc, which tied in to their social pattern of clubs/bars.

When it got 'serious', it was through the highly stylised, and in a sense, equally escapist, form of Broadway (and opera), in musicals that were heterosexual in subject but could sometime be de-coded (especially when created by gay men, such as the core team behind West Side Story). When clubs sprang up in London in the mid-90s, playing indie rock, and micing it up with glam, punk etc, it was almost shocking.

The lesbian scene was/is different. There's a much smaller (almost non -existent) club/bar scene, and look at the success of '70s 'Women's Music' (as the introspective folk-based genre became known), artists such as Cris Williamson, who sold half a million records of her debut album on the lesbian-identified, lesbian-staffed, US record label Olivia, while similar gay male singer-songwriters such as Michael Cohen and Steven Grossman sold pitifully in comparison.

Things have changed, with artists such as John Grant, who is unequivocally out in his lyrics and interviews, but when he recently sold out the Royal Albert Hall (capacity around 5-6,000) it was easy to see there were far more straight couples than gay couples. Not that I took a poll or anything!

Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache is a book filled with human stories occurring over a century, from a number of countries, each with different and changing attitudes to sexual behaviours. It often works through anecdote rather than argument - you tell us what people were actually doing, often how they thought about it, and what happened to them. Any writer must have some favourite people and incidents. What were some of your own?

 The one story that rises above is the Roc-A-Jets: it’s hard to imagine there was an all-lesbian – even an all-female - rock’n’roll trio in the 1950s. Now that’s brave. Lesbians were exempt from the law in a way that gay men weren’t, on the risible basis that Victorian morals didn’t accept that women had sexual feelings - and there was the belief that if they did make sex between women illegal, it might bring the ‘act’ to the attention of more women, and thus encourage it. But Baltimore in the Fifties was still conservative, and bigoted, and if lesbians didn’t fall foul of any law prohibiting sodomy, they were regularly hassled by the police, regarding the number of ‘male’ items of clothing they wore; three or more, and they could be arrested.

Also, two of the band were mothers (they’d married, and then divorced, before the band had formed) and there was always the fear they could have their kids taken into custody. But they played shows in a couple of lesbian bars, and had quite a following, who would mimic the band’s outfits (white shirts, black trews, bootlace ties, they looked like a little troupe of Buddy Hollys and Roy Orbisons!). Some fans would leave the house in their everyday clothes, and change somewhere along the way into their gig clobber; straight couples would see them play too, and there were fights with jealous boyfriends who didn’t like their girlfriends cheering on – and maybe more? – the band.

The Roc-A-Jets

I know all this because lead singer and rhythm guitarist Jo Kellum is still alive, in her eighties, and very lucid. Original drummer Edie Lippincott is too deaf to do interviews, but she sat in while I interviewed Jo on the phone. Sadly, family and gig commitments meant they never recorded, though a short clip of them playing live exists courtesy of a member of the audience. And the band survived into the 1960s.

Unfortunately, Roc-A-Jets lead guitarist Jan Morrison died in 2007, so I couldn’t get her story, and there were times when I was limited by what I could write about artists because they were long gone, and so little was written about them at the time. But through other researchers, I could get some info, and the sagas of 1930s singer-songwriter Bruz Fletcher – like a much more daring Noel Coward and Cole Porter – and 1940s/1950s cabaret singer Frances Faye are other favourites of mine, again for their brassiness and verve, pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable, and suffering to various degrees (Fletcher especially).

1950s drag queen turned 1960s LSD-gobbling balladeer Minette (who died in 2001) is another favourite. Her album – incredibly rare and it sells for thousands of dollars when one surfaces – is wonderful. It is the only durable record I know recorded by a drag artist, though she was more than that. She performed in the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, which was very influential on Warhol’s troupe, and on the Cockettes, both of which were as important to David Bowie’s glam persona as Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, and so crucial to the story of how music came out. 

Talking of glam, I’m also very fond of the UK trio Handbag, who were the one bona fide gay glam band, who became the only bona fide gay new wave band too. Apart from Tom ‘Glad To be Gay’ Robinson, who talked about them in a 1975 interview, no one else ever mentioned them, or wrote about them, and their only album, Snatchin’, was only released in Italy.

Tragedy in varying degrees – suicide, arrest, career limitations – is all too often part of these people’s stories, but there’s triumph in there too, and though laws were repealed, societal homophobia was that much more common. Then AIDS polarised people’s opinions... It was a long, bumpy ride.

You compile so much information and so much of it is new. What were the most important revelations for you?

I initially planned a book that began in the 1950s, the dawn of rock’n’roll, but then I realised rock’n’roll’s roots were in the blues, and there was a lot of bisexuality in the blues scene of 1920s Harlem – plus the Berlin Weimar era. The first pride anthem was in 1920, ‘Das Lila Lied’ (aka ‘The Lilac Song’), so that seemed a more accurate, honest and interesting place to start – and as I’d never written about the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, and little on the 1950s, much of it was new to me.

And pre-WWI too. There were female impersonators in the 1850s, the odd (non-drag) daring music hall star at the turn of the century, such as British singer Fred Barnes. And who knew the extent of the so-called ‘Pansy Craze’ in the early 1930s?

The records released during those eras were all discoveries, and since I was zeroing in on the pioneers – those who were first to put their head above the parapet in their time – these artists were often undocumented at the time, and only in the internet age have diehard fans done a lot of research, which made my work that much easier.

One example is the saga of Camp Records in the mid-1960s, which released two albums and a handful of singles, catering to the burgeoning ‘gay party’ market, for example ‘Stanley, The Manly Transvestite’ and ‘Rough Trade’. Still, to this day, no one has a clue as to who was behind Camp.


Rodney Dangerfield - Stanley The Manly Transvestite (Early 1960s)

 Camp was preceded by a 1962 record of standards, Love Is A Drag, subtitled ‘For Adult Listeners Only, Sultry Stylings by a Most Unusual Vocalist’, a male singer taking on (orchestrated) songs (for example ‘The Man I Love’) that were usually sung by women, about men. Coincidentally, it’s being reissued for the first time in November, by a US label (Sundazed).

The first declared ‘lesbian folksinger’ Lisa Ben (a pseudonym for Edith Eyde, who published the first homosexual fanzine, Vice Versa, in 1947) put out a single in 1960. As a music geek, all these one-off oddities – given the time they were released in – were little goldmines of pleasure, and melody. And with great stories attached.

Lisa Ben - the first self-declared 'lesbian folksinger'

Musicians make music, but, as we know, music is also an item of consumption.  It is connected to places of performance, mechanical and digital reproduction, advertising, magazines, books, websites - and money. At times while reading. I got the sense that the music industry from the 1930s right through to 2000 delayed coming out for both music itself and the artists who made it - often for decades based on the belief that being open about sexuality would hinder sales. I was surprised, actually, to find out how long this attitude had persisted. It seemed society had changed but the music industry hadn't. Would these be fair things to say?

 It's more a matter of economics. I can understand record companies don’t want to restrict its commercial chances, so understanding the ‘One in Ten’ ratio of LGBT+ to straight, songs that expressed same-sex love would presumably not be widely consumed by heterosexual audiences.

And how could artists come out when homosexuality was against the law, and stigmatised even when the law wasn’t enforced as heavily as it once was? You’d have to put politics before music, and your career, if you were to be brave – as some were, but that’s why you never heard of many of them.

Some independent labels of the 1940s and 1950s supported the cabaret scene where ‘risque’ performers had their loyal audiences, but record sales were low, and only the likes of Liberace – whose story is well known enough not to need repeating here – thrived, because he was closeted, and successfully sued newspapers that insinuated he was gay. You can understand him suing, because those insinuations were claiming that he was a criminal by law. Post-1967, when homosexual acts were legalised in England and Wales, and post-Stonewall riot in New York in 1969, Gay Liberation kicked in, but it was David Bowie – a married dad – who led the way.

Even the Village People played coy, never used gay pronouns, and had more of a straight fan base than gay. The pioneering disco anthem ‘I Was Born This Way’ – by Valentino in 1975 and then Carl Bean’s cover in 1977 – weren’t chart hits, while Rod Stewart’s ‘The Killing Of Georgie’ (also 1977) was a huge hit – but then this was a straight mainstream superstar.


Valentino – I was Born This Way (1975)

“Oh yes I'm happy/I'm carefree/And I'm gay/Yes I'm gay/Tain't a fault tis a fact/I was born this way”

 When the likes of Bronksi Beat and Frankie Goes To Hollywood broke through in the 1980s, AIDS made things very tough for people to feel confident about being out, but actually the crisis had the ironic effect of humanising the homosexual community, and straight performers rallied round, playing benefits, and made gay and lesbian performers come out as they felt guilty, and cowardly, for staying in the closet, and letting the bigots win.

Now, you have gay mainstream stars such as Adam Lambert, Will Young, Olly Alexander (of Years & Years), Sam Smith, and polysexual-promoting Miley Cyrus… but still not much in the use of same-sex pronouns in pop. Perhaps the ‘one in ten’ ratio still applies.

It strikes me that there have been some very liberal moments over the 20th and early 21st Century, and some quite repressive ones for music. You point to the 1920s and 1970s as being permissive eras for gay and lesbian music. I have to admit to being fascinated by the very explicit lesbianism of some early American black music and the blurred gay identities of the Glam era. But they were moments that didn't extend much further than their decade, did they? In both cases, musicians were back in the closet fairly soon.

 The 1920s benefitted from the increased social mobility and optimism after World War 1, which all came to an end when the economic crash of 1929 turned into the Great Depression of the 1930s, and economic hardship – as we’ve since in the world since 2008 - always leads to a spike in religious conservatism and scapegoating. Before the Depression truly bit, there was this wonderful pocket at the start of the end of the ‘roaring twenties’, known as the Pansy Craze, after the Pansy Club which opened in New York in 1930, with singers such as Karyl Norman and Gene (sometimes Jean) Malin, and drag act Ray (late Rae) Bourbon, who went on to have a long and not always illustrious career on vinyl as well as in nightclubs. Similar venues opened in San Francisco too.

Jean Malin

But the renaissance party and its pan-sexual freedoms didn’t last long. The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 was also harmful as it decreased the numbers of, and the takings, in clubs, places where the first gay and lesbian communities could meet. Hollywood began its own crackdown, having been laissez faire about its own ‘production code’ of conduct set up in 1930, which included a ban on any sexualised behaviour. But the Roman Catholic church’s nationwide protest finally forced the studios to buckle down, and appoint an overseer, Joseph Breen, described as “a devout Catholic, blatant anti-Semite and homophobe.” A few bars survived, and then World War Two brought many numbers of gay men and lesbians together in the armed forces, and showed just how many of them existed.

There were odd singers who, in their own small way who continued to work such as Bruz Fletcher, but as he ran out of places to play, split up with his lover and, by now alcoholic, killed himself.

 Bruz Fletcher - My Doctor (1935)

There was also Frances Faye. However, a more concerted effort to crack down on the clubs, and Senator McCarthy’s witchhunt of the 1950s victimised homosexuals as much as communists. Similarly, the British the establishment went after gay men with a vengeance.

Black America – in one sense, less rigidly overseen in terms of its own entertainment circuit – gave us Little Richard and his less documented peers Billy Wright and Esquerita, and then doo-wop figures such as Cornel Gunter (The Platters, The Coasters), but no one dared make statements in their songs about being gay.


Esquerita - Hey Miss Lucy (1958)

“Eskew Reeder (1935 -1986), usually known as Esquerita, often wore heavy makeup, sunglasses, and two wigs, piling his pompadour high on his head. It is speculated that Reeder was an influence on Little Richard. The two were friends and may have had a sexual relationship.”

 Then in the 1960s, there was a short-lived phase of gay ‘party records’, to cater to the emerging gay market, based in Bob Mizer’s physique/beefcake magazines and literature that had escaped censorship, epitomised by the LA label Camp Records, who I’ve already mentioned. There were occasional references to homosexuals in odd places, but it wasn’t until Bowie made his “I’m gay” statement to Melody Maker in 1972, that performers truly articulated any aspect of their same-sex attraction.

You have stories of repression that range from a dramatic change in the lyrics of the 20th Century's most famous song to whole careers being 'blighted' by a musician's sexuality. What were some of the greatest instances?

 Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ was voted the number one in music monthly MOJO’s 100 Records That Changed The World and described as rock’n’roll’s ‘big bang’.

The song’s producer realised that Richard’s original was a barely disguised ode to anal sex: ‘Tutti Frutti, good booty / If it don't fit, don't force it / You can grease it, make it easy’ – so he got a lyricist in to help rewrite it – which is why we have “Tutti Frutti, aw rooty”.. What a shame! We could have had an ode to gay sex in the charts 30 years before Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Relax’! I doubt Little Richard felt repressed, though, he was probably glad to have the chance to put out the record, his first six singles hadn’t charted so time was running out.

But one particularly sad story was that of Troy Walker, who’d found work in Hollywood’s clubs and bars, drawing on influences from Little Richard to the Platters and carving a reputation for impersonations, including Dinah Washington and Johnnie Ray. He’d started recording in 1961, and then released a live album Troy Walker Sings in 1962, which explored soul, rock’n’roll, Latin, cabaret, show tunes, and, notably, covered ‘Happiness is A Thing Called Joe’, written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg of Wizard Of Oz fame, and popularised by Judy Garland. But he found out that the track was the reason that stores returned the album, and his recording career stalled and never recovered.

Johnnie Ray was another. The ‘Nabob of Sob’ had a huge number one US hit in 1951 with ‘Cry’, but the root of his angst was soon revealed after news leaked that he’d been arrested just one month before ‘Cry was released, for soliciting an undercover policeman in Detroit’s Stone Theatre, a burlesque club known locally as a homosexual rendezvous. Ray hadn’t even requested a jury trial, pleading guilty and paying a $25 fine, probably in the hope it would stay undiscovered. But sudden fame changed all that, with the mercenary Confidential, a new magazine centred on scandal and gossip, blew his cover, and his career stuttered and stalled after that.

 Johnnie Ray – Cry (1952)


The late David Bowie is a fairly key character in the history of sexual presentation in modern popular music, but he isn't a simple example, is he?

 Yes, Bowie’s absolutely key, because he was the first in rock music to write about gay sexuality and be gender-fluid, but he was far from a simple example. In 1967, Lou Reed had written about drag queens in the Velvet Underground’s ‘Sister Ray’ and that “sucking on my ding-dong” line, and about trans issues in ‘Candy Says’ in 1968, but with the latter, you’d had to have known he was referring to Andy Warhol ‘superstar’ Candy Darling for it to have context.

"On the cusp of stardom, a young David Bowie models a Michael Fish dress on the cover of a 1971 Curious - the ‘sex education magazine for men and women.’

In 1967, Bowie’s quasi-music hall ditty ‘She’s Got Medals’ addressed a woman pretending to be a man – and seducing women – in the army. But in 1970, ‘The Width of a Circle’ concluded with a homosexual seduction - he gets “laid by a young bordello” . . .and then “[he]e swallowed his pride and puckered his lips / And showed me the leather belt round his hips…” and “His nebulous body swayed above/His tongue swollen with devil’s love…”

Then Bowie wrote ‘Queen Bitch’ but again, you’d have to be clued-up to truly get the gay-relationship context. In other words, there was nothing political about Bowie’s actions, and though he came out with the “I’m gay” statement when ‘selling’ Ziggy Stardust, his bisexuality seemed more related to power: all the men that we know Bowie slept with were people who could further his career - while feeding his insatiable need to experiment - and as soon as he became famous, he stopped (well, every affair he subsequently had was with women) and he even, for a time, recanted on himself ever being bi.

Those artists that were political at the same time – records such as Everyone/Involved’s ‘A Gay Song’, Madeline Davis’ ‘Stonewall Nation’ and Maxine Feldman’s ‘Angry Atthis’ - were private press releases with, at most, a thousand copies made, and in their own way, they might have inspired others to come out, and have a domino effect.  But Bowie’s example, ironic though it was because of his ambivalence toward gay rights – he was categorical about not wanting to be associated with Gay Lib – was that much more far-reaching. He made being gay, or just different, daring and colourful rather than shameful. He liberated gender, dressed it up with fashion, and theatre, and made it cool. Political statements driven by angst, or anger, frightened some people. Think of the number of gay men and women at the time, and how small Gay Pride marches were.

Gay men have not often been entirely supportive of gay musicians, to put it mildly, whereas lesbian women have seemed to be far more interested in lesbian musicians describing lesbian experience. This strikes me as a little odd. Gay men have often championed and indeed formed a huge part of the market for heterosexual women singers (the prime example being the Disco era) but the same can't be said of lesbian women, who have often supported lesbian musicians, lesbian music venues, and even lesbian labels.

 On an online forum about gay and lesbian folk music, Goldie01 posted the comment, “Someone once said that gay men want to be entertained and lesbian women want to be ‘validated’. That’s pretty general but I think there’s a germ of truth in it.”

In the early days of Gay Liberation, men clearly chose a soundtrack to their freedom, hence disco, music for nightclubbing. The first wave of angsty gay singer-songwriter records, Michael Cohen’s What Did You Expect: Songs About the Experiences Of Being Gay and Steven Grossman’s Caravan Tonight sold very little in comparison to Cris Williamson’s album The Changer And The Changed, which launched the so-called ‘Women’s Music’ movement, selling half a million copies but because it sold via mail order, feminist bookshops and women-only events, the album never registered on any chart.

Preceding Williamson, Alix Dobkin’s Lavender Jane Loves Women was another landmark record that sold really well. Lesbians had more of a need to politicise their sexuality because it was, to coin a phrase, “a man’s, man’s, man’s world.”

According to writer Alice Echols, the mixed-sex Gay Liberation Front dances of the early 1970s “were meant to engender love and acceptance and to create community…  However, GLF dances also featured a mirrorball, go-go boys, and to some radical lesbians a lot of ‘groping and dry-fucking’ among men as well.” It was felt that gay men would selfishly commandeer the agenda of gay rights, and that heterosexual women – because of their relationships with men – wouldn’t commit to ending male supremacy.

So the lesbians formed their own events, and organisations, and agenda, including the independent record label Olivia, every facet of which was orchestrated by women, from production to distribution. They released the Williamson album, and other iconic lesbian performers such as Meg Christian and Holly Near. It was all part of the seismic wave of feminism at the time; there was no such thing – or apparent need – for ‘masculinism’. The first gay-orientated ‘Man’s Music’ equivalent, a compilation called Walls To Roses: Songs of Changing Men, also sold very little, despite being released by the pioneering label Folkways, which also released Cohen’s album. There was no demand. 

 Is all of this this changing now we are in the 21st Century?

 It took AIDS to truly – or widely – politicise gay men, and that was mostly in the US, while Section 28 – arch-homophobe Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government ban (via the Local Government Act of 1988) on any ‘promotion’ of homosexuality as an acceptable alternative lifestyle galvanised the UK’s gay resistance, prompting the creation of the grassroots organisation Stonewall. But even then, the only politicised gay man who had prolonged chart success was Jimmy Somerville, first with Bronski Beat, then the Communards and finally as a solo act – and he only managed it because he also released a string of cover versions of disco classics.

Tom Robinson, after ‘Glad To Be Gay’, only had one big hit single, and his albums through the 1980s were not mainstream hits. In the early 1980s, Boy George/Culture Club and Marc Almond/Soft Cell didn’t come out or use male pronouns in their songs. Frankie Goes To Hollywood, after ‘Relax’, faded fast. We had gender fluidity but there were few openly gay songwriters. Patrick Fitzgerald of Kitchens Of Distinctions and the late Spud Jones of Tongue Man, and the neo-punk band The Apostles, all ‘indie’ rather than mainstream, were it.

Sigur Ros - Viðrar vel til loftárása (2008)

 But now, the number of openly gay artists is too long to mention them, but when writing a feature in 2012, I did make a list, and included Ed Droste (Grizzly Bear), Hercules and Love Affair, Jónsi Birgisson (Sigur Rós) Bradford Cox (Deerhunter), Patrick Wolf, Jamie Stewart (Xiu Xiu), Hunx and his Punx, Nico Muhly, Perfume Genius, Rostam Batmanglij (Vampire Weekend), Owen Pallet, Junior Boys, Matmos. And, over in Lesbianville: Tegan and Sara, Yo! Majesty, Telepathe, Sia and MEN.

Tegan and Sata - Boyfriend

'You turn me on like you want your boyfriend /But I don’t want to be your secret anymore...'

Look at John Grant, who’s couldn’t be more brazenly, blatantly, ‘out’ in his lyrics, so angsty and angry – as well as funny and clever – and he sold out the Royal Albert Hall in London last year, which holds approximately 7000.

John Grant - Down Here (2015)

'What we've got down here / is oceans of longing'

All around, there are declarations of love, sex, gender fluidity, anti-homophobia – and look at Frank Ocean, getting props from the hip hop community, and the androgyny of an artist like Young Thug – and out singers and songwriters in Country, another former bastion of homophobia. Despite the ‘No Homo’ lyrical trick around 2009-2010 – instigated by Kanye West, who’d made some pro-gay comments in the preceding years! - hip hop has dialled right back on the homophobia. I think if Eminem – another arch homophobe - came out with another stupid demeaning homophobic lyric, he would be mocked rather than appreciated.

It’s a cliché to say so, but we really have come a long way. In parts of Africa, and the Middle East, though, that journey is only now beginning. In other words, declarations against the vicious repression of the statute books, with outside help from the West, and outlets via the internet, can mean that even artists in Uganda are starting to sing out.

Rainbow  Riots - Uganda [Image by Tania Marti]


Time & Perfume

Smell is probably our most culturally neglected sense. We prioritise vision and hearing, and our words for them are numberless, with many careful distinctions. Smell, on the other hand, is comparatively a great unknown, without a general language or the ability to enunciate subtle distinctions. An entire history is undervalued and left undescribed.

A perfume or fragrance has intense physiological effects. Each of our bodies already has its own scent. We scent erotic arousal. We can smell genetic similarity and family smells different from strangers. We can smell fear and mood. Odour may very well form the infant’s first bonding with its mother.

In human culture, the ability to change our bodily smell came early. By the Bronze Age, 4,000 years ago, production of perfumes was already on an industrial scale in Crete. Later, the ancient Near East, Egypt, and Rome all had extensive and international commerce in both olfactory raw-materials and manufactured fragrances.

Despite this history, perfumes generally remain in the realm of unconsidered economic products, items in a store without cultural critical apparatus or analysis, intellectually ignored except in the most basic terms.

And nowhere is this clearer than the most neglected factor in our perception of perfumes – time.

A perfume is composed of aromatic substances with differing volatility or evaporation rates. As an applied perfume ages from moment to moment, it smells differently. Perfume happens in time, fundamentally, in a physical sense.  A skilled perfumer utilises this dimension in creating a fragrance, and the perfumes of the Guerlain family are an exemplary demonstration of this temporal dimension.

As well as being concerned with time in its fragrances, Guerlain has been a family company, with successive generations of family perfumers from 1828 to 1994, when it was purchased by luxury brand LVMH. Some of Guerlain’s readily accessible fragrances are more than a century old. It is possible to smell, for instance, 1889, 1906, 1912, and 1919. The label is an olfactory history in itself.

Jicky (1889) is the oldest commercial perfume still in production. It came from a period in which the first artificial colours were discovered, like mauve in 1856. Perfumery began experimenting with aromatic indoles created from coal after 1869. Jicky used the new coumarin and vanillin, alongside a number of natural ingredients. It was one of the first truly complex fragrances. The differing evaporation rates of its natural and synthetic components were utilised to create a fragrance that would not simply fade, but which would change over a period of hours.

Jicky presents this experience in its infancy – a fast sparkle of quickly evaporating volatile aromatics, a mid-range scent lasting for hours, and the dry-down base. It is a structure which has come to dominate perfumery  - although the so-called ‘linear’ fragrances, perfumes that smell exactly the same from start to finish (for example White Linen by Estee Lauder and Eternity by Calvin Klein) have made periodic appearances since the 1940s.

Perfume, in short, is a chemical narrative.

Aimé Guerlain’s Jicky was the opposite of the flower-scented fragrances that had preceded it. It has a rich odour (predominantly lavender and a deliberately chosen impure grade of the synthetic vanillin) with startling citrus aspects, at least initially. There is also the first hint of the base that would come to be known as the Guerlinade.

As the volatile aromatics evaporate, the Guerlinade accord remains. It is the layer of fragrance that gives the Guerlain perfumes their family resemblance. While it mutates with individual Guerlain fragrances, it is an identifiable ‘finger-print’ of the brand.

The Guerlinade would be the family’s secret for the next century, underlying their best fragrances with a skin-hugging nuzzliness. The Guerlinade is sweet (and even ‘sticky’ in early Jicky version), but is tempered with odd blurred high notes. It is deep with spice. It is familiar, intimate, and rich. It makes the best Guerlain fragrances completely unique.

Jacques Guerlain would become the family’s third major perfumer, and the most masterful. He created a range of fragrances whose complexity and narrative make them peerless in perfume history.

Après L'Ondée in 1906 and  L'Heure Bleue in 1912 were the first of Jacques Guerlain’s perfumes to achieve lasting renown. They were the precursors to the great 1919 Mitsouko.

Après L'Ondée is the scent-equivalent of an Impressionist watercolour. It has the fascinating appeal of an apparently minor work that is a masterpiece. Initially water-lit, melancholic and funereal to some degree, it is develops swiftly with a strange resolution. The violet notes are twisted and ramped up by the synthetic heliotropin.  Après L'Ondée has a subtlety that ends up broadcasting wide-beam with a single pitched note.

Fragrance chemist and critic, Luca Turin has referred to Après L'Ondée  as ‘one of the twenty greatest perfumes of all time.’ Culturally, it feels inimitably French - it is hard to think of another nation that could have created this particular accord and make it work. It is soft and rainy with a vibrant heart of fused metal.

L'Heure Bleue is a vastly different fragrance - bigger, drenched, and richer. It is a maximalist fragrance compared to Après L'Ondé’s restrained notes.

Using aldehydes for the first time, Jacques Guerlain’s L'Heure Bleue has a hint of the later Chanel No 5, which would ramp the aldehyde-levels up to saturation point, giving the Chanel its singular predominantly abstract base. However, L'Heure Bleue layers the aldehydes with intense orange blossom, vanilla and incense, and where Après L'Ondée  is fluid, L'Heure Bleue is powdery.

L'Heure Bleue is also a fragrance with an intense sillage – the wake a perfume leaves in the air behind it. L'Heure Bleue  trails like the skirts of an Edwardian dress. It is also one of those rare perfumes that smell just as good on the skin the morning-after.

Both L'Heure Bleue and Après L'Ondée  are complex. They both modulate temporally, offering difference with development. It would be a technique that Jacques Guerlain would further refine and bring to triumph with Mitsouko (1919).

If Mitsouko was a book, it would be Proust’s seven volume masterpiece devoted to Time - A la recherché du temps perdu. Mitsouko has an unparalleled perfumic narrative. Jacques Guerlain created a fragrance with a developmental span of at least eight hours, if not longer. It turns with duration, revealing new facets with a surety that has never been repeated. It isn’t just the fragrance’s longevity on the skin, it is the changes that are rung – continually and interestingly. It juxtaposes and recombines. It feels alive and responsive.

Mitsouko is a chypre perfume– a compound of citrusy top-notes and an oak-moss base. There is, at least initially, a peachiness. It is certainly and recognisably a member of the Guerlain family. But where Mitsouko differs from other Guerlains is the enormous story it tells – differing aromatics seem to roll in on tides - citrus-resinous, sweet-amber -resinous, and bitter-resinous. Sniffing a wrist periodically after an application of Mitsouko, one notes the different elements as they pop-up to temporary dominance and recede, only to be replaced by another. Mitsouko evolves with startling skill.

Mitsouko is perennially nominated as the ‘best fragrance ever’. It is addictive because there is simply nothing that equals it, no perfume that complex, no perfume that commands time so effectively.

But Guerlain has now lost its family ‘nose’. For the first time the label is not under Guerlain family creative control, and along with EU rules, many of their perfumes have been reformulated to avoid allergens. Mitsouko, for example, was reconfigured in 2007, to avoid the ‘oak-moss’ accord, which was banned by EU regulation, just like the rectified birch tar in the famous leathers like Chanel’s Cuir de Russie. While many of the reformulations have been successful, it has led to a thriving trade in ‘vintage’ bottles.

Wearing a ‘good’ perfume is an essential luxury. Wearing a bad fragrance is worse than wearing none at all. Education in scent is as easy as making repeated visits to a perfume counter and taking advantage of the opportunity to use a free product - perfume counters offer spray-on samples. Knowledge comes from experience, and the consequent educated pleasure is part of a life well-lived. Smell may be the final frontier of sensory exploration, but it richly repays effort. The products of the Guerlain brand in the early Twentieth Century are one of the great rewards.


Little CD in a Prospect of Flowers


She did go out in time for the Sunday headlines. Her body was discovered at 11.15am on Saturday in her Finger Wharf apartment in Wooloomooloo, a respectable time as far as media coverage was concerned. The death of Charlotte Dawson would front the Saturday evening TV news, with that lead-time to gather the all-important file footage and comment. And she’d headline the Sunday tabloids throughout Australasia.

It wasn’t that she hadn’t tried suicide before. There had been a recent attempt which had ended up in hospitalisation, and there had been others. But this one was different. This one was by hanging. It wasn’t the ‘go-to-sleep-permanently-and-still-look-good’ produced by the sleepies in the pharmaceutical cabinet. In fact, it would be awful and ugly. But maybe that is was it was supposed to be.

‘Thing is when we all reach out with love, he rebels,’ is the last line of the second-last text she ever sent me. She was commenting on someone else, but she could have been talking about herself. She was good at giving love – generally – but being reached by love was another story.

‘I’m wrong, just wrong,’ she said on other occasions. It was something she deeply and fundamentally believed. Beneath all the impossible beauty, the alleged glamour, the public lifestyle, Charlotte Dawson thought she was ‘wrong’.

I’ve known – had known, I’m still getting my tenses right – CD for more than ten years. I called her CD as she called me DH. With journalist Jonathan Marshall, JM, we made a troika, three of a kind. It was a decade of laughter, respect, company, and occasional fury. We were all hard management. None of us was exactly easy. We all had low boredom thresholds.

We all first became fast and permanent friends when CD was at one of her many career lows in the very early 2000s – the cancellation of TV shows, the scarcity of modelling work, the drying up of income. I liked CD a lot. I liked her anarchic humour. I liked her intelligence. I liked her looks. She was perceptive. She was fun to be with. She taught me lots about fame and fortune. She taught me things about duty.

I looked at her sometime after midnight at a 2013 New Year’s Eve party for 100 or so people at her Wharf apartment, and said ‘Jesus, we’ve got another eight hours of this’. ‘I know,’ she replied. I’d been doing clean-up duty, really, sorting the shit as it happened, making sure the party went off OK. JM was being the party. CD was being graceful, making sure everyone got a little celebrity charm. ‘I’m fucking exhausted,’ she said. But she was still charming the world at 6am.

I guess this is what I want to say. CD had a knack of bestowing grace. I used to really love it when the eyes of small children in malls lit up because they recognised her. She was so infinitely patient with them and with people in public in general. She’d always talk to them and you could see the energy and charm she granted. She bestowed celebrity grace on the people that asked for it. It was an odd laying-on of hands, but it worked.

CD was a woman who had made herself in many ways. She always told me that she had been an ugly adolescent. I don’t know. I never got to see a photograph of her from that time. Later on in life, and she was always frank about this, she had ‘work’ done. She had one Sydney plastic surgeon, a Chinese doctor, who did procedures free because she was happy to recommend him, and there were others with exactly the same deal - and exactly the same requirements of post-op publicity.

CD could get out of bed in the morning, throw some water on her face, and look great. There were frequent fiddles with botox and her lips could look bee-stung at times, but generally the basis on which she worked had been pretty good in the first place. Good bone structure. She generally worked out at gyms. She ate well – though she was definitely a meat-eater.

How you see all of this is dependent on your own life philosophy. CD was making herself for other people, and particularly males, or the generalised ‘male gaze’, thus the tits. Unfortunately in CD’s case, they were males I did not think worth it. I never really figured out her taste. There were the sportsmen, the players, and the business-success wankers, but in general, I felt, they were using her for her status as she used them for the appearance of a relationship and confirmation of public desirability. ‘I’m going to have to fuck him,’ she said grimly one night about someone, and her saying it was as glum as it reads.

In general, her males were being granted a high-performance individual, with an acute mind. Mostly, they had no idea what they were receiving. In an era when sportsmen are cultural heroes, unfortunately a high-profile woman is going to get stuck with a lot of really dumb male flesh. She did. She was a notch on a belt and a locker-room boast. Her need to do this to herself didn’t work for me.

CD could drink. Her preferred drink was chardonnay. ‘Chard’, she'd call it – ‘a nice buttery chard’ for preference. Sometimes it was way more than a tipple. She had a fondness for repeat screenings of movies and always had favourite scenes. Then she’d curl up on the sofa with her phone, glasses perched on the end of her nose, a bottle of chard, and, too often, twitter.

I could never feel her fascination for twitter. You open yourself to the public, and frequently not in a pleasant way. The human audience can be a terrible thing and hasn’t changed much from Roman crowds baying for blood. The combination of twitter and alcohol was not a good one, simply because it made her vulnerable and she took twitter seriously. I’m not saying she didn’t give as good as she got, but she was opening herself without filter to the often vile bigoted mess of humanity.

CD was also at a crossways in her life. She felt herself to be old – ‘old, old, old’ was one reiteration I remember as she watched a clip of herself on TV. And all the social valuations were coming home to roost, and not in a good way. She had lost her Foxtel contract with its retainer which had been a foundation for her life for 7 or 8 years. Then she had always treated her rented apartment as a refuge, but the owners were looking at selling it. Her body was discovered by a real estate agent with buyers waiting outside the door

In many ways, it was a perfect storm. But it had one consequence, CD is dead and I miss her.

Often late at night, last-track-before-bed stuff, she’d play favourite music on the stereo, and her all-time favourite track was a world away from authorised choices or what you'd expect. The track was from the punk band, Proud Scum, on the AK79 compilation: ‘I Am A Rabbit’. She knew all the words and she'd sing along.

"Well I've been called a dope before
Say I'm not sexy anymore for you
Say I am an animal
Say I'm not a man at all, it's true!"

She’d stand up in the middle of the lounge while I sprawled on the couch. She’d dance to Proud Scum and she looked like a little girl: that hair sweeping in the air, her body a mass of compact taut energy. I’d laugh because it was my own much-valued CD and shared time with her that only her and I could understand.

Now I’m gunna cry.


Kiwi Queer Screen (Part One) - From 'Hudson & Halls' to 'Squeeze'

In an era when the Archive is being opened and formerly inaccessible items are just a search and a click way from viewing, curation becomes the name of the game. NZ on Screen has compiled a selection of GLBT movies, documentaries, shorts and TV programs. It gives us a glimpse of time and change, from the 1980s to the present. It is a remarkable journey and it effectively begins with David Halls and Peter Hudson.

Hudson and Halls was a New Zealand produced cooking show, where two men guided the audience through a variety of aspirational recipes, with flair and innuendo. There was blond, affable, British-born, David Halls and the smaller and snappier Australian, Peter Hudson. The programme was extremely popular, and survived mystifying attempts by TVNZ to cancel it. By 1981 the show was regularly ranked in the week's five most highly-rated programmes in New Zealand and the duo had won a Feltex Award for Best Entertainer of the Year.

The Hudson and Halls series was produced prior to New Zealand’s Homosexual Law Reform in 1986 and the hosts occupied the curious space of flagrantly homosexual men on a public medium in an ostensibly intolerant society. They were blatant, in full sight, and with all the innuendo associated with the curious complicity of the audience in the matter. Everyone knew but no-one was telling.

The associated publicity material informed the audience that the two men were unmarried and shared a house but their relationship was never specified. Even South Pacific Television, the programme’s later producer, was in on the act, quoting Noel Coward in their publicity material: ‘We’re not sure if they are gay, but they certainly are merry.’

Hudson and Halls were camp. They were part of the long history of British Queerness that for much of the Twentieth Century was the only authorised mode of public gay expression. Camp had its roots in the British theatre, particularly the broad tradition of popular entertainers and music-hall comedians. The audience was automatically drawn into a arch and mannered world that, despite its superficial comfort, was deeply subversive.

Hudson and Halls' primary mode of humour was the double entendre, a statement that could be taken on two levels, one conveniently safe, the other more sexually knowing. ‘I’m adding a few twists of coarse black pepper to that – very good for the wrist-action,’ Peter Hudson murmurs over a recipe.

While there were other homosexual men featuring on New Zealand television at the time, like the TV host and quizmaster Peter Sinclair, their sexual identities were not so obvious. The fact that Hudson and Halls were not New Zealanders also gave them permission to exist in ways that perhaps were not open to the New Zealand born – Hudson and Halls could be gay because they were foreign. 

Their speech was filled with the drawl and enunciation of an international gay culture. Hudson and Halls, with their often unscripted banter, took us to the heart of a homosexual intimacy.  Their on-screen dynamic was the style of a familiar gay couple, with spats, moods, and squeals. 

Hudson and Halls were long-term lovers. They were both immigrants, who'd met in New Zealand, and who'd begun hosting a small 10 minute cooking segment on daytime TV that had blossomed into a show. They’d have a decade-long run of success with their Hudson and Halls series and its spin-offs – cookbooks, media-appearances, a restaurant, and a radio show.

Buoyed by their popularity, they left New Zealand in 1986. They began a cookery series for the BBC but, despite European syndication, they would never achieve the same level of mass-appeal they’d had in New Zealand. Peter Hudson would die of cancer in London in 1992 and David Halls would commit suicide from grief the following year.

Apart from the nuanced and coded Hudson and Halls, and a current affairs documentary or two, the subject of non-heterosexual relations was seldom apparent on New Zealand TV between 1960 and 1980. Instead, somewhat startlingly – because it came completely without local precursors - its first major manifestation was Richard Turner’s 16 mm, 80 minute, feature-length movie, Squeeze, which would screen in New Zealand cinemas as well as many overseas film-festivals.

Squeeze was filmed in 1979 and released in 1980 and was the first New Zealand movie to focus on New Zealand bisexual and gay men - and a Kiwi gay subculture.

Turner had previously made a suite of short films based upon New Zealand poems, a TV documentary Two Rivers Meet / Te Tutakinga O Nha Awa e Rua, which showcased Maori poetry, and Death of the Land (1978) a courtroom TV drama which focused on the sale of a block of ancestral Maori land. He had also begun a documentary on Black Power that was never completed. As Turner would later say ‘Squeeze was part of a body of work that challenged form and content on a number of fronts. It did not sit in isolation.’

Squeeze received its initial script funding from the Queen Elizabeth Arts Council for Script Development Assistance, but was refused further government funding because it its homosexual content.

The movie would eventually be entirely ‘crowd-sourced’. Its $100,000 budget would come from individuals within the gay community, from small investors to larger partners like Tony Katavich and Brett Sheppard - the producers of OUT! magazine and owners of a string of gay saunas and nightclubs - and James Wallace - owner of the large Wallace Corporation, a tanning and animal by-parts rendering company and more lately a prominent Arts philanthropist.


Squeeze is the story a young gay man's first explorations of the gay world of Auckland, his developing relationship with a man who plans to marry, and his encounter with another who is more comfortable with his sexuality. A host of wryly observed secondary characters range from drag-queens to gay bar drinkers and street pick-ups. In some ways, it was a coming-out movie for New Zealand, opening up a whole milieu that had never previously been acknowledged or observed in such detail.

The movie was gritty and moodily-lit. It was New Zealand’s first truly urban movie – there are no farms, beaches, or scenic tourist clichés. Squeeze was entirely shot in real city locations – Auckland streets, inner-city flats and houses, the City Hotel, the Westside gay sauna, the Backstage gay club, and the cruising areas including the Albert Park public toilets. It remains a guide to this lost world and sometimes one of the few extant visual records of these places.

Turner states the visual look of Squeeze was the memory of being taken to Piccadilly Circus as a child and being ‘awed by the display of colour from the neon lights and the way they lit seething crowds.’ Another influence was the underground Australian movie, Pure S AKA Pure Shit (1975), directed by Bert Deling, where four junkies search inner-city Melbourne for drugs.  ‘What excited me about Pure S is that it showed me what I could do in an inner city urban environment with little budget, low lighting, and high speed film. Pure S showed me I could use Auckland's inner city to re-create my nine year old’s memories of Piccadilly Circus.’

Auckland punk provided the movie’s soundtrack: Toy Love, The Features, and the Marching Girls. The movie’s title derived from the Toy Love song of the same name which provided its title-theme. The selection of music is indicative of Squeeze’s continuing cultural relevancy for it is precisely this music that is now seen as a valued legacy of the era. It adds considerably to the raw urban feel of the film.

The plot of Squeeze with its bisexual lead character, played by Robert Shannon - who would later die from HIV/AIDS - was built around the phenomenon of the closet, where a man would conceal his homosexuality in one part of his life while acting it out in another. The movie juxtaposes a heterosexual world and a hidden gay milieu to considerable effect. The movie’s observation of the tensions of its conflicted lead actor makes it a crucial on-screen document for the sexual attitudes of New Zealanders in the mid-late Twentieth Century.      

‘I don’t think I particularly set out to challenge form and content,’ Turner said. ‘If I had known what upset it was going to cause, maybe I would have carefully tiptoed the line.’

From Squeeze's first script-funding a concerted campaign had been mounted against it. The movie and its finance were discussed in Parliament with questions instigated by Patricia Bartlett’s ultra-conservative Society for the Promotion of Community Standards. Squeeze, despite its relatively innocuous sex-scenes, would eventually be given an R18 Certificate by the New Zealand censor.

Squeeze received many laudatory reviews from the overseas media. ‘What is most important about Squeeze is the steadfast compassion with which it views its hero,’ wrote Kevin Thomas in the Los Angeles Times. ‘Turner does not judge him for trying to accommodate himself to an oppressive society in which he’s trying to get ahead by its rules nor does he forsake him when his life begins to unravel. Squeeze is a drama of most painful self-discovery, well-acted and heightened by an aptly moody, restless score.’

Squeeze was a significant movie for both New Zealand film-making and New Zealand gay life. The raw, urban, night-time docu-drama was about as far as one could get visually from other New Zealand movies of the era. The movie also depicted a gay subculture and its conflicts in the last years of its illegality - a representation of immense importance to its first audience who had never before seen versions of themselves or their lives on screen. It represented a new confidence that would be subsequently be seized upon by other film-makers to explore their own visions of a local cinema and TV

Coming Next: Kiwi Queer Screen (Part 2)  - The Second Wave



There are lances through time, connections between things, links that run through years and spaces.

In an Internet world, where more and more of the archive is opened up to exploration, this vast mass seems indigestible.  Direct questions and direct answers simply lock us into linear worlds; in order to get the answer, you have to figure the right formulation of the question. Now we follow link-streams to their end… which is different.

We are coming to the stage where the connection is everything. But we need new words to describe just what it is that happening when we move upon these lines of linkage, when we follow the clicks.

“Browsing” is a verb which conveys little. Nor do we have words that explain the odd knots and strange connectives. The German critic and philosopher of technology, Walter Benjamin, and his consideration of ‘convolutes’ in examining the history of 19th Century Paris, is one possible step; for Benjamin a convolute was a knot of revelation, from a line of poetry to the activities of Parisian prostitutes and rag-pickers, whose meaning is perhaps not yet obvious.

There is also an aesthetic that needs to be created. What is a good search? What is a productive browse? How do the links and slants join? How do we explain and comment upon the process?

An example is necessary.

The first ever live-to-radio broadcast from an outdoor location wasn’t breaking news, a political event, or a disaster, it was the song of nightingales from the garden of British cellist Beatrice Harrison at Foyle Riding, near Oxted, in Surrey, at midnight on the 18th May 1924.

Beatrice Harrison in her garden, 1926.

Harrison was a cellist of some note in Britain. She had given several first performances of the compositions of Delius, and was closely associated with Elgar’s Cello Concerto.  Discovering that nightingales in the woodland that surrounded her Foyle Riding house seemed to sing along while she was practising late at night with her windows open to the summer air, Harrison contacted John Reith, the chairman of the BBC, with a suggestion that he broadcast the event.

Reith was initially dubious but he allowed himself to be convinced.

BBC engineers P. Eckersley and A. West set up the equipment at Foyle Riding that made the experiment possible, most notably the Marconi-Sykes magnetophone.  

Previously microphones had been rudimentary “repurposed telephone mouthpieces”, but the Marconi-Sykes magnetophone was beginning to revolutionise radio.  It was a microphone sensitive enough to pick up sounds which had confused engineers until they realised they were insects and birds. Suddenly radio and recording had become broad-spectrum.

From Foyle Riding, the amplified signal from the Marconi-Sykes travelled via the telephone lines to be broadcast from the central BBC station in London, 2LO.

An estimated 1 million people listened to the first nightingale broadcast at midnight on 18th May 1924. It created such a phenomenon the experiment was repeated a month later.

In advance of the second annual Nightingale broadcast in 1925, Reith wrote that the Foyle Riding nightingales had swept Britain with “a wave of something closely akin to emotionalism… a glamour of romance has flashed across the prosaic round of many a life.”

Thousands of visitors began travelling to Foyle Riding during the Nightingale season. Buses were chartered, guests entertained, and charity visits arranged. The Harrisons received over 50,000 fan letters.

Capitalising on the phenomenon, an HMV Nightingale recording was made on May 3rd, 1927, and featured Beatrice Harrison playing the Northern Irish folk song ‘Londonderry Aire’ also known as ‘Danny Boy’, accompanied by nightingales.

The Nightingale live-broadcast tradition was maintained as an annual event by the BBC. Harrison left Foyle Riding in 1936, but the broadcasts continued with birds solo, until May 19th, 1942, the 18th annual broadcast, when the scheduled broadcast was cut dramatically as it was going to air.

It was World War Two. The microphones in Foyle Riding had picked up the sounds of 197 aircraft massing over Southern England en route to bomb the German city of Mannheim. Unwilling to warn the Germans of an impending raid, the BBC pulled the plug. The Nightingale broadcast was abruptly halted, but as the phone lines were still open and equipment still in place, both nightingales and bombers were recorded on acetate disc.

It is one of the strangely profound audio documents of the British air-war.

The 155 aircraft on that May 19th raid reported hitting Mannheim but once the bombing-photographs were developed, they largely showed forest or open country. The force had undershot its target. No more than 10 aircraft loads fell in the city. 600 incendiaries in the harbour area on the Rhine burnt-out four small industrial concerns: a blanket factory, a mineral-water factory, a chemical wholesalers and a timber merchants. Of the 197 planes dispatched, 12 were lost.

151 miles north of Beatrice Harrison’s Foyle Riding, was the RAF Station at Hemswell.  Some of the bombers caught on the BBC recording probably had their origin here, providing the aircraft that circled over the south and midlands of England in order to create the stacked stream that would then angle off towards Germany. 

The Hemswell Base Commander H. I. Cozens, had been trained as photographer and a filmmaker. He had been on the British Arctic Air Route Expedition to Greenland to assess its suitability for a staging post for civil transatlantic flights. He had been awarded the Polar Medal (Silver), for his film of the expedition, 'Northern Lights'.

Commander Henry Iliffe Cozens (circa 1946)

In 1943 Cozens began shooting what would be the only contemporary colour documentary film of the Bomber airwar. It was designed as a training material for Bomber crews, to give them an overview of the process in which they were involved. It would remain a secret until the 1970s when it was released under the British Government 30 year rule.  It was broadcast, with added commentary, on the BBC in 1978.

Cozens shot the preparation and the implementation of a bombing raid upon Berlin. Designed as an information resource, it is a detailed glimpse of a technological war - even if the rudimentary nature of the technology now gives some pause for thought.

The operational life of the Lancaster bombers, as the documentary voice-over states, averaged only 40 hours flying time. They were mass-made devices, stripped down to the basics. The interiors visible in the film are basic metal. They were unheated, unpressurised aerodynamic alloy-cans, with attached bombs.

The glimpses of ops rooms in requistioned British manor-houses, the briefings, and the loading of aircraft give the film a similar air to Kubrick’s process-obsessed movies like Dr Strangelove or 2001. Cozens has the same eye for minutiae and procedure. But the glimpses of humanity are just as fascinating. The WAAFS, the first real roles women had in the support structures of combat are much in evidence. The insouciance of the bomber crews are remarkable, given the grim statistics. Pet dogs await aircraft return. Telephones ring and are answered. Markers are moved on boards.

More than 1,000 bomber crews were lost in the ‘Battle for Berlin’ airwar. Their average age was 22.

The target for Cozens’ bombers was Berlin, but despite the nightly bombings Berlin was also a city maintaining some form of cultural life - and its technical back-up.

When it came to sound-recording, Germany was leading the world. The Germans had invented and experimented extensively with magnetic tape in the 1930s. Superseding the previous ‘wire’ recording, magnetic tape was developed at BASF, then part of the industrial giant IG Farben, and later by AEG in co-operation with Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft (RRG), the German national radio network.

 Friedrich Matthias of IG Farben/BASF had created the recording tape itself, the oxide, the binder, and the backing material. Walter Weber, working for Hans Joachim von Braunmühl at RRG had radically improved sound quality with the AC bias technique. Originally recording in mono, the Germans swiftly ventured into stereo.

The first stereophonic recordings (two separate channels on the one magnetic tape) were made in 1943 by the staff of RRG. Helmut Krüger was an RRG sound-engineer and utilised the AEG/Magnetophon R22  and the AEG-Telefunken K7 stereo tape recorders as extensively as he could. (Krüger had been nicknamed Krüger-Krüger by his RRG colleagues, in reference to his habit to record everything in stereo.)  He recorded more than 200 live concert performances in stereo, pioneering a miking pattern still in use today, as well as conducting many studio experiments.

The frequency range of the RRG recordings could only be duplicated by the Americans five years after the war, and it wasn’t until the mid-1950s that the quality of the German material and the recording techniques could be equalled.

After the fall of Berlin, the Soviets removed the entire RRG Archive to Moscow in 1945. Some tapes were used to make records released on Melodiya in the 1960s, other languished in storage.  A cultural repatriation was organised in March 1991 and 1462 original RRG recordings found their way back to Berlin, including a handful of Krüger’s stereo tapes. 

Beethoven’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No 5 had been recorded by RRG in Berlin, as part of the on-going stereo experiments at the very end of 1944.  Featuring the great German pianist Walter Gieseking, and the Großes Berliner Rundfunkorchester under Arthur Rother, the stereo taping had also unintentionally caught the sounds of the anti-aircraft batteries outside the RRG building during an allied air-raid. In the quiet passages of the Allegro movement, (2´30"+, 5´40"+ in the clip), the thumps of the anti-aircraft fire are clearly discernible.

The combination of Beethoven and artillery in a stereo recording from the heart of the German Reich in the last days of the war is another profound historic and audio experience. Under fire, Gieseking and the Großes Berliner Rundfunkorchester prove themselves every bit as good as the well-regarded Berlin Philharmonic. The sound-engineering is crisp, even through the medium of Youtube. The bang of anti-aircraft batteries is an unrhythmic atmosphere. The counterpointing of human impulses, destruction and creation, is almost unique.

But what is this series of links? A meander of thought? Web-surfing? Something we have no words for yet?

For me, the steps from Beatrice Harrison and the nightingales, the RAF bombers and a lost and rediscovered stereo tape recorded in wartime Berlin are something natural, oddly-complex, finely shaped and even exhilarating. It feels whole. It is neat. It is logical. I have no idea what it means, if it signifies, and what it signifies if it does.

It is something most of us experience every day in our wanderings through the great archives that have been opened to us for the price of an internet connection. Sometimes we discover a somehow meaningful linkage. Sometimes our experience of these links fulfils and thrills. At other times they are a mess of truncated engagements and restless ennui, with intervals of engaging cats.

Writing about these link experiences is in its infancy. We need words to describe and shape them. We need concepts on which to base the aesthetics. We need ways to describe the discoveries. We need critics of link-series and commentators who can reveal the nuggets at the heart of the process.  We need new ways to formulate the activity and to judge it.

We especially need ways to describe the odd condensation of it, the 'slice through time' aspect, and how illuminating and bright it sometimes seems.