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  • Jack Starr

The Communards – Red – 35th Anniversary Edition Review – as Brilliant and Relevant as Ever

The Communards may have only lasted for three years, but their legacy has endured for more than three decades. Between 1985 and 1988, they blessed us with two studio albums, two live albums, and nine singles, with their 1986 version of ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ reaching number one and becoming the best-selling UK single of the year.

Named for the revolutionary Communards of the 1871 Paris Commune, the duo were formed by former Bronski Beat members, Scottish falsetto singer Jimmy Somerville and classically-trained multi-instrumentalist Richard Coles. Combining hi-NRG dance-pop with jazz and disco, the duo took an outspoken left-wing political stance, critiquing the Thatcher government and upholding LGBTQ rights.

1987’s Red was their final album before the duo parted ways (Somerville would go solo, while Coles turned to religion, becoming a priest in the Church of England as well as remaining a queer activist). Whether it is better or not than the group’s eponymous 1986 debut album is a matter of opinion – both records are exceptional in their songwriting, production, and of course, Somerville’s unmatched falsetto vocals. A mix of piano-led ballads and upbeat, tingly synth-pop, Red was both an in-your-face middle-finger to the homophobic Tory government of the ‘80s, and a sombre reflection of one of the most devastating periods in queer history: the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which, at the time, was wiping out a whole generation of gay men.

Today, things may be very different, but still, much remains the same. Advances in medicine have turned HIV/AIDS from a death sentence into a comparatively mild condition in the developed world, and those living with the virus have legal protections against discrimination. Gay marriage is now legal, the age of consent has been equalised between homosexuals and heterosexuals, and society has become more accepting towards gay relationships overall – in 1985, 7 out of 10 Britons believed same-sex relationships were ‘mostly or always wrong’. Many of these advances have been brought about by brave figures such as The Communards, who dared to go against mainstream prejudices and fight for their rights as loudly as possible.

“We wanted to bring down Thatcher by doing cover versions of ‘70s disco classics and sort of supper club jazz music. It perhaps seems a rather over ambitious project now, but at the time it was a brilliant idea.” recalls Richard Coles. “Before anything else, Jimmy and I were activists. We’d grown up gay in a hostile world and for us that was a matter of life and death – literally – so we weren't messing about. We wanted to fight that fight, and that was not just a fight on one front, it was a fight on all sorts of fronts. We thought that our liberation could only happen if it liberated others.”

However, there is still progress to be made. Governments have still shown incompetence – and downright malicious ignorance – towards infectious diseases, as seen during the Covid-19 pandemic. Though homophobia is less accepted in mainstream discourse, other queer groups – particularly trans and non-binary people – are still openly denigrated in the right-wing media and legislated against by bigoted politicians. The issues reflected in Red may seem like a thing of the past, but are also all-too familiar.

This 35th anniversary edition features all ten tracks from the original album, with a plethora of bonus tracks – unreleased demos, remixes both new and old, and live tracks, including live sets from the Storm Paris vinyl box set, previously unreleased digitally.

The original Red remains outstanding, particularly in its vocal and lyrical content. ‘TMT<3TBMG’, or ‘there’s more to love than boy meets girl’, speaks for itself – it’s a heartfelt plea against homophobic hate and violence, rejecting the view of gay love as a perversion or fetish, but rather just another kind of love. ‘Victims’ is a standout track – its high-energy synthesisers invoke a power and distraught passion when paired with the lyrics: ‘no-one to blame, there’s only victims’, in reference to the AIDS crisis, and how gay men with the virus were demonised by society while they were dying. It’s really harrowing stuff, and the Communards tackle it in a unique way – it’s defiant rather than defeated, upbeat in the face of horrendous animosity. The album was produced by Stephen Hague, a man behind many great pop albums of the ‘80s.

Much like Communards and Bronski Beat’s The Age of Consent, Red combines Somerville’s vignettes of life and struggles as a gay man in ‘80s Britain with a classic disco cover as the lead single. Age of Consent had their take on Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s ‘I Feel Love’; Communards had their version of ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’, and, continuing the tradition, Red features Somerville and Coles’ version of ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’, a song originally released by the Jackson 5, but the Communards were inspired by Gloria Gaynor’s version. Somerville would continue this theme with his subsequent solo album, 1989’s Read My Lips, featuring a cover of Sylvester’s ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’. Disco has long been associated with gay culture, and ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ works as a nostalgic retreat to a more carefree, pre-AIDS era where queerness was more celebrated in society – as well as just a damn catchy timeless pop song. By combining radical messaging with savvy commercial hits, the Communards managed to spread their gay-rights campaign far and wide.

In fact, if you like ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’, there’s more versions of it on this reissue than you can shake a stick at. There’s a rough demo of it, a Spanish-language version, an eleven-minute extended mix by ‘80s remix-master Shep Pettibone, and a modern dance remix by the indietronica duo The 2 Bears. It’s a treasure-trove of goodies for Communards fans – we didn’t get nearly enough of this group before they broke up, so even the unreleased bits-and-pieces we get compiled here are worth a listen.

This release is issued on a double CD set, or a double LP set, with a new gatefold cover and new liner notes by writer Owen Jones. The vinyl version features less content than the CD version due to technical limitations, but comes in a very attractive package, with vibrant red and white vinyl discs.

For Communards fans, this is a must-purchase, particularly for the new content. Red is an exceptional record in every respect, even for the uninitiated – no ‘80s collection should be without it.


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