Agit Disco 14 by Louise Carolin

Agit Disco 14 by Louise Carolin

As a teenager in the 80s I lived through one of the golden ages of British chart pop, listening to music that was by turn, political, danceable, challenging and entertaining. I attended CND rallies, marched against South African apartheid, ran the feminist group at school and went to GLC-funded music festivals. I came out as a lesbian in 1986 and spent the next three years immersed in student politics, campaigning against Section 28 and helping to produce an alternative girls’ magazine called Shocking Pink. During late-night layout sessions we listened to endless mix-tapes: soul, reggae, lovers rock, country & western, African pop, jazz, 60s girl groups and alt folk. The tracks I’ve selected are all tunes I first heard some time between the ages of 13 and 23. Music was a huge inspiration to me, then as now, offering moments of political recognition or identification, as well as pure listening pleasure.

Patti Smith Gloria (1975)

This was still being played in lesbian discos when I came out in 1986 and its energy and intensity puts shivers down my spine even now. As an advert for lesbianism this cover of Van Morrison’s original is irresistible, especially combined with Mapplethorpe’s cover image of the compellingly androgynous Smith. Compare and contrast with Katy Perry’s contemporary pop-paean to same-sex experimentation: “I kissed a girl and I liked it”? No competition.

The Special AKA Nelson Mandela (1984)

I’d already marched against apartheid when this came out in 1984, so the message wasn’t new to me, but it was still fantastic to hear it playing at discos, at parties and in the changing rooms at Chelsea Girl. When everyone on the dance floor – no matter how apolitical, apathetic, or right wing – was singing along to the chorus, you really felt Mandela would one day be free…

Salt n Pepa I Desire (1987)

When I put this on the decks at student discos in 1987, half the shoe-gazing dance floor went to the bar, but I was thrilled by Salt n Pepa’s frenetic flow, the sound of girls proudly declaring their ownership of hip-hop’s skills, from rapping to mixing. Later the Queens duo would record huge chart ‘n’ dance floor hits like Push It, but this is from their first album, considerably more raw – a healthy roar of sisterhood that cleared the way for hip-hop giants like Missy Elliot.

The Specials Too Much, Too Young (1980)

I loved The Specials but this one always drove me a bit crazy. As an ardent 16-year-old feminist, the lyric “Keep a generation gap – try wearing a CAP!” pissed me off, and guess what – it still does. Just like protecting ourselves from rape, protecting ourselves from pregnancy has always been seen as a female responsibility. The message is pervasive: we pay the price, so we carry the can. Listening to Too Much, Too Young back then, I just felt the sting of the double-standard. Today I think, the message doesn’t work. With teenage pregnancy and sexual assault stats rising, rising, rising, it’s time to try another approach. For god’s sake, let’s start talking to boys about issues like responsibility and consent. It can’t hurt, can it?

Helen Humes Living My Life My Way (1950)

Hume’s lovely voice soars and wheels around this beautiful, personal blues about individual freedom and choice. It’s apparently free of political overtones – unless you consider that for a woman (of any race) in 1950, Humes’ lyrics amount to a revolutionary statement: “I’ve known since the day I was born, I just have to carry on, living so carefree and gay, I’m living, living my life my way”. From the first time I heard this, in my mid-20s, it’s touched me to feel the sense of connection with someone whose life was so different from mine.

Bobbie Gentry Ode To Billy-Joe (1967)

I was fascinated with this song before I ever heard it – the song with the secret, the mystery in it, the forbidden, unmentionable thing. A sad, subtle, story about the consequences of an abortion, like a novel by Carson McCullers in three minutes. Can you imagine the reception it got in 1967? Now, Amanda Palmer’s quirky cabaret-pop song about a trip to the abortion clinic (Oasis) is on YouTube, and the topic seems almost mainstream, but it’s still socially controversial and women’s reproductive rights are a political hot potato.

Sylvester You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) (1978)

Disco was the soundtrack to gay liberation before AIDS struck and the backrooms and bath-houses of New York and San Francisco closed down. I first heard Sylvester’s high-energy, falsetto paean to sex and sexual attraction decades ago, but it still gets me. There was something heroic about that crazy level of sexual activity that characterised the period immediately following the birth of the Gay Pride movement, the huge sense of release it represented. It’s like those guys, with their Tom of Finland hard-ons and handle-bar ‘taches, were fucking for all of us.

Bronski Beat Small Town Boy (1984)

This came out before I did, in 1984, and reached number three in the charts. I didn’t yet think of myself as a lesbian but I was massively struck by the story of small-town isolation and escape. Although internet communities now offer a lifeline to lonely gay teenagers, Small Town Boy is as pertinent as ever. What seems quite extraordinary now is that more than 20 years ago a song about a young gay man fleeing violence and parental neglect could make it into the charts. According to research by Stonewall in 2007, 65% of young lesbian and gay people report being bullied at school because of their sexuality, and in the playground the word “gay” means lame or crap. Are we travelling backwards, or what?

Rhoda Dakar The Boiler (1982)

Another anomalous 80s release! I don’t know who in their right mind would pop this on the record player when they got in from work – it’s an exercise in uneasy listening, from the disturbing lyrics that recount a vulnerable girl’s rape to the rackety, nerve-jangling musical arrangement that surrounds them. I used to daydream about a re-recording in which a vigilante gang of angry young women (my feral friends from a south London squat, maybe) interrupted the assault and castrated the rapist, leaving him to bleed to death in the dark, frightening alley. I imagine this single propelled a lot of young women into self-defence classes.

Michelle Shocked When I Grow Up (1988)

I always liked this playful, tongue-in-cheek song by alt folk-singer Shocked. She was a friend of mine back then and I appeared with her in the video for this. But I’ve picked it because of its central assertion that being an old woman is something to aspire to, to look forward to – not fear. “When I grow up, I want to be an old woman,” sang Shocked to her adoring young audience of late-80s’ lesbians and feminists. Today, in my 40s and surrounded by the relentless clamour of society’s neurotic fear of ageing or appearing old, it sounds like music to my ears…

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