Pride season is coming, with festivals and parades all over the world. Since I’ve started this blog, the world has been progressing on LGBT rights, but we still have a ways to go.
To celebrate Pride Month, we’ll be talking about the LGBT Songs of Classic Rock. This is a two part article. We will start in 1955 and go all the way to 1971. The second part will go from 1972 all the way to the 80s. This article will emphasise rock and roll songs with a gay, bisexual, lesbian, transgender, androgynous, or crossdressing theme.
The most popular post on my blog by far is the post about LGBT rock stars (which is far from complete, I need to add a bunch more musicians). I think that it’s important to talk about LGBT themes in rock music over the years. The songs with positive representations can make an excellent alternative pride playlist for when you want a rock and roll mood.
Since these songs were released anywhere from 30-40-50 years ago, the language might be a bit outdated and the representations are far from perfect. Some of these songs were considered quite progressive during the time they were released, when homosexuality was considered a mental illness and crossdressing was illegal.
Istanbul (Not Constantinople) – The Four Lads – This song was written 500 years after the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans. Speaking of name changes, Turkey is now Türkiye. Ask Americans to do some word association with Türkiye and they’ll probably think of this song. While the song talks about history in a humorous way (but not factual because Istanbul was still officially known as Constantinople until 1930, after the Ottoman Empire fell), what you might not expect is that the song could be interpreted as a pro-trans song. How? Let me explain! It’s a fun way to educate cis people on trans people.
Trans people go through a lot of changes during their transition: name/pronoun changes, clothing/style changes, changes to their legal documents, hormones, and surgery. Transition is a personal thing and there isn’t a right or wrong way to transition – you don’t need to do all those things to be trans. One of the most common changes for trans people is they’ll change their name (there are some trans people, usually with gender neutral names, who are happy with their names and don’t change them; they are still trans though) and you can see a parallel in this lyric: “Istanbul was Constantinople, now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople”. Their old name that was given to them at birth is their deadname – as in don’t use it, that identity is dead now. You might be wondering why trans people change their name or appearance and this song has the answer to that in this lyric: “Why they changed it, I can’t say. People just liked it better that way”. Trans people don’t have to explain themselves. One more thing, don’t ask trans people what their deadname is or anything too personal about their transition – rule of thumb, if it’s not an appropriate question to ask a cis person, it’s not appropriate to ask a trans person that. This lyric says it well: “Why did Constantinople get the works? That’s nobody’s business but the Turks”, You wouldn’t call Istanbul Constantinople, so don’t deadname trans people.
How did it age? Well, it’s not exactly about being trans so I can’t say.
Is She Is or Is She Ain’t – The Charmer with the Johnny McCleverty Calypso Boys – You’ll never guess who is the person behind this song, and this is absolutely not an endorsement of him – we’re just talking about music history here. The man singing this song is none other than Louis Farrakhan. Thanks to a comment I received on my Tiktok, I found out about this song from a time way before “Lola” and “Walk on the Wild Side”, and even a decade before “I’m A Boy”.
Yes, before Louis Farrakhan joined the Nation of Islam, he was really into Caribbean music, especially calypso and in the 50s, he performed as The Charmer, right around the same time as Harry Belafonte started recording music. He recorded happy sounding songs with a bit of humour. This song was inspired by actress and performer Christine Jorgensen’s SRS (also known as sex change operation or in more modern terms bottom surgery). For those not in the know, she was one of the first trans Americans known to have SRS. Her story was all over the newspapers and sparked a lot of conversations on trans issues and gender identity. After a couple years singing as a calypso singer and after being invited to a Nation of Islam rally, he joined the Nation of Islam.
How did it age? 1/10 What do you expect? It’s the 1950s? The language is outdated throughout
Tutti Frutti – Little Richard – Little Richard is a pioneer in so many ways, musically and image wise. This was his first hit single and one of the best examples of early rock and roll. It was revolutionary and fresh. The song’s lyrics, which referenced homosexuality, were changed, to fit into the conformist 50s mainstream culture. The original lyrics were: “Tutti Frutti, good booty. If it don’t fit, don’t force it. You can grease it, make it easy”. The lyrics were re-written to “Tutti Frutti, aw rooty. Tutti Frutti, aw rooty.”
How did it age? 8/10 Certainly those lyrics aren’t family friendly, but the song as we know it, that’s fine.
Jailhouse Rock – Elvis Presley – By far, one of Elvis’s most famous songs and the music video for it with Elvis dancing with backup dancers dressed up as prisoners on a jail set is iconic. The reference to gay romance is found in the lyric: “Number 47 said to Number 3, ‘You’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see. I sure would be delighted with your company,’ Come on and do the Jailhouse Rock with me.”
How did it age? 8/10 Well, it’s a light-hearted song that’s fun to dance to. There’s no implication that straight people can turn gay or anything (even then, it’s cool to experiment and sexuality is fluid). The lyrics aren’t making light of prison rape.
Mad About The Boy – Dinah Washington – Originally written by Noël Coward in 1932 for musical revue Words and Music, the song has a hidden gay meaning. In those days you really had to hide it and how Noël Coward hid it was having various women of all different social classes and walks of life queued outside a cinema singing the song about having a celebrity crush on a movie star. The message behind this version is that cinema unites us all, and you can maybe even extend that to being accepting of other people, that gay or straight, we’re really not that different after all.
Similarly, a lot of the “gay icons” back in the day were straight women and not gay men. Dinah Washington’s version, recorded in 1961, is the best known version of this song, which is one of Noël Coward’s most recorded songs. Her version was in a Levi’s ad in the 90s and ended up charting in the UK, one of those throwback charting singles. Noël Coward even wrote verses supposed to be sung by a businessman who is either gay or bisexual about being “mad about the boy” – ‘When I told my wife, she said “I’ve never heard such nonsense in my life!’ – but this was only discovered after the fact by others and he said that it was written as a joke and not meant to be heard in public.
Noël Coward was really secretive about his sexuality because in those days, society was really homophobic and he feared losing everything if he came out. So he didn’t like the song becoming a gay anthem, but once you release a song, it’s out there and people can interpret it as they wish.
How did it age? 10/10 No problems, it’s a song for young or old, male or female – relatable to so many.
Twistin’ The Night Away – Sam Cooke – A top 10 hit from his 1962 album of the same title, Sam Cooke was a really talented songwriter and singer. Killed in 1964, he was gone too soon. Wait how is this song gay? Well this one’s more of a fan theory, but there are a couple of lyrics. “Let me tell you about a place somewhere up a New York way, where the people are so gay” – sure gay at that time meant happy, but let us have this one! One more though makes it especially sound like a gay song “Here’s a fella in blue jeans dancing with an older queen who’s dolled up in her diamond rings and twisting the night away”. A drag queen? That’s what I think! Regardless it’s a song that unites everyone.
How did it age? 10/10 No problems
Sally Go Round the Roses – The Jaynetts – One interpretation of this song is that Sally is gay and she is upset that her crush is going with another girl. At the time, a same sex relationship was taboo. One interpretation of the lyrics says that she talks to the roses because she is lonely and has no one to talk about this with. It’s a heartbreaking and haunting song.
Just want to add that I really like Pentangle’s 1969 cover of the song.
How did it age? 10/10 It’s sad and reflects the history of the time period. The song has nothing that straight up says it’s about being gay, so there isn’t anything offensive.
Andrew’s Blues – The Rolling Stones – Easily the raunchiest Stones song ever. Surprisingly this was recorded very early on in their career. You can find the song easily and read the lyrics that reference Andrew Loog Oldham sleeping with both sexes for yourself.
It’s not radio friendly, but it seems like The Rolling Stones had a fun time recording this with Gene Pitney, Graham Nash, and Allan Clarke. Phil Spector even dropped into the recording session.
The song was never officially released, and only a few acetates were pressed. Some survived and copies of the song were made on bootlegs.
How did it age? I don’t know if I can even give this a rating. There are some songs released today that are just as raunchy (I’m thinking music by Nicki Minaj, Peaches, Rihanna, Cardi B, etc). They were taking the piss out of Andrew Loog Oldham. It’s not progressive. I’m guessing they were very, very drunk when recording this.
Don’t Bring Me Down – The Pretty Things – Lead singer of The Pretty Things Phil May was bisexual and what’s the most fun part of being a bisexual? There’s no need to change pronouns in songs, unless you want to. He would often have a little fun with it and swap them in a song, and I love his blues-y singing delivery in the early days. Gives me that “he’ll steal your woman and your man” vibe. “Don’t Bring Me Down” was written by Johnny Dee, a road manager. If you look up the lyrics, you’ll find it’s all pretty hetero, but listen carefully at around the 1:25 mark. Instead of “I need a lover, yes someone new, and then to her, I will be true” Phil May sang “I need a lover, yes someone new, and then to him, I will be true”. I even hear a little laugh after that. I don’t see a lot of people commenting on this on YouTube, but it’s there! 🙂 We bisexuals feel seen for once!
How did it age? 10/10 – No problems here. Play it and see if anyone notices the bisexuality of it.
Have I the Right? – The Honeycombs – This song was written by the gay songwriting team of Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley. They were prominent songwriters and wrote songs for Lulu, Elvis, The Herd, Petula Clark, and more.
The Honeycombs were a pop group from London active from 1963-1967. The name of the band came from the drummer, Honey Lantree, who was a hairdresser and stood out at the time as being one of the few female drummers to achieve mainstream success in the era. This song was their debut single and it sold over a million copies.
While the song was sung by straight men, it was written by gay men. It’s a love song.
How did it age? 10/10 It’s cute and fun and it goes a bit proto-punk at times.
Mama Keep Your Big Mouth Shut – The Pretty Things – Need another example of Phil May gender swapping the lyrics? While it didn’t happen on their studio version of the Bo Diddley song, it happened during a live performance for the BBC on Christmas Eve 1964, years before homosexuality was legalised in the UK. At the start of the song (31 seconds in) you’ll hear Phil May sing the original lyric: “I’m in love with your little girl and your little girl is in love with me”, but listen to the lyrics at 2:15 in and you’ll hear that the lyrics have been gender swapped to “I’m in love with your little boy and your little boy is in love with me”. That is some of the most badass bisexual energy I’ve heard. No wonder David Bowie looked up to him.
How did it age? I don’t know… this isn’t really a gay song per se, but just swapped lyrics.
Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl? – The Barbarians – A garage rock song about androgyny. Back in the 60s, men were starting to grow out their hair to the point where from behind they might be mistaken for girls and wearing tighter clothes. The 60s was a time of androgyny, scrapping gender labels, and being yourself, a change from the conformist days of the 1950s.
How did it age? 8/10 I personally like feminine looking men so I don’t see anything wrong with a boy who looks like a girl. From looking at the lyrics, it doesn’t seem to make fun of trans people. The song’s written in a joking sort of way because the band had long hair themselves.
See My Friends – The Kinks This song was groundbreaking in multiple ways because of its use of the sitar and tambura, inspiring “Norwegian Wood” and “The Good’s Gone”, and Ray Davies making his foray into writing LGBT themed songs. Davies himself later said that the theme of the song was “more about camaraderie than homosexuality, but then it borders on that.” He actually wrote this song about the death of his sister. Still, people have interpreted it as having a gay theme since he mentioned that in an interview when the song came out and even mentioned that he would be gay if he wasn’t with his wife. I’ve called it the original “Homies Over Hoes”.
How did it age? 10/10 Perfect for when you want a psychedelic touch on your pride playlist.
You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away – The Beatles One interpretation of this song is that it’s about their manager Brian Epstein, who was gay, but hid it in public. Simply put, it’s possibly about being in the closet. It’s a fair interpretation.
How did it age? 10/10 Since it isn’t explicitly about being gay, I can’t say much about that. As for whether to put it on your pride playlist, may not fit the mood because it’s about being in the closet, still it’s relatable to a lot of people.
Do You Come Here Often? – The Tornados – Considered one of the first gay songs to be released on a major record label. The song has a lot of jazzy organ in it, making it different from their other guitar-driven songs. About two and a half minutes in, two men have a flirty conversation over the music.
Coincidentally, The Tornados’ producer, Joe Meek was gay. During Meek’s lifetime, homosexuality was illegal and he got in trouble a few times. His story was a tragic one, his life ended in a murder-suicide.
He killed his landlady and himself. He was also accused of plagiarising The Tornados’ “Telstar” from the tune of “La Marche d’Austerlitz” from the 1960 film Austerlitz. Meek never made money from the song in his lifetime and the case was settled in his favour three weeks after he killed himself.
One more coincidence, the keyboard player’s name is David Watts (not the same one mentioned in The Kinks song though).
How did it age? 10/10 When most of the song is instrumental, there isn’t much to be offended by. The conversation is cute and flirty. Of course it sounds old because it’s from over 50 years ago, but the values aren’t vintage.
I’m a Boy – The Who – Actually not the first song about being transgender. Hermione Baddeley sang a song back in 1961 called “I Changed My Sex”. Unfortunately, I cannot find audio of it so I didn’t write a piece about it earlier.
Pete Townshend wrote the song and he shares lead vocals with Roger Daltrey. Pete Townshend had many rock opera ideas and this song was intended for an unrealised one called Quads, a rock opera set in the future where parents can choose their children’s sex. This is the one surviving song.
“I’m a Boy” tells the story of a family who ordered four daughters, but instead they get three daughters, named Jean Marie, Felicity, and Sally Joy and a son. The boy calls himself Bill and he has an interest in doing typical boy things like playing sports and playing in the mud. The mother forces Bill to be a girl, making him wear makeup, dresses, and wigs.
How did it age? 10/10 Very well. There is nothing offensive about it. Sing it at a pride karaoke.
Party Line – The Kinks – This Beatles like song was co-written by the two Davies brothers. Dave started writing it, but got stuck somewhere and Ray helped write the song. The song is about a guy whose phone is on a party line, which is a local loop telephone circuit shared by a bunch of customers. The reason people would sign up for a party line is to save money on their phone bill, especially important in days when there was a telecommunications provider monopoly. The downside of a party line is that there’s no privacy, and that’s what the guy in the song is complaining about. The other people on the party line could eavesdrop on your calls or you might get one annoying person who keeps using the phone and won’t take turns.
In the song, the guy is wondering about the mysterious woman on the party line and this lyric speculates if the woman is a drag queen.
“Is she big, is she small? Is she a she at all? Who’s on my party line?”
How did it age? 6/10 “Is she a she at all?” can just be attributed to outdated language. Nothing offensive was meant by this lyric and my guess is that it’s referencing drag queens and not trans women, although many trans women at the time lived as drag queens.
When a Girl Loves a Girl – Jack Hammer – This song about same sex love was on Hammer’s 1966 album, Brave New World. It’s a jazzy ballad about two women who love each other, sung from the point of view of a confused, but open minded guy.
Overall, the album is really woke and discusses political and social issues.
You can hear it at 24:56 in the link below.
How did it age? 10/10 Ahead of its time. The straight male narrator is aware and open minded. The message is one of acceptance.
Alone Again Or – Love – Not officially a “gay” song, but a friend of mine said take a look at this lyric, it’s a bisexual anthem! I never thought about it before, even though I’m bi myself and I love this song so much. It’s one of the most beautiful songs of the 60s.
“Yeah I heard a funny thing
Somebody said to me
‘You know that I could be in love with almost everyone
I think people are the greatest fun.’
And I will be alone again tonight for you”
How did it age? – 10/10 Nothing objectionable here.
Arnold Layne – Pink Floyd – A Syd Barrett-penned song about a crossdresser with a strange hobby, stealing women’s clothing from clotheslines in their backyards. A quirky song from the psychedelic era of Pink Floyd. It’s worth watching the low budget music video for it where they ran around by the shore wearing masks and dressed up a mannequin. As someone who loves vintage clothing, gotta love their dress sense, since that’s what I aspire to look like (except a bit more feminine).
How did it age? 2/10 I know it’s based on a real guy in Cambridge, but don’t play this at Pride. Not a good representation of drag queens.
David Watts – The Kinks – A song about a real guy named David Watts, who was a music promoter and actually had a crush on Dave Davies. Music journalist Jon Savage considers this song to be one of Ray Davies’ most homoerotic songs. The lyrics are from the point of a boring, simple guy who has a boy crush on the refined, stylish David Watts.
Not only does he have a boy crush on David Watts, David Watts is gay, described in the song as “so gay and fancy free” and that “all the girls in the neighbourhood try to go out with David Watts… but can’t succeed.”
How did it age? 10/10 Well enough, this is pride-friendly.
Defecting Grey – The Pretty Things – The precursor of sorts to SF Sorrow, it was recorded in 1967, before the album and it was a way of the band sticking their toes in the water of writing a psychedelic rock opera with some heavy metal sounding guitar. In this song, “Grey” is a guy who works an ordinary 9-5 job and lives a heterosexual life, but suddenly realises that isn’t right for him and his gay side comes out. In an interview with Richie Unterberger, Phil May said:
“That’s about somebody who — in those days, we used to call it “Grey” — somebody, like, who does a job. Grey suit, really. And this was somebody, like the people we’ve met, who suddenly realised that everything they’d lived for, and were brought up to believe in, possibly wasn’t right. And this guy was actually going from being very straight…he was becoming homosexual, or his homosexual side was coming out. But of course on the record, nobody picks that up. But it’s “sitting alone on a bench with you…the brush of your hand…chasing shadows away” — that’s the story. But it didn’t matter what people knew about it. It was our idea that made us make the music. ‘Cause we knew what we were doing, what the storyline was. And the same with S.F. Sorrow. Once I’d written the story, we suddenly had something to work from. We had like 14 months to make this picture up.”
How did it age? 10/10 Nothing offensive here.
She’s a Man – Tages – A psychedelic song by Swedish band Tages. Probably about a drag queen.
How did it age? 3/10 I don’t think the representation was positive necessarily and we don’t use dead names anymore. At least there’s no using the wrong pronouns? All I know is the language in the song wouldn’t be acceptable today.
She’s a Rainbow – The Rolling Stones – Not a gay song per se, but it’s the song that was the inspiration behind the OG Rainbow Pride flag, according to the creator himself, Gilbert Baker. Yes! The Rolling Stones and the hippie movement were the inspirations, not The Wizard of Oz, contrary to popular belief. In the 70s, politician Harvey Milk challenged Baker to design a symbol of pride for the gay community and Baker delivered! The flag was designed by Kansas born artist Gilbert Baker in San Francisco in 1978 and originally had eight different coloured stripes each with their own symbolism: hot pink (sex), red (life), orange (healing), yellow (sunlight), green (nature), turquoise (magic/art), indigo, and violet. The rainbow overall symbolises the diversity of the LGBT community. The pink and turquoise stripes were later dropped because of lack of availability of those fabric colours. The original indigo was changed to royal blue. He refused to trademark it because he wanted it to belong to the community. Gilbert Baker passed away in 2017 at the age of 65.
How did it age? 10/10 No concerns
Sunshine of Your Love – Cream – This is more of a fan theory than canon, but I think this was an interesting thought. One of my friends and a fan of the blog said that this classic rock radio staple and standard could have some homoerotic undertones because the song is performed as a duet between two men: Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton and that same year same sex activity between men was decriminalised. I like this theory a lot.
How did it age? 10/10 No problems here. Great song.
Triad – The Byrds – A song about a threesome. A man sleeps with two women, presumably the women are bisexual.
How did it age? 10/10 It’s free love hippie stuff. Everyone seems happy and it’s consensual.
We Love You – The Rolling Stones (with John Lennon and Paul McCartney on backing vocals) – The song itself isn’t gay per se, but the music video is and it’s one that depicts a very sad moment in gay history and the timing of the song and music video’s release is significant. In July 1967, homosexuality was legalised in the UK – 72 years after the events depicted in the music video. But first, let’s talk about the song and what it’s about. A few months earlier in February 1967, there was the Redlands bust, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were arrested for possession of marijuana. It’s no secret that classic rockers love to smoke weed, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Tabloids like News of the World would exploit that and invade rock stars’ privacy and dedicate a lot of space to talking about rock stars getting busted for drugs. At the time, Mick Jagger sued News of the World for libel, and that’s another parallel you’ll see in the music video. Anyway, they had a lot of support from their contemporaries and fans. Notably, The Who recorded covers of “Under My Thumb” and “The Last Time” so Mick and Keith could make bail. The Rolling Stones recorded “We Love You” as a thank you to the public for their support.
Now for the music video. It depicts the 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde with Mick Jagger playing Oscar Wilde, Marianne Faithfull as Lord Alfred Douglas, and Keith Richards playing the judge. A trial of the century, no doubt – one of the first celebrity trials. The Rolling Stones chose to depict this trial because there were some parallels between Wilde and Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Brian Jones (he was separately arrested for possession as well). Before Oscar Wilde was on trial for being gay, he sued the Marquess of Queensberry (Lord Alfred Douglas’ dad) for libel (he called him a sodomite and was upset that he was dating his son), against his friends’ advice – they were all telling him that will lead to nothing but trouble and that he should run away to France, where being gay was legal (has been since 1791). Meanwhile, the Marquess of Queensberry hired some PI’s to spy on Wilde to prove he was hooking up with dudes. The libel trial was a disaster for Oscar Wilde, since evidence was shown that he hooked up with a lot of dudes, and only the beginning of his downfall. Just after Wilde dropped the case, his friends implored him to leave for France immediately because the cops would go after him at any minute, but he was too proud to do that and instead followed the advice of his activist mum to stay in England and fight. Three days after the libel trial began, Wilde was arrested for gross indecency. He was found guilty and sentenced to two years hard labour. He never bounced back from this and died broke in Paris just years later. To draw a parallel with The Rolling Stones, Brian Jones wasn’t the same after his conviction of possession of cannabis. He grew estranged from the band, paranoid, his behaviour erratic, and with two convictions, he couldn’t tour the US. He was fired from the band on 8 June 1969 and less than a month later, he was dead. In the music video, you can see Brian Jones looking very high and unwell – makes me sad.
Basically, The Rolling Stones used the Oscar Wilde trial as an allegory for Mick and Keith’s drug possession trial. It’s wrong to prosecute gay people for being gay. It’s also wrong to prosecute people for using drugs. It is important to note that some of the guys Wilde slept with were under 18 and that’s a crime – the underage cannot consent. Sure, drug use isn’t an immutable characteristic like being gay, but both laws are wrong. We can also learn from the past. Enough incremental change! We need radical change and justice now. One thing people may not be aware of is that while gay sex was legalised in 1967, those who were convicted in the past were not pardoned, that wouldn’t happen for decades. WWII hero Alan Turing was not pardoned until 2013. 50 years after gay sex was decriminalised, all gay and bisexual men convicted of having gay sex were pardoned. Here’s another thing: when the concentration camps were liberated, gay and bisexual men were not among those freed – they remained imprisoned. 10,000-15,000 gay and bisexual men were imprisoned in concentration camps, where 65% of them died. The surviving 35% were not freed because gay sex remained criminalised in both East and West Germany until 1968 and 1969, respectively. They never got reparations. For decades, people didn’t listen to gay and bisexual Holocaust survivors and they weren’t recognised as victims of nazism. It wasn’t until 1994 that Paragraph 175 was struck and being gay was fully legal in Germany.
As for legalisation of marijuana, it needs to be done in one fell swoop and we need to make sure that the money is going to the people, not just a wealthy, privileged few. Tax revenue from weed sales should go to things that benefit all of us: education, healthcare, infrastructure, etc. People from communities who have been disproportionately affected by these racist laws should be able to profit from marijuana legalisation. All those imprisoned on non-violent drug offences should be freed immediately and given a clean slate and reparations. All those wrongfully deported because of marijuana should be given a fresh start and allowed to return to the country, no questions asked. No one should be forgotten and there is no justice until we make amends to everyone who was victimised by the racist, classist, failing War on Drugs. Sadly, a lot of legalisation efforts forget about pardons – something that doesn’t take much effort and is a huge part of justice.
You can’t undo or change the past, but you can learn from it and do the right thing now so we can have a better future.
Bonus: The Rolling Stones said nonbinary rights when they sang: “we love they and we want you to love they too”.
How did it age? 10/10 I don’t see anything offensive here.
Born a Girl – Pleasure – Obscure song by an unknown band called Pleasure. Some people classify this as a Northern Soul song. So we’ll have to analyse the lyrics.
“You should have been a boy, but you were born a girl.”
I couldn’t tell if this song is about a trans woman or a tomboy. Two different ways you could go with this one. They might be talking about the brain/body or sex/gender mismatch, also known as dysphoria or a cisgender woman who is in touch with her masculine side.
It has a nice piano break and I like the harmonica. Regardless, it’s a song with a gender theme.
How did it age? Since I really don’t know the meaning of this. To be safe, don’t play this at Pride.
Do You Wish to be a Man? – Dave Davies – An unreleased song from his lost solo album. Basically because Dave didn’t get much opportunities to showcase his songwriting in The Kinks, he wanted to release solo work and he tried to, but for whatever reason that didn’t work out. This song was recorded in December 1968 and was never released for decades! I don’t think he ever said anything about this song being gay/trans themed, but I interpreted it this way.
“Well the misery is yours if you hide behind that door, if you hide behind the troubles in your life”
I think about this lyric as about being in the closet and coming to terms with who you are, whether you’re a gay, bi, or trans man.
How did it age? – 10/10 Nothing offensive here. It’s a Dudes Rock anthem.
Emmie – Laura Nyro – This song off her classic album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, is considered the first lesbian love song. Laura Nyro herself was bisexual and had relationships with both men and women.
How did it age? 10/10 It’s a cute song. Nothing harmful about it. Just a woman loving another woman.
I Love You Alice B. Toklas – Harper’s Bizarre – This song was used in the romantic comedy of the same name starring Peter Sellers, who plays lawyer Harold Fine. Harold is engaged to Joyce and they live a very square life. Joyce makes Harold set an exact date for their wedding. They argue about it while Harold is trying to pull out of a difficult parking space. A car is blocking their way, they try to move it, and it rolls into their car. While the car is being repaired, the only loaner available is a colourful hippie station wagon. Harold hesitates, but reluctantly takes it. The car is foreshadowing for what is about to happen. A change in life, some pot brownies (hence the movie title), and a pretty girl.
Alice B. Toklas wrote a cookbook that had a recipe for pot brownies. She was in a nearly 4 decade long relationship with writer Gertrude Stein. Both partners were part of the Parisian avant-garde scene in the early 20th century.
In 1946, Stein passed away, leaving Toklas widowed. Toklas passed away in Paris in 1967 at the age of 89.
How did it age? 10/10 Harmless sunshine pop theme song for a movie that really doesn’t have much to do with Alice B. Toklas. The song was released only the year after homosexuality was decriminalised and it makes no secret that Alice and Gertrude were a couple.
Il est cinq heures, Paris s’éveille – Jacques Dutronc – Considered the French “Waterloo Sunset”, this is a classic and considered to be the one of the best French rock songs. The song title translates to “it’s five o’clock, Paris wakes up” and is pretty self explanatory – painting a picture of Paris in the morning, inspired by the 1802 Marc-Antoine Madeleine Désaugiers song “Tableau de Paris à cinq heures du matin” – Painting of Paris at 5 AM. One lyric in the song talks about drag queens shaving: “Les travestis vont se raser”. Weeks after its release, protesters in Paris adopted the song as an anthem of sorts.
How did it age? 5/10 Nothing offensive is meant by the lyric, but some might take offence to the term “travesti”, which is considered offensive in some circles, but some trans people reclaim it. From my research, the current French word used for transgender people is “transgenre”. The French Wikipedia page for Transgender says at the top that transgender is not to be confused with intersex or cross-dressing.
Last Night in Soho – Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick, and Tich – Written by the gay songwriting duo (also DDDBMT’s managers) Howard and Blaikley, this song takes place in Soho, famous in the 60s for its nightclubs, red light district, and it also being the gay district. While the song itself isn’t about gay people, I mean it would be hard for it to be because homosexuality was only legalised the year before, there is a double entendre in the lyrics – which are about an ex-convict trying to go straight, but led astray by his criminal friends. However you could interpret it to be about a man crossing over into the other side, like in “Defecting Grey”.
How did it age? 10/10 No problems.
Sister Ray – The Velvet Underground – The studio version of this song is on the album, White Light/White Heat and is a 17 minute experimental epic that talks about 8 characters. When played live, it was as long as 30 minutes.
Many of the characters are drag queens and Sister Ray is a crossdressing smack dealer. They end up having an orgy. A fitting distorted, fractured guitar sound accompanies the story.
Of the song, Lou Reed said, “It was built around this story that I wrote about this scene of total debauchery and decay. I like to think of ‘Sister Ray’ as a transvestite smack dealer. The situation is a bunch of drag queens taking some sailors home with them, shooting up on smack and having this orgy when the police appear.”
How did it age? 7/10 Not a positive representation, but it’s a fictional story and it’s no “Arnold Layne”. Not a family-friendly song because of the discussion of drugs and sex, but the Velvet Underground aren’t the best band for G-rated music. That said, it’s a good song.
Something Strange – The Herd – A psychedelic pop song that tells the story of a boyfriend and girlfriend who go on holiday away from watchful eyes. The boyfriend thinks he’s happy. Later, the girlfriend is sick and gets bedrest in their room, the boyfriend “takes a stroll in the jasmine scented night, gay voices beckon to some new delight.” When they are on their way home, they sit by each other, but it’s not the same.
This song can be interpreted as being about either a gay or bisexual man who is in the closet who leaves his girlfriend and sleeps with a guy. I don’t think gay meant happy in this context.
How did it age? 10/10 The guy is hopefully going to come to terms with his sexuality. His sexuality is not viewed in a negative way. The something strange to me seems like they aren’t in love anymore.
The American Way of Love – The United States of America – A psychedelic song that mentions drag queens and encounters in the men’s room. Marrying electronic sounds with rock and roll and talking about current events, the band’s sound was avant-garde and political.
This song is no exception, starting with a Jefferson Airplane/Guess Who/Steppenwolf-esque sound, mixing it with circus/jazzy kind of music, taking a heavier and more experimental (like a proto-Hawkwind) turn in the second part of the song. The song ends with a soft sort of classical sound mixing in psychedelic sounds.
How did it age? 10/10 It’s fun, crazy, experimental, and unique. Nothing offensive.
Candy Says – The Velvet Underground – This soft song is about Candy Darling and mentions gender dysphoria in the lyric, “Candy says I’ve come to hate my body”. In the song, it seems like Candy wants to fit in and be happy. Unfortunately, Candy Darling died five years after the song was released at the age of 29. She never got any transition surgeries.
How did it age? 10/10 It’s sadly a reality that many trans people can’t transition and do what they need to do to feel comfortable in their bodies.
Get Back – The Beatles – Has a verse that starts “Sweet Loretta Martin thought she was a woman, but she was another man.” The song is all about reversal and maybe this is a reference to gender dysphoria. It seems like Loretta was a crossdresser or a trans woman.
How did it age? 4/10 So many different ways to interpret this song. The song was a jam that evolved and had a theme of people changing and reversing. I’m sure the Beatles didn’t have malicious intentions when writing this so I’ll give them a break here. I’m not sure why she needs to get back? The language has changed a lot over time.
Honky Tonk Women – The Rolling Stones – The Rolling Stones released this single on 4 July 1969. The inspiration behind this song came from when they went to Brazil on holiday, particularly inspired by the caipiras who lived in the rural areas.
This song also has a lot of Southern American inspirations too, as a honky-tonk is a country music bar, where there are women who dance.
The lyrics mention a drag queen: “I met a gin soaked, bar-room queen in Memphis,
She tried to take me upstairs for a ride. She had to heave me right across her shoulder ’cause I just can’t seem to drink you off my mind.”
How did it age? 10/10 I don’t think this song is harmful.
Leave This Lesbian World – Improved Sound Ltd – Krautrock band Improved Sound Ltd released this psychedelic experimental song about a girl who was assaulted and is told to leave this lesbian world and be with men.
The drum track is reversed. Krautrock bands like Neu! did similar things with their sound, remixing tracks, speeding them up, slowing them down, and playing them backwards.
How did it age? 0/10 The song doesn’t understand sexuality and I don’t think that’s how you speak to a rape victim. I get some misogynistic vibes from this.
Polythene Pam – The Beatles – This short song was part of the classic Abbey Road Medley. It goes “Well you should see Polythene Pam, she’s so good looking but she looks like a man. Well you should see her in drag dressed in her polythene bag.”
How did it age? 0/10 It’s transphobic, no way around that.
Stop the World and Let Me Off – The Flaming Ember – This Detroit blue-eyed soul band recorded this song about a woman leaving a man for another woman. The narrator seems to be heartbroken.
This song was released as a single in 1969, but also on their 1971 album, Sunshine.
How did it age? 9.5/10 I feel bad for the narrator, he’s heartbroken. He doesn’t say anything homophobic to the woman or anything biphobic to his ex. This song shows you can be heartbroken without being hateful. It may not fit the pride mood, but it’s a good song.
And They Lazed on the Verandah – Fresh – Off their album, Out of Borstal, is this song about two guys having sex in prison, written by Peter Sarstedt. Simon Napier-Bell, who managed The Yardbirds and Marc Bolan, produced this album.
The song tells a story of men who turn to other men to fulfil their sexual needs while in prison.
You can find more information on the song here.
Lola – The Kinks – This list isn’t complete without “Lola”. Many older trans women felt that this song gives them a feeling of acceptance. The song is based on a story about the Kinks’ manager Robert Wace dancing with a trans woman in Paris.
The song describes a man going to a club and dancing with a trans woman named Lola. She has a deep voice and is very strong. The guy figures out that she’s trans and he’s confused, but in the end he has respect for Lola.
My personal favourite lyric in the song is “girls will be boys and boys will be girls. It’s a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook up world, except for Lola.”
Drummer Mick Avory had a different explanation, saying that the song was inspired by him frequenting trans bars. He said that because of the band’s name, they had a lot of transgender and drag queen fans.
A nice little bonus is Lola is mentioned a decade later in the song “Destroyer”.
How did it age? 8/10 Lola isn’t represented poorly at all, especially considering the time period, it’s not perfect to today’s standards (with lyrics like “I’m not dumb but I can’t understand why she walked like a woman, but talked like a man”) but that was almost 50 years ago. Lola isn’t being misgendered, which is great, can’t say that about “Sex Change Sadie.”
Some might say that the description of Lola as strong and having a deep voice is a bit stereotypical, but today people are transitioning younger and younger and surgeries are getting better, making it easier to pass.
“Lola” is a fan and band favourite and an essential if you’re getting into The Kinks. It’s a safe enough song to play. Know your audience.
Schoolboy Blues – The Rolling Stones – Also known as “Cocksucker Blues” (of which a documentary of the same name was made in 1972), the song is a parody of Dr John’s “The Lonesome Guitar Strangler”.
The Rolling Stones needed to release one more single to fulfil their contractual obligations to Decca Records. Mick Jagger decided to release an explicit song that mentions oral and anal sex to upset the executives at Decca. For obvious reasons, the song was never released at the time, but it appeared on compilation albums and bootlegs.
Decca got their revenge by releasing a compilation album around the time the Stones were to self-release their new album.
How did it age? I can’t give it a solid rating, but I don’t think there’s necessarily any homophobia in it, nor was that the intention. I think the Rolling Stones just wanted to be edgy for the sake of it and piss off the squares at the record label. Either way, I wouldn’t put this on a playlist, not just because of the language, but because it’s not The Stones’ best work.
Andy Warhol – David Bowie – Simply put, it’s an acoustic song about one of David Bowie’s biggest inspirations. Andy Warhol was openly gay before the gay liberation movement took off.
The song opens up with some outer space like sounds with David Bowie correcting producer Ken Scott’s pronunciation of Warhol before the acoustic part begins.
How did it age? 10/10 It’s a nice tribute to Andy Warhol. Play it if you like him.
Hey Willy – The Hollies – This edgy hard rocking song is about a drag queen, known as Billy at home and called silly by his father, but known as Sadie in the clubs. Willy/Sadie is pretty and confident.
How did it age? 8.5/10 From what I can tell, it’s about a drag queen who is a rocker and is having a good time. Not really offensive. It’s a good song so play it (loud).
It Ain’t Easy – The Sad – Obscure glam rock song that tells the story of a bisexual man and how his wife isn’t the most accepting of it, but he’s proud of his sexuality.
Two standout lyrics: “I go to parties on my own, but not for long am I alone. There’s always some young girl or even boy inside and I don’t care which one I take home at night.” And “I’m not to blame for how I am. And what’s more, I don’t give a damn. I’m not ashamed to be a king of all the queens.”
How did it age? 10/10 Bisexuals may relate to this. We’re not always accepted by either straight or gay people, being called too gay or too straight. If you like obscure 70s rock, go for it and put it on a pride playlist. It’s catchy.
Oh! You Pretty Things – David Bowie – Well known for the lyric, “You got to make way for the homo superior.” Nietzsche, Aleister Crowley, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton inspired this lyric and song generally with an idea of aliens coming to take over, but this could be interpreted as having a gay and sexual liberation theme. It’s all how you look at it.
Begins with a nice piano by Rick Wakeman (who would later on go on to join Yes) before going into the catchy chorus.
How did it age? 9/10 If you have a problem with the term, “homo” then leave it off your playlist. Personally, I don’t think it’s a problem because David Bowie was bisexual.
Queen Bitch – David Bowie – Tribute to Lou Reed, sound is reminiscent of his Velvet Underground songs, especially the guitar. The particular song lyric that references homosexuality and crossdressers are “I’m up on the 11th floor and I’m watching the cruisers below. He’s down on the street and he’s trying hard to pull sister Flo,” Cruiser is slang for gay man. The Queen Bitch is likely a trans woman.
The song is written from the point of view of a guy looking up from a high rise hotel, seeing a guy he fancies going for a prostitute, sister Flo. He’s upset and says that he can do better than that, but with a little jealousy. The narrator later on laments that he couldn’t be with the guy he likes and he leaves because he feels bad.
How did it age? 10/10 It’s a fun, energetic song, one of his best pre-Ziggy songs. No misgendering here.
Sex Change Sadie – Honeycombak – A song telling the story of a trans woman or drag queen (I’m thinking trans though) addressed as “Sex Change Sadie”. She is described as a “strange boy wearing girlie’s clothes”.
The chorus goes “Sex Change Sadie, he thinks she’s a lady. Sex Change Sadie, no one really knows, Sex Change Sadie, he can’t have a baby”
The song mentions places in London like Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, and Woodford Green, and how there are “boys just like him there”.
How did it age? 0/10 Holy misgendering Batman! I wouldn’t say it has a good representation of trans people from the nickname “Sex Change Sadie” to using male pronouns to reducing her to a man wearing women’s clothing, and portraying her as some sort of oddity. This is a good guide on how not to refer to a trans person.
Another way I saw the “he thinks she’s a lady” lyric was that a guy saw the drag queen and thought she passed well. Either way, it’s not a positive representation because the whole trans people “tricking” cis people stereotype is offensive.
From the production value to the social attitudes, it’s easy to tell this is a product of the early 70s. It’s admittedly catchy proto-glam rock, but don’t play it at pride.
I found a lot of information on this website, Queer Music Heritage. Give the website a visit if you want to learn more about LGBT history in music (not just classic rock). The website is really comprehensive and talks about so many different genres.
Enjoyed this post? Read part two.
Did I miss a song or do you have a different interpretation of these songs? Hear a new jam? Share your thoughts in the comments section below. 😃
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You need to participate in a contest for probably the greatest blogs on the web. I’ll recommend this website!
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Thank you! 😃
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This is an awesome list, with a great breadth of music knowledge, starting a decade before most of us even correlate the words “progressive” or “revolutionary”. You clearly know and respect your classic rock.
I would say it’s hard to give ratings to songs from 30-60 years ago about their correctness and understanding of these topics. While it’s easy now to look back and put the emotional and moral understanding we have now, times were SO different back then (sad since it hasn’t been THAT long at all) But the fact that these bands were writing songs about these topics is pretty incredible given the political and social climate of their times.
Regardless, this is a great and impressive list and keep doing what you are doing! Thank you!
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Thank you Jenna!
The Rolling Stones – I’m Free (1965)
“I’m free to choose whom I please any old time,
I’m free to please whom I choose any old time”.
Also the live version from Oakland 1969 –
“I’m free to choose who I please any old time, oh yes I am
I’m free to please who I choose any old time, oh yes I am
So hold me, love me, hold me, love me
Cos I’m free, oh yes I am,
And oh yes, oh yes, oh yes you are,
Mr Taylor, Mr Taylor”
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