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 1957 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Since these songs were released anywhere from 30-40-50 years ago, the language might be a bit outdated and the representations are far from perfect.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.
Jailhouse Rock – Elvis Presley – Yes, gay themes in rock music go back this far. 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.
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, 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.
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.
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 and Ray Davies making his foray into writing LGBT themed songs. Davies himself 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Walk on the Wild Side – Lou Reed – Can’t leave off this classic song that name drops famous trans Warhol Superstars like Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling, and Jackie Curtis. Bisexual actor Joe Dallesandro is mentioned as well. The song was ground breaking, discussing trans people, drugs, male prostitution, and oral sex.
Holly Woodlawn is described as leaving Miami after being bullied, hitchhiking, and transitioning to female. Candy Darling is mentioned doing sex work to survive while trying to achieve fame. Jackie Curtis is mentioned speeding away in a car, crashing and imagining she was James Dean.
How did it age? 8.5/10 Lou Reed paid respect to all these icons in this song, telling their stories.
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. 😃