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Songs of the Suburbs

Justin David leads us through a playlist from and inspired by his new mosaic novella, Tales of the Suburbs, Part One of the Welston World Chronicles.

Tales of the Suburbs is a book of coming-of-age tales inspired by my own upbringing in 80s and 90s West Midlands. It was a punishing time for some children—growing up gay under Section 28—but there was always music. Here is a playlist of songs which either feature in the text or helped me get in the mood to write it, along with some extracts from the book.

1. Relax – Frankie Goes to Hollywood

It was the early 1980s. Queerness was nowhere but everywhere. Relax was the queerest song ever recorded but the band’s lead singer Holly Johnson hid behind a lie that there wasn’t anything sexual about it.

“Uncle Freddie throws his jacket off, revealing a white t-shirt with the words FRANKIE SAYS RELAX printed in bold, black letters across the chest. Everyone’s wearing them. He thinks he’s really cool. He perches himself on the arm of the settee, folds his arms and sits looking at Jamie, as if he knows a secret. Auntie Sandra gets down on her knees next to Jamie. Her golden frizz of curls dangles in his face. It’s lovely when they are all together. There’s always a lot of talk and laughter, but recently less from Grandad. Now he just grumbles about privatisation and trade unions and other things Jamie doesn’t understand.”

2. Do You really Want to Hurt Me — Culture Club

Boy George’s face was never off the television and the nation adored him. Though even with his outrageous appearance, George himself remained safely ambiguous about his own orientation.

“‘Oh dear God!’ Nan rolls her eyes. ‘Live and let live. That’s my motto.’ She looks at his scrapbook. ‘There’s enough heartache in the world. A man in make-up ain’t hurting no one.’”

3. The Power of Love — Frankie Goes to Hollywood

There are three Christmas episodes in this book. The Power of Love—the best Christmas song ever recorded, would have been played at each of them.

4. One Moment in Time — Whitney Houston

It’s New Year’s Eve 1988. At a workingmen’s club, everyone has dressed for the occasion—the dancefloor is jostling with high heels and high expectations.

It’s now eleven o’clock and Debs is on the stage doing a solo number. It’s like this every year. She’s won so many of those dance competitions for the district, she always gets asked to perform, just before they do the raffle—some modern dance routine to Whitney Houston: I want one moment in time… When I’m more than I thought I could be… When all of my dreams are a heartbeat away…

The irony, Jamie thinks. He’s still here where time has stood still, where the highlight of the week is Sharon Moody’s mid-week power-ballad night at The Winking Frog and if he’s lucky, a joyride around the estate in the back of one of his older friends’ cars. Same as last year and the year before.

5. Common People — Pulp

This song WAS 1995. It’s not ‘builder’s tea’, it’s just tea. Grey peas and bacon wasn’t an artisan dish for the middle classes, it was a staple food for struggling poor families. When Jarvis Cocker sang:

Laugh along even though they're laughing at you

And the stupid things that you do

Because you think that poor is cool

…he spoke on behalf of all the Jamies around the country.

6. 2 Become 1 — Spice Girls

“Phyllis is making the face of someone who’s just had a baby’s dirty nappy thrust under her nose. On the front of the card is a picture of two cuddly teddy bears, both grey with blue noses, holding a Merry Christmas love heart between them. Phyllis opens it up to read aloud the message inside. ‘‘To Jamie and Billy. Hope you have a wonderful Christmas, love Mum and Dad.’’ She turns to look at Jamie with bewilderment. He can see the idea congealing in her mind. ‘Funny sort of card to send two fellas.’

7. A Design for life — Manic Street Preachers

“‘That’s it,’ Phyllis says, taking the last drag on a cigarette so carefully smoked, at least an inch of unbroken ash remains attached. ‘I won’t be going to the Bahamas this week.’ She leans over and kisses Billy. ‘No Jamie?’

‘Nah, not tonight... he’s working on an assignment,’ he says. ‘So he’s sent me instead.’ The bingo caller steps down from his podium as music begins to play—A Design for Life by the Manic Street Preachers.”

8. Tonight Tonight — Smashing Pumpkins

Billy Corgan wrote this song about personal childhood experiences, but for me this song will always be synonymous with my own exit from the closet—an experience so surreal it was akin to the unforgettable accompanying video, inspired by 1902 film Le Voyage dans la Lune by Georges Méliès.

9. Proceed Undeterred — Memory Flowers

This song was written and recorded by Andy Pisanu of the Memory Flowers, especially for the trailer and release of this book. It is also the title of the last chapter of the book. The lyrics speak for themselves.

Don’t be afraid

Let anybody stand in your way

A needle in your eye

Secrets are better when shared

Don’t hide from the light

And let the world pass you by

This is your chance

Take it as it comes

And suddenly my heart doubles in size

And I have been waiting my whole life

Proceed Undeterred

Mock me with your laughter

But everyone knows what comes after

If you’re bullied at school

You’ll turn out way cool

That’s the rule

So take all the punches

Know that each and everyone one

Turns into gold

Stand back and behold

And suddenly my heart doubles in size

And I have been waiting my whole life

Proceed Undeterred

And run my boy run

Collect your prize

You have been waiting your whole life

Proceed Undeterred

Tales of the Suburbs by Justin David

As a boy growing up in the Black Country—drained grey by Mrs Thatcher’s steely policies—Jamie dreams of escape to a magical metropolis where he can rub shoulders with the mythical creatures who inhabit the pages of his Smash Hits. Although, his hometown is not without characters and Jamie’s life not without dramas—courtesy of a cast of West Midlands divas led by his mother, Gloria. Her one-liners are as colourful as the mohair cardies she carries off with the panache of a television landlady.

We follow Jamie through secondary school, teenage troubles and away to art school; there he experiences the flush of first love with Billy, and the rush of the big city. But what then? Will he return to the safety of Welston, or risk everything on a new life in London?

These flamboyantly funny stories of self-discovery, set against the shifting social scenery of the 80s and 90s, are for everybody who’s ever decided to be the person they are meant to be.

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