A synth pop act covering a Giorgio Moroder-helmed electronic piece was one thing; keeping the spirit of Thelma Houston’s biggest hit with falsetto was another. It’s to Richard Cole and Jimmy Somerville’s credit that they wanted “Don’t Leave Me This Way” to sound as huge and campy as possible. In the era of Parting Glances and My Beautiful Laundrette —films whose virtues centered on unlisping gay men situated in working class homes and businesses, shot in unwavering democratizing medium shot—Somerville dared to sing as if he were waving a mauve feather boa.
The video teases out some of the ironies: an ideal of twentysomething community trudging in trenchcoats and geometric haircuts under grey English skies to a factory party, the star a bloke who could have stepped out of that Stephen Frears film (Somerville’s buzz cut is formidable enough to cut steel). The positing of a counter-canon—the musicians are women—compensates for the thorough whitewashing administered to this Gamble-Huff chestnut. Interwoven into the revels are scenes in which the blond hunk Jimmy’s been winking at is chased and confronted by unsmiling apparatchiks. When it cuts back to the pneumatic dancing the track stops cold, although it had already come close: belting the killer “Set me free!” bit Somerville sounds like the straitjacket squeezed a bit tighter. But every star needs a scene-stealing supporting player, here played by Sarah Jane Morris, harmonizing with the gusto that Cole’s synth horn blasts can’t manage. An odd, abashed moment; like Culture Club and Helen Terry, Vince Clarke and Alison Moyet, the singer lets a woman run away with his song. This was “uncomplicated, manipulative party music,” in Tom Ewing’s words: 1986’s biggest selling single, a number one dance record and Top Forty hit in America. I hope this didn’t lead to Pseudo Echo’s galumphing American top ten cover of “Funkytown.”