Michael Hann’s ‘top ten’ in the Guardian prompted me to re-listen to The Lemonheads’ cover of ‘Different Drum’. With the giddying potency of cheap music, it transported me back to a surprisingly distant age.
‘Different Drum’ was written by the Monkees’ Mike Nesmith, and was originally a hit in 1967 for Linda Rondstadt’s folk-rock band, the Stone Poneys. The Lemonheads covered it in 1990, cloaking its chords in the same grunge-pop sensibility that they brought to ‘Mrs Robinson’ a couple of years later.
The song is pretty archetypal 1960s fare, a belittling brush-off to a lover who wants to pin the free-spirited singer down, redeemed by a woozily beautiful chord progression. Rondstadt's version is mildly subversive in that it is sung from a woman’s perspective, but the sentiments are all of their time.
But what struck me when I first heard The Lemonheads’ version, and what still resonates today, is the fact that singer Evan Dando didn’t try to flip the genders back. Over squally guitars, he sings:
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m knocking,
It’s just that I’m, I’m not in the market
For a boy who wants to love only me.”
It seems crazy to think how thrilling that sounded 25 years ago. Yes, the (extremely handsome) Dando was rebuffing another man’s advances, but he was doing it gently, with slightly patronising affection not disgust. What would now probably be twitter-ed out of court as borderline homophobic then felt like an incredible advance.
It may well be that legendary stoner Dando just couldn’t be bothered to switch genders, but his self-penned song, ‘Big Gay Heart’ (a slightly ham-fisted hand of friendship) suggests that he was trying to make a point, as was Kurt Cobain when he excoriated Nirvana’s homophobic and sexist fans, or sang “What else can I say, everyone is gay” on their last recorded track in 1993, as were Sonic Youth when they released ‘Androgynous Mind’ in 1994.
It all feels absurdly marginal today, but these details seemed important then, like pin-pricks of light shining through the gloom. Homosexuality may have been legal, but it felt furtive. Society wasn’t networked as it is today, and gay pubs and clubs were faintly forbidding shuttered-off enclaves. Even the Pet Shop Boys were theoretically straight, until Neil Tennant came out in 1994.
Many young gay people have always been lonely, and probably still are today, despite the establishment straining every sinew to be accommodating. But it felt particularly alienating 25 years ago to be a provincial young gay man who wanted to be at ease with his sexuality, but couldn’t cope with the cultural baggage that seemed to come with it. Before Rob Halford exposed the demented homoeroticism of metal culture (and before I discovered the long-closed Bell in King’s Cross), the choice looked plain: be gay and learn to love disco, or simulate straightness and stay indie.
Looking back, it’s clear that these were always false choices (in terms of music if not sexuality), but they felt fundamental at the time. That’s why my memories of those small gestures of empathy from the godheads of grunge still have such force today, and why I spent long hours perusing the pages of Melody Maker to pick up gay overtones in lyrics, gay-friendly attitudes from musicians, anything to bring my worlds together.