Backstage with Darryl Bullock

Backstage with Darryl Bullock

LGBTQ+ representation in the music industry has not always been quite so transparent or celebrated as it is today. While the UK pop industry has benefited from the work of LGBTQ+ musicians, producers, managers and more, not so long-ago, being homosexual could mean the end of your career. 

Darryl Bullock is a Bristol-based feature writer and author specialising in pop music history and LGBT issues. He has written for publications including The Guardian, Pitchfork, The Bristol Magazine, The Bath Chronicle, and many more, and is also the author of six books, including Florence Foster Jenkins: The Life of the World’s Worst Opera Singer, David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music and most recently The Velvet Mafia: The Gay Men Who Ran the Swinging Sixties. 

Keep reading as we go #BackstageWith Darryl and find out why he began writing about LGBTQ+ pop music history, how music and representation in the industry has impacted him and his all-time favourite live gigs.

How have things changed for the LGBTQ community in your lifetime?

Things have changed enormously, in Britain and worldwide. I grew up believing that I would never be able to marry another man: this year I celebrate 15 years with my husband. The changes in legislation over the last 20 years or so mean that LGBTQ people can now feel safe in their work place, cannot be refused service in shops and from other businesses because of their sexual orientation, and are free to marry, adopt and have families of their own without being treated as social pariahs. We’re even allowed to join the forces these days! 

Sadly this is not true everywhere, and there are still huge battles to be won before all LGBTQ people can feel safe and secure, but here in Britain life generally is better than I had ever dared hope when I was in my teens or twenties.

How important was it for you to have role models like David Bowie? And how has representation in the media changed since then?

I believe that role models are important for everyone, but visible role models are especially important for marginalised communities: seeing people like Bowie daring to be different helped an entire generation, and you only have to look at his influence on people like Boy George, Holly Johnson, Jimmy Somerville and others to realise the truth in that. 

Representation helps to change attitudes, and although there are still certain elements in the media that are clearly homophobic, racist and transphobic, they are pandering to an ever-decreasing audience. Seeing LGBTQ characters in major roles in TV dramas – rather than the used as a comic foil or, worse, an example of how not to live your lives – is as important as seeing Black or Asian actors, or disabled actors in roles where they are not the victim or the criminal. 

Darryl Bullock
Image courtesy of Darryl Bullock.

What inspired you to start writing about the history of LGBTQ music? 

My writing career has developed organically: my first real job after school, when I was still 16, was working in a record shop. I spent much of the next 14 years in the trade but at the age of 30 I gave that up – the business had changed and I was no longer enjoying myself - and moved to Bath so that I could study journalism in Bristol: outside of music, writing was the only other thing I thought I had any talent for. 

Although I initially specialised in writing about food and drink, my passion for music was still there, and in 2000 or so I was offered the chance to start writing for Venue magazine, where I began to bring both things together. Writing books came accidentally: in 2014 my freelance career had all but dried up, the recession had killed off several of the local magazines I wrote for – including Venue and the Spark - and I was at a loose end, not knowing what to do next, when an editor who had read a short piece I had written about Florence Foster Jenkins asked if I would like to turn that into a full-length biography. That book was very well received, and when the publisher asked what I would like to do next I suggested a look at LGBTQ recording artists. The rest, as they say, is history! 

Florence Foster Jenkins
Florence Foster Jenkins: The Life of the World’s Worst Opera Singer by Darryl Bullock.

From Boy George to Lady Gaga, grassroots gay clubs and bars have been a launching pad for many influential artists regardless of their own sexuality. How has the scene changed over the years and do you think these venues will still be important for the next big stars? 

The LGBTQ scene has changed beyond recognition, and many of those clubs and pubs that gave artists their first break are no longer here. Look at Bristol: when I first started writing a weekly LGBT column for Venue there were at least twice as many clubs and pubs in the city as there are now. Some of these changes were necessary. 

As LGBTQ people stepped out of the ghetto and began using other venues they became less satisfied with the sticky carpets, the warm lager and the sad drag acts that had filled certain pubs for years, but some of that change also came around from avaricious pub and club owners out to make a quick buck from the community, who saw off the opposition and left us with a decimated local scene. But there are exciting new nights in cities around the UK and further afield that go a long way to fill the void, and many of tomorrow’s entertainers are being discovered through things like YouTube, Bandcamp and via social media.  

Moulin Rouge
The Moulin Rouge, Bristol’s first gay bar opened in 1971. Photo by Malcolm Jemison.

Generation Z are vocal online about their fluid approach to sexuality and gender which we can see reflected in the new wave of artists they support e.g., Harry Styles, Troye Sivan, Sophie etc. Are there any new artists which you are really excited about? 

Loads, there’s a guy called Lynks who used to be Bristol based that I quite like; his recent single ‘Everyone's Hot (And I'm Not)’ is just great… funny and provocative at the same time. Man On Man, a new duo made up of Faith No More’s keyboard player Roddy Bottum and his partner Joey Holman have just released their debut album; it’s full of dirty, queer rock music and I absolutely love it. John Grant has a new album out soon, Boy From Michigan. He’s an artist who is constantly evolving and I find endlessly inspiring, he’s playing in Bath later this year and I already have my tickets!

In your new book The Velvet Mafia, you tell the story of the many gay managers, producers and songwriters behind 60’s pop legends such as The Beatles and the Bee Gees. How did you discover this connection, and did it surprise you? 

Being a lifelong Beatles fan I had always been aware of the struggles that their manager, Brian Epstein, faced at a time when simply being gay could see you arrested and jailed, but it was while I was conducting research for David Bowie Made Me Gay that I started to look into the lives of his contemporaries, like Joe Meek and Larry Parnes. 

It might sound a little conceited, but at times I feel as if I am on a mission to bring these peoples’ stories back out into the open. Life for LGBTQ people did not start with the Stonewall riots in 1969, or with the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales in 1967, and we need to remember and celebrate the men and women who helped make our lives what they are today.

The Velvet Mafia
The Velvet Mafia: The Gay Men Who Ran the Swinging Sixties by Darryl Bullock.

First gig, last gig, favourite gig?

I think my first gig might have been Krokus and Magnum, a couple of heavy rock acts, at Colston Hall – now the Bristol Beacon – in February 1982. 

My last would probably have been the Divine Comedy at the O2 Academy in Bristol in October 2019. Sadly, Covid meant the cancellation or postponement of several gigs I had tickets for, but I am looking forward to seeing The Wedding Present, the Psychedelic Furs and John Grant later this year. 

My favourite is hard to tie down: Prince at the NEC was incredibly special, but then seeing George Harrison and Ringo Starr play together at the Albert Hall reduced me to tears. REM in a TV studio in Paris, then there was the time that Bob Dylan wore my hat on stage in London… there are just too many!

Can you name a song that can instantly boost your mood? (and why?)

‘The More I See You’ by Chris Montez. It’s a massively life affirming, happy song and the ever-so-slightly off-key vocals and the occasionally shambolic handclaps add to the overall joyfulness. You have to smile, and you have to dance when that song is played.

And finally, can you share a song you are loving at the moment so we can add it to our YTL Arena Backstage Pass playlist?

‘1983’ by Man on Man, from their debut album. In fact, anything from that album.

To listen to our Backstage Playlist on Spotify, click here. For exciting updates at YTL Arena Bristol, follow @ytlarenabristol on social media or sign up to our newsletter here.