The Decline and Fall of Heavenly. Heavenly.
1994, K Records. Producer: Ian Shaw.
IN A NUTSHELL: A cute little record with a cute cover, Heavenly only placed 8 songs on this album, and in this case Less is really More! Co-lead vocals from Amelia Fletcher and Cathy Rogers, whose voices blend sweetly on top of raucous drumming and subdued yet dirty guitar. It’s quite reminiscent of the Show Tunes I grew up listening to, and if that’s a strike against it: so be it! It’s fun and catchy, and it always makes me smile.
“That’s so gay.”
This was a common phrase among everyone I knew growing up in the late 70s and early 80s. It was a put-down, though considered a bit gentler than saying “That sucks!” The origins of the phrase were clearly homophobic, equating “gayness” with the ridiculous, the stupid, the nonsensical events of everyday life. “That test was SO GAY!,” one might say, and the implication was not “I had to have sex with someone of my own gender during that test!” The implication was “That test was as ridiculous as someone who has sex with someone of their own gender.”
Some people argue that nowadays, among younger folks, this phrase is not homophobic. Young people in America have grown up in an era of increasing acceptance of gay men and lesbians1, and although the phrase persists, to many the term “gay” now has two distinct meanings: 1) homosexual; and 2) stupid or ridiculous. Another example of such a word is “duck,” which can mean a quacking bird or an evasive maneuver. Some research shows the link between the two meanings of “gay” has been dismantled among younger Americans, just as the link between the evasive maneuver and the waterfowl – the name of which changed from the Olde English “ened” as people began referring to it “ducking” into the water – has also vanished2
But when I was a kid, the link between meanings was clear, and saying “that’s so gay” did not only mean “that’s so ridiculous” in a metaphorical sense. It also, very often, meant gay in an intra-gender-sex way. For example, “being in the marching band is so gay.” This type of statement did not only mean band participation was ridiculous, it also, by some bizarre 70s, rural, teenage logic, meant “those boys might have sex with each other.”
Now, I don’t believe MOST teenagers of the era sat around and considered whether this made sense, the idea that boys who derive pleasure from making music3 by blowing horns would also inherently derive pleasure from blowing each other. However, I do believe at least a few supposedly “straight” boys DID think about groups of other boys being gay, and were so uncomfortable with their own desires that these thoughts revealed that they then attacked the boys who reminded them of those feelings. I’m using boys/band as an example because the sense that activities (or clothing, or appreciation of musical styles, or enjoyment of certain types of food) imparted a level of “gayness” to participants was pretty gender-specific. Nobody thought band girls were lesbians, just as nobody thought athletic boys were gay.
But whether it made sense or not, this was a real concern to teenagers at that time and place: would what I’m doing somehow imply “gayness?” Sure, some things – holding hands with other boys,
painting one’s fingernails, fast dancing at a dance4 – were clearly “gay.” (For boys, anyway – all of those things, even hand-holding, suggested no specific sexual orientation to girls.) But the line between “gay” and “not gay” could be arbitrary and fluctuate with the vicissitudes of teen life. When I was a freshman, in 1981, pink collared shirts and penny loafers would have immediately signaled an apparent fondness for dick. But the “Preppie” wave that crashed on the shores of other high schools in 1982 was finally hitting Bumfuck, PA, in 1984, and by my senior year one could wear such apparel yet still be assured of conveying an interest in vaginas for sex.
Most of these gayness tests and indicators were nonsensical, their systems for divination obscure, their application seemingly random. “Look at that fruit! He’s eating cake with frosting flowers on it!” “That kid watches Dallas. What a queer.” “You can tell by how he walks, he’s a fag.” It was like living under an oppressive regime, among a shadowy network of secret government agents who analyzed, closely, microscopically, every single data point you didn’t know you were generating, then revealed the humiliating results, loudly, in front of strangers and girls. I’m happy to say that in the enlightened era, and region, in which my own kids are growing up, the idea of being mistaken for being gay is not a big deal – it’s sort of like being mistaken for being left-handed or hazel-eyed. But in rural 80s Pennsylvania, it could seem like a life sentence.
Of course, musical taste was considered chief among all indicators of sexual orientation (for boys), a divining rod thought to have such fine sensitivity and precise calibration that a simple question of “What’s your favorite tape?5” could possibly offer a readout not just on orientation, but also proclivities, past experiences and potential habits, as well.
The “safest” choice was Heavy Metal. Heavy metal dudes were tough and scary and drove souped up cars and spoke often, and loudly, of “gettin’ pussy,” and hung out with tough, scary, and often sexy girls, leading you to believe they weren’t lying. A love for true metal bands, like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest and Motorhead, was the clearest hetero flag one could wave. (Although when Judas Priest lead singer Rob Halford came out in 1998, he probably caused many former teen metal-heads to reconsider the calibration of their musical hetero-detectors.) However, as metal lurched toward pop, and the Def Leppards and Motley Crues and Ratts came to prominence, Heavy Metal gay-gauge readings grew murkier.
One’s taste in pure Pop Music of the 80s could offer more nuanced readings than the brute, yes/no results of the Heavy Metal test, but could also require more time spent analyzing the data that was generated. For example, it was the early 80s so everyone6 loved MTV. Because of the novelty of the channel those first few years, it was expected, and “okay,” from a teen-gay-suspicion point of view, to enjoy songs from bands like Haircut 100 or A Flock of Seagulls or Human League. However, enthusiasm for such acts was a slippery slope. One had to make it clear that while you enjoyed some songs, and found the artists amusing, you were in NO WAY stating that you were a FAN! FANDOM had to be reserved for hetero-obvious bands like Van Halen and Blue Oyster Cult. Owning one (and only one) album by Yaz or Ultravox could be – possibly – okay, depending what other cassettes were in one’s collection. But you always had to do some explaining with these “fruity” bands: it had to be made clear that while one might like a Culture club or Depeche Mode song, it did NOT IMPLY AN ENDORSEMENT of anything else about the bands or their (supposed) lifestyles (which we knew nothing about but assumed we did).
A quick (possibly) note about R&B: I grew up in a VERY white area. I think there were 3 or 4 African American kids in my class of 320, and fewer than 10 total non-whites. There were a few (white) boys who were R&B fans, watched Soul Train, owned Dazz Band cassettes, and hopped on the Run-DMC bandwagon that – frankly – barely traveled through my town. This music was so far outside the realm of the rest of our understanding that it was like a brand new instrument at the CSI crime lab: results of gayness-tests from it were rendered useless while we tried to figure out how to generate data.
It was so complicated. Life is so much easier when you’re tolerant and open-minded. And while homophobic hatred and violence are still all too common, we’ve come so far that today’s straight teen boys can even love an openly gay singer, and nobody bats an eye. The gay punk band Pansy Division has been carving out a career for 20 years7. However, as ridiculous as all that worry and anxiety might seem now, and for how much it seems like so much of a “characteristic of the era,” there’s one musical style that has always been, and continues to be, associated with gay men: the Show Tune.
I have always really enjoyed8 Show Tunes. As you can imagine, I guarded this fact vigilantly as a high-schooler. (I can’t even imagine the psychic trauma that goes along with guarding more important facts about one’s self as a growing teenager.) Growing up, my mom had quite a few 8-track cassettes of various musicals – like Annie and Fiddler On the Roof – that she listened to, and even more old albums of Cast Recordings. My family went to see many of the musicals the local high schools staged, and whenever PBS showed The Music Man (which was a yearly pledge-drive event for WITF in the 70s) we watched it together9. My love of music developed, in part, around these songs, and I grew fond of the melodies and clever wordplay that characterize most of the Show Tune songs. Because plot points and motivations are often given via songs, Show Tune melodies are typically simple and catchy, so that the performers’ words are clearly understood. And these characteristics continue to be part of most of the rock songs I enjoy, too.
The first time I heard the band Heavenly, I thought it was the name of a musical. Sometime around 1994/95, while living in San Francisco, I didn’t have a car – but I had a job about 30 miles away from my house. Luckily, my good friend Ximena and her roommate The Count also worked at the same place, so I paid them to drive me to work for a few months. We listened to lots of great music on those rides, and some not as great music, too. One of the CDs they favored was The Decline and Fall of Heavenly. Maybe folks who didn’t grow up around so much Oklahoma! and Damn Yankees wouldn’t have considered it, but my first thought was “I can’t believe Ximena and The Count like Show Tunes!” Ximena has been one of the biggest musical influencers (and influencer in life in general!) I’ve known, and The Decline and Fall of Heavenly is just one of several albums she inspired me to buy!
The first song on the album is “Me and My Madness,” and the vocals enter immediately, front and center, and grab the listener’s ear, while guitarist Peter Momtchiloff follows their melody with bouncy fills. Heavenly has two singers, Amanda Fletcher and Cathy Rogers, and their voices blend beautifully – like two well-cast actors in a movie musical! The singers nicely trade lines at the end of the verses, for example at about 0:12, and their voices are charmingly sweet. However, the lyrics describe the inner turmoil (madness) of someone in a new relationship, and the sweetness gets rather raucous and “grungey10,” a satisfying change of tone, in the verse, about 1:30. Special mention should go to Matthew Fletcher, as well, whose drumming always keeps this one, and most of the songs, firmly in the rock genre with driving, flailing beats. Together, the band and its songs create a strange amalgam of lightness, depth, sweetness and darkness. And they keep it up on song two, “Modestic.”
This time the introductory faux-trumpet provides that feeling of Movie Musical Magic. This song continues what will be revealed as the band’s typical approach: sweet, light voices singing angry, harsh words – this time a plea for a boyfriend to get the hell out of the house (and to herself to follow through on kicking him out). The harmonies are tight, during backing oohs and aahs, and blend perfectly in the chorus, as at about 0:42. And who can dislike any song with the words “malicious intent” prominent in a pre-chorus?? Once again, Fletcher’s drumming keeps it all driving, and the band adds a nifty, goofy 60s-esque organ solo at about 1:50. It’s a fun song.
And the band seems to have a million of these fun melodies up their sleeves – even though the album is made of 8 quick songs. The band dials the energy back a bit on the next one, another song featuring the vocal talents of Amelia Fletcher and Cathy Rogers, this time trading lines and intertwining melodies on the mellow groove of “Skipjack.”
It’s got great little guitar figures from Momtchiloff, and a 70s-style, Gold-Plated-Diaper-Worthy cowbell from Matthew Fletcher. But A. Fletcher and Rogers steal the show, especially beginning on the second verse, about 0:47, when they sing two melodies. Once again, the lyrics indicate they’ve chosen the wrong guy. In my mind, the pair are once again standing on a stage, singing their parts to move the action of the story along, just before Act One ends – but Momtchiloff tosses in a nice guitar solo to end the song, and pull it back to the realm of rock (sort of.)
This band has a sad story. After this album they recorded one more, but on the eve of its release drummer Matthew Fletcher committed suicide. The band decided to break up. (Singer Cathy Rogers somehow ended up becoming host of the TLC’s “Junkyard Wars,” believe it or not.) The song “Itchy Chin” features Matthew’s bass drum, prominently.
It’s got the Heavenly formula of sweet harmonies, catchy melodies, on aggrieved lyrics, backed by nice guitar solos and pumping drums. “Three Star Compartment” offers particularly dreamy harmonies (on typically unlucky-at-love lyrics) from A. Fletcher and Rogers, who at times are reminiscent of The B-52’s singers Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson. The song has a nice change at about 3:45, as all the parts build together beneath a cool riff from Momtchiloff to a satisfying payoff. “Sacramento” is a bit of instrumental filler. And “She and Me” is a slow song that demonstrates that even when falling for the same sex, the singer can’t catch a break in love.
My favorite song is probably the wonderfully titled “Sperm Meets Egg, So What?” a direct look at unwanted pregnancy from a class of people who too often are unheard in the question of abortion: WOMEN!
I like this song for the same reasons I like XTC’s song “Dear God.” Because it’s a good song with direct lyrics that take on a contentious issue that – in my mind – isn’t even remotely controversial. In “Dear God” it’s the question of atheism; in this case it’s the idea that a grown woman is a human and a mass of cells is not. The lyrics are pretty funny, actually, and the song is a sort of 60s rave-up, with piping organ and frantic guitar lines.
So there you go. I don’t know what my love of this album says about me. I’m sure the me from 1984 would have made assumptions about the now me for liking this record. But in all things, humans like what we like and we are what we are. I could try to not like show tunes; I could try to not like The Decline and Fall of Heavenly. But I don’t think I’d be any happier. Maybe it’s true – this album is “So Gay.” But so what?
“Me and My Madness”
“Three Star Compartment”
“Sperm Meets Egg, So What?”
“She and Me”