Philip from the tenors takes us back to the early days of the LGBT choir festival that became Various Voices, with excerpts from former Pinkie Sandy Wilson.
When I joined the Pink Singers in April 1987 there were 20 members (all men) and we had songs like Tom Robinson’s “Glad to Be Gay” and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax”. In 1988 two women from New Zealand joined and we finally started to become a proper lesbian and gay choir.
From the beginning the Pinkies forged close links with other European lesbian and gay choirs taking part in the third European Lesbian and Gay Festival of Song in Stockholm (May 1987), and the fourth in Berlin (July 1988).
We went off to Skokholm, which was the first time we went to a Festival of Song. […] There were only the Triviatas from Cologne, Noot Aam de Man from Amsterdam, the Stockholm Gay Mens’ Chorus, and the Pink Singers. The next year we went to Berlin – the Kongresshalle. Again there was about 12 or 13 of us and we did a 30 minute set there.
In 1988 the UK Government passed Section 28 of the Local Government Act which banned local authorities and schools from “promoting” homosexuality. The European choirs were horrified at this and said ‘Next year, the festival is going to be in London’. This was a big ask for a small choir like the Pinkies but with the help of the burgeoning LGBT community in London we were able to host the 5th European Festival of Song for three nights at the Hackney Empire with 14 choruses taking part.
It was at that time that we went from being a Gay Chorus to being a Lesbian and Gay chorus. We wanted to reach out because the Lesbian community and the Gay community in lots of ways were separated. […] By the time the festival happened, we were about 20 strong. So we were the first Lesbian and Gay Choir in Europe.
We called the festival ‘Singing the Blues Away’, which of course implied fighting the Conversative (‘blue’) government’s plans to silence the LGBT community. The festival ended with a big benefit concert for the Terrence Higgins Trust at Sadler’s Wells, where Michael Cashman first announced the formation of a gay lobbying group called Stonewall. My favourite memories of that night are the massed choir of 500 voices singing Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again and Gordon Kaye of TV’s “‘Allo ‘Allo” making his first public appearance after being outed by the Sunday newspapers.
The European Festival of Song was renamed Various Voices in 1995 and London hosted the event again in 2009 at the Southbank Centre when over 60 choirs from across Europe took part. Twenty years had passed and in that time the UK choral movement had grown enormously.
Throughout my period directing the Pink Singers (1983 to 1988) there was a constant tension between the need to entertain and the need to be political. If there were too many non-political songs in the programme then one group of singers would complain, if there were too many political songs then another group would complain. What really kept things in balance was that we had constant difficulty finding political songs!
By December 1984 we felt ready to give our first concert and gave a Christmas concert at the University of LondonUnion. We called it our Christmas Antidote and this became a regular title for our Christmas concerts. At this timeI was still directing the group from the piano. As we had not got enough material for a complete concert, I padded the event out with a few readings and by encouraging individual singers to do solos.
This latter idea had a very strong effect on the nature of the choir; from now on, at any time around three quarters of the choir’s members would be doing solos. This led the group to develop more as a large cabaret ensemble and less like a choir. From now on the choir’s year developed some sort of rhythm with a Christmas Antidote concert in December, a birthday concert in April and some sort of event during Gay Pride.
When we had gathered sufficient repertoire we decided to make a recording. We went off to a school in Hertfordshire where one of our number taught and spent the day singing and recording. The results were successful and became The Pink Singers – Live. But the recording also made us take a momentous decision and stop being completely open entry. There had always been a group of singers who tended to drone in the background (known in the group as the hoovers) but the recording made us realise how bad this made us sound. From then on anyone could join but they had to have the confidence to sing for me at an audition. I never had to turn anyone away, simply asking people to sing seemed to make things self selecting.
The group was always extremely social. In the early days we would leave rehearsals at County Hall and go off to
the Gay Tea Dances or have a meal at Bunjis, the vegetarian basement Folk club. When the London Lesbian and
Gay Centre opened we sometimes socialised there, but tended to go off to the Fallen Angel in Islington. It was
from here that the Pink Singers tended to be run.
In the early days the group had been very much my own baby, but as it grew in numbers and in confidence, the
group of people who met at the Fallen Angel became an unofficial junta running the group. It was open to anyone
who felt like coming. Eventually it seemed sensible to try and set the group of on a rather more formal basis. We
had an AGM and voted ourselves a constitution; this was based on the standard one proposed by the National
Federation of Music Societies which meant that we could become affiliated to this group, the first explicitly gay
group to do so.
Mark Bunyan (born 1949) is best known as a cabaret artist, although his accomplishments also include being a national recreational trampolining medallist and many writing credits.
His story is told in the film Mark Bunyan: Very Nearly Almost Famous and he kept a diary which recorded his first impressions of the Pink Singers. In his speech at the Pink Singers’ 25th anniversary concert, he recalled that in early 1983:
Brian Kennedy, gay activist, journalist and all-round good bloke decided that London should have its own gay community choir. There were already several gay choirs, mainly male choruses, in the United States but none in this city… I was one of a very small handful of out gay musicians with any kind of public profile… I knew that starting a choir would be a big commitment and I wasn’t really that sure that I could spare the time but Brian was very persuasive and in due course on April 7th 1983, there was a well-advertised meeting at the Oval House in Kennington to which 29 people turned up plus Brian, myself and a noble pianist whose identity has disappeared.
At that first rehearsal, Mark taught the nascent choir two songs: a version of Frère Jacques with alternative lyrics (‘Homosexual, homosexual / Lesbian, lesbian / We are homosexual, we are homosexual / We are gay, we are gay’) and a piece of mock plainchant he’d written for the American gay protest-performance group, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, called ‘Veni’ or ‘I Come’. These, with the addition of Scarborough Fair, were the basis of the first public performance at the London Pride march.
There is, incidentally, a bit of a myth that the Pink Singers, as they became known after the second meeting, were formed to sing at that year’s Pride march. Though our first public appearance was at Pride – and at the head of the march I may tell you (no mayoral presence in those days) – the object was always that the choir would keep going as a community choir.
But Mark Bunyan’s career was taking off and he did not have the time to dedicate to a choir.
I’d told Brian and the choir, as it got going, that I was doing it for three months and three months only. No-one was quite sure what was going to happen once I left. On the very day that the three months were up, a man came up to me at the Sunday afternoon rehearsal in County Hall and told me that he’d just moved to London, had been conducting a choir in Salisbury (I think) and would it be possible to conduct the occasional piece. I looked at him for a moment and said “Better than that….”