‘We’d kiss each other on stage and simulate sex’: the pioneering gay powerpop of Handbag
The trio burst on to the mid-70s scene only for their label to bury their debut. As it resurfaces, singer Paul Southwell looks back at a band who would have changed LGBTQ+ history
In 1971, 19-year-old musician Paul Southwell left Accrington and headed for the bright lights. At that time London’s gay scene consisted of a selection of seedy pubs, after-hours basement drinking dens and regular discos organised by the Gay Liberation Front, which had formed the previous October. But none of the acts playing GLF events were out: most of the entertainment was supplied by decidedly straight bands.
Southwell would change that. Alongside Dave Jenkins and Alan Jordan, he formed Handbag, a powerpop band whose look was influenced by the Rocky Horror Show and whose material included covers of Lou Reed and David Bowie songs as well as originals about gay motorcycle gangs (Leather Boys) and cruising (42nd East Street). The gay trio quickly built a following, playing GLF benefits, LGBTQ+ events and the busy pub rock circuit, although many gigs were pulled when venue managers realised exactly what kind of act they had booked. “We would dress outrageously,” says Southwell. “We’d kiss each other on stage and simulate sex – whatever a song warranted.”
Still, it wasn’t long before labels began to show an interest. David Arden, son of notorious manager Don Arden (and brother of Sharon Osbourne) signed them to his father’s company, Jet Records, home to the Electric Light Orchestra and Ozzy Osbourne. They were the first openly gay rock group on a British major label. “Everybody was trying to sign us,” says Southwell. “But we went with Don Arden, which was the worst thing we could have done. Even then he had a reputation for being a bastard! But we wanted to believe that they were nice people. We were a bit naive.”
At first, David Arden seemed excited about the band’s identity. “Handbag are, well, queers! Queens!” He told Beat Instrumental magazine. “Handbag are 100% gay. They are three chaps who look fabulous, whose music is outrageous … I’m sure gay rock will be the next big thing.” In 1975, he had them record at De Lane Lea Studios in Wembley (“We used to get all the sessions that the ELO weren’t using, sometimes at the drop of a hat,” says Southwell) and brought in superstar photographer Mick Rock to shoot the cover. “The designer wanted it to look like a handbag,” says Southwell. “It was going to be a gatefold sleeve, and inside the handbag were lots of things you wouldn’t really expect to find there, like dildos and condoms and other outrageous things.”
But shortly after the sessions were completed, Jet dropped Handbag. The album never saw the light of day – until now. Whore’s Handbag was thought lost forever until it appeared on streaming services this week, retitled The Jet Sessions 1975. It’s a revelation: a romp with blistering guitar work, and lyrics – especially on the self-explanatory Leather Boys and Closet Queen – that were years ahead of their time. It would be almost a decade before Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Bronski Beat would release their first records. If Jet had not shelved the album, the whole history of LGBTQ+ music would have been different.
Why they were dropped is still a mystery to Southwell. “Of course nobody would tell me, but I do feel that homophobia and a general lack of understanding of gay issues were behind the decision,” he says. Jet suggested the band look for a new gimmick. “There was no gimmick!” says Southwell. “There was no ambiguity, it was in your face. Many other artists pretended or hinted at it, but Handbag lived it.” He wrote a song, Jet-Lag, about the experience. And fortunately, he managed to take reference copies of the Whore’s Handbag tapes before they were locked out of the studio – the reason the album has now made it to streaming services. “I didn’t put them out earlier as I never seemed to have the time to get them converted,” says Southwell.
Despite Arden’s apparent fears about how the band would be received, in the mid-70s, punk would forge strong links with the LGBTQ+ scene. Many gay night spots became the favoured hang-outs for nascent punk superstars – in December 1976, Chaguaramas in Covent Garden became iconic punk club the Roxy. Handbag hosted the venue’s regular gay rock night. “I don’t know if I ever really saw us as punk, but once the Sex Pistols had taken over the world if you weren’t punk then you didn’t get any work,” says Southwell.
Interest in the band started growing again, and in 1978, a Handbag album finally appeared. “About two years after we had been dropped by Jet we got another offer from Reg McLean at Circle Records,” says Southwell. “We did some demos, then it all went kind of quiet. Suddenly this record – Snatchin’ by Handbag – came out in Italy! They were the demos. They weren’t supposed to be released!” A year later the album was reissued in Italy under the title The Aggressive Style Punk Rock. “The Italians must have thought: ‘This is a bit punky, we’ll market this!’ I had nothing to do with it.”
And by the early 1980s, it was all over. “Because we were gay, people were coming to see us expecting us to play disco music,” says Southwell. “We didn’t – we weren’t really playing the right kind of music for a gay audience.” Disillusioned, he left music and went into teaching – only to be hit by the twin devastation of the Aids crisis and Section 28. “I put my energies into looking after my friends,” he says. “London at that time, in 83 and 84, was just terrible, so devastating.
He was working at Morley college when Section 28 was brought in, prohibiting the “promotion of homosexual activity” by local authorities. Southwell, like many in education and the arts, campaigned against the new law and headed a delegation from the college on demonstrations. “It didn’t do much good, but you felt like you were doing something.” Coming in at the height of the Aids epidemic, it added “even more stress to the LBGTQ+ community,” he says.
Southwell is now 70 and lives with his husband in Australia. Although officially retired, he still performs with his current band, Area13. “Looking back I think Handbag did break down some barriers,” he says. “I do think that we would have been remembered as the first gay rock band had they had the guts to launch us. But we shall never know.”
Handbag: The Jet Sessions 1975 is streaming now