While its sound and style smacks of the 80s, what resonates most prominently forty years on from Avoid Freud’s release is its substance.
The 1980s often get chided as a decade of greed, the epoch of the multi-billionaire and ridiculously famous. And while that’s all true, the era was only ever really responding to the times that came before it. As the civil unrest of the 1960s bled into the self-centred “Me Decade” of the 1970s, the plastic fakery and keeping up with the Joneses mentality of the 80s was an inevitability. This evolution is reflective of the music of the time as well. As the late 70s punk explosion (itself a reaction to disco’s sudden rise and fall) withered with mainstream interest, something needed to emerge to poke caucasian society in the same way that the safety-pinned and shaven-head punks did. No one expected the agitators to come baring eyeliner, poofy shirts, and tinny synth melodies, but there they were: a new wave/new romantic army of artists creating androgynous personalities that played with sexual stereotypes, embraced the extremes of fashion, and got all up in people’s homo-fearing faces with smooth, stylized pop.
Meanwhile, in Canada, Carole Pope and Kevan Staples were doing things slightly differently. The duo had been performing together in various iterations since the late 60s, but by the time they co-opted the name Rough Trade from the term used to describe masculine street-smart men who have sex with other men (paid or otherwise), Pope and Staples were wholly on their own unique trip. Blending theatre, music, and sexual provocation into their own brand of bawdy pop, their outrageous (for the time) stage show landed them a record deal with True North Records, who released Avoid Freud late in 1980.
The album’s unconventional and controversial first single, “What’s the Furor About the Fuhrer?” left radio programmers scratching their heads and unsure how to handle such a brash and bombastic Hitler-referencing rocker. As they often did when a 7” single’s A-side fell a little flat, they flipped the vinyl over and started playing the decidedly and deceptively more antiseptic B-side “Fashion Victim”. Radio-friendly and fully in-your-face, Pope’s narrator appears to be mocking many of their musical contemporaries: “If I take off my clothes / My carefully contrived image goes / I’m so afraid to show the real me.” “Fashion Victim” was played on radio alongside Loverboy’s “Turn Me Loose”, Kenny Rogers’s “Lady” and REO Speedwagon’s “Keep On Loving You” enough to crack the Top 40 in February of 1981. That success opened the door for Rough Trade’s biggest and best-known single to crash into the Canadian charts: “High School Confidential”.
Pope’s vampy delivery and cheeky lyrical wordplay perfectly matched the slinky, sultry, film noir arrangement of “High School Confidential”. It’s charming to read that the song’s “explicitly sexual” lyrics prompted one local Toronto radio station to pay Rough Trade to record a version without the line about how the object of Pope’s affection “makes me cream my jeans when she comes my way”, but Rough Trade’s frankness was boundary-pushing for its time. They were among the vanguards taking the next major leap in sexual liberation, normalizing and celebrating LGBTQ culture long before such an acronym was coined. It was the music itself, a combination of the era’s slick production values and the vaudevillian conceit of their stage show, that eased listeners into songs of sexual debauchery like “Lie Back, Let Me Do Everything” and the album’s epic, cinematic finale, “Grade B Movie”, with its closing lines “When you look at me, it’s like any cheap novel / Your swelling manhood rising in your bleached out jeans / I come apart at the seams.”
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Every time I listen to an album from the 1980s that I never listened to in the 1980s, I think to myself, “Wow, that sounds so 1980s.” It’s a fairly broad generalization, yes, but true of Avoid Freud. The album’s sound, style, and production smack of its time, but what resonates most prominently now almost forty years later is the album’s substance. Coming off a month of corporations from cruise lines to computer chips dressing up their logos with rainbow flags, it’s easy to forget that three decades ago, a plague was killing an entire population on the margins of society and no one batted an eye. It’s okay for Taylor Swift to tell us all to chill out and relax today, but in the early half of the 80s, a decade after the Stonewall riots and the birth of the gay pride movement, a new biological war was emerging and the enemy was attacking from within.
Politicians and mainstream media turned a blind eye to the AIDS epidemic. AIDS scared the gay out of me for years, even long after I was smart enough to understand how it gets transmitted and what my risk factor was. Prepubescent and wrestling with my homosexuality, music was one of the few ways I was exposed to gay culture and community in the 1980s. Though I knew I was more Frankie Goes To Hollywood than Culture Club, I can’t help but wonder how things may have been different for me if I’d been born a few years earlier, and gotten into Rough Trade in 1980/1981. I probably wouldn’t have gotten what Carole Pope and Kevan Staples were on about, but as an adult, listening back and thinking about the time, I’m grateful for artists like Rough Trade, bellicose warriors pushing against prudishness and breaking down barriers. In an era of greed, their music and art — as provocative and outrageous as it was — was and is an unselfish gift that continues to keep giving.