Many songs have been written as a tribute to famous people in all walks of life, some famous, some infamous and some not known at all. When the Communards released their eighth hit, for a friend in 1988, it had an impact on all people who know someone who they’ve lost to the dreaded AIDS virus.
The Communards came into being after lead singer Jimmy Somerville walked out of Bronski Beat in the spring of 1985. He teamed up with an old friend, Richard Coles who he worked with in 1982 when Richard played saxophone on Jimmy’s track Screaming and they began rehearsing as The Committee. After realising there was another group with that name, they changed it to the Communards, a name taken from a group of members and supporters of the short-lived 1871 Paris Commune formed in the wake of France’s defeat of the Franco-Prussian War.
Their peak came in 1986 when their cover of Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes’ Don’t Leave Me This Way, which was dedicated to the GLC (Greater London Council) spent four weeks at the top of the UK chart and featured former Happy End vocalist Sarah-Jane Morris. They followed it up with So Cold The Night which reached number eight and their next and final top 10 hit came the following year, a cover of The Jackson Five’s Never Can Say Goodbye.
The Communards’ penultimate hit was the self-penned For A Friend. Jimmy Somerville said to Record Collector magazine that pop music doesn’t come out of thin air it comes out of real life. For A Friend was written about Mark Ashton who died on February 11th 1987, Jimmy explained the story. “Mark was a close friend of both of us and my best friend. He was the first friend of ours to die from AIDS and it really thumped us, really brought it all home and I suppose this is a way of getting it off our chests.”
Richard recalled, “He was a mental queen. He was a barman, well a barmaid actually…” Jimmy continued, “He used to work behind the bar in the British Legion and he was really into 50s drag. He was flamboyant, had a massive blonde beehive hairdo and used to wear polka-dot skirts. The two of us were the two most notorious queens in London! We used to get into so much trouble and get duffed up in demonstrations. We were just so mouthy back then!” Richard quipped, “You minced everything except your words!”
Mark decided he wanted a change and went off to Bangladesh where his life changed completely. “He came back and turned up on my doorstep,” remembered Jimmy, “He was wearing one of those orange things that that Buddhists wear and his head completely shaved, and I thought ‘what a shambles’. He’d got involved in politics and became a general secretary of the Young Communists.” Richard added, “He was totally devoted to women’s politics and gay politics. He was still a mad queen, but brilliant.”
All proceeds from For A Friend went to the Mark Ashton Trust which, as Jimmy said, was a sort of memorial because he was such an influential person. Richard concluded, the hardest thing was dealing with people’s attitudes afterwards. AIDS is still seen as the ‘gay plague’ as if it has nothing to do with anyone else. The whole AIDS campaign missed the point, really.”
The Communards had one further top 20 hit with There’s More to Love before going their separate ways. Caroline Buckley & Sally Herbert, their backing singers, formed Banderas and had one top 20 hit with This Is your Life. Richard studied for a BA in theology at King’s College London and was selected for training for priesthood in the Church of England. After ordination he worked as a curate at St Botolph’s Church in Boston in Lincolnshire, and subsequently at St Paul’s Church in Knightsbridge. Additionally he provided the narration for The Style Council’s film JerUSAlem in 1994. Jimmy embarked on a successful solo career including two top ten hits with cover versions of Sylvester’s You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) and The Bee Gees’ To Love Somebody. He is still recording and in 2011 released an EP called Bright Thing.