Steve Bustin was Chairman between 1998 and 2001, overseeing a period of huge growth in members from around 30 members to over 100. This period also saw milestones including the launch of the LGMC’s first CD, Hear the Difference; a major rebrand; our first corporate sponsor, Queercompany.com and our move to to a new home in Cecil Sharpe House from our original rehearsal venue in Finsbury Library near Old Street. In performance terms, this period saw highlights including our first overseas tour (to Boston, San Jose for GALA Choruses and to San Francisco); performing on Top of the Pops and at Wembley Stadium with Fat Les 2000; singing at the Opening Ceremony of the Millennium Dome and organising the vigil in Soho Square following the Admiral Duncan nail bombing.
Steve offered some reflection on this time as Chairman:
There’s a track on the LGMC’s first CD, “Hear the Difference” that to my mind changed the future of the chorus. ‘Add a Riff’ is a short, jazzy number with no real lyrics, just lots of ‘Bom, Bom Bom, Bom ba ba Bom’ and ‘Ba Doo Ba Doo Bah’. It’s a track that most people probably listen to and forget or skip over when it comes up on shuffle on their iPod. Yet that track was in many ways responsible for kick-starting the growth of the chorus by putting us on national TV.
When we released ‘Hear the Difference’ the internet was still in its infancy so we were dealing with hard copies, and we spent a few pounds on postage and sent copies to various journalists and radio stations in the hope that it would get picked up and played, really as a novelty item. At the time in 1998 the LGMC was only about 30 strong and still very much a community choir.
Very early one morning a choir member rang me in a state of high excitement to let me know that ‘they’re playing our song!’. Chris Evans, then host of the Virgin Radio Breakfast Show was indeed playing our CD – and had chosen Add a Riff. He’d picked up the opening ‘Bom, Bom, Bom’ as ‘Bum, Bum, Bum’ (and if you listen to it, he’s not wrong) and played it for several days, announcing it as ‘The London Gay Men’s Chorus singing the Bum song!’. Probably not politically correct, but at that point we’d take what we could get.
I rang Virgin Radio and ended up on air, talking to Chris about the chorus and the CD, and he invited us to go into studio to sing Add a Riff live. About 15 members did so in the Autumn of 1998 then in December we were invited back on the last Friday before Christmas to sing some carols live on air. As we rounded off a slightly risqué version of Jingle Bells, Chris Evans asked, live on air, ‘Do you want to come and sing that on TFI Friday this evening?’. Of course we did. We were bundled into taxis to go straight to the TV studio (some members ringing in ‘sick’ to get the day off, despite the fact they were going to appear, fit and healthy, on national TV later that day) where we were met by a rather stern producer.
“You’re not going to get on air, you know’, he announced. ‘We’ve got Robbie Williams on today and lots of other guests and the running order is overfull already. Wait here.’
We hung around for a couple of hours while Chris Evans and the producers went into a production meeting. When it ended, the producer reappeared with a look of incredulity on his face. ‘Chris REALLY likes you – he’s scrapped several other items to get you on air – three times during the programme’.
Sure enough, we appeared three times during that Christmas edition of TFI Friday, with Chris announcing us with the line ‘They’re men, they sing and they’re gay!’. We closed the programme singing in the ‘bar’ with guests including Robbie Williams and Andrew Lloyd Webber, during the end credits. Fun and one hell of an experience.
The real impact of that appearance didn’t become clear until after Christmas, however. When we had a new intake night in early January (this was in the days when we struggled to recruit new members), our choir of 30 became, overnight, a choir of 75, with people pouring through the door saying they had never heard of The London Gay Men’s Chorus until they’d seen us on TV.
‘Add a Riff’ may be a little, insignificant song, but to me it’s one of the most important songs the LGMC has ever sung, because of the chain of events it set off. Yes that growth might have happened organically over time, but it kick-started the move from a community choir to the high-profile mega-choir it is today.
That story also rather sums up the three years when it was my honour to be Chairman. When I took over from David Batten, who had done a fantastic job of forming a proper organisation and steering committee from an informal group of singers, it was my stated aim to see the chorus grow in size, stature and profile. I could see huge potential and I knew we could really make a difference to individuals, to the gay community and in the wider world.
I was very lucky to take on the role at the same time as Jeremy Haneman took over as musical director. He and I shared a vision of what the choir could achieve, artistically as well as socially and even politically, and Jeremy remains a great friend – one of many from my ten years as a member, not just the three I was Chair.
There were lots of highlights in those three years. For instance, our visits to Manchester Mardi Gras to sing at the Town Hall and the AIDS vigil (where on one memorable occasion, Michael Cashman managed to announce a performance of ‘Something Inside So Strong’ as ‘And now here’s The London Gay Men’s Chorus with something deep inside…’).
Our first overseas trip saw us fly to the US in summer 2000, with our first stop in Boston where the (gay) Deputy Mayor officially declared it ‘London Gay Men’s Chorus Day in the City of Boston’. We then moved on to San Jose for the GALA Choruses Festival, where Jeremy, as conductor, turned to the audience after our first number and announced ‘We are the London Gay Men’s Chorus – Live and Uncut’ – to hoots from the gay men and gasps of disbelief from the lesbians in the audience. We finished our tour in San Francisco with a concert at Grace Cathedral where Chris Pethers conducted his first LGMC concert when Jeremy was taken ill.
That tour was also when we launched the LGMC Calendar (for 2001) which promptly sold out in the GALA Festival shop – those of us ‘lucky’ enough to be in it (I was Mr January) were being asked to autograph our respective pages, to the delight of our rampant egos.
Other highlights of my years in the hot seat have to include singing at the Opening Ceremony of the Millennium Dome on New Year’s Eve 1999/2000 in front of the Queen, the Prime Minister and a TV audience of a couple of billion! We then went on to organise the ‘Gay Day at The Dome’ which caused outrage in the media, with school parties pulling out of trips booked for that date and commentators condemning us for ‘hijacking’ the day. In the end the Dome wasn’t even particularly gay that day (unless you knew who to look for!) but it further helped to raise our profile as trailblazers in both the gay community and the media. My lasting memory? Walking away at the end of the day to see the Dome had been lit pink for the night!
Another ‘highlight’ (if you can call it that) has to be organising the vigil in Soho Square in the immediate aftermath of The Admiral Duncan bombing. We pulled it together in 24 hours, saying we were just going to sing some songs and give people a chance to come together to reflect and remember. It didn’t quite work out like that. It clearly struck a chord and met a need, and in the end Soho Square was packed to capacity and then some, with several thousand people and the world’s media. The event was carried live by CNN and BBC Radio London and contained many dramatic moments, including Stonewall’s Angela Mason declaring to huge cheers that ‘no one is going to bomb us back into the closet’; a close relative of some of the dead appearing on stage to speak on behalf of their family then one of the most senior officers from the Met Police arriving to announce from the stage that they had just arrested the perpetrator.
The choir sang with passion and anger and it was clearly an important and cathartic moment for both the chorus and the Soho community. There is still footage of the event on the BBC News website archive if you search for it.
I have incredibly happy and proud memories of my time not only as Chairman but as a member of The London Gay Men’s Chorus. It really WAS an honour to represent and lead the membership for three years and it taught me so much about myself and my own skills, many of which I still use in my career to this day. As the LGMC reaches it’s Silver Jubilee, I am proud to be able to say that I played a small part in its history and its continued success.