hi-NRG Gay 80s

As we celebrate Pride month worldwide, a look back to when Gay men were dying in record numbers due to AIDS and when a record number of Gay men came out of the closet in the music industry to provide the soundtrack to battle the darkness surrounding them with a new form of dance music called hi-NRG that evolved from Disco. #AIDS #HIV #GayMen #LGBTQ #Dance #hiNRG

WARNING: There are no ballads in this program. Repeat, no ballads.

Sylvester on the cover of All I Need, 1982. Illustration by Mark America, courtesy of Megatone Records.

It should have been the time to celebrate. As the 1970’s drew to a close, marginalized populations were finally making inroads into the mainstream, gaining newfound rights previously denied to them since the founding of this country.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood: (l-r) Brian Nash, Mark O’Toole, Holly Johnson, Paul Rutherford and Peter Gill. Photograph: LJ Van Houten/Rex Features Photograph: L.J Van Houten/Rex Features

Unfortunately, the dawn of the 1980’s also meant the rise of AIDS, which hit these marginalized populations hardest. The homophobia, misogyny and racism that had permeated the industry with the so-called Death of Disco in 1979 spilled over into further marginalizing dispossessed populations as well, as conservatives politicized the AIDS pandemic to illustrate how these populations “freedom” and hedonistic “lifestyles” were the cause of the problem. Yes, prior to COVID-19, there were those who also decided to not let science guide, but used people’s fear as a means to further their own agendas.

Paul Parker, 1982. Photographer unknown, courtesy of Megatone Records.

Even though record companies shied away from dance music in record numbers for a few years, people, especially Gay men, didn’t stop dancing. Gay clubs and bars were for many the only safe place for them to be open, and dance music typically was the soundtrack to this environment. Independent record labels in the U.S. started to spring up everywhere to cater to this demographic.

Divine on the cover of his debut album, alternately called My First Album or Jungle Jezebel. 1982, courtesy of Metronome Records.

And even though many closeted gay men did not come out for fear of stigma, regardless of they had been infected or not, a growing number of musicians were coming out of the closet, focusing on their die-hard fan base, who knew that by the simple fact of being out was a political statement in of itself and showed a type of solidarity in the face of some truly ugly and dark times.

Patrick Cowley, circa 1980. Photographer unknown, courtesy of Dark Entries Recordings.

Gay men also had a new type of music to dance to: Disco may have died, but hi-NRG (high energy), a phrase created by dance music legend Donna Summer in 1977, described this new type of beat heavy music, which gradually stripped away things such as lush strings, replacing them with synthesizers. Hi-NRG was also less funky than Disco and built more around staccato riffs. It was also, at times, faster in tempo.

Pete Burns of Dead or Alive, 1985. Still from the video “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)”, directed by Vaughan Arnell and Anthea Benton. Courtesy Epic Records.

It started with the aforementioned Summer’s work with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, and started to come into its own by 1979 with tracks such as “Born to Be Alive” by Patrick Hernandez, “You Make me Feel (Mighty Real) by Sylvester and Ami Stewart’s cover of Soul legend Eddie Floyd’s “Knock On Wood, a #1 Billboard Hot 100 single.

Jimmy Somerville of Bronski Beat, 1984. Still image from the Smalltown Boy video, directed by Bernard Rose. Courtesy of UMG.

By and large, lyrical themes were still built around similar concepts of Disco, such as sex and dancing. An interesting by product, or perhaps because of the times, some of the tracks became overtly political in nature, becoming de facto anthems of Gay men and of the era. Within a few years, hi-NRG itself became mainstream, but more often than not, the Gay men who once were leading figures of the genre had become relegated to stay on independent labels, many of which could not compete with major label marketing budgets, limiting their careers to what is often referred to as “the Gay ghetto”. And sadly, a fair number of them also died from AIDS.

Cover of the debut EP by Man 2 Man, 1985. (l-r) Paul and Miki Zone. Photographer unknown, courtesy of Bolts Records.

It would be very Dickensian to state it would the best of time and the worst of times. The simple truth is that it was the worst of times; but somehow, Gay men had something that was their own, and it was treasured fiercely.

First Part

  • Why? (12″ version), 1984, Bronksi Beat, 12″ single A-side
  • Male Stripper (12″ version), 1985, Man 2 Man, 12″ single A-side
  • Menergy (12″ version), 1981, Patrick Cowley, 12″ single A-side

Second Part

  • Relax (long version), 1983, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, 12″ single A-side
  • Don’t Stop (album version), 1982, Sylvester, All I Need LP
  • Right On Target (12″ version), 1982, Paul Parker, 12″ single A-side
  • Native Love (Step By Step) (original extended mix), 1982, Divine, 12″ single A-side


  • You Spin Me ‘Round (Like A Record) (Murder Remix), 1985, Dead or Alive, 12″ single A-side

Love to you all.

Ben “Daddy Ben Bear” Brown Jr. 
Host, Show Producer, Webmaster, Audio Engineer, Researcher, Videographer and Writer

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