The remarkable musical career of the flamboyant and overlooked cabaret rocker.
Unless you’re really pretty hot on your music knowledge, you’ll only know Peter Straker by referencing a video he’s been in (most likely, Freddie Mercury’s cover of The Great Pretender) or by saying, “he’s the bloke that was in the original Hair show”. It’s unlikely, to an extraordinary degree, that a cartoon light bulb would appear above your head after having had him described to you as “the black Bowie”. Has anyone really ever called him this? This isn’t a pointed finger at Straker but at anyone with an imaginary appointment of this nature. At the last census, there were fourteen Godfathers of Punk; a dozen Grandfather of Funks; a handful of Punk Priestesses and five Metal Queens. Peter Straker is not the black Bowie, nor ever was he… but, by Christ, he did not give a fuck and all glory to him for this.
Born in 1943 in Jamaica, Peter Straker was already a fixture around which Swingin’ London swung when he snagged the role of Hud in the original stage production of Hair. Straker was openly gay, black and of the waspiest of demeanours. Starting his career as part of an often nude ensemble was far from the most shocking moment of Straker’s career. After a smattering of non-hits with Polydor, in 1972, at a time when everyone from Lou Reed to Alice Cooper was playing games with the press as to what their true sexuality was, Peter was signed by RCA and released his first album, Private Parts – an album that pictured him naked on the cover with a map of Hampstead Heath projected on him, and was musically a journey through his childhood, early sexual liaisons and some meaty name-dropping.
Such was the remarkably forward gay-centric marketing of the album and the evident terror of the unprepared public that Straker was set aside to stew for a full five years before being allowed back in a recording studio. RCA, with Bowie and Reed also on its roster, seemed not entirely sure how far they could push the ‘gay’ angle and so threw caution to the wind with Straker, ‘just in case’. Their signing of Peter Wyngarde (who would record one of the most notorious records of all-time) capped one of music’s most remarkable sprees.
In the meantime, there were still plenty of people left to offend and so he starred in the 1971 Bob Kellet/Ned Sherrin film, Girl Stroke Boy, alongside Sir Michael Hordern and Patricia Routledge, neither of whom used a luminous marker pen to highlight this on their CVs. As an androgynous ‘friend’ of Hordern’s son, Straker has in no short amount of time slapped coy sexuality about the face and threatened it with a sound fisting. The film was an outrageous flop, though hung around its debut venue of the Prince Charles Cinema for long enough to save a certain amount of face, before re-emerging at the arse end of a double bill with 1969 German sex romp School for Virgins. The film was largely slammed due to alarmist reviews about the ‘black transvestite’, somewhat overlooking the fact it was mostly joyless and badly directed.
Fortunately for Straker, when there finally was an opportunity to go back into the studio, he had some powerful friends on his side. In late 1974 (or perhaps early ’75), Straker made the acquaintance of Freddie Mercury through their respective managers, David Evans and John Reid. Superficially, it is easy to see how their relationship blossomed but beyond that, they were both strangers in a strange land – born in former colonies, their private lives were a messy secret of exaggerated sexuality and their public appearance open to immediate attack. By 1976, their friendship was such that Mercury was able to flex some of the financial clout brought about by Reid’s studious management and his own proclivity for writing songs which caused calculators to bring up the ‘E’ symbol.
Both producing, helping to direct musically and contributing a multitude of backing vocals, Mercury was able to give Straker his best opportunity yet to demonstrate his extraordinary vocals and natural gift for theatre. 1977s This One’s On Me appears on Cherry Red’s box set after a lifetime spent largely dwelt on bootlegs. It is, it must be said, ‘of an age’ – two songs herein name-check Charlie Chaplin and the collected bombast borders on requiring a health warning. However, songs like The Days the Talkies Came feel like they’ve slipped out of Paul Williams’ songbook; indeed the track would not feel one jot out of place on the score to Phantom of the Paradise. Heart Be Still is a Mercury masterclass, with his beloved chanteur hitting some extraordinary top notes and holding them for lung-breaking minutes. It’s monstrously theatrical and hopelessly jarring against a backdrop of not only punk, prog and disco, but what could be more in keeping with a man who couldn’t give a fuck? As if to accentuate his fuck offs, he delivers a rendition of Alabama Song that elevates his hero Jacques Brel like one of those giant floats at the Lord Mayor’s Show, oblivious to the dropped jaws in the crowd.
1978’s Changeling, the cover of which doubtless exists in zillions of Pinterest boards documenting the vaseline-lensed glory of the decade, is a frankly superbly arch follow-up, produced within an inch of its life by Tim Friese-Greene – later to capture the essence of Thomas Dolby and Talk Talk with similar aplomb. It’s not at all far from the kitchen sink attack of Queen and Meatloaf, but 1978 was not the time for such antics, as sales proved. Listened to now, it feels a bastard shame that at least one of these didn’t creep into the charts to spook the horses. If you open your album with a track called D-D-D-D-Danger, you deserve some financial reward. It’s a lot to swallow in one sitting, as Peter himself would say but bonus track, Queen of the Self-Service, is reassuring proof that the outrage is intended to offend and entertain, not to be taken seriously.
You may feel as though you’ve approached the lesser material by the final disc, which contains the tracks from 1980’s Real Natural Man – but there is trove within. Written by Bob Crewe, Nasty feels lyrically like something even Frank Zappa would think twice about (it even has a feel of Joe’s Garage and Cruising With Ruben and the Jets):
“Hairy, hungry, hunky, horny, humpy ‘n’ hung like a horse,
Harder, harder, harder, harder, hear me honey ‘n’ hit me with force”
It’s a saucy album, make no mistake, and but for the fact no-one was listening at the time, Peter Straker could’ve been a huge star. His role as Commander Sharrel in the Doctor Who story Destiny of the Daleks may be all many recognise him for, but this is their loss. In these times of isolation, an exploration of Peter Straker outrageous oeuvre seems exactly what the over-worked doctor ordered.