The story behind a now-forgotten pioneering queer-culture drag show from the 1970s.
Some things just seem so ahead of their time that they slip unnoticed into history. The Cycle Sluts drag rock ‘n’ roll burlesque show of 1976 seems to be one of those things. Look this up online and you’ll find almost nothing – all the links refer to either the porn movie of the same name or the rock band Cycle Sluts from Hell. There’s a fair chance that some of you have hit this page while searching for either of those things (sorry about that). Yet you’d think that this would be seen as a pioneering queer performance piece – certainly, it’s one that feels very much of the Now, with its gender-fluid (or gender-bending, as it was called at the time) concept.
The Cycle Sluts show took place from April 26th 1976 at the Broadway Theatre, which – despite the name – was located on the Kilburn High Road in Maida Vale, London. The Broadway was the latest incarnation of what had previously been the Kilburn Empire, a cinema and variety theatre that had opened in 1909 before falling on hard times, being transformed into the Essoldo and the Classic before being broken up; The Broadway was a small, pod-like theatre located in the former cinema’s stalls, making it ideal for more niche shows.
It was produced by the theatre’s owner, the legendary pop impresario Larry Parnes. Parnes was the man who spent the pre-Beatles British pop era taking young men and giving them exotic new names based on what he perceived their sex appeal to be – Billy Fury, Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, Georgie Fame and… erm… Johnny Gentle – before launching them onto the teenybopper rock ‘n’ roll scene as instant teen idols. In later years, as musical fashions changed, he focused more on the theatre and, as social attitudes changed, became a little less circumspect about his own sexuality. He had been as closeted as any other pop manager at a time when homosexuality was still illegal but in 1968 he produced Fortune and Men’s Eyes, a play about gay men in prison – a daring project that flopped – and in 1976 was behind the London presentation of this show.
As far as I can tell, the Cycle Sluts – “the ‘new’ all-American boys” – were not, as the show implied, a pre-existing drag troupe but rather a collective created specifically for this travelling show. The programme claimed that they had toured the USA, performing in Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco and we were told that they were friends of Labelle (of Lady Marmalade fame) and actress Sally Struthers and that their show had been seen by Lucille Ball, Cher, Liza Minnelli and – ahem – Jefferson Starship. Not all on the same night, presumably. So who knows? certainly, Cher would end up channelling her inner drag queen during the 1980s so perhaps this was the start of it all. Perhaps the Cycle Sluts really were the toast of camp America in the mid-1970s but somehow ended up being erased from history. Certainly, once the tour was over they seem to have broken up and vanished.
The ten Cycle Sluts went under impressive names like Wanda West Coast (“beard, hairy chest, oil funnel tits”), Gloria Hole (“seven feet of towering inferno”) and Lola Loin (“sugar and spice and everything nice”) and as the descriptions suggest, they were not traditional drag queens in the Danny LaRue or even Dame Edna tradition – there was no effort actually look like real women, with beards, body hair and machismo thrusting being the order of the day. They seem to have taken their influence primarily from the gender ambiguity of The Rocky Horror Show‘s Frank N Furter – celebrating the kitsch of ultra-machismo alongside the camp of drag. The show’s music was written by Bob Crewe – the man behind the Barbarella theme, and so clearly someone who knew camp when he saw it – and in London, the score was performed live by a band that included ex-Gong and Hatfield and the North members Dave Stewart (the one who worked with Barbara Gaskin, not the Eurythmics man) and Pip Pyle. The musical director was John Beal, who has had a long career as a film score composer (Happy Days, The Funhouse, Terror in the Aisles) and conductor, producing major live-to-film orchestral shows. The Sluts did their own costumes, hair and make-up.
The musical numbers included The Miss Bike Buddy America Pageant, Feel My Thigh, Deteriorata and Hollywood Hot. We have been unable to locate recordings of any of the show’s numbers. Like at a rock gig, audience members could buy Cycle Sluts T-shirts in the foyer. I’m sure that by now, those have all long since worn out – if anyone actually bought one. Maybe someone has a box of unsold shirts gathering dust in a warehouse somewhere.
Despite the outrageous content of the show – or perhaps because of it – attendances did not break box office records. There seems to have been little press coverage (though the Sluts did – perhaps unsurprisingly – make the cover of Plays and Players magazine) and no angry protests by Christian moralists or the sort of people who you could usually rely upon to provide a bit of free publicity and lasting notoriety – Mary Whitehouse remained disinterested, much to everyone’s disappointment I imagine. The show managed to come and go without many people even noticing at the time. One of the few people to see the show was writer and occasional Reprobate correspondent David McGillivray:
This wasn’t quite the last of the Cycle Sluts. After their London appearance, they travelled to Australia where they performed at the New Arts Cinema in Sydney from the middle of June 1976. After that, who knows? Efforts to track down the individual performers have led nowhere – we can safely assume that the stage names died with the show and that ‘Wanda West Coast’ is not the (female) feminist activist of that name.
The ambitious plans for the Broadway Theatre to exist as some sort of alternative venue for small, edgy and experimental shows also came to nought. McGillivray:
“Parnes lost his shirt and the theatre was taken over by Brian Rix. I interviewed him for BBC Radio London and he took me through a secret door out of the ‘pod’ and up into the dusty remains of the old Victorian theatre. I was thrilled skinny. “
Rix was no more able to make a success of the venue and it eventually closed in 1981. A brief attempt to revive it as a cinema failed and it became the home of a religious organisation before finally suffering a fate that will be familiar to connoisseurs of old cinemas: it became a laser game and paintball venue, which I suppose is a slight step up from bingo hall – but not much. This too did not last and the theatre was demolished in 1994 to make way for a hotel. The Maida Vale Marriott stands in the location today, should you wish to pay tribute to past glories.
The almost complete disappearance of the Cycle Sluts show from recorded history is fascinating – you’d think that it would at least be hailed as a pioneering slice of queer history and possible precursor of the much more famous and influential Cockettes, but instead, it has vanished. Many of the named people involved are now dead; the ones still living are not talking. Such is the ephemeral nature of live performance, I guess – with no recorded version of the show to remind us, it might as well have never happened. The world is littered with stage shows that will only exist as long as those who performed in or saw those shows are alive. The Cycle Sluts will never be more than a footnote – if that – in history. But that doesn’t mean that the show deserves to be forgotten. And who knows? The time seems right for this project to be revived for a new generation. Stranger things have happened.
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