Careless Whisper: Pansy Patois

In December while trying to verify the colloquialism in The Smiths’ song title “Reel Around the Fountain”1 I noticed that the band’s singer Morrissey had employed a now-abandoned slang in his solo single “Piccadilly Palare,” sung in the character of a former street hustler. It was the lead track on his album Bona Drag, but I hadn’t really collected Morrissey records and skipped that one because it was a compendium of singles. I had, however, collected much Smiths, but I was confused by the band’s many, many compilations and 12-inch vinyl product. In fact “Paint a Vulgar Picture,” from the final album, can be seen as a commentary on this excess, as it laments a pop star’s exploitation in death but also questions the star’s complicity in life.

Satiate the need
slip them into different sleeves!
Buy both, and be deceived

To elaborate: As I understand it, artist appearances on the television show Top of the Pops were based on their standing in the UK Singles Chart, and so to boost unit sales (and standing) record labels would issue multiple editions of a single, mm…, single hoping that fans and collectors would buy each version. For instance the A-side would be the same for each of a two- or three-edition release, but be backed with (“b/w”) B-sides of non-LP tracks and rarities, coveted live versions, dubs and instrumentals, etc. Other come-ons included slipped-in stickers and posters.2 A single “slipped into different sleeves” might be less common, but The Smiths had instances of 12-inch singles with such similarities.3

As a record collector, my aspiration of being a Smiths completist was challenged by the sheer volume of vinyl, much of it redundant—illustrated by the deservedly titled website Vulgar Picture.

Pansy Patois

The patois in Morrissey’s song “Piccadilly Palare,” aka Polari, is a coded language employed in Britain by workers where an element of sexual ambiguity was more or less a given: theater, dance, circus and sideshow, the merchant marine. Outside of these areas—and Morrissey’s rent boys—Polari had a wider use amongst gay men. In his song, Morrissey inserts just a little of the “silly slang/ Between me and the boys in my gang,” quoting:

“So bona to vada [good to see], oh you
Your lovely eek [short for face spelled backwards] and
Your lovely riah [hair backwards]”

Again, this is from the lead cut on the compilation Bona Drag, the latter word rich in its own slang sense: downer, strasse, ciggie hit, and of course the drag we don each day.

Careless Whisper

Cant language, like Polari, was designed in part to disable discernment when overheard by the casual outsider: a whisper free from care. Just such a conversation was my introduction to it, a couple of years ago, in the form of Putting On the Dish, a charming and unsettling six-minute dramatization by London filmmakers Brian Fairbairn and Karl Eccleston. It’s as unintelligible as their earlier Skwerl, but nonetheless understandable.

I’ll refrain from further detail here because the videos that follow do a fine job of explaining, briefly, what one of the interviewees, Paul Baker, does in depth in his two books: the scholarly Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men4 and the compendium Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang.5 I will mention that consumers of popular culture already have been exposed, however unwittingly, to Polari and its cousin, rhyming slang. The film Velvet Goldmine (1998) provides subtitles for remarks made in Polari at a nightclub. David Bowie (who in part provided the pattern for Goldminemixed Polari with the fictional argot of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange in “Girl Loves Me,” from his final album.6 And Wikipedia offers many examples of rhyming slang appearing in film, television, music, and more.

And last, “Polari,” a track by Sakima, whose EP Ricky (2017) contains other instances of the slang.

Header photo credit:
Against the Law (BBC, 2017)

  1. See A Taste of Honey.
  2. A case in point: The Smiths’ “Panic” was released in 1986 on both Rough Trade and the German label Zensor. The former 12-inch contains a turquoise inner sleeve as well as a sheet of rectangular stickers while the 7-inch’s stickers are round; the latter 12-inch has no inner sleeve but is pressed on transparent blue vinyl. The obverse of both 12-inches contain subtle differences in the portrait of Richard Bradford and the track lists of all three differ. I’m not certain that sales of the German pressing would have been counted in the UK Singles Chart, but if so this is another instance of how to boost unit sales. And the name of the sticker manufacturer is telling: TAKTIK.
  3. In one notorious instance Morrissey, who chose the cover stars, lifted a shot of actor Terence Stamp for the single “What Difference Does It Make?” but (ironically) the actor’s complaint caused the band to issue a replacement—this time not for marketing purposes—featuring Morrissey in the same pose.
  4. Paul Baker. 2002. Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men, London, New York: Routledge.
  5. Paul Baker. 2002 and 2004. Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang, London, New York: Continuum.
  6. Ben Greenman, “The Beautiful Meaninglessness of David Bowie,” New Yorker, 09 Jan 2016, archived here.

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