Bronski Beat signed a recording contract with London Records in 1984 after doing only nine live gigs. The band's arresting debut single, "Smalltown Boy", the tale of a boy who was cast away by his family for being gay, was a huge hit, peaking at #3 in the UK Singles Chart. The single was accompanied by a memorable promotional video directed by Bernard Rose showing Somerville eagerly trying to make friends at a swimming pool then being attacked by a homophobic gang and being returned to his family by the police and having to leave home. (The police officer was played by Colin Bell, then the marketing manager of London Records). "Smalltown Boy" reached #48 in the US charts and peaked at #7 in Australia. It is now widely considered a 1980's classic, in addition to being a gay anthem.
"Smalltown Boy" established the trio as an outlet for gay issues – all three members are gay – and the follow-up single, "Why?", while focusing on a faster energetic musical formula, was more lyrically focused on anti-gay prejudice. It also achieved Top 10 status in the UK, reaching #6, and was a Top 10 hit for the band in Australia. The song was also covered by metal band Paradise Lost on their Symbol of Life album.
At the end of 1984, the trio released an album which was provocatively titled The Age of Consent. The inner sleeve listed the varying ages of consent for consensual male homosexual activity in different nations around the world. At the time, the age of consent for sexual acts between men in the UK was 21 (compared with 16 for heterosexual acts). The album hit #4 in the UK chart, #36 in the US, and #12 in Australia.
A third single was released amid controversy before Christmas 1984: a revival of "It Ain't Necessarily So", the George and Ira Gershwin classic (from Porgy and Bess) which questions the authenticity of Biblical tales. It also reached the UK Top 20.
In 1985, the trio joined up with Marc Almond to record a version of the Donna Summer classic "I Feel Love". The full version was actually a medley, also incorporating snippets of Summer's "Love to Love You Baby" and John Leyton's "Johnny Remember Me". It was a huge success, reaching #3 in the UK, equalling the chart achievement of "Smalltown Boy", and was memorably described by one critic as "the gayest record ever made". Although the original had been one of Marc Almond's all-time favourite songs, he had never read the lyrics and thus incorrectly sang "What'll it be, what'll it be, you and me" instead of "Falling free, falling free, falling free".
The band and their producer, Mike Thorne, had gone back into the studio in early 1985 to complete both " I Feel Love" and "Run From Love" which was also planned to be a single. PolyGram (London Records' parent company at that time) had pressed a number of promo singles and 12" versions of the song, sending them out to both radio and record stores in the UK. However, the single was shelved as tensions in the band, both personal and political, resulted in Somerville leaving Bronski Beat in the summer of that year. "Run From Love" was subsequently released in a remix form on the Bronski Beat album Hundreds & Thousands. Somerville then went on to form The Communards with Richard Coles.
Bronski Beat recruited John Foster as lead singer, credited as John Jøn. A single, "Hit That Perfect Beat", was released in January 1986, reaching #3 in the UK. It repeated this success in the Australian charts and was also featured in the film, Letter to Brezhnev. A second single, "C'mon C'mon", also charted in the UK Top 20 and an album, Truthdare Doubledare, released in May 1986, peaked at #18. The film Parting Glances (1986) included Bronski Beat songs "Love and Money", "Smalltown Boy" and "Why?". During this period, the band teamed up with producer Mark Cunningham on the first-ever BBC Children In Need single, a cover of David Bowie's classic "Heroes", released in 1986 under the name of The County Line.
Foster left the band in 1987.
In 1989 Jonathan Hellyer became lead singer, and the band extensively toured the USA and Europe with back-up vocalist Annie Conway and had one minor hit with the song "Cha Cha Heels", a one-off collaboration sung by American actress and singer Eartha Kitt. The song was originally written for movie and recording star Divine, who was unable to record the song before his untimely death in 1988.
1990-91 saw Bronski Beat release four further singles, for the Zomba label, "Zed Beat", "I'm Gonna Run Away", "One More Chance" and "What More Can I Say", produced by Mike Thorne.
Foster and Bronski Beat teamed up again in 1994 and released a techno "Tell Me Why '94" and an acoustic "Smalltown Boy '94" on the German label ZYX Music.
In 1995 the album Rainbow Nation was released, once again featuring Hellyer as lead vocalist.
In 2008 the signature keyboard riff from "Smalltown Boy" was featured in the September song "Cry for You".