From '70s Reality TV Star to Queer Underground Rock Hero: Celebrating Lance Loud

Ann Summa/Getty Images
 Lance Loud photographed in his apartment on Fountain Avenue in West Hollywood, California on Oct. 11, 1991.

In the past twenty months, two gigantic films have celebrated the lives of Freddie Mercury and Elton John, musical icons who wrestled with creativity, fame, family, addiction and sexual identity.

With Lance Loud, the cameras came first. Then came the music career.

The everyday heroics of Lance Loud -- who came out of the closet not only to his family, but to national television in the '70s on An American Family, the first major U.S. reality series -- are fairly well documented, but his noteworthy musical career deserves a little more attention. This part of the story begins in Santa Barbara, Calif., at the dawn of the 1970s. That's when Lance Loud encountered another young fan of British music and underground garage rock, Kristian Hoffman.

"I met Lance in Mr. Baker's art class when I was about 16," recalls Hoffman, joyously. "Immediately we bonded over music. Well, that and the fact that I had a car and he didn't. It was all Kinks, Sparks, Stooges. Now that sounds like a cliché, but at that point these were the least-selling records of all time. Right from when I first met Lance, we would listen to a Stooges record in the little room off the kitchen, and then go in the garage and make a bunch of racket. It was very immediate that we were under this delusion that we were just going to be rock stars Рwhich, to us, meant we were going to be as popular as Sparks!"

Pat Loud, the 92-year-old matriarch of the Loud family, looks back on those days fondly. "I loved those kids. I loved the noise. I loved the fact that there was so much joy and happiness and life in that house. Every weekend it was just rocking, and I loved that."

So far, it's a pretty familiar tale: An everyday suburb, an everyday garage, and a few slightly obscure records. But then came the TV cameras.

Filmed in 1971 and aired on PBS in the first months of 1973, An American Family was a 12-episode documentary series that presented a completely unscripted portrait of an upper middle-class family of seven in Santa Barbara. It might sound run-of-the-mill now, but nothing of the sort had ever been attempted on American television, and it was a sensation. The nation watched, rapt, as the Louds fought, loved, worked, acted ridiculous, acted completely normal and even divorced – all of this during a time when The Brady Bunch was still on first-run TV.

The breakout star of the series was sassy, smart, urbane and flippant Lance Loud. On An American Family, 20-year-old Lance Loud became the first openly gay character in the history of American series television.

"Television was still taking baby steps in dealing with homosexuality," notes Ron Simon, the curator of television and radio at the Paley Center for Media. "In 1972, ABC broadcast the television movie That Certain Summer, the very first sympathetic portrayal of homosexuality on television. Only a year later, Lance Loud presented himself, a three-dimensional persona unlike anything seen on television before. He broke the door wide open, just by being himself on An American Family. For many in the audience, especially teenagers, he was the first positive and intriguing representation of the gay experience."

And then after the series, which got a spectacular amount of attention (the Loud Family appeared on most of the talk shows in America and virtually every major magazine cover), Lance Loud and Kristian Hoffman formed a band and moved to New York City. From 1973 until the end of the decade their group, the Mumps were a constant presence in one of the most fertile scenes in rock music history. Although usually treated as a footnote in Loud's amazing journey, the Mumps were a distinctive and much-loved band that just happened to be led by two out gay men, barely half a decade after Stonewall.

"After An American Family had filmed, Lance had taken on this iconic role in the world of gay people who were in small towns throughout America," Hoffman says. "They would write him letters that said, 'You gave me the courage to come out to my parents.' But we didn't think of ourselves that way at all. We thought we were rock stars. It's the stupidest notion (laughs). The gay thing was, like Lance said on Dick Cavett, just one finger in ten. We didn't get up in the morning and think we were gay. We got up in the morning, made flyers, wrote new songs and tried to get another gig."

The Mumps never released an album during their lifetime, but their theatrical, accomplished music can be heard on the excellent 25-track compilation How I Saved the World. Although they played with the punch and dexterity of early Television or Voidoids, the Mumps applied this skeletal muscularity to hyper-articulate pop songs that rang with the mod cool of the Hollies or Kinks, while also containing a healthy dose of melodrama borrowed from the '60s girl groups. Think The Smiths covering Rocky Horror. It's difficult to listen to the Mumps and not hear how their skipping, exotic pop anticipated artists like Rufus Wainwright (whom Hoffman went on to collaborate with), the Go-Betweens, Blur, Pulp or the Magnetic Fields.

Another respected veteran of the '70s New York City music scene, Binky Philips of the Planets, strongly feels that the Mumps never quite got their due.

"The Mumps were an upper tier band," Philips recalls. "You came to see Lance being Lance, but then you were taken back that his band was as good as they were. They were raging Anglophiles, but, they had American influences, too. In fact, The Mumps were a lot like Blondie in their keyboard-centric sound and general approach to song-crafting."

Kristian Hoffman agrees that the Mumps position in the legendary downtown scene – especially their visibility at the dawn of CBGB's – has been overlooked.

"We played CBGBs before the Ramones, Blondie or Talking Heads. Now, that doesn't mean we were good or bad, but the fact is we were actually one of the very first founders, through Richard Hell (who got us our first CB's gig). Even though we had our shit together early on, Lance was still thought of as kind of a dilettante. They didn't realize that we had been working on being in a band since we were sixteen years old. We didn't plan on American Family happening. We would have ended up at CBGB's anyway, even if the TV show had never existed."

The fairly visible presence of gay men on stage (and behind the scenes) is an underrepresented part of the oft-told story of downtown glam and punk in 1970s Manhattan. Some of the most loved (if under-recorded) acts of the era, including the Speedies and the Stimulators, were also fronted by openly gay men.

"Most of the people who were part of the music scene in Manhattan at that time were there because they were outcasts for one reason the other," recalls Paul Zone of the Fast (and later Man 2 Man), another gay veteran of the 1970s NYC punk and glam scene. "Often, being gay was the least of their problems. Everybody had something that was making them be an outcast. Being gay wasn't the worst of it, and it wasn't the best of it. If someone was going to be prejudiced by what your sexuality was, the same person would have been prejudiced by a lot of the things you were doing. The whole gay thing was for other people to not be comfortable with."

Nevertheless, Hoffman is adamant that even if Loud and Hoffman's sexuality did not affect their standing on the New York scene, it did impact their potential major label future.

"We weren't a gay band in our eyes. We were just a band," Hoffman states. "But it did damage out career, and that's a matter of record. This is a known fact: The Dickies and the Mumps were both up for a record contract at A&M records. They signed the Dickies because they didn't have a gay person in the band. That actually happened. And I don't think A&M was being homophobic. I think they were making a commercial calculation: it will be harder to sell the records of the band with the gay people in it. I actually understood that. They're a corporation, not a charity."

The Mumps career drew to a close at the very end of the 1970s. Shortly thereafter, Kristian Hoffman played a major role in developing the recording and performance career of another gay musical icon, Klaus Nomi, and he has gone on to consistently release his own music and work with many significant artists, including Ann Magnuson, Lydia Lunch, Rufus Wainwright and Dave Davies.

Lance Loud went on to a prominent career in journalism, but we may never know the heights he could have scaled: He passed in Dec. 2001, at age 50.

"I knew the world wasn't going to change him, but I didn't expect him to change the world," Pat Loud says. "I thought he was on his way to becoming a very fine writer. I was so fortunate to have a child like Lance. I was so lucky. He was an amazing gift."

There may not be a Mumps movie, but perhaps that's a testimony to how groundbreaking they actually were: What was considered startling 45 years ago -- two proud, gay men fronting a rock band -- is considered largely unremarkable today. We should remember the Mumps for their catchy, witty and wise-ass music; but we must also remember them for committing acts of every day revolution.

"It all felt like we were making a huge statement," Hoffman says. "Not only with Lance, but also with Klaus Nomi. We weren't just making a statement about what a person is allowed to be in the universe – whether they're gay or straight or whatnot – but also about what an artist is allowed to be in the universe. And I do think that is wildly political."