Shock & Awe review – glam rock, pop’s own ballroom blitz, gets its due
Bolan, Bowie, Slade, Mud, Sweet, Roxy Music – the glittering stars of glam are all here
Marc Bolan of T. Rex in action. Photograph: Michael Ochs/Getty Images
Shock & Awe: Glam Rock and its Legacy
Faber & Faber
“Mike Chapman and I were watching TV in my flat,” recalls Nicky Chinn, one half of the most successful songwriting partnership of the 1970s glam rock era. “The Osmonds were landing at London Airport, the place was going crazy, and the reporter said, ‘This is like a teenage rampage.’ I just said immediately, ‘That’s the next single.’”
Combining a level of commercial nous, creative serendipity and an old-school rule of journalism – two is a coincidence;, three is a trend, glam rock (1971-1975) played a pivotal role not only in the development of punk but also in the advance of gender fluidity.
The genre was also one of the most diverse of the past 50 years, encompassing disorderly teenage sweeps (T. Rex, The Sweet, Gary Glitter, Slade, Mud, Alvin Stardust, David Essex), artful, cerebral types (Roxy Music, David Bowie), proto-punk acts (Heavy Metal Kids, Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Silverhead) and, all too slightly, proto-feminism (Suzi Quatro). Under its multi-coloured, glittery canvas the genre gathered together pop fluff (Mud’s Dyna-mite, Alvin Stardust’s My Coo-Ca-Choo), high concept (Roxy Music’s In Every Dream Home a Heartache, Sparks’ This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us), barely contained hormonal riot (T. Rex’s Jeepster, The Sweet’s Ballroom Blitz, Alice Cooper’s School’s Out), and the critically regarded (Slade’s Mama Weer All Crazee Now, David Bowie’s Jean Genie).
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Sea changeAuthor Simon Reynolds expands on the 1998 book Glam! Bowie, Bolan & the Glitter Rock Revolution, by fellow UK music writer Barney Hoskyns; in doing so he provides a rather more perceptive analysis of a genre that made possible a sea change in popular music from the mid-1970s onwards. Reynolds’s starting point is Marc Bolan’s T. Rex, a band that arrived out of the UK 1960s underground scene, changing, from 1971, into a beast of a completely different character. Cheerily confronting sexual ambiguity, and openly flirting with teenage eroticism (“you’re dirty and sweet and you’re my girl” – Get it On), Bolan’s blend of grind and toothy charisma threw down the gauntlet. Many picked it up, but very few with such single-mindedness or style.
Structurally, Shock & Awe is flawless. From Bolan onwards, Reynolds charts a course that sees David Bowie – glam rock’s spine and standard-bearer and arguably its most potent, progressive figure – weave his way throughout the genre’s range of misfits, ne’er do wells, chancers, reformers and thinkers. Season by season, Reynolds places the music and its creators in context. From lucky British bandwagon-hoppers (Alvin Stardust, Gary Glitter, Mud, David Essex) to plucky American oddballs (Alice Cooper, Jobriath, Wayne County); from post-glam (Roxy Music, Cockney Rebel, Be-Bop Deluxe, Japan) to pre-punk (New York Dolls, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno); from pop music classicists (Slade) to one/two/three-hit wonders (Hello, Chicory Tip, The Arrows), Reynolds documents it all in persuasive prose that hits every correct historical note.
Pop culture grammarWhile his premise of Bowie being the person who influenced everything might, for some, be far-fetched, there’s no denying that Bowie’s reach was often on-point and prolonged – he really did make anything seem possible, even if many musicians couldn’t keep up with his systematic reinventions. Reynolds is also very good at deconstructing pop culture grammar: he describes the single most illustrative image of the late 1960s as the (once banned) front cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s album, Two Virgins, pointing out that Lennon’s summation of the counterculture was contained in his articulate “sick and tired” protest song, Gimme Some Truth.
Glam’s shriek for help, posits Reynolds, was “gimme some untruth – it believed fantasy could set you free, not reality . . . For all its compelling characters, legendary exploits, outsize gestures and marvellous records, glam rock was a movement rooted in disillusionment. It was a retreat from the political and collective hopes of the sixties into a fantasy trip of individualised escape through stardom.”
For all its occasional tinfoil follies, over 40 years later glam rock’s waves continue to ripple. This excellent book tells us why. Bang a gong etc.
Tony Clayton-Lea writes on pop culture for The Irish Times.