By the mid 1970s, the pop charts were a mish mash of seemingly unrelated styles; novelty songs like Clive Dunn’s “Grandad”, earnest singer songwriters like Gilbert O Sullivan, and the latest blow-dried teen sensations, all appeared on Top Of The Pops alongside paunchy, party bands like Mud. They all rubbed musical shoulders as they passed up and down the top twenty – like an endless yoyo of predictability.
But beneath the surface there was something else lurking…
Hidden in plain sight and holding their own in the national pop charts were a clutch of bands and artists who were already pushing gender boundaries, and challenging the norms of subject matter and style. Glam Rock, like punk, had its roots in the art schools, and performers like Bowie, Marc Bolan and Roxy Music opened the doors that seemed to lead away from the drab and the mediocre.
Glam was theatrical, it wore make-up and platform shoes, it sought out its clothes from boutiques rather than the High Street, and it never ever got up before midday.
Bowie’s “Starman” appearance on TOTPs prompted one of the first waves of what was to become the standard parental commentary of “Who’s that meant to be?…is that a boy or a girl?” as Bowie and guitarist Mick Ronson shared a microphone to sing “there’s a Starman waiting in the sky, he’d like to come and meet us but he thinks he’d blow our mind”…
Bowie & Roxy obviously had no set bedtime, and didn’t rely on their parents for fashion advice, which of course was all part of the allure. Glam rock was all about dirty guitars and smudged eye-liner, its best friends were late-nights and bohemian lifestyles, and somewhere in that shiny satin sheen maybe we sensed a future world, brimful of imagination, and outside of the traditional gender roles or dead end jobs.
The Bromley Contingent certainly seemed to think so, often name-checking both Bowie and Roxy as their chosen pre-punk listening.
Meanwhile, in New York City, visiting clothes shop owner and musical maverick Malcolm McLaren was checking out the stateside alternative. More raw, with more make-up and apparently more obvious drug and alcohol problems, the New York Dolls were glam rockers of sorts – or possibly just very early punks in platforms, take your choice. The band had already been dropped by Mercury records, and by 1975 were in need of an update. Initially dressed in red leather by McLaren who set them playing in front of a communist backdrop, as they embarked on a series of make or break tours. McLaren headed back to the UK to find a band of his own. Returning to NYC they played their last drunken show at Max’s Kansas City on December 30th 1976, on the same bill as Blondie. Old school glam met new school punk.
For us, growing up, glam was our go-to. Glam not only had all the best tunes, it had an appealing escapism to it. Songs of spacemen and white swans sung by skinny men in dressing-up box clothes, wearing make-up, with electric guitars and platform shoes. It was a welcome contrast to the mainstream ideas of how young men should behave. Apart from the band Slade, with their black country accents and “super yob” styling, glam rock never billed itself as a working class movement in the same way punk did, and as happy as it was with its own clever androgyny, glam failed to find much of a role for females in its ranks. Glam ultimately became too decadent and self absorbed, and while it drove off to its country house in its Bentley, the coming onslaught by punk’s noisier, younger, faster and more egalitarian set of ideals, somewhat sealed its fate.
It might not have been the revolution itself, but glam paved the way for punk in many respects. From its dressing-up box chic and androgynous looks to that invitation to well just sort of, bang a gong….and get it on-ness.
7 thoughts on “Glam Rock – Preparation for Punk #15”
bpdp3 – Simon Reynolds has a book I didn’t know about? Thanks!
Another interesting book on glam I’d recommend is Simon Reynolds ‘Shock and Awe’…. same bloke who wrote ‘rip it up and start again’ on the post punk movement.
Other than the points about fashion, image, etc I think the real punk precursor in glam was the short, sharp, hook-filled singles. Punk was NOT unlistenable rubbish… it was loaded with catchy verses and choruses, just like glam. (both genres eschewed the endless prog rock album cut for short bursts of ecstatic electricity)!
In America glam rock never quite got over the threshold; possibly because it was seen as “inauthentic,” and possibly “queer,” and therefore suspect. As if! I don’t think America understood irony. T-Rex managed one hit and G*** G****** found his B-side his only hit on these shores. I always see Alice Cooper lumped in with UK Glam but it’s a queasy attempt at forcing puzzle pieces together. KISS were deliberately trying to be the American Slade but only succeeded with “I Wanna Rock And Roll All Night.” The rest of their music was dreadful.
I ponder constantly how to define Glam Rock and it’s tricky. It’s a continuum of music style and presentation that was very fluid. Big stomping beats? Yes… sometimes. An air of camp arrogance? Possibly de riguer. Garish fashion? Almost certainly. Roxy Music were interesting. They clearly hit many Glam Rock touchstones early in the race but Ferry brought adult emotions and a flair for Art Rock to the table as he was almost 30 when starting out! There was nothing adolescent about Roxy Music’s songs while the rest of Glam Rock could be almost stupidly pre-adult in its focus.
Of course I ponder these variables constantly as I also struggle with the New Romantic movement, which was Glam Rock: the next generation. Most of the same concerns but outfitted with the latest synthesizer technology and an economic downturn as a social backdrop.
Hi PPM, always good to hear from you. Agree with you that Glam can be tricky to define, for this post, at least we decided on having the “art school connections”. Post adolescent is another good observation for proper glam. The Glam label is sometimes tagged onto almost any record from the early/mid 1970s, but this is a terrible mistake!!
New Romos were Glam the next generation – what a lovely way of putting it!
Ah yes…. Art School as the common denominator running through so much British music I like. Have you ever read George Melly’s seminal “Revolt Into Style?” It’s about the initial interplay of pop music and Art School. It has the perspective of a book written about a great fire that was still underway at the writing. Highly recommended for a “ripped from the now” feeling you won’t get anywhere else on the topic.
You keep bringing up all kinds of memories from my teens, great times!
Hi Tiffany, thanks for your comment. Always good to know someone’s actually reading these things! It was fun to get back to posting today after a month working on the print edition!