GROWING UP GLAM
The following is a piece I wrote for the program of a Glam Rock Tribute Show at City Winery in Manhattan, November 2018…
I was eight years old in June 1972 when David Bowie appeared on Top of the Pops performing “Starman,’’ the moment that changed everything. My eleven-year old brother – duly mesmerized by the sight of Bowie, in orange hair and Technicolor jumpsuit, throwing his arms suggestively around guitarist Mick Ronson, himself sporting a gold lame two-piece – got our mum to buy him the 7” single that weekend; I was stuck with David Cassidy’s “Could It Be Forever.” It says something about fashion (and about how my brother and I soon diverged in our devotion to pop music) that I still have his copy of “Starman” on my shelf, 46 years and many moves across two continents later. The David Cassidy single, despite wearing the heartthrob’s image on its sleeve, did not fare so well.
David Bowie provided an entry point for so many people into the world of glam (or glitter, as I subsequently learned it was called in the States, proving once again that the Americans have a different word for everything). For me, though, the portal was provided by Alice Cooper; I picked up his explosive “School’s Out” single in that summer of 1972, and then bought three of his albums in quick succession. The fold-out poster from Killer, of Alice in a noose, took pride of place on my bedroom wall; I evidently didn’t take the lyrics literally. Meantime, like solidly one-third of the nation, I tuned in to Top of the Popsreligiously every Thursday evening, fascinated by the clothing, the make-up, the lyrics, the melodies – and best of all, the tribal drums – that marked every new glam act’s “arrival” on the scene, or, as I would later come to understand, its jumping on a bandwagon from less commercially rewarding genres.
My vision of glam was entirely non-judgmental. Much as I worshipped Alice Cooper, I also loved Alvin Stardust, a.k.a. Shane Fenton, a relic from the 50s. Much as I instinctively knew Marc Bolan and David Bowie to be the real thing, I couldn’t help but enjoy Gary Glitter for being a bit of a fake. (After all, it was his chant “Do you want to me in my gang?” – and the more threatening “Come on, come on, come on!” – that the big kids chanted on the football terraces when looking for a fight.) Roxy Music proved a little adult for my pre-pubescent tastes, but I still rated “Virginia Plain” alongside Sparks’ “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For the Both Of Us” as a work of considerably non-sensical class. As for Sweet and Slade, what was not to love about groups comprised of former skinheads and would-be plumbers donning satin bellbottoms and silver jackets, plastering make-up on their cheeks, and blowing kisses at the BBC cameras?
I did, however, draw the line at Mud. We all have our limits.
Time has a habit of separating wheat from chaff. Those who thought David Bowie to be a temporary pop interloper must now acknowledge him as one of the 20thCentury’s more important audio-visual artists. Marc Bolan, cut down a little after his prime, lives on in eternity as the elfin king of boogie guitars and nonsense lyrics; to this day, I have no understanding of a “metal guru” as anything other than one of the catchiest pop refrains of all time. The likes of Sweet and Suzi Quatro fought hard to escape the clutches of their writer-producers and succeeded, to a point. Alvin Stardust and Gary Glitter ploughed the oldies circuit they’d only just escaped from until age (Alvin) and scandal (Gary) caught up with them. Alice Cooper – the man, not the group – learned to separate his stage character from his real-life persona, and saved himself from potential madness; the band’s music from the 1970s has well stood the test of passing trends. Lou Reed became New York’s unofficial poet laureate. Roxy Music splintered, giving the world the dapper soul of front man Bryan Ferry and the unequivocal genius of synth-player turned producer, artist and all-round renaissance man Brian Eno. All this, and we haven’t even mentioned the New York Dolls, Queen Elizabeth, Pure Garbage, the Harlots of 42ndStreet, the Brats, Teenage Lust or any of the other glitter kids to be found at Manhattan’s thriving Mercer Arts Centre. (Nor do we have space to debate Kiss.)
Glam was about liberation. Sure, rock ‘n’ roll in the ‘50s had provided the first generation of teenagers with the musical soundtrack to celebrate their freedom, just as the rockers of the ‘60s revolted against their parent’s expectations and in the process created the generation gap. But the glitter and glam brigade of the 1970s offered liberation from allexpectations: sexual, gender, societal andsartorial. Movements – and moments – like this come along but once. They shift the planet off its axis a little bit and then, after the planet readjusts, they become part of the past’s rich tapestry. Me, I’m grateful to have served as even the most minor of witnesses.