We recently spoke with Simon Reynolds and asked him "Five Questions" about his new book Shock and Awe: Glam Rockand Its Legacy, From The Seventies to the Twenty-First Century. Reynolds is also the author of the critically acclaimed Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, as well as Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture, Totally Wired: Postpunk Interviews and Overviews and Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past. Here's what Simon had to say about the glam movement.
Your book casts a wide net over what glam rock is. For instance, I was surprised to see bands like Be Bop Deluxe (huge fan here) or Ultravox included. What is your definition of glam?
I use “glam” as an elastic term to cover a whole range of music from the first half of the Seventies – glitter rock, art pop, theatrical rock, what you could call “late glam” and bands that are glam-influenced but could also be seen as “punk before punk”. Be-Bop Deluxe would on the edge of glam as commonly understood, but there was certainly a Bowie influence early on and the image was chic and smart in a Bryan Ferry-esque style. Ultravox are somewhere between glam and punk on their early records – and getting Eno to produce the first album is a bit of give-away. At the same time those first three albums are too early for Glam’s Second Wave, by which I mean the New Romantics and Eighties Brit videopop. John Foxx solo gets the timing just right except that Gary Numan, a fan of Ultravox, had moved in for the kill already.
The primary thing that gives glam coherence as a movement is image – and what I’d say defines it is a relationship with glamour that isn’t straightforward. It’s more like a parody or cartoon travesty of glamour, jumbling up ideas from the Hollywood heyday with early rock’n’roll, science-fiction, trash B-movie influences and sluicing all that through typically Seventies over-statement and excess. If you look at the way early Roxy Music or New York Dolls or The Sweet dressed, they’re not glamorous or chic in the way that Diana Ross or a contemporary film star was, they’re togged out in a mish-mash of clashing clothes, with make-up and hair that aims to make you laugh rather than look at them enviously or aspirationally. It’s a burlesque of glamour more than a straightforward projection of it. Bowie is slightly different: he is exquisite and alluring and someone that people imitate, but he is also looks much weirder than conventional ideas of glamorousness.
Another thing that defines glam is an interest in theatricality, a belief that rock music by the 1970s had turned out to be just a junior branch of showbiz rather than its adversary, so let’s accept that and let’s pile on the razzle dazzle. With Alice Cooper and David Bowie that entails a full-blown embrace of stage sets, props, costume changes, semi-choreographed or out-right choreographed routines. They achieve a merger of rock’n’roll and musical theater.
Sonically glam is more diffuse, but I think there is a core there which is a reversion – after the late Sixties progressive and heavy rock phase – to simpler rock and roll structures rooted in the Fifties and early Sixties. But it’s fed through the super-production of the early Seventies, all the advances made in the progressive / heavy era in terms of huge close-miked drum sounds, guitar-layered riffs and power-chords, stacked harmonies, and so forth. Gary Glitter invokes early rock’n’roll, The Sweet harks back to early Who and “Paperback Writer”, but the Seventies super-production makes it much more powerful and modern-sounding.
There also seems to be some division — musically, visually, artistically, or philosophically — between the approaches of English glam bands and their US brethren. Let’s take the English first: Many of the bands took some sort of cue from books, art, philosophy, etc, from Marc Bolan, to Bowie, to Roxy Music. Yet there was also the Slade’s, the Sweet, and Mott The Hoople’s, who were really boogie with makeup. What’s the relationship between these two offshoots?
It’s a spectrum from “high glam” as some call it – the autodidact intellectual Bowie with his Nietzsche references, the art school influenced Roxy Music, the self-conscious romantic Mott the Hoople, the literate Cockney Rebel, – across to “low glam”: music whose appeal is much more primal and lumpen, like Gary Glitter, Slade, Mud, The Sweet, Suzi Quatro. The high Bowie / Roxy glam appealed to older teenagers, students and young people whose outlook was shaped by the rock-as-art value system that emerged in the late Sixties. Bowie was seen as a Seventies successor to Dylan and the Beatles, writing poetic lyrics about existential quandaries and so forth. On their early astonishing experimental albums Roxy were as much a progressive band as they were a pop group. But the low-brow stomping glitter groups targeted an audience that was early teens or prepubescent. They were making dance music above all: massive drum sounds, a pounding beat to stamp your feet and clap your hands to, big hooks and shout-along choruses. It was music aimed at discotheques, which had mushroomed in number in the UK in the early Seventies. In the case of Slade, they were about big concert-hall shows and hordes of teenagers driven crazy by the roar and blare of this stomping sound they generated. Energy-burst rock designed for release and abandon, the lowbrow glitter appealed to a working-class audience looking to let loose at the weekend. Whereas Bowie and Roxy walked a line between dance pop and more cerebral, lyric-based rock.
The American version of glam, which is decidedly smaller, seemed to be more simply grounded in rock, nihilism and decadence — trash and vaudeville. Yet, arguably, The New York Dolls, and “Raw Power”-era Iggy are often thought to cast a greater mainstream influence musically. Agree? Disagree?
I don’t think New York Dolls or Iggy had much influence on the mainstream at all in their own time. The Dolls were a complete bust in America, as any kind of mainstream rock presence – they were considered a failed hype on the part of a major label and a cohort of sympathetic critics. But the Dolls and the Stooges were formative influences on the next way of teenage rampage, i.e. the punks. The Pistols covered “No Fun” and although they wrote the sneering “New York” it was obviously a form of iconoclastic patricide rooted in “the anxiety of influence”, given how much Steve Jones owed to Johnny Thunders.
Glam in America was really concentrated in two cities – New York and Los Angeles. There was some glam support in Detroit, where Creem, the only US rock magazine to really get behind glam, was based and where Alice Cooper had been based for a while. And also Cleveland, which has a very advanced radio station WWMS, that was among the first to play Bowie and even played things as obscure in US terms as Sensational Alex Harvey Band. But overall to be a glitter fan in the rest of America was to be a pretty rare creature, and it was likely to make you an outcast socially.
New York already had the Warhol tradition and the gay underground where camp and theatricality and the trash aesthetic were well established, in addition to a high concentration of the nation’s rock critics, so it was a welcoming climate for the visiting Brits, and obviously it spawned the Dolls and a bunch of other trash-aesthetic bands in the pre-punk lull years. As for Los Angeles, it has always had an Anglophile orientation, so there was a fan base for glitter and a fair amount of local musical action (although not really any LA glitter groups of note really, with the possible exception of Zolar X, who dressed as sci-fi B-movie aliens). But certainly a segment of young LA looked to the U.K. – hence the Sunset Strip club The English Disco – and also welcomed the New York Dolls with open legs whenever they came to play.
Let’s talk about that influence: in the book, you connect the dots between glam and pop music, disco, perhaps the hair metal of the Eighties and on and on. What do you consider glam’s greatest contribution, and how does that resonate in music today?
The influence of glam is legion, it crops up all over the place, and what I tried to do in the final section of the book, which is called "Aftershocks," is to hopscotch through history in a fun way, leaping from example to example across the Eighties, Nineties and into the 21st Century. I didn’t want to ploddingly lay out the linear connections and talk about the legacy in any kind of dourly validating way. It’s more a question of echoes and eruptions of the glam spirit. So there’s Goth (Siouxsie and the Banshees meeting originally at a Roxy concert, covering T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” as an early B-side, Siouxsie as a forbidding ice queen). There’s the MTV videopop menagerie of New Romantics and gender-benders from Visage and Adam Ant to Boy George and Eurhythmics. There’s stylized performance-art pop from Klaus Nomi and Grace Jones. There’s the mascara-caked, blow-dried tarts of Sunset Strip hair metal. There’s Marilyn Manson’s Alice Cooper-style shock rock and most recently figures like Lady Gaga who is very explicit about her debts to Bowie and that era. You also get more seemingly unlikely examples of glam influence, like Morrissey (once the president of the New York Dolls fan club and author of a Dolls biography). I also had fun tracking the increasingly unimpressive and misguided later career of Bowie through this entire post-glam period.
The word “legacy” in the subtitle was chosen for its ambiguity – because people talk about negative legacy or dark legacy as well as the more standard use of the word to indicate a positive inheritance bequeathed to posterity. The legacy is a certain spirit of absurdist over-the-top entertainment, an insistence on fun and the ephemeral thrills of rock-as-pop, rather than the worthy notion of rock as generating a bunch of quasi-literary statements of supposedly lasting value, whether it’s the first two Band albums, Steely Dan’s clever lyrics, the work of Costello, etc. I see that glam spirit cropping up all over the place, from Def Leppard to Ke$ha. You could also say that glam helped to liberalise attitudes to sexuality and gender, paving the way for the openly gay pop performers of the MTV videopop Eighties, and prefiguring the fluidity and ambiguity of 21st Century genderqueer performers.
On the less positive side, glam has contributed to our contemporary culture’s obsession with fame. Indeed one of the more interesting – and unlikely on the face of it – places I seem glam’s echoes today is in hip hop. Just as glam rockers sang self-reflexively about stardom, so you have a host of rappers whose main subject is fame and the darkside of celebrity: Kanye West and Drake are the most glaring examples, where fame is their principal topic, but it seems to be present in a lot of mainstream rap and R&B. Overall, I think Seventies glam prefigures the way that in the 21st Century we’ve seen the completely subsuming of pop music within a showbiz value system: glitz and spectacle. It feels like we’re long overdue another anti-glam phase, like grunge, to take over and put across a different viewpoint rooted in low self-esteem and realism: the worldview of burn-outs, slackers and the born-to-lose, as opposed to narcissistic wish-fulfilment fantasies of the “work hard and your dreams will come true” type.
It always seems to come back to Bowie. From Ziggy, to Iggy, to Mott, to Lou Reed, to stagecraft, songwriting, producing and, of course, gender-bending. Is David Bowie ultimately glam’s greatest star?
Bowie dominates glam in the same way that Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols dominate punk. There’s even the same manipulative strategist manager figure, Tony Defries as precursor to Malcolm McLaren. But punk wasn’t just the story of the Pistols, it was many stories, and likewise glam is a big cast of figure that to my mind are as compelling as Bowie and who made just as much interesting – and differently interesting – music. Bowie necessarily dominates Shock and Awe just because he went through so many changes so fast, and was involved with so many other artists – Lou Reed, Mott, Iggy, Eno, Kraftwerk, Nic Roeg on The Man Who Fell To Earth. But I also wanted to give a similar amount of serious attention to Marc Bolan, Alice Cooper, Roxy Music, Sparks, Cockney Rebel – all of whom were strange characters, inflated egos, excessive performers, to equivalent degrees to Bowie. I also wanted to give overdue respect to the more stompy “teenage rampage” end of the glam spectrum, figures like The Sweet and Gary Glitter, and their producers like Phil Wainman, Mike Chapman & Nicky Chinn, Mike Leander. My goal with Shock and Awe was really to situate Bowie as the major figure in a cultural field that had a lot of other things going on in it. Bowie is the greatest glam star, no doubt, but he wasn’t the first (that would be Bolan) and he wasn’t the biggest-selling (T.Rex, Slade, Sweet all had much bigger scores in terms of Number one and number two hits in the U.K.). What Bowie was able to do was dominate the discourse of the time: he was the most written about and analysed and puzzled about, he spawned more thinkpieces. With his image, his knack for publicity stunts and killer quotes, his inconsistencies and contradictions, he was able to marshal intrigue in a way that no other star of that era did. And because there was a lot of ideas and references thrown about, and such a varied body of work, Bowie became a sort of cultural treasure figure of the kind that is ripe for huge museum retrospectives like the one at the Victoria and Albert Museum a few years ago, or endless books parsing his every move. You couldn’t imagine a museum exhibition about Marc Bolan I don’t think, even though as a pop star he was huger than Bowie was by some distance, and arguably that run of killer singles has a greater concentration of pop thrills. It was T.Rextacy that got compared to Beatlemania in terms of the hordes of screaming teenagers. But it was Bowie who was able to signify in the same way that the Beatles had signified in the Sixties.
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