A Glitter-Run Through History: Simon Reynolds’s “Shock and Awe”

By Chris O’LearyOctober 22, 2016

A Glitter-Run Through History: Simon Reynolds’s “Shock and Awe”

Shock and Awe by Simon Reynolds

GLAM ROCK, David Bowie claimed in one of his last interviews, “only lasted for 18 months. From beginning to end. The entire movement. We’d all moved on.” Bowie reluctantly admitted that the genre had continued to sputter on for some time longer than that:

Of course there were the Johnny-come-latelys the Jerry Glitters and all that. They were awful anyway. We didn’t like them. We were very snobby about it. There were three of us: T. Rex, Roxy [Music] and me. That was it. That was the entire glam rock school. It wasn't even a movement.

Bowie’s thoughts on glam, like his thoughts on many other things, shifted over the years. Sometimes, as here in 2003, he’d claim ownership, treating it as one of the many styles he’d pioneered and then abandoned. Yet he also could be wary of being too identified with glam: his reinvention in 1983 as the blond global CEO figure of Let’s Dance was meant to change his popular image in the United States, which was still that of the glitter-spackled space alien Ziggy Stardust.

Bowie wasn’t the only glam star to make sweeping dismissals of glam. Marc Bolan — the leader of T. Rex, one third of the Bowie-anointed Holy Trinity — had pronounced the genre dead at its commercial peak, in June 1973: “personally I find it very embarrassing.” Glam rockers were forever announcing retirements, showing up in new costumes, even pretending to be killed (see Alice Cooper facing the guillotine during his early ’70s tours). Yet glam never really died, despite various theatrical representations of its demise; it’s been expanding since the ’70s. Like most genres worth their salt, its borders are porous on both ends: you could claim Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Jerry Lee Lewis as predecessors, Against Me! and Lady Gaga and Sia as inheritors. Bowie, Bolan, and Roxy Music may have moved on in the ’70s, but the rest of the world hasn’t.

Simon Reynolds’s Shock and Awe is an engrossing intellectual history of glam rock, providing as much structure and coherence as the sprawling, protean genre will bear. It supersedes Barney Hoskyns’s Glam! (1998), a lean book that swiftly ran from boom to bust. Reynolds is far more encyclopedic, and idiosyncratic. The scope of Shock and Awe widens and narrows depending on whatever he comes across. Digressions abound. Context for Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era includes both Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal and William Prynne’s 1632 treatise Histriomastix, a diatribe against “artificial stage-players […] who emasculate, metamorphose, and debase their noble sex.” Oscar Wilde and Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly get walk-on appearances. The roots of the word “glamour” are traced back through J. R. R. Tolkien’s scholarly work and Sir Walter Scott’s 1830 Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft. To the extent that one could accuse Reynolds of overreaching, it’s done in glam’s devil-may-care, raid-the-storeroom spirit.

But if Shock and Awe takes occasional walks on the wilder side of cultural history, it always comes back to the music. (Reynolds is a pop critic of considerable repute, and the author of previous histories of rave and post-punk.) Jostling for position in Shock and Awe is a score of acts, from the Bowie-T. Rex-Roxy trio to Alice Cooper and the New York Dolls, from the Sweet and Slade to Steve Harley to Suzi Quatro and the cast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. What unites them? A psychological profile, for one thing: “A good number of the protagonists in this story were delusional narcissists who created a bubble of unreality around themselves and then convinced large numbers of people to join them inside,” Reynolds writes. Social conditions, too: They were mostly journeymen rockers who’d been on the margins of pop music in the 1960s, playing weddings, Air Force bases, gentlemen’s clubs, and provincial dance halls. Once upon a time, they plied their trades under names like Davy Jones and the Lower Third (Bowie), John’s Children (Bolan), the ’N Betweens (Slade), Wainwright’s Gentlemen (the Sweet), and the Pleasure Seekers (Quatro). Some had been knocking around the English music scene for more than a decade: Gary Glitter played in a skiffle group and issued his first single in 1960 as “Paul Raven.”

By 1970, the UK pop market needed an adrenaline shot. Rock music was evolving into a LP medium, with many countercultural cognoscenti regarding singles, once the lifeblood of rock, as a crass concession to the Man, little better than cutting a Rice Krispies ad. (See Tony Visconti refusing to produce Bowie’s “bubblegum” single “Space Oddity.”) An intra-generation gap grew between university-age listeners engrossed by folk and prog and their bored younger brothers and sisters still cutting their teeth on radio and Top of the Pops. The 21-year-olds enjoyed smoking grass and listening to acoustic confessionals or side-long rock suites based on the Upanishads; the 14-year-olds wanted fun songs they could dance to, particularly if sung by sexy cartoon characters. (Glam coincided with the onset of color TV in Britain.) Bowie acknowledged this Baby Boomer civil war in his “All the Young Dudes”: “And my brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones / We never got it off on that revolution stuff / What a drag, too many snags.” Alice Cooper called his music “third-generation rock.” Noddy Holder of Slade put it still more bluntly: “We don’t want no underground loafers. We are after the kids.”

There was also a “leadership void” in British pop music, as Bowie once said. The breakup of the Beatles was like the fall of the Roman Empire. Suddenly outsiders could move in and claim prime territory, aided by veteran managers and producers sniffing around for opportunities. Chas Chandler of the Animals, who’d managed Jimi Hendrix, would go on to manage Slade; Mike Leander, who’d done the string arrangement for the Beatles’s “She’s Leaving Home,” would be the architect of Glitter’s massive “Rock and Roll Pt. 2.” Many crucial elements of glam — glitter, outrageous costumes, ambisexuality — were canny recyclings of older pop styles, peddled by industry veterans to kids just a few years too young to have caught them the first time.

Reynolds devotes a lengthy opening chapter to Marc Bolan and T. Rex. Of the glam acts, Bolan was the “most quicksilver,” his legacy “not so much a substantial body of work […] as a nubile body of performances.” In 1971, T. Rex was responsible for 3.5 percent of the entire British record industry’s sales. Bolan’s popularity was such that he was able to shift 20,000 copies of his book of poetry, The Warlock of Love (representative excerpt: “And now as a suitor, he courts you / clasped in the rug of his love like a reindeer”). T. Rex’s run of smashes kicked off with “Hot Love,” a 12-bar blues “with the ponderousness and grit removed,” and included the glam mantra “Metal Guru” and “Children of the Revolution,” about the sort of revolution whose leader boasts “I drive a Rolls Royce / ’cos it’s good for my voice.” There was a shine to Bolan, an indefinable charismatic quality that entranced a nation’s worth of teenagers. “If Bolan himself stood lightly outside his own myth, his fans were fully immersed,” Reynolds writes. And if Bolan hadn’t been killed in a car crash in 1977, it’s easy to imagine him rebounding as a hitmaker for the MTV age, like his rival Bowie.

Slade was T. Rex’s biggest competition in terms of singles sales, racking up 12 UK Top 5 hits in three years. Working-class “yobbos” from the Black Country, Slade made “first-person plural music,” in Reynolds’s words, songs meant to be yelled by a crowd. Then there was the Sweet, glam’s equivalent to the Monkees. They began by miming tracks recorded by anonymous studio pros until, after years of fighting with their producers/songwriters/svengalis Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, they finally wrote and cut their own records: 1974’s “Fox On the Run” is purely a band effort. A bubblegum group with a subversive counterculture spirit, the Sweet’s singles were mixed to explode on radio: massively overdubbed guitars, four-part harmonies, sound effects (police sirens and tympani on “Blockbuster”), Coasters-like spoken asides from bassist Steve Priest, who once dressed as a “gay SS stormtrooper” (Pickelhaube, cherry-black lipstick) on Top of the Pops. They adjusted to rapid shifts in the zeitgeist, abandoning a planned ’60s throwback LP after Bowie issued Pin Ups, and seethed when they thought Queen stole their sound with “Killer Queen” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Standing apart, in their refined eccentric way, were the other part of Bowie’s glam troika: Roxy Music. With their high-toned academic background (only Queen had as many university degrees) and a compositional sophistication that aligned them with progressive rock, Roxy “thought we’d be a kind of art student band, and that’s as far as it would go,” Bryan Ferry would later reminisce to the NME. “I was astounded when we had a hit record.” That hit, “Virginia Plain,” was glam at its most ambitious and extreme: it had no refrain, its lyric referenced Fred Astaire movies and Warhol superstar Baby Jane Holzer, and its mix was full of motorcycle engine noises, Andy Mackay’s tootling oboe, and Brian Eno’s spaceship-landing sounds, topped off with Ferry’s wailing vibrato. As the years went by, Roxy drifted away from glam and toward their own brand of fop-pop: a subplot of Reynolds’s book is Ferry’s slow transformation from being a glam artist who played an upper-class rake to becoming an actual aristocrat, marrying a rich socialite and siring toff sons who are ardent defenders of fox hunting.

These were the originators of “the movement,” but Reynolds keeps on following the story through glam’s multiple second lives, once T. Rex and Slade were a spent commercial force, Bowie was making soul music in the United States, and Roxy was in hibernation. After glam’s big pop moment had passed, the younger groups became more aggressive, desperate, and, in some cases, far stranger. There was the long-lived and mega-successful Queen and the marvelous Sparks, fronted by the LA-born Mael brothers — one sported a Hitler moustache, the other sang like a castrato — whose songs were cathedrals for odd private jokes. There was Suzi Quatro, who, like the Maels, was an American import who hit it big in Britain. The only major female glam star, Quatro played up the motorcycle-tough angle in interviews (“[Bowie] makes me feel real ugly”). Reynolds finds space for all of them, alongside the viciously ambitious Steve Harley (“to be on stage is to be a Messiah,” he once said) and glam-damaged punk vanguards like the Heavy Metal Kids, Doctors of Madness, and the Tubes.

And what of Bowie, the most culturally significant figure to come out of the glam moment? Though Reynolds dedicates much of five chapters to him and concludes with his death, Bowie often stands somewhat outside the story Shock and Awe is telling. He’s in his hotel suites and limos, off hiding in the studio, present but unseen, or absent but influential. In Shock and Awe, Bowie is both center of gravity and distant moon orbiting whatever new planet glam’s Big Bang has most recently brought into being. This narrative strategy works best in the chapter set in mid-’70s Los Angeles, which centers on the sleazy glam rock club Rodney’s English Disco, second home of the British expatriate band Silverhead, “who looked like rock stars and comported themselves like rock stars, but for whom rock stardom had so far proved elusive.” Silverhead are fakes substituting for the true glam star Bowie, who is also resident in Los Angeles at the time but keeps to his house to cast spells, watch Fritz Lang movies, and read Kabbalist books. (The chapter on Bowie in Berlin doesn’t fit as well; Germans have never quite got the hang of glam, despite Reynolds’s contention that Kraftwerk’s “Hall of Mirrors” is one of “pop’s greatest songs about glamour.”)

Indeed, though glam, like punk, is in some sense an international phenomenon, it’s never made as much sense outside the British context as its younger, snottier sibling. “Glam never happened in America,” Bowie said in 2003. “It was so intrinsically a British thing. You had to understand the idea of these bricklayers and blokes like that who suddenly put on makeup. It was just funny.” Only a handful of UK glam hits crossed over to the United States, where Quatro was better known for her role on Happy Days than her music. British glam acts were considered too weird for AM radio, too teen-pop for “freeform” FM deejays. It was also an oversaturated market. Slade foundered in the United States, Reynolds argues, because their niche was already filled by Grand Funk Railroad. Both groups came out of their country’s “industrial zone” — the West Midlands and Michigan, respectively — and both traded on “the community feeling their basic raunchy rock generated.” Reynolds suggests Slade should’ve gone for broke and written “We’re An English Band” to counter Grand Funk, “filling it with references to football pools, steak-and-kidney pudding, Bass Pale Ale […] in the hopes of charming the American mass audience like ‘Penny Lane’ had done.”

That said, glam did take root in the New York City underground: see, for instance, Jayne (née Wayne) County, who simulated eating turds on stage, or the hard-rocking, cross-dressing New York Dolls. But the genre only sold in chart-topping quantities in the United States when performers cranked up the shock and gore, marrying glam’s coy come-ons with heavy metal’s more aggressive overtures. Reynolds rightly argues for Alice Cooper as one of the architects of glam, a jester for Nixon’s America. His “Election” promo campaign, timed for Nixon’s re-election in fall 1972, “offered a pretty convincing impersonation of unbridled megalomania,” Reynolds writes: “Alice’s ego, swollen by the twin inflationary forces of infamy and fandom, exploding into a power-trip fantasy of himself as leader of youth.” He even made a video in which he and his band campaigned for office, “shaking hands with voters, revelling in the cash from donors, all the while accompanied by a monkey mascot.” And Cooper’s most obvious heirs were KISS, who lumbered where most glam acts glided, and who’ve kept at their shtick for so long they deserve tenure.

Some of the most entertaining parts of Shock and Awe are glimpses of the bottom rung of the glam hierarchy (apparently this is now its own subgenre: “junkshop glam”). There is Hello, a group of teenagers who started out by miming pop records on stage; the Moodies, originally Moody and the Menstruators, “an almost entirely female band that emerged from the Fine Art department of Reading University” who “anticipated Wigstock and the drag-king phenomenon”; Zolar X, who sported Spock ears and “didn’t speak Earthling but communicated in a beebling ‘n’ fribbling alien language [and] never broke character”; and the ill-fated Jobriath, who tried to claim a throne that Bowie abandoned when he killed off Ziggy.

The distance between these charmingly amateurish also-rans and the major figures of the first glam era is not as great as it might be. Glam held back what it promised in order to give you something unexpected. It was sleight-of-hand music: its effects were grand but cheap. (Alice Cooper’s early props came from what he could steal from motel rooms, like fire extinguishers and pillow feathers.) It was also not as tough as it tried to look: the guitar-god cover of T. Rex’s Electric Warrior — Bolan in silhouette before a Marshall stack — cheekily misrepresents an album whose majesty owes more to Tony Visconti’s string arrangements and Bill Legend’s drum fills; and, Mick Ronson notwithstanding, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars is more West End musical than hard-rock onslaught.

This gap between image and reality, rock and theater, advertisement and product, reputation and sales, is where much of glam’s appeal lay. It’s why so many gay, bisexual, and transgender kids have found power and strength in the songs of mostly straight, often-oafish men wearing mascara and fishnet stockings, and why so many future punk and New Wave musicians were born again on the night they first saw Bowie on Top of the Pops. (Reynolds devotes a lengthy epilogue to “a partial inventory of glam echoes and reflections” from 1975 to 2016, with attention to Adam Ant, Prince, Kate Bush, Annie Lennox, Marilyn Manson, Britney Spears’s Blackout, and Ke$ha, among many others.) With glam, the audience is the ultimate star; it was the first pop genre, Reynolds claims, where “fans turned up to concerts dressed like the star performer.” In D. A. Pennebaker’s film of the Ziggy Stardust “farewell” concert, much of the real action is out in the audience. Bowie may be plotting his escape, but the kids are committed, entranced, equals of the star they worship.

To paraphrase Alice Cooper, glam has no class and no principles. It’s a subculture with little of the scene-policing found in punk and indie rock; it’s hard to imagine anyone accusing a glam act of “selling out.” Glam is constantly selling out; it was born to sell out. To be glam is to lack convictions and to steal anything that moves. “It’s a rip off!” Bolan howled in delight at the close of Electric Warrior. Tawdry, ridiculous, pretentious, and crass, glam produced some of the most sublime pop music of its era. Now it has a history worthy of it.


Chris O’Leary is a writer, editor, and journalist based in western Massachusetts.

LARB Contributor

Chris O’Leary is a writer, editor, and journalist based in western Massachusetts. O’Leary has interviewed everyone from Richard Fuld, former head of Lehman Brothers, to Kiefer Sutherland. He writes for Entertainment Weekly as well as the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Rebel Rebel, the first of two volumes, is based on the popular music blog “Pushing Ahead of the Dame,” which O’Leary began in July 2009 (http://bowiesongs.wordpress.com).


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