Glam rock has long been dismissed as the dismal sound of the Seventies. Watch any documentary about punk and you’ll probably see the same old clips of Sweet camping it up on Top of the Pops, or references to Gary Glitter – a joke long before he became a monster – as examples of just how terrible things were before the Sex Pistols came along to save music. As the flipside of the pretensions of prog, glam rock was the embodiment of everything terrible in the first half of the decade.
Except of course, half the punk bands were influenced by glam acts – be they Bowie or Iggy, Slade or Alice Cooper. And glam would continue to have an influence on the New Romantics – who were surely glam without the rock – goths, metal bands and more or less every other youth movement for the next decade at least.
This five CD collection aims to track the history – and pre-history – of glam, and should open the eyes of the more buffoonish critics (though they’ll probably never even listen to it). And even if you loved that music, it might make you rethink its importance. Because both the music here and the accompanying 96 page book makes a persuasive argument that glam is not only important and brilliant, but that it reclaimed rock ‘n’ roll for the kids.
And that’s the interesting this that you begin to realise as you listen to this collection. Because glam was the real rebellion music of the 1970s. A teenage rampage against the increasingly serious, ponderous album rock and bland hippy-drippy balladry of the era, glam effectively did all the things that are credited to punk – dragging music back to three minute, dumb as fuck pop singles aimed squarely at the kids and with no conceptual pretensions or sense of longevity – this was gleefully disposable music. Which isn’t to say that it has no value – quite the opposite. These are some of the best pop songs ever recorded – sometimes cheerfully stupid, sometimes deceptively complex but always fun. It had more in common with the proto punk of the late Sixties than it did with any bland pop sounds on the 1970s, as this collection so brilliantly shows. And unlike punk, this was music that spoke to the masses.
Glam is essentially based around football chant choruses, tribal drums (the more basically thunderous the better) and a decidedly retro feel, going back to the origins of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s basic, primitive and infectious, often lacking in a sense of musicianship but dripping with working class attitude. It offered an escape from an increasingly drab world in the 1970s for people who had no over escape. And it probably still does. And, as this collection shows, glam was less of a new invention as the continuation and exaggeration of ideas and sounds pioneered since the earliest days of rock ‘n’ roll. Or before, in fact, given that the collection opens with Noel Coward’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen.
Now, you might question what this track has to do with glam or rock. But there’s no questioning the influence Coward’s rather camp but sophisticated persona had on the likes of Roxy Music, David Bowie or Cockney Rebel. And that’s the interesting thing about this collection – it’s not simply a collection of predictable glam hits (I must admit, before seeing the track listing, I did wonder how the hits of glam could fill five CDs without multiple repetition of artist) but rather a history of the genre, with the acts and the songs that would influence the glam sound and style – and the acts and sounds that have been influenced in turn.
So the first CD features little that could be called ‘glam’ as such – but nothing that really feels out of place. So we go from Coward to Chuck Berry and Little Richard, two rock ‘n’ roll acts that first brought a sense of camp to the genre, and then onto the likes of Vince Taylor and the Playboys playing Brand New Cadillac, Max Harris and Anthony Newley performing numbers from pioneering oddball comedy The Strange World of Gurney Slade, Billy Fury, Jacques Brel and the Velvet Underground.
The first glam act proper to appear is David Bowie, though with an atypical track, London Bye Ta-Ta. I’m assuming that rights issues prevented the appearance of more glammed up Bowie numbers, which are amongst a handful of curious omissions that stop this collection from being entirely definitive. There’s no Alice Cooper, for instance – the most glaring gap in the collection. The booklet notes claim that true glam fans had no time for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which sounds rather dubious (did they take a poll?) and there’s nothing from that film (or Phantom of the Paradise) here. Perhaps glam fans really did think these were cheap cash-ins – but given that the album includes the credibility-free likes of Alvin Stardust, it does seem like a weak excuse for the omission. Also missing – for perhaps more obvious reasons – are Gary Glitter and Jonathan King, though The Glitter band are here at least. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…
Also making up the pre-history of disc 1 are The Stooges, The Kinks (Lola, naturally), Curved Air, Fanny and Chicory Tip, as well as obscure acts like Hot Legs (later to evolve into 10CC) and The Murgatroyd Band, performing the theme from TV show Magpie. Most interesting is the inclusion of Burundi Black by French-African band Burundi Stelphenson Black, which features the tribal rhythms that so defined the British glam sound in the early Seventies.
By the time the first CD ends, we’re into glam proper, with T Rex’s epic Hot Love and Slade’s Coz I Love You, two records that really define the sound – outwardly simplistic, catchy, repetitive and managing to be pure pop and subversive all at once. What, after all, could be more ‘punk’ than Slade’s wilful, parent-infuriating illiteracy or Marc Bolan la-la-la-ing away for half a track? This is dumped down and sophisticated at the same time.
Disc 2 is the one with the major early Seventies glam hits, and if that’s what you are looking for, this will be the disc that gets the most play. Bowie as artist might be under-represented, but Bowie the songwriter / producer is here in force – there’s Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes (as potent a dismissal of the previous generation’s music as anything the punk movement managed) and Lulu’s fantastic The Man Who Sold the World, but the best Bowie number here is Dana Gillespie‘s version of Andy Warhol, which is just astonishing – a seductive, psychedelic, bubble-gum, heavy rock collision, produced by Bowie with Mick Ronson on guitar, that must be one of the greatest cover versions ever recorded.
The New York Dolls are represented by Looking for a Kiss. Given that they were essentially a glammed up, sleazed up Rolling Stones pastiche, Whispering Bob Harris was technically right when he called the band “mock rock”. The problem was he meant it as a put-down rather than a compliment. The Dolls were the sleazy side of glam, the part that revelled in sex, drugs and more sex, a world occupied by Iggy, Lou and – to a degree – Alice Cooper and David Bowie. There was the arty side of course, which sometimes touched on prog – Roxy and the like occupied this area. And the more wholesome side of glam is occupied by the likes of Elton John – high camp and comedic visually, but with songs like Bennie and the Jets closer to classic rock musically. Sometimes, all three areas would collide with bubblegum pop to unleash something like Wizzard’s ludicrously operatic Angel Fingers.
Disc 3 mixes pop glam with more international acts – the latter represented by Sparks and Kiss (Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley also appears on disc 4 with hit single New York Groove, a fantastic 1978 throwback to the sounds of 1973). The tracks on this CD are mostly less sophisticated, less sleazy, less arty – Mud’s Tiger Feet, Hello’s Tell Him, Jook’s Bish Bash Bosh, The Bay City Rollers’ Saturday Night and The Rubette’s Sugar Baby Love are all no-nonsense pop with zero pretensions towards art – and they are all perfectly crafted examples of the art form. Trash? Yes. But who doesn’t love trash? The album also features former glam frontmen gone solo with Ian Hunter and Bryan Ferry, and the first rumblings of punk with Patti Smith’s Piss Factory.
We enter the punk era on disc 4. While British punk acts were keen to stick to the Year Zero studied rebellion that would be rapidly abandoned when it stopped being profitable, US punk acts were more in tune with past pop sensibilities, so we get tracks by Blondie, The Runaways and The Ramones here, alongside bands who just shrugged off the punk revolution and carried on having hits like ELO and Judas Priest. There’s also a touch of the music that really was the sound of the late Seventies, with Boney M’s Rasputin.
Disc 4 also features some oddities – I’m grateful to the album for identifying the band I saw on TOTP playing a catchy instrumental with a masked frontman as The RAH Band. This collection is worthwhile just for including that track! Magazine and Adam and the Ants represent that post-punk era, while glam covers by The Human League, Department S, Bauhaus and Dead or Alive nail the lie that the music had no relevance to this new generation, even if they mostly go for ‘respectable’ targets like Bowie and T Rex.
Disc 5 is very much the ‘post-glam’ album – for the most part, the sound of the Nineties and the Noughties. It opens with Sigue Sigue Sputnik and Hanoi Rocks as the sound of 1980s glam, which immediately brings up another glaring omission. Much as we might hold hair metal in disdain, the absence of the likes of Motley Crue, Twisted Sister and the like is curious – certainly, early recordings from either act would definitely fit here. Certainly more than The Fall’s Glam Racket, an attack on the genre that is surely only here by virtue of the title.
The material that is here mostly fits though. Tracks by Morrissey (Glamorous Glue), Suede, Carter USM, Saint Ettienne, Gay Dad, Marilyn Manson, Pulp, Goldfrapp all show that glam is alive in both sound and spirit. The album closes with tracks by neo-glam acts The Ark and Foxy Shazam, neither of which are any good, though the latter do at least suggest that the spirit of Seventies glam is still around.
This box set is pretty essential stuff. For the glam fan, it’s a great collection, even if most of the actual glam stuff will be familiar. For the beginner, it’s a great starter, and for the doubter, it’s a fantastic history lesson that finally places glam within the context of decadent, rebellious rock ‘n’ roll. This is the music of the outsider, the discontented and the provocateur, and this collection recognises it as such. If you always thought glam was a flash in the pan or not worthy of your attention, this collection will make you think again. Essential stuff for any music lover.