The swagger, sleaze and sensationalism of the 1970s glam rock scene explored.
We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating – Britain’s 1970s musical revolution, the collision of peacocking youth and grubby street urchins rejecting the pomposity of prog and the hangover of the 1960s with short, basic gut-punches of teenage rebellion designed to horrify parents and hippies alike came long before punk was ever a thing. We might argue that by the time punk came along, in fact, that it was all over – the swagger and defiance replaced with contrived nihilism and second-hand clothes borrowed from the previous generation. It’s not to dismiss punk or its attempts at a Year Zero revision of what popular music was; it’s just that the glam bands had been there, done that. Less politically than punk, perhaps – the Sex Pistols gave the wider establishment a much-needed kicking, even if it all became very contrived very quickly. But the teenage rampage of the first half of the 1970s has been unfairly overlooked by musical historians, too freaked out by The Sweet camping it up on Top of the Pops or the presence of dirty old has-beens like Gary Glitter exploiting the scene and its fans to ever look further into it. A pity, because a serious historian would look at all this and accept that, at the very least, the glam and sleaze scene of the early Seventies laid the groundwork for the punks, terrifying the straights and dragging music back to a primal verse-chorus-repeat three-minute bovver boot to the face. The difference was that the pre-punk bands were all about the decadence and depravity, the bad behaviour and moral ambiguity, and the arrogance and the extravagance that the punks ostensibly rejected, even as they dyed their spiked hair and adopted an off-the-peg DIY identikit style. It’s an inevitability that no youth culture can avoid becoming inherently tribal in its look. It’s perhaps ironic that the glam kids of the early 1970s were perhaps more authentically individualistic than what came afterwards, if only because there was never a single style to their movement. They probably didn’t even realise that it was a movement at the time. History allows us to make connections lost at the time.
The box set Oh! You Pretty Things explores the two sides of what we might loosely call the glam scene – ‘glam queens and street urchins’ as the album sub-header has it with some accuracy. If we want to find a dividing point, then I guess it is between the art school, cooler-than-cool acts channelling Noel Coward and Weimar chic – the likes of Roxy Music and Mott the Hoople – and the rough ‘n’ ready football hooligans in make-up approach of Slade and Sweet – the toffs and the street fighters, you might say. There was always a certain flexibility, of course, a bi-musicality that allowed the likes of David Bowie to flit between both camps, never quite settling in either, and regardless of their musical differences, both sides were pushing cultural boundaries and wallowing in a sense of decadent outrage – whether it was Bryan Ferry as the sort of lounge lizard that you might not want to leave you daughter alone with or The Hollywood Brats, who you definitely wouldn’t leave her alone with. And not just your daughter. Perhaps Tim Curry as Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Show personified the dangers of the sleazy glam world, belting out Sweet Transvestite in an act of shameless gender-bending defiance and being the sort of person who would fuck anyone, anywhere, anytime. Ultimately, this was a scene that was all about sex, and not very wholesome sex at that. Nowhere quite seemed to encapsulate that hedonistic and morally dubious (to say the least) world that Rodney’s English Disco in Los Angeles, where a heady mix of Watneys Red Barrel, imported English glam records, wasted rock stars, seedy music industry types and teenage groupies collided in ways that would make modern rock scandals seem positively innocuous. It was a different time – best not to think about it too much, lest it spoils the music for you.
Most, if not all of the major names of the glam era are here. Notably absent from proceedings are David Bowie and Alice Cooper, the latter call too often overlooked in these things despite Love It To Death at least being as much a template of androgynous wasted glam as anything ever recording. But there’s Mott the Hoople and Ian Hunter’s solo work, all magnificent and underrated; Roxy Music and assorted solo projects, all overrated; Iggy and Lou, Sweet (with Sunset Strip teenage runaway anthem The Six-Teens rather than a cheesier effort, thankfully) and Slade, of course. Slade might be the real epitome of glam as a sound – that damned Christmas record probably damns them to bubblegum nostalgia for most people, but their string of hits from the early 1970s feel like the definitive sound of errant youth – cocksure, swaggering, defiantly dumb (right down to the misspelt titles) and infectious. For the grubby schoolkids with their Richard Allen novels tucked into their pocket, it was this and not some fey posh boys camping it up that spoke to them. Similarly, the sheer absurdity of The Heavy Metal Kids’ The Cops Are Coming – a Clockwork Orange via Action comic slice of cartoon violence – somehow seems to encapsulate the throwaway delinquency of the whole scene. This is what glam is for me – rude, crude, camp as a row of tents and ready to punch anyone in the face who called you a poofter for wearing eyeliner.
We can all argue over what made this scene so vibrant, but at the heart of it is a trashy, decayed sense of faded glamour and dissolute lasciviousness – the antithesis of clean and wholesome pop, revelling in illicit sex and bad behaviour. It’s something that wouldn’t wash today, but in the early 1970s, it all felt like a vibrant explosion of trashy outrageousness amidst a world of bearded, denim-clad bands. Mick Ronson’s solo version of White Light White Heat is a fine example. Oddly glorious, using a rejected backing track from Bowie’s Pin-Ups and making up the words as he goes along because he couldn’t understand Lou Reed’s original, this is shambolic and ludicrous. Basically, it’s punk, if punk hadn’t taken itself so damn seriously. The same might be said of Doctors of Madness, who were punks a couple of years too soon to really capitalise on the hype – listening to their track B-Movie Bedtime, it’s no surprise that Dave Vanian became a member for a brief time during one of The Damned’s splits, and also shows that for all the claims of musical reinvention, the punk scene was essentially riffing off what had come before – and not even that long before (and certainly puts to bed any suggestions that these bands had somehow gone under the radar of the punks-to-be).
There’s the cocksure swagger of The Hollywood Brats (who might have been the British New York Dolls if there hadn’t already been a dozen other contenders for the title) and Michael Des Barres’ Silverhead, who recorded 16 and Savaged as a ‘tribute’ to the girls of Rodney’s English Disco (remember what we said earlier about it being a different time? Hold on to that). This British fascination with Los Angeles and its dubious pleasures (there were fewer hot girls willing to have sex with you at the drop of an accent in Birmingham) was reciprocated as American bands adopted the English glam sound, with street punk acts like The Hollywood Stars helping complete a circle of continual influences that went back and forth across the pond, from Iggy and Alice to Bowie and Slade to the Dolls and the Pistols all feeding off each other until LA eventually developed its own very specific glam metal sound in the mid-Eighties (though that too owed everything to both British punk and NWOBHM). Most fascinating of the American glam acts of the era is Jobraith, who took Bowie’s hints of bisexuality and otherworldliness a step further, as (arguably) rock’s first out and proud gay frontman and glittery space cadet. Big things were expected of him, but he sounds uncannily like Beef from Phantom of the Paradise, and while the life of Jobraith is an extraordinary tale – surely the stuff of a Hollywood biopic – the music is decidedly unexciting. More outrageous yet, of course – and musically much more exciting – was Wayne (later Jayne) County, who went from glam to punk without changing a damn thing other than gender; her track Queenage Baby perhaps put every other moment of glam gender-bending in the shade, sounds punk as fuck and was probably ripped off by Bowie for Rebel Rebel. County’s Warhol connections also remind us of just how important that whole Factory scene was in setting the template for glam at its seediest, sleaziest best.
Of course, like any scene, there are the bandwagon jumpers, the fellow travellers, the odd crossovers and the old hands joining the party. it confuses the issue even more, because what do The Pink Fairies or Hawkwind have to do with Sparks? Well, nothing and everything, of course. The connections seem tenuous yet obvious. it’s all very contradictory. Certainly, the Ladbroke Grove scene might have had more in common with the LSD-driven world of psychedelia, but my God, let’s not pretend that these bands, with their chugging riffs and permanent outsider status, weren’t as significant pre-punk flagbearers as anyone – and their shorter, punchier tracks now feel very much like they belong in this strange world, especially Hawkwind’s Kerb Crawler, which mixes Robert Calvert’s precise Englishness, razor-sharp riffs and a decidedly seedy subject matter – pure glam, you might think. In any case, writer and Hawkwind hanger-on Michael Moorcock positively oozes glam-sleaze in his Jerry Cornelius novels and the film adaptation, The Final Programme is a pop-art explosion of decadence and dandyism. Moorcock turns up here with his band Deep Fix and the almost transcendently good Dodgem Dude.
It probably seemed odd in the mid-Seventies to see The Pretty Things jump from R&B via prog to glam – back then, a decade seemed almost impossibly long for a band to have even been around for, while now acts will take that long between albums. If we look at it that way, this is just a band moving with the times, trying to remain relevant, absorbing the influences around them, just as Lou Reed and Iggy Pop did. Taken out of context, everything seems to make a certain sense, even if there sometimes appears to be a fine line separating glam and sleaze from more standard mid-Seventies heavy rock (we might ask where Kiss are in this collection if we want to be picky – after all, their early albums are every bit as gleefully trashy and sleazy as anything here). But then, it was always as much about attitude and appearance as it was the music. On that basis, given the fact that they had effectively spent the 1960s effectively setting the template for what glam – at least its artier side – would become, it would be churlish to object to The Kinks appearing here or to question the presence of The Troggs, who had been grinding out the primitive garage rock that set the more brutish glam musical template for years. On the other hand, the likes of Thin Lizzy and ELO crossed swords briefly with the glam sound early on their way to stardom – this was not the music that we might associate with them, but these belting, bombastic early singles – especially ELO’s Ma-Ma-Ma Belle – are cracking tunes, arguably among their finest work. Slicker is not necessarily better.
The continual joy of these retrospective box sets is less the inclusion of the familiar names (even if the track choices are often pleasingly obscure) but the forgotten and the abandoned. On here, we have England’s Glory, making the Velvet Underground sound positively upbeat with the song Bright Lights, a cut from an album that had just twenty-five copies pressed in 1973; I think we can safely say than most listeners will not be familiar with this. In contrast, Brutus – a mysterious act signed to Deep Purple’s eccentric record label – bounces with such yobbish ferocity that you can almost picture the thumbs in braces. Rococo’s Blue Movie Star feels like the classic glam title, revelling in sleaze; the song doesn’t quite live up to it, though it tries. Duncan Browne’s Send Me The Bill For Your Friendship (a dig at former label boss Andrew Oldham) is magnificently acerbic and should have launched him into stardom. Both Bearded Lady and Simon Turner want to be David Bowie (the latter even covering one of his songs), but we already had one of those, so who needed another? The passing of time makes both songs seem quaintly charming though. American pretty boy Brett Smiley also channels Bowie – he was tipped for big things, but everything went wrong, right down to the wrong track being played for him to lip-sync to on British TV. Such is the fragility of a pop career. Less self-consciously arty and so more fun are the acts like The Hammersmith Gorillas, Agnes Strange, Slowload, the unfortunately named The Winkies (who were Brain Eno’s backing band for about five minutes) and World War III – there’s no pretence of art here, just balls-to-the-wall rock ‘n’ roll, heavy riffs and bad attitudes. There’s an argument for saying that Rosie – with their anthem Rosie’s Coming to Town – are loutish glam trash personified. Lyrics like “c’mon and get your knickers down” and the suggestion of the band working their way through mother and daughter duos seem to sum up the lip-smacking, lurid bad behaviour that runs through the best of the sleaze rock era (by all accounts, the track is not an inaccurate depiction of the band’s life – they sold no records but had a lot of fun).
Even at the time, glam was widely dismissed, the bubblegum pop version that dominated Top of the Pops and sucked in some of the acts who should’ve known better (and eternally regretted it) giving everything a bit of a bad name with both chin-stroking serious music fans and the punks in waiting. It’s this that probably keeps the scene from really being explored by the people who deem themselves the chroniclers of rock history – glam was and is seen as throwaway tat. Even the bands were sometimes dismissive, and few even thought of the glam scene as an actual movement. Blackfoot Sue’s Glittery Obituary was designed as a riposte from a band who thought that they were heavy rockers but found themselves lumped in with the glam scene. It’s a bitter attack on the movement, but of course, it sounds like pure glam – instantly catchy, swaggering and arrogant, and it’s the only thing that anyone will ever remember the band for. There was no escaping the pull of that sound and that attitude, you see.
Beyond punk, disco, prog or bubblegum, glam – be it high art or low grot – feels like the 1970s. Not just musically, but culturally, for good and bad. It’s the soundtrack to strip clubs, sex cinemas, football hooliganism, New English Library paperbacks, Kids Rule OK and the general teenage rampage that pushed its way through three day weeks and the concrete greyness of Britain at the time. It’s vital and throwaway, trashy and degenerate, and it should be recognised as the decade’s prime slice of youthful bad behaviour and rock ‘n’ roll rebellion. As Alex Harvey sang, these were the last of the teenage idols. It’s all been rather downhill since.
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