Although its influence has lived on, glam rock was short-lived. Its earliest stirrings can probably be traced to Marc Bolan’s first hits with the band T. Rex – and perhaps even more specifically to his appearance on Top of the Pops in early 1971 singing ‘Get It On’ with glitter and sequins stuck to his cheeks. T. Rex enjoyed a series of top ten hits through 1972, rapidly followed by most of the artists I have mentioned; and key albums of that year included Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the first Roxy Music. Yet by late 1973, both Bolan and Bowie already seemed prepared to move on: Bolan’s string of hits was effectively exhausted, and Bowie unexpectedly terminated his Ziggy Stardust persona at a concert in July of that year. While some of the glam pop bands were still going strong, and a second generation had begun to appear (Cockney Rebel, Arrows), glam was effectively defunct by early 1975. Disco was starting to emerge from the studios and nightclubs of Philadelphia and New York, and punk was just around the corner – although both genres owed more to glam than is often acknowledged. Bowie, of course, quickly moved on to quite different projects, but others such as Bolan were arguably the casualties of their own mythology: believing themselves to be superstars, they followed the inevitable path towards a kind of bloated self-importance that made it difficult for them to ride the perilous waves of pop…
Several of the leading glam performers already had considerable experience as second- or third-rank artists in the music business before their moment of fame arrived. During the 1960s, David Bowie had released several albums and novelty singles awkwardly positioned between pop and stage musicals: one of his earliest and most abiding influences was the mainstream theatrical singer Anthony Newley. Gary Glitter had performed first as Paul Raven, singing rock-and-roll standards and pop ballads, before his career had stalled. Slade had been a working-class skinhead band, while Roy Wood had been a driving force in various Birmingham groups including the Falcons, and most successfully in the mod band The Move. Perhaps the most striking reinvention, however, was in the case of Marc Bolan. During the 1960s, he performed and recorded as a Dylan-esque folk singer called Toby Tyler, before joining the anarchic mod band John’s Children. He subsequently formed an acoustic psychedelic folk duo called Tyrannosaurus Rex, which released several albums imbued with cosmic mythology out of Lord of the Rings, and was famously championed by the influential progressive rock DJ John Peel. During 1970 and 1971, Bolan again transformed his appearance and his music, with the addition of electric guitars, to form what became T. Rex. Significantly, Bowie, Glitter and Bolan had all changed their names on at least one occasion through these periods of reinvention: anticipating the theatricality of glam rock, it was as though their identities were not fixed or given, but could be constructed and performed in many different ways.
On one level, it might be possible to explain the success of glam as simply a manifestation of escapism. The early 1970s in the UK were years of industrial strife and economic turmoil. There was a protracted miners’ strike in 1972, followed by a global oil crisis in 1973, precipitated by the Yom Kippur War in Israel and the embargo on Israel’s supporters imposed by OPEC (the oil producing countries). By 1974, amid regular power cuts, the UK government had been forced to impose a three-day working week: the Conservative government collapsed, but it took two elections before a stable Labour administration could be established. By 1975, unemployment had reached one million and inflation hit a post-war peak of almost 27%. Over the course of a few years, it seemed that the optimistic expansion of the 1960s had gone into reverse, and that the country was on the verge of collapse.
The contrast between these economic realities and the flamboyance of glam was striking and incongruous. Yet while Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album does depict a kind of environmental apocalypse (‘we’ve got Five Years, that’s all we’ve got’), very few glam performers made any significant reference at all to contemporary social or political issues. On the contrary, a great many glam songs celebrated the mythology of rock music, and stardom itself: they were self-referential, but also nostalgic and implicitly reactionary. Several glam performers – especially Bowie and Roxy Music – looked even further back, not only to early Hollywood and the traditions of circus performance, but also to the decadence of the Weimar era, just before the advent of Nazism. (Bowie in particular had a long-standing fascination with fascism, which went well beyond occasional ‘outrageous’ comments to music journalists.) While glam might have challenged traditional notions of sexuality (an argument I will consider below), one can also justifiably accuse it of being politically escapist, or at least distinctly conservative.
Indeed, it’s possible to see glam as a reaction against the counter-cultural politics that dominated much of the music business in the late 1960s – a scene in which several of glam’s key protagonists had been quite active themselves. This was a reaction that was happening in any case, as the idealism of the ‘summer of love’ began to turn sour. Among the political establishment, there was a kind of moral backlash against the counter-culture, which gathered force during the early 1970s. The hippie underground in Britain started to fragment, not least with the (justified) challenge of feminism. The underground press (which I have written about in another essay in this series) fell into decline, and potentially radical political movements were either suppressed or collapsed of their own accord. Broadly speaking, the emphasis shifted from more overt and confrontational forms of political activism, often based on social class, to a more personal politics, based on gender and sexuality. In these respects, as Philip Auslander suggests, glam rock is part of the story of how ‘the Sixties’ became ‘the Seventies’.
In terms of music, the counter-culture had placed a central emphasis on authenticity. It was about speaking the truth, about honesty and the absence of artifice – and to some extent, about a suspicion of visual performance. In its heyday, psychedelic rock had its own visual appeal – the swirling light shows, the multi-coloured patchwork fashions, the cosmic imagery of posters and magazines – but by the early 1970s, leading musicians had come to focus more on instrumental virtuosity. ‘Progressive’ rock was all about extended guitar solos, large-scale concept albums and ornate compositions influenced more by classical music and jazz than by traditional rock-and-roll. Many performers eschewed visual spectacle or special costumes; they did not dance, but stood still, concentrating on their instruments; and despite their displays of virtuosity, they did not seek to set themselves above or apart from their audiences. Show business and commercial entertainment – not least as represented by Top of the Pops – were seen as incompatible with true artistic integrity, and hence as politically suspect.
Glam reacted against all this. Indeed, in many ways, it seemed to invert the basic values of rock – or what has since been called ‘rockism’. It embraced, and drew attention to, artificiality and fabrication. It was about posing and pretending, not about self-expression. Image – outward appearance, the visual aesthetic – was everything. Performance was not about expressing some inner personal truth, but rather about assuming another persona, even that of a fictional character. Glam stars were not asserting any democratic solidarity with their fans, but showing them how different they were – despite the ways in which fans increasingly came to dress up and mimic the appearance of their idols. Glam did not reject or resist commercialism: it positively celebrated it.
Theatricality was absolutely central to glam; and in this respect, it drew not only from Elvis and Little Richard, but also from a much older English history of vaudeville and music hall, and well as international traditions of circus and cabaret. Glam stage shows regularly went well beyond the psychedelic freak-outs of hippie rock. Gary Glitter, for example, would appear in Busby Berkeley-style extravaganzas with teams of silver-clad dancers, motorbikes and fireworks. Alice Cooper came on as a kind of anarchic circus performer, with elaborately choreographed mock-beheadings, slapstick violence and scenes straight out of horror movies. Rather than a matter of spontaneous or honest self-expression, this was all about the professional construction of illusions: it depended upon elaborate lighting, props and costumes, and ornate mise-en-scene.
These qualities were also apparent in individual styles of performance. Bowie, for example, had famously studied with the mime artist Lindsay Kemp. He seemed to be acting the role of a rock star – for much of the time, of course, under the name of a fictional character (the alien Ziggy Stardust or his successor Aladdin Sane, both of whom were as different from their audience as they could possibly be). As Philip Auslander argues, Bowie wanted to perform rock music as theatre, in the manner of a music-hall actor, not as an authentic artist expressing his inner soul. But the same might also be said of Gary Glitter, or even David Essex (whose stage persona was blurred with the character he played in the films That’ll Be The Day and the follow-up Stardust in 1973-4). While not as radically theatrical as Bowie, Roxy Music’s Brian Ferry operated almost like a fashion mannequin, shifting styles (both of appearance and music) with each new season, sometimes with satirical or parodic effect. Even Marc Bolan, while by no means as arch or knowing as Bowie or Ferry, seemed to be self-consciously performing the role of the rock star, pouting and strutting and preening himself, not only for the benefit of his girl fans but also as a kind of expression of his own narcissism.
However, this is not to say that glam was merely disposable pop. While bands like The Sweet and Slade might well be described as ‘bubblegum’ – the former were produced by Chinn and Chapman, the leading commercial pop producers of the time – ‘high glam’ performers like David Bowie and Roxy Music were keen to be seen as serious artists. Roxy Music had emerged from university art schools rather than the rock-and-roll touring circuit, and their work was peppered with arcane references to literary, musical, performance and visual art styles dating back decades. Even Marc Bolan had published a book of poetry, and claimed (albeit with little evidence) to have completed several serious fantasy novels. For Bowie, this sense of his own artistic superiority led him to disassociate himself from the movement quite quickly: as he explained twenty years later, ‘we were very miffed that people who’d obviously never seen Metropolis and had never heard of Christopher Isherwood were actually becoming glam rockers’.
Two potential labels might be used to sum this up. I’ll be considering the term ‘camp’ in due course – although it should be emphasized now that camp is not solely, or even primarily, to do with sexuality. The other obvious term, however, is ‘postmodern’. It’s tempting to argue that glam was postmodern decades before the term itself entered into common usage. Much of the critical commentary on postmodernism focuses on high culture, or at least on its fringes (the term originates in architectural criticism). It seems comfortable with popular culture that is somehow already knowing and self-consciously ironic (Madonna being the obvious example). It’s hard to imagine pompous academic critics of postmodernism like Jean Baudrillard or Fredric Jameson enjoying the oeuvre of The Sweet or Gary Glitter (although it’s a nice thought). And yet glam consistently displayed qualities that have become synonymous with postmodernism: pastiche, parody, artifice, kitsch, playfulness, and so on. Glam raided and recycled existing imagery, abstracting it from its original context; it was flippant rather than sincere, deceitful rather than honest; it mixed elements from high art and vulgar popular culture, across time and space; it blurred image and reality, drawing attention to its own fakeness and theatricality; it wasn’t interested in hidden depths and profound meanings, but in superficial appearances and illusions. It would seem to be a textbook case.
Nevertheless, the key question here is to do with the knowingness or self-consciousness of this move. One could argue that being postmodern implies a level of irony. In creating something – a performance, an artefact – postmodern artists also distance themselves from it, or encourage their audiences to do so. They play a role, but they signal that they realize it is just a role. The debate, however, is about the degree of intentionality on the part of the producer – or to put this another way, to do with who is doing the ‘knowing’. Audiences can obviously be ironic, self-conscious consumers of things that they deem to be trash, without their ‘trashiness’ being something that is acknowledged by their creators. Much of the imagery and performance style of glam appeared to be deliberately excessive, mannered, stylized, and even grotesque: it was ‘over the top’, absurd and trashy; it appeared to be a ludicrous parody of pop, or of stardom, or of the act of performance. Yet whether or not this was intentional or deliberate is another matter. In some cases, one suspects, glam was more sincere, or even more innocent and pure, than in others; while in some instances, it seemed to be taking itself seriously and sending itself up at the very same time. These are questions that I’ll return to later, in considering the notion of camp.