GLAM!: Bowie, Bolan, and the Glitter Rock Revolution


Barney Hoskyns
Pocket Books ($15)

by Dominic Ali

The saddest thing about the 1990s is the way everything comes back into style. And now it's glam rock's turn. Is nothing sacred?

The current retro-glam hype shows no signs of fading: Velvet Goldmine, a film about Britain's glam scene won an award and critical praise at the last Cannes film festival; kitsch rockers Kiss are back on tour in full makeup, packing in fans faster than you can say "Rock and Roll All Nite"; and in a serious case of bandwagon-jumping, '90s shock rocker Marilyn Manson's latest CD, Mechanical Animals, pays homage to this style. According to the arbiters of hip, glam rock is back. But for a younger generation of rock fans, glam—or glitter rock as it was known in North America—remains a mystery. All that's known is that it was a strange 1970s musical phenomenon, where male rockers dressed better than their female groupies.

To solve the mystery, British writer Barney Hoskyns presents a respectful look at a musical genre that never got much respect. Hoskyns explains how glam's camp image and pansexual leanings brought rebellion back to rock and roll, just as it was about to drown in the progressive rock excess of groups like Yes and King Crimson, who revelled in Spinal Tap-inspired musical explorations.

Unlike similar pop music styles that have faded over the years, there's very little documentation about glam rock. Glam has been derided for years, especially by critics who believed its playful hedonism sacrificed substance for style. But the elitism overlooks the music's most enduring legacy: glam was musical theater with a good beat. "Glam rock was all about putting on a spectacle," writes Hoskyns. "The records, too, were constructed to be seen, whereas in the '60s they were constructed to be heard, preferably with a joint dangling from your lip."

"The genius of glam was that it was all about stardom. It said flaunt it if you've got it, and if you haven't got it fake it—make it up with makeup, cover your face with stardust, reinvent yourself as a Martian androgyne," writes Hoskyns. "Glam was prefab, anti-craft, allied to artifice and the trash aesthetic. Its plasticity and cartoonish bisexuality were all about giving pop back to 'the kids', yanking it from the hands of droopy introverts and pompous Marshall-stacked overlords." Who would've thought a bunch of cross-dressing cocaine freaks could give rock a makeover and save the world from 40-minute guitar solos?

Glitter rock emerged at a unique time: feminism was still brewing, the Stonewall Riots had given birth to gay politics, and the Woodstock generation had just cut its hair and started filling out job applications. Just as rock started taking itself too seriously, glam dressed it up in high heels, fishnet stockings, and satin jackets. And those were just the male performers.

Hoskyns does a thorough job explaining the history of glam from its beginnings in 1970, when an effeminate-looking David Bowie—outfitted in a sparkling costume—was laughed off stage. The gig was legendary, not just for the crowd reaction, but because of a young audience member named Marc Bolan. Bolan, and his band T. Rex, eventually made glam a household word by dressing outlandishly and writing catchy pop songs with crunchy guitar riffs.

From Bowie and Bolan, Hoskyns tracks glam's influence as it filtered through Gary Glitter, Slade, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Elton John, Roxy Music (featuring keyboardist turned producer Brian Eno), and the New York Dolls. Glam faded out of the pop consciousness by 1975, but its influence carried over into other musical sub-genres, like the acid-funk of George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic and the studied hard-rock theatricality of Alice Cooper and Kiss.

Although the costumes had toned down as it entered the '80s glam continued to swish around on-stage, with New Wave groups such as Japan, Culture Club, and Adam Ant, along with funksters like Patti Labelle and Prince. Hoskyns cheerfully points out there was more than a bit of androgyny in '80s big-hair metal bands like Poison and Quiet Riot. In the 1990s, glitter music still abounds in the music of British nouveau glamsters Suede and Marilyn Manson's latest incarnation.

Glam merged worlds that had traditionally remained apart. For the first time, gay culture, art, and theater were fused with rock music. Mixing high and low art always results in interesting products, and glam was no exception. Productions like the Rocky Horror Picture Show and the Who's Tommy might not have been possible without glam. But academic explanations and sociological ramifications aside, the best thing about glam was that it rocked.

If there's anything missing from Glam! it's lack of first-hand research with some of the movement's major players. But this is a minor quibble. Hoskyns writes with a fan's enthusiasm that's infectious.

It may be worth mentioning that Glam! will likely attract stares if you read it in public. The garish book jacket, with its title in shimmering silver lettering, features a lurid photo of David Bowie kneeling in front of heavily made up guitarist Mick Ronson. The not-so-subtle homoerotic pose is bound to shock and confuse. But then, that's what good rock and roll is all about.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 1999
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999