tracing the cultural legacy of glam, from david bowie to lady gaga

We speak to acclaimed music critic Simon Reynolds about his new pop cultural history, 'Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy.'

by Matthew Whitehouse
10 October 2016, 2:10pm

The Tubes, fronted by Quay Lewd, in concert in New York City, 1975 (Getty)

In his latest tome, acclaimed music critic Simon Reynolds offers an in-depth look at the glam phenomenon: a visually flamboyant pop style that ripped through Britain during the early 70s. Following previous explorations — including Rip It Up and Start Again, a definitive history of post punk, and Retromania, a study of pop culture's addiction to its own past — Shock and Awe is a celebration of the personas, sounds, and fashions of the period: David Bowie, Alice Cooper, T. Rex, Roxy Music, and a whole host of glitter-dabbed characters who make up a supporting, but no less fascinating cast. In tracking pop culture's cycle of realism versus unrealism — through theatre, through dandyism, through a desire for glory — Reynolds uncovers a legacy that reverberates to this day; no more so than in the decadence, fandom, and image-making of artists such as Lady Gaga, Drake and Kanye West. "This glam-derived idea of what pop is and should be — alien sensationalistic, hysterical in both senses, a place where the sublime and the ridiculous merge and become indistinguishable — never left me," he says in the book's introduction. "Shock and Awe is about sensation and mania as social facts, about mass hypnosis and mass hysteria as a real phenomena in which thousands get swept up."

The Rocky Horror Picture Show's star Tim Curry and creator Richard O'Brien (Getty)

Why did you want to write the book?
I'd been a fan of glam for a while and I remembered it as a child, but I kind of got into it, kind of got interested in it through Retromania. I had this chapter on the 70s rock 'n' roll revival, the nostalgia for the 50s, which was a really big thing in the early 70s, and I only wrote two or three pages on glam, but that just sort of sparked the intrigue about that period. The early 70s was a very nostalgic, revivalist era generally and I started thinking, 'oh, actually, maybe it was the first era of retromania, you know?' So that sort of got me thinking about glam as an era.

What is it about the era that's so interesting?
There's the showbizification of rock and the theatrics and the spectacle. There's the gender-bending, there's the concept of decadence. I got very interested in that. That some people aspired to be decadent. There were so many angles. And I wanted to move beyond the obvious figures, you know? So, I wanted to have a whole chapter that deals with some of these more really interesting bands that are a bit forgotten or people remember one song by them like Cockney Rebel. You know, there's this one song that everyone remembers, "Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)." But they did these really strange records before that. Same with Sparks or The Sensational Alex Harvey Band.

It's quite divisive as a subject, isn't it? Bowie/Roxy aside, it's fair to say a lot of the bands aren't held in particularly high regard.
Well, I think a lot of people are fond of bands like The Sweet, for instance. I think a lot of people like "Ballroom Blitz" and some of their other songs. They certainly appear a lot on movie soundtracks. But I don't think people necessarily know much about their story. So I kind of wanted to treat some of these people with respect. One of the bits I really enjoyed writing was about a Slade, who weren't a band I was that big a fan of but when I researched them I was like, 'wow, they're really huge and why is it that they've sort of been evacuated from history?' They sold way more than Bowie did. Way, way more than Roxy did, and they actually were respected at the time. So there was a bit of a, 'yeah, let's rescue some of these groups from the condescension of history.' I think quite lot of these bands have their cult followings. Sparks have their cult following, but they definitely deserve to be elevated a bit. Because there's a lot going on in Sparks records. A lot of clever musical ideas, lyrical ideas. They were quite a cool phenomenon. Their brief period as pop stars was quite an interesting thing.

Related: Discovering Sparks, the mysterious band who count Morrissey and Sonic Youth as fans

A couple of bright Sparks Russell and Ron Mael, 1975 (Getty)

Was there something about now that made it a good time to write the book?
Well, that's where the element of critique comes in. Because as much as I like glam records, the idea that the purpose in life is to become famous and that's what pop is about, I find suspect. And I think it's really interesting that a lot of glam was songs about being famous or being a star, in the same way that a lot of current music, over the last five or ten years, from Lady Gaga to Kanye or Drake, is about being famous. You become famous by writing about what it's like to be famous or your rise to being famous or the downside of fame, particularly, is something that a lot of artists write about. And I find that both fascinating but also disturbing and repulsive at the same time. Lady Gaga, I'm not a huge fan of her music, but as a thinker… Some of her quotes about fame that I use in the book are really interesting. She's talking about thinking you're famous and acting like you're famous. She said, 'I want people to be deluded and I want people to be psychotic.' And that's a very honest, unsparing anatomy of what fame culture is. You see that all the time on The Voice and these shows where people want to be famous, even though there's so much literature about how it won't make you happy, it'll fuck you up. People almost aspire to that. So I'm fascinated by it. It's not like it's a new thing either. It goes back to the Romans. People wanted glory, people wanted to be public figures. It's a sort of drive that occurs in all these different cultures.

Was it quite hard to define a beginning and an end to the period in the sense that you kept connecting it back?
Well, I think as a pop music phenomenon, it's fuzzy round the edges in terms of when it ends and when it starts and who's in and who belongs in it, but there's a thing there that you can talk about. It's a good sort of three years, really, of peak activity and then it sort of dwindles away. And some of those people come back as punk or their descendants are very visible in punk. The New York Dolls, some of them become The Heartbreakers. The Ramones before they were punk were a glitter band. And it's a fairly defined thing in rock history. But it draws on things or activates traditions that go way back. Oscar Wilde was clearly an antecedent in many ways. There's dandyism. And I think you can even root it further back to the Cavaliers in the civil war era, where they're very much about flamboyance and the male peacock display thing and their enemies, culturally, were the Roundheads, the puritans, who were very austere and would have rugged sorts of beards, very puritanical. And that sort of cultural divide crops up even today. Jeremy Corbyn is kind of like a puritan. He's very badly dressed, he's frugal, he's thrifty. And then you have your slick politicians who are very good with image and theatrics and public presentation and stuff. So these archetypes, they do run through the centuries. And glam is this phase in rock music that comes immediately after this period when everyone has beards and wearing denim and, you know, got long greasy hair. It's about getting back to nature. And glam goes to the other extreme. It's plastic and artificial. So I felt like there is sort of cycles you can see throughout history.

New York Dolls perform on Dutch TV, 6 December 1973 (Getty)

Were you worried about demystifying the process for yourself as a fan? Did you uncover it all to be quite knowing or ironic?
I was surprised, actually, how much they knew what they were doing and how self-conscious they were. Bowie, I kind of always knew how thoughtful and self conscious and calculated, in a good way, he was. What I wasn't aware of was that Bolan had this huge collection of pop magazines and he would go back and read them and look at pictures to see what kind of guitar Eddie Cochran had. I didn't realize that Bolan was quite so referential in what he did. He has little nods to Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters in certain songs. Little lyrical clues. I think it's interesting. Like, already there's enough history. Pop music already has enough history that you can refer to and recite and play games with.

The definition of glam is quite loose in the book. Did you have a glam checklist? What was the connecting thread between the acts?
I kind of sort of went along with what people thought at the time. And it was a little bit fuzzy. One thing that surprised me was that, at the time, lot of people lumped Rod Stewart in. Because he would sometimes have scarf and do stuff with his mic stand. He was quite stylish. People talked about the guy from Emerson, Lake & Palmer because he did quite a lot of dramatic stuff on stage with his keyboards. And they also talked about Bette Midler being connected to glam. But then as time goes by these sort of fellow travelers with glam sort of drift out the picture. And really at the time, the things people lumped together were sort of Bowie and his protege heroes — that weird way in which he made those people who were heroes to him into his proteges and projects. So, Lou Reed, Iggy, Mott the Hoople, and very other less successful people. And then all the other sort of Slades and The Sweets and The Wizards and all those sort of groups were considered part of it, but like a kid's version — or a kind of lumpen version of it. Then there was Alice Cooper because he was so theatrical. Bolan because he was the first one to really blow up. Roxy. And then there were people who were sort of on the edge of it, like the Sensational Alex Harvey Band and Sparks and Cockney Rebel. So I felt like it was almost defined by the consensus of that time and what's continued. But I suppose there were a cluster of things. There was an attention to image. I suppose the things I would say that defines glam is, clearly it has an idea of glamour, but it's not just conventional razzle dazzle or the glamour of someone like Diana Ross or today, Kim Kardashian. It's almost like a travesty of glamour. This kind of ironic, twisted, overstated idea of glamour that defines glam.

RCA publicity shot of Lou Reed, New York, c. 1973 (Getty)

Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy is out now. 


Text Matthew Whitehouse

Glam Rock
Simon Reynolds
music interviews