Music Features

Wham, Bam, Thank You Glam!

The Next Day is David Bowie’s 26th studio album, a high point in a rich career that dates back to the mid ‘60s. Since then, he’s adopted myriad personas and taken his fans through some thrilling musical journeys. Few have been as exciting as his glam-star period. It is conceivable that he would still find a place in the pop pantheon without tarting himself up as Ziggy Stardust, but glam would have been a less significant scene without his moon-age aesthetic. Of course, Bowie wasn’t alone in creating this pop-culture explosion. It all started when Marc Bolan stood up and plugged in his guitar, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In 1970, the music business was centered in California, and albums outsold singles. Psychedelia had faded and there was a new rush for singer-songwriter gold among the big record companies. Artists like The Beatles wanted to get back to simpler times, yet first-generation rockers like Little Richard and Bo Diddley were relegated to revival shows. Dylan went country for a while, British groups were meddling with concept albums and rock operas, and the first strains of prog-rock were spreading like a plague. Woodstock marked hippiedom’s peak, with its images of naked kids playing in mud. Soon after, reality would hit hard with Altamont and the Manson Family murders.

Don’t get me wrong; there was some worthy music being produced back then. But any teenager rummaging through his sibling’s record collection found dire disappointment. Something vital was missing in those ten-minute guitar jams: fun. Time was ripe for a generational change.

Enter Marc Bolan and T. Rex. Bolan had just replaced Steve Peregrine Took, his percussionist partner, with Mickey Finn, an amiable fellow more receptive to his new musical agenda. On the outside, Bolan looked like any other flower child, but the inside was a cauldron of hot ambition. Being in a successful cult group was no success at all. Recently married, there was no joy in living in a cold-water flat. The time of playing for sandals-and-granola audiences was over.

It was 1970: time to go all electric. Bolan added bass and drums to the group, concocting Ride A White Swan with the help of producer Tony Visconti, a delightful mixture of Tolkien and Eddie Cochran that went straight to number 2 in the charts. Its follow up, Hot Love, did even better. This was a rebooted blues for the space age, its chugging guitar and high-pitched chorus completing the T. Rex signature sound.

Bolan looked fine on television, with his long corkscrew hair and dabs of glitter under his eyes. A mod at heart, he was following a tradition of sartorial splendor learned from rock pioneers. To this tradition he added satin suits, top hats, boas, slingbacks, and whatever remained in his wife’s closet. There was something sensual about his tremulous baritone voice. The youth of the day understood, and soon he had hordes of pubescent girls after him. T.Rextasy had begun.

Bolan’s old friend would soon overtake him. David Bowie had met Bolan five years before, during the task of whitewashing the office of manager Les Conn, striking a friendship as they talked about clothes. As the ‘70s began, Bowie’s career had stalled. He was being perceived as a one-hit wonder, but his songcraft had become richer, drawing inspiration from unlikely sources such as Anthony Newly and The Velvet Underground. He also had the good fortune to meet Mick Ronson, a classically trained musician who could play guitar like Jeff Beck and dash a string arrangement at the bat of an eyelash. When Bowie cut his hair and adopted the Ziggy persona, he had all the musical muscle behind him to transform the musical landscape. 

Bowie had his first glam hit with Star Man, but by then he was competing with other ‘60s also-rans such as Gary Glitter (formerly known as Paul Raven) and Slade. Glitter’s records had a thundering two-drums sound. Slade just had a drum kit but counted on Noddy Holder’s Sensurround voice and the biggest stack of amps around to make noise. This was joyous foot-stomping music that sold records, and in the history of pop music all success is followed by formula. Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman came to the front as the producing-songwriting team behind acts such as The Sweet, Suzi Quatro, and Mud. The best of the bunch were The Sweet, hard rockers who resented their producers’ tight grip on the music. Out of this tension, some great songs were produced like Ballroom Blitz and Blockbuster.

Unlike their British counterparts, the New York Dolls were new to the scene. Guitarist Syl Sylvain had been in the clothing business, and the group had a style of their own, though the gender-bending makeup was only used for the cover of their first album. Their music was something else too. It was raw, fast, and in-your-face, setting the stage for punk. They caused a sensation in England when they played some engagements there in 1973. Roxy Music was another thoroughly original group that kept the glam fires stoked. With a mix of retro and futuristic styles, singles like Virginia Plain and Pyjamarama were pop-art collages set to music.

Glam was the spirit of the times, and camp was in. Mick Jagger started wearing spangly outfits and eyeliner, Elton John became pop’s Liberace, and Rod Stewart forced us to look away with his spandex trousers. It was cool to be gay or, at least, to hind that you might be.

Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane cemented Bowie’s hegemony, helping him make inroads in America, where Bolan had failed. He was a catalyst who helped other artists regain their careers. Mott The Hoople were an unlikely bunch to join in, but Bowie gave them All The Young Dudes, which became glam’s anthem and inspired Ian Hunter to explore new ground as a songwriter. Bowie produced Iggy and The Stooges’ Raw Power and rescued Lou Reed’s career with Transformer. His visionary mind even foresaw the right moment to move on.

By 1974, the Chinnichap groups were sounding stale. Bowie released Diamond Dogs, his glam swansong, a murky dystopian vision that left fans scratching their heads. Bolan had become bloated, his career fueled only by his destructive ego, pushing family and friends away. When the hits stopped coming, he was running on empty, lacking a Plan B. It looked like curtains for glam.

The cultural climate was changing. New York and London, hubs for glam activity, were going through rough times, and flaunting your threads was now in bad taste. Bandwagon groups like Queen and Kiss kept distance from the scene, their sights set on global domination. It had become less about fun, more about commerce. Hedonism moved its base to the disco dance floor.

Glam never quite went away, though. Nothing else explains the rise of hair metal groups in the ‘80s, the outrageous glory of Prince, or Suede’s success. Yet the real children of glam were the punks. Groups like the Dolls and Mott pointed the way, inspiring kids to form bands. There’s no doubt Joey Ramone and Mick Jones hid their old platform shoes in their closets.

Today, image rules. Every now and then there’s a new dandy of the underworld, and multisexual pop divas come a dime a dozen. All this vanity is fair, but the true legacy of glam goes beyond glitter and camp: it’s the realization that at any point in your life you can reinvent yourself and start a new chapter. "Carry the news…"