Writer Simon Reynolds examines the Shock and Awe of Glam Rock
History is cyclical. Rise, decline, fall; grow, reap, sow. Inevitably, though, it’s the reaping and what springs up immediately afterward that attracts the most attention and stamps itself most authoritatively in the annals. So it goes with music, too: talk about punk, post-punk, or rock ‘n’ roll in the traditional sense and people will most likely know not only what those things sound like, but also what they stood for.
When it comes to glam, though, things just aren’t so clear. As a respected music critic and the author of regularly- cited titles such as Retromania and the post-punk analysis Rip It Up and Start Again, Simon Reynolds was well placed to write Shock and Awe – a history of and contemporary parallel text for glam in the twenty-first century – and to explain exactly why glam seems to get such a bum deal in the grand scheme of things.
“I think people slightly dismiss it as just a phase of a couple of years and take the view that only Roxy and Bowie are really of interest – maybe T-Rex as a borderline thing,” he begins, responding to the idea that the perceived “problem” with glam isn’t necessarily the music or the indisputably campy theatricality of it all, but more that people don’t really see what the point of it was or why it existed in the first place. If the great cultural movements of the twentieth century have been reactionary – taking their cues from and rallying against wider social or cultural issues – glam, by comparison, seems on the face of it to cut a fairly solitary, navel-gazing kind of figure.
But nothing, of course, happens in a vacuum. “Decadence was sort of a buzzword – something people were talking about,” Reynolds explains, “a general move toward theatricality, which Bowie was a prime mover of, and Alice Cooper was coming up with independently. “They were making rock more and more about spectacle and showbiz. There was this epoch with an underlying set of ideas and one of them was that rock is or could be a branch of showbiz. That was such anathema to 60s consciousness.” Glam by that thinking was as reactionary as its punk successor – an incursion of new ideas into rigidly ideological artistic territory with clear, set-in-stone ideas of what ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ music looked and sounded like.
“That’s actually what interests me, that rock becomes its own point – Ziggy Stardust being an album about an imaginary rock star, for example. It’s a strange thing. David Essex, too – he had songs like Gonna Make You a Star and was in two films about rock‘n’roll. The second one, Stardust, was all about being a star and a star’s downfall.
“For rock culture in the 60s, the idea of showbiz was everything that was phony and conservative,” Reynolds argues. “But then, in one of those strange switches, everyone sort of decides that they want to be showbiz or that rock has become a part of showbiz – The Kinks did those albums that were all themed on that idea. Yes, Bowie was a prime mover, but I don’t think he was even the first person to move rock in that way. And this is why it seemed so timely to write Shock and Awe – the 21st century in pop music has got very showbiz. Just look at the MTV award ceremonies – they hardly show the videos and instead they have these Las Vegas or Bob Fosse-style routines with 40 dancers on stage and, laborate staging and incredible lights. It’s all very, very razzle dazzle.”
And this is where things get particularly interesting: as much as glam seems to have its roots firmly planted in a very certain time (and to a lesser extent place), in a vision of David Bowie descending godlike with, and as, Ziggy Stardust, these are fundamental ideas that still echo so loudly as to become overtones of our contemporary musical landscape in 2016. “One of the big things in pop music right now,” Reynolds agrees, “is artists talking about fame. Kanye West is obsessed with it; it’s practically Gaga’s only subject… She’s about to appear in a new version of A Star Is Born – a movie that’s been made and remade; this must be about the fourth of fifth remake of it – how self-reflexive is that?” It’s an interesting take – one which labels glam as a kind of proto-post-modernist movement concerned with the same obsessive study of fame and artifice which contemporary art now practices en masse.
“That’s one of the things that really struck me,” says Reynolds. “In the early 70s I think post-modernism was only a term that a few people in architectural theory and a few other places were bandying around. Long before these ideas had any kind of currency among the intelligentsia, before they reached pop music in the early 80s, glam had sort of invented post-modernism itself. Particularly people like Bowie and Roxy, but it’s there in a lot of the stuff that’s going on in a sort of instinctive way – quotations from earlier music, the pastiches, the replication and the sort of knowing, loving, yet also mocking citations of 50s rock‘n’roll. It’s totally post-modern, but that’s not a word they used – hardly anyone did.”
"Long before the idea had any kind of currency among the intelligentsia, glam had sort of invented post-modernism"
But PoMo isn’t the only thing that glam, Nostradamus-like in its prophecies, managed to predict: the widespread adoption of a gender spectrum over traditional binary terms in recent years is not without foreshadowing – although, equally, not without controversy. “One of the first things that needs to be said about the first-wave glam – the original seventies glam,” Reynolds takes care to define, “is that it was mostly a bunch of straight guys pretending to be gay or bi. Eno was a real ladies man.
“At the same time, there’s something that British glam taps into that goes back through English culture – to Oscar Wilde and before that to Beau Brummell; something that’s very English and at the same time a rebellion against that stolid English decency thing.”
It may seem a fine line to walk, Bowie trying to “up the ante,” as Reynolds puts it, on Mick Jagger’s ultra-campy performances, a kind of performative version of sexuality with its roots more in the world of theatre than anything more tangible. But, as with so much of glam, so steeped in the ideology of spectacle, the reality is almost irrelevant compared to the effect of its influence. “For the young men who were awakening to their own gay sexuality in the early 70s, it was enormously liberating to have these figures so prominent in the pop culture who were really acting gay and in some cases talking about being gay (even if they weren’t actually walking it like they talked it that much). Suddenly the most exciting pop stars of the day are saying not just that it’s okay to be gay, but it’s cool to be gay.”
Talking to Reynolds, there’s one term that we keep coming back to: one way or another, glam is and was all about “decadence”. But it’s an idea so fluid in meaning that it swings between being something to be celebrated and something to be derided, probably depending on who’s in government at the time.
“You’re either deploring it and decrying it and you think it’s a real thing that’s actually happening to society,” Reynolds agrees, our Skype call momentarily bubbling as it connects us between London and his adopted home of California, “– that it’s losing its values and heading into the abyss – or you think it’s sort of fun and naughty, or sophisticated and interesting in an Oscar Wilde way.”
It does seem that decadence as a concept, from the debauchery of the last days of Rome to the sheer opulence of the Titanic, is always doomed to some extent. “People talk about sad rap and it’s like, ‘I’ve got everything in the world and it means nothing – all these trophies are just nothing.’ Kanye West’s last album is kind of an exploration of that – there’s a song called No More Parties in LA which is like, ‘This is paradise and it’s boring or kind of hell.’ Kendrick Lamar is another one, particularly with Swimming Pools (Drank), where you actually have the voice of the conscience saying, ‘What are you doing here, Kendrick?’ It’s very much a concept that seems relevant now.”
It’s hard not to agree and it does beg the question of what our culture’s surely inevitable reckoning will be. If the mid 70s chose punk as their destruction – silently, tacitly, in the same way that Dan Aykroyd nearly condemned 80s New York to a marshmallowy death – what is to be our counterpoint to the escapism of the decadence and superlatives of twenty-first century life? Punk may have saved us from ourselves, but it’s much harder to come back from the possibility of President Donald Trump than from the escapism of poorly-advised wardrobe choices.
“I suppose the hope would be that it would be such an unmitigated disaster,” Reynolds begins tentatively, “that everyone would just see sense and would kick [Trump] out after one term and things would go back to normal. But there’s also the fear that this is the way things are going to go. Bowie warned about this – he talked about how a strongman leader would emerge ‘out of the entertainment field.’ I think, in his mind, he meant rock ‘n’ roll – a sort of führer coming out of rock ‘n’ roll, but, you know, nowadays rock isn’t what it was, so it would make sense for it to come out of reality TV.”
Perhaps, then, the unceremonious brush-off that glam seems to get compared to other genres is because no one really wants to admit that decadence is a temporary side-effect of puritanical austerity, rather than some kind of senseless depravity. Not self-reflexive after all, but a peak inevitably followed (and preceded by) a trough we just don’t want to believe is coming.
“Bowie said that he and Lou Reed were more like symptoms of the collapse of everything,” Reynolds points out. “And what’s funny is how he said it: in such an articulate way, such a neat and tidy way. It didn’t sound like someone who was a degenerate at all, but like a very composed, smart, Englishman in complete command of himself.”
Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy is released 6 October via Faber & Faber