Stardust Memories

Glam rock, the trend that put the roll back in rock 'n' roll after the psychedelic burnout and beardy

earnestness of the twilight of the 1960s. Glam, the gender-bent dress-up cabaret that helped smuggle queer liberation into mainstream pop culture. Glam, precursor of punk, but perhaps also early warning of today's hall-of-mirrors celebrity culture . . .

. . . Or, as many Americans might say, Glam rock, what is that? You mean, like, hair metal?

The easiest reply would be: No, more like early David Bowie. But who else was ever like David Bowie? In Shock and Awe, Simon Reynolds has more than 650 pages' worth of answers. Bowie is the book's strongest through line, enough so that it doubles as a fine stealth biography. But Shock and Awe is also a vital corrective. It presents Bowie not as the unique alien visitation that many of his eulogies described after his unexpected death in early 2016, but merely the most electric and enduring member of a whole cohort
of similarly minded artists—T. Rex, Roxy Music, Mott the Hoople, the Sweet, Alice Cooper, Gary Glitter, Sparks, Queen, Slade, the New York Dolls, and utterly faded names such as Wizzard, Mud, and Cockney Rebel—that arose, mainly in Britain, circa 1971–75.

It was then and there that Reynolds first witnessed glam (also known as glitter), as a prepubescent, with his eyeballs trained on Top of the Pops. He's long been transplanted to the US, but his books still convey a sense of transatlantic dislocation. Shock and Awe joins and on some levels surpasses his other two massive genre studies, of 1990s techno/rave culture (Energy Flash, 1998) and 1980s post-punk (Rip It Up and Start Again, 2005). (He seems to be working his way gradually back in time.) All these movements were originally much bigger in the UK than in America, and Reynolds's viewpoint leans to the Brit-centric, a nice corrective to the standard American pop-history time line. It also brings its own blind spots: The closely packed UK music scene can take for granted a more collective narrative, with less diversity and sprawl to account for than in North America. Perhaps as a result, Reynolds's analyses can tend to the overly programmatic, as when remix and fan-fiction culture got him fretting about the supposed death of originality and "now-ness" in 2011's Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past. Shock and Awe carries a few similar alarmist notes, but happily they don't get as much in the way of the fun.

Fun was at the heart of glam (from glamour, of course), in the form of fashion, makeup, dancing, sex, role-play, and intoxication. Singles rather than albums (mostly); costumes rather than street clothes; the artificial instead of the so-called organic and authentic: Everything that late-'60s rock valorized, glam spurned, including collectivist counterculture ideals. It tended toward song structures that called back to 1950s and pre-psychedelic mid-1960s rock, but with an arch twist and the amped-up studio production techniques of the 1970s. It was fascinated with fame and stardom—glamour, in the pagan-magic sense of delusion and manipulation—which, in combination with its pursuit of "decadence," created some unhealthy tendencies: As Reynolds documents, glam might have dreamed of Weimar Expressionist cabaret, but there was a whiff of incipient fascism, too.

Bowie's story is woven through Reynolds's account, but even more compelling are the figures whose tales have been far less often told. First among them is Bowie's friend and rival Marc Bolan of T. Rex, who reached stardom first, after a similarly long slog through the 1960s. In 1971, he ignited a screaming zeal among teenybopper girls that hardly had been seen since Beatlemania—the "T. Rexstasy," as Reynolds calls it—centered not just on the band's fast cascade of hits but on Bolan's androgynous "faerie" looks, with his high heels and mounds of curls. He preceded Bowie in hinting at same-sex eroticism, though Bowie eclipsed him by loudly and explicitly declaring to the music press, "I'm gay" (which he would soon dial back to "bisexual," and in the 1980s retract almost completely). The T. Rex boogie engine sputtered within a couple of years, but it had done its work of rebooting the British music scene. Meanwhile America remained pretty much oblivious, with only "Get It On" (retitled "Bang a Gong," it is now a classic-rock staple) making an impact despite T. Rex's multiple middling American tours.

Marc Bolan in the final episode of the TV series Marc, September 28, 1977. Granada Television
Marc Bolan in the final episode of the TV series Marc, September 28, 1977. Granada Television

This would become the glam pattern. Acts might be massive in the UK, but in the US they would be one-hit wonders or no-hope nothings (Alice Cooper, who was American, excepted). Even Bowie and Roxy Music didn't really break through Stateside until later in the decade. Glam was an attempted and failed Second British Invasion, though it did rehearse much of the look and sound of the successful breach that would come with punk and New Wave. There wasn't the same void to fill in America—the counterculture was still diffusing across the country, and the need for flamboyance could be filled by soul, funk, and (soon) disco. Most glam bands were likely too eccentric and camp for American tastes. The two cities that did have their own glam scenes were New York (with the New York Dolls), where it fast began evolving into proto-punk, and Los Angeles. The anglophile glam-fans at Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco on Sunset Boulevard didn't produce much music of their own, but they did offer touring Brits distressingly abundant supplies of cocaine and appallingly underage groupies.

As Reynolds emphasizes, while we tend to idealize the fluidity of glam sexuality today, much of it was as retrograde as in the rest of '70s rock. Glam, he argues, celebrated men who were "feminised . . . but not feminist," and for many the look was just another way to get laid. But I think Reynolds protests too much that glam's pansexuality was mostly image and PR. He plays down Bowie's relationship with his mime mentor Lindsay Kemp in the 1960s, for instance, as well as his post-glam involvement with trans performer Romy Haag in Berlin—believed by many to be the real subject of "Heroes." For all his love of much glam music, Reynolds's sensibility, forged so much by post-punk's political demystification of pop, chafes at the genre's built-in game-playing with truth. This makes him too cynical about how radical its vision was in a time of cultural retreat, and about the possibilities it opened up for many listeners who needed them. He's similarly down on the audience-participation element of glam's later cinematic translation The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which he is inclined to see as "the terminus of glam logic … parodying what was already a parody," rather than an outcast community bonding around its own rituals.

There's a tension in most of Reynolds's books between his perspective as a critic and theorist and his completist collector's urge to chronicle every obscure artist and microtrend. Readers' preferences will vary. But in Shock and Awe, because most glam history is so little known, it's the fine-bore stuff that delights. One of my favorite sections is about Slade, now remembered mostly for Quiet Riot's 1980s cover of "Cum on Feel the Noize," but in the early 1970s a hit-making, cult-leading juggernaut. They happened to hail from the coal-producing Black Country of the West Midlands, a region so insular that some residents still spoke a local variant of Middle English—to which the band was being loyal in its use of off-spellings for its song titles. Yet they were also closet self-taught intellectuals whose careers went south after they made a dark, social-realist film about the music industry, when they probably should have done an upbeat romp like A Hard Day's Night.

Reynolds is excellent throughout on the implications of most glam performers—and glam audiences—having backgrounds in the working or lower-middle classes. They were autodidactic strivers and graduates of art schools who aspired to mix populism and sophistication but frequently had chaotic ways of going about it. Therefore they were often strongly influenced by managers and producers, and Reynolds makes some of those figures equally prominent in his account.

When it comes to an overall theory of glam, however, Shock and Awe is a bit disappointing. Reynolds makes neat historical connections, back through the mods to early dandyism to Oscar Wilde ("the first philosopher of glam"). But the range of glam's aftereffects, from punk and New Wave to 1980s New Pop and from there to the whole field of self-conscious pop culture, is too vast for him to sum up. His stab at it is a closing eighty-page section called "Aftershocks," which presents a chronological series of capsules on glam-resonant pop events from 1975 to 2016. Many are fine bits of criticism (on Siouxsie Sioux and the birth of goth, and the Smiths' mix of glam and anti-glam, and the "digi-glam" of Lady Gaga and Ke$ha). But the trudge through the years becomes wearing. It doesn't build to any cumulative insight, except an anxiety that pop-about-pop and self-reflexive fame anthems may become a fatal cul-de-sac—the sort of declinist concerns that made Retromania so doom-and-gloomy.

However, the sequence does conclude with the day that Bowie's death was announced, and Reynolds's eulogy for his lead character serves to round out his story with grace. He reflects on the double-sidedness of Bowie, a star whose elaborate constructions expressed such a desperation to be seen, but also a seeker's hunger to take in all that the world had to offer, against the hard fact of life's speeding brevity. Reynolds finds in Bowie, and through him in glam generally, a touching desire to make more of ordinary moments, to burnish their surface and bathe them in light, so that the luster might reach across the distance even after its sources are gone. With Shock and Awe, Reynolds has caught that glimmer in his own stylish mirror, and helped ensure it will shine on.

Carl Wilson is the music critic for Slate and the author of Let's Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste (Bloomsbury, 2014). He lives in Toronto.