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Inside the cosmic struggle of glam rock

Simon Reynolds’s reassessment of glam, Shock and Awe, takes us back to an era that feels eerily familiar.

“Everybody’s getting so heavily into nostalgia,” wrote the NME journalist Charles Shaar Murray of the then newly minted pop postmodernists Roxy Music and their elaborately dressed fans, “that if the Seventies don’t get into gear, there ain’t gonna be anything for people to get nostalgic about in the Eighties and Nineties.” Thankfully, the Boswell of Bowie was wrong. The uptight Thatcher years might have treated the Seventies as a no-go area, a frivolous dressing-up box, but surely now we can accept that the bacofoiled planet of Bowie, Marc Bolan, Roxy and Suzi Quatro – alongside its equally flamboyant binary sister, disco – forms pop culture’s true centre of gravity.

In archetypes that recur as Grace Jones or Lady Gaga, in spangled pop mutants such as Ke$ha or Adam Lambert, in asexual electroclash and queer pop and the styling-as-totalitarian-power videos of Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj, pop keeps returning to glam rock’s foamy, artificial brew, getting high on the glitter and the decadence, the make-up, the wardrobe, the wigs. The death of David Bowie in January 2016 brought it all into sharper focus, and perhaps also marked the passing of the mantle of Ultimate Creative Fountainhead from the Beatles to “the Dame”. We live in David’s world now and, in truth, we’ve lived there for some time.

An old hand at Melody Maker, proud in its day to be the world’s most pretentious music magazine, the pop scholar Simon Reynolds has already written intellectually rigorous explorations of rave, post-punk and hip-hop. This book, however, is the one that you sense he was always itching to write. In Shock and Awe, Reynolds casts a devastating Ziggy lightning bolt at tedious musical conservatism and, specifically, the argument that glam was little more than a pair of silver platform boots – not least by demonstrating the transformative power of silver platform boots, boys who look like alien girls, bricklayers in eyeliner, and so on. “If the Sixties were about the White Negro,” he writes, “Bowie was guessing – gambling – that the defining crossover of the Seventies might be the Straight Gay.”

In detailed, thoughtful and often very funny exegeses of artists including Bowie, Bolan, Slade and the Sweet, and equally loving explanations of semi-detached players from Cockney Rebel and Sparks to the New York Dolls, Reynolds identifies camp, androgyny and narcissism as pop’s inexhaustible hidden power sources. Glam is mime and mummery. Dressing up – either literally, in the battered finery of Dave Hill of Slade, a platinum goblin with a “Super­yob” guitar, or figuratively, in musical styles from proto-metal to Threepenny Opera debauchery – becomes a way to fulfil the Wildean prime directive of inventing your true self. “The Germans have a word for it,” Reynolds writes. “Maskenfreiheit, freedom in wearing masks.”

What emerges is a picture of a cosmic struggle between wild, ridiculous popinjays – of whom glam rock is only one aspect and Bolan, Gaga and even Bowie are only passing avatars – and the dismal forces of authenticity from the eat-your-greens world of “real” music. At one point, those full-bore Seventies bores the Eagles take a flatulent stand against the new wave of nancy-boy rock by selling T-shirts bearing the substance-not-spectacle slogan “Song Power”. In 1972, “Whispering” Bob Harris bemoans the “sad state of affairs when the best you can say about a band is that they’re great visually”. (I wonder how he feels now that bands look like they’ve come to fix your broadband.) Pop is revealed as Cavaliers v Roundheads, us v them, again and again.

This study of the elaborate and the outrageous is written with windowpane clarity and great humour. While other groups “wanted to wreck hotel rooms”, Roxy “wanted to redecorate them”. Alice Cooper is not a sex symbol but a “death symbol”; the “Tiger Feet” toerags Mud are “boorishly effective” (it’s a compliment); and Grace Jones is “Sade for de Sade readers”.

Reynolds tells a particularly vivid story of Gary Glitter’s indestructible, droogish chant “Rock and Roll, Part 2”, painting the discovery-by-creation of this “missing link between the Troggs and techno”. In seeking to capture the thrill that his alter ego, Paul Gadd, felt when he heard Fifties rock’n’roll for the first time, Glitter and the producer Mike Leander accidentally opened up a crack into music’s future. You almost find yourself mentally taking the side of this most loathed of fallen heroes, though Reynolds’s sad descriptions of Glitter’s crimes and self-destruction are unsparing. For once, the misusage “in one foul swoop” is deliberate and appropriate.

Shock and Awe is best read with Spotify on, browsing these extraordinary records from a distant time that is somehow horribly familiar. The Britain that produced glam was “weary, increasingly conservative [and gripped by] increasingly apprehensive disenchantment”. In the name of anyone who has ever been subjected to Tom Odell, Jack Garratt or a John Lewis Christmas advert, let all of this happen again soon.

Andrew Harrison is a pop culture writer and presenter of the Bigmouth podcast

This article first appeared in the 06 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's triumph

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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