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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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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.