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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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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