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.

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“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 appears in the 06 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's triumph