This long overdue history of glam rock went from being a can’t-put-down read to an ill-conceived exercise in futility due to its superfluous final chapter. Titled “Aftershocks,” this chapter finds Simon Reynolds falling into the trap of so many latter-day critics who try to rationalize that this “modern" stuff like Lady Gaga is somehow analogous to actual rock n’ roll when, in reality, what really drives it is the same mentality one more commonly associates with advertising and, worse yet, politics — mainly, louder, crasser is better. While glam echoed the pre-intellectual rock era with its devotion to style — eschewing such outmoded sixties concepts as “realism” and “authenticity” — it was still based on substance.
As no less of a glam figurehead than Brian Eno explains in the lengthy chapter on Roxy Music: “One of the things we didn’t like about the bands who preceded us was that they were so un-ironic. They were so serious about what they were doing. We were serious, but in a different way.”
Because, as much as glam’s (mostly-British) first wave — Roxy, David Bowie, T. Rex, Slade, Sweet and, to some extent, Queen — were devoted to artifice as an ideal, they were musically progressive, at least in the sense of moving the idiom from its roots in R&B and other more traditional elements towards the kind of nihilistic riffing glory of punk and metal. And if you take into account the techno stylizations of Roxy as well as Bowie’s Berlin period, you can add New Wave, synth-pop, and techno as glam descendants. Toss in such American exponents as Alice Cooper, the New York Dolls, and Iggy and the Stooges — all of whom Reynolds covers extensively — and the lineage becomes even clearer. This is Glam’s legacy much more than the superficial pop and hip-hop artists the author has chosen to glorify in the book’s final pages.
Reynolds, who is English (one would almost have to be to write the history of glam) — is archly academic: like fellow Brit Jon Savage — whose treatise on seventies British punk, England’s Dreaming, is the book I would most compare this to in tone and structure — he pontificates wildly, and often brilliantly, about any manner of sociological ephemera. Dating glam’s show-pomp sensibilities back to the dandies of the 1800s, Reynolds explains: “Dandyism is Royalist in essence because the dandy aspires to a form of royalty through aesthetics … a realm of cold exteriors and stylized manners: social life itself as theatre.”
One could easily be describing a Bowie or Bryan Ferry or even Freddie Mercury, flamboyant front-men who, with one flick of the wrist, made the faded denim and unwashed locks of hippiedom suddenly, arrestingly, passé. The key element of glam was camp, which comes easily to Brits, bred on theater tradition, and which has a direct correlation with gay culture — and also explains why Americans had a harder time swallowing it, at least initially, where it took years for performers like Bowie or Roxy Music to actually become successful in America, and where it never really came for T. Rex and Slade, who ruled the British pop charts in pre-punk Britain.
With glam’s advent, gay culture served the same purpose to its generation of band’s as black culture did for the previous one (and if there’s any musical touchstone with glam, it’s that all of its bands, in one form or another, were influenced by the Rolling Stones). But unlike the British blues boom, there was no unifying sound, and just like the Stones and Pretty Things had to settle for an affectation of blackness, glam artists, most of whom weren’t actually gay, had to settle for camp as opposed to gay liberation.
Take, for example, Alice Cooper: the music was classic hard rock, but it was the gender-bending notion that here was a man named Alice, and the fact that he occasionally wore a dress, that tied him to glam, although Cooper’s sensibilities came more from the American huckster tradition than the more campy world of the theatre, as Reynolds explains.
There’s so much good stuff like that in this book that I would still recommend it, despite the ill-conceived final chapter, where, by the time the author reaches page 598 and is frothing over Kate Bush (who, admittedly owes something to Bowie), you fear he’s lost the point entirely. Fortunately, the timely entry on Bowie’s recent death, which really closes the book out, somewhat brings the narrative full circle.