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Bon Bons & Rodney
The Bon Bons at Rodney’s English DiscoCourtesy of Faber

Why glam rock is so misunderstood

Music writer Simon Reynolds discusses the importance of the 70s rock genre – and its uncanny relevance in rap and R&B today

A few sainted examples aside, glam is usually seen as the black sheep of the rock family tree. As a genre, it tends to get written off as trashy, regressive – a cheap flash of colour on the dowdy landscape of 1970s Britain, synonymous with tight-trousered Top of the Pops appearances and the taint of sexual scandal. But for Simon Reynolds, author of a new book about the music and its legacy, glam’s influence is alive and well in 2016.

“I got interested in the 70s as this period where pop music kind of invented postmodernism by itself, in a non-theoretical way,” says Reynolds, a music-culture maven whose last book, 2011’s influential Retromania, examined pop’s ongoing obsession with its own past. It was a chapter on glam in this book, says Reynolds, that sparked the idea for Shock & Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy. “I think glam as an era prefigures a lot of pop music of the first 16 years of the 21st century. It’s really with glam where pop music becomes pop about pop – there are songs about being a rock’n’roll star, which is what (David Bowie’s) Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane are all about. Originally rock’n’roll was about dancing or teenage concerns, but by a certain point it was such a huge thing, it became something worthy of commentary itself.”

With this self-reflexive bent came an obsession with fame and its pitfalls, a theme that finds expression today in artists like Kanye West, Drake, and Lady Gaga, whose songs tend to present fame as “this damaging, harmful thing that happens to you, this problem or trap”.

“There’s a good song Mott the Hoople did called ‘Marionette’,” says Reynolds, “which is about what happens when you’re really in deep in the record industry and you start to feel like you’re being manipulated, like someone’s pulling the strings. And ‘Fame’ by David Bowie is, I think, his most amazing song – it’s an absolutely amazing, chilling account of how (fame) feels from the inside, the ego games, and this idea of who can you trust – can you have real relations with anyone?”

Glam’s fame fixation, argues Reynolds, was part of a deep-rooted narcissism engendered by shifting liberal mores around the turn of the 60s, exemplified by performers like elfin T. Rex frontman Marc Bolan. Its shadowy twin was a penchant for decadence, as a string of releases from the era – like Lou Reed’s Berlin, Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, and Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure – self-consciously embraced the hollowness at the core of the era’s hedonism. For Reynolds, decadence is a concept that finds surprising resonance on the airwaves today: “I think a lot of hip hop and R&B has these uncanny echoes of glam. There’s a song that’s on the radio constantly in the US by Future with The Weeknd called ‘Low Life’, which just seems to be about decadence and disillusionment. A lot of the music in rap and R&B (right now) seems to have that vibe. It’s just this completely wasted, fucked-up vibe of excess that they’re conjuring – one of the lines goes, ‘My room service bill cost your whole life.’ They’re revelling in this fantasy that people seem to enjoy. We like the idea that someone out there like Future or The Weeknd is actually living like that.”

“Glam as an era prefigures a lot of pop music of the first 16 years of the 21st century. It’s really with glam where pop music becomes pop about pop” – Simon Reynolds

Glam’s narcissistic impulse reflects another favourite theme of the genre – and Bowie, in particular – the Wildean notion that “being natural is simply a pose – and the most irritating pose that I know”. Springing up in response to the beardy earnestness of much late-60s countercultural fare, glam ran with the idea of the self as a pose to be projected, an idea that informed everything from the art-school irony of Eno and Ferry to the actorly approach of Bowie.

“When Bowie was (starting out), ‘serious’ artists had a thing which evolved very organically,” says Reynolds. “But he invented this idea of rebranding, which seems very normal now – there are a lot of very credible artists like Björk who chop and change all the time, and pop stars leap around wildly from style to style. What Bowie did was new in the sense of (him saying), ‘This is actually a cool thing to do. This is a very conscious and clever artistic strategy.’ I don’t think there’d been anyone who’d ever made a thing of it like that.”

What’s more, claims Reynolds in the book, it made Bowie the avatar of a new, very inward-looking kind of revolution, one that seems especially pertinent today – after all, in a world of chronic workplace insecurity and social media posturing, reinvention of the self isn’t just an artistic buzzword; it’s a fact of everyday life.

Shock & Awe explores other currents within glam that helped rewrite the rules for pop: its flirtation with gender-ambiguity, for instance, helped usher gay culture into the mainstream (even if a majority of its performers were hetero males), while its showbizzy approach to live performance was a direct precursor to modern-day pop extravaganzas (even if Beyoncé has yet to chop up babies onstage a la Alice Cooper). But, as much as Reynolds’ book is studded with insights about glam’s contribution to the wider pop culture, it also dwells lovingly on the unreconstructed joys of ‘low glam’ practitioners like The Sweet and Suzi Quatro, with a fascinating chapter devoted to the startling primitivism of Mike Leander’s production work for glam rock’s pariah, Gary Glitter.

“There was a bit of an intent to rescue those groups from the condescension they sometimes get,” says Reynolds, who pulled off a similar trick with the unfashionable end of rave culture in his 1998 book Energy Flash. “(I wanted) to level the playing field a bit and elevate that stuff. Obviously, it didn’t have the same intellectual or artistic wealth of ideas behind it that Bowie and Roxy or Sparks had. But as a sonic force, these are amazing, enduring records.”

SIMON REYNOLDS’ ESSENTIAL GLAM PLAYLIST

Simon Reynolds also made a playlist of classic glam rock, glam-influenced 80s pop music and more contemporary chart hits with echoes of glam. “It’s a mix of esoteric and killer, and also extends in later part through to the descendants of glam’n’glitter,” says Reynolds.

Listen to it below.

Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, from the Seventies to the Twenty-First Century is out via Faber on October 6