Glitter Rock

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Glitter Rock

From 1972 to 1974, a wave of primarily British rock acts—dubbed Glitter Rock—emerged to enjoy massive success with a sound that marked a radical departure from the peace/love/sandals vibe of the recent past. The new movement celebrated the superficial, made androgyny look cool, and marked a complete departure from the more earnest "save the world" sentiments of the hippie era. Rolling Stone writer David Fricke described glitter rock as "the tidal splash of pop guitars, raging puberty, and elegant anarchy." Male singers often sported shag haircuts, eyeliner, lipstick, outrageous clothing, and towering platform shoes with abandon. Yet the music that came out of this era—David Bowie and Roxy Music would create some of glitter's greatest sonic legacies—would land an assured place in the annals of rock history, and the genre has been posited as the most innovative event to sweep through the pop music landscape before punk rock.

"Glitter was urban panic music," wrote Jon Savage in Gadfly, in describing the marked distinction between glitter rock and hippie rock. "Instead of natural fibers, you had crimplene, glitter, fur; instead of LSD, alcohol and downers; instead of albums, singles were the focus; instead of authenticity, synthetic plasticity ruled; in place of a dour, bearded machismo, you had a blissful, trashy androgyny." The summer of 1972 is usually tagged as the moment of glitter's genesis, and London the place, but the chart-success version of glitter—called glam in the United Kingdom—did owe a small debt to an obscure young American band, the New York Dolls. Living in Greenwich Village and originally playing Otis Redding covers in what was called the "Oscar Wilde Room" at the Mercer Art Center, the Dolls had long hair, dressed in platform shoes, and wore a great deal of makeup. Part of their inspiration came from the late 1960s Greenwich Village theater scene—particularly the gross doings of the Ridiculous Theater Company—and they became the next hot band to catch when Andy Warhol and his entourage began frequenting the Mercer shows.

A management team thought it better to launch the Dolls first in London, and they flew over and found instant success. Contracted to open for Rod Stewart, they became the first group in music history to tour with a major rock act without ever having produced an album or even a single. Then one of the Dolls, Billy Murcia, died of a Quaalude overdose, and the band was eulogized in the music press for a time. They emerged again with a new drummer in December of 1972, signed to the Mercury label, but their career fizzed after just two albums. To add to the band's troubles, American audiences assumed that they were gay at a time when homosexuality was a new and very controversial topic for many.

Back in London, however, the vibe was quite different. Glitter/glam rock was huge by the summer of 1972. Its precursor came in the spring of 1971 with a young and attractive singer, Mark Bolan, and his band T. Rex. "Get It On (Bang the Gong)" and subsequent tracks like "20th Century Boy" and "Diamond Meadows" came to be deemed classics of glitter. Like most pop culture movements, glitter originated as a reaction against something else. In this case it was the ubiquity of the hippie. By 1972 the long-hair-and-granola look was even being coopted in advertising images. The Beatles were gone, and bands like Yes, the Moody Blues, Fleetwood Mac, and Led Zeppelin were huge, as was country rock; long dirge-like tunes were in vogue. Glitter celebrated artifice and the soignée, and through it ran strong elements of camp. Furthermore, the spectacle of men wearing makeup was still enough to make people halt on the street and cause periodic uproars in the mainstream press. Homosexuality had only been decriminalized in Britain in the late 1960s, and the gay-rights movement in the United States only dated back to the summer of 1969. The average man or woman of a certain age still found it dreadfully uncomfortable even admitting that gay men and women existed at all, so taboo was the topic prior to these years. Thus glitter rock and its accoutrements—the weird album covers, the high-resolution rock poster, the aping of the look of one's favorite singer—found great resonance with the teen generation.

Several crucial albums were released in 1972 that portended a new era in rock. Roxy Music, led by Bryan Ferry and including Brian Eno at the time, has been termed the ideological vanguard of the movement. Their self-titled debut LP and the single "Virginia Plan" both arrived in the summer of 1972 to massive success. Very rock-guitar chords and booming drums melded with Ferry's arch, almost poetic lyrics, and made Roxy perhaps the most enduring of all glitter bands, and one that virtually never fell out of critical favor. This Eno period is usually termed their zenith; they disbanded after the release of Country Life in 1974 and subsequent reformations never really achieved the initial edge.

David Bowie and his Ziggy Stardust persona is also inextricably linked with glitter rock. His massive success with androgynous outfits and spacey lamé bodysuits was the mainstream rock manifestation of the whole glam movement. His 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is deemed one of the quintessential releases of the genre. Moreover, Bowie would produce a number of significant albums in a short span of time, also vital to the glam-rock discography: Mott the Hoople's All the Young Dudes, Lou Reed's Transformer, and Iggy Pop and the Stooges' Raw Power, all released in 1972. That same year, Bowie told an interviewer in the British music paper Melody Maker that he was gay (later amending it to "bisexual"), which caused a huge stir. He became the first pop star to ever to make such an admission.

Further musical events that summer of 1972 made glam/glitter a commercially viable movement. Gary Glitter, a forgotten English singer from the 1950s and 1960s, had a huge hit with the kazoo-like guitars and one-word lyrics ("Hey!") in "Rock and Roll (Part II)." A massive success in England that reached the Top Ten in the United States, the single would go down in history as the essential sports-stadium rouser by the 1990s. "Instantly nostalgic, but like nothing else on earth, 'Rock and Roll' cut through everything that was around that English summer, through the T. Rex sparkle and David Bowie sashay, through Slade's patent stomp and Sweet's candied pop," wrote Dave Thompson in Goldmine, "and though it didn't quite make #1, it hung around the chart so long there's not another song on earth that recaptures the moment like [this] one."

Several other tracks signify the glitter rock moment, such as the cult favorite "Baby's on Fire," from a Brian Eno solo project. Other British bands quickly climbed onto glam once its moneymaking potential had been established, but produced music with far less panache and artistic endurance than Bowie, Roxy, or T. Rex. Slade and Sweet were two such acts, and would become the begetters of the 1980s glam metal movement; Queen also grew out of this era, and surprised many by successfully riding the glitter rock well past its announced demise. Glitter rock also marked a turning point in pop music: prior to 1972, American and British tastes had more or less corresponded. Yet glam failed to catch on in the United States as it did in Britain, and the shock-rock proto-Goth Alice Cooper was its only true homegrown commercial success.

By 1974, the New York Dolls had disintegrated after more problems with drugs, the Stooges broke up, Bowie released an album of vintage cover tunes, and Elton John—perhaps the most commercial and internationally successful manifestation of glitter rock—was a huge success. The cross-dressing camp of glitter rock was successfully translated into a stage play, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which became a cult film almost from its debut in 1975. The last gasp of real glam in the United States came with Sweet's Top Ten hit, "Ballroom Blitz," in the summer of 1975.

Already by that summer, punk was in its nascent stages in England and would hit full-force the following year. Hallmarked by vulgarity, tattered clothing, and almost unlistenable, anything-butmelodic music, punk was, not surprisingly, a reactionary move-ment—against the satiny, coiffed look of glitter with its electric pianos and Wildean sentiments. A little over a decade later the outlandishness and alternative sexuality of glitter rock were standard pop music clichés, embodied most successfully by Boy George, Prince, and even Madonna. Velvet Goldmine, a 1998 film by Todd Haynes, borrowed its title from a Bowie song of the era and was heralded as a sign of glitter rock's revival. Set in London in the early 1970s, it follows the rock 'n' roll love story of a bisexual rock star in space-age apparel and his far punker American friend, a clear stand-in for Iggy Pop. Numerous luminaries from alternative music stepped in to create and/or record for the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack, and filmmaker Todd Haynes recalled in interviews how profoundly some of the music and imagery from the glitter rock era had affected his adolescent years. "It was a moment when it was cool even for straight people to appear bisexual," the film's editor, Jim Lyons, told Amy Taubin in the Village Voice. "There's a clear nostalgia for that period when we believed that we were going to have a better and better society, and that feminism would win, and homosexuality would be completely accepted."

—Carol Brennan

Further Reading:

Fricke, David. "Weird Scenes from the Velvet Goldmine." Rolling Stone, November 26, 1998, 64-67.

Goldman, Albert. "Rock Goes Holl-Ly-Wooood!" Sound Bites. New York, Random House, 1992.

Klawans, Stuart. "All that Glitters." Nation. November 30, 1998, 32-34.

Lim, Dennis. "The Music Choice Artifacts and Inspired Counterfeits." Village Voice. November 3, 1998, 50.

McCormick, Moira. "International 'Velvet' Mines Glam's Riches." Billboard. October 3, 1998, 22.

McNeil, Legs, and Gillian McCain, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. New York, Penguin, 1997.

Savage, Jon. "Divine Decadence: Memories of Glam." Gadfly. October 1998.

Stambler, Irwin. "David Johansen." The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul. New York, St. Martin's, 1989, 339-41.

Taubin, Amy. "All that Glitters." Village Voice. November 18, 1997, 64-66.

Thompson, Dave. "Gary Glitter." Goldmine, July 4, 1997, 20-30.