SHOCK AND AWE – GLAM ROCK AND ITS LEGACY by Simon Reynolds (Faber & Faber,2016)
“Got your mother in a whirl ‘cos she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl” – David Bowie (Rebel Rebel)
“Even the greatest stars live their lives in the looking glass” – Kraftwork (Hall Of Mirrors)
“There’s something in the air of which we will all be aware yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah” – Sweet (Teenage Rampage)
“Whatever happened to the heroes?”- The Stranglers (No More Heroes)
It’s fair to say Glam Rock has never really been taken all that seriously. Being casually dismissed as a joke genre is partly what drove Simon Reynolds to write this impressively weighty tome.
In so doing, he proves that this musical phenomenon deserves to be more than just an amusing footnote in the story of popular music. The author doesn’t claim that all the music tagged as Glam (or Glitter is you’re American) is of a universally high standard yet, even at its most crass and commercial, Reynolds endorses the viewpoint of Noel Coward who once wryly observed : “It’s extraordinary how potent cheap music is”.
This epic and thoroughly researched work vividly places the music in a social and cultural context revealing how Glam presented a showbiz alternative to macho-orientated ‘cock rockers’.
Reynolds shows that the desire for more visually splendid role models was “rooted in disillusionment” with the countless hairy bands in jeans who made ‘serious’ albums and scorned the superficiality of the pop charts.
Purists were offended by the “coquette rock” of Marc Bolan and the wave of feminized male performers who followed in his wake. Bearded Old Grey Whistle Test presenter Bob Harris made condescending comments when presenting Roxy Music and New York Dolls on his show, failing to see how groups like these were a breath of fresh air.
Alice Cooper was another who made waves when he first hit the small screens. Parents were shocked or outraged but a new generation immediately understood that rock didn’t have to mean hairy bands in jeans. David Bowie’s performance of Starman on Top of the Pops (TOTP) was the real turning point.
One of the strengths of this book is the space he devoted to artists that have largely gone out of fashion including one time TOTP’s mainstays Wizzard, Mud, Sweet, Sparks, Suzi Quattro the universally disgraced Gary Glitter. Check out my Shock & Awe Spotify play list for this book to hear these and more.
Reynolds rightly praises the innovative records of Roxy Music and is entertainingly scathing towards the “poisoned camp” and right-wing leanings of Bryan Ferry in his post-Eno career.
The legacy parts of the book are less compelling and the attempt to place a band like Queen into this are not wholly convincing. Also a chapter on bands suck in a time warp thinly reworks ideas Reynolds covered more thoroughly in Retromania. The final chapter is a series of short diary style entries which is titled Aftershocks but would be more accurately called after thoughts.
Reynolds is more in his element when presenting the group Slade as a prime example of how quickly fashions and tastes change in popular culture.
These down to earth men from the Midlands had a string of number one hits in the UK in the 1970s , enjoyed a massive following and were once highly praised by esteemed rock critics Lester Bangs and Nick Kent. Now, they don’t even merit an entry in The Rolling Stone Album Guide.
Glam Rock includes freaks from the US like Jobriath or Wayne County and ,you could call stadium fillers Kiss an offshoot, but the book focuses primarily on its UK manifestation and, unsurprsingly, the story is dominated by the peerless David Bowie who is the king (and queen) of the glam era and beyond.
Reynolds justifiably identifies him as “simultaneously one of the most influential artists of all time and one of the most influenced artists of all time”. Bowie always called himself a collector and made no secret of stealing/adapting ideas from those he admired, whether it be Anthony Newley in the early years or Krautrock bands during his Berlin period.
While Reynolds is starstruck and in awe of Bowie’s achievements, this doesn’t blind him to the star man’s flaws. For example, he notes that Bowie’s will to power led to far more than simply a casual flirtation with fascism. Striving to be a Nietzchian Superman’ meant that his obsessive desire to be a hero could be interpreted as a contempt for democracy – no time for losers indeed.
At the height of Bowie’s early fame as Ziggy Stardust, the careers of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop were at a low ebb even though both had been part of what are now heralded as the most significant bands of the late 60s and early 70s – The Velvet Undergound (& Nico) and The Stooges respectively.
Bowie did a noble public service by helping to bring Reed and Iggy to the notice of a wider audience but in the process he exposed the gulf between the bright poppiness of Glam in the UK and the sound eminating from the dark depths of the US underground rock.
Reynolds is broadly correct in regarding the albums Bowie produced, Reed’s Transformer and Iggy & The Stooges’ Raw Power, as ill-conceived attempts to remake these artists in his own image.
Despite the fact that Reed rejected the kind of vocal theatrics that were Bowie’s stock in trade (“I give dramatic readings”, he said), the nihilism in his songs was toned down for popular consumption in Transformer and for this record Reed was temporary transformed into an unlikely glam star. Unsurprisingly, this was an image he rapidly dismantled with his subsequent ‘fuck the public’ albums Berlin and Metal Machine Music.
Iggy got a pair of silver lurex pants out the Mainman deal but saw his album neutered in the recording studio. Raw Power is still a brilliant album but pales in comparison to Fun House which still stands as one of the most powerful, and rawest, hard rock albums of all time. Imagine what Raw Power might have been if a producer like Steve Albini had been behind the mixing desk.
Reynolds accurately strikes the proverbial nail on the head when he writes: “This approach to The Stooges calls into question the extent to which Bowie ever really viscerally understood rock”. The truth was that Bowie often looked positively fey and artsy beside his more decadent American counterparts.
Nevertheless Bowie’s influence was, and is, far-ranging and Reynolds’ description of Low as a “flawless masterpiece” reveals the writer to be a devoted fan. He is right , however, in saying that Scary Monsters & Super Creeps was the last essential Bowie album until his dramatic sign-off with the remarkable Blackstar. The book closes with a touching and perceptive obituary noting that with this final album was the sound of a singer “rising to the occasion of its own ending”.
The fact that Bowie’s passing came as Reynolds was completing this book means that Shock And Awe will probably come to be regarded as an alternative biography. The use of the Aladdin Sane stripe as the cover art indicates that his publishers would not be averse to this.
In any event, this book seals Simon Reynolds’ reputation is the of the most incisive and intelligent music writers around right now.