Glam. It has become one of the most bastardized, dreaded, hated, and scoffed at musical genres. But why? How did something that started as an artful, experimental, kaleidoscopic, fantasy-driven rhapsody by David Bowie, Roxy Music, and T. Rex, later become appropriated by the mainstream media to label any band with a flashy, campy, or androgynous image … regardless of musical approach?
Glam Rock was often passed off as a hack fad due to its bombastic imagery, advanced by Gary Glitter, Slade, and Wizzard, all while the United States saw a much rawer (but equally fabulous) incarnation of Glam Rock in Lou Reed, The New York Dolls, Jayne County, and The Stooges. Both sides of the Atlantic had their own take on this new, creative force, but whether it was Brian Eno synthesizing dreamy, avant-garde, sci-fi sequences, or Johnny Thunders staggering through a blues-laden guitar solo, both camps were musically radical at their core.
Glam gave way to Glitter, which in turn gave us Glitter-Punk. Bands classified as the latter have respectfully and proudly carried the Glam Rock torch through all its trials and tribulations. Granted, all musical genres eventually get splintered into fractions and sub-genres, but most still hold true to the parent-genre’s integrity. This has not always been the case with Glam Rock, with no fault attributed to its founding, feather-and-fur-clad faction.
Commercialization dug its heels into Glam Rock, causing in large part its untimely demise. Like with all exciting new musical movements, the music industry seized on Glam as a quick-selling trend. The genre became oversaturated with Pop-oriented bands such as The Bay City Rollers. There were a few years (at the end of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s) where no commercially-minded act even wanted to be associated with the word, “Glam,” whereas just a few years earlier the same artists would have been decked out in glittered mascara and sequined platforms.
That is, until the “hairbangers” came around.
In the 1980’s, bands like Motley Crue, W.A.S.P., and Quiet Riot may have shared some Glam Rock influences, but they fell short as an extension of the genre’s intellect, twisting it into a tongue-in-cheek rainbow of redundancy. (The eventual combination of Heavy Metal and Glam Rock was one that would take time, as well, the right lyrical pomp that would help to strip Metal of its rigidity to be replaced with the catchy Pop fortitude of The Sweet. This happened in the 1990’s with bands like Heart Throb Mob and Peppermint Creeps.)
The general public’s inability to separate Mott the Hoople from Ratt remains a giant, cartoon-like question mark over the heads of Glam Rock fans and musicians. The effects of the 1980’s Hair Metal bands (note: not Glam Metal bands) caricaturized the genre and left it for dead until the early-to-mid 1990’s Glam revival, with bands like The Toilet Boys, The Trash Brats, and Star Star.
Most of Glam Rock’s surviving pioneers furthered their careers by producing music in other genres, writing books, and/or co-writing songs with other artists. While those endeavors are not exclusive to Glam Rockers, the pursuit of evermore trumps the destitution of Hair Metal’s washed-up, rehab-frequenting alumni.
It can be said that the only reason (beyond its ornamental appearance) Hair Metal was deemed “Glam,” was because of its overnight explosion in popularity. Much like British Glam Rock, Hair Metal soared up the charts, once exposed to a pubescent, primarily male fanbase. The addition of MTV into pop culture (around the time Hair Metal peaked) led record labels to push Metal bands to become even campier (note: androgynous) with their image. The lack of integrity here stems from the fact that Glam Rock’s prime movers had artistic reasoning behind their aesthetics, whereas Hair Metal bands wore makeup to get laid and/or because they were told to by Sunset Strip canvassing record companies.
What remains ironic is the lack of credit that mainstream culture has given to Glam Rock, especially when it comes to Goth. In the post Glam Rock timeline, we had Punk Rock, and then as an extension of the latter, Goth forged as its arty and introspective counterpart. Tarted up in Bowie-like androgyny, and with lyrics more than just a touch supercilious, this darker version of Glam and Punk took to the stages in the late 1970’s during a time when Progressive Rock and Arena (radio) Rock persevered.
Goth scaled back on the musical cocksmanship of the era, using looser guitar techniques, sweeping basslines, and repetitive, simplistic (often synthesized) drumming. Male vocalists rarely ventured out of Bowie’s more baritone performances, with female vocalists pioneering the ghostly, ethereal ambiance that has become definitive of the Gothic genre. To not credit Glam Rock for directly inciting Goth forebearers like Peter Murphy, Andrew Eldritch, Souixsie Sioux, and Anja Huwe, would be disingenuous. Furthermore, and similarly with Glam Rock, part of the fun of Goth is the aesthetic pageantry associated with it.
For most, Glam Rock conjures images of Poison, Cinderella, state fairs circa 1985, and memories of diligently spraying one’s peacock bangs with Aqua Net before heading off to first period English. I argue that it should conjure the magical world of Ziggy Stardust, and later, Specimen, and Bauhaus. This disconnect has caused a lot of great musicians to shrug off Glam Rock, and denigrate the musical prowess of greats like Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder, John Cale, Noddy Holder, Stiv Bators, Andy Scott, and many more.
There have been several points in Rock n Roll history where lines have blurred just before we labeled two or more simultaneous movements. I sometimes lament that we can’t remain content at that adroit intersection where musical factions meet vs. cutting them up into separate parts and leaving them to sink or swim in an industry known for its hungry sharks. Furthermore, it can be said that Glam and Goth exist as a musical duality; one light and buoyant, the other reflective and crushing. Both have equal parts aptitude and theater. And, like light and dark, one can’t exist without the other.
At least not for me.
About the author: Michael Louis is a Nashville, TN (aka “Music City”) based songwriter, recording artist, and freelance musician. He is the sole contributor and producer of Chronic Twilight, and multi-instrumentalist for Gothic Rock recording project, Shadow Assembly.