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Back in Glamour:
Ziggy and the Glitter Years
The above article appeared in Guardian Weekly of April 12-18, 2001 and features David Bowie remembrances of Glam Rock in the foreword to Blood and Glitter by Mick Rock.
Of course, when it comes down to it, glam rock was all very amusing. At the time it was funny, then a few years later it became sort of serious-looking and a bit foreboding. Lots of postmodernist juxtapositions and "significant" ciphers - that kind of twaddle. Now? Well, now it's just funny again, albeit with a certain clout. I still derive immense pleasure from remembering how many hod-carrying brickies were encouraged to put on lurex tights and mince up and down the high street, having been assured by know-it-alls like me that a smidgen of blusher really attracted the birds.
This was true, of course, and has been since woad. However, for the likes of Roxy Music and me, mascara was merely the conveyance by which great globs of non-rock flotsam and jetsam were to be delivered. Japanese kabuki, Dada, Dietrich and Riefenstahl, Piaf and futurism, and above all "elegant gloom", as author Barney Hoskyns has put it. Not for us the couple of pints in the backroom bar after the gig. We were wondering where to lay our hands on absinthe and puzzling through the big question - greasepaint or pancake?
Climbing the heights of what we felt was much-needed pretension, we were above common-or-garden chat-up lines to dodgy slappers. We craved the rarefied stratosphere whence we dropped really heavy names: Burroughs, Brecht and Baudelaire tumbled meaninglessly over Warhol and Wittgenstein in a blur of de- and reconstructed pop.
Let me backpedal for a second. Pretension, or the "School of Pretension" as I pretentiously dubbed Eno and myself in 1978, was a quick-fix category for it all. By 1970 the knock-on effect of The Dice Man, Warhol's culture-flattening and the break dances of Derrida and Foucault had substantially changed the notion of "the absolute", of reality. It was no longer possible to take seriously the history of things as stage-managed by the media and the educational system. Everything we knew was wrong. Burroughs, being the John the Baptist of postmodernism, had proselytised over this point for years. Free at last - or, if you like, at sea without a paddle - we were giving ourselves permission to reinvent culture the way we wanted it: with great big shoes.
Well, all right, if you insist: we couldn't have pounced without Marc Bolan. The little imp opened the door. What was so great, however, was that we knew he hadn't got it quite right - sort of Glam 1.0. We were straining in the wings with versions 1.01 and 1.02, while Marc was still struggling with satin. But boy, he really rocked. He did, y'know.
Annoyingly, Americans often make territorial claims for the US as the spawning ground for this brief movement, as they usually do with punk and television. Yes, we loved American underground music and John Rechy's City of Night, but we really did have our own drag queens and drugs in London, thank you very much.
We also had A Clockwork Orange, Lindsay Kemp, Berlin and Fritz Lang, George Orwell and Nietzsche, Kansai Yamamoto (100% responsible for the Ziggy haircut and colour, by the by), Mishima's gay army and Colin Wilson to draw upon. (I could list ad nauseam, and have been known to do so, as high-glam's ingredients were dizzyingly disparate). And if I read one more self-aggrandising denizen of the Big Apple screaming blue murder over the issue of who established the shaved eyebrow - well, gosh, I'll just hurl.
The truth is, as wonderful as the New York Dolls were, they were just the Stones in lamé. The Americans at heart are a pure and noble people; things to them are in black and white. It's either "rawk" or it's not. We Brits putter around in the grey area. In our minds it's "a little bit rock, a little bit snigger".
British glam rock never made much of an impact on middle America. Before and after, we were bookended by Alice Cooper and Kiss - butch, "manly" glam with lots of guillotines and fireworks, muscle and metal. No mistaking the sexual bent of those fellers: "Nothing ambiguous about our boys." That's the only way Ohio could accept lipstick on males. So we Limeys all swanned off sniffily to the wings where we did make an impression. For a brief moment or two, we ruled in New York and Los Angeles.
Next week I'll be showing you how to turn all those earrings into a perfectly serviceable chain with which you can anchor yourself for the oncoming tremors of 1975. All you'll need will be a snotty nose, an abused Ziggy haircut and an ability to pronounce "anarchy". Me? I'll be pissing off to Berlin, thanks.
---This page last modified: 14 Jul 2002---