Wham bam, thank you Glam!

David Bowie fell to Earth and Bryan Ferry found 'penthouse perfection': it was 1972, it was Glam Rock ... and Peter York was there
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The Independent Culture
There's always a key moment when a star's status gets confirmed, when a movement becomes the movement, when everybody's there. Bowie's hot-ticket moment was the Save the Whale Concert at the Royal Festival Hall in 1972.

It was my first Bowie concert. I'd got the Ziggy Stardust album, then I'd shopped back in time and bought Hunky Dory (whose surprising whiff of patchouli had fazed me). My girlfriend had just been photographed by Mick Rock, the official Bowie photographer, and she'd bought me a Rive Gauche diamante star which I wore in my lapel. Nothing if not modish! We had good seats (alas, not backstage passes). We started off expectant; we ended the evening rushing the stage. Very uncool. An utterly new world had been proposed and, along with the rest of the audience, we'd bought it. In this Futurist Twilight City, somewhere between 42nd Street and Metropolis, Bowie, undeniably the Prettiest Star, seemed totally in command - of the audience, the band and, more impressive still, of his guest star Lou Reed; the real Lou Reed from the Velvet Underground! And here was Reed, Bowie's mentor some might say, looking rather shambly and uncomfortable in his new glitterduds and dark nail varnish, plucked from his SoHo boho ghetto so that David could introduce him to fashionable London. Bowie took those New York people, completely sucked their skulls and used them to make high drama for the high street. He repackaged them for people like me, who didn't really know their work. I bought Lou Reed's Transformer on the strength of the Bowie endorsement, and the Bowie production. (And of course when I first went to New York, The Factory was top of my list of tourist sights.)

We found Bowie ourselves; it took our friend Delroy Lindo to tell me about the first Roxy Music album. Lindo, the big black lantern-jawed American actor who played the angel in A Life Less Ordinary was then English - pure Shepherd's Bush - and like a lot of young second-generation blacks in London, he was as good on art-school sounds as he was on ska.

Roxy at the Rainbow - the Thirties Moorish fantasies provided completely the right backdrop - was a different kind of delight. If Bowie's "Leper Messiah", the rent-boy who fell to Earth, was overwrought drama, Roxy Music was English art-school bought to life - the sets; the costumes; Saturday-morning-pictures Futurism; Teds in Space; cleverness; references, ie songs as densely packed with fashionable associations as Noel Coward's, songs that were like Noel Coward's. There were breathtaking cultural steals and slants, knowing and glossy. It was luxury consumption, "penthouse perfection" - as Bryan Ferry sang in "In Every Dream Home a Heartache" - utterly ironic yet strangely moving. The theme seemed to be: "We have to do these things, we driven people. We have to have that world of distant laughter, and it doesn't deliver. But of course we go on doing it." Luxury, taste, connoisseurship, those were the drugs.

What Michael Bracewell described in his dazzling book, England Is Mine, as Roxy Music's "cabaret futura of decadent romance" hit all its audience's buttons. No decade with Roxy in it can fairly be called the one that taste forgot.

THERE WAS more to Glam than Bowie and Roxy, but the rest of it was different. Glam had a simple two-tier class system. High Glam was Bowie and Roxy and anyone they endorsed (though it didn't really include Bolan who, glittery as he was, always seemed a transitional figure: he wore Mary Jane shoes not platform boots). High Glam could obviously be consumed as Kultur; Bowie and Roxy were album artists (credible even though they sold singles on Top of the Pops). Low Glam - Slade, Sweet, Gary Glitter - was for what the Daily Mirror called "Our Pop Kids", meaning working- class adolescents, particularly girls.

The Low Glammers were, as contemporaries said, "brickies in mascara" or "hod-carriers in Bacofoil" (Gary's ample buttocks stuffed into silver Lurex). It couldn't have been more heterosexual, more British or less sub-textual. It took the lipstick, the satin'n'tat but passed on the library. It wasn't class-correct to like them both but I did (and of course I knew enough to like them in different ways).

There was an extraordinary and undeniable linkage between the two Glams that transformed the pop aesthetic overnight. As Bracewell says, "That Bowie's Glam Rock could turn barrow boys into screaming queens was the greatest triumph, and irony, of its period. The trappings of transvestism, thanks to Bowie, were granted the broadest currency of street fashionability." A real milestone had been passed.

Glam Rock's epic period didn't last long, only from mid- 1972 to the end of 1974; it never completely swept the board - college rock went on selling massively - and a stack of big thinkers never acknowledged it. Now it's safely gone, it's ripe for exhumation, for claiming. And here come a Glam book and a Glam film. A host of people who preferred Genesis at the time will now declare themselves for Gary and Noddy to give themselves cultural currency.

The book, Barney Hoskyns's Glam!, is fine. The film, Todd Haynes's Velvet Goldmine, might abort the whole revival. This is sad because Haynes has clearly put his heart into this fable about a character obviously based on David Bowie - and a life more publicly documented than Bowie's was from 1971 to 1974 is hard to imagine. Sincere as it is, Velvet Goldmine may do Glam the same disservice as Derek Jarman's Jubilee did Punk.

The film will give Glam's enemies - they're everywhere, even now - the opportunity to say: "Can you seriously look me in the eye and say that gash little blip of swoony Top of the Pops camp warrants a minute's more serious attention than the social history of the Slush puppy?"

And you know where the rest of that monologue's heading, don't you? "Now Punk... that had something to say."

The problem with Velvet Goldmine is that it misses the smarty, the arty, the sheer cleverness of High Glam and the massive drive, energy and fun of TOTP Low Glam, and concentrates on the Boystown Romance. But the gay in Glam was always sensibility as much as sex. And whatever Haynes's disclaimers about fable you can't base a film on a crucial known biography, then get the period look and dialogue wrong and not expect to be caned for it.

GLAM WAS important, and it deserves a more important treatment (which may come in Bowie's own Ziggy film, apparently in the pipeline). Glam introduced two major artists - plus the polymath Brian Eno - into the national bloodstream and set the postmodernist agenda for British pop - time travel, quotation, irony and consumption - for the next 20 years. The Bowie constituency was the original punk constituency. The Neo-Romantics quite avowedly emerged out of Bowie-worship and a purple strand of key figures since then, from Morrissey to Neil Tennant to Suede's Brett Anderson, obviously know the Glam canon from back to front.

High Glam marked the point at which rock got out of its cultural cringe, and stopped trying to produce cod classical music. Low Glam marked the point at which pop became fun again, and produced two densely packed years of classic singles from "Leader of the Gang" to "Ballroom Blitz".

FAST FORWARD to Cool Brittania, 1998 and we find one fear haunting Young British Artists and musicians at the sharp end: that they'll get that call from David Bowie, the Rip Van Withit of Western Culture, saying he greatly admires their work and would like to ... collaborate with them. Who can forget the two characters in Trainspotting, otherwise quite gone, who become utterly lucid on the question of how Bowie had blown it? Arguably the most significant and influential postwar British artist in any medium, certainly the key strand in High Pop for a good 15 years, he seemed to the Trainspotters to have become strangely embarrassing. Hugely rich, cleaned-up, drug-free and straight, with Hollywood tombstone teeth, Bowie now collects art, writes about art and worse still, does art. Somebody ought to tell him about that goatee. And the single-leaf earring thing. A girl I know who's at the cutting edge of grooming says it should all come off. Including the eyebrows.

'Velvet Goldmine' opens the Edinburgh Film Festival tonight, and is released on 23 Oct. 'Glam!' by Barney Hoskyns (Faber, pounds 9.99) is out on 5 Oct.

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