Play it again, Glam
Facial glitter, platform soles, velvet flares - and Aladdin Sane appearing at the Phoenix Festival? Yes, Glam Rock is back, says Michael Collins
For some time, David Bowie has been picking over that part of his past when playing queer, in Kabuki gear, led him to be crowned both king and queen of the Glam era. At the 1996 Brits he teetered on Katherine Hamnett stilettoes. His hair, since hitting 50 in January, has returned to its unnatural Seventies roots. It is currently spiky as a stalactite, and the orange that until recently made up the facial tan of the former "thin white duke".
The catwalk has also been littered with clues that the 1973/4 clothes rail would be rolling back into view. For his Givenchy collection, John Galliano accessorised his designs with the hands of mannequins. Along with lame, fake limbs were last a fashion statement back in the glam old days, from the dummy hands clutching Bowie's fishnet breast for his Stateside special "The 1980 Floorshow", to the sculptures of Allen Jones, and the fetish furniture housed in the Milk Bar of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.
The launch of Candy Man, a range of nail varnish for men, brings it all home to the high street and the precinct, which, of course, is where it once belonged. Pop stars such as Bowie and Marc Bolan bought the glam kit lock, stock and boa, but the boys on the street glided along the walkways and thoroughfares of housing estates with satin flares that hung on the hip and frayed at the floor, surreptitiously daring to paint a nail or two. "That Bowie's Glam Rock could turn barrow boys into screaming queens was the greatest triumph, and irony, of its period," writes Michael Bracewell in his new book England Is Mine, a chronicle of the English pop sensibility.
Despite Bowie's bisexual declaration at the time - a career move by any other name - the influential made-up faces were, from Bolan to Bryan Ferry, heterosexual. Elton John, the only gay in the pack, it transpires, was also the joker who didn't quite cut it (Gary Glitter notwithstanding). He was Charlie Caroli to Bowie's Pierrot. No matter how stacked the heels, thinning air and spectacles were anathema.
All that was touched by the hand of Glam was also touched by Bowie somewhere along the assembly line. In 1973 he "caricatured the new kind of visual tenseness that was taking over," according to the style and fashion tablet of the time Nova. As Ziggy Stardust mutated into Aladdin Sane, Bowie produced Lou Reed's Transformer (drag queens, make-up and Mars), and wrote for Mott The Hoople the song that became the "All You Need Is Love" of the Glam generation. In "All The Young Dudes" glitter, shoplifting, and T-Rex filled in for peace, lovebeads and understanding.
Now, as Bowie prepares to beam "The Aladdin Sane Revue" into 1996, the ghost of Glam hovers over London with the making of the film Velvet Goldmine, directed by Todd Haynes and starring both Ewan McGregor and comedian Eddie Izzard. The film takes it's name from a Bowie b-side. The set is as closed as a Kubrick film, but the PR people, McDonald & Rutter, claim that it "follows the rise of Brian Slade, a mythical rock god, who finds himself at the epicentre of the pleasures and decadence of his day, during the emergence of the Glam Rock scene in the early Seventies". Brian Molko, the singer with Placebo, currently lauded as the leaders of a new generation of Glam Rockers, is reported to feature in the film as one of the New York Dolls.
Since the single "Nancy Boy" hit the charts, Placebo - with Molko made- up and vaguely reminiscent of that bopping imp Marc Bolan - have been heralded as an antidote to the bad lads of Britpop and Loaded. Something wimpy this way comes. Even Robbie Williams has recently owned up to painting his nails to go down the pub. But those about to do away with Fever Pitch and get it on with feather boas will very probably lack the innocence and urgency that characterised the first shot of Glam Rock, when there was "Concrete all around but not in our heads", according to the aforementioned Glam anthem. Glam took the Wildean epigram to the extreme. If you're in the gutter, why look up at the stars when you can wear them in your hair, on your chest and on your cheeks?
Facial glitter became a statement of daring, and the Glam equivalent of a Masonic handshake. What Susan Sontag had written of Camp in 1964 was true of Glam a decade later: "The essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. And Camp is esoteric - something of a private code, a badge of identity even among small urban cliques."
In England Is Mine, Michael Bracewell celebrates the way Bowie "blurred the boundaries between the present and the future, male and female, and offered a DIY disguise for the pursuit of glamour in a synthetic age". The last point was to some extent the credo of both Roxy Music and Cockney Rebel, the only two groups to arrive with a look that was pure Glam, whereas Bowie, Bolan and Slade had previously turned out as mod, flower child and skinheads respectively. Bryan Ferry, the nearest thing to Noel Coward from County Durham, brought the high life to the high street with songs that dropped Quaglino's and Casablanca into the equation. Steve Harley and the chiaroscuro of Cockney Rebel could put Biba, Bauldelaire and the Berlin of Sally Bowles together, often in one song.
With clubs now cropping up playing music from the Glam cannon, and punters forking out for something from Tommy Hilfiger's recently launched Glam clothesline, the current revival will be either at its peak or all played out when Velvet Goldmine reaches the screen. Back in 1973 The Rocky Horror Show and the Richard Allen Glam novels were the signing off point for the era. There was the mid-Seventies siding that was disco, but in many ways the Glam ley lines were built on when punk picked up the baton and ran all the way with it.
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