A 5-Disc Box Set Out Now
For Louder Than War Fergal Kinney reviews a major new box set compilation about glam rock.
Ask someone about glam rock, and they will more than likely recite the same selection of names; T-Rex, Slade, Spiders from Mars era Bowie, Wizzard, Mud and so on. The more discerning customer might offer the New York Dolls or Sparks, but to suggest Noel Coward, Boney M and The Fall would seem highly esoteric to say the least. ‘Oh Yes We Can Love: A History of Glam Rock’ suggests just that in an aim to join the dots between various disparate strands to see how pop music found itself at the glam rock explosion of the early seventies, before examining where the shards of shrapnel and shell settled over the ensuing decades.
The story begins in the years between the First and Second World War, with ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ – save for the film ‘Brief Encounter’, probably Noel Coward’s most enduring offering. Forty years before ‘Hot Love’ by T-Rex would charge to the top of the charts, the music-hall star and playwright Coward was something of an unlikely precursor to the big personalities of glam and the aesthetics that would underpin the genre. Coward’s infectious wordplay, subversion of traditional mediums of music and crucially his intelligent flamboyance would prove constant themes of glam rock. The narrative picks up again as rock ’n’ roll galvanises the then-teenagers that would eventually go on to dominate the charts themselves under the flag of glam – the musical influence of Chuck Berry is obvious in T-Rex and Slade, as is that of Howlin’ Wolf, whose ‘You’ll Be Mine’ would be mined for gold in the form of ‘Jeepster’ just under a decade later. It isn’t just its strident three-chord stomp that elbows ‘Lola’ by the Kinks onto the compilation, it’s the playful sexual ambiguity of Ray Davies’ lyrics, bringing transvestism and fluid notions of sexuality onto daytime radio a whole two years before David Bowie would knowingly put his arm around the Hull bruiser Mick Ronson. Not wrongly, much is made of quite how ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ managed to sneak past the BBC censors to become a radio favourite, but the inclusion of ‘Lola’ is a reminder that – albeit less graphically – Ray Davies got there two years before. The common denominator is, as throughout the history of music, pop music’s capacity for wildly pre-empting attitude shifts in society via the medium of an incredibly catchy song.
‘Oh Yes We Can Love’ is a starkly intelligent compilation, dropping hints on one disc that only start to make sense on another, and refusing to step into ‘I Love the ‘70s’ territory by making knowing omissions and throwing brilliant curveballs. By the second of five discs, glam rock as we know it has truly arrived – the radical and chorus-free ‘Virginia Plain’ by Roxy Music is one of the truly great British pop singles, and whilst nobody could accuse ‘Cuz I Luv You’ by Slade of not having a chorus, it still betrays a greater musical intelligence than Slade’s po-faced critics would ever accredit it with. Though Slade may not always get the acclaim they deserve, this is probably nothing compared to life as a member of the Glitter Band – only the Gary-free ‘Angel Face’ single makes the compilation for understandable if not highly contestable reasons. As pointed out by the Quietus this week, however revolting and vile the crimes of Gary Glitter may be, that he amassed some twenty-six hit singles is crucial to the story of glam rock and this omission does something to dent the authority of the compilation. Should Oasis’ ‘What’s the Story (Morning Glory)’ be stripped of its opening track which rips off Glitter’s hit ‘Hello, Hello, I’m Back Again’? Should Mark E Smith be interviewed under caution for calling the Glitter Band ‘more influential than the Beatles’? (The Fall’s exquisite ‘Glam Racket’ features towards the end of the compilation).
Early on in the compilation are rumblings that would go onto infect and inform the formative years of David Bowie – ‘Moonage Daydream’ quotes the intro to ‘Back Street Luv’ by Curved Air, whilst Jacques Brel’s ‘Amsterdam’ would be the b-side to ‘Sorrow’ at the apex of his glam reign. Startlingly, and very deliberately, it is not ‘Starman’, ‘Queen Bitch’ or ‘Jean Genie’ that represents Bowie here, but the sweeping ‘London, Bye, Ta Ta’ from Bowie’s late ‘60s days on the Deram label. Though no artist appears on the compilation themselves more than once, Bowie is one of the few to re-enter via proxy in the form of Lulu’s brassy rendition of ‘The Man Who Sold the World’, Dana Gillespie’s ‘Andy Warhol’, ‘All The Young Dudes’ as lent to Mott the Hoople and latterly Bauhaus’ fantastic cover of ‘Ziggy Stardust’. Indeed, as Bauhaus show, it’s the cover version on ‘Oh Yes We Can Love’ that tell the real story of how far the tentacles of glam reached. And those tentacles did indeed stretch far. The fourth and fifth disc of the compilation deals with the legacy of glam rock, making much of glam’s influence on punk, both in terms of music and attitude. ‘Oh Yes We Can Love’ serves as yet another reminder of the sheer redundancy of the oft-trotted standard BBC4 line that pop music in the early to mid-seventies was a bloated dullard waiting to be slayed by the revolutionary might of punk. There would be more truth in this if punk didn’t regularly, openly and explicitly lift from glam’s best moments – the Bay City Rollers terrace chant of the Ramones’ ‘Teenage Lobotomy’ (absent on the compilation in favour of the equally blissful ‘Sheena is a Punk Rocker’) is but one of a multitude of examples. In a back bedroom in Stretford, the young Steven Patrick Morrissey would dye his hair gold to copy idol David Bowie; 1992 single ‘Glamorous Glue’ featured here does a much more satisfying job. Guitarist Alain Whyte is caught with his hands in the ‘Jean Genie’ till as Morrissey repays his childhood debt to the Thin White Duke in a guttural glam workout produced by one Mick Ronson shortly before his death. Like Morrissey, Jarvis Cocker would utilise much of glam rock’s misfit sexuality and androgyny as well as a clear musical influence – seen here in the 1998 b-side ‘We Are the Boyz’ but also more obviously in ‘Disco 2000’s Elton John aping intro. By the noughties, the story comes to an end as exponents of glam become somewhat thin on the ground, though the compilation does feature the Darkness’ ‘Growing On Me’ which sounds worryingly better than it should in retrospect – are the Darkness due a re-appraisal? No I didn’t think so either, but to more than would care to admit it the Darkness did prove something of a gateway drug into metal and glam.
‘Oh Yes We Can Love’ is both a genius piece of musicology and an intensely enjoyable compilation – like its roots, the legacy of glam goes deeper than is often understood and glam rock can be viewed as the last truly uncynical pop movement and one that quietly subverted pop music irreversibly whilst still achieving radio ubiquity through its reverent focus on that most treasured and lost pop artefact – the single. Simultaneously energetic whilst intelligent, artful yet silly, the best of glam rock is the best of pop music, and ‘Oh Yes We Can Love’ is the perfect testament to this.
All words by Fergal Kinney. More writing by Fergal on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive.