A quote from Rolling Stone magazine says this of the late musician:
"As was the case with Miles Davis in jazz, Bowie has come not just to represent his innovations but to symbolize modern rock as an idiom in which literacy, art, fashion, style, sexual exploration and social commentary can be rolled into one.”
That, my friends, is the essence of glam rock. And Bowie not only embraced it; he oozed it.
Even so, he cannot be credited with pioneering it. At least, not completely.
Before Bowie came on the scene, others were laying the fundamental groundwork for the burgeoning theater of the bizarre that would become glam rock.
Glam rock was its own cultural revolution.
Spawned as a reactionary movement to the years of peace-and-love hippie psychedelia on one end and progressive, highfalutin music on the other, glam rock was born of the need to make rock fun again.
It was also the ultimate mash-up.
Drawing from influences as far reaching as 1930s Hollywood glitz and glamour to the pre-war cabarets, Victorian literary styles to science fiction, glam rock returned to classic three-chord boogie with tribal beats but delivered it with a campy post-ironic androgyny.
Outrageous was the theme - from clothes to hairstyles, makeup to shoes. (Think platform-soled boots fashioned with live fish swimming in the heels.) And the music itself was shamelessly catchy,
drawing melodies from bubblegum pop and those hip-shaking rhythms from early rock.
And the music itself was shamelessly catchy, drawing melodies from bubblegum pop and those hip-shaking rhythms from early rock.
And it would set the stage, as it were, for the later punk, art-rock and power-pop movements.
The Beginnings of Glam Rock
Just to set the record straight: Glam rock is not to be confused with '80s hair metal - a distinction that's not always clear to American listeners.
Glam rock was a mostly British phenomenon that became hugely popular during the first half of the '70s and then declined quickly by the end of the '70s. (The '80s hair metal genre would later mutate from glam rock.)
It can be broken down into two main schools.
The most prevalent one was that led by T. Rex (a.k.a. Marc Bolan) who pioneered glam's fashion sense with unapologetically sexy, silly and "surface" music. Some of the artists that followed this aesthetic were Gary Glitter, Sweet, and Slade - thus creating a wholly British substyle known as Glitter.
The other school relied heavily on image and a deeply artistic aesthetic, demonstrated by artists like David Bowie and Roxy Music. This school was showy, dramatic and ambitious, in respect to both sound and lyrics.
For the second school, the outlandishness of glam rock was an opportunity for them to manipulate their personas while exploring the darkness lurking under the music's stylish, sparkly surface.
Meanwhile in America...
Glam rock wasn't as well received in the States, though one of the most prominent glam rock bands were the New York Dolls.
They had a raw sound more reminiscent of the Rolling Stones, but their outrageous aesthetic and transvestite wardrobe placed them firmly in the same camp as their brethren across the pond.
Here's a list of some of the music that epitomized the glam rock era:
1. "Ballroom Blitz," by Sweet
Some consider this the band that started it all, and this was their biggest stateside hit. (Tia Carrere did a cover in Wayne's World which should be noted does NOT qualify as glam rock.)
2. "Metal Guru," T. Rex
This is a two-chord wonder that is both an ode to a car and a girl.
3. "Suffragette City," David Bowie
This one is the most popular of his Ziggy Stardust anthems and possibly the tale of a gay man being tempted by a woman. The epitome of glam rock.
4. "Cum On Feel The Noize," Slade
We're not talking the Quiet Riot version here, y'all.
5. "All The Young Dudes," Mott The Hoople
This saved Mott's career. And while the band members were straight, this song was purportedly about the glam movement and was actually a gay pride anthem.
6. "Personality Crisis," The New York Dolls
This song established New York Rock as an enduring movement even after the death of the Velvet Underground.
7. "Do The Strand," Roxy Music
Roxy were the art-rock contigency of glam rock. Their style would later help them to birth Britain's New Romantic movement.
8. "Can The Can," Suzi Quatro
In her leather jumpsuit, Suzi was the female teen idol of glam rock.
9. "I'm The Leader Of The Gang," Gary Glitter
With his tribal style, Glitter helped begin glam with "Rock and Roll Parts 1 and 2."
10. "Be My Lover," Alice Cooper
Alice mingled in the glam, goth, and metal realms, but he definitely knew how to go full glitter on everyone.
Yeah, glam rock was freakin' awesome. But...
Only one woman?
You'd think with so much make-up, glitter and ruffles, Suzi Quatro wouldn't be the only female on the above list. Though she wasn't the singular glam rock female representative, the pickings were thin.
The effeminate nature and gender games of the glam rock aesthetic carried the appearance of messing with patriarchy. But it was a facade because in the early '70s, the patriarchy was still firmly in control. It was predominantly men getting glammed-up.
Glam rock would, however, influence future female musicians like Siouxsie Sioux, Grace Jones, and Annie Lennox who managed to make it work in the next decade.
And then the glitter faded.
The artists that had dominated the movement were either moving away from the style or releasing subpar work that just didn't have the sparkle.
Glam rock inarguably influenced the British punk movement, and was an even bigger contributor to the theatrical sturm und drang of post-punk.
Finally, glam rock was pivotal to the development of '80s pop-metal. Interestingly enough, though, apart from Def Leppard, many of those American hair bands had scant knowledge of these glam bands.
Talk about ironic.
Do you have a favorite glam rock band? We'd love to hear about it.