When the subject of glam rock comes up, for many, it immediately conjures images of ‘80s hard rock bands parading across MTV in full, high-gloss rock star regalia. But in reality, glam rock goes far deeper, and like other genres, includes several sub-strains and various mutant species within its seamy confines. As a couple of vintage glam rock reissues and comps have recently hit the shelves, it felt like the right time to pull out the mascara and faux-fur and dig into the often misunderstood scene a bit.
Dating back to the early ‘70s, early glam rock was mainly the province of two idiosyncratic Brits and a handful of cross-dressing deviants from these parts. In the UK, David Bowie created an alter ego in the form of the alien rock star Ziggy Stardust that utilized makeup and androgynous imagery to tell a deeper story, while also functioning as social commentary. Marc Bolan and T.Rex used colorful imagery and makeup for presentation purposes, to doll up his cosmic tribute to rock ‘n’ roll sounds of the past.
While Bowie saw the image as a cinematic extension of his art, Bolan saw it as icing on the cake, or window-dressing for the rock ‘n’ roll racket his band whipped up. These two pioneers would spawn two distinct glam camps that would have a lasting influence on the bastard offspring some decades to come. From Bowie would come the arty side of the spectrum, with successive artists emulating his complex and introspective take on the genre.
Bolan’s influence was more primal, focusing more on the rock, with emphasis on kicking out the jams in the sleaziest way possible. While the two camps may have had little in common on the surface beyond a penchant for the flamboyant, there was common ground, and in fact, Bowie and Bolan were said to have been friends and mutual admirers. The commonalities extended to the sense of spectacle and animated spirit of the music, whether it be a proto-punk romp or a melodramatic symphonic opus.
The aforementioned reissues and comps cover both sides of the spectrum with a bit of chipped polish and aplomb. On the more esoteric side, we have the eccentric and uncanny Be-Bop Deluxe. While definitely not a household name in glam-purist circles, this UK combo, led by guitarist and vocalist Bill Nelson sonically straddled the lines between prog, art-rock, and traditional rock ‘n’ roll, with a dramatic and colorful, makeup-clad image. The band released five studio albums between 1974 and 1978, putting a more technical and esoteric spin on the proceedings. Often incorporating futuristic, Sci-Fi imagery and lyrics into the mix, the band hit its stride on its first few albums Axe Victim, Futurama, and Sunburst Finish. The band’s fifth and final album Drastic Plastic was recently reissued in a choice of formats, completing the Cherry Red label’s reissue program for the band.
Originally released in 1978, the album saw the band vary its overall sound, with a more focused approach to the day’s synth-driven, new wave sounds. Singles included bouncy pop number, “Panic in the World” and “Electrical Language,” which could easily have fit on Duran Duran’s debut a couple of years later. One factor that distinguishes Be Bop Deluxe is Nelson’s guitar acrobatics. Equally adept at crafting both subtle atmospherics and highly technical riffs and flourishes, Nelson’s playing especially shines through on the proggy “New Precision,” one of the album’s highlights.
The new reissue can be had in both a super-deluxe box set or a 2-CD remastered package. The super deluxe comes with five CDs, a DVD, a book with an essay penned by Nelson himself, postcards, and a poster, all in a plush hardback case. The four CDs include the original album, a brand-new stereo mix that can be experienced in surround, unreleased demos, singles not included on the original release, a BBC radio session, and more. The DVD includes concert footage filmed in the South of France at the time, as well as Nelson home movies filmed during the making of the album.
For diehards, the super deluxe is a must and will undoubtedly sell out as most of the other sets have. Either way, the new remastered sound was culled from the original studio tapes, so you’re getting superior output with both variants, which is the optimal way to experience any of the Be Bop Deluxe albums, as sonically, there’s so much lurking just beneath the surface with this band.
While Be-Bop Deluxe scored big with both diehard fans and critics alike, at the opposite end of the spectrum in 1970s England, there lurked an entirely different species of glam rock beast. All across Europe, hordes of aspiring rock stars slathered on the makeup to join the party, plying their trades with varying degrees of talent and proficiency. Often referred to as “Junkshop Glam,” this was a new strain of sleaze pulled straight from the gutter that—in many cases—would remain underground for decades until collectors began to unearth these ungodly artifacts at record swaps and thrift stores, where they’d soon find a new life in the “so-bad-it’s-good” category.
Recent comp Oh! You Pretty Things: Glam Queens And Street Urchins 1970-76 collects some standouts from the era in a tidy 3-CD box set (Grapefruit Records). In similar fashion to the label’s excellent All the Young Droogs release from a couple of years back, this set combines similar trash-merchant fare with more respectable and high-brow glam-related acts such as Roxy Music and Mott The Hoople, to give a more holistic snapshot of the era; representing both the Bowie and Bolan contingents, as well as a healthy dose of junkshop oddities. Speaking of which, we get the cleverly named Agnes Strange, the overly breathy and fey Brett Smiley, the bizarre Bearded Lady, the decidedly heavier Blackfoot Sue and the wonderfully reckless, Brutus, among other newly unearthed gems.
The set comes packages in a glossy clamshell case with three mini-LP styled CD sleeves and a booklet that details the whole sordid mess. For questions, comments, or something you’d like to see, hit me up at Retrohead77@yahoo.com. Cheers, Kaz