When Marc Bolan appeared on the BBC show Top Of The Pops in March 1971 to perform his smash hit “Hot Love,” he launched a pop revolution not only with his music, but with his look. He appeared in bright yellow satin pants and a shiny black shirt with green and red fringe, his hair frizzed out into a wild halo of curls that shimmied with every cock of his head. But the ultimate piece of fashion and the most startling visual element of his outlandish-for-the-times outfit were the teardrops of silver glitter applied under his eyes, which caught the camera like a coy wink.
There are many conflicting stories surrounding the performance: Some say his wife applied the glitter, while others claim it was all Bolan’s idea. The most likely story is that the sparkle was added by his assistant, later his manager, a woman named Chelita Secunda. However that glitter got on camera, it stole the show. Young fans could copy that style just as easily as they could sing along with all those la la la lalala’s. The next day thousands upon thousands of kids all over England, boys and girls alike, were applying glitter and eventually make-up, and soon other rock stars were following suit. This was the birth of glam, one of the most outrageous and revolutionary movements in pop history: a musical and visual trend that celebrated surface shimmer, prized camp swagger, fed off its fans’ mania as much as its artists’ creativity, blurred the lines between masculine and feminine, and flirted with forms of sexuality only recently decriminalized by the Sexual Offences Act of 1967.
Glam represented a seismic pop-cultural shift after the heavy rock and heady import of the previous decade, which appeared dour and stifling to a new generation of pop fanatics. As Simon Reynolds writes in his epic and incredibly entertaining new history, Shock & Awe, glam artists “were driven by a half-ironic, deep down deadly serious obsession with stardom and all the trappings of ostentatious luxury that came with it. Breaking with the pieties of the long-haired liberation generation, glam celebrated illusion and masks instead of truth and sincerity. Glam idols like Bowie, Alice Cooper, Gary Glitter, Bryan Ferry and others espoused the notion that the figure who appeared onstage or on record wasn’t a real person but a constructed persona, one that didn’t necessarily have any correlation with a performer’s actual self or how they were in everyday life.”
All this flash and dazzle was buffing pop radio while England was experiencing dire economic convulsions, which would only intensify as the decade bore on. The country was negotiating its own presence in the European Community (a forerunner to today’s European Union), not only lending a new dimension to the artists’ understanding of Englishness but connecting that tumultuous period to our own. Glam was useful escapism: “Glam rock was a movement rooted in disillusionment,” writes Reynolds. “It believed fantasy would set you free, not reality.”
One of the most curious aspects of the movement is that very few of its biggest acts were native to glam. It didn’t burble up out of some obscure scene in England or elsewhere, but was invented on the fly. Musicians came to it from other genres and trends, from the previous decade’s beat bands and hippie acts. Bolan had smashed guitars in John’s Children and strummed cross-legged in the psych-folk act Tyrannosaurus Rex, a cult favorite but no best-seller. David Bowie had tried almost everything he could think of to get famous, from studying mime to playing in r&b bands to notching a surprise smash with “Space Oddity,” which he feared would taint him as a one-hit wonder. It wasn’t until he dyed his hair orange, proclaimed his homosexuality, and slid into the skin of alter ego Ziggy Stardust that he managed to achieve a foothold on the pop charts.
These and other artists brought to glam the virtues and values of other scenes, even as they upended and redefined them. All of those previous roles only underscored the degree to which glam was all about roleplaying: pop music as a catalyst for self-realization, a communal space where you could become literally anything you could imagine. It worked for artists as well as audiences, who could to varying degrees free themselves from the rigid gender roles of post-war British society. Glam became a movement defined by the synergistic relationship between idols and worshipers, each empowered and enabled by the other.
And perhaps that’s why glam survived beyond its early peak, quickly morphing and expanding with every new generation of pop listeners. Glam rock quickly gave way to glam pop, as younger siblings lavished attention on a new set of heroes: Mud, Suzi Quatro, and especially the Bay City Rollers, all of whom were dismissed by the press but most of whom have aged surprisingly well forty years on. Reynolds makes a persuasive case for Quatro in particular as a feminist firebrand and for Mud as a band that predicted the brief heyday of pub rock.
Even after Bolan’s death and Bowie’s move to Berlin, glam resurfaced again and again, a vital and animating force in rock music. It inspired the synthpop revolution of the late ’70s and early ’80s, influencing Gary Numan, Duran Duran, Human League, and so many others. You could argue that glam was the foundation for the Aqua Net-and-Spandex pop-metal of the late 1980s, when dudes on the Sunset Strip teased their hair into towering ‘dos, applied thick gobs of pancake make-up, and made androgyny a macho signifier. As Reynolds argues, glam was the force behind Lady Gaga, who traced a Bowie-esque trajectory by remaking herself from an earnest coffeehouse folkie into an artpop goddess. Even today indie-rock acts like Kyle Craft and the Lemon Twigs are carrying the form forward.
In other words, glam has the primal, animistic force of punk, which it partly inspired, then appropriated, then warped and restaged. Like punk, glam carries something essential across generations: the idea that popular music can be a form to get lost in, a form to find yourself in, a form that serves as a conduit to our biggest and weirdest selves. To celebrate that legacy, Stereogum presents a brief history, thorough but by no means definitive, of glam through its early ’70s heyday to its current manifestations. Because the movement emphasized image as well as sound, these songs are best consumed via performance clips, but where those are unavailable, we’ve inserted static videos. And to keep it from being just a list of amazing T. Rex and Bowie hits, we’re limiting songs to two per artist.
(Also, just so we can all get through the list without having to scrub our souls down, I’m purposefully omitting Gary Glitter and his breakthrough hit, “Rock & Roll Pt. 2,” whose blown-out drum sound was highly influential in dance music from disco to EDM but whose personal sexual predation reveals a sordid side of ’70s pop celebrity. As Reynolds notes, “Glitter’s ‘historic crimes,’ to use the legal term that appeared in the newspaper reports, threaten to make him an unperson in pop history.” It’s no great loss.)
THE FIRST WAVE
T. Rex – “Hot Love” (February 1971)
If there’s a ground zero for glam, it might be this song. Marc Bolan had hinted at this direction on the previous year’s “Ride A White Swan,” which married a ’50s guitar riff to hippie-surrealist lyrics but was more of a transitional moment than a confident mission statement. “Hot Love,” on the other hand, was seismic. It quickly made its way to the top of the pop charts and stayed there for six weeks in the spring of ’71, a season defined by strikes (postal workers), protests (Industrial Relations Act), violence (a bombing by the Angry Brigade), and unemployment (the highest rates since World War II). Despite such unrest, the upbeat hit set the template for glam hits to follow: affectionate updating of pre-Beatles sounds, playfully sexualized lyrics, hooks that sound too big for the radio, and simple sing-along chants that demand audience participation. And, of course, lots and lots of glitter.
David Bowie – “Queen Bitch” (December 1971)
Part of Bowie’s appeal was his unabashed fandom, whether he was resurrecting the career of Iggy Pop or penning hits for Mott The Hoople. While it was largely ignored at the time, Hunky Dory is peppered with nods to his heroes and influences, as though Bowie was triangulating his own persona via Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan, both of whom are mentioned in song titles. But the most loving tribute is “Queen Bitch,” a tale of drugs and desire that owes an obvious debt to the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed. Fitted to Mick Ronson’s compact guitar riff, which renders the New York Dolls obsolete before they even played a note, the song allows Bowie to gender-bend a romantic triangle and declare himself a prettier woman than his (presumably female) rival. “I could do better than that!” He might have been directing such a proclamation to frenemy Marc Bolan, whom he would very quickly eclipse.
David Bowie – “Starman” (April 1972)
Top Of The Pops may have been even more instrumental than radio in selling glam to a new generation of listeners too young to have grown up with the Beatles. Just over a year after Bolan’s star-making turn, Bowie outdid “Hot Love” in every regard: musically, sartorially, even sexually. Here is Bowie in full Ziggy Stardust get-up, bad teeth and loud hair, big boots and hairless chest, a sly smile and a wicked look in his eyes. Looking back, it’s hard to tell which gesture was more revolutionary: Bowie pointing to the camera and to the viewer at home on the line “so I picked on you — oo-oo” or Bowie draping his arm across the shoulder of guitarist Mick Ronson, hinting at a desire absolutely verboten on the BBC airwaves. Nearly fifty years later, it’s impossible to reconstruct that moment in history or to convey the magnitude of that moment, but Bowie’s performance has lost none of its magnetism over the years.
Mott The Hoople – “All The Young Dudes” (July 1972)
Mott were also-rans by the time glam exploded, having traipsed clumsily through a non-starting folk-rock career and some serious discussions about dissolving the band for more responsible pursuits. It was enough, however, to make Bowie a dedicated fan. Not only did he keep them from breaking up, but he took them under his wing, promising to write a hit for them. Can you imagine any band turning down “Suffragette City?” Ian Hunter rejected that one (now a standout in Bowie’s catalog) for a song originally conceived with Ziggy Stardust in mind, “All The Young Dudes,” a glam anthem told from a kid’s point of view. The song is pure Bowie, but Hunter might actually one-up him as he delivers these lines with a delinquent’s flair and rambles gloriously through the outro, growing more and more unhinged with every new announcement, as though the news itself — GLAM rock! — were creating the ultimate mania.
Roxy Music – “Virginia Plain” (August 1972)
Hailing from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Roxy Music were one of the first acts to start out in glam without much experience or any real exposure in previous scenes, which meant they could help set the mold for how the style could grow and develop. Except no one else really followed that mold, because how could they? Roxy Music were fronted by a former pottery teacher with a penchant for camp erudition and high-concept songwriting, and the guitar-bass-drums lineup was augmented by Andy McKay on saxophone and oboe and Brian Eno on an eclectic collection of gadgets and noisemakers. Their debut single, named after Ferry’s preferred brand of cigarettes, is a skronking blast of high glam, a hit single as planted flagpole claiming their ground as the scene’s suavest troupe. And the movement had few moments as musically mind-blowing as the song’s instrumental bridge.
Slade – “Cum On Feel The Noize” (February 1973)
One of the most popular bands of the era, Slade were working-class glam, a quartet of Wolverhampton yobbos who never fully committed to the androgynous possibilities of the movement but whose embrace of goofy spectacle bordered on heroic. Their signature opens with the amazingly named Noddy Holder showing off his sandpaper pipes (“baby baby BABYYYYY!!!!”) and the band delivering a leering, stomping, swaggering, and utterly righteous tribute to their audience of faithfuls. The chorus becomes a battle cry, a rousing exhortation of rock’s purest joys and impurest aims: “Cum on feel the noise, girls grab the boyz/ We get wild wild wild!!!”
T. Rex – “20th Century Boy” (March 1973)
A lot happened between “Hot Love” in 1971 and “20th Century Boy” in ’73. T. Rex had already crested and subsided, leaving Bolan an addled wreck: bloated, ridiculously quaffed, and creatively adrift. But he got his head together for a string of non-album singles, the last of which peaked at #3. With its blaring guitar riff and raw melodic strut, “20th Century Boy” is the last great T. Rex single, but the first great example of his influence on the punk rock generation that would blossom in just a few years. The song has been covered by Siouxsie & The Banshees, the Replacements, R.E.M., Placebo (for the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack), and — most curiously of all — Big Six, a Japanese band that reimagined it as a rowdy rockabilly rave-up.
Roxy Music – “Do The Strand” (July 1973)
After the success of their 1972 self-titled debut, Roxy Music didn’t take too long to follow it up with For Your Pleasure, heralded by “Do The Strand,” one of the best singles of the decade. Essentially the band invent an inscrutable dance move without describing how it’s done, and Ferry dismisses older dance crazes (“Bored of the beguine? The samba isn’t your scene?”) as though the Strand’s greatest selling point is its newness, its obscurity. Taking its title from another brand of cigarettes, the song shows just how agile Roxy Music had grown in a short time and how eager they were to subvert the trappings of contemporary pop music. Every piece of “Do the Strand” runs abruptly into the next, the song changing direction manically. This is pop music at its most erudite, even as it pokes fun at pop’s pretensions to sophistication.
THE SECOND WAVE
Electric Light Orchestra – “Roll Over Beethoven” (January 1973)
ELO were hailed as the new Beatles by the Beatles themselves, so it was appropriate that Jeff Lynne would launch his band with the same cover that had launched the Fab Four a decade prior. Rather than aiming for raw rock ‘n’ roll, this version is an over-the-top fantasia, a mash-up that combines Chuck Berry with the title composer’s Fifth Symphony. Wearing its synths like pancake make-up and its drums like towering high heels, the song is ridiculous in the most exciting way imaginable, but only hints at the spectacular soundscapes Lynne would dream up later in the decade.
Cockney Rebel – “Sebastian” (August 1973)
Steve Harley worked as a newspaper accountant, busked subways, and played folk gigs before forming the band Cockney Rebel, one of the great unsung acts of the glam era (unsung, at least, in America). They announced their presence in the most grandiose way possible: with a baroque-glam anthem featuring a fifty-piece orchestra, a choir that might be even larger, and a singer who makes a meal of the scenery. Described by the songwriter as a “gothic love song,” it sounds like getting lost in a haunted manor high on a moor somewhere, with the strings swooping in like ghosts and the choir rattling the chains in the attic.
Brian Eno – “Needle In The Camel’s Eye” (January 1974)
Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno started out as a noisemaker in Roxy Music, twiddling knobs on the band’s first two albums and pioneering a wild androgyny (despite his dramatically receding hairline) that threatened to upstage hyper-charismatic frontman Bryan Ferry. So he went solo, debuting with the weirdo Here Come The Warm Jets, which combined revved-up ’50s guitars with futuristic blips and bloops to create something wholly original. “Needle In The Camel’s Eye” is as close as he gets to a rock anthem, with its stop-start guitars and rumbling percussion. The song would memorably score the opening credits to Todd Haynes’ glam fantasia Velvet Goldmine. Eno would later invent ambient music and produce a lot of rock albums, but that’s another list altogether.
Elton John – “Bennie And The Jets” (February 1974)
Sir Elton tried on so many hats in the ’60s and early ’70s that he was bound to find one with sequins sooner or later. He had been hanging around the fringes of the glam scene for a few years, scoring some huge hits on both sides of the Atlantic and even jamming with Bolan on the baffling concert film Born To Boogie. One of his best singles of the decade — and therefore one of his best singles period — is this strutting R&B vamp about a fictional glam singer who could be literally any glam singer, including Elton himself. The most quoted lyrics describe Bennie’s “electric boots” and “mohair suit,” but the song is more concerned with the nature of the pop-religious experience, finally observing that, “Bennie makes them ageless.” Which pretty much sums up the appeal of glam.
Mott The Hoople – “The Golden Age Of Rock ‘N’ Roll” (February 1974)
Weary of press questions about their more famous benefactor, Mott the Hoople distanced themselves from Bowie for their follow-up to All The Young Dudes, proving themselves more than capable of penning radio hits. As with so many of Ian Hunter’s tunes, the most striking aspect of “The Golden Age Of Rock ‘N’ Roll” is its ambiguity: it’s initially difficult to tell if it’s participating in the era’s exultation of ’50s decadence or taking the piss. Are Mott lambasting pop idols for exploiting their fans and fickle audiences for “fighting for a place in the front row”? Or are they genuinely celebrating the frenzy of the crowds and the urge to rebel? Probably a little of both. It’s impossible to hear the wild momentum of the song and not believe Hunter when he threatens violence if you dare turn it down.
Queen – “Killer Queen” (October 1974)
Not typically associated with glam, Queen tended more toward metal and hard rock — although you could argue that Brian May’s fluid guitar work and Freddie Mercury’s outsize persona belong to no other scene by their own. But the overlap is revealing. “Killer Queen,” off their album Sheer Heart Attack, is Queen’s “Queen Bitch,” a character portrait peppered with so many knowing details that it’s easy to confuse the singer with the subject. But theirs is a lurid sophistication (“Drop of a hat she’s as willing and playful as a pussycat”) grafted onto a jaunty tune all but quoted from some hoary vaudeville number. Like Bowie and Bolan, Queen were fascinated by Englishness, but unlike their peers, they managed to package it in a way that Americans could head-bang along with.
Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel – “Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)” (January 1975)
By the mid ’70s, Steve Harley had enough of a profile to get top billing over what had become his backing band, and he broods over the breakout Best Years Of Our Lives, a concept album about the loss of emotional and psychological sanity that produced one of his biggest hits. “Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)” hit number one in the UK and even cracked the US top 100, selling a million copies and scoring the closing credits to Velvet Goldmine. It’s a superbly ingenious, surprisingly giddy, and seductively light arrangement, deploying just a few instruments — rhythm section, Spanish guitar, an unmade bed of synths — to suggest a pre-coital rollick. Harley sounds like he’s inviting the entire audience up to his flat, and the start-stop interruptions have the effect of a playful tease. This is glam at its most sexually and musically playful, a reminder that such sensual freedom should be first and foremost fun.
Bonnie St. Claire & Unit Gloria – “Clap Your Hands And Stamp Your Feet” (January 1973)
Bonnie St. Claire was a Danish pop singer on what looked like the tail end of a brief career when she teamed up for a handful of singles with the Utrecht band Unit Gloria, who weren’t doing so well themselves. They released a handful of singles that revived their careers, the best of which is their giddy ’72 single, “Clap Your Hands And Stamp Your Feet.” A smash in Europe and Scandinavia, a minor hit in England, and completely nonexistent across the Atlantic, it sounds like a love song from artist to audience, as St. Claire instructs her fans exactly how to show their affection and gratitude.
The Sweet – “Ballroom Blitz” (September 1973)
Too alpha male to commit to blurring gender norms, this London band fell under the thumb of Mickey Chinn and Mike Chapman, two Svengalis who all but defined bubbleglam as toothache-sweet and rooted in the cheap thrills (bordering on cheap nostalgia) of ‘50s rock & roll. The Sweet lacked the outlandish charisma of Slade as well as the nonchalant insouciance of Mott, but “Ballroom Blitz” is their lightning-in-a-bottle moment, a single so effortlessly catchy that the song plays the band instead of vice versa. Reportedly inspired by a Scottish crowd that pelted the band with a volley of bottles, the song became their signature tune, thanks to that relentless drumbeat and Steve Priest’s madcap vocal interjections. It’s one of the most covered songs from the era, with versions by Krokus, Material Issue, the Rezillos, and Crucial Taunt, the fictional band from Wayne’s World.
Mud – “Dyna-Mite” (October 1973)
If you watch only one video on this list, make sure it’s this one. Mud were one in a long line of bands plumbing ’50s nostalgia, prefiguring the musical atrocities soon to be committed by pop bottomfeeders like Alvin Stardust, Racey, and Shakin’ fuckin’ Stevens. But don’t hold that against them. Mud’s hammy derivativeness was the root of their keen sense of humor, which involved synchronized dance moves, ebullient hooks, and whatever the hell guitar player Rob Davis is wearing (don’t laugh too much… the man wrote and produced Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”). They topped the UK charts with the infectious “Tiger Feet,” hot off the Chinn Chapman assembly line, but Reynolds makes a persuasive case for this earlier single, which pre-empts pub rock: “There was nothing fey or delicate about Mud’s sound, a boorishly effective pummel that makes you wonder why pub rock even needed to be invented by bands or championed by journalists in 1974.” He means it as a complement. I think.
Bay City Rollers – “Saturday Night” (September 1975)
This Scottish act were the logical conclusion to glam’s teenybopper target: a band that borrowed the outlandishness of their forebears while jettisoning anything that might spook parents or titillate gossip columnists. Rather than glitter and eye shadow, mid-’70s tweens sported tartan togs and Rollermania sashes and sang along to a handful of… you know what? perfectly fine hit singles. Best among them was the smash “Saturday Night,” with its spelling-bee hook and chugging guitar line insinuating more than the lyrics dare. The song outlasted the band by decades, and even today it’s a staple at sporting events, thanks to its syncopated handclap rhythm.