THE UNITED STATES OF GLAMERICA
Alice Cooper – “I’m Eighteen” (September 1972)
Never the most obvious glam rock act, Coop tended more toward goth vaudeville, touring a show filled with boas as well as boa constrictors, dismembered dolls and sleight-of-hand beheadings. By the time the band hooked up with producer Bob Ezrin and started developing a reputation for shock rock, the frontman and namesake had jettisoned women’s clothing and let his make-up run into a horror-movie death mask. On the surface, their breakout hit might seem to have little in common with other early glam hits, especially since he asserts his masculinity in the first verse: “I’m a boy and I’m a man.” But “I’m Eighteen” is ultimately about self-realization, feeling comfortable in your own body even as you dream of escape to some less mundane setting: “I’ll go runnin’ in outer space.”
Lou Reed – “Vicious” (November 1972)
Like Iggy Pop and Mott The Hoople, Lou Reed was one of Bowie’s reclamation projects: a ’60s non-icon who in the 1970s was losing what little professional traction he had achieved. The two were briefly inseparable in the wake of Hunky Dory, with Bowie and Mick Ronson co-producing Reed’s second and arguably best album, Transformer. “Walk On The Wild Side” was the hit, “Satellite Of Love” and “Perfect Day” the soundtrack favorites, but “Vicious” is Reed at his cattiest. Over a wind-up toy guitar lick, he spouts an exquisitely bitchy vocal about getting slapped with a flower. As with so many things in the era, it was reportedly inspired by Andy Warhol.
Todd Rundgren – “Sometimes I Don’t Know What To Feel” (March 1973)
Rundgren’s colorful outfits, which often involve peacock-feather eyelashes and shiny overalls, made David Bowie look preppy by comparison, but his music veered more toward the rigid song structures and sturdy melodies of Bacharach-David. Just a few years after establishing his credentials with the double album Something / Anything?, the Philly native released his most glambitious album, not a double but at 55 minutes the longest LP in print, featuring a loopy space-pop suite that gobbled up all of side one and a melody of regurgitated ’60s hits that gunked up side two. In between is one of his best compositions, the piano-led “Sometimes I Don’t Know What To Feel,” with its fanfare chorus and its admissions of immensely crippling self-doubt.
New York Dolls – “Personality Crisis” (July 1973)
When the New York Dolls played The Old Grey Whistle Test (sort of like the older brother to Top of the Pops), host Bob Harris famously dismissed the cross-dressing Dolls as “mock rock.” It caused a minor controversy to anyone who cared, but he’s not exactly wrong. They took the stage in drag not to make any kind of statement on gender or sexuality, but to reinforce their macho bona fides. Visually garish, they were musically conservative, trafficking blooz rock not far enough removed from either of the Winters and too far removed from the punks who later took a few cues from the band’s affection for actual girl groups. The Dolls were best when they played up the pout and the attitude, as on this troll’s rallying cry, which is not about frontman David Johansen’s own confusion, of course, but targets some detestable “you.” That and the guitars lend the song its suitably trashy gloss, but it’s the rhythm section that provides the much-needed chug.
Jobriath – “Space Clown” (October 1973)
Bruce Wayne Campbell — aka Jobriath — was the first openly gay artist to be signed to a major label, yet nothing much came of his brief tenure at Elektra Records, certainly nothing commensurate with the buzz that greeted the release (most of it generated by his wildly ambitious manager, Jerry Brandt). But his debut has been rescued from obscurity by cratediggers and cult audiences, who prize his flamboyant reimaginings of Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and blues. On “Space Clown,” he crafts an origin myth that sounds like a cabaret on Mars, painting himself as a crying-on-the-inside clown and all but stealing the Pierrot figure from Bowie himself.
Suzi Quatro – “Devil Gate Drive” (February 1974)
Suzi Quatro was barely fourteen when she formed a garage-rock group with her sisters, and by the time she signed with Mickie Most’s RAK Records as a solo artist, she was already something of a showbiz veteran. With the release of her debut, she became a tomboy sex symbol for the teenybopper set, sporting a strategically unzipped leather jumpsuit, modest application of makeup, and super-phallic bass guitar. It’s a clever reversal of glam’s masculine-feminine fluidity, allowing Quatro to create a tough-chick persona that’s powerful and incredibly influential so many years later. “Devil Gate Drive” wasn’t her first hit, but it might be her best, a rough-and-tumble ode to an older sibling’s secret rebellion. “Well, your mama don’t know where your sister done go,” Quatro sings, echoing Wanda Jackson and the previous decade’s street-tough girl groups. “She goes down to the drive, she’s the star of the show!”
Sparks – “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us” (April 1974)
They might have been Yanks, but the Mael brothers had more success in England (where they had eight consecutive top 40 hit singles in the 1970s) than they did in homeland (where they had less than none). Perhaps it was something to do with the brothers themselves, a study in contrast: Ron, the main songwriter, sported a Hitler ‘stache and stared at the camera with an aggressive deadpan, while Russell, the singer, had a more conventional charisma and could hit the high notes on “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us,” an imaginative upending of love song conventions and cinematic clichés punctuated by actual gunshots. It’s still one of the weirdest hit singles of the decade.
Iggy Pop – “Lust For Life” (October 1977)
The man named James Osterberg had dabbled in glam in the early 1970s, signing to Bowie’s management firm and working together briefly on what became the Stooges’ Raw Power. Disagreements over the mixing and Pop’s volatile personality curtailed collaborations for five years, but the duo reconnected and reconvened for two albums that relaunched Pop’s career and redefined his persona. Rather than rage maniacally, as he had done with his previous band, Pop croons and vamps persuasively on both The Idiot and Lust For Life, the latter arguably the best of his career. The title track marries a pounding rhythm section (perhaps a parody or appropriation of “Rock & Roll Pt. 2″) to a reckless guitar lick and a Pop vocal that is both excitable and controlled. That litany of drug references may be either his admission that he’s kicking his habits or making fun of anyone who thought he ever would.
THIRD, FOURTH, FIFTH WAVES
Rocky Horror Picture Show Cast – “Sweet Transvestite” (August 1975)
This is the song that gave Laverne Cox pause over taking the lead role in this year’s reboot of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. “The only apprehension I really had about doing the film was the term ‘transvestite,’” she said at a recent Variety event. “That is an antiquated term. But in 1975, when Rocky Horror Picture Show came out, ‘transvestite’ meant a very different thing.” She also explained that “you don’t change the words to an iconic song.” This stage-extravaganza-turned-midnight-movie is one of the most glam things of the ‘70s, luring misfit teens to theaters in fishnet and heels. Pre-Internet, it was a secret club, and membership demanded you learn your lines, bring the right props, and participate in the spectacle itself. The audience became the performers, the performers the audience.
Tubeway Army – “Down In The Park” (March 1979)
Gary Numan emerged in the late ’70s as a dystopian version of Ziggy Stardust, looking like an alien sent to Earth and simultaneously curious about and utterly bored by humanity. Rather than an androgynous messiah, he’s a cold robot still shaking the moondust off his shoulders and replacing rock guitars with chilly synths. “Down In The Park,” from the Tubeway Army’s debut, Replicas, tweaks Ballard and Burgess in this sci-fi epic about robots killing humans for sport and entertainment. No less imaginative for being so bleakly pessimistic about the future of humanity, this is glam rock twisted into an endtimes cult.
Poison – “Talk Dirty To Me” (February 1987)
Like the New York Dolls, the drug-addled rockers along the Sunset Strip managed to make androgyny into something comically macho, lipstick and make-up and Spandex robbed of their transgressive properties and presented as somehow more masculine than straight masculinity. Poison’s idea of decadence was on loan from Slade and the Sweet, but their music was based almost exclusively in the power riffs and caveman innuendo of American classic rock. Still, there’s something almost charming about the lack of sophistication of “Talk Dirty To Me,” their breakout single from Look What The Cat Dragged In. Despite the chrome-plated production, Poison sound like they can barely play together: the rhythm section comes across as tentative, C.C. DeVille lets the solo get away from him, and Brett Michaels tries to convey charisma on his asides. The effect is big-budget jerry-rigged glam rock: trashier than the Dolls and much more successful.
R.E.M. – “Crush With Eyeliner” (August 1995)
When R.E.M. wanted to give their fans a real rock album, they went full-on glam. On Monster, the rhythm section tightens up, Peter Buck channels his inner Mick Ronson (this is a woefully under-celebrated guitar album), and Michael Stipe drops contradictory hints about his sexuality — which had by then become a persistent question in interviews. On “Crush With Eyeliner,” the object of his desire might be a woman or someone dressed as a woman, which leads the frontman to strategize his seduction: “How can I convince her that I’m invented, too?” To his credit, Stipe never clarified anything on Monster; instead, he and the band used glam rock to keep us all guessing.
Marilyn Manson – “The Dope Show” (September 1998)
Mechanical Animals was purported to be a prequel to Manson’s previous album, Antichrist Superstar, but the mythology is hopelessly muddled by now. Still, it was his savviest album, a sly tweaking of the shock-rock persona he had developed. Manson appears on the cover, a whitewashed sexless android out of Gary Numan’s nightmares, and the album’s first single adds a faint synth shimmer to his familiar metal stomp. In interviews Twiggy Ramirez even admits cribbing the beat from Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” — a piece of thievery that Bowie himself would have respected. But this wasn’t just empty posturing or a heedless allusion to rock-historical indulgences or even the exploitation of sex as a shock element. On “The Dope Show” Manson understands something vital about himself and about glam rock as well: fame is its own narcotic, equally addictive to stars and audiences.
Hedwig & The Angry Inch Cast – “Wig In A Box” (February 1999)
Drag was a crucial part of glam, in particular the idea that pop music allowed you to toggle between identities. So the story of a rock star caught between sexes — the victim of a botched gender reassignment surgery — focuses on the hard work it takes to make yourself into a canvas and the courage it takes to inhabit the in-between. Co-written by Stephen Trask and David Cameron Mitchell, the show started life in ’98 at the Jane Street Theater before graduating to a full-on Broadway production, and in the last 15 years this particular song has been sung by Michael C. Hall, Neil Patrick Harris, and Stephen Cameron Mitchell, among others.
Lady Gaga – “Paparazzi” (July 2009)
Not only did Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta will herself into a new persona as the mercurial, meat-dress-wearing Lady Gaga, but she even willed her own fame. Her 2009 debut, released to stores before anyone had even heard of her, was actually called The Fame, and it included this hit that’s either about a lover stalking you like the press or about a fan cutting out photos of her pop idols. Either way, Gaga knows the scenario is a little creepy: Such devotion can be obliterating to self and subject, but in this case it simply created a celebrity where one had not existed before.
Here are the songs from this list in a single Spotify playlist: