Simon Reynolds's eighth book, Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, benefits from some otherwise unfortunate timing. The esteemed music writer's latest focuses on the origins and heyday of glam rock as well as the genre's lasting influence, and it arrives the same year that David Bowie—undoubtedly glam's most famous figure—passed away from cancer at the age of 69.
Reynolds's books are typically exhaustive in excavating every nook and cranny of the subject matter at hand, and Shock and Awe is no different; although Bowie is a frequent presence throughout, Reynolds digs deeper to look at glam's progenitors and practitioners—from Alice Cooper's campy surrealist hard rock, to the New York Dolls' gender-bending proto-punk antics, to the hippy-dippy swagger of Marc Bolan and T. Rex—while also explored the social and economic factors that contributed to the genre's forging and allowed it to thrive during its peak. The signature lightning-bolt associated with Bowie's 1973 classic Aladdin Sane may adorn the cover of Shock and Awe, but Reynolds displays characteristic zest not only in looking into the musical storm that swirled around that bolt, but also the indelible mark it left after giving popular culture a much-needed zap.
"It turned out to be a more Bowie-dominated book than I initially intended it to be," Reynolds states over the phone from his Los Angeles home. He began work on Shock and Awe three years ago and finished this past December—a month before Bowie's passing—with the intention of showing that there was much more to glam than just the Thin White Duke himself. "He was a successful rock star, but he reached a lot more people in the way he was discussed and analyzed—he didn't sell that many records. The figures that are remembered from [the glam era] aren't necessarily the ones who were the most popular [at the time]."
From Kanye West's zeitgeist-surfing career to the array of personas worn by Bowie's arguable heir apparent Lady Gaga, many of glam's identifying traits (a slippery approach to genre and influence, an obsession with fame's brutal decadence, a willingness to upset the societal status quo when it comes to gender, class, race, and sexuality) still loom large today. Shock and Awe makes the case that, even if glam is no longer existent as a cultural force, its past is more connected to our present than we give it credit for.
And Reynolds anticipates the general public's interest in glam could be on the verge of experiencing an uptick in public interest. He points to the the 2013 Tate Liverpool exhibition Glam: the Performance of Style as proof of this—and the fact that Bowie's legacy is still at the forefront of many listeners' minds helps, too: "Through being interested in Bowie, maybe people will be interested in that era, too.
Noisey: More than any of your previous books, Shock and Awe focuses on the business aspect of the music industry.
Simon Reynolds: I got fascinated by the aspect of business. A lot of music I liked in the past was underground music—post-punk and rave music had an underground, anti-mainstream ethos. Given the fact that we live in a capitalist society, a lot of underground music has to express itself through the market, and rave culture was an explosion of small businesses and DIY micro-capitalism. In terms of glam, I got interested in these business figures that were such interesting individuals—almost like stars themselves. Tony Defries and Shep Gordon were key figures in marketing groups like Cherry Vanilla—groups that were key for Bowie and existed as products in America.
I was very interested in how rock and roll advertising, hype, publicity, and PR are inextricable. Part of achieving anything is being able to sell it—there's no good in not selling your work. Right now I've written a book, and it would do me no good not to try to sell it. Pop music can never be a pure form of art—It always has to sell, and it's just a question of how far you go into hype and the techniques that glam people were experts at. As I was finishing the book, I was becoming more aware of the Trump phenomenon, too—techniques of blasting bullshit and grabbing headlines.
New York Dolls, 1973
When writing about Tony Defries, you quote from Donald Trump's book The Art of the Deal. Is Donald Trump glam?
It would be stretching it to say that he's glam—but he's an entertainer and a showman. What he's mastered so well is that he responds to America's two demands when it comes to public figures: that they're real and entertaining. The realness is that Trump says whatever is in his head. He seems a lot more authentic than Hillary Clinton, who seems guarded and calculated. With Trump, you're seeing an actual person mouthing these horrendous things in real time.
People at the time said about Tony Defries, "The next thing he'll get into is politics." I thought to myself, "That reminds me of someone." [Laughs] When I was writing that part of the book, there were like 17 Republican candidates, and it wasn't at all clear that Trump would win, but he was blowing others offstage by being more entertaining. Also, Bowie said in the 70s that a strong leader would come out of the entertainment field to take the world by storm. He thought the figure would come from rock and roll, but now reality TV contests are bigger than rock and roll.
Fascist imagery was quite present in glam, too.
It's a problematic aspect of glam that quite a few artists played with that imagery. Often, it was just for shock—Johnny Thunders putting a swastika on his arm was just playing with such a loaded symbol. It was almost comedy, I think—but Bowie was making a lot of statements about the need for a strong leader too, and in the 70s there was a lot of talk in Britain about the country being on the verge of collapse. How it was going to go the way of the Weimar Republic so maybe we needed an authoritarian government to crack the whip and put the radicals back in its place. Some of the things Bowie said were uncomfortable parallels.
With any kind of rock music—or any kind of entertainment that features a star as a sort of untouchable and extraordinary figure—there's an authoritarian relationship between the performer and the audience. It's something that a lot of rock and roll critics and artists have noticed—for gatherings of this size, there's a vibe of unanimity and vision. Performers can get into a mindset where they believe they're leaders of the youth and take it a bit too seriously. It's integral to showbiz. Any time you have a load of people believing that someone is vaguely superhuman and heroic, there's the potential for an unwholesome dynamic to creep in.
David Bowie's famous "nazi salute" or "wave," 1976
British culture has always been invested in the art of theatre. How did that play into the role of glam's ascent?
Cross-dressing is a British tradition that goes back to Shakespeare. In pantomime, there's always a large man playing a female role. It doesn't take a lot for British men to put on women's clothing—football teams raise money by dressing in drag. There's also a general theatricality that comes from being British. We were the country that invented the modern stage, as well as a particular style of acting that, compared to acting in American films, seems like it verges on overacting. Bowie obviously wanted to be an actor before he was a singer. He wanted to do everything—write songs, do musicals, do cabaret. It's a different ethos, particularly opposed to American rock and roll ethos—there were theatrical acts like the Doors, but it was much more improvised and didn't require costumes or props. British rock and roll groups had props and costumes, though—it was an aspect that gave you something to look at.
You mentioned drag—another thing glam did was bring queer culture closer to what some would call "mainstream" audiences.
A large part of glam is mostly-straight artists appropriating moves and ideas from gay culture. Bryan Ferry talked a lot about how most of his friends are gay and a lot of his aesthetics came from people he knew who knew about fashion. That's where his rock star sensibilities came from. Although I think Roxy Music's music was rampantly heterosexual, gay culture definitely informed their aesthetics. There were mixed responses to glam from the gay community, though. Some people were suspicious of Bowie as someone who played with imagery and used it to make statements. For a lot of other people, though, glam was enormously influential and empowering. In the 80s, where there was a second wave of glam, a lot of the main stars were gay women. So many children of glam were gay, and they were liberated by Bowie and glam.
But in the initial movement, there were only a few of the artists who were actually gay, and the ones that were gay—like Freddie Mercury—didn't actually come out and talk about it. There were a lot of straight performers acting more bisexual or gay than they really were. The analogy I use in the book is that a lot of the British rock in the 1960s was white middle-or-working-class men pretending to be black. So Bowie was like, "How do I be more radical and shocking than the Rolling Stones? What's the next frontier?" That was partly what drew him to gay culture, in addition to his love of theatricality.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
For an era of music that sometimes brought progressive concerns to wider audiences, glam culture could also be fairly misogynistic, too.
Some of the things considered okay and normal then would definitely not seen as acceptable now. Generally, there was a lot of dodgy stuff going on in rock culture—a lot of groups that did things that would get them in a lot of trouble now. At the same time, you don't want to deny the groupies their own agency. Many of them, to this day, insist on the idea that they didn't feel exploited—that it was exciting to be in contact with these stars and this glamorous world.
I don't think what went on reflects well on the stars and the performers at all, but the value system at that time was different. They were coming out of the 60s, so there were a lot of attitudes like "Anything goes" and "We should all be liberated and express ourselves." The power aspect of star-fan relationships are imbalanced, and they open up all kinds of possibilities for bad treatment.
What role did the British working class play in glam?
There's always a class element to meaningful British music. Slade emerged at a time when the middle class ran rock music, so they were the first band in a while that were the same class as their audience—they didn't want to make progressive music, they wanted to make the kids dance. Glam music was played in discotheques where people danced at the shows, whereas the previous stage in rock music was much more contemplative. You also had working-class art school kids getting into the artier part of glam, like Roxy Music, whose following seemed to have a more aspirational following consisting of British working class. Their following would come to the shows all dressed up, acting out the fantasy of rock music, the world of elegance and chic—a beautifully designed life.
Larry Fitzmaurice is a senior culture editor for VICE. Follow him on Twitter.