Glam rock, the genre of bare chested one piece suits, corny guitar solos, and, most importantly of all, shed loads of glitter. Undeniably a reaction to the serious, modestly dressed bands of the 60s, glam became a phenomena in the UK during the early 1970s. But what exactly is glam rock? Is it a musical style or simply a fashion statement?
Origins and Meaning of Glam Rock
The glam rock genre was inspired by the flower pop of the 60s and by bubblegum pop in particular. Bubblegum pop was essentially a one-hit wonder genre, which churned out hits marketed at teenagers and preteens. The music included all the classic elements of pop, such as catchy melodies, sing-along choruses, simple compositions, and repetitive hooks. The music also tended to have an air of innocence while hinting at a hidden sexuality.
Early glam rock musicians combined bubblegum pop with elements of psychedelic rock to create a sexually charged, otherworldly form of pop rock music. The musical effect was complemented by an outrageous fashion style that cut through traditional gender determined constraints. Male musicians turned up on stage wearing copious amounts of glitter, skin tight satin clothes, eyeliner and face paint, and a wild variety of colours.
Over the years glam rock musicians took the aesthetic of the genre to greater and greater extremes that somewhat obscure its rather more modest beginnings. The glam rock genre began in 1971, when Marc Bolan appeared on Top of the Pops with his band T-Rex. Bolan performed the song Hot Love, while wearing a black satin top and with glitter underneath his eyes. The song would become the band’s first number 1 single in the UK, remaining at the top of the charts for 6 consecutive weeks, and Bolan’s performance introduced a generation of youths to the concept of androgyny, unleashing glam rock fashion onto an unsuspecting world.
After appearing on Top of the Pops, T-Rex released the album Electric Warrior, which went to number 1 in the UK. The term “T. Rextasy”, a play on bands name akin to “Beatlemania”, was used to describe the incredible popularity T-Rex was enjoying among young people. The band produced hit after hit, establishing glam rock as legitimate mainstream genre to rival its predecessors.
Inspired by T-Rex and the pioneering style of Marc Bolan, other artists began to adopt a glam rock look. The most iconic among them was English musician and actor David Bowie. Having failed to achieve success with a series of musical projects, Bowie created a new glam rock persona, Ziggy Stardust. Drawing on his theatrical experience and his personal relationships with actors and dancers, Bowie created, in Ziggy Stardust, the ultimate glam rock figure, verging on caricature.
In 1972, Bowie released the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. After appearing on Top of the Pops, the album entered the charts and remained there for 2 years. While performing as Ziggy, Bowie undertook increasingly theatrical performances often with a sexual or pseudo-sexual component.
As Ziggy gained fame, Bowie’s previous work, including the album The Man Who Sold the World, which had been released in 1970, became sought after. Despite epitomizing glam rock, Bowie soon moved on from the genre to complete other work. He remains one of the most influential glam rock musicians ever.
Glam Rock in the Mainstream
Glam rock had been a mainstream genre since its inauguration in 1971. Started by Bolan and epitomized by Bowie, both of whom had been professional musicians for a number of years before transitioning to glam rock, the genre was by no means from the underground. But it takes more than professional musicians to successfully create a commercially successful new genre. The social and cultural timing has to be right and glam rock appeared at a moment when people were beginning to tire of serious bands with straight styles and wearing dull colors.
With the path ahead clear, thanks to Bolan and Bowie, a new wave of artists joined the glam rock revolution. It was a revolution that emphasized the self and experimented with identity, self-expression, and sexuality. Arguably, glam rock is more about style and individuality than it is about the music. A diverse range of artists fall under the heading, often exhibiting very different musical styles.
In 1973, Elton John appeared on Top of the Pops with sparkly orange sunglasses while performing Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, prompting people to label him glam rock (though not for long). In the same year, Queen released their debut, self-titled album, demonstrating a hard rock sound easily distinguished from Elton John’s softer sound, yet Freddie Mercury’s outrageous style and the bands commitment to stage theatrics places them firmly within the bounds of glam rock.
Despite the differences however, the glam rock bands of the 70s continued to draw on psychedelic rock and bubblegum pop – albeit to varying degrees – and to achieve commercial success with the results. Mott the Hoople, who earned their glam rock badge by playing a song written by David Bowie called All The Young Dudes in 1972, also feature a heavy sound but also include the classic harmonies of bubblegum pop. The song was a big hit, reaching number 3 in the UK singles charts.
In 1971, UK band Slade switched from being a skinhead band to a glam rock band and found near instant chart success with the song Cuz I Love You, which eventually reached number 1. Between then and 1973, the band produced hit after hit, including Cum On Feel the Noize and Skweeze Me Pleeze Me. Their 1973 Christmas classic, Merry Xmas Everybody, marks the pinnacle of their success and continues to perform well in the charts around Christmas time to this day.
Sweet’s 1973 single, Blockbuster, topped the UK singles chart for five weeks, followed by three number 2 hits. Suzi Quatro also reached number 1 with Can The Can in 1973. While Roxy Music built a solid fan following and garnered critical acclaim during their glam years between 1970-76. Their debut album, Roxy Music, was released in 1972 and reached number 10 in the UK albums chart and their first single, Virginia Plain, reached number 4.
But despite the genres continued commercial success, the glam rock genre was on the way out. By the mid-70s glam rock was being replaced by punk music, which was in part a reaction to the insincerity of glam, but which also borrowed heavily from the genre in terms of fashion and stage theatrics.
Although glam rock began to fade away during the mid-70s, the genre had a profound effect on the music that came after it. Perhaps more importantly, it changed the look of rock music forever. The glam rock inspired image of a long haired frontman singing into a microphone while wearing a spandex bodysuit, his chest exposed to the world, is now familiar to everyone.
As influential glam rock bands became few in number, punk set out utilizing the stylistic elements of the genre, including using makeup and creating exhilarating, theatrical live shows. Proto-punk bands like Blondie can be seen as a hybrid between the burgeoning punk movement and the ailing glam scene. In the mid-80s, hair metal, also known as glam metal, applied the same aesthetics to metal music, producing world-famous bands, such as Mötley Crüe and Poison.
The influence of glam rock extended as far as Prince, who adopted a glam rock inspired style and flair while he traversed music genres over the course of his career. In 2003, The Darkness temporarily revived glam rock in the UK with their album Permission to Land. A caricature of the original genre, The Darkness nevertheless embodied many of the genre’s key features and enjoyed considerable commercial success for a few years. There are a couple of smaller acts trying to push their way through in the internet era, a couple of notable mentions include Sisters Doll, Snakebite and Crazy Lixx.
While the glam rock era maybe over, it is clear that glam’s iconic fashion lives on and will no doubt reappear again and again
Key Moments in the History of Glam Rock
- 1971 – T-Rex released Electric Warrior, the defining glam rock album.
- 1971 – Slade released Cuz I Love You.
- 1972 – David Bowie released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, performing as his glam rock alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust, who he unveiled earlier the same year.
- 1972 – Roxy Music released their debut, self-titled, album.
- 1973 – Slade released their Christmas classic, Merry Xmas Everybody.
- 1977 – Marc Bolan, the originator of glam rock, dies in a car crash shortly before his 30th birthday.