Pale Glitter - Fat Sound

catalogue essay for None More Blacker 200 Gertrude St., Melbourne, 2001
The Glitter Band (1974); The Spiders From Mars (1972)

There is an apotheosis of Pop Music. It isn't The Beatles or The Beach Boys. It isn't Phil Spector or Burt Bacharach. Nor The Monkees, The Knack or The Ben Folds Five. It is neither retro, camp, trashy, nostalgic, memorable, definitive, quintessential, glorious, transcendental, embracable. It is hairy, fat and sweaty. It is a thing called Gary Glitter. If Pop is fake, artificial, unreal, unnatural, then Glam Rock is the most openly self-mocking travesty of anything significant that could be peeled off the enameled veneer of Pop's liminal skin. And Gary Glitter is the ambassadorial barge that spills Glam's oily rainbow slick onto the murky pool of Pop's history.

Welling up in the collapse of the sociocentric 60s, Glam inwardly directed its trajectories of body status, sexual practice and fashion statement, marking it typical of the solipsistic 70s. While bad hangover 60s terms tried to qualify Glam as a sociological schism of the 70s ('gender-bending', 'androgynous', 'bisexual', etc.), Glam was more a self-inflicted form of theatre which the individual played out irrespective of any social effect save for shock value. In place of any wider social concerns, Glam fuses private and social space, as documented in reflections on Glam from Nan Goldin's to Boy George's snapshots of their flickering photo-booth lifestyles. Part adornment, part affectation, Glam still remains the only musical mode which synchs to the core of sexual crisis which halts all attempts at defining sexuality: the pre-op transsexual. Despite the tragedy which laces the dilemma of the pre-op (a dreadfully codifying social pressure which still frowns on a person deciding to either accept or reject their external bodily form), the pre-op body is that which renders gender itself as an aberration, as if the act of categorization creates the monstrous rather than any deviation from the binary split which strangleholds para-gender possibilities.

Just as Warhol infamously claimed that "Art" was short for "artist" (and he is still right), "Glam" is short for "glamour". Which means that anything labeled Glam is an outright perversion of the term. Far from recalling the high-style theatricality and neo-Grecco perfection of Garbo's cheeks, Gable's Chin, Monroe's lips or Davis' eyes, the 'glamour' connoted by Glam is the motley residue of an original sheen. Central to Glam is the act of transformation – sexual, sartorial, sonic – so much that no-one ever 'became' or 'was' Glam. Rather, everyone from Bowie to Alice Cooper to Sha-Na-Na to Generation X to Sigue Sigue Sputnik wear Glam. They dress-up and go out as Glam. Like bogans in boas, madonnas with mullets, sirens with stubble, they stay out all night as anything but themselves.

One of the most delightfully reduced sonic patinas of Rock'n'Roll is Gary Glitter's "Rock'n'Roll (Part 2)". The pubic pulsation and penile throbbing of the dual drums, baritone saxes and low-tuned fuzz guitars (courtesy of Mike Leander's unmistakable production) typify the totally artificial approach to reproducing the sound of 'classic' rock'n'roll which gave Glam its sensational clash between modernism and retroism. It's a deeply hollow yet lusciously sonic spectacle, all the more beautiful because of its bloated sonorum. It talks of how music 'used to sound' while flagrantly rebuilding a new sound whose architecsonics render accurate acoustics into fattened icons of instruments. The 'fat' echoic sound of Glam – from Roxy Music's "Remake Remodel" to The Rubettes' "Sugar Baby Love" – deliberately flaunts this false yearning, this inappropriateness, this innate inability to 'be', this will to transform, deform, reform.

Motley Crue (1987); Bauhaus (1981)

This is why the most important precursor to Punk is Glam rather than any of the 'real' crud that rock critics used to define and 'prove' the essence of Punk. In an era when Bahaus covered "Telegram Sam" and Eater covered "Queen Bitch", it was not by accident that The Human League covered Gary Glitter's anthemic "Rock'n'Roll". A perfectly para-gender father-son figure is painted by Glitter and Oakey's love of Pop music and their rejection of Rock's realist ideologies. Gary Glitter – possibly the least feminine figure in the history of pop music – laterally connects to the more prosaic social reality of the pre-Gay transsexual: a northern coal miner in tarty synthetic frocks and bargain basement make-up. Phil Oakey is the android Ed-Woodian she-male who carries the torch for classic Hollywood studio styling and make-overs – while electrically rewiring its sound to mirror the musical transsexualism of Walter/Wendy Carlos. Both are clearly masculine, yet both ridicule any pretense toward the real, and thereby 'defrock' themselves of the macho regalia which – like the dirty rag hanging out of Bruce Springsteen's jeans in a frayed colonic expulsion – so many he-males excrete as proof of their malehood.

The body of Gary Glitter is Glam rendered in gorgeous cellulite. He is no Romanesque marble statue of bland, homoerotic youthfullness; he is a bald monster hunched in a mediarized courtroom, snared by the social due to downloading kiddie-porn. (As if university lecturers are solid citizens who don't fuck nubiles; as is mid-life crisis bourgeoisie husbands aren't subscribing to World Movies to see a bit of fresh French tit.) Gary Glitter's 'disgrace' only intensifies his status as Pop. Disrobed of his many layers of dress – spangles, wigs, riches, hits, management, finances – he shocks us with the very surface that was there all the time: a hairy, fat and sweaty Pop star. Seeing most rock and pop stars on any live or televisual stage recalls this. Consider Dee Snider of Twisted Sister or Gene Simmons of Kiss. To imagine the erotic in them is to want to be fucked by a bear. Or by your father in drag.

In a strangely appropriate way, Glam's ornate theatre of grand sound serves as a grotesque test tube which has spawned many a musico-genetic replicant from Glam's spermula stardust. From Punk to Post-Punk Electronica to New Romanticism to Psychobilly to Hollywood Rock to New Beat to Glam Metal and beyond. Proud progeny is to be found in a disparate trailing group that spans nearly 25 years and includes Kiss, La Dusseldorf, Bauhaus, Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Clash, Kraftwerk, Billy Idol, Gary Numan, Plastic Bertrand, Jayne County, Amanda Lear, Bow Wow Wow, Polyrock, Visage, Japan, Grace Jones, The Buggles, Madonna, Big Audio Dynamite, U2, Tears For Fears, REM, Depeche Mode, Van Halen, Charlie Sexton, Twisted Sister, Joan Jet, Lita Ford, The Cult, Hayzee Fantayzee, Prince, Age of Chance, Westworld, Laibach, Brittany, The Rentals, Red Kross, Young Gods, Zodiac Mindwarp, Oasis, Suede, Pulp, NIN, Marilyn Manson, Stereolab, Prodigy, Add N To X, Beck, Air, Terre Thaelmitz – hell, it's a long list. Despite a slight cross-over into the sampling era, these acts have no concern for po-mo simulation or technological retribution of Rock and Pop music's essentials. To be Glam is to be inauthentic, inappropriate, indelicate. To be Glam is to wish to be proven wrong, to wish to be found out dressing-up; not to rebelliously bend rules or radically break laws, but to be prosecuted rather than persecuted.

The Cult (1985); The Cramps (1997)

Yet this thesis is not as tizzed-up and blow-waved as it sounds. Despite Glam's contra-granular reconstitution of Rock and Pop as an 'imaged sound' – one which quite obviously struck libertine, erotic, necrophiliac and fetishistic poses against the monolithic backdrop of Rock's folkloric roots – Glam's resounding of Rock is an inevitable process. 'Real music' is the kind that vacuous studio musicians still crank out around the world. Hearing the Rock of TV bands like Paul Schaeffer on The Letterman Show is like sailing through a Rock version of Disney's "It's A Small World After All" ride: you are massaged with waves of slick pseudo-rootsy detailing which subliminally intone "It's Only Rock'n'Roll But I Like It". The sound of Rock is a phenomenal history of what is heard rather than what is said, and thus builds more upon a series of aural distortions, regurgitations and distillations than a set of fundamentalist texts and ideological precepts. That is why Led Zeppelin is – knowingly so, in the hands of producer Jimmy Page – a fractured deconstruction of the electric blues as heard through the sound of Howling Wolf. It is also why AC/DC is – knowingly so, in the hands of producers Vanda & Young – an amplified distillation of those same fragments composed and connected by Led Zeppelin. And not surprisingly, it is also why The Cult is – knowingly so, in the hands of producer Rick Rubin – a streamlined concantenation of the sharpened shards of 'rockness' which defines the AC/DC sound.

Most guffaws at Heavy Metal are really responses to the Glam DNA which squirms uncomfortably at the centre of Metal's excessive display. Note how grotesquely feminine Metal lead guitarists are, with skin-tight pants and desperately bulging crutches, and operatic guitar solos which sore to the escalating heights first rendered by star castrati of centuries long gone. While Metal huffs and puffs and blows the house down, its titillating door knocks are so often heralded by Tinkerbells in spandex and leather, whose falsetto being quivers at the cusp of transsexual trauma. Neither unknowingly gay nor unremittingly drag, the dissolution of the he-male in the high-glossed fetishization of the pelvic black hole is at the nexus of Glam and Metal. Dressed as a withered and wigged Marlene Dietrich, Bowie drag-karaoked "Boys Keep Swinging" as a statement to Glam's enduring ability to render this transsexual effect in Pop music. Now 50, Bowie is no less fake than Ziggy: he is tanned and married to Naomi Campbell. Gary Glitter, similarly aged, is arguably no less real: he remains hairy, fat and sweaty.

For all these reasons, it is no wonder that Glam is perennially derided, and why its distasteful cultural convulsions trigger awkward ridicule. Glam's transsexual synchronism, its heady sono-erotica, and its countertextual studio arrangements are a world away from Rock as we presume it to be. As psycho-sexual ghouls of Glam, The Cramps claimed "There's more things down in Tennessee than dreamt of in your philosophy". They weren't incanting some anthropological witticism typical of Greil Marcus by detouring through a reference to Bela Lugosi's famous line from Dracula; they were alluding to the transformative goo-goo muck which cakes the sequined mannequin's of Rock & Pop's descent into Glam. Unfortunately, there will be no Gary Glitter mannequin in Madame Tussard's House of Wax. Yet while his glitter may pale, his sound will stay fat.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.