Tag Archive: glam rock


20th Century Bolan

T. Rex’s 1972 album, The Slider

40 or so years after the fact, when the term “glam rock” is brought up, those in the know usually think “David Bowie.” Rightly so, for his music endures. But Bowie wasn’t the only one making glam rock; arguably, he wasn’t even the one who invented it. That honor belongs to Marc Bolan.

Bolan was the Christopher Marlowe to Bowie’s Shakespeare. They were friends, no doubt, but also competitors; ringmasters in the same arena. A lot of the rivalry was probably created out of whole cloth by the music media – and their respective wives. June Child Bolan once told Angie Bowie flat out that her husband was too good to appear on any of Bowie’s records. But I think Bowie and Bolan themselves were fine with each other, and enjoyed some healthy iron-sharpens-iron.

For his first few albums, Bolan was calling his musical act Tyrannosaurus Rex, but he shortened it to T. Rex in 1970. About that time, he took to wearing top hats and feather boas on stage. A breakthrough was when he discovered a small bottle of face glitter belonging to his wife on a table in his dressing room. On the spur of the moment, he put a dab of it on his cheek. And with that, glitter rock was born.

T. Rex’s music simply blew up in the U.K., making up an astounding 6% of the total British GDP for record sales. But just like Marlowe, he was much more popular during his time than after it. Bowie is still a part of our musical collective unconscious, but you’d get a few more scratched heads if you mentioned T. Rex.  Some might know “Bang a Gong” or “20th Century Boy,” but most would say “wasn’t that a song back before I was born?”

Bowie and Bolan

Bowie’s music has endured the ages a lot better than the songs of T. Rex. For instance, Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums feature five of Bowie’s albums but only one by T. Rex. That could also be due to Bowie having a career that spans nearly 40 years, while Bolan’s is only 9 years long before his untimely demise. Marc tragically died in a car crash in 1977, just as his career was seeing a resurgence.

Fading into the mists of time as he is, Marc enjoys a special tribute on Ziggy Stardust. The song “Lady Stardust” started out as a tribute/exploration/criticism of Bolan. Whereas Bowie created characters for him to inhabit, Bolan came by his glam tendencies rather honestly. He wasn’t being completely honest with his audience (that’s not what glam artists do, nor does their audience except it), but what he presented on stage was just Marc, not a contrived and intricate personality like Ziggy. As such, he opened himself up to ridicule. It’s explained in the first verse of “Lady Stardust.”

People stared at the makeup on his face / Laughed at his long black hair, his animal grace / The boy in the bright blue jeans jumped up on the stage / Lady Stardust sang his songs of darkness and disgrace

“Darkness and disgrace” might be a gross overstatement, since T.Rex’s songs were always brighter and more celebratory than Bowie’s, but the sentiment is still understood. Like a good glam rock song should, Bowie points out the more outlandish aspects of Bolan’s public character in a lightly mocking but mostly admiring way.

Oh come on! He’s gorgeous!

Gender-bending is also part of Bowie’s breakdown, being an essential tenant of glitter rock. Rock and roll has always been about challenging social norms, about pushing the establishment into a corner to get it to fight. In 1972, the vogue way of doing that was sexually, challenging what it meant to be male and female. The very act of a man wearing make-up and being beautiful was enough. And let’s face it: Marc Bolan was one beautiful bloke. He stood out among the British male population by the fact that he was just so, so pretty. That was probably the largest thing that contrasted him with David Bowie; when stripped of his make-up, Bowie was actually pretty weird-looking. Marc Bolan, on the other hand, was like Venus de Milo and the statue of David with a top hat as the kicker.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m straight as one of Legolas’ arrows. I loves me some women (one woman in particular), but I’m secure enough in my masculinity to admit that if Marc Bolan was a woman (and not rotting in his grave), I’d tap that.

The story present in Ziggy Stardust can’t be forgotten, though, and Bowie doesn’t. “Lady Stardust” serves the dual purpose of also being Ziggy’s rise to popularity and first taste of stardom. There’s even a possible parallel to Peter’s triple denial of Jesus on the night after his crucifixion, further suggesting Ziggy as a Christ figure. He meant to save the world with rock and roll, but as the album unfolds, rock and roll will prove to be his own downfall and demise.

Tarted Up

While projections about planet Earth’s expiration date are fraught with peril, the fictional world that Bowie created has its time limit announced from the very start: five years. It opens on people crowding around a television set to hear a newscaster tearfully tell the world that it has “five years left for crying.” The ostensible reason is a lack of natural resources. In the face of impending disaster, human do what humans do. Chaos quickly ensues, complete with looting and other savage behavior, including killing over food.

It is against that backdrop that Bowie creates his most enduring character, Ziggy Stardust. The song “Five Years” has a beautiful restraint to it, slowly building and building until it’s a towering inferno, dwarfing all other work Bowie has done previously. A big part of glam rock is ironically trussing up rock and roll to accentuate its more ridiculous curves and angles. Hunky Dory did that to a masterful degree, but Ziggy Stardust is totally serious about its camp. I know that’s a contradiction in terms (“serious camp”), but the way Bowie sells it, you buy the contradiction, a spare, and the t-shirt that goes with it.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Brian Slade in Velvet Goldmine

Brian Slade, the Bowie-like character in the indie flick Velvet Goldmine, said in a press conference, “Rock and roll is a prostitute; it should be tarted up.” “Soul Love” tarts up its musical motif to exaggeratedly point out that it really is a prostitute, from the nasally performed vocals right down to the alto sax solo. Story-wise, I’m not sure how it fits in to the Ziggy plotline, though it makes perfect musical sense for it to follow the achingly epic “Five Years.” Lyrically, it seems to be about the narrator being in love with love, with the concept itself. Even so, he’s aware that he can’t have a practical application of the concept ‘til it’s directed at a particular person.

Segueing right into it is “Moonage Daydream,” a slow rocker and Bowie’s strongest attempt so far to blow the listener’s brains out. This represents the birth of Ziggy Stardust on Earth, his triumphant arrival and the start of his mission/ministry. Ziggy is a sort of futuristic Christ figure, a being from outside this world whose sole purpose is to save it from itself. This parallel isn’t lost on Bowie, and he plays it to the hilt, if pretty subtly. Ziggy’s means of salvation are generally the same as Christ’s, too; Jesus atoned for us by being a perfect replacement, the Platonic form of a human being. All over “Moonage Daydream” are suggestions of Ziggy’s identical nature to human beings, divine entity though he is.

There’s also the closing words of “Moonage Daydream,” spoken over the killer Ronson guitar solo that ends it. “Freak out! Far out! In-out!” It reminds me of A Clockwork Orange, in which in-out is a Nadsat slang term for sexual intercourse.

I could speculate wildly on what this means, getting further and further from the point, but what still remains is that Ziggy likes sex. Maybe he thinks that sex will save the world. On an extremely general level, I understand that line of thinking; if people had more sex, there would probably be less war, for one thing. However, it won’t fix our planet, and it won’t fix Ziggy’s, either. So what will?

The answer: rock and roll.

Ziggy Played Guitar

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars – David Bowie – 6/6/1972

By now we know that David Bowie was one weird cat. If songs about space travel, superhumans, and sex with the devil weren’t enough to tip you off, there’s the outlandish dress and wild makeup. My God, the cover of Hunky Dory is a photo of him inspired by a WWII-era German actress. And if by 1972 you’re still not convinced, he takes on a full-blown persona and presents a combination of music, theater and pageantry, complete with a storyline about an alien come to save a dying planet Earth. Just try to ignore him now.

Ziggy Stardust was Bowie’s first real “character,” a fully realized other person he could be in his stage show. All his public appearances were in the guise of Ziggy, and he had a complete profile of how Ziggy would act, talk and behave. Never before had an artist appeared to lose himself so completely. It was like a Broadway show every day with Bowie; it looked like he didn’t just want to play this character, but be this character.

His band got into it too, actually giving themselves a name for the first time, the Spiders From Mars. They dressed up in costume just like Bowie, and had alter-egos. The band and Ziggy himself could still be recognized as Bowie and company; that was the beauty of it. It wasn’t an identity crisis or a case of DID; it was all a show, like an actor playing a part in a movie. Indeed, Bowie began referring to himself as an actor instead of a musician.

As a lot of things in the musical sphere do, this whole Ziggy Stardust thing traces right back to Sgt. Pepper. The concept of that album, plain and simple, was a fictional band that the Beatles playacted. David Bowie is simply doing the same thing. I say “simply,” though it isn’t simple at all. The biggest difference is that the Beatles just wanted to escape the confines of the world’s expectations of them. Bowie’s interest is different; it’s a combination of transcending his humanity (or pretending to) and putting on a good show. And what better way to be a non-human that to be an alien?

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (its full name) is a concept album, not the first and certainly not the last. The storyline in the album itself is loose and rather hard to trace, though Bowie had a pretty specific progression in mind when he recorded it. But Ziggy Stardust the album is just one piece of how he was going to tell this tale. The concerts performed during the last half of 1972 were another piece, but still not the whole picture. What can be defined as “the whole picture” never really came to fruition. If it had, I’m guessing, it would have ended with the assassination of David Bowie at one of his concerts. His murder might have been staged, but it might not have been.

Though even with a plotline in mind, most of the songs on Ziggy Stardust can also be interpreted to be about real things. Ziggy himself, while a fictional character created by Bowie, is a criticism of the then-current music industry. And like a good novel, the fictitious Ziggy world bears out and reveals things about the real world.

Bowie & guitarist Mick Ronson – yes, that’s what it looks like

The story doesn’t even matter (I can’t believe I just said that; my mother would be so ashamed). It’s kinda hackneyed and doesn’t really have a point. The show and spectacle isn’t even the most compelling thing, at least not for me. It’s the music. I don’t really care if Bowie never wore a scrap if makeup, if he was a bespectacled accountant from Surrey with a passion for collecting Beanie Babies. With this album, he created some of the best music ever. Whatever else he did – and he did a lot – it shrinks in comparison. Ziggy Stardust isn’t great because of the grand showmanship it displays or the overarching scope it represents; it’s great because of the music.

Next: cheer up – the world’s gonna end in five years, anyway.