Wham, Bam, Thank You Glam! Marc Bolan Pioneers an Outrageous Era
John Lennon once famously summed up glam rock simply as “rock and roll with lipstick on.” The former Beatle might have added that, make up notwithstanding, glam rock was great rock and roll. While early critics slammed the movement as hype-driven, the genre yielded a treasure trove of classic albums during its glory years, which spanned the period from 1971 to 1975. More than three decades later, glam’s influence continues to reverberate in nearly every corner of the rock landscape.
Glam rock’s fashion sense can be traced to rock’s early history – Little Richard, after all, wore eyeliner and mascara – but most agree it was Marc Bolan who launched the concept as a full-on movement. Fronting his band, T.Rex, Bolan assailed the British charts in the early ’70s with hits like “Hot Love,” “Metal Guru” and “Telegram Sam.” Between 1971 and 1973, T.Rex released three albums – Electric Warrior, The Slider and Tanx – that remain lynchpins in glam’s rich history. Sometimes playing a Flying V, other times crafting his boogie riffs on a ’56 Les Paul (which inspired the Gibson Custom Shop’s new Marc Bolan Les Paul, Bolan found endless permutations in what seemed, on the surface, like the simplest of approaches to guitar. T.Rex’s sole stateside hit, “Bang a Gong (Get it On),” remains a staple of classic-rock radio.
No sooner had Bolan kickstarted the glam movement when his close friend, David Bowie, pushed the nascent trend to a higher level. Sporting a six-inch rooster-red crew-cut, shaved eyebrows and a wardrobe so flamboyant it made Bolan look like a J.C. Penney shopper, Bowie, in the guise of his fictional Ziggy Stardust character, took England by storm in 1972. A writer of exhilarating pop-rock tinged with cabaret flourishes, Bowie also boasted one of rock’s greatest-ever sidemen, in guitarist Mick Ronson. It was his sensational six-string work that gave Bowie’s songs their explosive power. Playing a ’68 Les Paul Custom (a “Black Beauty”) stripped to its natural finish, Ronson proved equally adept at celestial solos (“Moonage Daydream”), elegant leads (“Starman”) and searing power chords (“Cracked Actor”). A pivotal figure on five Bowie albums – beginning with 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World and concluding with 1973’s Pinups – Ronson will forever be the artist who first springs to mind when “glam guitar” is mentioned.
Coinciding with the ascendance of Bolan and Bowie, and emphasizing the art-rock side of glam, were Roxy Music. Centered on the masterful songwriting and idiosyncratic vocal style of frontman Bryan Ferry, Roxy Music at first played up glam’s campy visual side, donning leopard-skin vests, feather boas and sparkly suits of the sort Liberace would have killed for. Musically, the band rapidly evolved into glam’s most strikingly original unit, as they moved from experimental noise-rock (thanks largely to early member Brian Eno) to a sophisticated sound governed by spectacular ensemble playing. Key to Roxy Music’s success was guitarist Phil Manzanera, who often used a Firebird to craft dense sonic backdrops (“Out of the Blue”) and astral leads (“Could it Happen to Me?”). Over the course of three years and five albums, from 1972 to 1975, no band was as consistently inventive as Roxy Music.
While Bowie, Roxy Music, and (to some extent) Bolan were fickle with regard to style, Queen held firm to a hard-rock, guitar-driven sound throughout the glam era. Blessed with a flamboyantly brilliant singer in Freddie Mercury, the band often couched infectious melodies in monumental, riff-laden arrangements that hit with the force of a sledgehammer. Playing a guitar his father had constructed with wood plundered from a 100-year-old fireplace, Brian May mixed scintillating leads (“Keep Yourself Alive”) with savagely searing rhythm work that sounded like Black Sabbath on steroids (“Ogre Battle”). Lest anyone believe that glam couldn’t occupy musical terrain as heavy as that of Deep Purple, Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin, Queen were there to prove otherwise.
If glam rock was primarily a British phenomenon – Slade, The Sweet and Mott the Hoople all occupied a position on the movement’s periphery – three American bands left their own marks on the movement’s early ’70s heyday. Beginning with their 1971 breakthrough album, Love it to Death, Alice Cooper (the original band) embarked on a three-year run that yielded a slew of hits and four sensational albums. Featuring one of rock’s greatest-ever guitar duos, in the persons of Michael Bruce and Glen Buxton, Alice Cooper were a virtual riff machine, spewing such guitar-driven classics as “I’m Eighteen,” “School’s Out” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy” seemingly at will. Both Bruce and Buxton achieved their handiwork using SGs, with Bruce offering up infectious rhythm work and Buxton delivering leads that stung like an angry hornet.
Ironically, America contributed yet another great dual-guitar band to the glam movement in the form of the New York Dolls. Using Les Paul Juniors to craft a sound reminiscent of mid-’60s Rolling Stones, Johnny Thunders and Sylvain Sylvain powered the band’s landmark debut with riff-driven nuggets such as “Personality Crisis” and “Trash.” No glam band better anticipated – and even helped fuel – the coming punk movement.
And then there was KISS. Adopting comic-book personas, the New York City-based quartet delivered meat-and-potatoes rock and roll ready-made for live performance. Songs such as “Rock and Roll All Nite,” “Strutter” and “Black Diamond” constituted riff-rock in its most elemental guise, while the occasional ballad (“Beth,” in particular) kept things from becoming entirely one-dimensional. With his Les Paul slung low, Ace Frehley powered KISS’ “let’s party” vibe with gloriously smoking six-string finesse.
By the close of 1975, glam rock was a spent force. Bolan had hit a creative rut, Bowie had moved on to “plastic soul” music, and Roxy Music was moving toward a style that would soon give birth to the New Romantic movement. Bolan’s death in a car crash in August 1977 seemed to put a hard, tragic end to any hope for a glam-rock resurgence. Putting aside the glitter and mascara, however, glam’s muscular guitar-rock immediately began finding its way into nearly every form of rock music that’s come in its wake. From the Sex Pistols to U2, from R.E.M. to Nirvana, from Guns N’ Roses to Oasis, virtually every band at the forefront of a new trend has cited glam’s influence. In the end, it was the music – exultant, riff-driven and powered by some of rock’s finest-ever guitarists – that gave glam its seminal place in rock history.