The BLOG: Culture

The unique, intricate makeup of glam rock

Combining the straightforward songwriting of pop, the hardness of rock, and the strangeness of psychedelic folk, glam rock quickly became a powerful force in the growing youth culture of the early ’70s.

Glam rock debuted with Marc Bolan of T. Rex, formerly a psychedelic folk group that had gained a small following in the underground folk scene of late-60s England, who wore glittering clothes and played its song “Hot Love” on Top of the Pops in 1971. The song would reach No. 1 on the UK pop charts soon after. Seen today, the performance seems soft, mellow and unthreatening, but at the time the sight of young men in tight, glittering clothes, playing a song with obvious sexual overtones was scandalous. At this stage glam rock still sounded like the folk rock that had come before it, but by T. Rex’s Electric Warrior, it had transformed into a much harder and faster sound. Electric Warrior was a statement. Its cover showed singer and guitarist Marc Bolan, outlined in gold on black, with long, curly hair holding an electric guitar in front of an enormous set of speakers. Bolan portrayed himself as a rock star, and that made him one. But even so, he would be overshadowed by the creation of the ultimate glam rock star: Ziggy Stardust.

David Bowie was the face of glam rock. His iconic character was Ziggy Stardust, the alien that came to Earth to bring hope but was destroyed by himself and his fans. As Ziggy, Bowie wore makeup, dresses, and indulged in theatrical stage performances reminiscent of caberet. His trio of glam rock albums, Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and Aladdin Sane, show the breadth and depth of glam rock. “The Bewlay Brothers,” on Hunky Dory and “Starman” on Ziggy Stardust are closer to Bowie’s early folk rather than the hard rock of Aladdin Sane, although that album contains the most cabaret-influenced song, “Time.” Bowie had already achieved some success on the charts with his previous singles “Space Oddity” and “Changes,” but when he performed “Starman” on Top of the Pops in 1972, he reached an audience that had never seen anything like him before. Despite T. Rex’s performance debuting glam rock over a year before, Bowie’s androgyny, his lyrics which told the story of an alien coming to Britain to shake people out of their complacency, struck a chord with teens and young adults. “Starman” flew to No. 10 and Ziggy Stardust to No. 5. This performance elevated Bowie from a young songwriter with two hit songs, but no hit albums or a strong following, to a superstar in Britain with a ravenous following.

Young men began dying their hair bright red, wearing makeup, and adopting flashy, androgynous clothes, and when Bowie announced his sexuality to the press, proudly proclaiming himself gay despite his marriage to his wife, Angie Bowie, it showed thousands upon thousands of confused gay Britons that they didn’t have to hide who they were. Like Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie brought hope and comfort to legions of struggling outcasts, and made it clear that glam rock was about accepting that you didn’t have to be who you were thought to be, either by your family or by society. Bowie showed that men could wear makeup and dresses, could openly talk of having sexual relationships with other men, and still sell records in fabulous amounts.

The same year as Bowie’s iconic “Starman” performance, an unknown band called Roxy Music performed their first single off their debut album on Top of the Pops. “Virginia Plain,” written by singer Bryan Ferry, quickly rose up the charts, eventually reaching No. 4 in Britain. From that first single to the release of their final album Avalon in 1982, Roxy Music was one of the most popular and innovative rock bands in Britain. Every album reached the UK Album Chart’s top 10, and while most critics agree that their 1980 album Flesh + Blood was a misstep, their other seven albums are still regarded as classics. But despite their success, tensions still arose between band members, mostly over Ferry’s control over the group. As the lead singer and songwriter, Ferry dictated the band’s direction, causing multiple members to leave, including keyboardist Brian Eno, who left after the band’s first two albums and started his own career as a solo artist and producer.

Roxy Music took glam rock’s theatricality and absurdism and applied it to their instrumentation in a way that David Bowie had toyed with, but added synthesizers, keyboards, and Brian Eno, and together Roxy Music created glam rock’s lullaby love songs. Eno’s arpeggiated synths were a revelation, and the spacey, surreal atmosphere they created is an indelible trademark of Roxy Music’s style. Eventually Ferry achieved the same pop star status as Bowie, but only in Britain. Glam rock had a hard time catching on in America. Bowie only achieved success there once he moved away from glam, and Roxy Music never had the same success there.

At this time bands like Pink Floyd were performing complex psychedelic rock, so glam was the younger generation moving back towards simpler, more straightforward pop songwriting. Bolan, Bowie and Ferry became stars on their own terms, which influenced punk rock in the late ’70s. They were unafraid to break the rules, allowing songs to run on far longer than the two or three minutes pop songs usually last, although the longer songs were usually repetitive, repeating the same melodies and sequences over and over, rather than the progressive rock stylings of King Crimson, for example. To listen to glam rock is to hear the sound of change, of young men flaunting their disregard for convention. There’s an element of confrontation to glam rock, of the young standing up to the old and throwing aside traditional values and beliefs in favor of their own.

Jimmy McPhee and Teddy Bunker

Jimmy McPhee and Teddy Bunker

Jimmy McPhee is a former sound engineer for SiriusXM Radio and the former engineering director for WNYU​​, where he presented the radio shows Unknown Pleasures and Throwing Bricks. Teddy Bunker is a writer whose work has been featured in Structo Magazine​, The Harvard Press and the Hofstra Chronicle​. Together, they are The New Noise.