The Uninitiated: A Guide to Glam Rock
THE UNINITIATED is a feature that delves into the corners of pop culture that you always wanted to explore, but didn’t quite know where to start. It’s a list of first steps designed to help you fall in love with a new music genre, filmmaker, showrunner or artist.
What is Glam Rock?
Glam rock is pure artifice, a rejection of the self-serious “authenticity” that bedeviled so many singer-songwriters and proggy troubadours in the wake of the Summer of Love. It’s loud. It’s simple. It’s playful and campy in a way that rock stars of the late ’60s and early ‘70s—the Eagles, King Crimsons and Zeppelins of the world—didn’t often let themselves be.
Musically, it embraces rock & roll by its dirty, ass-shaking roots. Geographically, it sprang up in the UK around 1970 and burned mirror-bright before flaring out by 1975, first casting its shimmer on the always fertile musical breeding ground of grim, postindustrial Manchester. But the story doesn’t end there; like a handful of spilled glitter, once you let it out, glam gets everywhere.
Check out the Spotify playlist at the end of the article for a selection of music from each artist.
Before Marc Bolan and T. Rex exploded onto the music scene in a flurry of hot glue and sequins, plenty of rock musicians were making big, fun music out of the blueprints left by Sister Loretta Tharpe, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry.
In late ‘60s Detroit, the Stooges combined Iggy Pop’s feral howl with wailing guitars to stage an all-out assault with ragged garage rock like “Now I Wanna Be Your Dog” and “Search and Destroy.”
In New York, counterculture darlings the Velvet Underground celebrated trans and queer characters and hedonistic excess with songs like “Beginning to See the Light,” “Some Kinda Love,” and “Sister Ray,” giving glam rock a set of themes and obsessions. Lou Reed, John Cale and their bandmates wove highbrow artistic aspirations with gutter-dredging guitar grooves crafted around a unique, droning sound they achieved by tuning all their strings to the same note. The effect is as fresh today as it was bouncing off the walls of Warhol’s Factory.
The Glam Years (1971-1974)
The first band to truly be considered glam rock proper, Marc Bolan’s acoustic Manchester duo T. Rex went electric in the early ‘70s with a full lineup that included Bill Legend, Steve Currie and Mickey Flynn. The band would usher in a new era of British pop culture with face-melting 1971 appearances on Top of the Pops (with a young Elton John sitting in on piano) and the release of their seminal album Electric Warrior the same year.
The album is a warm embrace of gossamer ‘70s studio production, sexy and infectious. Bolan indulges in cheerfully surreal turns of phrase referencing everything from comic books to Greek mythology (“You got the teeth of the hydra upon you”), delivered with breathy, gasping vocals that still have the power to scandalize. You’ve probably heard its chart-shattering hit, “Bang a Gong (Get It On),” but the whole record is pure pleasure with nary a wasted note (well, except maybe “Lean Woman Blues”). Its bluesy, sax and piano-heavy sound is a throwback to rock’s ‘50s heyday, paired with an arch sensibility that would come to define glam’s relationship to the devil’s music of the previous generation.
T. Rex would continue to industriously produce danceable rock with creative ambition on follow-up releases The Slider, Tanx, and Dandy in the Underworld until Bolan’s untimely death in 1977, but Electric Warrior remains a masterpiece of earthly delights.
David Bowie’s alien savior Ziggy Stardust dialed up the colorful androgyny of glam rock while also introducing darker, more literary lyrical content. The U.S. tour of his 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars brought glam stateside and influenced a new crop of artists looking to freak out in this new moonage daydream. Science fiction collides with prophecies of doom, soul merges with artifice, and the result is still irresistible to electric eyes.
“Five Years” lays out the album’s skeletal story: the earth is dying, with a five-year expiration date. Ziggy has come to save humanity, but he gets lost in the corrupting influence his own fame, and the only solace he can offer in the end is the ecstatic refrain of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”: “You’re not alone.” For all its darkness and dismay, the album is anything but dour, stuffed with irresistible hooks; its embarrassment of riches includes “Starman,” “Lady Stardust,” and “Hang on to Yourself,” not to mention the title track with its era-defining Mick Ronson riff.
On 1973’s opulent, piano-drenched Aladdin Sane, Bowie would explore themes of infamy and decadence inspired by his earlier sojourn in LA. Bangers like “The Jean Genie” and “Watch That Man” blend vivid lyrics with visceral blues rock, while “Lady Grinning Soul” achieves a dreamy, romantic mood. Bowie would begin to move away from the glam rock aesthetic with 1974’s apocalyptic Diamond Dogs, but Ziggy’s pink lightning bolt still remains the genre’s most indelible symbol.
Though they never made much headway across the pond, British quartet Slade absolutely dominated the rock singles charts in their homeland in the early ‘70s with a barrage of heavy, fist-pumping party anthems. Monster hits like “Cum on Feel the Noize” and “Mama Weer All Crazee Now” would become glam rock staples. While Slade might have lacked the dark romanticism of other glam artists, they more than made up for it with a defiant boneheadedness that would influence later hard rock acts from Def Leppard to the Ramones.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: “Ballroom Blitz” fucking rules. Everything about it is perfect: the chugging guitars, the handclaps, the weird, distorted vocals, Brian Connolly’s affected little “oh yeah”s. It’s a flat-out rock ‘n’ roll sugar rush.
Even though Sweet’s output is relatively slim and their time spent in the glam rock scene shorter than most, it still yielded a number of classic singles. “Blockbuster” and “Teenage Rampage” became radio behemoths in the band’s native UK before Sweet would move in a more hard rock-influenced direction, releasing the hit song “Fox on the Run” in 1975.
One of the few American artists to be included in glam’s first wave, Motown’s Suzi Quatro had to come to Europe to find success. Her 1973 self-titled debut, a gargantuan 20-track release, is loaded with fast cars and glycerine queens, often pulsing with energy that prefigures punk. (The corny, flat production weighs it down a bit—but it must have been a blast live). Cheeky and bombastic, “Can the Can” was the record’s major hit, but ballsy provocations like “I Wanna Be Your Man” are the real standouts.
1974’s Quatro is a more polished product, dripping with disco-ready strings and propulsive keyboards, while keeping Quatro’s pace-setting bass front and center. “Devil Gate Drive” keeps the motor running, while hit single “The Wild One” blasts out of the gate with plenty of rock ‘n’ roll swagger. Quatro still actively records and tours, having put out an album with Slade drummer Don Powell and Sweet’s Andy Scott as recently as 2017.
The first openly gay rock star to land a major record deal, Jobriath debuted amid an all-out publicity blitz in 1973 with an electrifying self-titled album that sadly failed to deliver commercially. U.S. audiences never totally embraced glam rock with its tongue-in-cheek hedonism and genderfluidity, and this vibrant artist who was meant to be bigger than Bowie has remained largely unknown because of it. It’s a damn shame—“Take Me, I’m Yours” is a sadomasochistic glam confection, while “I’m a Man” slyly hides its open heart behind ornate keyboard flourishes that recall the sound of a harpsichord.
Jobriath’s biography is fascinating: a classical piano prodigy as a child, he went AWOL after being drafted to serve in Vietnam, was plucked from obscurity as a sex worker in Los Angeles, and went on to record an album with Peter Frampton and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones. Elektra Records pulled their funding while he was in the middle of touring his sophomore album Creatures of the Street with backing band the Creatures, leaving them scrambling to get to the remaining dates out of their own pockets. In the early ‘80s he took up residence in New York’s famous Chelsea Hotel, where he passed a tragic milestone, becoming one of the first celebrities to be killed in the AIDS epidemic.
Bryan Ferry’s outfit Roxy Music was a chilly amalgam of dancefloor pop and postmodern self-awareness that would cast a long shadow over British new wave. The band’s eclectic look was sleek and stylized, and a sophisticated sonic palette set them apart from contemporary glam acts, thanks in large part to guitarist Phil Manzanera’s interest in world music and Brian Eno’s atmospheric synths.
Their self-titled 1972 debut made ambitious strides with futuristic tracks like “Ladytron,” and sophomore album For Your Pleasure released the following year remains an all-time classic, circling themes of artificiality while gliding effortlessly between styles. “Do the Strand” is an urgent, chaotic opener, while “Beauty Queen” paints an increasingly surreal blazon. The album floats on strange electronic pulses, but “Editions of You” picks up the guitars for some old-fashioned, analog rock. “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” sounds nearly goth to modern ears, a psychedelic dirge. With decadent track lengths and spellbinding production, For Your Pleasure expanded glam rock’s ambition, even as it began to exceed it.
Mott the Hoople
Known in the UK as a rollicking live band, Mott the Hoople had trouble capturing their live-wire energy in the recording studio and was close to breaking up in 1972 when David Bowie stepped in and offered them a song he’d written, “All the Young Dudes” (after they turned down Ziggy Stardust’s clog-stomping free for all “Suffragette City,” no less). Bowie shepherded the resulting album All the Young Dudes through the recording process as a producer, and the rest is rock radio history.
The album opens with a no-frills cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” to establish its bona fides, then explores contemplative moods (“Sea Diver”) and friendly neighborhood sadists (“Sucker”). Its title track is a syrupy, tongue-in-cheek torch song with Bowie’s fingerprints all over it, right down to the good-natured jabs at his friend Marc Bolan of T. Rex.
In 1973 they released the follow-up album Mott, featuring hit track “All the Way from Memphis.” Queen would open for them on their US tour the following year, and the two groups remained close in the years that followed.
Though not himself known an ostentatious glam frontman per se, Brian Eno was heavily involved in the scene and worked closely with David Bowie in his post-glam years, often as a producer. A relentless experimenter and founding member of Roxy Music, Eno helped to popularize ambient music and was a synthesizer pioneer, among other artistic and technological leaps forward.
Early Eno cuts like “Needles in the Camel’s Eye” and “Baby’s on Fire” blend poppy guitars with wry lyrics and otherworldly synthesizers to create a complex sound that would expand glam’s repertoire. His self-aware camp sensibility also became one of the subgenre’s most recognizable calling cards.
The New York Dolls
One of the bands bridging the gap between glam rock and punk was Queens quintet the New York Dolls. Led by frontman Sylvain Sylvain and guitarist Johnny Thunders, the Dolls often performed in full drag, sometimes covering rock staples like “Back in the USA,” rendering them sped up and raw. Original songs like “Looking for a Kiss” and “Trash” had gut-busting energy, mixing classic ’50s rock with gritty performances and even a dash of girl-group harmony.
Though they formed in 1971 and embraced the scene’s vampy aesthetic, the New York Dolls’ edgy, ragged sound made them an uncomfortable fit with glam rock’s more radio-friendly hooks. Ultimately, the band was just a few years ahead of its time, and the same music that critics derided as ugly in the early ‘70s would be at the vanguard of a new youth movement a mere half-decade later. Dogged by addiction problems and the fallout from the sudden death of drummer Billy Mercia in 1972, the Dolls called it quits four years later, but an eventual reunion in 2004 led them to record to two critically acclaimed albums.
Joan Jett started the Runaways in 1975 when she was still a teenager, and their music reflects that, loaded with danger, delinquency, and teen rebellion. Frontwoman Cherie Currie bellows and taunts her way through the smash single “Cherry Bomb,” and a group that was first marketed as a sexed-up novelty girl band proved they could rock harder than the boys.
The Runaways were indebted to glam rock artists who came before; Currie took Ziggy-era Bowie as the inspiration for her stage persona, while Jett adopted Suzi Quatro’s tough tomboy chic. Though they took glam as their blueprint, the Runaways became involved in the burgeoning West Coast punk scene, eventually playing gigs alongside the Ramones and the Dead Boys at CBGB. The group went their separate ways after a grueling world tour of their second album Queens of Noise, with Joan Jett becoming a hit solo act and bassist Ricki Steele going on to join the Bangles.
Queen’s joyous theatricality shares a lot of DNA with glam acts that went before, and their close early ties to Mott the Hoople surely shaped a lot of their look and sound. Freddie Mercury, Brian May, John Deacon, and Roger Taylor reveled in prog rock and proto-metal’s technical wizardry and lyrical flights of fancy in their early releases, but it soon became clear they’d have to embrace a more streamlined aesthetic or [heavy sigh] bite the dust.
With Sheer Heart Attack and A Night at the Opera in the mid ‘70s, Queen scored major hits and established their signature sound: layered, ethereal vocal harmonies shot through with May’s surgical guitar riffs. Always eclectic and difficult to pin down, Queen would eschew the simplicity of glam rock in favor of a more is more approach, and the rock canon is all the richer for it.
Break out the glitter eyeshadow and listen here: