Oh! You Pretty Things – Glam Queens and Street Urchins 1970-76: Album Review

It’s Glam, Jim, but maybe not as you know it!

Release Date:  26th February 2021

Label: Cherry Red/ Grapefruit Records

Formats: 3CD Clamshell boxed set

From the viewpoint of 2021, Glam Rock is probably remembered most for its negative aspects.  Superficiality, old chancers jumping on the ‘showbiz’ bandwagon to make a quick dollar and recycled 1950s three-chord riffing are all impressions that colour our opinions.  And yes, there certainly were a lot of those things around – indeed, acts like Gary Glitter managed to embody all three; he was a superficial old chancer who made a huge killing out of two or three fuzzed-up and recycled guitar licks.  But that isn’t by any means a full or fair assessment of the genre we’ve come to know as Glam, as this excellent compilation from Cherry Red’s Grapefruit Records imprint amply demonstrates.

In fact, ‘Glam’ was a catch-all definition that, in addition to the ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ brigade also included many genuine pioneers.  Those of us who were around at the time certainly remember realising that something was changing – like when Marc Bolan appeared on Top of the Pops with glitter on his cheeks and draped in satin to promote Hot Love or when David Bowie, on a later edition of the same programme and dressed like we’d never seen anyone dressed before, draped his arm over Mick Ronson’s shoulder during Starman

The Bowie/Ronson ‘moment’ – Top Of The Pops, 6 July 1972

Then there was the ‘Art-Rock’ crowd. Roxy Music (at least when they started out and Eno/Manzanera were calling more of the shots), Sparks and Cockney Rebel come to mind. These guys introduced us to new and freshly exciting musical forms whilst appearing, certainly to our parents’ generation, to have just stepped off the latest shuttle service from Mars; and – whether you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing – there would have been no New Romantic movement without this initial lift-off.  And what about the American contingent – Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Jobriath, The New York Dolls and even Alice Cooper, responsible more than anyone for sowing the seeds that blossomed into punk and bequeathed the likes of The Ramones and Blondie, as well as our home-grown equivalents such as Mott the Hoople, The Heavy Metal Kids, Pink Fairies and even Slade from whom a direct line to The Clash and The Sex Pistols can be drawn.  It was quite a broad church.

Thankfully, the focus of this collection is entirely upon the aspects of Glam that had a lasting impact upon popular music. You won’t find the likes of Gary Glitter, Mud, Alvin Stardust or many members of the Chinnichap stable here.  There are plenty “hits” for those that want them; indeed, Disc One of the set opens with Roxy Music’s now partially forgotten Pyjamarama, and elsewhere in the set you’ll find such gems as Slade’s Take Me Bak ‘Ome, Lou Reed’s Satellite Of Love, Ian Hunter’s Once Bitten Twice Shy, and The Six Teens by The Sweet (the collection’s sole concession to the era’s ubiquitous composers Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman.) Even those who like to be shocked are catered for, particularly by Anglo-German leftovers Rosie and their signature tune Rosie’s Coming to Town and the good old reliable Troggs and their ode to pornography, Strange Movies.

But it’s the oddities and rarities that really catch the eye and the ear.  Teenage Archangel from the first incarnation of Bill Nelson’s Be Bop Deluxe is a genuine curio, as is the great Dana Gillespie’s cover of Bowie’s Andy Warhol from her 1974 album Weren’t Born A Man and on which she’s joined by Rick Wakemen and Bowie’s Spiders; and Mick Ronson’s cover of the Velvets’ White Light White Heat is an interesting leftover from the recording sessions that produced Bowie’s Pin Ups covers album.  Elsewhere, I was delighted to see the inclusion of The Cops Are Coming from The Heavy Metal Kids.  I’d followed the Kids’ career ever since seeing them support Humble Pie on a mid-70s tour and their live show always comprised an intoxicating mix of irreverence and edgy theatre (unsurprising as the band’s frontman was actor Gary Holton who later found immortal fame as Wayne Norris in the TV show Auf Wiedersehen Pet.)  I remember The Cops Are Coming earning them a standing ovation at the 1975 Reading festival.

The New York Dolls

Although Glam is remembered as a largely British phenomenon, the outrage and androgyny of the movement did strike a chord with a number of those watching from over the pond, particularly from the vantage points of New York, Detroit and Los Angeles.  American Glam was generally harder rocking and grittier than its British counterpoint, a distinction demonstrated here by Streak (represented by their previously unissued cut On The Ball), Lou Reed (his majestic Satellite Of Love), Lou’s fellow ex-Velveteer John Cale (Gun, taken from his album Fear), Iggy and the Stooges (a previously unreleased version of their awesome Gimmie Some Skin), the enigmatic Jobriath (Earthling), gender revolutionary Wayne County (Queenage Baby, a song claimed by Wayne/Jayne to be Bowie’s inspiration for Rebel Rebel) and, perhaps best of all, the ground-breaking New York Dolls with Personality Crisis, the breathless opening track to their eponymous first album and the blueprint for about 80% of whatever branded itself as Punk (British or American) in 76/77.

And there’s still a whole lot more, quite a lot of which you wouldn’t normally think of placing under Glam’s surprisingly huge umbrella.  For instance, The Kinks are represented by Powerman, taken from their excellent yet criminally under-rated 1970 album, Lola Versus Powerman And The Moneygoround.  Is it stretching a point to include a song by these particular national treasures on a compilation album dedicated to Glam Rock?  I thought so at first, but the notes in the compilation’s excellent and informative booklet put me right with its explanation:

“Glam Rock as a genre didn’t exist until the early seventies but serial pioneers The Kinks had been making music that combined killer riffs, camp English vocals and sexually ambiguous lyrics since the middle of the previous decade.” OK – I get it; and, in any case, I’m always happy to see anything by The Kinks included anywhere, for any reason!

Strawbs’ Dave Cousins “Glams-up” for the TOTP cameras

Other inclusions that readers may consider surprising are ELO’s Ma-Ma-Ma Belle (although the song’s fuzz-laden power chords provide a strong pro-Glam argument), Joey by The Pretty Things, Hawkwind’s Curb Crawler, Going Home by Strawbs and The Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s The Last of The Teenage Idols.  Personally, I’d always considered that Hawkwind, in particular, were the antithesis of Glam: Ladbroke Grove commune-dwelling hippies with a penchant for all things herbal – but again, the excellent booklet notes put me right by pointing out that Robert Calvert’s presence, along with his stage costumery and fascination with sci-fi comics and precise English vocals drew close parallels with many of the characteristics that defined Glam in the first place. Likewise Strawbs. If your enduring image is of a bunch of beardy, balding hippies, think again. They too rose to Glam challenge for their Top of the Pops appearances – in dress, if not in musical style.

The choice of a closing track for the compilation is either obvious or inspired, depending upon your own memory of the mid-70s.  Mott the Hoople’s Saturday Gigs was recorded and released just at the point when this band, the most excellent of any that were associated with Glam, were falling apart.  The song, with its reference to “…The suits and the platform boots (oh dear, oh gawd, oh my-oh my… )” serves as the appropriate requiem to a great band and to an entire movement and rounds off this collection perfectly.

Mott the Hoople, 1974. Note the “Suits and the platform boots…”

And so it goes on.  This really is an enthralling selection. 66 songs – around four hours of music – that provide a startling example of why Glam was a valid music genre that lit the fuses of musical fireworks that continue to light up the sky even today.  This is a compilation that has been assembled with great thought and a wide imagination – it has certainly given me cause to reassess a branch of music that I had mentally assigned to the trashcan.  I was wrong – there’s so much here that’s of quality and validity.  The booklet’s opening statement is a quote from David Bowie that, perhaps, puts a perspective around the entire Glam period:

“Glam really did plant seeds for a new identity.  I think a lot of kids needed that – that sense of reinvention.  Kids learned that however crazy you may think it is, there is always a place for what you want to do and who you want to be.”  Thank heaven that some of those seeds took root.

And it all comes in a highly attractive package: three CDs each in its own cover with full song details printed on the reverse and the aforementioned booklet that contains an informative essay by David Wells and detailed notes for each of the selected tracks are packed in a nicely illustrated clamshell box.  All in all, another excellent product from our friends at Cherry Red.

Watch Mott the Hoople – reassembled for one final time – sign off with Saturday Gigs at their last ever show in 2018 here:

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