Friday, August 11, 2006

"If I am accused of too elaborate a reading, I must insist on the awe, pleasure and bafflement that the records still incite"

and in a coda to the past week's epic SuperPop theme, a classic piece by my old Monitor comrade Paul Oldfield on Glam and Glitter, an influence on my Last Few Days fantasy.

by Paul Oldfield
(from Monitor, issue number 4, October 1985)

Imagine the future, already fading, there, between the laminated covers of these forgotten annuals, these ephemeral hagiographies. This is the lost moment of the futuristic: 1972. Discover fear and exhilaration in a platform shoe, a clenched fist, silver foil; an empty beat, choreography of un-release, of self-overcoming. These are years that DARED MORE than our present-day bureaucrats of desire can CONCEIVE.

The catastrophe theory of pop, with its assumption of periods of continuity, development and decline, punctuated by intervals, rupture and reversal, has been installed by critical history, popular aspiration and the business alike. A critical consensus has been achieved easily for the 1970s. Even the most invaluable and thorough pop writings have mapped out this decade similarly and reinforced, more or less, the general distribution of attention. Dick Hebdiges’ Subcultures outlines the history and modes of the artschool end of glam, and even describes punk as “a scrawled addendum” to it, but in practice inverts this order: glam is included as part of the prelude to punk, and his sociological and semiological approaches are excercised on oppositional cultures--mods, skins, rasta, punk. Iain Chambers, in his Urban Rhythms, has a full account of the more self-conscious and poised glam artists, of teenybop and heavy metal, but here still the early ‘70s are “fall-out”, we are “Among the Fragments” and the scope is discriminating. And Chris Cutler’s essay on progressive and radical musics in File Under Pop describes the period ’69-75 (reasonably) as a silence, an exile, a “Tiny Flame”, and acclaims the hygiene of ’76 as a precondition for the new wave and experimental freedoms--a different approach but the same shape for the 70s. What critics have in common is either a privileging of underground or oppositional cultures, effectively an underwriting of the new wave’s rhetoric, or a bias to the study of particular early 70s artists/musics: Bowie or Ferry, or reggae, partly because of its uneasy accommodation with punk, or 70s soul, because that was outside the debates and upheavals of the decade. The mainstream of glam-rock, Glitter, Sweet etc, are simply not discussed.

Perhaps this consensus will begin to be dissipated. A warning sign: David Stubbs undertook for Monitor a full-length study of 1975 as THE nadir for youth culture. Perhaps the result of vertiginous fascination, the research became protracted and ambiguous: the article never appeared. Any revisionist pop history could well return to this apparent low ebb and moment of partition. Greater importance should be attributed to hwat was disinvested, made unpopular, in the disturbances of ’76. If punk and new wave were predicated on a refusal of both “progressive” and glam, they were still intimately involved with them by derivation and opposition.

“Progressive” rock had entered its decadence by the mid-70s, but structurally it occupied the same space, musical and commercial, as punk. New musical departures, and a distancing from pop, had demanded independent labels (Island, Charisma, Vertigo, Virgin) and a valorization of “non-commercialism”. It was the music of college and artschool graduates, as was punk for all its claims to proletarian or underclass origins, and its audience was (lower) middle class. Punk’s styles and rhetoric necessitated conversion for this audience, who then had to define their choices by refusing most loudly what had so recently been their culture. For punk, the representatives above all of the superceded progressives were Pink Floyd: see Julie Burchill’s story of Johnny Rotten’s defaced and mutilated T-shirt in The Boy Looked at Johnny. Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, released only months before the events of ’76, is important for what it was and for what it nearly was. For once, Pink Floyd were surprisingly prescient: “Welcome to the Machine”, which described the alienation and expropriation implied in the traditional relations of labour and capital, was followed by “Have A Cigar”, about the co-opting of pop culture in to a spectacular leisure economy that ensures profit and social integration. The disenchantment with the record industry and the market was developed further in the sleeve. Such reflections were a little belated, after glam’s reflexiveness, and musically, of course, this was the antithesis of what punk meant in ’76. But then Wish You Were Here was substituted for a project called Household Objects: this was an LP made entirely with non-musical instruments, e.g domestic appliances, which was to be supplied with a guide to home music-making. Household Objects, in its break with instruments and its emphasis on participation, could hardly have failed to be more radical than punk’s return to the garage band and reinvention of rock music (while European and European-based pop had been inventing new musics throughout the early 70s--Faust, Magma, Henry Cow).

Punk’s borrowing, or descent from glam rock, was also obscured or forgotten in its unspecific reproach to all superstardom, affluence or glamour. Resemblances and repetitions abound: GLAM manifested itself as a disturbance and renewal in pop too, so that Nick Kent could write in ’73 that, “Slade’s total reconstruction of the energies that govern the workings of pure rock’n’roll music… has brought rock back to the people when it seemed to be going through its final death pangs” and Sounds could describe ’72 as a year of “spending energy” and “raw nerve ends”. GLAM too was a challenge to values, a return to vitality, as in Charles Shaar Murray’s account of Roxy Music, “new standards… impeccable bad taste… musical anarchy” (’73). GLAM too was an amplifier of strains in the social fabric, as in Alice Cooper’s readiness to “act through the audience’s fantasies” in this “society of bad taste”. Today’s rock critics, trained in semotics, have begun to concentrate on the self-consciousness of early ‘70s music. So the construction of the star is uncovered in the adopted personae--Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and his single-year career, Ferry’s foolish dreamer--allowing a distancing of the performer from his work and his status, a “confusion of levels”. Artifice and superficiality are emphasized. So gender differentiation and its concomitant social practices can be challenged by androgyny. And there can be a flirtation with inappropriate or forbidden matter--Bowie’s Hitler Superstar provocations or Roxy’s Nazi uniforms--that is stripped of its meaning or force by the context: compare punk’s Nazi preoccupations, 1979/80’s Joy Divison/ACR/New Order debacle, and the eternal anxiety of alternative/goth culture about Nazi overtones.

Elsewhere, in the undervalued and marginalized glam rock of these years, the music of Gary Glitter, the Sweet, the Glitter Band and Slik, a different, more perplexing and elusive deconstruction of pop is performed. If I am accused of too elaborate a reading, I must insist on the awe, pleasure and bafflement that the records still incite, especially in the case of Glitter.

Gary Glitter can not be assimilated to teenybop. His “boystown” image and dancefloor qualities put him in a different class from the Bay City Rolelrs, the Arrows or Hello. Nor does he belong with articulate and self-referential glam. In interviews he issued disclaimers: “my music is purely physical. It’s vulgar. It’s crude. It’s raw”. Glitter said that he could not “explain” his own image or image; rather than being distanced from his performance, he said, “I can’t detach myself for long enough to fathom out what I’m all about”, and “I’m so close to it myself that I could never see [its appeal] unless there was someone… to tell me.” There is no distance, no commentary, only a PROXIMITY that is, or would be, pure pop, pop’s prime signifier, the star. Glitter’s records are the approach to and FAILING of a pop that tries to pure, outside history, unmarked by incidentals or anything complex, pure sex appeal and directeness. Everything that has been said about Glitter--rock’n’roll revivalist, camp, over-the-top--is really only applicable to the late records when rock’n’roll was incorporated into the songs, there was a camp self-awareness. Before then, what is attempted is more like a minimalism.

Consider “Rock’n’roll (parts 1 and 2)”. A reviewer in Let It Rock called Part 2 “a castration op where you throw away the patient and keep the balls”: musically, sexually, Glitter imagines an unyielding, uninflected, un-soul, MASCULINE performance, without ambiguity. Glitter and Leander were attempting a sound “near rock’n’roll” but influenced by Afro-Rock. The single was improvised, and was mainly determined by what was left out, “layer upon layer of drums and guitar… we wanted to make it purely a tune and rhythm with no embellishments like harmonies or chords.” Leander claimed that it was not black music, but in some sense, a rock’n’roll record. The r’n’r is “deep down”, but it seems to me to be mainly there by association, by lyrical suggestion. What there IS is a minimal dance-track, unprecedented except perhaps for James Brown’s spare disco breaks, and vocals that are mixed well back, with a fast, slight echo that makes them disembodied, all attack and no decay, all hard edges and hardly inflected. When the Human League covered it, it could have been a manifesto for vocals-and-synths-only, and the cover could only succeed in so far as it managed not to add anything.

What makes Glitter interesting, what makes for a deconstruction of pop, is the failure of the minimal, a tension. The music and image are intended for communication and gratification without postponement, but are bound to be traversed by excess, lack or contradiction that are covered up. Glitter created an impossible star when his clothes were simply too contrived to be created outside publicity shots and could not even be worn on stage. The silver suits, slashed to the waist, emanated from nowhere, or from that imaginary place we now know as Boystown. The exposed chest isn’t a sexy suggestion of what is desirable, half-hidden. Instead the glimpse of the natural body only sends attention back to what is excessive, the un-natural envelope of fabric not usually intended for clothing, like suits of silver foil on a wire framework. We perceive the fetishistic: no longer a pure star, but something known to be a fetish, an abnormal fixation of attention, even a demand on our attention (Glitter can’t be a sex-object).

For Glitter, communication and sex appeal can be beyond delay or discontinuity. He quotes Brando in Last Tango In Paris, “’I don’t want to talk. I don’t need to talk, but we can still communicate.’ And he grunts and groans. That’s pretty similar to what I achieve.” Communication and content are coterminous: that is Glitter’s desire. The choreography and the inarticulate sounds are, as Glitter said, not meant to be suggestive--meanings are too clear and fixed. Like Roland Barthes’ strip-tease, the conventionalized, formal and inexpressive moves disperse sex appeal, are a ritual. In “Do You Wanna Touch Me”, there is no intention to suggest, instead there is a specific need, “touch me… THERE THERE THERE THERE”. There is only a single signified place, where desire will supposedly be satisfied: but satisfaction is postponed, which is what propels the song, is the incompleteness that Glitter’s dance discipline conceals, or rather around which it is constructed.

Glitter appears in a still from a TV performance of “Leader of the Gang”: he is wearing a sheer silver suit and platforms and is half-astride a customized chopper motorbike, caught in movement. There could be some sense of confusion--the silver suit doesn’t belong with the biker cults--but this seems unimportant. What matters is that a scene has been set-up that is placeless, without a context, where these contradictions disappear. All that is signified is a style that can be sustained only here. Glitter’s photos always reveal him in a motion or in an identifiable posture from a dance routine, itself made up of these discontinuities. His movements constitute a choreography only in their interruption, their moment of cessation and restraint, just as the music encloses ever-returning blank silences--the records are empty at the beginning, an awesome near-lack waiting to be occupied by, anticipating the vocals, but never being finally filled by them, and the bare chest too can never completely make the clothes, otherwise seamless, excessive, and without a proper place in the signifying-system of garments, lose their blankness and superfluity.

This is another deconstruction of the star, of pop, of the male, that had already surpassed the tactics of ’76, ’81…..

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