Graded on a Curve: Various Artists,
The Great Glam Rock Explosion!

If you’re like most Americans, the words “English Glam Rock” evoke images of David Bowie, T. Rex, Roxy Music, Mott the Hoople, Slade, Sweet, and (I would be remiss if I didn’t toss his name out there) Gary Glitter.

But to the kids who were growing up in Great Britain when Glam exploded, these successful exports to America were but the tip of the Glam iceberg; in the early to mid-seventies dozens of bands you’ve most likely never heard of were trotting England’s green and pleasant land in knee-high platform boots, trodding millions of tender young minds underfoot.

And that’s why the 1984 Biff! Records compilation The Great Glam Rock Explosion! is so wonderful and important. Its 18 cuts offer an overview of the glittering soft underbelly of the Glam phenomenon, exposing you to the inexplicable. You’ll find yourself wondering just how such bands as Kenny, Hello, and Arrow managed to achieve their fifteen minutes of fame, and if you’re like me you won’t be able to come up with an answer.

And the reason for this is obvious–to truly comprehend the hold these mostly saccharine songs exacted over their early teen audiences you would literally have to undergo a brain transplant with a 13-year-old girl from a staid suburb of Leeds circa 1974.

Once you skim the cream from the top of Glam, what you get is (to mix a metaphor) baby formula–a good 90 percent of the stuff on The Great Glam Rock Explosion! is pure, unabashed bubblegum of the sort being mass-produced at the time by those notorious (and ubiquitous) glitter super-producers Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, who are well-represented here-in.

The formula itself is simple; stripped-to-the-basics songs with a heavy shuffle beat, a friendly hook, and a catch phrase of the sort designed to sing, smile, and clap along with. If you’ve ever heard such Chapman/Chinn Sweet songs as “Funny Funny” or “Little Willy” or Suzi Quatro’s “Can the Can” you’ll know what I’m talking about, and you’ll be ready to produce the next identikit Glam Sensation your own damn self. Why let Chapman and Chinn collect all those royalty checks?

The comp has some glaring–and inexcusable–omissions. Such Glitter grown-ups and successful American exports as Roxy Music, Brian Eno, and Mott the Hoople are nowhere to be found, nor are–and I cannot fathom why given the company–Sweet and the Bay City Rollers. As for Slade, they’re represented by the maudlin “Far Far Away,” when I would much sooner hear them in all their poor-spelling, boot-stomping glory.

Not all of the songs proceed according to Chinn/Chapman formula; Steve Harley and Cockney Rebels’ “Judy Teen” sounds downright sophisticated in this company, as does Wizzards’ (long live Roy Wood!) girl-group salute “Angel Fingers.” Suzi Quatro’s “Devil’s Gate Drive” is also a (slight) cut above. And Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” and T. Rex’s “Metal Guru” stand about the competition like collosi.

Glam offered the disgruntled kids of the British Isles an escape from the drab, quotidian life of birth, school, work (or dole), and death, and they grabbed ahold of it like a lifeline. They looked upon the blue jeans-wearing, blues-based hard rock bands that ruled the earth as a buzz, and sought the nazz in outrageous costumes, camp flamboyance, and daring androgyny. The question they posed was a stark one: Why look like your antediluvian hippie older brother when you could look like a sexless emigre from a distant planet?

England’s lower echelon Glam artists wanted to be looked at, and went out of their way to MAKE you look at them. And when it came to the lower echelons on the pecking order, the costumes were everything, if only because they were the ONLY thing differentiating one band from another.

Kenny affected a downright frightening image based on sweaters emblazoned with the letter “K” and multi-colored patchwork trousers, while Arrow looked downright understated in their matching brown suit jackets. As for The Glitter Band, they went all out in silver lame glitter suits. Which means that some serious YouTube viewing is a prerequisite to owning this LP.

This is unrelentingly cheerful stuff–the world views of Bowie and Roxy Music may have been dark and nuanced, but the same can’t be said for England’s lesser glitterati. They preferred the cherubic smile to the sneer; there were no existentialists amongst the younger Glam set. As for sound, most of our parent country’s second- and third-tier Glitter rockers offered up a streamlined version of first generation rock’n’roll, after first surgically removing all of the balls and menace, of course.

I have my favorites; Kenny’s “Fancy Pants” is a hoot, while Wizzard’s “Angel Fingers” is both campy and gorgeous. Mud’s cover of the Sweet’s “Dyna-Mite” is glamtastic, although I wish the compilers had gone with the great “Tiger Feet” instead. Hello’s slinky and lightweight “New York Groove” is also a keeper, as is Gary Glitter’s relatively raw-boned “Sidewalk Sinner.”

I’m also enamored of Chris Spedding’s “Motor Bikin’,” which boasts a harder edge than most everything here without sacrificing that characteristic Glam groove. With his slicked back hair and black leather jacket, Spedding tried harder than anybody else to stay true to the spirit of the early rock’n’roll that inspired Glam, as did Suzi Quatro, whose “Devil’s Gate Drive” is also a must hear.

I don’t think I need say that nobody who values such suspect notions as “integrity” and “authenticity” will want anything to do with The Great Glam Rock Explosion! Most of these songs are product in the truest sense of the world, but they don’t strike me as particularly cynical product, and that bears remembering.

What also bears remembering is that the Monkees, the Runaways, and a fair number of punk bands were pure product too. Besides, I like my product, and I like it with lots of processed sugar–I’ll take Count Chocula over Cheerios any day, and that goes double for Franken Berry with Marshmallow Bits.

The Great Glam Rock Explosion! is a window into a little-known subculture, and is every bit as fascinating from a musico-sociological standpoint as, say, 1980’s Oi!-The Album. That said, no sentient being should ever be subjected to Barry Blue’s “Dancing on a Saturday Night.” And where are Plastic Feet, Bilbo Baggins, and Teddy Palmer’s Rumble Band? Docked a notch accordingly.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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