Oh! You Pretty Things – Glam Queens and Street Urchins
Grapefruit Records/Cherry Red
It seems extraordinary retrospectively that there was felt to be any need at all for the punk movement in the mid to late 70s. Politically it was moribund and embarrassing – musically it was loud pop, intent on clearing out the rock dinosaurs and frothy cloying pop, neither of which it achieved. Exactly what it was raging again becomes even more confused when considering Johnny Rotten’s fondness for Alice Cooper and The Stooges, both proudly guilty of ballads and seemingly endless jams. I mean, make your minds up. This excellent three-disc set gives a taster of another apparent enemy, glam, the uproarious movement which seemed to die out purely because audiences had overdosed on fun.
There are two bands that over the years I seem to have spent the most time saying, “no, really, they’re better than you think” – both of them are here, Roxy Music and Mott the Hoople. Roxy’s ‘Pyjamarama’ kicks off the set, one of Bryan Ferry’s more hyperventilating performances, yet, despite the look of the band in this ’73 Eno period, it is cajoling and heart-felt, throwing in the line, “just boogaloo a rhapsody divine” because they can. Mott the Hoople close the set on disc 3 with ‘Saturday Gigs‘, a love song to their fans and playing live. As Ian Hunter sings in the song, “Taking the Mick out of Top of the Pops/We play better than they do,” both bands were extraordinarily good musicians and rarely matched as song writers. They were not adverse to the odd wink at the camera and they wore ‘enthusiastic’ clothing but you could never describe either as froth and nonsense. So if they’re both glam, why is it relegated to TOTP 2 and novelty corner?
It’s worth pointing out, as David Wells does in the excellent notes which accompany this, that the collection focuses on glam rock as opposed to glam pop. There are blurred lines of course but there is a difference. Many of the artists featured here began life or ended their time in the spotlight in very different forms, glam being an opportunity to at least temporarily reinvent themselves as musicians and personalities radically. This would explain the appearance of The Pretty Things, here removed from their 60s mind expanding and the track ‘Joey’ displaying an almost orchestral quasi-ELO feel. There’s also no Bowie, though with Dana Gillespie’s cover of ‘Andy Warhol‘; Mick Ronson; Ian Hunter; Lou Reed and Iggy Pop all present and correct, you can consider that base well covered regardless.
The collection is far from one tone, with not only unusual selections from the most recognisable names represented by tracks which are far from familiar – the Sparks‘ B-side ‘Barbecutie‘ is far from throw-away and Thin Lizzy’s sank-without-a-trace ‘Little Darling‘ – but the inevitable “who?” selections. Bearded Lady never did trouble the charts, their Small Faces-lite ‘Up in the Air‘ didn’t even manage to get released; Agnes Strange, victims of major label RCA signing anybody and everybody who tapped into the current trend, despite sounding like a gentler Motorhead; American abroad, Brett Smiley got as far as appearing on the Russell Harty Show, only to get savaged and find the tape op playing the B-side to his single in error and lip-syncing to a track even fewer people would hear than the A-side (in a nice touch, the excellent erroneous track is included). They’re not all stellar but they portray this period from 1970 to 1976 as a time when the same band could go from plodding pub rock to garage frenzy to falsetto glitter explosion in the space of only a few months and be accepted in all three guises.
Tim Curry’s rendition of ‘Sweet Transvestite‘ from Rocky Horror may well tick all the boxes of what people commonly perceive as glam but comes across on this collection as rather subdued and perhaps inevitably, “stagey”. Few artists here expected to be playing the same kinds of songs about 16 year-olds and dressing up in sparkly garments for anything other than the short term and the urgency and joyousness of the daftness is what carries much of the selections here through into territory beyond novelty and into something culturally important.