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David Bowie

The History of Rock Music in the 1970s,
Or, Whatever Happened to Glam?

By Philip Auslander

The story rock historians tell about how the 1960s turned into the 1970s typically goes something like this:

The 1960s, which is to say the countercultural moment in rock, reached its apogee with the Woodstock Festival of August 1969, and could only go downhill from there. This it did, rapidly: the Rolling Stones’ concert at the Altamont Freeway in northern California a scant four months later, during which Hell’s Angels hired as security guards visited violence upon the crowd, is often cited as decisive proof that the counterculture had imploded, destroyed by the dark forces that lurked within it. 

This description of the transition from the 1960s to the 1970s sets the stage for the next decisive moment in rock history: the emergence of punk rock in 1975-6. Rock historians almost always describe punk as the antidote to everything that had gone wrong with rock after the halcyon days of the 1960s. If stadium rock was too polished, standardized, and commercial, punk was raw, immediate, idiosyncratic, and seemingly defiant of market standards, at least initially. Progressive rock, a form that emerged in the late 1960s in the work of British groups like Yes and Jethro Tull and matured in the 1970s, embraced musical complexity and instrumental virtuosity. It moved rock away from its roots in rhythm and blues, and proposed that rock was “serious” (even “difficult”) music, music to be listened to, not danced to. Punk was hailed as a strong reaction against the pretensions of progressive rock, a reaction that put rock back in touch with its origins in the rock and roll of the 1950s and the bodies of its listeners. Or, in Robert Palmer’s pungent formulation, punk “save[d] rock and roll from its big, bad, bloated self.” 

As a way of questioning this valorization of punk as the definitive development in rock of the 1970s and the music that saved rock from itself, I suggest that another rock subgenre has an equal claim to having reminded rock of the need for a backbeat, powerful lyrics, and danceability. I am referring to glam rock, a primarily British phenomenon of the early- and mid-1970s. Typical practitioners of glam rock include Marc Bolan and T. Rex, and David Bowie. So powerful is the gravitational pull of punk within the history of rock that when glam is mentioned at all in histories of rock, which it frequently isn’t, it is as a precursor to punk.

Marc Bolan of T. Rex.

A partisan view of glam rock, however, suggests that it is as plausible a candidate as punk to be the genre that “sav[ed] rock from its big, bad, bloated self” by reminding it of its origins. Jim Farber argues, “Even those resistant to the larger glitter trend couldn’t deny its role as the era’s cutting-edge sound. A sound with a retro appeal, glam gave rock & roll its balls back. While the previous psychedelic trend encouraged decadent solos and haughty musicianship, glam revived the hard, mean chords of Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones in the Fifties to mid-Sixties.” In other words, Farber’s claims for glam are virtually identical with those Palmer makes for punk. Glam can be seen as a reaction to the previous psychedelic and progressive rock trends that expressed the antagonism toward the counterculture that would later typify punk. Like punk, it was aggressive, muscular music based in the fundamentals of rock that looked back to the rock and roll of the 1950s. Glam rock was highly danceable, to the degree that Bolan and Bowie even found themselves flirting with disco in the later parts of their respective careers as glam rockers. Most glam rockers partook of an in-your-face attitude and some practitioners of glam, including Bowie and the New York Dolls, certainly produced tough, hard-hitting lyrics. Inasmuch as glam came about before punk, it should have the prior claim to salvaging rock. So, why is punk valorized as the defining development in rock music during the 1970s and glam relegated to the marginal status of precursor to the defining development in rock music during the 1970s?

I suggest the reason rock historians valorize punk and deemphasize glam is that the history of rock is not independent of rock culture but embedded within rock culture and reflective of its ideology. As Susan Douglas writes, “Real rock and roll must be ‘authentic’—meaning it features . . . original songwriting, social criticism, a stance of anger and/or alienation.” The concept of rock authenticity is linked with the romantic bent of rock culture, in which rock music is imagined to be truly expressive of the artists’ souls and psyches, and as necessarily politically and culturally oppositional.

Glam fulfills most of these requirements. Glam rockers took up a stance of alienation (Bowie’s portrayal of himself as the extraterrestrial Ziggy Stardust suggests alienation from humanity itself). Male glam rockers wore make-up, dresses, and effeminate fashions; their queer versions of masculinity were presented as an aggressive questioning of social gender definitions. Glam’s failure to qualify as authentic rock results neither from its musical characteristics, its social placement, nor its politics. It rests entirely on a question of performance: the relationship of the musician’s performance persona to what is assumed to be the musician’s real self. Rock ideology insists that the musician’s performance persona and true self be presented and perceived as identical--it must be possible to see the musician’s songs and performances as authentic manifestations of his or her individuality. (I hasten to emphasize the words presented and perceived--it is not the case that the rock musician’s performance persona and self must really be identical, only that a credible illusion of identity is created and maintained.) Glam rockers specifically refused this equation, foregrounding instead the constructedness of their performance personae. This is particularly true for Bowie, whose systematic and self-conscious metamorphoses of persona (including his sexuality) and musical style represent a significant departure from the ideology of authenticity. Bowie’s transformations were radical, frequent, and extreme: from the boy in the dress on the cover of The Man Who Sold the World to Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane to the Thin White Duke and beyond. More important than his particular transformations was his implicit assertion of the conventionality and artificiality of all of his performance personae.


Glam rockers like Bolan and Bowie, each of whom crafted a distinctive and easily identified body of music, were certainly rock auteurs. But by insisting that the figure performing the music was fabricated from make-up, costume, and pose, all of which were subject to change at any moment, glam rockers undermined the authenticity of their performing identities. The use of make-up in glam often asserted the artificiality of the mask rather than the authenticity of the person beneath it. The members of KISS, for instance, performed in Kabuki-style make-up that completely masked their features and turned them into types rather than individuals, each type defined by a certain make-up and costume, a certain pose and attitude, and a certain set of stage rituals (e.g., Gene Simmons’ tongue-wagging and fire-breathing). It is glam rock’s overt flirtation with theatricality and inauthenticity that makes it impossible for historians whose work implicitly reflects rock ideology to entertain the possibility that glam was more than a footnote to punk, despite its legitimate claim to having brought rock back to its musical roots and a stance of social opposition well before punk.

Rock historians’ insistence that punk restored rock to its proper project entails certain narrative contortions, however. It is far easier to make a convincing case that punk purveyed socially critical lyrics and political consciousness by reference to British punk rather than the slightly earlier phenomenon of American punk. American punk, as practiced by Television and the Ramones, for instance, was far more self-conscious and aestheticizing than it was political. As Alain Dister points out, many of the punk groups inhabiting the downtown New York scene of the mid-1970s defined themselves in terms of an interest in modern French poetry: “Patti Smith and Richard Hell [of Television] citing Rimbaud, Tom Miller [also of Television] renaming himself Verlaine. . . .” The Ramones are a particularly difficult case to assimilate to the argument that punk was socially engaged. Musically, their stripped down, rough, and violent sound was indeed a return to rock at its most elemental, and a harsh rejoinder to the meanderings of psychedelic rock and the classical aspirations of progressive rock. But the Ramones also seemed to take pride in writing songs whose lyrics had no redeeming social content whatsoever. Furthermore, their practices of having all band members adopt the surname Ramone, and look as much as possible like one another, suggested a level of self-conscious irony closer to glam’s self-deconstruction than to rock authenticity.

Sha Na Na in 1969.

Such connections between glam and punk shed fresh light on another phenomenon frequently omitted from the rock history books: Sha Na Na’s anomalous but premonitory performance at Woodstock. The surprising appearance of a group celebrating the rock and roll of the 1950s at the heart of the 1960s counterculture can now be read as presaging the rebellion against the music of that counterculture and the return to a pre-1960s sense of what rock is evident in both glam and punk, as well as in the music of other 50s revivalists like the Stray Cats and Robert Gordon, who emerged from and were embraced by the punk/new wave music scene. Sha Na Na ended many of their performances (though not, as far as I know, their Woodstock appearance) by striking a pose of aggression against the counterculture. The live side of their 1971 album Sha Na Na (which is dressed in its own gold lamé inner sleeve, by the way) chronicles such a moment, as a member of the group declaims: “We gots just one thing to say to you fuckin’ hippies. And that is that rock and roll is here to stay.” The gesture is understood as an affectionate one, and the Columbia University crowd cheers. But for all of its intentional inauthenticity, that moment anticipates the antagonism toward the counterculture that would be expressed, in equally stageworthy but much less affectionate ways, in punk (e.g, in Johnny Rotten’s famous, home-made “I hate Pink Floyd” t-shirt). 

In addition to prefiguring punk’s desire to return to a pre-1960s version of rock, Sha Na Na anticipated glam. Their costumes--including black leather “greaser” outfits and gold lamé Elvis suits--and preening stage poses were as self-consciously constructed as any of Bowie’s identities. Bowie, Bolan, and other glam rockers troubled conventional notions of male gender identity by embodying a fey androgyny undergirded by heterosexual machismo. As a group, Sha Na Na presented a catalogue of similarly ambiguous masculine gender stereotypes as refracted through rock and roll and 1950s fashions. Those in the group who embraced the “greaser” pose embodied masculine bravado and aggression, but also a preoccupation with grooming (“grease”) and the moment-by-moment condition of their hair, addressed by the frequent application of pocket combs. Like Elvis himself, the gold-suited members of Sha Na Na juxtaposed an almost feminine version of male beauty with masculine sexual aggression. The distance from the male types represented by Sha Na Na and those staged some years later and in a completely different musical context by the Village People is not as great as it may initially seem, and the connective tissue between them is surely provided by glam rock.

Philip Auslander is the author of Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Popular Music. He teaches performance studies at Georgia Tech.

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