Wednesday, 30 December 2009

The Prettiest Stars II

And so the question arises: were Queen a glam act?

Well, not according to the All Music Guide, which claims 'they were at once too heavy and arty to be glam', though that suggests that the (presumably American) reviewer hasn't really got a grip of glam: nothing can be too arty.

But perhaps one should look back at the time they were releasing their first albums. And back then the critics did tend to lump them in, even if only on grounds of the group's name and Freddie Mercury's performances. The great Phil Hardy and Dave Laing, in their Encyclopedia of Rock, written in 1975 just after Bohemian Rhapsody had been released, referred to the way that 'earlier doubts that Queen were simply an androgynous glam-rock spin-off were dispelled.'

So let's look at Queen. This is their closest brush with glam, their Top of the Pops performance of Killer Queen:

And there's certainly something there: a camp little number delivered by a strutting Mercury flaunting his Biba-black fingernails.

But somehow it doesn't really cut the mustard. And to illustrate why I think it fails, here's some hardcore glam - Roxy Music performing Do the Strand on The Old Whistle Test (skip the first 1'20" if you're not interested in hearing why the programme was so damn awful most of the time):

Apart from anything else (wit, irony and so on) there's a key class difference in the lyrics. Killer Queen, as far as I can tell, is about a wealthy woman indulging her fantasies of prostitution; whereas Do the Strand, for all its name-dropping, is aspirational: when Ferry sings 'If you feel blue, look through Who's Who', you know that he's not actually in the book - he's dreaming of the impossible. His escape is also into fantasy, but there's no element here of slumming, as there is in Killer Queen. Roxy's position is closer to a literal version of the Oscar Wilde quote about how 'We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.'

Or to put it another way, Mercury's fur-coat gives the impression that he's part of the social world he's describing, while Ferry is lost in imagined rapture: 'Dance on moonbeams ... in furs or blue jeans.' As the All Music Guide goes on to say: 'they were hardly trashy enough to be glam.'

I know it's not exactly a conclusive argument, but at root there's simply a feeling: Queen weren't really very glam at all, were they?

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The Prettiest Stars I

For various reasons, I've been revisiting the glories of glam rock recently. Not that it takes much to get me listening to the Spiders From Mars, Roxy Music and Cockney Rebel. That brief moment (the period from, say, David Bowie's single Starman in June 1972 through to Mott the Hoople's swansong Saturday Gigs in December 1974) remains the highpoint of British rock and roll, as far as I'm concerned: funny, camp, theatrical, pretentious - it was wonderful.

There's some dispute, though, about who was part of glam. So - for the sake of those with whom I've been disputing - here's some clips of the kind of thing that I think counts:

First, Steve Harley with the first incarnation of Cockney Rebel performing a live version of their debut single Sebastian on German television:

Sadly, it's not the full song (I love the fact that a band considered it reasonable to release a seven-minute song as a first single), but it's magnificent even in shortened format.

Then, slightly more arguably, there's the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, who often got considered as a hard rock act, though surely there's no argument that the drama of this performance of Jacques Brel's Next makes it part of glam? Is there?

Part of what I love about glam was that it was sold records. It was genuinely popular in a way that didn't always make sense. It could be as witty, as weird, as oddball as Sparks and still attract a crowd of screaming teenyboppers. Well, here are the boys making the point in 1975 as they try to deliver a version of the great single Amateur Hour:

And one of the other things I love about glam is that it inspired others to push themselves to new levels. Take Leo Sayer, for example (yes, I know I'm on much thinner ice here). Clearly not a glam star as such, but when he first appeared, the presentation was heavily influenced by the theatricality of the time. And while I know he's never been a critically approved act, if this performance existed in isolation, without the later career, would it not be considered comparable to some of, say, Jobriath's work?

Now to me, that's much closer to the spirit of glam than the likes of the Sweet and Mud, who frequently get associated with the term. Not that I've got anything against either of those bands, mind - it's just that glam wasn't simply a question of dressing up for Top of the Pops: the obsession with style came from within the music, not as a coat of facepaint afterwards. Oh, and the subject of the song draws from the well of glam.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Sherlock Holmes

While I relax from writing for a bit, I've been indulging myself by reading (yet again) some Sherlock Holmes stories. I've been reading these for the last forty years, and they never disappoint.

On this occasion, I'm aided by a fine new book, The Sherlock Holmes Companion: An Elementary Guide, written by Daniel Smith and published by Aurum Press. It's a beautiful piece of work, with fabulous illustrations, including this film poster from 1922:

At only £20, it's a perfect gift for the Sherlockian in your life. And if you don't have a Sherlockian in your life, then maybe that means there's an opening there for you.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Brewer's - a termination

I'm still not entirely clear what's happening to the great old imprints of Chambers and Brewer's, as their parent company seeks to save money, but my brief involvement appears to be at an end. Earlier in the year I signed a contract to produce a book for Brewer's, but I have this morning received formal notification that the contract has been terminated.

It's a great shame, not merely because I thought it could have been a good book, but much more importantly because it displays little faith in the future of the imprint. Brewer's has played a central part of the literary life of the country for nearly 140 years - it would be dreadful if such a fine legacy were to be thrown away now.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Rock and Roll in South Wales

The exhibition of Harry Hammond's photographs is moving on from the O2 Centre, as it starts touring the country. And from next Saturday, it will be on view in the Millennium Centre in Cardiff.