Forget psychedelia or progressive rock: the most ambitious subgenre of rock and roll was glam rock. It’s primarily thought of as a primarily English movement from the first half of the ’70s but there’s more to it than just a location and a time period. It synthesized influences from show business, pre-rock music genres and all manner of art movements into a style that bent genres, gender and the line between art and trash. Its tendrils subsequently extended into punk, disco, new wave and even today’s alternative rock. You can’t understand modern popular music without acknowledging its influence – and its complexity is so big that it’s hard to capture it all.
That said, a commendable attempt to outline the scope of glam rock and its history was done with surprising success in 2013 via Oh Yes We Can Love: A History Of Glam Rock, a five disc box set from Universal’s U.K. branch. It’s the first glam rock compilation that Schlockmania has ever seen that puts the familiar 1971-1975 peak era for the subgenre and places it in a context of the entire history of pop music. In doing so, it makes a powerful case for its artistic importance.
Disc One stretches all the way back to 1931, starting things off with Noel Coward’s “Mad Dogs And Englishmen”: it’s a long way to go back but it establish four elements that would be important to glam rock: satire, surrealism, whimsy and a certain fey, knowing sensibility. From there, it runs headlong through the ’50s and ’60s to point out some key influences: Anthony Newley, Chuck Berry, the Velvet Underground, even a Howlin’ Wolf track that Marc Bolan raided for ideas on his hit “Jeepster.”
The latter part of disc one gets into the rudiments of what we soon know as glam rock. There’s a single built on loop of Burundi tribal drumming (“Burundi Black Part 1”) that prefigures Adam & The Ants, a pre-10CC single by the members of that group using another big-beat drum loop (“Neanderthal Man,” credited to Hotlegs) and “Son Of My Father,” an early Giorgio Moroder-penned glam hit from Chicory Tip that had a pioneering use of analog synth. Important early hits from T-Rex and Slade round the disc out plus David Bowie makes his only appearance on the set, perhaps due to licensing hassles, with the first version of “London Bye Ta-Ta.”
The second disc launches right into the heyday of glam rock with a flurry of hits by key artists like Mott The Hoople (“All The Young Dudes”), Sweet (“Ballroom Blitz”) and Suzi Quatro (“Can The Can”). You also get groups who came up with cash-ins on the trend as diverse as the Osmonds (“Crazy Horses” and Elton John (“Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”). None of the big glam Bowie hits are here but he makes his presence felt via his productions for the aforementioned Mott as well as Lou Reed (“Walk On The Wild Side,” natch) and Lulu’s killer glam-soul version of “The Man Who Sold The World,” including backup vocals and woozy saxophone from the man himself.
The third disc is another hits-packed affair focusing on the last key years of the initial glam era, 1974-1975. There’s a lot of stuff from second-tier groups familiar to the glam devotees via tracks by Hello (“Tell Him”), Mud (“Tiger Feet”) and the Rubettes (the soaring “Sugar Baby Love”). This is balanced by the artsier side of glam via tunes like the despondent orchestrated epic “Tumbling Down” from Cockney Rebel and Patti Smith’s edgy pre-Arista single “Piss Factory.” Elsewhere, Kiss (“Rock And Roll All Nite”) and the Bay City Rollers (“Saturday Night”) get in on the fun.
The fourth disc is where things really get interesting, covering glam mutations from the dawn of punk in 1976 up to the mid-’80s. There is some proto-punk that co-opts glam riffs and beats like the Ramones (“Sheena Is A Punk Rocker”) and Blondie (“Rip Her To Shreds”) alongside last-gasp pop chart hits from Be-Bop Deluxe (“Ships In The Night”) and E.L.O. (“Rockaria”). There’s even a detour into heavy metal (“Take On The World” by Judas Priest) and disco (“Rasputin” from Boney M, proof that glam and disco were just degrees apart). New wave dominates the back half with everyone from Adam & The Ants to Bauhaus but Schlockmania’s fave in this part is the Human League’s synthy-yet-tough medley of Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll” with Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing.”
The fifth disc covers from 1986 up to the early years of the 21st century and it delivers a string of modern delights that channel the glory of ’70s glam beautifully. Hanoi Rocks’ joyful hard-rock cover of “Up Around The Bend” sits nicely alongside Sisters Of Mercy covering the Hot Chocolate death-drama “Emma” and alt-rock acts as diverse as the Fall (“Glam Racket”) and Saint Etienne (“Star”) throw their hat in the ring. Smartly-chosen tracks from Suede, Pulp and Marilyn Manson show how easily the sound translated to the ’90s and modern tracks from Goldfrapp and Foxy Shazam further display the sound’s timelessness. There’s even a song from the U.K. novelty act The Glam Metal Detectives.
As is fitting for the genre, Oh Yes We Can Love also boasts lovely packaging that blends ’70s outrageousness and modern chic. The heart of it is a hardbound liner notes booklet. It begins with a concise essay from Barney Hoskyns that delves into the complexity of glam, including some thoughtful material on the divide between artsy glam of the Bowie/Roxy ilk and the bubblegum, Chinn & Chapman-esque side. Better yet, you get “glam facts” on each song, presented with ritzy graphics in the style of a ’70s teen magazine.
In short, this box is an impressive achievement. There’s the occasional licensing-related hiccup – the aforementioned lack of prime Bowie tracks, the unfortunate use of the crappy 1988 remix of “Rock And Roll All Nite” rather than the original version – but these are minor issues when one considers the scope of what compilers Mark Wood and Daryl Easlea pulled off here. Oh Yes We Can Love gives you an expansive colorful overview of glam, its roots and its legacy. If you want to rock in high style, it’s worth taking the plunge into its glittering depths.