Friday, August 7, 2009

Glam Rock and the Velvet Goldmine

The movement that sometimes has been christened 'Glam Rock' and includes such groups as Sweet, Slade and Steve Harley & Cockney Rebels engendered a storm both of social outrage and wild enthusiasm in the 1970s. It had a permanent effect on popular music and artists as disparate as David Bowie, Adam Ant and even Michael Jackson owe a great deal to the tongue-in-cheek excesses of the Glam groups.

A film entitled 'Velvet Goldmine' attempted to capture the essence of the movement by following the career of a fictional artist named Maxwell Demon. The film, albeit pretentious, includes fabulous music, great costumes and a clever plot that allows the frequent intrusion of such literary lights as Oscar Wilde and Jean Genet, weaving a tapestry of symbolist and decadent influences spanning centuries.

Watching 'Velvet Goldmine' a few nights ago reminded me of many of my old musical favourites. Although I frequently listen to many of them still, I hadn't heard any of Steve Harley's songs for a long time. I went to YouTube to find an original version of 'Make Me Smile'... in watching that, I realised how perfectly Steve Harley captured the heart and soul of 'Glam'. It wasn't based on elaborate costuming or oblique references to 19th century effetes. It was his wonderful sense of humour and his own cocky performance that are both his own personal trademark and epitomise the best in Glam Rock at the same time.

Here is Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel performing the classic hit, 'Make Me Smile'.
As a side note, I detest chewing gum and find the habit disgusting and almost obscene. Yet, here is a musician who chews gum during his performance and makes it sexy...

Of course, that is part of the whole 'Glam' message, an 'in your face' rebellion against social mores both trivial and profound. His eyes are so expressive, his energy so boundless. He certainly has the power to make me smile, to lift my heart in a dark moment.

The film 'Velvet Goldmine' can stand on its own merits, although it does follow its own artistic agenda rather than being a straightforward study of the incredible phenomenon that was 'Glam'. It is as much an expose of the music industry as a portrait of Maxwell Demon, a character who is fictional and cannot be equated to any single musical star. Although some critics have claimed that Maxwell Demon is David Bowie, I would disagree with that. Bowie belongs in a class of his own in a sense, transcending any single movement. Maxwell Demon evoked Sweet, Marc Bolan and T-Rex far more. Other favourites of mine from this era are Gary Glitter and Lou Reed but I don't see Gary in the character of Maxwell Demon. The Velvet Underground definitely features in the inspiration for the 'Velvet Goldmine' but I still would equate the film more with Sweet, a group that took musical flamboyance and transgender hints to the limits. I think the influence of 'Sweet' often is underestimated. Their concerts were performance art at its best as well as providing music that had the power to rev emotions to ecstatic 'highs'. Unlike Bowie and Reed, Sweet's music was not particularly intellectual but it did have incredible energy and power. It was the Glam equivalent of jungle drums in the night, quickening the pulse and injecting a fever into the blood.

Although I perceive the influence of Glam in the late Michael Jackson, I am no fan of his. For me, it was artists such as Bowie, Lou Reed and Marc Bolan who inherited the mantle of the 19th Century 'dreamers of decadence' and musically extended the Symbolist movement in the arts.

No comments: