Sunday, 16 February 2014

Oh, You Pretty Things!

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Oh, You Pretty Things: Queering Pop Music in the 70s & 80s
by Dr Louise Chambers

If you think you are starved of queer ‘role models’ in 2014, cast your minds back 45 years and imagine what life was like at the end of the 1960s: we were still experiencing the last vestiges of the Hays Code (1), so all lesbian and gay characters in the cinema were condemned to die, go mad, or go to prison. TV was no better, with the occasional camp, effeminate character appearing as a way of laughing at gay men. Think of John Inman’s ‘Mr Humphries’ in Are You Being Served, which began airing in 1972; Melvyn Hayes as ‘Gloria Beaumont’ in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (1974); Larry Grayson’s talk show, Shut That Door, which began life in 1972 (2). Elsewhere, however, something was stirring and that ‘something’ began to emerge at the beginning of the 1970s, as the optimism that accompanied the seemingly endless ‘summer of love’ in the late 60s gave way to the depression of the early 70s.

‘Lady Stardust’
I think the first time I was aware of sexual ambiguity in pop music was when I listened to Lady Stardust on David Bowie’s album, Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders From Mars. It was 1972 and I was 15 years old.

The lyric included the lines:
  Femme fatales emerged from shadows

  To watch this creature fair

  Boys stood upon their chairs

  To make their point of view

  I smiled sadly for a love I could not obey...

Marc Bolan
The song was about Marc Bolan - the singer and founder-member of hippy-turned-glitter band, T.Rex - and I must say I felt similarly about the elfin-like singer with the ethereal voice. It’s not often that I think of men as ‘beautiful’ but then I don’t think Marc Bolan was really ‘a man’ in the conventional sense. He had long, beautiful, ‘corkscrew’ hair, and fine, almost feline features; his feet were so small that he wore women’s shoes and, in the fashion of the time, his clothes could have been worn equally (but not, perhaps, equally as well) by most women. Bowie’s love for Bolan was manifest, not just from the Ziggy sessions, but also in the subsequent Aladdin Sane album, whose track Prettiest Star was about Marc Bolan (3); any further doubts were removed by listening to the lyric to All the Young Dudes, a song penned by Bowie for the then-struggling Mott the Hoople. “Who needs TV when I got T.Rex?” sang Ian Hunter, although I was never sure if the straight, white Hunter ever knew what he was singing about.

Of course, Bowie went on to pen lyrics such as: ‘Got your mother in whirl/She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl’ (Rebel, Rebel) and ‘If you want it, boys/Get it here then’ (Sweet Thing), both of which appeared on the 1974 opus, Diamond Dogs, but by then camp and sexual ambiguity had been well established through four years of ‘glam’ rock bands.

As for Bowie himself: if Bolan was from Middle-earth, Bowie came from another planet entirely; with his differently-coloured eyes, other-worldly clothes and ambivalent sexuality, we were left wondering: if the Spiders came from Mars, where in the Universe did Bowie spring from? Bowie wore make-up, glitter and fabulous, colourful costumes, whose designs negated any attempts at gendering. Some of my favourite outfits (see below) were produced by Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto for the Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane tours in 1972 and 1974.
Yamamoto costumes for the Ziggy Stardust & Aladdin Sane Tours
Of course, there was lots of conjecture at school (and in the press, of course) about Bowie’s sexuality and my class broadly fell into two camps (if you’ll pardon the pun), with some people expressing homophobic attitudes, whilst others embraced this new attitude towards sex/uality by wearing make-up and trying to imitate Bowie’s style. “I like people who are... AC/DC, know what I mean?”, as one fan famously put it in the 1973 documentary, Cracked Actor (4), referring to Bowie’s rumoured status as bisexual. Meanwhile, I stuck up Aladdin Sane posters in my bedroom and fantasised about wearing those outfits in public... So, where on earth did they come from?

The gods only knew why Glam appeared when it did. I was dimly aware of a couple of songs that had charted in 1971 because I had started to take an interest in the pop charts. Jeepster by T.Rex had made the no.2 spot by the end of that year, and a bunch of former skinheads, now glammed up with tons of glitter and calling themselves Slade, had a no.1 hit with the deliberately misspelt, Cos I Luv You. According to Barney Hoskins (1998) Glam was the shot in the arm that music needed, exploding into the vacuum left by the Beatles, but also (perhaps) as a reaction to the pompous, po-faced, straight-laced art rock that typified bands like Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Emerson Lake & Palmer and other ‘album bands’ that looked down on ‘singles bands’ as though they were the lowest form of life. Glam was about stardom, celebrity, fame, superficiality, plasticity and androgyny. It was also all those girlie things that the macho, ‘hard’ rock and prog bands seemed to despise: glitter, make-up, feather boas; bright, pastel colours; flamboyant outfits, platform soles and stacked heels; boys could wear their girlfriends’ clothes and make-up and vice versa. Most of all, it was about producing cheap, disposable 45s: those gorgeous little black discs that contained two songs, one on each side, both of which lasted less than three minutes; they ran at 45 rpm and cost 45p. Glam put the gay in pop music, before gay and camp became synonymous. As Hoskyns (1998: 6) put it: “[Glam] said flaunt it if you’ve got it, and if you haven’t got it, fake it – make it up with make-up, cover it up with stardust, reinvent yourself as a Martian androgyne.
“She could kill you with a wink of her eye” - Steve Priest (The Sweet) 1973
Of course, from an historical perspective, it’s worth noting that the first gay march in London took place in 1970 and the first Gay Pride Rally in the same city was in the summer of 1972, when Glam was really getting established as a musical force to be reckoned with.

A Walk on the Wild Side
Maybe it also had something to do with Andy Warhol: Bowie was certainly enamoured of the Factory during the late ‘60s and a eulogy to Warhol himself appeared on the Hunky Dory album in 1971. Glam certainly embraced the trash aesthetic, but it did it with a smile and with the ‘wink of an eye’ and we loved it because it entertained us in the way that pop music is supposed to. Furthermore it was incredibly subversive: yes, there was that famous moment when Bowie went down on Mick Ronson’s guitar on Top Of The Pops in 1973, but Glam was subversive in so many other ways: it blurred the divide between straight and queer; it allowed us to play with make-up and clothing in way that no other musical genre had allowed and it introduced us to ‘chroniclers of perversion’ like Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. It may be hard to believe now, but for this genderQueer teenager growing up in the quiet seaside town of Worthing in the early ‘70s, Walk On The Wild Side, with its stories of Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn, was an absolutely revelation and truly life altering. Changing sex was no longer a dream: Glam held out the possibility of making it a reality.

It didn’t last of course; Glam was very quickly commodified. Let’s be honest, it was designed for commodification, and by 1973, Bowie had already seen the writing on the wall, ‘killing’ his Ziggy persona and eventually developing a more rock-oriented sound on the 1974 album, Diamond Dogs. By 1975, he had abandoned rock music altogether, as he embraced disco and became the first white male singer to appear on the US TV show, Soul Train. Other bands, like the brilliant Roxy Music and the hugely popular Slade, were imploding, and even T.Rex were failing to reach the number one spot as 1974 drew to a close. In any event, one of the last of the Glam wannabies, the New York Dolls, were transmuting into Something Else as their manager and mentor, Malcolm McClaren, realised there was a new kid on the blockand its name was Punk.

Ballroom Blitz to the Blitz Kids
There is old wave, there is new wave and there is David Bowie.’ (5)

Now, if I was still a Marxist, I could offer you a neat piece of dialectic materialism at this point. If 60s Bubblegum Pop was the thesis and Hard Rock the anti-thesis, then Glam would be the synthesis. If Hard Rock was the thesis and Glam the anti-thesis, then Punk was the synthesis. And if Glam was the thesis, and Punk the anti-thesis, then surely the New Romantics were the synthesis…or perhaps the synthesisers? Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved punk with a passion, but gods, it was so depressing and everyone was so badly dressed. Fortunately, a change was in the offing, as we began to experience the first sounds of a movement that became known as ‘the New Romantics’.

Bowie was hugely influential. By 1976, the Thin White Duke had decamped to Berlin and was experimenting with electronic music (influenced himself no doubt by Krautrock and bands like Kraftwerk, Can, Faust, Amon Düül and Tangerine Dream). In 1977 and 1978, Bowie released two entirely electronic albums (Low and Heroes respectively) and toured them with huge success (I know because I was at one of the sold out Earls Court gigs in 1978 and people loved the new music as well as the old). At the same time, there were electronic stirrings on the margins of punk, as bands like Ultravox!, Tubeway Army, The Human League, Dalek I Love You, and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark began to emerge. If Glam was dominated by the sound of guitars, the New Romantic instrument of choice was the synthesiser. According to legend, New Romanticism grew out of Bowie and Roxy Music nights in London and Birmingham, with the London nights eventually decamping to the Blitz Club in Covent Garden as they became more popular. Steve Strange (later to form Visage) was on the door, encouraging would-be pundits to dress as creatively and flamboyantly as possible, whilst two of the cloakroom attendants would later re-model themselves as Boy George (George O’Dowd) and Marilyn (Peter Robinson). As David Rimmer (2003: 12) noted:
Strange is working the door, as he does every Tuesday, changing his look week by week: from leather jodhpurs and Nazi greatcoat to knee breeches, sash silver-topped cane to clownish, white-faced Pierrot.

It could be argued that Steve Strange and the Blitz Kids’ appearance in the video to Bowie’s 1980 hit, Ashes to Ashes propelled the ‘Blitz Kids’ (later the New Romantics) into the mainstream, but by then the Human League, Ultravox, Classix Nouveaux, Visage (the band fronted by Steve Strange), and Orchestral Manoeuvres were all achieving some success with singles and album releases. At the end of 1980, Phil Oakey had replaced two of the guys in the Human League with two female singers and switched from a fairly dour sound to a much lighter and more accessible synthpop. The Blitz Kids had also been featured in Stepping Out in London, a documentary about the club, produced by Lyndall Hobbs. The film supported Alien in British cinemas, so it had a guaranteed audience. Meanwhile, Malcom McLaren (yes, him again) persuaded failed punk band Adam & the Ants to redefine themselves and adopt a more Romantic style (Lord Byron being the primary point of reference), and then enticed the band away to form Bow Wow Wow, leaving Adam himself (now sporting the outfit of a slightly effete pirate) to recreate the Ants as New-Romantics- With-More-Than-A-Soupcon-Of-Native American. He enjoyed 3 consecutive hit singles in 1981, together with a number album (Kings of the Wild Frontier).

Another factor, I think, was the establishment of MTV in 1981. Queen (themselves jumping rather belatedly on the Glamwagon) had pioneered pop videos and, arguably, the phenomenon that was Bohemian Rhapsody, was both the first and probably one of the greatest pop videos of all time. By 1981, music videos (many created to look like short films), produced to accompany newly-released singles, were almost de rigueur. Adam & the Ants, Eurhythmics, Culture Club, Duran Duran all had videos featured on MTV and Adam Ant, Nick Rhodes and Simon Le Bon (the latter from Duran Duran) were invited in as guest ‘VJs’ on the channel. There’s no doubting the importance of MTV: whilst radio stations might promote the music, MTV promoted The Look.

The Blitz Club did not just attract people who liked dressing up and dancing to synth-pop. On any night you might see Zandra Rhodes or Nicky Halsam, whilst Derek Jarman and Jasper Conran ‘might be upstairs in the restaurant’ (Rimmer, 2003). The Club was a magnet for every wannabe fashion designer and art student in London. Furthermore, if gender confusion was one of the ‘hallmarks’ of Glam rock, cross-dressing was undoubtedly a hallmark for the New Romantics: “When New Romantic finally made its move from margins to pop mainstream, Top Of The Pops was once again full of gender benders... But in a way New Romantic never strayed too far from pantomime and the staples of drag performance... As Boy George would eventually put it, accepting an American Grammy award when Culture Club were voted Best Newcomers in 1984: ‘Thank you, America. You have taste, style and you know a good drag queen when you see one’." (Rimmer, 2003)

Ok, so the clothes were flamboyant, the powder and paint was laid on thick and androgyny was once again the position of choice, but there was one big difference between Glam Rock and the New Romantics: many of the people fronting bands belonging to the latter category were no longer faking their sexuality. There was always rumour and conjecture around the sexualities of Bowie, Bolan and others on the Glamwagon, but there was less need for rumour when singers like Marc Almond (Soft Cell), Boy George (Culture Club), Steve Strange (Visage) and others were more open about adopting queer sexualities. For me (and no doubt for many others) Boy George’s first appearance on Top Of the Pops in 1982, performing Do You Really Wanna Hurt Me? was a complete wonder: Lou Reed may have sang about someone who ‘Shaved her legs/Then he was a she’, but Boy George was actually doing it. And so was Marilyn, whose Calling Your Name single reached no.4 in 1983. And for me, searching with my friends around the myriad boutiques and secondhand clothes shops in Brighton, for something glamorous enough to wear to the weekly New Romantics Night at Sherry’s Showbar, I finally had the chance to go out in full make-up and fancy clothes without worrying about getting beaten up. For a couple of years, I was free to wear pretty much anything I wanted. But alas, the Scene was short-lived and reminded me of a line from a movie (Blade Runner, 1982) released during those enlightened times:
The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long. And you have burned so very, very brightly.
Boy George, Culture Club - Top of the Pops, 1982
So, our enlightenment may have been shortlived, and of course many bands (Ultravox, Adam & The Ants, Depeche Mode, Japan, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, to name but a few) jumped on the Glamwagon, but for a moment there, we were all free to wear what we liked (provided it was sufficiently ‘creative’), drink what we liked, wear as much make-up as we liked and - to some extent - have sex with whomever we liked, and no-one cared. Oh, and we all had a great time because, like Glam rock before it, the music was fun, entertaining and we could dance to it.

Now, I should finish with a note of caution. For all its celebration of androgyny and ‘gender-bending’, both Glam and the New Romantics were about the boys. There isn’t one single example – in either genre – of women enjoying the kinds of success enjoyed by the boys. What about Suzi Quatro? You cry... or Alison Moyet (Yazoo) and Annie Lennox (Eurhythmics)? Well, ok, there are a couple of exceptions, but for the most part, this is about boys challenging norms about masculinity in general and heteronormative masculinity in particular – lesbian and bisexual women are almost completely absent from these Scenes.

Where do we look for the next wave of Glam and androgyny?
Crossplaying ‘The Joker’
If you were looking for a new ‘scene’ at the beginning of 1990, you would be looking in vain. Nothing happened in 2000 either – in fact, with the exception of a few radical bands (like the Riot Grrrl and Queercore lesbian scenes) there’s precious little queerness to celebrate in mainstream music. So where have all the Pretty Things gone? I was having a conversation with a student (Martine) about this the other day: she was telling me about ‘Cosplay’ and suddenly it struck me: if you want to look for gender-bending, cross-dressing, androgyny and fluid sexualities, forget pop music, which has become soooo conventionally heteronormative – look elsewhere. ‘Cosplay’ (costume play) is an activity that used to be enjoyed by a handful of people – usually dismissed as ‘geeks’ or freaks – and often seen only at comic book conventions and other gatherings of fans of super heroes and SF television and movies. However, Cosplay these days seems to be a broader mix of fangirls and boys, plus people who write fan fiction or slash fiction (6), plus (of course) the geeks of legend. Martine said that both girls and boys enjoy dressing, and cross-dressing (aka ‘crossplay’), as their favourite (super)heroes, regardless of gender and, when they are dressed, ‘anything goes’. She says that most of her friends identify as bisexual and part of the fun of Cosplay is acting out slash fiction scenarios with other ‘characters’. Cosplay has also gone beyond superheroes, embracing any form of fiction, including characters from fantasy (Game of Thrones and the Harry Potter franchise are very popular), video games (Supermario, World Of Warcraft, Skyrim, Fallout etc), anime/manga, as well as science fiction and comic books.

From the Gaultier Collection, 2013
Meanwhile, Bowie’s influence can still be seen in 2013... The Victoria & Albert Museum in London recently curated a hugely successful exhibition of Bowie’s clothes and other paraphernalia and this has now gone out on a World Tour. Also, check out the Spring/Summer 2013 collection by Jean Paul Gaultier!. If you live in the UK, you’ve missed the V&A exhibition, so you might need to travel somewhere else (maybe catch the next Virgin flight to the Moon?) to relive those old glam memories.

Camille Bacon-Smith (1991) Enterprising Women. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Barney Hoskyns (1998) Glam! Faber & Faber.
Dave Rimmer (2003) The Look. Omnibus Press.
Carola Katharina Bauer (2012) Naughty Girls & Gay Male Romance/Porn. Anchor Academic Publishing.

1. A ‘voluntary code’, introduced in 1929, that effectively banned any and all ‘positive portrayals’ of lesbian/gay characters and storylines in the movie industry in general and Hollywood in particular.
2. For some reason, the folks that make TV chat shows seem to like fronting them with gay men – Graham Norton and Alan Carr are at the end of a long line of gay talkshow hosts...
3. In fact, Bolan played on the original recording of the song back in 1970. The producer Tony Visconti later said, “David…loved Marc – he was probably more in love with Marc than Marc was in love with him.” (Hoskyns, 1998: 10)
4. You can watch the documentary here, if you have time: (it's just over 53 mins long).
5. RCA marketing strapline advertising Bowie’s Heroes album in 1978.

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