Spoonfuls of Sugar: From Bubblegum to the Sweet Beyond

Having set myself the challenge of writing a novel about the glam rock era in 1972 England (Marc Bolan Killed in Crash), I did a fair bit of concerted listening to the music. I’ve always valued and enjoyed the genre and found its standing in rock history unfairly low, but then again, it didn’t last long, never really happened in the U.S. and the number of acts properly attributable to it is pretty small.  What’s more, a lot of it was, in essence, a resurgent form of bubblegum, and we all agreed (back in the day) that, catchy though the hits were, that was shameful, inane rubbish antithetical to all we valued in popular music.

Was bubblegum all bad? At the time, it felt like the end of rock and roll. Sweetly hollowed-out “empty calories” created for the most part by crass producers and faceless studio musicians, the songs were carefully calibrated for chart success with neither social conscience nor creative ambition. Ever since Buddy Holly, fans had revered the autonomous auteur in rock, admired their sense of mission and felt the music moving forward with greater and greater imagination, maturity and achievement. We, the children of the ‘50s and ‘60s, were getting older and expected our music to age a bit as well. And yet, in 1968, a year when the Beatles were still together and Woodstock was a year away, the airwaves were flooded by juvenile sentiments and catchy (wait, I meant corny) singalongs whose purpose was not to change the world but to shift product to gullible, consuming children. AM radio, so crucial at the start of the ‘60s, became the province of a three-hour Top 40 hits cycle, firmly divided by generation and culture from FM radio, where free-form programming allowed rock and roll to continue its progress. Rock heads shut out the bad noise, and little kids steered clear of the scary MHz freakshow.

Ubiquity is a bitch. There are repercussions when a seismic shift occurs in music – that transitional time when a novel style gains vast popular support and muscles its way into in the public arena, displacing other forms in the media and critical discourse. That transpired with rock, bubblegum, disco and rap. In the UK, it also happened with glam and punk. If you lived through any of those eras, you may remember the feeling – not unlike the resentful victimhood of MAGA faith, and equally bogus – of a sudden change in the environment, something being taken away from you, your home turf being overrun by awful, unfamiliar strangers.

I’ll confess — the relentless hi-hat hiss, thumping beat and nonsense lyrics of disco felt like an assault on my senses in the early ‘70s. I can’t even say how much of it I heard then – I didn’t go to dance clubs and it’s not like the radio station I listened to (WNEW-FM) played it, but there it was: on TV, in department stores and boom boxes in the street. My musical taste did not need or seek mainstream validation, but pop music has a powerful public presence, and in that sphere, it felt like an inescapable imposition.

I’m not equipped to explore the political argument, that straight white antagonism to disco was, at heart, racism and homophobia, but I suspect the same folks who recoiled at the promotion of Ebonics found songs like “Boogie Oogie Oogie” hard to abide. It would have been interesting to cross-reference that phenomenon with appreciation of “Papa Ooo Mow Mow” or “Yummy Yummy Yummy.”

The apotheosis of the Disco Sucks sentiment was Chicago disc jockey Steve Dahl’s Disco Demolition stunt at Comiskey Park in July 1979. The mob lynching with vinyl serving as goons’ lifeless proxy proved an uncanny preview of the simmering, sublimated racism that made Trump president and the paroxysms of violence and unabashed hatred he has encouraged.

And yet. Years later, like so much music to which I have been exposed, intentionally and otherwise, for decades, a lot of those old disco hits have become familiar sonic friends, not so much souvenirs of a fondly recalled time as now-enjoyable links on the chain of songs that have accompanied my life. (I feel the same way about many rock and pop numbers I didn’t like at the time.) Whatever I thought then, I can no longer hear any significant line separating “Rock the Boat” from “Yellow Submarine” or “Disco Inferno” from “Light My Fire.” Some of those oldies I still can’t stand, but that’s true of every genre and era of popular music and has less to do with style than content. I don’t have to embrace a genre to enjoy a song, and I don’t have to respect a record to love it. So much of rock and roll is disposable or shoddy or inept or just plain dumb. While any of those things can be deadly, none of those attributes – or square peg lyrics or shitty sound — has ever prevented me from loving what is otherwise a great piece of work. In many cases (and I suspect you’ll find evidence of that sprinkled throughout my reviews on this site), they’re a part of my reason for liking a record.

Back to bubblegum. In late 1972, I heard “Little Willy” on the radio in my first girlfriend’s bedroom and – with hindsight, only realized later – was witness to the umbilical cord that connected the Ohio Express to T. Rex. I can’t really explain why 18-year-old me found the Sweet’s smutty Chinnichap (Chinn and Chapman) innuendo preferable to the Super K (Kasenetz and Katz) sugar factory. There wasn’t really that much of a difference between their records. Maybe it was the adult theme or the loud guitars; regardless, I was in, and quickly moved to embrace T. Rex, Bowie, Wizzard (already being in the Roy Wood camp), the British reincarnation of Sparks and Slade. Mott the Hoople I already liked, so their glittering reinvention was an easy sell.

In America, commercially speaking, glam was basically Alice Cooper, David Bowie, Elton John and, for one retitled hit single, T. Rex., with a bit of TV time for the Sensational Alex Harvey Band and Slade. The New York Dolls couldn’t catch a break and Sparks was no more popular as a British band than as an American one. Iggy got mixed up in the fun, but never really painted himself with that brush. Was Paper Lace, a have-a-nice-day band in snazzy threads, part of it? The maudlin Gilbert O’Sullivan – who I actually saw play at Avery Fisher Hall in New York in September 1973, with Maureen McGovern as his opener – wandered along around this time but was never a glam character. You can argue amongst yourselves about the relevance of KISS, Queen and Thin Lizzy here.

But in the UK, glam was Rajneesh come to Oregon, a tsunami of singles that swept up a generation and pushed everyone else out. Bolan was a pop juggernaut, with 10 Top 10 hits inside of 28 months. Slade just about equaled that feat, Bowie not far behind, and Roxy was a consistent, if less frequent, chart presence. So were Sweet and the rest of them. I loved all of it.

With some exceptions: I was never really an Elton fan, and Rod Stewart’s relevance to glam was superficial at best. I couldn’t reconcile Alvin Stardust’s space-age pose with his music, essentially a pale echo of Elvis, the Ballad Years. Gary Glitter didn’t do it for me until I recognized that Mike Leander had forged a completely new sound, putting drums so far up in the mix as to render every other instrument – including vocals – subsidiary. “Rock and Roll Part 2” was like no rock and roll record I’d ever heard: for a song neither built for nor useful to accompany dancing, it turned rock’s sound inside out, inscribing football (soccer) chants into a memorable musical form. (Maybe it was nothing more than adroit trendspotting – Chelsea FC had scored a poppy UK chart goal, “Blue Is the Colour,” several months earlier.) I would have liked leather-clad American bassist Suzi Quatro more if her singles had been pitched in a key she could actually sing. The Bay City Rollers arrived a bit later, in 1974, and aimed themselves at teenyboppers. (While they looked the part, I thought their songs were crap. Now I like them a lot.) And then there was the dross: the Rubettes, Smokie, RAK acts like Mud, the wretched novelty records (“Mouldy Old Dough”) which coasted in on glam’s coattails while having nothing in common with it, the fekkin’ Osmonds.

Glam was never one thing. Androgyny was common but not universal. (And just about never more than an image.) Beyond the colorful dress-up aspect, makeup and the general pursuit of harmless outrage (Alice, natch, but the recently deceased Steve Priest of Sweet slathered on the face paint and once performed in a Nazi uniform), the music varied a lot. Some of the acts were making art with a theatrical flair, doing what rock bands had long done, but others were just riding a new pop parade for fun and profit. In his fine Guardian obituary for Priest, Alexis Petridis helpfully posited a taxonomy of “high glam” and “low glam.”

Basically, anything went in glam, from the intricate wordplay of Sparks to the elfin inventions of T. Rex, the louche sophistication of Roxy to the misspelled sonic cudgels of Slade. There was no center to it. Clothes made the bands, and British kids tried them all on for their 45 rpm wardrobes. In a commercial free-for-all, the labored work of great thinkers as well as the silly product of get-it-done song factories all zoomed up and down the UK charts like tigers on Vaseline.

Some looked forward, others back. Roxy Music did both. At the same time. (That’s a fascinating phenomenon – even great-leap-forward figures in rock have often shown no shame in their regard for the past: all the British Invasion bands revered some vintage form of American music, from blues to Tin Pan Alley; the Dolls played ‘50s R&B songs; the Pistols had Small Faces and Monkees songs in their early repertoire; Nirvana covered Lead Belly. At the height of the new wave, what should resurface as the latest things? Rockabilly and ska.)

Bolan ruled squarely from the center of all that. He was a complete one-off who invented his own world and brought millions along to join him there, but he was also a slapdash performer who didn’t try very hard and could come off like a showbiz showoff rather than a serious artist. I used to joke that he wrote his lyrics on the back of an envelope in the car on the way to the studio. One verse and a chorus was usually all of it; he was manifestly unafraid of repeating each enough times to reach the length of a song. But it didn’t matter, because what he created – and how he sang those creations – was magical, a charismatic dose of catchy, colorful fantasy, as rich in free association wordplay as Dylan. In both their cases, even if nothing in a song made literal sense, its impression was indelible.

Glam, like bubblegum, came and went. There was only so much sugar one could consume, only so much pandering adult musicians could do before the effort became too much or the results too paltry. In the brief interregnum before British rock was overrun by yet another new generation, the filth and fury of punk, two mutations of glam had their moments – gimmicky but less ostentatious outfits like Sailor and gimmicky but even more pretentious outfits like Cockney Rebel. Androgyny lost its flavor as times got tough and hard-working pub bands rose up; the fashion pendulum swung again, replacing one form of feminized fancy dress with the sexless anti-looks conjured up by Vivienne Westwood and imitated by British teens armed with a scissor, safety pins, magic marker, hair dye and egg white. But that’s another story for another time.

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