Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Bull In The Maze: Gary Glitter: "Rock 'n' Roll Pt. 2" to "Oh Yes! You're Beautiful"


And now we arrive, dear readers, at a point where things start to get more than a little complicated.  Appearing, as if out of nowhere comes a figure; he zooms nearly immediately to the near-top and becomes, at least for a time (a time spanning the songs I am going to attempt to describe here) very, very popular. 

There is a good reason that people, once the 70s were over, were quick to deride them, to put them down, to shake them off like so much dust and move on.  In fact, now that I consider it, those actions began even before the decade ended; I remember how eager I was for the 80s to finally begin, because there was something indelibly wrong about the 70s.

The 70s were, goodness knows, an open and earnest time, as we have already seen.  It was also a time of glamour and all the reasons for that rush to glamour;  the same glamour, though, could soon turn into a kind of decadence, where having a good time is the only reason to do anything, and things get ugly pretty quickly. 

Being a young girl in Los Angeles at the time I had no idea about Gary Glitter; I didn’t see him or hear him or grow up watching the procession of his performances on Top of the Pops, hosted by this-or-that DJ (all of them having faces for radio, so to speak); but I am pretty sure what I would have made of him, had I seen him.  I lived in a world of Sesame Street and other children’s shows, including Mr. Rogers, Captain Kangaroo, full of reassuring messages about how life might be a bit of a downer now and then, but if everyone behaved themselves, then all would be rewarded.  But it was also a time of consciousness-raising, of being aware of things.  We little kids were judged by our elders as mature enough to handle things that were maybe just too much for the previous generation.  They figured that if you weren’t part of the solution you were part of the problem, and the kids were going to have to be part of the solution, or the manifest ills of the time would never get straightened out.

Thus, even though I never saw Gary Glitter or knew about him as a kid, I think my reaction to him would have been puzzlement and a certain reluctance to be drawn in, a reaction not so much from the head but from the guts, and also the heart.  None of the music I was attracted to so far (that I remember, anyway) was quite so thud-thud heavy, so percussive, or so monosyllabic.  I grew up from the womb hearing jazz and pop, classical and rock, all in a mix from The Doors to Ravel to Donovan to The Modern Jazz Quartet, so I am pretty sure the nigh-primitive grunting and hollering wouldn’t have done much for me.  I liked pop art (my parents took me to museums and shows of all sorts when they could, again before I remember going) and understood intuitively what glories there were in the trash aesthetic, but in music I expected a bit more.  Mere ‘fun’ was not enough.  And even though I wouldn’t have known the word ‘crude’ that is what I would have called him; I think I might have even been offended in some way that there were no words.  No words!  The idea that somehow words were unnecessary would have made me suspicious.  I was just learning the alphabet, learning how to say the numbers and so forth, and here was a song that just said, the hell with all that.  And, I can’t stress this enough, there is/was nothing particularly cute about Gary Glitter; cuteness may be an American concept hard to translate into UK judgement, but it’s a quality that would have come high on my list:  not as in desirability but in sheer looks*.  Why is he wearing that clothing, I would have wondered, and why is his hair like that?  Not cute, no….

So as I am pretty sure this would have been my reaction, I can only say that it is a cultural shock for me (out of many, believe me) to see how Gary Glitter was embraced here, not as a one-hit wonder (as he was in the US) but as a star. 

My puzzlement now leads me back to a moment back in Los Angeles.  It was in someone’s backyard, probably a mom who also had a kid at the same nursery school as me.  It was a co-operative nursery school, meaning all the moms were from the same neighbourhood, had each other’s addresses and phone numbers and all got to know each other as we played.  As moms became friends, we kids would hang out at other kids’ houses now and then, and I think at some time there was a consciousness-raising group that came by to enlighten any of the moms who weren’t already enlightened.  I was there to hear them, though I don’t remember any of it; but I do recall this

…in the backyard, a fervent mom (or was she one of the consciousness-raising group?  She seemed a little young for me to think of her as a mom) showed a few of us girls copies of Playboy – opened to the centrefolds – and told us about pornography.  How it demeans women, and basically was wrong, and this it is, here it is.  This was not done in a schoolmarmish way, but in that casual/concerned way that the 70s had, where us kids (how old was I?  Five or six at the most) were judged to be ready for this; that we had to be forewarned, in some way.  My reaction to what I saw was again puzzlement and a certain reluctance. 

All of which is to say that I find Gary Glitter to be kind of the same way – blank, wordless, and when there are words, they are as flat and brutal as those images.

In his time he was regarded – I think – as a novelty artist, but if so, it was as a consciously-worked-out novelty, not just something thrown together over a month or two.  I think if I had gone on to see his other songs (which I will get into detail about later) – “I Didn’t Know I Loved You (Till I Saw You Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “Do You Wanna Touch Me? (Oh Yeah!),”  “Hello! Hello! I’m Back Again,” “Remember Me This Way” and “Oh Yes! You’re Beautiful” at the time my idea of him would have remained the same, or even worsened, if possible. 

Some might think this is because I was in Southern California/Canada at the given times, and that I am missing out on some cultural difference, one that made a figure like Glitter popular, immediately understood within the general world of British entertainment.  Or maybe I was just too sophisticated as a little kid, or too much of a girl, in some way.  It wasn’t little girls at first that made “Rock ‘n’ Roll Pt. 2” a hit, after all; it was guys.  It’s obvious hoo-haa rah-rah usage in sports arenas is no coincidence; this is an aggressive Tarzanish call, not so much a mating call as one of dumb pride and whoo-hoo hey here we are, let’s go.  It’s the natural response to “American Pie” – the big joke that is rock ‘n’ roll is unkillable, too stoopid to be done in by a mere plane crash, at any time.  It may be anguishing to point out now, but this song basically marks the next wave of rock (glam) and gives it back to the kids; kids too young to know about The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, ones who had those bands handed down to them, kids who need their own rock ‘n’ roll.  If I know I wouldn’t have liked this, well, a lot of kids older than me did, on both sides of the Atlantic.

And so rock ‘n’ roll was saved, more or less; but by a figure who was supposedly a fantasy character, not real.  He would fit into the world of bubblegum easily enough, alongside all the other non-real figures of the time, but if you saw him performing at the time** you would have seen someone who was unashamedly physical.  There is no fourth wall when I watch Gary Glitter’s performances; I want to tell myself, oh, he’s doing that bump or that thing with his tongue because it’s an act, but I strongly sense in watching him that it wasn’t an act at all.  I am also pretty sure that once he got onstage, he knew he had an act to do – but that maybe his actual act, as such, was there was none.  Hair, makeup, costume – but beyond that...what I sense is a man who wants to be idolized (a quote from Paul Morley’s Ask:  The Chatter of Pop:  “Yeah, I enjoyed it.  It was lovely.  It was exactly what I wanted…It was what I wanted probably when I was 16 or 17.” Or:  “What I enjoyed…was the adoration of a lot of people, a lot of women.  I really did.  The only problem was I didn’t get a chance to enjoy it, if you know what I mean”) and he intended to get that adoration – first from the guys, then the girls (Morley again:  “The strange part of it was they all became terribly young, 13, 14, 15”) and take advantage of that situation, a situation many rock stars have taken advantage of; the sudden currency of money, fame, and all those young girls…na├»ve girls, who maybe didn’t get that he wasn’t really kidding when, in a number one hit, he was the man who put “the bang in gang.”

Which is to say, I don’t really think there is a persona here; there is Gary Glitter, period.  Perhaps this is because I can’t really separate who he is with what his music presents and says; it could be the case that the one follows the other as a matter of course, that what you see is very much what you get, and if you were a guy you got to be in Gary’s gang and if you were a girl…then you had better watch yourself. 

I am not about to get into any details about times when I was sexually harassed as a girl, except to say that I wasn’t in any real danger, and that my quick wit kept me out of it.  I wasn’t sassy – I could tell that just would have made things worse – but I wasn’t passive either, blaming myself for the situation which clearly wasn’t of my construction.  My consciousness was raised, after all; the Equal Rights Amendment was for sure going to be passed.  “I Am Woman” was a number one hit that resonated and Billie Jean King had beaten male chauvinist Bobby Riggs soundly.  Things were far from perfect, but things were changing, and there were symbols of this, successes, wherever a young girl like me looked, from the proliferation of TV shows based on women (The Mary Tyler Moore Show to The Bionic Woman, Alice to Maude) to Nadia Comanici’s perfect score at the Montreal Olympics.  To be a girl in North America in the 70s was to aspire, to be inspired, and young jerks and dirty old men were brushed off by me – perhaps I was nervous, being only 9 or 10.  But I won, in that nothing terrible happened.  What did happen, of course, was like a day at Disneyland compared to what other girls went through…

…including British ones.  I cannot stress how much feminism didn’t exist in 70s in the UK, and in some cases I feel still doesn’t really exist.  Girls are there, to be used and abused; in the end, they don’t count.  There was no equivalent preponderance of TV shows based around women, trying to show the lives of actual women, as there was in the US.  Women (still, I have to say, infuriatingly, referred to by callers to not just on LBC or Radio 2 but purportedly hipper 6 Music as “the wife” or “the missus***”) are still seen as girls (how many times I have cringed when Boots commercials use “Girls” by Sugababes for their ads clearly showing grown-up women, not girls).  I feel I am right in guessing that there were no consciousness-raising groups addressing actual little girls in the UK in 1972; and that if you were a teenager who just wanted to meet Gary Glitter – that’s all – you might have found yourself unable to comprehend the power dynamics of the situation, because a girl can forget she’s a girl sometimes, in her fandom.

The rock ‘n’ roll adoration that Glitter wanted he got; and yet this was not enough.  That he got caught and charged on possession of child porn in the UK, and later again on having underage sex abroad, isn’t proof that what he did back in ’72-’74 was bad music, but it cannot help but taint those songs, and the performances show all the signs of someone who…well, I’ll quote him again:  “When you’re young all you want to do is play music and get your leg over.  It’s the bit in between that’s the complication.”  (This interview was conducted in early 1981, when Glitter was 37 and still considered himself young:  “Of course I am.  I don’t want to hear the words middle-aged or old.  I’ve never bothered about age, thank God.  It doesn’t enter my vocabulary.  I thrive on youth, youth ideas, on changes…****”)

There is something all a bit mythic about this, a bit eerie.  I think of the Minotaur that compels youth sacrifice, sacrifice that is all the worse because the girls – groupies – are thinking they have made it by being with a star, instead of looking inwards and finding some self-worth there. I think of the girls who didn’t want to do something but were forced, coerced, into doing it.  All this to feed an ego, a desire that is creepily palpable in his performances of these songs.  If the Glam period of rock (which I will get to in this blog, song by song as they come) has suffered as a whole, it is because it was and is so closely associated with Glitter, and now that his music cannot be played or his name said, the other Glam bands don’t get much airplay either, save for Christmas.  In Morley’s time he was beginning to be hip again, no longer a novelty; he says that he is “funnier” in 1981 as he’s older, but that implies that he was supposed to be funny to begin with, which I don’t understand.  Does he mean he’s a parody?  Rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t take well to that (think The Barron Knights) and never will, for the most part.  When “Rock ‘n’ Roll Pt. 2” became a hit, the kazoo-compressed guitar and eerie yells were a warning that rock wasn’t dead and was just as dirty and grunty and lowdown as ever promised, and that Glitter wore clothes too tight, too sequined and too skimpy was further proof.

So then, the songs, I can hear you say.  Well, here they are, as such; I will try to be as fair to them as possible, under the circumstances. 

“Rock ‘n’ Roll Pts. 1 & 2” (July ’72):  Paul Oldfield in Monitor (Issue 4, October 1985) says of this:  “Glitter imagines an unyielding, uninflected, un-soul, MASCULINE performance, without ambiguity….all attack and no decay, all hard edges…”  It may well be the most male song ever recorded, so male it is ridiculous and was used by The Timelords for “Doctorin’ The Tardis” as a kind of stompy way of football chanting the Daleks into submission.  Need I point out again how male and TEENAGE this all is?  Sure, The Human League did this back in the day, as if to say, minimalism didn’t come from nowhere.  It’s lovable in its stupidity, but only in North America does it still get any attention, in sports arenas exclusively. 

“I Didn’t Know I Love You (Till I Saw You Rock ‘n’ Roll) (#2 NME December ’72): The harshness of this sound – mechanical and cold – makes any emotions Glitter has seem mechanical as well.  The minimalism takes away romance; this is just as MASCULINE as the previous song, making me think that Glitter is mysteriously trying too hard to prove he’s a man…and that there’s an awful lot of insecurity here. 
“Do You Wanna Touch Me? (Oh Yeah!)”(February ’73):  I first knew this song as done by Joan Jett on her still underrated pre-Blackhearts solo album from 1980, Bad Reputation.  Joan still does this in concert and can arguably say the song is hers, not Glitter’s, as she’s been out there doing it since she went solo after The Runaways broke up.  Oldfield again:  “In (this song) there is no intention to suggest, instead there is a specific need, “touch me…THERE THERE THERE THERE.”  How anyone could call a song this and be interpreted as not being suggestive is beyond me.  The song is a long drone, with the lyrics practically begging her to do something, anything*****.  The whole song is one brutal come-on, and Jett doesn’t mess around with it; hers was the second time I heard a woman yell “Fuck!” in a song, as she makes it even plainer and more American, somehow.  In the song he chides her for being shy and doing nothing beyond staring at him; maybe she’s got the right attitude about you, buddy.  Is this the biggest hit that could be construed as sexual harassment?
That this was also used in an episode of Glee, sung by Gwyneth Paltrow, of all people – shows that folks in the US don’t really care so much about Glitter’s personal life, and for all I know they think of this more as a Joan Jett song.  Songs can mutate over the years like that, and this song turns from harassment (as sung by a man) to liberation (as sung by a woman).  She’s confident and strong in her sexuality, and wants the guy to know she’s into him.  He just wants to get the girl drunk and berates her for being someone who wants to talk.  Hmmm….
“Hello! Hello! I’m Back Again” (April ’73):  And here is the clapping, the faster speed of glam; no grunting here as Glitter clearly sings to his fans, the girls who idolize him and the whole song is one huge call for that idolization:  the “naughty boy” rival of his is his only real worry, as she (i.e. the fans) are expected to kiss his poster and also hug and kiss their pillows at night, even though she couldn’t see him or kiss him for real, day and night.   If someone is this anxious – and the music is an unrelenting stomp that could flatten anyone’s actual feelings – wanting to know “Did you miss me?” so soon after their latest hit, then you can tell the pitch of hysteria has reached its peak here.  For someone so interested in non-communication or grunting, he sure is worried here.  But the main thing is that concern of his, that he is still going to be idolized.  In the previous song, he makes demands that are sexual; here he tries to come off as cuddly, but instead he’s just showing how desperate he is, which is never cool.  Idols (Idles?) aren’t supposed to interrogate their subjects like this.     
“Remember Me This Way” (#2 NME  April ’74):   I literally could not make it through a performance of this on YouTube; there is no bluster here, just puppy-dog balladry on the surface and a rather dull vocal, with Glitter’s sincerity colliding head-on with his lasciviousness.  It’s not pretty. Again, there is no fourth wall here, and it’s miles from any kind of hey-hey-hey masculinity.  It’s creepy, especially if you start wondering what “this way” actually stands for.
“Oh Yes! You’re Beautiful” (#2 December ’74):  The last hit here to concern us, and it has a slow sleaze to it that makes any sincerity on the part of Glitter seem, well, something of a front; if we take all these songs as a story of sorts, here he is afterwards, or perhaps still beforehand, reassuring the girl in question and trying to placate her, in a way.  The vowels are as stretched as the girl’s credulity; in the performance I watched, girls were holding scarves aloft, stretched out, back and forth to the song.  The Glam period hasn’t ended quite yet, but the rah-rah aspect remains, slowed down to a crawl here.
I have been wondering lately whether Glam has anything camp about it.  Certainly it tried to distract an increasingly nervous and edgy nation that fun, cheap and flashy and silly, still existed; that rock wasn’t dead, and in fact the actual renaissance of rock ‘n’ roll was to come.  But there is no feeling now, I’m guessing, of sentiment towards Glam or the period, precisely because they were so intertwined; when you hear Ed “Stewpot” Stewart ask a bunch of kids if any of them are Gary Glitter fans (on Stewpot’s Pop Party album) it is not a quaint reminder of times gone by but a quiver of the curtain before it opens to a whole world of dubious behaviour on the part of ‘light’ entertainment figures – DJs, TV presenters, actors, musicians, and so on.  (As this essay points out clearly, the culture of abuse started long before the 70s; and Top of the Pops was in part a way to literally get the kids in the building [shades of the Minotaur again].)  The wrongness of this part of the 70s is ugly; the complacency so many have talked about in relation to it comes from the general shrug ‘n’ accept qualities of the British people themselves, I’m afraid.  That comes from so many different quarters that it would take a whole other essay to get a handle on them; Glitter’s songs make up only one part of the whole scene, the whole story.   
I write all this in the context, of course, of now; a now where Glitter was just released on bail, and one in which, for all I know, he may be tried and found guilty again.  The UK, though it may not know it, has reached an important time; a time when it might want to really sit back and examine its relationship to so-called ‘light’ entertainment, to the whole world of showbiz, and how it stems from something much deeper in society, a whole system that ends up with figures like Glitter who are seemingly unable to confront themselves, just as a fish doesn’t know it’s in water.  Can a man who once said of his performances:  “I can’t detach myself for long enough to fathom out what I’m all about” and “I’m so close to it myself that I could never see (its appeal) unless there was someone…to tell me” ever be trusted?  Especially someone who also said his music is “purely physical.  It’s vulgar. It’s crude. It’s raw”? How could something so simple be so difficult to understand, especially to its co-writer and performer?      
As best I can tell, it is indeed difficult; but that difficulty is no excuse.  Figures like Glitter are at the extreme end of what happened all the time in rock 'n' roll; so extreme that I had to write this essay instead of just write up the various songs as they happened to appear alongside the perfectly honest shlubs and geniuses that in part made/make the 70s a bearable time to write about.  It has not been easy for me to contemplate and then write any of this, and I think the British public have the same reaction as I do to him and his music, mixed with the denial/mortification that they ever liked him in the first place.  It is too easy to just say "It was the 70s" or claim that he is an exception to the rule; that so many couldn't perceive what was right in front of them - that there could be no interpretation, that this was what it was (which goes right back to Glitter's comparing "Rock 'n' Roll Pt. 2" to Last Tango In Paris)...well, I look forward to seeing what changes, if any, the British are willing to make in order to see that the past, which is so dearly beloved here, belongs in the past.  That rock 'n' roll deserves better than this.
 
            
*The “Aw Wee Choirboy” cuteness is the closest I can think of; the American version in the 70s took in everyone from Peter Frampton to John Travolta to even Jimmy Carter, for a time; cuteness has something to do with good looks and a kind of metaphysical rightness.
**For reasons that will become understandable, I am not going to link to any of them; the songs are all there on YouTube.
***As if they were possessions, like “the house” or “the car.”  I have never heard anyone call any male caller out on this usage, supposedly because it’s accepted slang or understood to be part of male British culture or something.  Imagine if a woman said “the husband” or “the Mister” and you can really feel the condescension I feel every time I hear it. 
****The first time I encountered Gary Glitter was in an ad for a British railway I saw in a magazine or music weekly; there he was, made-up, quifftastic, holding out his hand, in which was some kind of supposed wrinkle-remover.  The ad was for student train tickets, and Gary was being gently let down by the ad copy, explaining that no, even if he used the pink blob of stuff to look younger, he still wouldn’t qualify for a ticket.  I found this a little odd at the time – why would Glitter want to travel with the students?  Now it’s just awkward, and the railway probably regrets ever running it.  But this was in the 80s, what could they know?  (Or rather, what did they know but ignore at the time?)
***** The most specific he actually gets is “run your fingers through my hair,” though why anyone would actually want to do this remains a mystery.  Hell, if it was even possible for such a thing to happen remains a mystery.  Again, Joan wins here.



3 comments:

MikeMCSG said...

In a cultural context it's worth mentioning that - leaving out Bolan and Roxy - glam was largely populated by second raters who'd failed to make it in the sixties and were taking advantage of the big hitters' disdain for the singles market. Glitter had put out a number of singles as Paul Raven which bombed perhaps because he can't actually sing as "Remember Me This Way" ( on musical grounds one of the very worst records you'll be covering) amply proves.
He is of course deeply insecure; his preference for young girls a way of avoiding being judged as a lover by his peers. Unlike Savile he has been married and has children of his own.
The British Rail ad made sense because by that time Glitter was predominantly a self-parodying act for students indulging their post-modernist irony and would have been doing that until a month ago had he had more understanding of ICT.

Tom May said...

There was a strange lingering of Glitter as prominent figure in the late '80s when I was growing up in the north-east of England. I grew up in the era when WWF wrestling held cultural dominance in the playground; that all seems innocuous besides the sordid underside of the 1970s. I think some parents must still have been fans as he was present in the culture; a known figure, and certainly vaguely but persistently associated in my memory with unthinking, pre-pubescent aggro. With less of the inclusive absurdity of wrestling.

I also recall a bizarre moment in about 1995 when a forty-something Geography teacher in my comprehensive school wandered into my Year 7 class, musing in a matey tone that £25 was "a bit steep for the GG", referring to the cost of going to see him at Newcastle Arena...

malmo58 said...

London radio presenter Jeni Barnett refers to her spouse as "the 'oosbind" (Northern dialect there) on her blog...