Best Glam Rock Album In The World Ever!
With the British media using Velvet Goldmine as an excuse to go overboard on all things Glam (that's three revivals we've already had in '98 - 80s (spearheaded by Wedding Singer), disco (Last Days Of Disco, Saturday Night Fever re-release) and now Glam), Virgin EMI have seized the moment to release what they modestly call The Best Glam Rock Album In The World...Ever!. For once, the hype is right. Forget the tatty Velvet Goldmine soundtrack with its uneasy mix of third rate originals (sorry folks, but I just ain't buying the fact that stuff like any of the Eno songs on Velvet Goldmine were towering or even very well noticed moments in Glam), specially-constructed pastiche songs "meant to sound like the originals" (they do, but only in a bad cover band sort of way) and vaguely sacrilegious covers (what, pray tell, was the problem with using the original versions of T-Rex's "20th Century Boy", Roxy Music's "Ladytron" or The Stooges' "TV Eye" instead of calling in Placebo (who admittedly do a good job) and The Venus In Furs to redo them?). This album is as close to the real deal as you're likely to get on a double CD compilation.
CD1 kicks off in top gear with Queen's second hit (they wisely passed over Queen's first hit, the forgettable "Seven Seas Of Rhye"), Killer Queen. This reached #2 (note: all chart positions in this review refer to the UK charts) in late 1974 (cruelly held off the top slot by the infinitely inferior "Gonna Make You A Star" from David Essex), two years after the peak of Glam, at a time when David Bowie was getting ready to leave it all behind and go soul and the other leading lights of Glam were already in decline. But if Queen were late entrants on the Glam scene, this track shows why they alone rivalled Bowie in their ability to sustain their career once Glam had died.
Next up is "Blockbuster", the Jean-Genie-soundalike that prevented Jean Genie becoming Bowie's first UK #1. By most accounts, The Sweet were never particularly convincing as Glamsters (they belonged to the Gary Glitter school of Glam, leftover 60s acts who suddenly saw a new shiny bandwagon), but with this Chinn-Chapman song, they did what Glam-era Bowie never did - top the singles chart. If Bowie was the most prolific writer/performer/producer/all-round-good-egg of the Glam era, then Chinn and Chapman were the only ones to give him a run for his money in the songwriting arena, as they churned out the hits to keep the likes of Suzi Quatro, The Sweet and Mud in musical fodder.
This is followed by the archetypal Glam anthem, Mott The Hoople's All The Young Dudes. With the song's writer Bowie on backing vocals and twiddling the production knobs, this song was Mott's first hit in the summer of 72, climbing all the way to #3 (it was also one of the few Glam songs to score in the States too). With its key lines "Now my brother's back at home with his Beatles and his Stones/We never got it off on this revolution stuff, What a drag, Too many snags", this song summed up Glam more than any other (even "Suffragette City", the first song that Bowie offered to Mott as the career-resurrecting hit they so desperately needed).
Bowie has always been very canny and very reluctant about licensing his songs to compilations of this nature. He usually keeps it to one (or in the case of the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack, big fat zero), which means he benefits from exposing enough of his stuff to the casual compilation punter, but doesn't overexpose himself to the degree that there's no point in buying his back catalogue (or his own Best Of compilations), which partly explains why he has the best-selling 70s back catalogue in town. For this particular compilation, Bowie licenses John I'm Only Dancing, a track which despite having been a #12 hit single was never on any original Bowie album.
Next up, Roxy Music bring some art-school sophistication to proceedings with "Virginia Plain", their first hit single (it reached #4 in August 72), written by Bryan Ferry at the peaks of his powers.
Given Bowie's reluctance to license too many songs to compilations (his stated reason for refusing permission for Velvet Goldmine to use his songs was that they wanted too many), and given Bowie's central position in Glam, it's particularly difficult to put together a decent Glam compilation (especially one claiming to be "The Best Glam Rock Album In The World...Ever!") without Bowie's help (as Todd Haynes and his musical director Michael Stipe found out to their cost). This particular compilation gets around this snag by laying their hands on as much of Bowie's work with other artists as they can. Thus, while there's only one Bowie track on here, there are another four tracks that Bowie produced for other artists, and two he wrote. One of the tracks featuring Bowie as producer is Iggy Pop's The Passenger. Coming from the second 1977 album that Iggy released with Bowie in the production chair (and writing much of the music, though not The Passenger), Lust For Life, it is surely stretching the definition of Glam to say that this is. But what the hey, it's a great track. This was never a hit single in the 70s, but achieved belated 90s UK Top 40 status when it was used in a TV ad and re-released.
Next up is The Faces' "Stay With Me", their first hit single from 1971 (it made #6), featuring a young and throaty Rod Stewart on vocals. This was back in the days when Rod actually wrote songs too - this one was cowritten with Ron Wood.
The trademark crunch cord intro tells us the next track is classic T-Rex, their #2 single, "Children Of The Revolution" (in a pattern that was often repeated in the Glam era, this piece of Glam magic was held off the top by a piece of pure bubblegum teeny-pop piffle, David Cassidy's "How Can I Be Sure").
This is followed by America's first contribution to the album - Alice Cooper's "Elected", their #4 hit from 1972. I have to be honest at this point and admit I never rated Alice Cooper and don't really see them as fitting in to the Glam scene, beyond the superficial "dress up in women's clothes" shtick. On this CD, the song just jars with me.
Next up is Slade with "Mama Weer All Crazee Now". It's fashionable to knock Slade these days and discount them as glam as in football hooliglam rather than the real thing, but I must confess I have a soft spot for Slade. Between late 71 and the end of 73, Slade fairly churned out the hits (which they also wrote themselves - unlike a lot of Glam bandwagoners), scoring 6 UK #1 hit singles, and three other top 5 hits. "Mama Weer All Crazee Now" was one of the #1's, and was later very influential on 80s "hair metal bands" that were sometimes referred to as Glam in the US, and on the Oasis side of Britpop.
The second American contribution to the CD is considerably hipper than the first - the Sparks "This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us", their debut #2 hit single (still the biggest hit single of their career), which was held off the top slot by The Rubettes' "Sugar Baby Love" in 1974. One of the weirder Glam bands around, this band was (and still is) based around two of the most dissimilar-looking brothers you're ever likely to see - the Maels (one looks like a typical screen heart-throb , the other looks more like, well, a more anorexic and scary-looking version of Adolf Hitler). Delivered in trademark Mael over-the-top falsetto, this is a memorable tune. The Maels have had an odd career to say the least. Late comers on the Glam scene, they racked up 6 hit singles in 74 and 75. Then not a sausage until 1979, when they scored a further three hits. Chartwise, they then disappeared before a triumphant 90s resurgence 15 years later (helped by everyone from Pulp to Jimmy Somerville citing them as a seminal influence) when, spookily, it seemed as if they had not aged a whit. If you think Bowie is well-preserved, check these guys out some time.
Next up on the menu is the biggest solo hit of Bryan Ferry's solo career, the #4 hit "Let's Stick Together" from 1976. Again, we're stretching to call this Glam. By this time, Ferry was no longer writing all his own hits.
Next comes an oddity from Holland, Golden Earring's "Radar Love" (the only UK hit of their very long career), which reached #7 in 1973. This is followed by the surprising answer to the trivia question, "Who was the first to score a hit single with The Man Who Sold The World?" No, it's not Nirvana, nor is it Bowie, it's Lulu. She recorded this track with Bowie as producer, sax player and backing vocalist and reached #3 in the charts in early 74. Apart from Lulu's voice which you either love or hate, the lush arrangement on this track (radically different from Bowie's original and Nirvana's unplugged version) is a joy to behold. As so often, Bowie answers his "He can't really play the saxophone, you know" critics with a "Who cares?", his sax work no less effective for its lack of muso chops.
Steve Harley And Cockney Rebel's "Judy Teen", their #5 debut hit from 1974, proves that they are just about the most underrated Glam act around. Virtually forgotten by most Glam historians (perhaps that will change with their featuring so heavily in Velvet Goldmine), they made enough sophisticated Glam to take their place among Glam's elite (Bowie, T-Rex, Roxy Music) in my view.
Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" has recently been made famous by Trainspotting and the BBC re-recording that is one of the biggest selling UK singles of the 90s, and is presented here in its original form, from Transformer, the album he made with David Bowie in 1972. There can scarcely have been a less likely or more reluctant Glam icon than Lou (who used to dress in black in his VU days so that Andy Warhol could project films onto him), but ironically enough, this album bears the distinction of housing Lou's three most famous songs in this part of the world (the other two being "Walk On The Wild Side", still his only solo hit single, and "Satellite Of Love").
Next we find ELO in embryonic form with their bizarre 1972 debut #9 hit, 103558 Overture. It's difficult to see this as Glam, and also difficult to recognise ELO as the Beatles-riff recycling pop merchants they later became. Similarly, Wizzard's #6 debut hit, "Ball Park Incident" is not exactly as shining moment in Glam's canon, but it's quite enjoyable nevertheless.
David Essex, the actor-turned-singer, has enjoyed a career very similar in certain respects to Glam's more famous David, in that he has juggled an acting career in tandem with singing (neither as successfully as Bowie it has to be said), scored his commercial breakthrough as a singer in the Glam era (using a sort of dumbed-down Bowie blueprint - his first number 1 single was "Gonna Make You A Star" and the follow-up was called "Stardust"), had a dodgy discoish period ("Me And My Girl Night-Clubbing" anyone?) before enjoying a renaissance in the 80s as a squeaky clean teen pin-up. Here we find his breakthrough hit from late 1973, "Hot Love" (it reached #3). I must admit I've never gone for David Essex or taken him seriously as a singer, but then I'm biased as I always think of him as the wimpy-looking guy my sister had posters of in his room who whined "It was only a winter's tale/Just another winter's tale/And why should the world take notice/Of just another winter's tale" every time my sister got near the record player, around the same time I was getting into Bowie and wearing it out.
CD1 ends on a definite high with Steve Harley And Cockney Rebel's thrilling "Sebastian", the absolute highlight of the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack (in the film itself - not the CD) for me. This was never a single, but is my all-time favourite track from this great act I only discovered a year or two ago.
While most of CD1 goes a long way to reminding us that whatever the naysaying nabobs have to say, Glam produced some truly thrilling musical moments, most of CD2 is evidence for the prosecution, reminding us that there was a lot of dross being pawned off as Glam too. It starts promisingly enough with Roy Wood and Wizzard's (ever notice the number of Glam acts that stuck to the Band Leader And His Wacky Band Name blueprint provided by Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars?) "See My Baby Jive", their first #1 hit (it did the pop world an enormous favour when it knocked "Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree" off the top of the charts after the considerably hipper "Drive In Saturday" had failed to do so). Mindless basic old-fashioned rock n roll, but in a good way.
Next up is one of the highlights of CD2, Mott The Hoople's "All The Way From Memphis", a #10 hit from 1973. That's quickly followed by another highlight, T. Rex's 1973 #3 hit, "20th Century Boy". Sweet's 1973 #2 hit "The Ballroom Blitz" (held off the top by the now almost forgotten one hit wonder, Simon Park Orchestra's "Eye Level", 1973's Macarena by most accounts) also provides a high moment, as do the following pair of Chinn/Chapman production line efforts, "Tiger Feet" (a 1974 #1 for Mud) and the record that replaced it at #1, Devilgate Drive" (Suzi Quatro).
However, then we start hitting some of that tedious underbelly of Glam bilge I mentioned earlier, with the truly awful "All Because Of You", a 1973 #6 hit for Geordie. Complete with chipmunk vocals at the start, the oft-ripped off "Awww, aww, aww" rising bit of "Twist And Shout" and a vocalist who sounds like Robert Plant in a particularly tight pair of jeans shrieking that, well, it's all because of you, yes, it's all because of you. The most notable thing about Geordie is that they featured Brian Johnson (later of AC DC). Presumably it's stuff like this that got him the AC DC gig.
Next up is Slade's "Gudbuy T'Jane", the single that stalled at #2 in late 72 (held off the top by, of all things, Chuck Berry's ding-a-ling), breaking what would otherwise have been a string of 5 consecutive #1 singles for Slade stretching from "Take Me Bak 'Ome" to "Skweeze Me Pleeze Me". It's easy to see why this one broke the sequence - it's pedestrian to say the least. Incidentally, rumour has it this song was originally called "'Ello T'Jane", but Slade's record company and management decided that Slade really needed to broaden their appeal by coming up with something different from their normal mindless happy optimism ("Give us a sad song, Noddy!"), and that Noddy Holder responded by simply changing the word 'Ello to Gudbuy.
Next up is the New York Dolls "Personality Crisis". This was never a hit (in fact, the New York Dolls never scored a chart single or album in the UK), but revisionism has the New York Dolls as a central part of the UK Glam scene, based on their influence on UK Glam acts.
This is followed by the thrilling "Do The Strand" courtesy of Roxy Music, another song that was never a hit single, but became a favourite at mid 70s UK "Bowie and Roxy night" discos and therefore a big influence on the New Romantic scene. Complete with wonky sax, mad lyrics and sophisticated hysteria vocals from Bryan Ferry, this songs underlines what a great writing talent Ferry once possessed (he wrote this one on his own) and how much his influence on Glam tends to be under-estimated.
Next up is "Once Bitten Twice Shy", a #14 hit for Ian Hunter (ex- of Mott The Hoople) and Mick Ronson (ex- of the Spiders From Mars) from 1975, Hunter's only non-Mott hit single in the UK. Written by Hunter, it's a fairly pedestrian song, though the production and arrangement (presumably courtesy of the talented Ronson) is great.
Next up is bilge of the highest order - Chris Spedding's risible "Motor Bikin'". Spedding sped into town in 1975 long after the cool folks had realised Glam was dead and left town, and this was the only solo hit of his career (it made #14). Complete with such lyrical gems as "Well here I am dressed in black/I've got my baby on the back" and "Too fast to live and too young to die" and the cheesy hook of "Motor bike it, Motor like it!". Spedding is better known as one of the UK's most active jobbing session guitarists, he later achieved street cred by producing Sex Pistols demos (sparking rumours that he really played the guitar parts on the Pistols records).
Next up is another "Never scored a hit single but there just for pure coolness", Brian Eno with "Seven Deadly Finns". The cleverest thing about this is the title. I'm a big fan of Eno the Bowie collaborator, Eno the Talking Heads/U2 producer and Eno the man who gave us "Another Green World" but sorry old chap, this is just bilge. I don't buy the "Eno as central Glam figure" bit the revisionists are selling us. Also - be warned - this track features yodelling. Next time someone tries to explain to you how much cooler than Bowie Eno is, quietly remind them that Bowie never yodelled.
More bilge is The Runaways "Cherry Bomb". This was never a hit single in the UK (in fact, the only Joan Jett related hit in the UK is the infinitely superior "I Love Rock N Roll") so God knows what it's even doing on this album. I guess it does have a certain curio value to it, occupying some of the transitional ground between Glam and Punk, and is more remarkable for the "what Alice did next" factor. Essentially the brain child of legendary jack-of-all-trades producer Kim Fowley (a prolific songwriter who wrote for everyone from the Byrds, through the Beach Boys, Cat Stevens to Them, as well as a producer (Gene Vincent, Warren Zevon, Helen Reddy)) who co-wrote this track, both the band's guitarists, Joan Jett (the other co-writer of this song) and Lita Ford went on to bigger and better things in the 80s, while singer Cherrie Currie turned a less-than-successful solo musical career into a slightly more successful one as a movie actress (Foxes, Parasite, Wavelength).
T. Rex inject some much-needed musical nous into proceedings at this stage with "Solid Gold Easy Action" even if this #2 hit (Little Jimmy Osmond stopped T. Rex from scoring what would have been their last #1 hit with his execrable "Long Haired Lover From Liverpool", reminding us how little of musical value was knocking around at the top of the charts apart from Glam at the time) from late '72 (around the time T. Rex's commercial fortunes started to wane) is not one of their very best efforts.
Next up is a fairly run-of-the-mill almost one hit wonder (they had a follow-up, "Sing Don't Speak", which made #36), Blackfoot Sue, with "Standing In The Road", which made #4 in 1972 (nestling just one place below Glam's national anthem, "All The Young Dudes").
Next we have one of the Chinn/Chapman production line's less memorable efforts, "Dyna-mite" (Mud's first top 10 hit, it made #4 in 1973, the same week Bowie occupied both the #3 slots (with "Sorrow") and #21 one (with the retreating "The Laughing Gnome")).
This is followed up by the tedious "Angel Face" from The Glitter Band, their debut #4 hit from 1974, which neatly supports the theory that Glam was a bastardised parody of itself occupied by careerist session musicians and songwriters by 1974.
Next we have Cozy Powell's "Dance With The Devil", his first solo hit (it made #3 in 1973). Was this really Glam? It sure as Hell sounds more like a headbanger fodder designed to appeal to Led Zep fans. It must be one of the very few hit singles to be, well, basically just one long drum solo.
Next we have Hello, a band I know absolutely nothing about (nor do I want to, on the evidence of this rather tiresome little ditty), with "New York Groove", their second and last hit from 1975 (it made #9). Yet more evidence for the "Glam was dead by 74" brigade. It's also largely based on a drum beat (and not a very interesting one at that), and comes across sounding like a song that has just been started and is miles from being finished.
Next up is Arrows, with "I Love Rock And Roll". Arrows scored just two hit singles in the mid 70s, and this wasn't one of them, but of course the song was later made much more famous by Joan Jett (who took it to #4 in 1982). In fact, I had always assumed until now that Joan Jett wrote the song and that hers was the original version. The two guys who did actually write it, Merrill/Hooker (who I assume were members of Arrows) probably lived happily ever after on the royalties from this song, one of the biggest earners of all time.
CD2 ends on a high note with Suzi Quatro bringing her trademark energy and enthusiasm to one of the better Chinn/Chapman production line efforts, "Can The Can". This was Suzi's breakthrough hit and her first #1.
Overall, despite the fact that some of CD1 and much of CD2 is weighed down with dross that leaves you with the nagging suspicion that the true "Best Glam Rock Album In The World...Ever!" would have only one disk, this is a great compilation that provides sparkling value. 42 tracks, many of them classics, with most of the true bona fide Glam classics present and correct, all for a little more than the price of one CD.