Words by Oona Pecson
Glam rock is a brilliantly multifaceted music genre that can be summed up in the same way that John Lennon once described David Bowie’s music: “rock and roll with lipstick on”.
It all started in the late 1960s, as rock music became the subject of experimentation with sound, style, and messaging. It was also becoming increasingly revolutionary and rebellious, but as the 1970s came about, there was a shift. Artists began to reject the rebellion itself.
Glam rock emerged as a response to this new attitude towards rock music. It held onto the original zeitgeist of the genre as it was in the 1950s, but had an interesting level of self-awareness. Its extravagance was emphasized through elements of theater and performance, wherein it almost seemed to purposely draw attention to its own absurdity. Even though it fizzled out by the mid 1970s, the music and styles introduced then still continue to inspire people and artists alike today.
So get your lipstick ready, because here are 7 artists that really brought on the glam.
Marc Bolan (T. Rex)
When you think about glam rock, Marc Bolan (a.k.a the frontman of T.Rex) should be the first person to come to mind. Many people cite his second appearance on Top of the Pops in 1971 to be the moment where the genre– originally called “glitter rock” for good reason-- came to be.
He wore a silvery metallic blazer on top of a shirt that seemed to drown in silver and green glittery sequins, bubblegum pink pants, and fabulous low-heeled boots that matched his blazer perfectly. However, it was his hair and makeup that took everything to the next level. He had a wonderful head of curls– poofy and frizzy as if it was on purpose. Underneath his eyes, were two huge circles painted on in gold glitter. This changed the image of a traditional “rocker”, and following this single appearance on TV, it didn’t take long for glam to take off in the UK.
Bolan frequently talked about how he liked to use glitter and makeup, and showed how clothing didn’t need to be categorized by gender– especially when performing. In an interview with the BBC, he said: “Guys could go out on stage…being not effeminate, but not necessarily having to have Brut aftershave on – you know, super-masculine. You could use makeup and you could use things to brighten the act”. Unbeknownst to him, Bolan’s views and artistry ended up inspiring people for more than 50 years after he started doing it himself.
Another iconic founder in the world of glam rock was none other than David Bowie. He had said in Moonage Daydream (his book released in collaboration with famed photographer Mick Rock back in 2002), that “Rock seemed to have wandered into some kind of denim hell…all was rather dull attitudinising with none of the burning ideals of the 60s”. He was looking for a spark, and it didn’t take long for him to find it.
He entered the world of glam in 1970 onstage with his band at the time, called Hype. During a particular show at the Roundhouse in London he wore a silvery metallic cropped jacket on top of (presumably) a robin’s egg blue bodysuit, a matching cape that attached to his wrists, sparkly lurex tights, and over the knee boots with a slight heel.
There has always been a debate as to whether it was Bowie or Bolan who “actually created” glam rock, but let’s just say that if Bolan is the one who planted the idea, then Bowie is the one who helped it take off following the release of his 1972 album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
This album introduced an amazing concept to glam rock: theatrical performance and characters. Bowie was one of the first musicians to introduce a character, in this case Ziggy Stardust, and create an entire story and look unique to them that was explored both on stage and through the music he wrote. For a few short years he performed as Ziggy, whose mullet, androgynous flair, red and blue color accents, and total embodiment of glam eventually became one of the most iconic symbols of the entire genre.
Suzi Quatro had been involved in the music scene for most of her life, but it wasn’t until she moved to England in the early 70s that she entered the glam rock scene. Admittedly, “entered” is an understatement, because she came out of the woods with a bang.
Quatro took to the stage with a very particular kind of look– jumpsuits. She wore jumpsuits of all silhouettes, colors, and materials (mainly leather), accompanied by epic platforms, her bass, and other accessories. She often kept her hair in a windswept, feathery shag, and in terms of makeup, she seldom wore it. Instead of going for the glitter and makeup like a lot of the guys were, she simply wanted to embody rock and roll in a way that women in the industry hadn’t done yet… until she did.
In the Suzi Q documentary, she had said, “And this is why it was me that had to kick down the door. It took someone like me. I've never done gender…Growing up, I always called myself a musician. I never said 'female musician’”.
Therefore, while she didn’t necessarily identify with or connect to the glittery, performative side of glam, she still embodied this ambiguous element of it. After all, glam has so many elements, and Suzi Quatro made leaps and bounds through it just as well as any of the other guys. In doing so, she showed everyone what a woman in rock can really do.
Iggy Pop is undoubtedly one of the most prominent American artists to emerge onto the glam rock scene. Most people would go as far to affirm this by saying while Ziggy Stardust had the Spiders, Iggy Pop had the Stooges.
In terms of glam as far as style goes, Iggy Pop frequently wore makeup and was certainly fond of glitter. As he once said in an interview with Eric Alper: “I would take a little glass bottle of Johnson & Johnson baby oil, pour it all over my body and face, then cover myself in gold and silver glitter”. Aside from that dewy sparkle underneath the stage lights, he would don a pair of pants (either metallic, in a funky pattern, or plain denim) and the occasional accessory– such as a belt or pair of silver gloves. The most important part of his outfit, ironically, is going shirtless.
In the long run, Iggy Pop encapsulates a very raw and powerful element of rock. He was– and still is –comfortable showing his body on stage, and continues to move the music as if rock itself is constantly flowing through his veins. He embodies glam not just through the look and music, but through the performances that take every one of his concerts in a whole new direction.
Alice Cooper is like a rock and roll chameleon in that he’s able to dabble in so many subgenres and make them all work in his favor. Of course, glam rock happens to be one of those instances where you can’t help but bring him up in conversation.
In essence, Cooper has long embodied a few themes that glam rock emphasized. One of these being fluidity and ambiguity, as he wore his hair long, adopted a traditionally feminine sounding stage name, and wore makeup. Another was style, as he did not shy away from anything when it came to being on stage. From leather to lurex, a top and bottom or a carefully constructed set, jumpsuits or bodysuits, Alice Cooper wore anything to the point where the chameleon analogy could also extend to fashion– although his signature would have to be the eye looks he would create using black eyeliner. Lastly was theatrics, as he is often pictured with things on stage –from live snakes to baby dolls and even a fake electric chair– used to take his concerts to the next level and give the audience something to remember for sure.
While he isn’t as known for being a key figure in glam rock like Marc Bolan or David Bowie, Alice Cooper shows how themes of glam rock can carry on. The genre itself is blurry, and the boundaries between it and other subgenres of rock are arguably even more so, but the feeling and spirit can stick around and can be carried on by artists throughout their careers.
When it comes to glam and grandeur, Elton John is a name that immediately comes to mind. However, interestingly enough, he doesn’t really appear at the forefront of the glam rock conversation. Regardless, he deserves the mentions he gets.
Plain and simple, Elton John showed that there is no boundary for what you can wear both on and off the stage. From feathers to massive headpieces and full body glitter suits, John did anything and everything and has some of the most iconic outfits to ever exist. He didn’t shy away from any material, silhouette, or color, and would probably only reject something if it fell too close to the “less is more” mentality. In his case, his signature look isn’t a particular piece or style of clothing, but rather an accessory. His glasses. In almost any setting, both on and off stage, inside or outside, you’re most likely going to see Elton John wearing (sun)glasses. No matter how eccentric or bold the outfit he’s wearing, his glasses will always find a way to match the look, if not take it to the next level.
At the end of the day John shows how glam rock can serve as an inspiration for artists through its themes, feeling, look, and even sound. Even though the genre wasn’t around long, he took the concept of what it meant to be “glam”, and embodied it with heart and soul for the entirety of his career.
Freddie Mercury (Queen)
Similar to Elton John, Freddie Mercury is an artist who is frequently brought up in the discussion of “being glam” without really being connected back to glam rock musically. Regardless of that, he and his band, Queen, are another great example of what it means to epitomize it.
Freddie Mercury is undeniably one of the most iconic and influential artists to come out of the 20th century. He was known for being extremely fashionable, even though his style definitely changed throughout the course of his life. While focusing on the 1970s, he rocked a rather androgynous look– wearing (rather flowy) jumpsuits of seemingly any kind of material, color or pattern, frequently donning heels and platforms, and occasionally experimenting with makeup. Regardless of what he wore or what his style was like at one point or another, however, Freddie Mercury indubitably loved to put on performances, and striking ones at that.
Along with an expressive taste in fashion, Mercury hardly showed any signs of hesitation when it came to breaking away from the norm. Although he was never that open about his sexuality, he certainly wasn’t afraid of opposing the traditional and dominant ideology of masculinity in other ways. He accomplished this in plenty of ways, but there is a famous example from 1984: when all four members of Queen dressed in drag for their I Want to Break Free music video.
As previously stated, Freddie Mercury was never specifically considered to be a glam rock artist. Regardless of that, his style, openness, and steadfast opposition to the “norm” undoubtedly carry thematics stemming from the subgenre itself. He took glam, and showed everyone what it really meant.
In hindsight, glam rock exploded onto the music scene in the boldest way possible, yet seemed to end just as fast as it started. Therefore, if you had to choose one word to describe it, the best one would probably be “blurry”.
That blurriness comes from the fact that some of the elements that helped define it in the first place –such as makeup, costume, theatrical performance, ambiguity, absurdity, glitter, distinctiveness, etc.– have since emerged within countless other subgenres of rock too. When you really think about that, it’s amazing how such a short lived era managed to have such a long lasting reach and impact.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to imagine what music and fashion would look like if it wasn’t for the influence of glam rock. We owe a lot not only to Marc Bolan and David Bowie, who introduced it to the world, but to all of the artists who were inspired by it, and helped further define what it meant to really “be glam”.