Sunday, August 11, 2013

All that glitters

(OK, so I should really have written and posted this months ago, when you might still have had the opportunity to catch the exhibition yourself...)

It was a grey, dreary, drizzly February day in the dull, safe, corporatised twenty-tens - when better to take a trip back in time and allow oneself to be swept up in the dizzyingly colourful, exciting and chaotic collision of fashion, music, art and politics that was the world of glam?

It was inevitable that Tate Liverpool's exhibition Glam: The Performance Of Style would feature lots of album covers and photos of musicians - and so it did. Marc Bolan was prominent, of course, as was the Chameleon of Pop David Bowie, always staying at least one step ahead of the game. Roxy Music, too, under the sway of artist Richard Hamilton, with Brian Eno dressed in ever more ludicrous outfits and Bryan Ferry looking like a camp Elvis impersonator. And then there were the jokers in the pack like Slade, who bought into the sartorial aesthetic (teetering boots, spangly clothes) but whose blokey Glitter Band pub chug and terrace chantalongs set them apart from contemporaries like Bowie who were genuinely interested in pushing boundaries.

In truth, though, talk of taking glam seriously is a bit of an oxymoron - it was all about playfulness, toying with convention, deliberate frivolity and excess, surface over depth, appearance over reality, artifice over honesty. This manifested itself particularly in a fixation with glamour and androgyny, dressing up and performing a part rather than being oneself. Bowie was the master of this, but numerous exhibits testified to this obsession with self-representation and gender, not least Mick Rock's photograph Andrew Logan as Alternative Miss World Host/Hostess in which the subject is literally half man and half woman.

Given this fixation with self as opposed to society, glam could be characteristised (perhaps pejoratively) as pure escapism. After all, it bore precious little relation to what was going on in the "real world" at the time, as several of the most fascinating exhibits underlined: pop artist Derek Boshier's film Reel, which in part juxtaposes pictures from the glam scene with shots of the deeply traditional and conservative side of Britain in the 1970s; Nancy Hellebrand's portrait shots of glam music fans in their distinctly un-glam home surroundings; and, best of all, Dennis Hutchinson's superb photo of a pouting, shiny-outfitted Adrian Street with his coalminer father, in uniform, looking on with a mixture of bemusement and disgust. However, to characterise glam as such would be to ignore its political and sexual subtext, and its challenge to convention.

In that respect, it was clearly a precursor to punk, just as the sexual experimentalism and blurring of gender boundaries followed on from the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Punk's central figures had a tendency to spin the self-mythology that it was a complete and radical break with everything that had gone before - something to which the exhibition gave the lie, featuring pictures of Malcolm McLaren in Let It Rock (before it was Too Fast To Live..., before it was Sex) and the New York Dolls.

The latter appeared in the Glamscape USA section of the exhibition, and while glam may have bridged the Atlantic in terms of art and fashion, I was much less convinced by the suggestion that it also did so in terms of music (New York Dolls aside, of course). On that front, it seemed a peculiarly British affair, the Stooges seeming to have been dragged into the frame through Iggy Pop's association with Bowie.

However, Glamscape USA did result in my fortuitous discovery of a band I'd never really heard of before, Destroy All Monsters. They started out as a deliberately provocative art school act influenced by Sun Ra and the Velvet Underground before morphing into a punk band, and their recorded output was minimal, but those who at one time or another featured among their personnel certainly merit mention: Ron Asheton of the aforementioned Stooges, Michael Davis of fellow Detroit hellraisers the MC5, artists Jim Shaw and Mike Kelley. The latter, who committed suicide last year, shortly after I'd seen his collaboration with Michael Smith entitled A Voyage Of Growth And Discovery at the Baltic, was the man behind the stuffed toys that adorned the cover of Sonic Youth's Dirty. But the Sonic Youth connection doesn't end there: just listen to Niagara's vocals on 'Bored' and it suddenly becomes obvious where Kim Gordon got her own apparently idiosyncratic style...

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