In the early 1970s, decades before sexuality and gender in high school life became a CNN news bite, a music trend came along that slyly packaged these issues inside a lot of killer rock 'n' roll. I'm talking about glam or, as that legendary arbiter of pop fad Dick Clark disturbingly called it back in 1973, the "fag-drag crazy transsexual rock scene."
Glam is best remembered for its camp: platform shoes and glitzy makeup. But make no mistake, it possessed a very real revolutionary component (which is a big reason why this short-lived moment in pop music history exerted such a profound influence on punk and New Wave). Glam spoke to outsider youth, in particular those who all too often secretly suffered from oppression and confusion when it came to sex and gender identity. Not only that, it offered them a kind of cosmic escapism a shimmering mix of sci-fi mysticism and a surreal conflation of 1950s rock and Tinseltown nostalgia (all of which has its roots in The Cockettes, psychedelic drag queens and communal anarchists who emerged from late-'60s San Francisco).
Then again, glam also proved to be brutal and real. "You're a prima ballerina on a spring afternoon/ Change on into the wolf man howlin' at the moon," cried the New York Dolls. "All about that personality crisis, you got it while it was hot/ But now frustration and heartache is what you got."
Then there were The Pink Fairies, who cut right to the chase: "I wish I was a girl."
Glam came in many shapes and sizes in the early 1970s: bubblegum fun, pretentious art rock, heavy metal stomp, wispy space-folk balladry, retro rockabilly and so on. What's somewhat forgotten is how the trend played out quite differently in the United States and the United Kingdom. Over there, glam was teen pop, more or less. But here in the States the music took on a decidedly underground edge. T. Rex are the perfect example. Between 1970 and '73, the band's first four albums cracked the Top 20 of Britain's album chart; three of them wormed their way into the Top 5. In America only one made the Billboard's top 20: The Slider in 1972. Meanwhile, two of them never climbed passed 100.
Also telling is how Suzi Quatro and Sparks, both American acts, found far greater acceptance across the pond. Maybe we Yanks were just too macho to accept glam as a purely mainstream phenomenon. We're surely not like our English counterparts, who, as Mick Jagger pointed out in the documentary 25x5: The Continuing Adventures of the Rolling Stones, don't need much convincing to dress up like women and head down to the pub for a few.