David Bowie’s Genius: From Glam to Gaga

Author Simon Reynolds traces Bowie’s enduring influence in his book ‘Shock and Awe’

On January 10, 2016, as British music and pop culture journalist Simon Reynolds was completing the manuscript for his book on 1970s glam rock, came word that David Bowie — who catapulted to stardom during that memorable era in music — died. Reynolds later wrote that the news of Bowie’s death didn’t shock him at the time but rather how much the singer’s life and music had touched so many people in the immediate aftermath.

“I was surprised at how many different takes there were,” Reynolds later told Cuepoint. “Some people’s love of Bowie started with Let’s Dance, which obviously makes sense in some ways. There were all these different angles on him and things people liked about him, which probably came from him being so varied and changeable.”

Author Simon Reynolds and his newest book

In a way, Bowie’s death one year ago this month provided a poignantly fitting ending to Reynolds’ 700-page magnum opus, the recently-released Shock and Awe (Dey St. Books). A good part of the author’s book documents Bowie’s changes in musical personas from the late 60s to the late 70s: an unsuccessful entertainer in the English music hall tradition; the androgynous rock messiah Ziggy Stardust; the strung-out “Thin White Duke”; an influential music pioneer of the Berlin trilogy of albums (Low, “Heroes,” Lodger).

“Looking at the span of Bowie’s career… it’s clear that underneath the vaunted identity changes lay a surprising degree of consistency,” Reynolds writes. In addition to tracing Bowie’s career trajectory, Shock and Awe focuses on the other major players from the glitter rock era, including T.Rex’s Marc Bolan, Roxy Music, Gary Glitter, Alice Cooper, Suzi Quatro, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and Queen.

Towards the end of the book, the author provides a timeline of artists who owe a debt to glam’s sense of theatricality and brashness — including Madonna, Duran Duran, Def Leppard, Kanye West and Lady Gaga. But more than just the music, the players, and the outrageous fashion, Shock and Awe addresses larger issues around sexuality, gender roles, and most importantly the insatiable hunger for fame, which is evident not only in music but politics — especially concerning a certain real estate magnate set to take over the biggest political office in the land.

In this edited interview, Reynolds spoke to Cuepoint about the legacy of Bowie — who would have turned 70 this week — and the glitter era during which he first made his name.

David Chiu: As you were researching and writing the book, what were some of the things you discovered about glam that you didn’t know about previously?

Simon Reynolds: I sort of knew that most of the people involved in glam were actually straight, pretending to be gay or perhaps they dabbled a bit in bisexuality. But they were really exaggerating it a lot. It was when I researched into it that I found out that it was really true. It was a movement that on the surface was gay and effeminate, but in practice it had very few women involved and actually not many gay practitioners in the first wave of glam. And the only ones who were actually gay were the ones who were still staying in the closet, like [Queen’s] Freddie Mercury. At that time the people who were talking the loudest about being gay like David Bowie were actually not really gay, to be fair to say. That shows you the power of cultural symbols and perceptions in so far as there was a lot more to the surface of the music and the way that people behaved and camped it up was actually not necessarily substantiated on how they lived their lives. But that didn’t matter because it was still enormously liberating on that surface. It was taken by young people growing up [into their sexuality] in the 70s as being the real thing. It was kind of like Bowie and those people were fighting on their behalf.

Glam rock was a revolutionary movement, but it doesn’t get mentioned in the same breath as punk and hip-hop. Is it because glam represented artifice and superficiality, while punk and hip-hop carried more authenticity and truth?

I think so. What was radical about it was what it proposed in terms of sexual experimentation and fluidity. It’s not quite strident a statement like “Anarchy in the U.K.” [by the Sex Pistols] or “Fuck Tha Police” by N.W.A. The subversions or this cultural dissidence that was going on in glam was a bit more subtle. It was allied to the politics of making it big and being a star. Conventional society and show business go together… the idea is it’s just entertainment and it doesn’t have effects on real life. Show business versus the streets are considered different areas. And rock rebellion has tended to be associated with coming from the streets or the projects.

David Bowie looms very large in the book in terms of his influence on the genre.

My real intention was to not to downplay David Bowie but to situate him in a field of people that he was just one of. He did so much stuff that I ended up giving him four chapters, which was not my original plan. It’s just the way the book fell together. And in some of those chapters there’s Bowie, but there’s also the people he worked and enabled: Iggy, Mott the Hoople, and Lou Reed, and then later on it’s Iggy Pop, Kraftwerk and Eno. There’s a chapter of his soul-funk phase [in the mid 70s] and [him] living in L.A. It’s not like these four chapters are entirely David Bowie. But yes he crops up again and again.

He didn’t wait to change. Most of the other artists had one thing that they then kind of exhausted or perhaps emerged or evolved slightly. Roxy Music had this thing and they toned it down. Marc Bolan had this thing and he did it brilliantly, and then he just burned up and became a parody of himself. Bowie did different things. He was a constellation of activity. You feel that he’s everywhere, and that’s why I gave him so much attention. Apart from the Beatles in the 60s, there hasn’t really been a figure in music who so dominated an era like that.

Bowie as John Merrick in the Broadway adaptation of ‘The Elephant Man’ [photo: Ron Scherl]

I get the impression from the book that Bowie played the role of a rock star as opposed to actually being a rock star. It seems like he would have preferred to have been an entertainer in the old-fashioned British tradition, like Anthony Newley.

He wasn’t a natural rocker. Initially he wanted to be — as Kenneth Pitt, his early manager, said — an all-around entertainer. He wanted to write musicals, he wanted to be in musicals, he wanted to be in films. He wanted to do what Newley had done. Newley had done some rock & roll records but that was a small part of his repertoire: acting, singing, writing musicals, songwriting for other people. In performing arts school or drama school in Britain, you learn everything: tap, mime, acting, singing, dancing. That’s sort of the ethos in British showbiz. [Bowie] always wanted to get back to that place. Later on he’s acting in The Elephant Man on Broadway, he’s doing lots of films. The rock & roller was just one of many strings in his bow. It just happened to be the one that really put him over the edge and made him a star.

With a few missteps — from his drug-fueled period in the mid-70s, and through the late 80s and early 90s creative slumps — Bowie has been for the most part very consistent in his overall career.

It is amazing his ability to reinvent himself. First there’s a reinvention where it’s not working in the 60s. And then when it starts to work from about 1970 onwards, it just works brilliantly. I’ve never seen anything like that in terms of an artist who keeps surprising. If you want to be charitable, you’d say Let’s Dance was the last really successful reinvention. It was hugely successful commercially and it had some good tunes there. After that, it starts to sputter and heads into a period where he becomes the opposite of the Midas touch. There’s Absolute Beginners, in which his bits are probably the only good bits in there, but it’s a flop movie; the Glass Spiders tour; Labyrinth; Tin Machine; the re-team with Nile Rodgers [for Black Tie White Noise]; and the quite interesting but ultimately not really successful record [Outside] with Eno. Nothing seems to really work. There were moments in there if you were a really hardcore fan that you can find, a lot of interesting ideas and good bits fragments, but it’s not working with the general public.

Lou Reed meets David Bowie, 1972 [photo: D.R.]

Bowie helped revive the careers of Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Mott the Hoople. What did he see in them when others might have given up on them?

What he saw in all of them was one or another variation of his idea of punk, which was beginning to be a term bandied at that time as a concept by critics — Lester Bangs and various other people — the idea of a street youth in touch with reality. He saw Lou Reed as a street poet and the voice of New York. He was obsessed with New York… he correctly recognized Lou Reed as a great writer of that experience. [Reed’s] career had gone off the boil, and [Bowie] was a big influence on Reed and made him much glammier and camper than he had ever been before in the Velvet Underground or his first solo record [1972’s Lou Reed].

And then for Iggy, the original wild boy punk, he had this feral wildness that Bowie, a somewhat repressed Englishman, could only aspire to and admire from a distance. And he had this idea of Mott the Hoople, they were a sort of a gang of punks, it wasn’t really what they were really like at all. There was something about their energy as a live band that made him think they could be Britain’s true street kid band. Bowie saw them representing some kind of realness. And that’s why I call that chapter “Hard to Be Real,” because it’s about his attraction to these figures who seem to represent some kind of realness that he himself could not do because he was much more about showbiz. He felt that they were authentic in some sort of way that was inaccessible to him.

Iggy Pop and David Bowie [photo: R. Features]

So what would you say was Bowie’s creative zenith — Ziggy Stardust or the Berlin trilogy?

The most interesting stuff is Low,Heroes,” Lodger. And Scary Monsters, too. Even though it wasn’t done in Germany, I think it’s still by that phase of music quite weird. It’s actually pretty strange pop music — “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion.” At the same time, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane have great tunes on them. They’re not radical music but very well done inventive music within an existing pop/rock tradition. As a personal favorite, I think Hunky Dory is an amazing album. It’s not a very rock album mostly, it’s much closer to what Elton John was doing at the time, sort of a singer-songwriter with keyboards and orchestration. I’m a really big fan of the first album [David Bowie, from 1967]. It was quite ridiculed, the real Anthony Newley record that he did. But I feel like he’s doing exactly what he wants to do and he’s doing it in defiance of what 1967 was, which was the year of Cream, the first Pink Floyd and Doors albums, Jefferson Airplane, Traffic, Sgt. Pepper. And he was doing something that was completely at odds with all these amazing rock albums that were coming up that year and expanding the boundaries of rock. Meanwhile, he was making these comedy songs. So I grew very fond of that record.

In today’s pop culture, which artist comes closest to echoing the characteristics of glam rock?

I suppose until she did her last record [Joanne], which is sort of “I’m just stripping it back down to authenticity,” is Lady Gaga. [She] would be the closest to the classic glam rock star. I think Kanye West is probably a somewhat more interesting an version of that. He’s not so closely inclined to model himself on Bowie but it has an aspect — the artistic ambition. Some of the records he made are really strange-sounding. He’s sort of looked for weird beat makers in a way that is a modern update of what Bowie would look around for what was cutting edge by collaborating with those people. [For] Kanye, fame is such an expressive theme of his work and he’s got this monster ego. That does remind me a bit of Bowie, who kind of careened off course at various points and had this very conflicted relationship with fame where he couldn’t stop working it and chasing it but would also run away from it from time to time.

Lady Gaga channelled Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character at 2016’s Grammy Awards [photo: Larry Busacca // Getty]

What should people come away with your book and glam rock in general?

I hope they go away thinking it was a very interesting era with a lot going on in it. There’s Bowie, who’s come to tower over everyone. And then there’s Roxy Music, which has respect among the cognoscenti. But there were other interesting groups at that time like Sparks and Cockney Rebel. And also a lot of the more lightweight stuff [that] doesn’t have any concepts or artistic ambition — such as the Sweet — is really kind of exciting and great.

I think the more ideas-based thing is the way that glam connects to our contemporary fame culture here, where fame has become this very kind of almost pathological force in our culture. I think glam was playing with and exploiting that. That’s come to fore in recent pop music with figures like Drake, the Weeknd, Kanye West, Lady Gaga — where fame is a religion… that the only thing that matters in life is to become famous. I think it has a really corrupting effect on our culture and it has played a big role in the rise of Trump. He is this spawn of that fame culture in a way that Bowie almost predicted with his talk of someday a strong leader will come. Maybe this was a fulfillment of it. Politics has become about theater, postures and images. It’s been that way for a good while, but this is the climax of it.