This mighty volume begs a question, although it doesn’t ask it, let alone answer it. Does anyone in the known universe really want to read 650 pages about glam rock?
Simon Reynolds must do, because that’s how much he has written on the subject. All writers, if we are to be honest, write books because they themselves wish to read them. But what if you are the only person who wants to read it? It scarcely bears thinking about.
Glam rock, as older readers may remember, was a phase of particularly visual and mascara-inflected pop that dominated Top of the Pops for a couple of years in the early 1970s. Before that, we had chug-a-chug blues rock and earnest singer-songwriters, and everyone had hair down to here. Afterwards, there were two or three awkward years while we waited for punk to turn up. But briefly, and spectacularly, the charts were owned by T. Rex, the Sweet, Mud, Gary Glitter, Roxy Music, Wizzard, Slade and, primus inter pares, David Bowie. Platform boots were high, glitter was everywhere and the tunes were great. As someone who dances only at weddings, I sit through the chart hits of today without even tapping a toe. But as soon as the DJ, with a terrible sigh, puts on ‘Blockbuster’ or ‘Tiger Feet’, I am up there with the best of them, cutting a notable rug. People will be listening to these songs, and finding them as fresh as fresh can be, long after we are all dead.
Reynolds could, and possibly should, have concentrated on this brief but glorious musical flowering, but I’m guessing that he can’t help himself. Like the hero of Michael Chabon’s novel Wonder Boys, he might be a compulsive writer who simply cannot stop. So, immediately after a quite brilliant chapter on Slade, the Sweet and Mud, there are 93 close-packed pages about Bowie’s big three albums of the early 1970s, Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane: 93 pages! It’s not as though we haven’t met Bowie before, as there were 42 pages about him earlier, before he was actually successful. Subsequent aspects of his career are covered in nearly as much detail, so that what amounts to a complete book about Bowie nestles quietly within this much larger book. Maybe Reynolds could publish it separately later on.
At other times he doesn’t so much err into irrelevancy as embrace it full on. So a chapter about Marc Bolan, who had a few hits back in the day, develops into a discussion of charisma, referring to George Melly’s book Revolt Into Style and Len Oakes’s Prophetic Charisma, before revealing that charisma was codified as a religious concept by St Paul in the Epistles in or around ad 50. ‘It is arguable that charisma of this kind — collective single-mindedness — is a “vibe” that generates itself within any cultic group that shares a marginal world view and renegade value system.’ One streak of the blue pencil and all this drivel would have vanished forever.
Reynolds used to work for Melody Maker, which tended to pay for quantity and let quality look after itself. When he concentrates, he can be a wonderful writer, with many fine and fascinating insights into a intriguing musical era. But he does feel the need, more often than is strictly necessary, to show off how clever he is, when talking about music that wasn’t glam rock at all, such as the Velvet Underground. Several sentences need to be read three or four times before you give up wondering what they are trying to say. (‘Other songs on Roxy Music aren’t disjointed horizontally [structural extension through time] but vertically [the layering together of jarring textures and incongruent emotions].’)
As with so much rock writing, there’s no humour at all. My feeling, as so often with large books, is that there’s a terrific book of around half the length screaming to be let out. But who will hear those screams? Some people, most of them men of a certain age, will buy this volume, and many of them will put it on their shelves. But who will ever open it and read what lies within? Anyone at all?
Marcus Berkmann was for 27 years the pop music critic of The Spectator. This year he has published The Specator Book of Wit, Humour and Mischief.