Late on the Friday afternoon of The Great Escape — the annual three-day event for which the London music industry decamps to Brighton to spend three days drinking and trying to get into tiny venues to see new bands — two very young men stood outside a pub, making quite the impression. One, with bleached blond hair, yellow tinted sunglasses and livid red lipstick, wearing a black string vest, clutched a bottle of Mexican lager. The other, made up with huge rouge smears on his cheeks and heavy eyeshadow, wore a beret, a green faux-military tunic, and — naturally — an Elizabethan-styled ruff. You knew they were in a band; you could tell from their armbands, which bore the legend HMLTD.
Three hours later, HMLTD — changed last year from Happy Meal Ltd as it became apparent that McDonald’s lawyers might take an unusually close interest in their career — took to the stage at The Haunt, and for 40 minutes or so offered a thrilling, immersive performance, as if David Bowie had cloned himself in 1972 and sent five duplicates (and a keyboard player who looked like Will from The Inbetweeners) forward in time. There is a sense of frenzy around their shows at the moment that is unmatched anywhere else. They leave one agog, even if one doesn’t yet come away whistling hit after hit.
HMLTD are one of a group of young bands who are explicitly indebted to glam rock. It’s not that they sound much like glam — they are more like some musical mutation that crosses Nick Cave’s old band the Birthday Party with the new romantics — but they could not have existed without it. Like Bowie, they are a walking advert for and encouragement to self-expression, a cabaret of twisted sexuality. (Needless to say, that’s already got them in trouble, with at least one writer accusing them of being straight men playing at LGBTQ tourism.)
Though HMLTD are British, glam seems to be making more of an impact in the States. A few days before HMLTD’sBrighton appearance, a group of teenagers called Starcrawler made their first London appearance. Starcrawler are so young that they came over for four UK shows of high-energy rock (their debut single, ‘Ants’, sounds like a lost New York Dolls song) then flew home to Los Angeles so they didn’t miss their high-school prom.
Like Starcrawler, the Lemon Twigs —brothers Brian and Michael D’Addario, from Long Island — are teenagers. Their version of glam, nurtured by their father, is less musically violent than HMLTD or Starcrawler — each of their songs sounds as though they are trying to pack the entirety of Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything? into three minutes — but like the other two bands, the stage is where they come into their own. Concerned that people might notice his guitar playing was not as good as it might be, Michael compensated by high-kicking while singing and playing. Not just the occasional high kick, but constant high kicks. When they made their London debut last autumn, on a tiny pub stage — they’ve since graduated to selling out the 1,400-capacity Koko — I lost count at 25. During one song.
There have always been glam revivalists floating around, noticed only by genre aficionados — if you want beautifully recreated classic glam, try V Sparks from Chicago, or the ‘bovver rock’ of Guida, from Rome — but what’s intriguing in the new bands is their extreme youth, and their near simultaneous emergence, several thousand miles apart. Glam’s influence has tended to emerge in glum times, and when music feels equally colourless. The first wave, in the early 1970s, came when ‘serious’ rock was dominated by prog and by singer-songwriters, and the news was dominated by strikes. A few years later, glam’s heir in the new romantics adopted dandyism in the wake of punk’s disspiriting lack of vivacity, as the winter of discontent faded into the asceticism of the early Thatcher years. Now, on either side of the Atlantic, uncertainty seems a political norm, mainstream pop is boring, and beige singer-songwriters are dominant. And, with streaming, the whole of pop history is open to plunder. Why not loot from something as bright as a peacock tail, rather than from another plaid-clad bloke with an acoustic guitar?
Whether the new glam will amount to anything more than a flash in the pan remains to be seen, but that’s not really the point. These bands are about the moment, about the burst of excitement that comes from taking to the stage certain in your ability to amaze, which all three bands do in their different ways. HMLTD, particularly, exist at what has long been one of pop’s sweet spots, the Venn diagram intersection between absolutely terrible and spectacularly brilliant, where the normal rules of what a band should be and do are completely ignored. That’s a hard place from which to sustain a long career — even with the backing of a major label — but it’s also the very best place in the world to be if you want to be young, exciting and talked about. Vive le glam!