The Leviathan of Glam
In the summer of 1972, I finally quit Pangbourne in consequence of a decision made between my father and those in authority over me at college to the effect that it was pointless my staying on for the final two years, presumably because "A" or Advanced level GCE - or General Certificate of Education - exams would be far beyond me. After all, I'd only succeeded in passing two GCE "O" Levels (in French and English Literature)...five being the minimum acceptable amount for entrance into university, together with two or more well-graded "A" Levels, depending on the university. GCE "O" levels were phased out in 1988, in favour of GCSEs.
I was subsequently involved in the intensiveprogramof academic,artistic, sporting and semi- professional activities outlined inmy previous autobiographical work, "Rescue of a Rock and Roll Child", and continued to be so until about 1977.
When I leftthat summer, I'd not changed for years and was stilla hippie at heart despitethe military-style haircut I so detested and resented,and resolutely masculine in my tastes, despising softness and effeminacy in the standard male adolescent manner, but a change came over me in thesummer of '72, which may have been caused to some degree by the prevailing zeitgeist in the UK at least, but which I can nonetheless trace back to a single defining incident.
This took placeina bar in the little former fishing town of Santiago de la Ribera in the province of Murcia, Spain, close by the Mar Menor, where I'd been vacationing with my parents and brother since the late 1960s, andwhich I'dlike now to recount.
There was a young man of the pueblo I'd idolised for several years. He incarnated a kind of old-school Iberian macho cool,and was fair as I recall, rather than swarthy as might be expected, and quite stocky, with muscular arms...and if he'd worn a medallion and identity bracelet, he'd have been typical of his kind.That's how I recall him...
What I'mcertain of though is that by the summer of '72, he'd let his hair growcollar lengthas was the fashion of the day - even though it was still quite rareamong Spanish men- and taken tosporting colourful large-collared shirts which heelected not to tuck into his trousers.The style of these shirtsmeant that his long hair would occasionally get caught between neck and collar which necessitated his flicking it out with an elegantsweep of his hand and coquettishly tossing his head. This he did one evening in full view of Castilla's clientele.
While these gesturesseemed perfectly in keeping with his swaggering machismo as I saw it, there was another of Castilla's patrons that evening whowas far lessconvinced than I, andhe dulymuttered his misgivings in my ear. Rather than putting me off,these whispered words of censurehad the effect of making him even more fascinating than ever; and itmay be that as a result of this episode, I came to covet thenotoriety that had suddenly been afforded him. Furthermore, this incident may have marked the beginning ofthe end of my identification with undiluted masculinity...whether of the type of the macho movie star such as Steve McQueen, or that ofany number ofhirsute Hard Rock shouters, and theonset of a fascination with a far more androgynous brand of male sexuality.
Thiswas compounded by a performance I witnessed on TV towards the end of theyear on an afternoon Pop show called Lift off with Ayesha (hosted by presenter Ayesha Brough) of former Bubblegum band the Sweet, performing theirstartling new single, "Blockbuster". The Sweet had onceincarnated everything I loathed about commercial Pop music, butwatching them prance around in high heels and make up, pouting and preening like a quartet of amphetamine-crazed transvestites, I had what was little short of an epiphany. What the effect this spectacle had on mynascent sexual identityI can only imagine.
However, the influence of the Sweet, devastatingas it was,was destined - by 1973, the highpoint of Glam - to become minimal in comparison to that of David Bowie, whose sphinx-like charisma was so potent that even the most unreconstructed of provincial British macho menwere drawn, irresistibly, to an art which combined the most infectious Pop melodies with complex, deeply literate lyrics, and yet one purveyed by a man who would once have moved those same men to violence. Indeed, Bowiestill antagonised as many as he mesmerised in his Glam Rock heyday of 1972-'73.
My whole persona seemed to soften once I'd turned 17 in October 1972, as maturity brought me a physiognomy I'd not expected, and yet, while I was more than pleased with this development, my interest in the opposite sex was as strong as any other male in late adolescence, although I was inclined to sentimental reverie rather than macho forwardness. Ifanattractive femalehappened to speak to me in a public place,I'd be all but incapable of sound...while in serious danger of falling in love on the spot.
A propos of which, on the way back from Spain via Bilbaoon theship HMS Patricia in the summer of '72, I fell in love by sight with a fellow passenger, a young Spanish girl I saw several times about the ship but never actually spoke to, and subsequently became obsessed by her, even to the point of roaming the streets of London for several days in succession in the vain hope of somehow bumping into her.
Several songs served as the soundtrack to this irrationalspell of romantic madness, including Betcha by Golly Wow by the Stylistics, and Last Night I Didn't Get To Sleep At All by the5th Dimension, written - respectively - by Philly Soul stalwarts Thom Bell and Linda Creed and master British songwriter Tony Macauley.The former initiated a love affair on my part with the aforesaid Sweet Soul variant which- originating in the City of Brotherly Love - was popular from around 1969 to 1975, andit remains my favourite ever example of the genre...apart, that is, from the exorbitantly romantic La La la Means I love You by the Delphonics, also written by Thom Bell, but with first partner William Hart rather than the better known Linda Creed.
Mine was an isolated existence throughout the following year of '73. When I wasn't pursuing the academic and sporting programme that had been speciallyprepared for me by my father, Isequesteredmyself in my parents' house,whereI fantasised about the kind of fame enjoyed on one hand by Glam icons such as the Sweet and David Bowie, and on the other, by a new breed of teen idol that included Donny Osmond and David Cassidy,whose angelic faces graced the covers of teen magazines all over the world, and like them I wanted to be endlesslypursued byhordes of lovelorn teenyboppers. I was supposed to be studying, and study I certainly did, but I also spent untold hours in idle contemplation of the glamour of the superstar lifestyle...a life I wanted for myself as soon as possible, and despite a serious dearth of discernible talent.
Late in that same summer, I signed up for five years service with theLondon Division of the Royal Naval Reserve, based at HMS President onthe Embankment of the Thames. Within a short time of doing so, I discovered that I was seen by several of the older seamen as some kind of shipboard mascot/pretty boy and at firstI was flattered rather than insulted to be seen in this way, because it was all new to me, giventhat my reputation at Pangbourne was that of an unkempt scran bag. To a degree then, it was a case of an ugly duckling suddenly finding themselves to be a swan, and enjoying theresultant attention...or rather the notoriety, such asthat conferred on the young Spaniard of the Bar Castilla in the summer of '72 by the wry mutterings of a disapproving patron.
'73 was the year in which Glam became a national craze throughout Britain and otherWestern countries, although it had beencarried into thePop mainstreamseveral years earlier by the aforesaid Marc Bolan, who'd been featured in 1962 in a magazine called Town, as one of the Faces, or leading Modsof his area of East London, Stamford Hill, although by then he'd moved with his family to a council house in Summerstown near Wimbledon.
He went on to become a darling of the Hippie Underground as one half of the acoustic duo, Tyrannosaurus Rex, the other beingmulti-instrumentalist Steve Peregrin Took, whose tastes inclined more towards the avant garde than Bolan, and who was eventually replaced by Mickey Finn. In 1970, Bolan shortened the name of the band to T.Rex andsoon after enjoying his first major hit singlein the autumn of thatyear,became the biggest British teen sensation since the heyday of Beatlemania...as lovingly portrayed by Elton John in "Teenage Idol", his 1972 tribute - with lyrics by Bernie Taupin - to his one-time Glam Rock comrade-in-arms.
In truth though, Glam was not as new as many might have believed it to be...extreme androgyny having been pioneered in Pop music all throughout the '60s by such figures as Brian Jones of the Stones andPink Floyd’s lost genius Roger “Syd” Barrett, although it could be said that its true founding father had been Rhythm and Blues shouter RichardPenniman, better known as Little Richard.After all whenit comes to Rock and Roll, everything can be traced back tothe early daysand beyond that to the Blues themselves.
As a boy,Richard attended theNew Hope Baptist Churchin his native Macon, Georgia, and sang Gospel songs with his family as The Penniman Singers, his favourite singers being Gospel legends Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. He joinedSister Rosettaonstage in Macon at the age of 13, in 1945 after she heard him singing before the concert. What's more, he had serious ambitions of becoming a preacher.
By 1951, however, the world had begun to beckon, and he won a talent contest in Atlanta that led to a recording contract with RCA Victor, but the four records he subsequently released all flopped. Around about the same time, he came under thesway of an outrageous Rhythm and Bluesmusician by the name of Esquerita, who shaped his unique piano style. Esquerita is also believed to haveinfluenced his increasingly flamboyant image, although self-styled King of the BluesBilly Wright, who piled his pomaded hair high on his head - as did Esquerita - and wore eye liner and face powder,was also an influence in this respect. Real success came for Richard in 1955 with Tutti Frutti,whichhas been cited as the true starting point for the Rock and Roll revolution; but within two years, he'd quit the business and returned to his faith.
Whether Richard is saved or not no one knows except God, but one thing that is certain is thatfew Rock stars have been as vocal in their condemnation of Rock and Roll as he has been. He has been quoted as saying that Rock and Roll is driving people from Christ, and that he himself was directed and commanded by another power. The power of darkness. This presumably at the height of his influence as a Rock and Roll star. And if anybody knows whereof they speak when it comes to this massively influential musical and social movement,it's the good Reverend Penniman. I think he's a man worth listening to myself.
The Punk Rock Insurrection
By the end of '73, the first wave of Glam Rock had all but dispersed, although it was to experience repeated periodic revivals, notably in the '80s through the New Romantic movement in the UK, and the Glam Metal scene in the US. It still exists to some degree...yet with its power to shock effectively reduced to nothing, such is the extent to which the West has become inured to outrage.
Within three years, it had been supplanted by a movement which - if it were at all possible - was even more outrageous…I'm referring of course to Punk.
By the time Ileft the RNR in '77 as an Able Seaman - and armed with a character report that was only a little shy of glowing - Punk was in full swing, and within a few months, I was a fellow traveller myself, my hair dyed and spiked, and favouring black drainpipes, usually worn with black leather winkle picker boots and other provocative items of clothing.
Punk's origins lay in the US among the so-called Garage bands of the 1960s, who attempted toemulate the rougheracts of the British Invasion, such as the Stones, the Kinks, the Who, the Troggs, the Pretty Things, who were themselves heavily indebted to American Rhythm and Blues. But it was the distinct New York variant that exerted the greatest influence on the British Punk uprising...easily the most momentous of them all...and largely through the influence of a brilliant young London entrepreneur by the name of Malcolm McLaren.
McLaren, whoseJewish mother hadowned a shmatte (clothing) factory in London's East End was a former art student turned boutique owner, who by early 1972 was selling '50s style clothing - among other items - designed by his then partner Vivienne Westwoodthrough an outlet at 430 Kings Road, Chelsea, which he'd named Let it Rock. It exists to this day as part of Dame Vivienne's global fashion empire as World's End, which it was renamed in late 1980.
In the late 1960s, he'd been drawn to the subversive ideas of the Paris Situationists, believed to have played a part in fometing the '68 riots, themselves offshoots of the previously mentioned post-war Lettrists, who were very much precursors ofthe British Punk variant.He brought them to bear as he set about developing the Punk look in mid '70s London.
In 1975 he became the manager of thedisintegrating Glam band the New York Dolls, designing red leather outfits for them in tandem with a new pseudo-Communist image, which proved a disastrous move and they split up soon afterwards. Yet, while in NYC, he came across a fledgling Punk outfitby thename ofthe Neon Boys,featuringtwo youngformer Sandford Preparatorystudentsby the name of Tom Verlaine - named after the French Symbolist poet Paul-and Richard Hell... born Thomas Millerand Richard Meyers in Morristown, NJ.and Lexington, Ky.respectively.
He was especially impressed by Hell's unique image of spiky hair - allegedly inspired by the famous tousle-haired photograph of Rimbaud byEtienne Carjat - and torn tee-shirt held together with safety pins. He attempted to persuade Hell to return with him to London, butthe poet and musiciandemurred, so McLaren returned alone in mid 1975.
Some time afterwards, he renamed his Kings Road boutique Sex and set himself up as the manager of a group known as the Strand (after a song by Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music). The Strand had originally been formed bythree working classdenizens of theHammersmith - Shepherds Bush - Acton area of West London, allegedly at the urging of guitarist Warwick "Wally" Nightingale.
Mclaren agreed to be their manager only on the condition that founder member Wally - deemed"too nice" by the entrepreneur -be ejected from the band, and so he was. Then, when a charismatic young London Irishman by the name of Johnny Rotten - born John Lydon in Finsbury Park, N4 - came onboard as lead singer, and the band was renamed the Sex Pistols, they were set to spearhead the mostinfamous and influential Punk insurrection of them all.
I was more than happy to be caught up in it all...although when I auditioned for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in late '77, none of my overseers would have suspected anything of the sort. These included the handsome patrician head of a British acting dynasty that thrives to this day whoinformed a third party- I can't recall who - something to the effect that whilemy stagecraft was crude and chaotic it was also mesmerising, and he believed something could be done with me at the school, and told me so. As it turned out hewas wrong, but his initial faith resulted in my being offered a place on the three-year Drama course beginning in the autumn of 1978.
The Clattering of the Compact
Once I started at Guildhall, I made it pretty clear than the nice clean-cutCarl who'd auditioned the previous year had been a curve ball, as I was making no further attempts to conceal my Punk image. This was compounded by a bizarre hyperactivity that occasionally degenerated into outrageous and even disruptive behaviour. It was as if I was determined to convince the world that I was an Artist with a capital A and therefore entitled to incessantly attract attention to myself with aberrant behaviour and clothing. With regard to the latter, among the items I favoured in '78-'79 wereslim jim ties, drainpipe jeans, florescent Fifties-style socks, and white leather brothel creepers, but my favourite of all was a pair of tight plastic snakeskin trousers, which I can onlyactually remember wearing once.
As if my manic behaviour and bizarre clothing weren't enough to cause eyebrows to raise among the Guildhall authorities, I insisted on wearing make-up even in classes, although to be fair it was subtly applied, except for on certain occasions such as parties whenI really piled on the slap, foundation, eye shadow, blusher, lip rouge, the works. Talk about lipstick, powder and paint.
On one memorable occasion, in the course ofa mime class supervised by a quirky bearded professional mime artist who'd been a regular on children's TV for a time, and who worked as an occasional teacher at the Guildhall, the rouge compactI usually carried in those days for sporadic touch-ups fell out of the inner pocket of my jacket when I bent over during an exercise before hitting the floor with an embarrassing clatter. All eyes went to the offending compact, and there was a mortifying silence...which ourmentor mercifully broke byretrieving the blusher from the floor, and – while urging us to make use of everything that comes to hand - started furiously daubing peoples’ startled faces with glittery blusher, thereby sparing my blushes.
He was a champion of mineamong the members of staff at this time, and they'd become thin on the groundquite early on in the course…by the time in fact that I was summoned to the principal's office to be informed something along the lines that I'd be better off away from college. Naturally I disagreed, but I had no choice but to go along with their opinion. As things turned out, though, I didn't leave until the end of the year, and at the end of the second term I was told my work had much improved, so it looked like I might be asked to stay on; but it wasn't to be, and I was definitively informed I'd have to go a little before the end of my third term. It was on this very day, or not long afterwards, that another friend of mine from among the teaching staff - anda working actress at the time - rushed up to me to tell me in no uncertain terms that I was extremely talented and that I ought toaim for the Fringe…which is the London equivalent of Off-Broadway, and Off-Off Broadway…
But it wasn’t the Fringe…it was the great British tradition of pantomime that ultimately claimed me...and within months of quitting college, I was Christian the Chorus Boy in a panto production ofSleeping Beautywhich played at the Buxton Opera House over Christmas '79, and if that sounds louche then it assuredly was…at least how I interpreted him: in pale ballet-style tights and full make-up.
Still, my days of wearing slap were numbered, because within less than two years of the Sleeping Beauty tour...around about the time in fact that the New Romantic movement - which was a Glam revival to a degree, fused with the more sophisticated decadence of figures such as David Bowie and Bryan Ferry - was at its apex, all forms of face paint were causing my eyes to become puffy and red-rimmed. I had to convince myself that I could still beinteresting without cosmetic enhancement, and this was a tough order for me at first...but at least mydandyism remained undimmed, in fact, enhanced thanks to the sartorial liberalism of the crazy nineteen eighties…and what a decade that was!