Glam is a peculiarly British affair. It’s influence can, on occasion, be felt in America, primarily though the make-up of Lou Reed circa Transformer or maybe the outfits of The New York Dolls. Even KISS aren’t really glam, they’re just a straightforward – often very straightforward – rock band who have inexplicably decided that kids carnival face-paint make-up might be the way to go. But even if one might tenuously want to include KISS or The New York Dolls ultimately glam isn’t something that really took off in the U.S. – it never really became a movement. Most of the big names in glam music – T.Rex, The Sweet, Slade, Mud, Gary Glitter, Wizzard, Alvin Stardust et al – never substantially broke out of the UK despite the odd hit single, and even T.Rex’s success was comparatively limited despite the fact they fulfil the exception-that-proves-the-rule role. T.Rex – and Bolan in particular – almost entirely invented glam wholesale but their American chart run wasn’t a patch on their UK success. Some things, it seems, don’t quite translate.
One of the most telling things about glam is that almost all the bands who were “glam bands” never managed to escape the glam ghetto, whereas there’s a whole bunch of artists who adopted glam as simply a trend – David Bowie, Roxy Music, Queen, Elton John – and were able to free themselves from it when that trend passed. Bowie’s music existed long before he strapped on some platform heels and looked lovingly into Mick Ronson’s eyes on Top Of The Pops and it exists long after the silk capes and eyeliner were consigned to the fashion mistakes of history. Even T.Rex – effortlessly the most talented of the glam bands – weren’t able to break free. Glam died in the mid-70’s, it’s initial burst of colour and energy exhausted, to be replaced by the dance beats of disco and the howling dissatisfaction of punk. Its death took all those bands with it.
“Ballroom Blitz”, however, arrived slap-bang in the middle of the glam movement and, as a song, pretty much encapsulates everything about the trend that made it popular. It’s pretty obvious to start with how the band look but oh well, if you base your musical genre on appearance you can’t very well complain if that’s what gets discussed. The Sweet aren’t quite the most extreme-looking glam band, but there’s still plenty of tinfoil jackets, wide collars, facial make-up and shiny bits of bling. Open shirts and bare chests are, of course, compulsory. None of the men are exactly what one might call dazzlingly attractive, but they do look like someone you might meet at work, or maybe in a local darts team. That’s not really meant to be a pejorative statement – one of the major appeals of glam is that, with a couple of exceptions, the principal exponents of it weren’t drop-dead gorgeous fashion models but rather fairly normal people who, with a bit of work and access to a decent make-up kit, could be made to look like stars.
It was, in other words, accessible, and that’s a key as to why it was so massively popular. John and Jane from AnySuburbanTown could easily buy into the look and feel of the movement with a bit of pocket money and the fortitude to brave the make-up counter at Woolworths or Boots. Much has been written about how glam – glitzy, energetic and fun – stands in stark contrast to the grey, depressing era of the UK in the early 70’s and, while much of that is true and glam was undoubtedly a reaction against the miserable feel of the era, its accessibility and the ease with which the look could be recreated should not be overlooked either. You didn’t need to spend a fortune to achieve a roughly similar appearance. Want to be a star? Stick a star on your face!
But of course there’s more to glam than just the glitter and sparkles so what of the music? “Ballroom Blitz” has us covered there too. There’s the shuffling drum intro as the band are asked “are you ready?” while they reply in such a ridiculously arch manner they could be auditioning for The Rocky Horror Show. There’s that pugnaciously energetic and restless guitar line that leads us up and down the length of the song, full of a non-stop energy that drives the momentum of the whole thing. It all sounds ever-so-slightly retro in a 50’s-updated-to-the-70’s sort of way but it never sounds remotely like any actual 50’s piece of music. It’s got that absolutely killer chorus, shrieked at the top of singer Brian Connolly’s range, and the moment of real genius where, after singing the title of the song, it drops down a few tones and repeats it. “And the girl in the corner said boy I want to warn you / It’ll turn into a ballroom blitz.” Beat. “Ballroom blitz”. It’s just an absolutely killer hook.
The whole thing is absurdly, gloriously camp and it’s a form of camp that’s being embraced by four resoundingly heterosexual men. Sexual ambiguity and gender fluidity were always a part of glam and it wasn’t something that was just restricted to the androgynously elven features of Marc Bolan or the pretty-boy look of David Bowie. Brickies could get away with it. When the lines, “I see a man at the back as a matter of fact / with eyes as red as the sun!” are slithered out during the first verse it’s one of the silliest, campest moments in the whole of the 70’s and it is simply wonderful. Connolly commits to his role as a Glaswegian Frank’n’Furter and he absolutely embodies it. Oh, and the single has one more defining characteristic of glam – it runs out of steam shortly before the whole thing splutters to an inelegant close. “Ballroom Blitz” is four minutes long. It needs to be about three and a half, or actually end rather than simply fading out. It’s a forgivable mistake but an unfortunate one all the same. But prior to that this is a spirited, fun, impishly addictive little earworm of a song. If you had to choose a song that summed up glam, you couldn’t do much better than “Ballroom Blitz”.
Interestingly, albums aren’t much of a feature of glam rock. T.Rex have Electric Warrior, of course, though it’s pretty much the only really well-regarded glam album. And that’s fine – glam was never a movement which had longevity as a built-in feature – it was always made to be disposable and throwaway. And right enough, beyond Electric Warrior glam is mostly a singles affair. All the great songs of glam – “Tiger Feet”, “Ballroom Blitz”, “Bang A Gong (Get It On)”, “Come On Feel The Noize” – are absolutely top-notch singles but nobody’s going searching for a deep cut on, let’s say, Slade’s third album. In that sense glam singles are a perfect fit for this project – the battles of glam are all staged in the singles charts and popularity is the only victory that matters. “Ballroom Blitz” made it to Number 2, only to be held off the top spot by Slade’s “Angel Fingers” in the first week (the remaining weeks it was kept off by “Eye Level” by Simon Park Orchestra, the theme tune to Amsterdam-based TV detective series Van Der Valk. Yes, really). Slade won the chart war. But by producing one of the absolute best glam singles of the era, it’s fair to say that The Sweet at the very least won a battle. All the teenage-drama, high-volume, smash-and-grab absurdities of glam captured in one absolutely killer single. If that’s not some kind of victory I don’t know what is.
What Else Happened in 1973?
That icon of music and architecture, the Sydney Opera House, is opened by Queen Elizabeth. The Rolling Stones raise $350,000 with a benefit concert for victims of the Nicaraguan earthquake, and Jagger personally tops that up with another $150,000 out of his own pocket. The Who release Quadrophenia and Bob Marley and the Wailers make their mark with Catch A Fire. David Bowie “retires” both himself and Ziggy Stardust, so that’s probably the last we’ll ever hear of him, right? Although this is also the year of Aladdin Sane, so maybe not… Pink Floyd release their magnum opus, Dark Side Of The Moon, and Stevie Wonder gives us Innervisions and the nigh-on perfect single “Superstition”. As portents of things to come CBGB’s opens its doors for the first time, and both AC/DC and Ultravox are founded. Billy Joel finds his audience with drunk-manager singalong Piano Man, and Lou Reed releases Berlin. The biggest song this year? Pleasingly not-terrible Rolling Stones single “Angie”, though number two is the buttock-clenchingly awful “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree” (the third most popular is the very song we’re discussing this time out, and fourth goes to last article entry Elton John, with “Crocodile Rock”). But far, far more important than any of that, I am born and have to suffer the indignity of entering the world while the UK Number 1 was “Long-Haired Lover From Liverpool” by sodding Little Jimmy Osmond. In the US it was the massively superior, and absolutely excellent, “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon, which is quite the qualitative gap.
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
In the UK any number of glam singles could have been shoe-in’s, including The Sweet’s own “Blockbuster”, T.Rex’s “Solid Gold Easy Action” and – yikes – Gary Glitter’s “Do You Wanna Touch Me? (Oh Yeah!)”, the latter of which was a no-go for what I hope are obvious reasons. And Suzie Quattro – not quite a perfect fit for glam – got to Number 2 with the awesomely great “Can The Can”. Marie Osmond’s sickeningly twee “Paper Roses” briefly alighted at Number 2 and remains quite, quite awful. In the U.S. “Duelling Banjos” from the movie Deliverance (de-del-eed-del-eed-ell-eed-ell-ummMM!) spend an inordinate time at Number 2 (held off by Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song”), proving novelty hits aren’t just a feature of the UK charts. Stevie Wonder again provides a possibility with “You Are The Sunshine Of My Love”, but we know he’s coming later on. And good old Wings spent three weeks at Number 2 with “Live And Let Die”. Duuum! Duuuuuh!
1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. The Kinks – “Lola”
3. Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
4. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
5. Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
6. The Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz”
7. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
8. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
9. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
10. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
11. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
12. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
13. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
14. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”