SOURCE: Russell Hall for Gibson.com
“Rock and roll with lipstick on.” That’s how John Lennon famously described ‘70s glam rock. The former Beatle might have added that, notwithstanding all the makeup and glitter, glam rock was filled with guitar-rock of the highest order. During its glory years, roughly the period from 1971 through 1975, the genre yielded a trove of classic albums. Today, glam’s influence reverberates in nearly every corner of the guitar-rock landscape.
Glam rock’s fashion sense can be traced back to rock’s vintage years—Little Richard, after all, wore eyeliner and mascara—but most people agree it was British songwriter-guitarist Marc Bolan who launched the concept as a full-on movement. Fronting his band, T.Rex, Bolan assailed the U.K. charts in the early ’70s with hits like “Hot Love,” “Metal Guru,” and “Telegram Sam.” Between 1971 and 1973, T.Rex released three albums—Electric Warrior, The Slider, and Tanx—that have since become lynchpins in glam rock’s rich history. Sometimes playing a Flying V, other times crafting his boogie riffs on a ’56 Les Paul, Bolan found endless permutations in what seemed, on the surface, like the simplest of approaches to guitar. The band’s lone stateside hit, “Bang a Gong (Get it On),” remains a staple of classic-rock radio.
No sooner had Bolan kick-started the glam movement when his close friend, David Bowie, pushed the trend to a higher level. Sporting a six-inch rooster-red crew-cut, shaved eyebrows, and the most flamboyant wardrobe in the history of rock, Bowie, in the guise of his fictional Ziggy Stardust character, took England by storm in 1972. In addition to penning exhilarating pop-rock tinged with cabaret flourishes, Bowie boasted one of rock’s greatest-ever sidemen, in guitarist Mick Ronson. Indispensable on many fronts, Ronson was the engine that gave Bowie’s songs their explosive power. Playing a ’68 Les Paul Custom (a “Black Beauty”) stripped to its natural finish, Ronson proved equally adept at celestial solos (“Moonage Daydream”), elegant leads (“Starman”) and searing power chords (“Cracked Actor”). Figuring prominently on five Bowie albums—beginning with 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World and concluding with 1973’s Pinups—Ronson will always be the artist who first springs to mind when “glam guitar” is mentioned.
Coinciding with the rise of Bolan and Bowie, and emphasizing the art-rock side of glam, were British upstarts Roxy Music. Centered on the quirky songwriting and idiosyncratic vocals of frontman Bryan Ferry, Roxy Music at first played up glam’s campy visual side, with members sporting leopard-skin vests, feather boas and sparkly suits of the sort Liberace might have worn. Musically, the band evolved quickly into glam’s most strikingly original unit, moving from experimental noise-rock (thanks mainly to early member Brian Eno) to a sophisticated sound governed by intricate ensemble playing. Key to Roxy Music’s success was guitarist Phil Manzanera, who often used a Firebird to craft dense sonic backdrops (“Out of the Blue”) and astral leads (“Could it Happen to Me?”). Over the course of three years and five albums, from 1972 to 1975, no band was as consistently inventive as Roxy Music.
While Bowie, Roxy Music, and (to some extent) Bolan were fickle with regard to style, Queen held firm to a hard-rock, guitar-driven sound throughout the glam era. Blessed with a brilliant singer in Freddie Mercury, the band often couched infectious melodies in monumental, riff-laden arrangements that packed a sledgehammer wallop. Playing a guitar his father had constructed with wood plundered from a 100-year-old fireplace, Brian May mixed scintillating leads (“Keep Yourself Alive”) with savagely searing rhythm work that sounded like Black Sabbath on steroids (“Ogre Battle”). Lest anyone believe that glam couldn’t occupy musical terrain as heavy as that of Deep Purple, Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin, Queen was there to prove otherwise.
While glam rock was primarily a British phenomenon—Slade, The Sweet, and Mott the Hoople all occupied a position on the movement’s periphery—three American bands left their marks on the genre’s early ’70s heyday. Beginning with their 1971 breakthrough album, Love it to Death, Alice Cooper (the original band) embarked on a four-year run that yielded a trove of hits and four sensational albums. Featuring one of rock’s greatest-ever guitar duos, in the persons of Michael Bruce and Glen Buxton, Alice Cooper was a virtual riff machine, generating such guitar-driven classics as “I’m Eighteen,” “School’s Out” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy” seemingly at will. Both Bruce and Buxton achieved their handiwork with Gibson SGs in-hand, with Bruce offering up infectious rhythm work and Buxton delivering leads that, in the words of bassist Dennis Dunaway, stung like an angry hornet.
Ironically, America contributed yet another great dual-guitar band to the glam movement, in the form of the New York Dolls. Using Les Paul Juniors to craft a sound reminiscent of mid-’60s Rolling Stones, guitarists Johnny Thunders and Sylvain Sylvain powered the band’s landmark debut with riff-driven nuggets such as “Personality Crisis” and “Trash.” No glam band better anticipated—and even helped fuel—the burgeoning punk movement that took hold a couple of years later.
Finally, there was KISS. Adopting comic-book personas, the New York City-based quartet delivered meat-and-potatoes rock and roll ready-made for live performance. Songs such as “Rock and Roll All Nite,” “Strutter,” and “Black Diamond” constituted riff-rock in its most elemental guise, while the occasional ballad (“Beth,” in particular) kept things from becoming entirely one-dimensional. With his Les Paul slung low, Ace Frehley powered KISS’ “party” vibe with gloriously smoking six-string finesse.
By the close of 1975, glam rock was mostly a spent force. Bolan hit a creative rut, Bowie moved on to “plastic soul” music, and Roxy Music began edging toward a style that would later give birth to the ‘80s New Romantic movement. The passing of Bolan in a fatal car crash in August 1977 seemed to put a hard, tragic end to hopes for a glam-rock resurgence.
Still, notwithstanding the glitter and mascara, glam’s muscular guitar-rock has since found its way into nearly every form of rock music that’s come in its wake. From the Sex Pistols to U2, from R.E.M. to Nirvana, from Guns N’ Roses to The Darkness, virtually every band at the forefront of a new trend has cited glam’s influence. In the end, it was the music—exultant, riff-driven and powered by some of rock’s finest Gibson players—that gave glam its seminal place in music history.