Friday, 8 August 2008

Did You Miss Me? (Yeah!)

Hello, hello? He’s back again. The imminent release of Paul Gadd (a.k.a. Gary Glitter) from a Vietnamese jail is being greeted with all the tabloid outrage that one has come to expect from the British media.

So since the moral high-ground is getting mighty crowded, let us instead praise Gary Glitter. Let’s celebrate the magnificence of his persona and work, particularly during his glory days in the 1970s.

Because he really was quite something. I wrote a bit about him in the book, Cult Rock Posters 1972-1982, that I did with Roger Crimlis a couple of years back. And I did so on the basis that you can’t look at rock imagery in the 1970s without referring to Gary Glitter: he was key to the decade’s attitude to stardom: self-made, self-perpetuated, self-conscious.

His breakthrough came in 1972 when ‘Rock and Roll (Part 2)’ finally made the charts, several months after it had been released. But it wasn’t his first record by any means. That had come way back in 1960, under the name of Paul Raven, and he’d spent much of the intervening twelve years dreaming of what it would be like to be a star. And working out how to make the most of his moment when it arrived.

In his autobiography, Glitter explained that he’d learnt at the leather-clad knee of rock legend Vince Taylor: ‘To him, a rock and roller’s image was everything, and he believed you shouldn’t let the public see you as your real self, because you’d never appear special to them again.’

But when that first hit did come, it was hardly what Gary had expected. The a-side was supposed to be ‘Rock and Roll (Part 1)’, not the instrumental flip, to which he contributed little beyond the occasional shout of ‘Hey!’ As Glitter Band member, John Springate, once pointed out: ‘He’s probably the only singer that’s ever made it on an instrumental.’

And, despite the gimmicky name that he’d invented for the record, it didn’t sell on image at all. Because no one knew who the artist was, nor what he looked like. It grew in the discos and fairgrounds of the nation long before the broadcast media picked up on him.

So come his first appearance on Top of the Pops, he went for it big time. The first stirrings of glam rock were being felt – Marc Bolan and Slade were hitting the charts regularly by now, David Bowie was starting his Ziggy Stardust phase and the Sweet were urging their songwriters to get a bit heavier on the guitars – and Gary invented a figure that would be the ultimate incarnation (or reductio ad absurdum, depending on taste) of the new style.

In so doing, he created an alternative name for the genre – glitter pop – as well as one of the most memorable characters in rock history. Much mocked, even at the time, for being too old, too fat and too hairy to be a convincing teen star, he was nonetheless exactly that. And much more.

Because there are a couple of things that seldom get mentioned about Gary Glitter. First, the records were fantastic. His first dozen singles are all impeccable pieces of bubblegum rock and roll. Produced by Mike Leander, they were pure rhythm and riff, with the instruments crushed so heavily together that it was virtually impossible to tell quite what the ingredients were – though the inclusion of John Rossall’s trombone underpinning the sax section was a key element.

And the second thing to remember is that Gary was a phenomenal live performer. In the 1980s and ‘90s the act became more and more of a self-parodic pantomime, but his was still a masterly stage presence, always in absolute command of his audience. And in the early Glitter years, when that audience comprised screaming fans rather than nostalgics, he was unbeatable. He’d learned his craft the hard way, with years in the German clubs and with a stint as the warm-up man on Ready Steady Go, and boy did the experience pay off. Similarly his use of television as a medium for his absurd yet endearing excess was unparalleled.

He was, in short, pretty much perfect as a pop star. Entirely within the tradition of rock and roll, while at the same time being unmistakeably original.

I know he’s got himself into some difficulties over the last decade, but let’s not pretend to be too shocked about this. Anyone who’s ever glanced at the history of rock should be able to rattle off the names of at least a dozen major stars who’ve had a penchant for under-aged sex; it does kinda go with the territory. Even if he were guilty of the offences for which he was sentenced in Vietnam (and I didn’t see the evidence, so I’m in no position to know), it doesn’t change the fact that he was one of the great showmen of rock and roll.

Remember him this way.

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