Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and its Legacy, Simon Reynolds (£25, Faber)
This should have been a book about David Bowie. In the four chapters devoted to Bowie, Reynolds’ writing comes alive; elsewhere it is turgid and dull, rather like some of the bands he rattles through in his quickfire discussions, potted biographies and critical assessments.
It starts well enough, with a chapter exploring Marc Bolan’s ascent to fame, then quickly moves to Bowie’s early life and career, before moving on to Alice Cooper. Alice Cooper? Well, yes. I have never heard Cooper called glam rock. Trash rock, proto-punk, theatrical rock, or – let’s face it – American shock pop rock. But never glam rock. In a similar vein, the rock & roll revivalist band Mud somehow get included in the chapter ‘Teenage Rampage’ which discusses Slade, Sweet, Suzi Quatro and Gary Glitter.
This kind of thing happens again and again. The raw power rock of Iggy Pop, the gender-bending thrash of Wayne County, the Stones pastiche of the New York Dolls are included. Bill Nelson’s art rockers Be-Bop Deluxe turn up, as do The Sensational Alex Harvey Band and Kraftwerk. Why? They simply don’t seem relevant.
Sometimes it seems to do with the company they keep: Iggy taken under Bowie’s wing; Bowie in Berlin; Bowie bequeathing a song (to Mott the Hoople). (Have you noticed anything yet?) At other times connections are unclear and tenuous, and bands such as Wizzard, Sparks and Queen, are hastily despatched in a few paragraphs, so that we can get back to David Bowie.
The book really gets silly at the end, with a section called ‘Aftershocks’, where Reynolds tries to compile ‘A Partial Inventory of Glam Echoes and Reflections’, hastily cruising from 1975 to 2016 in under 80 pages. It’s a bit of a marathon shoehorn exercise, with even more preposterous links to glam as it recedes into history.
Reynolds books about ‘the raptures of rock’ (Blissed Out) and post-punk (Rip It Up and Start Again), are exemplary and exciting examples of writing about music. Shock and Awe isn’t, it’s a book struggling – in the wake of David Bowie’s death, which is discussed in the closing pages – to cohere, to find a theoretical umbrella to cover all the music Reynolds seems to think he should discuss. It could and should have been a book about David Bowie. It could have been brilliant. Unfortunately it isn’t.