One of the peripheral pleasures of music is the refraction of history. Your perspective on, say, the decade of the 1980s could be found in hardcore’s anti-Reagan, anti-nuclear concerns, the racial and stylistic alliances of 2-tone, acid’s communal trance, freestyle’s electrifying amateurism, the weightless professionalism of corporate pop/rock, rap’s party rocking (first-wave), or rap’s limit-erasing kineticism (Golden Age). (Of course, each of those styles can be further subdivided into varying expressions of anger, joy, protest, sorrow, etc.)
It’s safe to say that Gary Glitter never really shook his formative ’50s. Born and raised in Banbury, a market town about 60 miles north of London, the man born Paul Gadd spent his childhood as the only Protestant boy in a Catholic school, living with his mother and grandparents, who ran a bed-and-breakfast that frequently entertained American guests. “The Americans who were around the guest house all the time were to me, with my bumpkin accent, very theatrical,” Glitter notes in his autobiography, Leader. “The loud, expansive ‘Hi, how ya doin’?’ and the huge gestures were like nothing else that we had seen or heard. We kids would listen to them from upstairs and try to imitate them.”
After a couple years spent with his brother in a London children’s home - by this time, his mother was running the business largely on her own and had hoped to relocate her family in just a few weeks’ time - Gadd turned onto that litany of first-gen rock & rollers and part-time schmaltz merchants, the names you’d find in a McCartney, Lennon or Davies biography: Elvis, Gene Vincent, Tommy Steele, Bill Haley. A personal favorite was Vince Taylor and the Playboys; Glitter cheerfully admitted Vince was “actually quite an awful singer, but his presentation was fantastic.” Glitter added, “He believed you shouldn’t let the public see you as your real self, because you’d never appear special to them again.”
After a busy few years in the late 1950s and early 1960s playing coffeehouses and clubs (keeping with his childhood conviction that, regardless of circumstance, he was born to be a leader, he always played under appellations like “Paul Russell and the Rebels” or “Paul Raven and the Bostons”), serving as the warm-up on Ready Steady Go!, meeting Mike Leander, and getting married, Glitter joined the rock diaspora and headed to Germany. He apprenticed there (and across the world) for over three years, losing some of the more obvious Vincentisms, discovering his German audience’s tolerance for whatever antics he could cook up, and essentially missing key British musical developments like folk, psychedelia, and the drug ingestion all that implied.
(Glitter’s removal from rock’s more serious progressions sets him apart from his ostensible British glam peers. T. Rex began with four albums of elfin rock. Slade’s debut included a Zappa composition and leaned heavily on hard rock and psych. Bowie’s early interests included folk and the dramatic arts.)
In 1972, the immortal David Essex canceled on some studio time, and producer Mike Leander (an arranger and producer at home in both pop and progressive camps; his highest-profile gig was arranging the Beatles’ preciously empathetic “She’s Leaving Home”) called in his old friend Glitter. A novice writer, Glitter took inspiration from, wonderfully enough, rock journalism: a Melody Maker retrospective titled “Rock ‘n’ Roll, Parts 1 & 2”. A guitarist of modest talents, Leander strung everything (save the bottom E) to A, birthing a sort of denatured brass sound, a sheet-metal whine. Inspiration for the percussion came from “Neanderthal Man,” a Kinks-ish goof from three future 10cc members: Glitter and Leander undertook a series of mixdowns of handclaps and woodblocks. The tape was riddled with imperfections, but Glitter rationalized it as a common occurrence in some of his favorite soul sides. Also, as a pudgy rocker - a seasoned 28 in an age of Bay City Rollers and Osmonds - he knew he didn’t have the luxury of waiting for ideal conditions.
Though he’d cooked up a potent rock reduction, a wickedly malleable modern sound, the accompanying text was a nostalgist’s carnival bark, an invocation of characters and situations that were up to 20 years out of date and kind of American to boot. There are references to Little Queenie and Jerry Reed’s U.S. Male; high school hops and blue suede shoes; pony tails and “far off days”. Thematically, it resembles one of my personal favorites, 1974’s “Beach Baby” by British studio concern First Class: a keening lament for what has passed, and a shaken fist at what dreams were promised. These were Glitter’s 1950s as well, a decade he aimed to correctly conquer this go around.
So the template is laid: a thudding, thuggish guide to a disappeared youth culture, marketed at the current kiddos, with Gary established as experienced tour guide. In one of those beautiful marketplace twists, it was the flip side - the same beat overlaid with nothing more than hooligan shouts and hollers - that became the bigger hit, a bit of an annoyance for Glitter, but one more than offset by the fact of his first Top Ten hit. No matter. Within seven years, he will have teased out some potent strains of nostalgia, fraternity and rock ‘n’ roll’s democratizing promise of stardom. To the past we go…