in Profiles | 09 SEP 98
Featured in
Issue 42

The Glitter People

Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine reveals the central role of homosexuality in British Pop from the ’50s through to the ’80s

in Profiles | 09 SEP 98

'How would you like to dress yourself?'

'Mostly bits from jumble sales - I can always guarantee chic, the unusual, casual sports, glamorous and sensational outfits from jumbles. Very cheap. I love to feel that one can dress unconsciously with a bargain. Definitely I prefer glitter and colour - the sombre doesn't suit me.'

Andrew Logan interviewed by Derek Jarman, Interview, April 1973

1970s Retro has become so overdetermined that you'd have thought it impossible for anyone to say anything new, but Todd Haynes breezes it. Part unabashed homage, part film à clef, part inflamed dialectic, part delicious frivolity, Velvet Goldmine (1998) is an astonishingly empathetic inhabitation of a lost pop moment - Glam Rock - that, like all the best histories, makes you realize that you know less about it than you thought, or might care to remember.

Here the past is not set dressing, but the heart of the film itself: how accurately do you remember what happened? If you can't, how much is this a betrayal? How much do you take the freedoms of youth for granted? How does it feel to grow older if you've done it all in your 20s? How do you smuggle the past out of the museum or, even worse, the advert, and make it impact on the present and future? Central contemporary pop problems, these, but then Velvet Goldmine is nothing less than a break for freedom by a pop culture obsessive: this is what inspired me, this is what inspired those who inspired me; let me inspire you.

Well, that's one wound opened up, but Haynes is nothing if not a confrontational film-maker, and Velvet Goldmine goes right for the jugular in exposing gender fear as a major stumbling block in today's media culture. This is where the pre-hype may cause the film problems, despite the presence of Ewan MacGregor as Kurt Wild, a convincing Iggy Pop/Kurt Cobain figure. The film gleefully rams home the central role of homosexuality, not only in Glam, but in British pop from the ’50s through the ’80s: a homosexuality that is not separatist but informs a much wider gender debate, in the Glam spirit that if there is to be sexual freedom, it must be for all. Or, as David Johansen once quipped: 'I'm trisexual; I'll try anything'.

It would be otiose to make a film about homosexuality if it were not still a major social issue: viz. the current struggle to get the parity ruling of sex at 16 through a hostile House of Lords. Five years into a mealy-mouthed lad culture, Velvet Goldmine is a highly provocative act, but it is both indicated by a proper reading of Glam history and a contemporary cultural polemic: if you're going to source the period - like the current Fiat TV advert aimed at the young female market, whose soundtrack is 'Mama We're All Crazee Now' - then here's the reality, the content behind the style.

Velvet Goldmine rightly places David Bowie/Brian Sands' story at the heart of its plot, for no other artist so defines the period (except perhaps Roxy Music, whose Bryan Ferry [Brian Fairy] appears as a major supporting character). If there is one song that initiated Glam, then it is Bowie's 'Queen Bitch', released at the very end of 1971: dedicated to the Velvet Underground (for this was at the beginning of workable postmodern aesthetics), the song encodes, just like T. Rex's 'Elemental Child' (1970), the moment when post-hippie acoustics explode into teen sex electricity, courtesy of Mick Ronson's vaselined guitar.

The camp explications of the lyric - 'She's so swishy in her satin and tat / Her frock coat and bipperty bopperty hat/ Oh god! I could do better than that' - were backed up by Bowie in February 1972, when he announced to Michael Watts of Melody Maker: 'I'm gay and always have been'. At one stroke Bowie opened the floodgates: five years after the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality (by the Sexual Offences Act 1967), the subject was mainlined into a volatile pop market already accelerated by T. Rex's two monster 1971 hits, 'Hot Love' and 'Get It On'.

Did it harm Bowie's career? Did it heck: the next year he had his breakthrough single, 'Starman', and album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars; his straight boy fantasy recreation, Mott the Hoople's All The Young Dudes; and his major tribute time, Lou Reed's Transformer and Iggy and the Stooges' Raw Power. Bowie successfully injected several themes into British pop culture: space and stardom as an ideal state; teenage sexual extremity and ambiguity, and chameleon-like mutations of image within constantly shifting electronic environments.

Just as Bowie explicitly sourced the hardcore, delinquent end of American rock - the Stooges, the Velvet Underground - so the traffic went the other way, with the New York Dolls, the Raw Power Stooges, and the club scenes of New York and Los Angeles. Despite the sheer vigour of the Rodney's/Mercer Arts/Max's crowds, Glam never went nationwide and indeed, it marks the moment when the British and the American charts began the divergence that still holds today. Central to this is the androgyny that still remains a constant feature of British popular culture, and the fear of homosexuality that still stains the US, and which Kurt Cobain so fearlessly exposed.

In Britain, Glam was the principal pop narrative. During the latter part of 1972 and all of 1973, Top of the Pops was mandatory viewing, as the showcase for Bowie, Roxy, the Sweet, Slade, Gary Glitter, Alvin Stardust and Mud, all of them trying their damnedest to top each other in garish visual overload. Roxy stunned the weenies with a hyper-intense lipsynch for 'Street Life' (1973), while The Sweet electrified the nation with their drippingly camp enaction of the famous intro of 'Ballroom Blitz' - bricklayers recast as rent boys. Like many bandwagon jumpers, this manipulated group got it exactly right: their run of hits from 'Blockbuster' (early 1973) to 'The Sixteens' (Summer 1974) capture the true fluctuations of Glam's trashy heart.

Another idea that Bowie put into British pop was encoded in the Fall of Ziggy, a genuine phenomenon destroyed by Bowie himself at the Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973: Velvet Goldmine kicks off with a similar device, upping the ante to a simulated contract killing onstage (after which Sands disappears, to be found by Arthur Stuart, a gay glam fan turned journalist ten years on, in the flashbacks which comprise most of the film). Implicit in the idea of transformation - signalled by the stellar imagery that peppers Glam (like Disco a few years later) - is the held-over psychedelic warning: that you can go too far out, that you can never find your way home. Not for nothing had Bowie carefully studied Pink Floyd's psych poet maudite, Syd Barrett.

Having defined this paradigm, Bowie could escape it: others could not. The story of Jobriath is another index of this period's hidden currents: heavily hyped by Elektra Records in association with New York pop impresario, Jerry Brandt, Jobriath was to be the American David Bowie - spacey, homosexual, expert in the Golden Age of Hollywood dynamic then so powerful, a harbinger changeling. Creating big waves as the first openly promoted gay man in US rock, Jobriath almost immediately fell to earth on the release of his first album, when even the sympathetic Interview - whose issues from this period are a window into its soul - was moved to state: 'Being a "fairy" these days just isn't enough'. Within a season, it was all over for Glam itself.

In Velvet Goldmine, the ’80s sees Brian Sands transformed yet again into corporate rocker Tommy Stone - a sharp parody of Bowie's crooning 'China Girl' persona. To reinvent himself, Sands/Stone has had to deny his homosexuality, a refusal to acknowledge himself or his past in the conformist society within which Stuart's own personal isolation is only part of a more general malaise. The year of the film's present, 1984, is the year when the full AIDS hysteria broke in the US and the UK and this is implicit in the monotones of Stuart's apartment - a refrigerated monastic cell.

Abused as a child for his sexuality, Stuart once found salvation through the thrashing antics of the Flaming Creatures (played by Placebo, whose covers of T. Rex's '20th Century Boy' (1973) and Cockney Rebel's 'O'Tumbling Down' (1972) become visual tours de force). He lost his ability to dream but, due to a somewhat confusing sequence of events, he is reminded of who he was, and how that could impact on who he could be. In a film that locates pop as a haven for the outsider - just watch Placebo running through the lightning fast oppositions that end in: 'which is why we prefer: exceptions to types' - the ultimate aphorism hits home.

Haynes finally defines Glam - embodied in MacGregor as Iggy/Kurt - as 'a freedom that you can allow yourself, or not'. Today's pop and rock is all too often a simulacrum of past glories: homogenised sonically and culturally by fitful multinational agencies. Conformism, nostalgia and self-censorship are rampant, ignoring music's time-honoured penchant for prophecy, mutation and liberation. As befits its subject, Velvet Goldmine synthesises its contradictions into pure energy: the soul of a plastic style; the authenticity of artificiality; heterosexual energy unlocked by gay input. Stressing the imagined over the experienced, the phantasmagorical over the mundane, Haynes has orchestrated a total celebration of difference, asking the age old musical question: not why, but why not?