Tag Archives: Tony Visconti

➤ The Bowiesconti proxy has spoken: only second-hand interviews from here to eternity

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The Bowiesconti proxy: silent pop star plays puppet in the hands of his ventriloquist producer Visconti

❚ SHOCK HORROR REVELATION in today’s Times. David Bowie has been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous though seems to have abstained from drink 23 years ago. This is the bonus ball among many truths we’ve been getting closer to since the star’s 66th birthday comeback bombshell on Tuesday. Another is that he will “never do another interview again” and this itself comes from the mouth of his lifelong 68-year-old friend and producer Tony Visconti who is giving this interview to The Times. Visconti has become Bowie’s Voice on Earth, we’re told. And by the end of the two-page read, we’re so far into Smash Hits territory – Bowie’s fave TV shows are The Office and The Shield – that you’re gritting your teeth at the prospect of another 30 years of interview-by-proxy.

➢ Meanwhile here are five revelations we gleaned from today’s Times interview with the Bowiesconti proxy:

1 – A second Bowie single may be issued before the album The Next Day is released on March 11. And a second album is almost inevitable. “What he wants to do is make records. He does not want to tour,” says his Voice on Earth.

2 – An exclusive list of the 14 album tracks shows all-original material embracing adult themes of “tyrants, spies and soldiers” to reflect Bowie’s recent reading matter, as well as “love in the internet age”. Titles include Dirty Boys (about glam-rockers), Valentine’s Day (about a mass murderer), Set the World on Fire (about an unnamed female nightclub singer) while the track The Next Day is itself a gruesome number in which a man is hung, drawn and quartered in stereo (remember the final scene in Braveheart?) so you might have to look away now and have a lie-down.

Braveheart, movie, Mel Gibson

HDQ in Braveheart 1995: Mel Gibson takes it like a man

3 – During Bowie’s cocaine-fuelled Berlin years recalled on the new single, Where Are We Now?, his Voice says: “We’d have both been dead if we’d carried on.” Visconti stopped taking coke in 1984. Both men went to AA and we’re invited to deduce that Bowie has passed his 23rd anniversary without a drink, placing his temperance decision at 1989, year of the Tin Machine album, itself an expression of musical regeneration.

4 – Since his heart op in 2004 rumours have circulated that Bowie also has cancer. “They’re categorically not true,” says the Voice. “He is incredibly fit because he takes care of himself. He looks rosy cheeked.”

5 – Big letdown for the gayers: while living in Berlin David and Iggy had separate bedrooms in their seven-room Hauptstrasse apartment. Did their relationship go beyond friendship? “No, absolutely not.” Aw, c’mon. What about the Ziggy years? “I never witnessed him with a boyfriend,” Bowiesconti declares. “He said Ziggy stardust was a persona.”

After slapping us with this big wet fish, perhaps Tony Visconti can rehearse a few laughs for his next major interview as the proxy David Bowie, otherwise Jonathan “The Joker” Ross will hog the limelight as usual.

JAN 13 UPDATE

➢ New from the Sunday Telegraph interview with the Voice on Earth:
Despite all reports to the contrary, Visconti reveals that Bowie may actually perform these songs live. “He doesn’t want to tour any more. He’s had enough of it. But he hasn’t ruled out that he might do a show.”

Will there be another record? “We recorded 29 titles. We have at least four finished songs that could start the next album,” says Visconti. “If all goes well, we will be back in the studio by the end of the year. He’s back. Bowie has found out what he wants to do: he wants to make records. Nothing else.”

➢ Jan 13: David Bowie secures first Official Top 10 Chart single in two decades – Arriving at Number 6, Where Are We Now? becomes his highest charting hit since Absolute Beginners reached Number 2 in 1986.
➢ Shock and awe verdicts on Bowie’s born-again masterpiece
➢ Riddle of the train Bowie could not have taken in
Where Are We Now?

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2013 ➤ Shock and awe verdicts on Bowie’s born-again masterpiece

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❚ SURPRISE WAS THE SECRET WEAPON. Even the star’s longtime London publicists were told only on Friday. For months there must have been “sudden death” clauses in his 35 collaborators’ contracts to deter them from breathing a word about the 14 songs on his first album in a decade, or about yesterday’s haunting new single, realised in a resourcefully resonant music video that navigates those fertile but often fraught landmarks from Berlin in the 70s as if in Google Street View… every one a turning point… ghosts from the tragic city’s Cold-War hinterland as well as the singer’s own.

Driven by piano and synth, the song is a bittersweet elegy. Its poignant title asks Where Are We Now? and is rendered with suitable despair, while the accompanying images reinforce the singer’s seemingly mournful contemplations on “walking the dead”. Yet all comes clearer with repeated viewing when the self-deprecating humour brightens your moist eyes. The old fella’s tremulous voice, eroded half an octave lower than we remember, is courageously confessing with dignity and relief what all buddhists seek in the journey through life – enlightenment. There may be melancholy in his acceptance of mortality but it is unsentimental. “As long as there’s sun / As long as there’s rain” and crucially “As long as there’s fire”, then “You know, you know”.

 Where Are We Now? , David Bowie, comeback,Next Day, video,Tony Oursler ,Tony Visconti

Bowie and soulmate as one cuddly toy: their faces are projected onto the puppet-like dummy, Berlin’s Reichstag in the city tour is projected behind them during Tony Oursler’s video for Where Are We Now? (© Iso/Columbia)

The news broke at 5am in the UK (midnight in New York) on his 66th birthday, and the world’s media suddenly received the good news like a shot in the arm. No, Bowie had not retired, laid low after heart surgery in 2004, but was back with a bang. By breakfast-time BBC Radio’s flagship current affairs show Today rushed a critic into the studio to enthuse about the new ballad as legacy from Bowie’s so-called Berlin Trilogy of albums, 1976-79, produced by Tony Visconti, as is the new album. The veteran anchor John Humphrys empathised with a “weariness” he detected in the voice.

By 3pm the single was topping the British iTunes chart and by midnight the next day’s national press were trumpeting their finest prose stylists in spreads devoted to the last of the godlike popstars who define their era. This is the sizzle The Thin White Duke still generates. If Mr Humphrys thinks Bowie was sounding his age, in The Times Caitlin Moran thinks the song shows every year of Bowie’s age beautifully…

THE FOXED VOICE

➢ Caitlin Moran in The Times says Bowie arrived out of retirement overnight, like unexpected snow
It is a worn voice, a gentle voice, a voice with small burn-holes, slight foxing. Of all the things, it most reminded me of David Attenborough narrating some extraordinary murmuration of starlings, or a thaw. A voice that has a superior grasp of how large the universe is; a voice that has come to appreciate the value in simply being alive.

THE LIVING POET

➢ Poet Alan Jenkins blogs at The Times Literary Supp and shares his elation at the arrival of a masterpiece
Almost from the first and unfailingly ever since, Bowie has been a byword for musical boldness and invention. His instinctive power as a lyricist has perhaps been somewhat overlooked – his characteristic note a combination of the shy and portentous, of confessional detail and unembarrassed declamation, of raw truthfulness and authentically barmy allegorizing. Where…? takes us haltingly into personal history and personal mortality, distilling from its simple, beautiful progressions an atmosphere of bewildered sorrow that is not entirely dispelled by the tender-stoical declarations of the final moments.

 Where Are We Now? , David Bowie, comeback,Next Day, video,Tony Oursler ,Tony Visconti

Quavering voice and unflattering close-up: pension-age Bowie ruminates on the passing of time in his stark yet tender lyrics (© Iso/Columbia)

THE RETRO MUSIC

➢ Neil McCormick in the Telegraph declares the perfect comeback
Lush, stately, beautifully strange, weaving resonant piano chords, decaying synths and echoing drums around a simple chord progression and a weary, tenderly understated, quietly defiant vocal, the ageing Starman reminisces about days in Berlin… It is to the slightly wonky, retro-futuristic ambience of late Seventies rock electronica that Where Are We Now? returns … It was a musical style influenced by one-time collaborator Brian Eno and once heralded for its icy futurism, but now it sounds familiar enough to be instantly accessible yet oddly contemporary. Retro synths are all the rage once again, early electronica deemed to have a quality of human warmth often absent in hi-tech digital pop.

THE SELF PROMOTER

➢ Alexis Petridis in The Guardian on an object lesson in record promotion
The main reason it’s created such a fuss is simply because no one knew. It’s incredible that, in an era of gossip websites and messageboard rumours, one of the biggest stars in the world, presumed retired, can spend two years making a new album without the merest whisper of it reaching the public. But somehow he did it… Whatever The Next Day sounds like [the album due on March 11], he’s turned it into the biggest release of 2013 by the simple expedient of doing absolutely nothing other than make an album. Furthermore, he’s managed to maintain the myth and mystique that was always central to his stardom and his art in a world where rock and pop music has almost no myth or mystique left.

THE WHISPERING SAGE

➢ At the Quietus Chris Roberts asks: After a decade of artlessness Bowie is back. So why are so many clowns complaining?
The delicately-sung single, Where Are We Now?, is not “instant”, or flash. It is not a sad by-numbers attempt to recapture old glories. It is very much Bowie, but it is a quivering ghost of a Bowie song, the imprint of his fabulous past gently laid over a forlorn, elegiac yet life-affirming drape of meditations and reveries about missing the old Europe and, possibly, youth. It is becoming of the man, and of the star. And it is becoming obvious that, after all this time, he wouldn’t have let it out of the house if he didn’t believe it would add to his body of work and polish his mythology. It is spectral, frail, yearning without chest-beating, candid in its few, clipped phrases and sighs concerning the heart’s filthy lessons. The crooning peacock is now a whispering sage.

BOWIE’S BERLIN SIGHTS DECODED

➢ Helen Pidd, The Guardian’s former Berlin correspondent, helps identify key Berlin landmarks in Bowie’s video
In the 20s Potsdamer Platz was the place to be, full of sexy lesbians in smoking jackets and the sort of boys Christopher Isherwood fancied. Then we bombed it. After the war, the East Germans built the Berlin Wall around it, placing it in a no man’s land. If you’ve seen Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire, you’ll remember the old man sitting on a sofa in what purported to be the deserted Potsdamer Platz…

 Where Are We Now? , David Bowie, comeback,Next Day, video,Tony Oursler ,Tony Visconti

Bowie as art student: ironic coda to the video when he looks in at the auto repair shop beneath the Berlin apartment where he once lived (© Iso/Columbia)

The archetypal Berlin art studio-cum-squat: This is a modern cliche of the German capital. Bowie, in his enigmatic slogan T-shirt, looks like any other foreign immigrant who has come to Berlin to “do my art” (read: go to Berghain and get an asymmetric haircut). Like many of the city’s young pretenders, he is carrying a notebook and no doubt tells people at squat parties he is a writer.

ECHOES OF EXTRAS?

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❏ And in lighter vein… More than one fan has noticed that parts of the new melody bear a resemblance to Pathetic Little Fat Man, Bowie’s improvised tribute to Ricky Gervais in his BBC sitcom Extras in 2006 (above)

Where Are We Now? , David Bowie, comeback,Next Day

Banjo-man! Exclusive birthday photograph (Jimmy King )

➢ Future plans and memorabilia at the newly rejuvenated official Bowie website

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1970 ➤ Where to draw a line between glitter and glam – naff blokes in Bacofoil versus starmen with pretensions

David Bowie, Starman, 1972, Top of the Pops, tipping point, BBC

The moment the earth tilted July 6, 1972: During Starman on Top of the Pops, David Bowie drapes his arm around the shoulder of Mick Ronson. Video © BBC

❚ WHO DARES DEFINE GLAM ROCK? Almost nobody agrees what it means, even as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of glam’s birth, but that isn’t going to stop many of its prime movers lighting a few squibs in a thrilling and meticulous Ten Alps documentary titled The Glory of Glam†† across two hours on BBC Radio 2 tonight and tomorrow (iPlayer for a further week). This thorough analysis has been badly needed since the term glam became a rubbish-bin into which gets thrown anything brash, theatrical and shiny – such as shock-rock, metal and goth. The problem glam suffers is that the tat needs to be accounted for, then set aside, especially after you’ve waded through yards of tosh at Wikipedia penned by American sociologists out of their depth in this entirely British phenomenon.

Glam rock came cloaked in sequins, satin and unmasculine flamboyance. Its touchstones – alienation, decadence, self-invention and sexual transgression – most certainly went on to shape the UK’s fashion pop of the 80s, and glam’s pioneers were pillars of inspiration to the New Romantics. Even though glam banished the guitar solo and the drum break, it fuelled as much a fashion revolution as a musical one, if not more so, which many of its own practitioners didn’t get a handle on by merely pulling on their platform boots and zany top hats. Glam had deeper resonances than a sprinkling of glitter, and reached back into the traditions of theatre and Hollywood.

Noddy Holder, Slade

The pantomime version: mutton-chopped Noddy Holder of Slade

The Blitz Kids see no confusion. They draw a firm line between the distinctly fashion-driven imperatives of their own New Romantic style and the grotesque pantomime of the worst 70s glam-rockers. Certainly the Blitz Kids of 1980 admitted no connection with the chart-storming excess confected that year by Queen, whose origins lay in 60s psychedelia and heavy metal, still less make mention of Noddy Holder of Slade in the same breath as Ultravox, Visage, Depeche Mode or Spandau Ballet.

The 80s musician Gary Kemp, who narrates tonight’s documentary, writes in today’s Guardian: “I could spot the uncomfortable look on the face of a hefty northern bass player bursting from a turkey-foil jumpsuit worn simply to sell records. With Bowie, it was different: he had integrity. An effeminate, pale young man in eye shadow had somehow connected with working-class flash.”

Blitz fashion god Stephen Linard dismisses Slade’s avalanche of chart hits: “Even at 12, you knew Bolan and Bowie were special. Slade were just for fun, like Sweet and Gary Glitter – theirs was party music. The only reason I’d bought the first Gary Glitter album was because it was covered in glitter. Come on! Slade were hairy oiks from Birmingham, hideous sideburns, going bald on top. I plastered Roxy Music all over my bedroom because they were glamour. They had real transsexuals on the cover of their album. Everybody assumed Bryan Ferry’s girlfriend Amanda Lear was one!”

The indispensable Allmusic hits the mark when discussing Hunky Dory: “a kaleidoscopic array of pop styles, tied together only by Bowie’s sense of vision: a sweeping, cinematic mélange of high and low art, ambiguous sexuality, kitsch, and class . . . A touchstone for reinterpreting pop’s traditions.” There’s the nub of it: artsy pretension is out there a length ahead of beer-swilling mayhem. Any innovator at the Blitz club never loses sight of the origins of glam, whether in Bowie’s training with performance artist Lindsay Kemp, Eno’s experiments with electronica, Ferry as a walking ad for Antony Price’s luminous suits, and even Bolan’s obsessive eye for style instilled as a mod. To cap it all, in photographer Mick Rock’s opinion: “Bowie was good at being provocative, but the beauty was his lightness of touch.”

We are of course bang in the middle of the hoary old music-industry debate about art versus profits, innovation versus pomp.

Fortunately clarity is at hand. The next week boasts two landmarks on the timeline of pop that signal the dawn of glam and celebrate its immortals. July 1 is the 40th anniversary – the day in 1970 when Marc Bolan recorded the first glam-rock single, Ride a White Swan, though it took till year’s end and Top of the Pops to boost it to No 2 on the chart in January. A youthquake then erupted.

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Ziggy sings: “So I picked on you-oo-oo”

By popular vote, however, the more resonant date is July 6, 1972. This Thursday is burnt into the souls of the specific generation who were to make good as popstars in the 1980s.

Songwriter and Spandau Ballet guitarist Gary Kemp speaks for many when he writes of the creation of Ziggy Stardust: “David Bowie’s seminal performance of Starman on Top of the Pops in 1972 became the benchmark by which we would for ever judge pop and youth culture. It was a cocksure swagger of pouting androgyny that appealed to pubescent working-class youth across Britain – a Britain still dominated by postwar austerity and weed-filled bomb sites. For us, the Swinging 60s had never happened; we were too busy watching telly.”

Kemp goes on: “The object of my passion had dyed orange hair and white nail varnish. Looking out from a tiny TV screen was a Mephistophelean messenger from the space age, a tinselled troubadour to give voice to my burgeoning sexuality. Pointing a manicured finger down the barrel of a BBC lens, he spoke to me: ‘I had to phone someone, so I picked on you.’ I had been chosen. Next to him, in superhero boots, his flaxen-haired buddy rode shotgun with a golden guitar. As my singing Starman draped his arm around him, I felt a frisson of desire and wanted to go to their planet. I had witnessed a visitation from a world of glitter. That night, I planned my future. After all, ‘If we can sparkle,’ he’d told me, ‘he may land tonight’.”

Bear in mind that at the time of White Swan, in 1970, our two pop idols had both been aged 23, and our pubescent audience of future Blitz Kids, typically born around 1959, were then 11. So they were rising to 13 by 1972 — detonation year for the glam explosion. That was when the careers of Roxy Music, Iggy Pop, Elton John and Alice Cooper all went critical in the UK, when Andrew Logan threw his first Alternative Miss World Contest, paving the way for the stage musical The Rocky Horror Show the following year [currently touring the UK till Dec 2010].

The Starman’s earth landing is the most influential song of Bowie’s many influential songs because it is seared on the memory of that generation of TV viewers. From Morrissey and Marr to Ian McCulloch, Neil Tennant and Siouxsie Sioux — all say this day changed their lives. For Michael Clark, who went on to lead an all-male dance company, it was a revelation because he’d only seen men touch each other when they were fighting, and suddenly he realised that there might be “kindred spirits” out there . . .

Bowie, Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory, Glam rock

Bowie confronts camp: album sleeves for The Man Who Sold the World, and Hunky Dory

❚ MARC BOLAN AND DAVID BOWIE ARE INDISPUTABLY the progenitors of this flamboyant art-rock musical style at the dawn of the 70s, along with the Svengali who can claim much credit, Tony Visconti, the Brooklyn-born musician and producer who worked with the young Bolan and Bowie in London, with honourable mentions for Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno for the early Roxy Music. These voices are heard in the Radio 2 doc.

Angie Bowie says: “David and Marc liked each other very much and at certain times were great friends, but they were also bitter rivals.” As teenagers in the mid-60s they were both image-conscious suburban mods, then hippies, who experimented with styles from blues to psychedelia in search of their own pop moment. They first met while painting their shared manager’s office, and their paths constantly crossed at Bowie’s Beckenham Arts Lab and especially at Visconti’s flat in Earl’s Court, west London.

Bowie himself rather revelled in the rivalry, in May 1970 spoofing Bolan’s vocal style on Black Country Rock, a track on his album The Man Who Sold the World, recorded a couple of months before Bolan’s pivotal Swan. On the sleeve notes to Sound+Vision, Bowie recalls the day Bolan provided musical support while recording his Prettiest Star single at Trident Studios that January: “We had a sparring relationship… I don’t think we were talking to each other that day. I remember a very strange attitude in the studio. We were never in the same room at the same time. You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife.”

Both singers toyed with sexual ambiguity. While Bolan prettified himself into T.Rex, Bowie’s new wife Angie encouraged experiments in androgyny that led to the UK album cover where he wears what he called a “man dress” (though this image was replaced for the earlier US release in 1970).

T.Rex, Marc Bolan, Mickey Finn, David Sanders,

Transformed into T.Rex for the 1970 album: Bolan sports his new electric guitar, square-jawed and white-faced with Mickey Finn, in the Sussex garden of the photographer David Sanders’ mum

In their day, these were shock tactics – which still trigger fireworks in the art-versus-profits argument. So-called glam-rockers such as Slade and Sweet and Glitter weren’t into sexual role-play so much as pantomime and clowning, despite their figure-hugging satin.

What puts the music of Roxy Music, David Bowie and T.Rex in a different league? The elephant in the room is sex or, rather, sexual subversion. What is rock and roll if not almost entirely about that vertical expression of the famous horizontal desire? What is adolescence if it’s not at least partly about curiosity, confusion and the testing of boundaries? There’s no point in discussing glam rock without mentioning its implicit androgyny and the dangerous allure of unthreatening, feminine young men to adolescent audiences.

Kemp declares boldly in today’s Guardian of his Starman moment: “The first time I fell in love it was with a man.” And he notes: “Gender-bending was suddenly far more rebellious than drugs and violence.”

Brave words from any popstar in any era. Suzi Quatro observes in the radio doc: “All those men in eye shadow – you have to be very comfortable with your sexuality to play with it.” Even so, when a grown-up family man admits to an adolescent pash for a fey young man, it doesn’t necessarily make him gay, but it does take courage to admit.

❚ DESPITE THE CLIMATE OF PERMISSIVENESS the 60s had beqeathed, the word gay was taboo in public in 1970, even though the iconography was pretty blatant. As T.Rex, Bolan shed his folksy heritage for white-faced androgyny when twinned with Mickey Finn on their first album cover. Bowie adopted a Greta Garboesque pose for his portrait on Hunky Dory, and wore the “man-dress” by the Mayfair tailor Michael Fish on The Man Who Sold the World.

Bowie’s later admissions of “bisexuality” are well documented. In 2002 he told the American music magazine Blender: “I had no problem with people knowing I was bisexual.” In David Buckley’s 1999 book Strange Fascination, Bowie said that when he met his first wife, Angela Bowie, in 1969 they were “fucking the same bloke” and Buckley claimed the marriage had been cited as one of convenience for both.

Marc Bolan, T.Rex, boa

Sexual ambiguity: Bolan adopts the boa for T.Rex

There’s little or no contemporary evidence of Bolan’s now known bisexuality, except the eye witnesses. His manager during the late 60s, Simon Napier-Bell lays it out in the biog, The Rise and Fall of a 20th Century Superstar by Mark Paytress (1992, revised 2006).

“Marc was more gay than straight. He had no hangups about sex,” says Napier-Bell, who lived in Lexham Gardens in west London at the time. “[Bolan] used to come round on the early-morning bus from his parents’ prefab in Wimbledon and get in bed with me in the morning. How can you manage anybody and not have a relationship with them? The sexual borders had completely collapsed by that time. Straight people thought they shouldn’t be straight. In fact, in the 60s, it was pretty difficult to have any sort of relationship with someone without it being sexual.”

An extreme perspective, perhaps, but “anything goes” was the motto for the coterie who subscribed to the Swinging London melting pot of hallucinatory drugs and louche morals.

In addition, bisexuality was growing in fashionability in the wake of the historic changes brought about by the Sexual Offences Act of 1967. Before then in the UK, gay activity was a jailable offence and hence highly blackmailable. It’s no coincidence that in 1971, a couple of years after New York’s Stonewall riots, the Campaign for Homosexual Equality emerged as the leading English gay rights organisation by staging its first march ending in a Trafalgar Square rally. By 1972 the explosion of glam-rock coincided with very visible expressions of gay liberation in the UK.

None of which implies that massed ranks of gay popstars leapt into the charts, though the totally closeted record business did ease the door open by a chink, whereas previously any hint of gay would spell death to a band’s career. The English star Dusty Springfield was extraordinarily brave at the age of 31 to entrust her coming out in 1970 to Ray Connolly in the Evening Standard, in an intense interview that remains a compelling read. (Ray told Shapersofthe80s: “I was a big fan and I actually didn’t want to ask her. She pushed me into it, saying, ‘There’s something else you should ask now… about the rumours’.”) It took Elton John till he was 41 to come out, first getting married in 1984 and divorcing four years later.

In the Radio 2 doc, Gene Simmons from Kiss sums up the social change that characterised the early 70s: “The great thing about glam was whether people thought you were gay or not didn’t matter. More was done to further different sexual preferences onstage in a rock band than all the commentaries from serious people, because there onstage, the way the old court jesters used to do in silly outfits, they were actually doing something serious, which in essence was saying, Be tolerant. The cool thing was that it was all cool.”

As for our immortals . . . Sadly we lost Bolan to a car crash when he was only 29. Had he been alive today he’d be the same age as Bowie, 63, give or take a few months. It’s challenging to speculate which of them might be shining the more brightly today as our totem of pop culture.

†† FOOTNOTE – This website has no connection with the makers of The Glory of Glam, and has since discovered the credit goes to producer Des Shaw and editor Chris O’Shaughnessy. If this documentary doesn’t win a Sony radio award, there’s no justice.

➢ 2013 update: Glam! The Performance of Style runs at Tate Liverpool Feb 8–May 12, 2013 – Well worth a day trip to Liverpool, this superbly curated exhibition explores 70s glam style and sensibility across the whole spectrum of painting, sculpture, installation art, film, photography and performance. The in-depth survey comes in two halves, drawing a clear distinction between the playful subversion of pop culture that characterised the British glam wave, and the American, which was driven much more profoundly by gender politics.

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