VARIOUS ARTISTS – Oh You Pretty Things: Glam Queens & Street Urchins 1970-1976

There are few things as ubiquitous with the 1970s as glam rock. The first half of the decade’s music was shaped by David Bowie in his Ziggy and Aladdin pomp, Marc Bolan’s colourful pixie-like antics on Top of The Pops, and a run of stompin’ great hits from Birmingham’s finest, Slade. Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn penned a truckload of hits for Mickie Most’s RAK label, making the music mogul’s yacht almost as famous as the acts themselves. In full leathers, Suzi Quatro helped pave the way for a generation of female rock stars and self-confessed “navvies in mascara” Sweet hadn’t “got a clue what to do”. On the artier end of things, there were Roxy Music’s appearances on the Old Grey Whistle Test where Bryan Ferry and company looked – and, indeed, sounded – like they’d been dropped to Earth by aliens and Sparks’ appearances between the likes of The Hollies and Wings on your favourite Thursday evening pop show had ability to frighten small children. It was very much a fertile time for new pop music.

If you start to overthink it, the only common link between all of those stars is their fondness for experimenting with the dressing up box. Sparks and Roxy had almost nothing in common with Noddy Holder’s football terrace shouting, just as bona-fide pop rockers Sweet had no direct link to Lou Reed besides occasionally sporting some lippy, and yet here it all was, happy to live together, often dominating the singles chart during one of popular music’s most fruitful eras. Such a wide canvas allows ‘Oh You Pretty Things’ – a three disc box set from Grapefruit Records – a fair bit of artistic licence when rounding up a lot of glam-oriented material. For 70s rock collectors and nostalgia buffs alike, it’s the kind of set that’s full of interest, yet it never feels elitist. You’ll also find some familiar stuff along with the items of greater interest, always helping to create a very balanced listen.

Following a flurry of well-respected material from Roxy Music, Sparks and ELO, the first disc takes an odd left turn at an early stage by chucking in a 1974 single from The Pretty Things. Chiefly associated with the late 60s, you mightn’t immediately think of them as glam, but ‘Joey’ offers almost all of the movement’s most obvious hallmarks: the track works a stomping, rigid rhythm throughout, tops that with a rollocking piano that draws influence from Mott and even chucks in a few flourishes that pre-figure a couple of ELO classics. Brilliantly arranged and smartly performed with a proto-punk sneer, it’s aged incredibly well. The fact that it was never a hit says more about that era’s stiff competition than the quality of the recording itself. It’s brilliant. And it’s that kind of deeper crate digging very much gives ‘Oh You Pretty Things’ its character, with surprises scattered throughout. Thin Lizzy’s ‘Little Darling’ (a flop single from ’74 and their first release to feature Gary Moore) begins to sounds like a weird, noisier descendant from the Bolan universe when taken out of their own timeline and placed within this set, as does The Kinks’ ‘Powerman’, despite pre-figuring the glam movement as we came to know it. Similarly, you’d never call arty prog-jazz combo Curved Air glammy, but ‘The Purple Speed Queen’ (an album cut from 1973) is another interesting choice, partly because it doesn’t even seem as glam-oriented as ‘Stretch’ from their 1970 debut with its full compliment of stomp and swagger, but also because – by accident rather than design – it seems to be an excellent Sparks homage, complete with bending melodies and shrill vocal presence. Taking even more of an off-beat stance, Rococo’s previously unreleased ‘Blue Movie Star’ sounds like a future echo of Brian Molko fronting King Crimson. This bizarre art rock takes the guts of Cockney Rebel and twists them into something that the average punter wouldn’t have been ready for in 1975. Despite being unexpected choices, each supplies a brilliant listening experience.

From the more “traditional” perspective, Brett Smiley’s hazy ‘Space Ace’ often seems directly inspired by Bowie; not just through its blatant space themes, but also in its heavy and woozy orchestrated feel. There are a lot of echoes of ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘Hunky Dory’ throughout, making a very friendly listen for those looking for something unfamiliar, yet immediately appealing. Smiley’s fey vocal style seems to be very much in keeping with the era’s androgynous core and although everything about the recording seems rooted within 1973, hearing it decades on, it sounds like a genuine classic. Likewise, the quirky ‘Earthling’ by Jobraith captures the essence of the mid 70s brilliantly with a theatrical number that pits stabbed pianos against squelching synths, always echoing the best of Cockney Rebel while adding his own twist on the art rock sound. It doesn’t have much of a chorus, but the multi-layered music is enough to see the three minutes off in style. Whereas Sparks and other heroes still get name-checked as influential, Jobraith appears to have become yesterday’s man, so it’s only fitting he should get some respect here, even if the Bowie-esque ‘Ooh La La’ might’ve been a safer choice. Combining the stomp of an old Hotlegs recording and Chapman/Chinn’s hits with the ugly drawl of the late 60s garage rock pioneers, Blackfoot Sue have a strong footing in both musical camps on their ‘Glittery Obituary’ LP cut from ’73. There’s a pulsing bass boosted further by chiming rhythm guitars, a shouty hook and a general feeling of glam’s more raucous side coming through. It’s all a bit heavy handed, but never the worse for that – after all, such forcefulness became Slade’s stock in trade. Factor in a couple of decent twin leads and it almost becomes a perfect example of the glam/trash aesthetic of the era. History seems to have forgotten them and it’s not clear why.

The Hollywood Brats give New York Dolls and The Stooges a run for their money on ‘Tumble With Me’, an unreleased rocker from ’73, sounding every bit as good as other, more popular unrestrained garage rock from around that – they’ve even counterbalanced their Iggy obsessions with a cheeky lift of the riff from Bowie’s ‘Man Who Sold The World’ for some extra fun – and the mighty Silverhead are keen remind everyone of their hard rock charms on ‘Rollin’ With My Baby’, a sleazy boogie heavy tune that melds a driving riff to ferocious slide guitars and a brilliant attitude-filled vocal from the legendary Michael Des Barres. There are times when this sounds more like Rose Tattoo with a horn section than New York Dolls, but with its glorious party atmosphere, it’s a track that’s impossible not to love. Also of massive interest is a number entitled ‘King of The Night Time World’ as recorded by Hollywood Stars in 1974. A solid rocker that falls somewhere between Faces and Edgar Winter Group, its heady riffs and scorching leads conjure high levels of 70s sleaze and although singer Scott Phares is…less than remarkable, there’s plenty about this track that suggests there was something decent here. This recording remained unreleased until its inclusion within this box set, but it will be familiar to almost everyone since KISS recorded a storming version of it for their ‘Destroyer’ LP in ’76.

For those who enjoy a deep dive into the overlooked and forgotten, ‘Oh You Pretty Things’ also serves up some material that reminds us that “the past is a foreign country” in terms of attitudes. Rosie are on hand with their Rolling Stones meets David Bowie sounding ‘Rosie’s Coming To Town’, and although the band are solid players, a muddy production sound and a dollop of shameless sexism date the performance terribly, while the equally uncomfortable male fantasies of ‘Lady Easy Action’ by Despair (a band featuring future Vibrators man Ian Carnochan) mar an otherwise solid tune that isn’t shy in showing its endless love for The Stooges and Lou Reed. Both will present some great music for the less demanding listener, though a few of the lyrics are deeply suspect. Rest assured though, neither has anything on a couple of Sweet’s biggest offenders [‘Sweet FA’ and ‘Someone Else Will’, not present here – thankfully; the compilers have wisely decided that the wonderful ‘Six Teens’ better represents the band in fantastic falsetto glory]. It’s almost as if some of these bands felt they had to balance the glitter and lipstick with macho scenarios, most of which don’t play well to a more enlightened, twenty first century audience. Luckily – even when bringing together some three hours’ worth of material from a decade that wasn’t particularly PC – such attitudes are few.

Between the essentials, there is a whole world of second tier stuff that further adds to the enjoyment of this interestingly curated set. Overlooked tunes by Rusty (storming boogie rocker ‘All I Wanna Be’, 1972), The Hammersmith Gorillas (tough garage rock in the shape of ‘Shame Shame Shame’) and Slowload’s previously unreleased ‘Around And Around’ (a weird hybrid of Humble Pie and Family) might not fit the remit for the glam and trashy purist, but each gives the 70s rock fan a few items of interest. Something that’ll be more familiar to some, Manzanera & Eno’s ‘Big Day’ seems to echo parts of the early Roxy catalogue (naturally) but also act as much of influence later art rockers like Japan and XTC. Its four minutes’ worth of bendy pop is a little friendlier than Eno’s nearest equivalent on 1977’s ‘Before & After Science’; its upfront jazz basslines are very cool and there’s so much in the way their voices blend that suggests natural collaborators. and although the track values art over chart friendly glam pop, there’s a heart to the performance that seems very accessible in art rock terms.

Although licencing issues prevent Bowie and T.Rex being featured in person, their collective presence is more than felt. Bolan’s legacy comes through in a few of the performers’ dalliances with androgynous vibes and a swaggering riff or two helping to give this anthology a lot of heart, but the sainted Mr. Jones’s musical legacy is presented in a more direct manner. A couple of cover tunes resurrected for your pleasure remind us that even before his greatest decade was far from over, others were keen to have a piece of him. In a bizarre slice of light entertainment, Simon Turner makes ‘The Prettiest Star’ sound like a guest spot Sunday Night At The London Palladium with a fey performance drowning in strings. It should be the ultimate in cheese, but there’s something about Turner’s Al Stewart-ish delivery that makes it oddly endearing. Far superior is Dana Gillespie’s take on ‘Andy Warhol’, where Bowie’s one-time girlfriend takes the ‘Hunky Dory’ track into the realms of something that sounds like an early Jeff Wayne production, with a barrage of strings, twin lead guitars and more bluster than Dayyy-vid’s own folky take ever allowed. In another tentative connection, Tina Harvey’s rendition of ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ actually sounds a lot like the Bowie BBC recording: the guitars whip up a Ronson-ish fuzz and the band hit hard throughout. Harvey’s Grace Slick inflected warble seems at odds with the straight up garage rock, but it all works well enough. It wasn’t a hit when issued as a 7” in ’76 and hasn’t always been the easiest thing to track down on CD, so its inclusion here is most welcome.

When ‘Oh You Pretty Things’ is good, it’s great. With a whole world of cult 7”s and album cuts included, there’s always something interesting on the musical horizon. As with most comps, it’s occasionally horrid (for example, a Tim Curry tune from Rocky Horror takes the listener too far outside of the boundaries 70s pop/rock, and The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, as usual, do nothing to endear themselves to anyone with working ears or any real sanity), but it’s even its lesser moments are still capable of stirring the emotions – whether in bewilderment or morbid fascination. In the label’s usual style, the efforts made to sidestep lots of the more obvious culprits to shine a light on the era’s forgotten gems and lesser celebrated heroes are very commendable, and in the main, the good far outweighs the bad. ‘Oh You Pretty Things’ is as much about inspiring a new generation to go digging through the archives as reawakening any feelings of nostalgia. Offering a broad overview of an era while still offering plenty for the collector isn’t always an easy task, but on that score, this set should be considered a success.

January 2021