Finding the exact origins of any genre offshoot involves quite a bit of guesswork. Usually, disparate individuals on different sides of the planet are doing similar things. It can seem like punk rock, nü metal, neo-soul, and even rock and roll itself sprang up overnight, but there are traces from each style of music that can be found going back years before anyone had ever heard of each genre’s biggest names. The same can be said for glam rock.
Theatrical rock and roll has a history as long as rock and roll itself. Little Richard often donned makeup and flamboyant clothing during his stage performances, while progressive rock acts like Hawkwind and shock rock kings like Alice Cooper were putting on eye-catching performances as early as 1969. But the distinct genre entity known as glam rock usually gets traced back to one person: T. Rex leader Marc Bolan.
Like then-friend and future contemporary David Bowie, Bolan was originally a folkie singer-songwriter who was having difficulty finding his voice and an appreciative audience. Bolan released four albums as Tyrannosaurus Rex before deciding that it was time for a change. Trading in his acoustic guitar for an electric, Bolan recorded a foot-stomping track called ‘Ride a White Swan’ that had more swagger and energy than all of T. Rex’s previous output combined.
‘Ride a White Swan’ was a number two hit in the UK in early 1971, catapulting Bolan and T. Rex into the mainstream. Their follow-up, ‘Hot Love’, would go on to be the band’s first of four number one singles in the UK. When T. Rex appeared on Top of the Pops to perform ‘Hot Love’ in March of 1971, Bolan decided to adopt a new stage look – satin clothes and prominent glitter makeup under his eyes.
1971 suddenly became Year Zero for glam rock, with acts like Sweet, Slade, and Roxy Music adjusting their visual presentation, and musical approach to more closely align with what Bolan was doing. Bowie himself was inspired enough to add some of Bolan’s DNA to his latest creation, Ziggy Stardust, and when The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was released in the summer of 1972, glam rock was officially the biggest phenomenon in British music.
Americans were a bit slower to take up the genre. Cooper had adjusted his style to a more horror-themed approach, while artists like Lou Reed and Iggy Pop were taken under Bowie’s wing to adopt more glam-adjacent styles. It wasn’t until artists like Suzy Quatro and The New York Dolls came around in the early 1970s that glam rock truly came to America, and even then, the genre was less of a cultural phenomenon and more of a foundational text for what would eventually become punk rock.
By 1973, glam rock’s biggest stars were trying to kill off the genre that made them famous. Bolan and Bowie led the charge, with Bolan proclaiming that glam rock was dead in a 1973 edition of Melody Maker and Bowie killing off Ziggy Stardust in July of 1973.
The shockwaves from the genre’s popularity continued to influence new generations of rock musicians, however, and it all started when Bolan decided that ‘Hot Love’ needed a little bit of glitter to get it going.