When painted faces threatened subversion

A request sent to Johnny Walker asked if he would play a record by The Sweet on his Sounds of the Seventies  programme on BBC Radio 2. (In my memory the band were always called Sweet, rather than The Sweet, but an Internet search showed the use of the definite article was correct). Johnny Walker duly obliged and played the band’s hit Ballroom Blitz.

On the last day of the summer term at Elmhurst County Grammar School, the very last day of the school’s existence, there was a disco in the school hall. Afraid at such events, I lingered at the doorway and watched my more confident peers enjoying the music. Blockbuster by The Sweet was being played by the DJ, the band were probably not the sort of thing of which the headmaster would have approved.

The Glam Rock movement, musicians with painted faces and outrageous clothes, was the sort of thing to sustain the mood of disapproval by more traditional members of society, a mood that had set them tut-tutting since the emergence of the teddy boys in the 1950s. Glam Rock set out to be outrageous, to shock, to challenge perceptions.  The gender-bending use of make-up and flamboyant clothes had the desired effect among commentators in the mainstream media.

Of course, the Glam Rockers did not subvert society, anymore than had the hippies who preceded them, or the punks who would follow them, but they had created ripples, caused people to ask questions.

Popular outrage at music has become a thing of the past. Perhaps it is because those who are now of an age where disapproval of new trends might have been common in the past are still among the audiences of current bands: Johnny Walker’s studio guest today was seventy-one year old Dave Davies from The Kinks. Music that has been assimilated by older generations loses its capacity to shock. Perhaps it is because audiences are much more fragmented, there is no single dominant forum comparable to BBC Radio 1 in the 1970s. Perhaps it is because artists are much more savvy about how to achieve commercial success; alienating people is often not good for sales, being anodyne in attitudes and nice to everyone you meet is a much easier route to riches.

There is nothing now on the radio that feels threatening or subversive. It is hard to imagine that a twelve year old might stand at the doorway of a school hall and think that a disco was frightening.

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