Earlier this year in their highly acclaimed movie, the Spice Girls covered Gary Glitter's juvenile-delinquent shout “I'm the Leader of the Gang”; next to “Wannabe,” it's the best song they've ever done. When I played Virgin Records' 1988 Glam Rock videotape for my 9-year-old daughter, Coco, and she saw hairy Gary Glitter doing the song's original version packed like a grotesque grapefruit into an apricot-size space suit, she thought Gary's band were “these bad guys from Japan I heard about called the Spice Boys who are stealing all the Spice Girls' songs.” She also couldn't figure out if T. Rex and the Sweet were girls or boys, what with their cornucopia of hair glitter and star-shaped guitars and eyeliner and Hitler mustaches and knee-high silver platform boots and three-legged pants.
In 1970, when I was Coco's age, the pre-Crying Game plot of the Kinks' “Lola” provided an unacknowledged sense of mixed-up-world belonging for nonmacho 9-year-olds like me in that it made us feel we'd get a girlfriend someday even if she was a boy. (British proto-riot-grrrls the Raincoats, who a decade later would cover the song without changing a word, might've felt the same way.) By 1971, Alice Cooper was confusing me even more, and I really dug this burnout kid John Gallo's T. Rex T-shirt because I was really into dinosaurs. By the time Goodbye Yellow Brick Road came along a few years later, Elton John was exposing kids my age to lesbianism, transvestism, venereal disease, nymphomania, prostitution, patricide, masturbation, and words like “tit-bit” and “horny-back toad.”
Oddly, the truest eventual heir to glam-rock's wildside-walking legacy wasn't metal (much less punk), but disco – Sylvester, Donna Summer, the Village People, Prince. Most indie-rockers still cling to the delusion that anybody who makes their clothes (or instrumentation or singing) gaudy and colorful must be phony. But an early-1998 compilation called The Pink and the Black on Delinquent Records chronicles formidable indie-label late-'90s Goth and glam subcultures, and a movie called Velvet Goldmine set in the glitter-rock '70s will hit theaters this fall. In the past few years, even superserious mongers-of-gloom like Metallica and Smashing Pumpkins have been raiding their sisters' makeup cabinets.
Give or take cheap nostalgia, I really have no idea what a crossdress-rock revival could possibly mean in 1998, but I also have no doubt it's a good thing. And it's even kind of appropriate, seeing how glam was fond of swallowing outdated music even back in the old days when American Graffiti was in cinemas and Happy Days was on TV. Gary Glitter and Roxy Music both wore '50s-into-the-space-age getups; the New York Dolls covered ancient R&B novelties and quoted the Shangri-Las; David Essex's “Rock On” honored James Dean; and Mott the Hoople and Elton John remembered when crocodile rock was young and rambled about Alan Freed and rockabilly parties over Jerry Lee pianos.
On The Chinese Album, up-and-coming modern-rock-radio fixtures Spacehog revive Mott's old carnivalesque rhythms and Dylanesque rhyme schemes in “Anonymous” and “Captain Freeman”; the outsider motif of the latter (“I'm a free man/Don't you look at me, man”) also recalls South Shore Commission's 1975 gay disco cult anthem “Free Man.” Despite Spacehog's reputation for sexual ambiguity, their lyrics most often come off like bothersome gibberish, as crafty-but-empty as Oasis. Still, Spacehog manage to spread out their craft well, rewriting “Armenia City in the Sky” by the Who and nicking gay (18)90s music-hall feyness from Queen. Though rarely especially speedy, even their metal feels light-footed.
Spacehog's fellow Brit-flouncers Elcka sound both less fancily produced and less scattershot than Spacehog. On their debut, Elcka, horns and strings and affected falsettos yank their miniature pomp through arch tempo changes harking back to '70s Sparks/Bowie/Roxy, and though few of their kinky melodies fully congeal into songs, their most vicious tracks (for instance, the depraved CD closers “Pervert's Servant” and “A User's Guide”) hit you with a flower, as Lou Reed would say. Mainly just this year's foppiest Suede mimics, Elcka brag about their tuxedos and leather lips and statuesqueness, beg to taste you again, and proclaim themselves “dressed to kill, seeking thrills, never coming down.”
Imperial Teen are Americans, so they don't sing so swishy. Featuring two boys who sound dweeby-but-determined like Weezer and two girls who sound like they'd kick the boys' butts for lunch money, their 1996 debut album, Seasick (best song title: “Copafeelia”), sported a softcore-dominatrix gender-bending bent funnier and more tender than Elcka's or Spacehog's: “Bow down to me, bow down yeah baby baby.” “Tie me off I wanna be shootin' up the enemy.” “Take it like a man, boy.” “Make you whore du jour.” Their new album, What Is Not To Love, has them hooked on estrogen and kissing-friends again, asking, “Why you gotta be so proud?/I'm the one with the lipstick on.”
Besides all that, I might be stretching it to classify them as glam-rock, since they don't especially dress in imperial drag, and their sound is more Pixies than Roxy. Bulging-press-kit beneficiaries of an evil rock-critic conspiracy that took place behind closed doors at the music industry's 1996 South by Southwest conference, Imperial Teen are indeed more songful than your average college-radio band, though hardly as Abba-catchy as their hype pretends. Their new album is sadly slower and quieter and less joyously harmonized than their debut, and the vocal hooks going “yoo-hoo” and “wah wah wah” and the pretty ditty about an art student who falls in love with everybody in parking lots don't quite make up for the two seven-minute guitardrone-jackoff excursions.
The jackoff excursions on Psychotica's Espina are even more pretentious, and their hype is even easier to distrust. A life-size ad for safe sex (if not abstinence) who dresses like an albino salamander wrapped head to toe in latex, creepy front-creature Pat Briggs was an original Rent cast member, and there was a fiberglass display of him in Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before he even put out his first album – which hardly anybody bought, despite a main-stage Lollapalooza slot and at least one memorable song that traded death-rock whining about cat torture with witchy Johnny Rotten sneers from some cockney reggae woman. Psychotica's new CD relegates them to a smaller label, and tracks 2 through 5 aren't much more than vacant thudding sludge.
But the opener, “Ding Dong Dead,” a stentorian Sisters of Mercy parody keyed around an a-cappella-churchbell hook, is cute in its own dumb way. And the album's surprisingly moving final four tracks encompass Station to Station Bowie disco, Bach-like fugue notes, instrumental Jamaican psychedelic pennywhistle dub, weirdly slimy strum-and-sound-effect-rhythmed nasal rapping about soup lines and digging ditches, and a cover of Donna Summer's version of “MacArthur Park” where Briggs alternately winds vocal hips like Axl Rose and wails like he wants to be the girl who left the most cake out in the rain.
Unfortunately, Briggs' biggest vocal influence overall is the deep-voiced not-much-fun-anymore David Bowie of the '80s. Hutch Walker imitates a younger and more palatable Bowie on 10 Speed's 10 Speed. His school day's insane, his work's down the drain, and unlike all the other glam revisionists I've tallied, his L.A.-based trio (with Soviet-born bassist) really kicks – it sounds like they drink a lot of coffee. Their interspersion of butch cock-rock growling with girly soul-food falsettos feels emotionally convincing, too, even though they're obviously joking.
10 Speed's pinnacle is the gear-switching rocketman fantasy “Space Queen,” which name-drops Barbarella and Gidget and Luke Skywalker; their funky number about suicidal psychopathic girlfriends makes for some righteously wired rock & roll hoochie-koo as well. Their 16th-note chunkachunka beats and radar riffs are straight off Urge Overkill's Saturation album from a few years back, and their circular logo flirts with U.O. plagiarism too. Between Marc Bolan threads and limited-edition red-leather bike-seat-cum-Marshall-amp CD sleeve, 10 Speed probably have 1998's most glam sense of fashion. They taste a bit too vanilla to match Urge Overkill's (much less Mott the Hoople's) songwriting skills, though. So in the long run, like all of these nuevo-glam platters, their shiny little disc sounds pretty good when it's on, but it's somewhat hard to care about it when it's not.