How Velvet Goldmine depicted a thriving 70s glam scene

In our September 1998 issue, we marked the release of Todd Haynes’s glam-rock fantasia by tracing the history of its musical subculture, from Mods and Hammer horror origins through to punk and queer aesthetics

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Brian Slade in Velvet Goldmine (1998)
This feature first appeared in the September 1998 issue of Sight and Sound


I'll use you, and I'll confuse you, then I'll lose you - still you won't suspect meRoxy Music, 'Ladytron'

The Ziggy I knew played guitar too – though in public just once, his stage fright inducing shakes so violent he had to stop after only a few bars. Sweet-natured and shy, from an outwardly untroubled suburban family, he’d arrived at an expensive West Midlands public school and speedily been nicknamed for the pop star he worshipped. There he lost all faith in the respectable career his parents had envi­sioned, and paid for. Dress codes ruled out any malarkey with carrot hair or lightning-strike make-up, but he did paint a vast mural of Aladdin Sane on school property. Plus skipped lessons, feuded with teachers, slipped from ‘A’ to ‘E’ stream, failed exams and dropped out. Years later I ran into him in an East London street – I expected, I guess, to hear tales of a life in art and music. Turns out he’d spent 20 years as casual labour on building sites. A life poisoned by the glam virus? Or had his adoration somehow twisted to free him from the chains of bourgeois duty and bohemian conformity?

On 3 July 1973, at the Hammersmith Odeon, such a twist occurred for many. As the climax to a year of touring based around an LP whose subject and final song explicitly presaged such an end – a ‘Rock’n’Roll Suicide’ – the killing off of Ziggy Stardust was nevertheless an act of singular creative savagery. The shock sent fans spinning off into desolate betrayal, blocked yearning and barely controlled dreams of revenge, as Fred and Judy Vermorel’s oral history Starlust: the Secret Fantasies of Fans testifies. As eloquent are the tales the Vermorels quote of a sucking-and-wanking audience protest riot at this same show: ”A lot of fluid was flying about,” says Julie (25 in 1984, when these witness statements were gathered). “It was rumoured that maybe this was the last time Bowie would perform… so everyone just took their clothes off. And wanking was nothing… I suddenly realised that all the things I’d been doing [when alone] were perfectly OK.”

“If we can sparkle he may land tonight…” – rightly Todd Haynes makes this self-assassination the central mystery of Velvet Goldmine, his deliriously queer reading of the glam-rock years and tale of the rise and fall of a composite glam figure drawn from Bowie as much as anyone. For of all that star’s chameleon tics – from peculiar to selfish to stupid – none was ever so mind-expanding in its public effect as the on-stage murder of Ziggy.

A gentleman with a voice like a cut-throat razor urging people to join his funReview of Noddy Holder and Slade, 'Bradford Telegraph', 1971

Haynes slips in a scene early on in which the crowd proclaiming its non-conformist sexuality to the news cameras clearly includes many who weren’t then and never would be homosexual. And we can argue that – despite every chic hint and evasion (such as Bowie’s “Hi, I’m bi!” in Melody Maker) – glam never was that gay, from its birth in 1972, out of such forebears as Velvet Underground, Alice Cooper, the Kinks’ ‘Lola’ and T Rex, to its demise a couple of years later.

Certainly of the frontline glam icons only Lou Reed, Bowie and his then wife Angie so much as flirted with same-sex sexual activity – and they all seem very un-gay again these days. Bryan Ferry never aspired to anything but straight gigolo charm; the New York Dolls could design and machine-sew their own Shangri-Las drag, but off-stage went with girls or junk (or both); and surely the only whip-thin pop boy more successful at serial het bedding than Iggy Pop was Brian Eno. This flirtation with gay culture was risky and charming, but it was all a pose, the in-thing for a season, wasn’t it? Which leaves the full-on sexual romance between Velvet Goldmine’s ‘Bowie’ and ‘Iggy’ characters more poetic truth than historical, doesn’t it? It depends – on what you mean by poetic, and by historical.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Brian Slade and Ewan McGregor as Curt Wild in Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Recorded in late 1971 during the Hunky Dory sessions, the song ‘Velvet Goldmine’ was thought by Bowie himself to be “too provocative” for release. Sneaked out in 1975 without his permission by his record company (on a B-side), it contains such lines as, “I had to ravish your capsule, suck you dry/Feel the teeth in your bone, heal ya head with my own”; “You’re my taste, my trip, I’ll be your master zip”; and “Let my sea wash your face, I’m falling, I can’t stand/Oooh! Put your mink on”, with a chorus that ends, “Velvet Goldmine, naked on your chain/I’ll be your king volcano right for you again and again.”

As come-on codes go, this isn’t hard to crack. And charmingly cheeky though this little-known number is, it didn’t present any evidence not already out in the world. The opening track of Bowie’s album The Man Who Sold the World (1970), ‘The Width of a Circle’ – in which the storyteller achieves gnostic enlightenment when raped by a satanic leatherman (“his tongue swollen with devil’s love”) – makes his 1972 hit ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ seem poignantly vanilla. And if ‘Lady Stardust’ directed decorous yearning towards an inspirational rival Marc Bolan (“I smiled sadly for a love I could not obey”), the follow-up single to ‘Dancing’, ‘The Jean Genie’, was a fascinated grinding lust-song to another, Iggy Pop (“lives on his back”), punningly recast as Jean Genet (“loves chimneystacks”, the chorus continues, a subliminal flash of the most unnerving scene in Jean Genet’s book Funeral Rites, the rooftop sex between a Nazi soldier and a young French collaborator).

This last may be a bit of a stretch – but it’s out of such cut-ups and fleeting clues that Velvet Goldmine reconjures a glam of swooning surface and sudden darkness. The 70s songs, styles, looks and sounds of Bowie, Iggy, Reed, the Dolls, Ferry and Roxy Music, Marc Bolan and T Rex are knowingly redistributed among Haynes’ characters Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and the shadowy but outrageous Jack Fairy (Micko Westmoreland), who front such fictional bands as Venus in Furs and Flaming Creatures. Reed’s electric-shock therapy as a teenager is grafted on to Iggy’s trailerpark upbringing. Brian Slade’s soon-to-be-snuffed persona Maxwell Demon is named for a pre-Roxy project of Eno (whose solo music dominates the soundtrack, Bowie having refused the film-makers rights to his songs). Resplendent in furs and feathers, on a Bolanoid television set, the Ziggied-up Slade sings a Cockney Rebel number à Ia Mott the Hoople. And so on: pop-cult details large and small, well known and absurdly obscure are patched together into a whole that outs glam as an ancestor of queer precisely because it was never straightforwardly gay – or indeed, straightforwardly anything.

I drive a Rolls-Royce/Because it's good for my voiceT Rex, 'Children of the Revolution'

In 1972 in Rock File, a short-lived journal of the sociology of pop culture, Grimsby-born Pete Fowler published ‘Skins Rule’. This study of Marc Bolan’s sales figures evolves into an assault on the shortfall between rock’s rhetoric of classlessness and its social reality, from the arty bourgeoisification exemplified by Sergeant Pepper to the vapidly (allegedly) limited teenybopper appeal of Bolan’s “Hot Goblinism”. Meanwhile, youth’s largest gang lurks on the outside, glaring and sneering: ”The bovver boys look like becoming the first major subcultural group not to produce any major rock stars… The survival of rock has depended on its position as the core of male teen culture. But the bovver boys have rejected rock’s traditional status which explains the lack of vitality in British rock.”

But the Bolan audience did include “bovver boys”. What’s more, as recalled in John Lydon’s Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, it included that subcultural group’s first “major rock star”, Lydon himself. As Rambo, one of his then friends, notes: “I used to like David Bowie, but you used to always wonder what your other mates thought of him. He was queer, but he was accepted among the football teams. They were all thugs, but they had Ziggy Stardust haircuts.” Long-time Lydon conspirator John Gray makes even more important links. At various times before punk broke, this street gang of friends, “were big T Rex and Gary Glitter fans”, dyed their hair Crazy-Color purple and green, flirted with the skinhead look, became reggae obsessives, taught in local playcentres – and passed (however briefly) through art school.

Since the war, the British art school had been structured to offer a playpen zone for self-expression, innovation and modernity. Here gathered the imaginative and the alienated – anyone gifted, from any background, whom 3Rs education had betrayed or suffocated. In this atmosphere of sharp aesthetic contradiction and relative class freedom, this temporary vessel for those unable, or unwilling, to define themselves via readymades, a chaos of aspirations was nurtured, as were successive generations of UK rock musicians.

And here, in particular, grew glam. With Bryan Ferry a pupil of Richard Hamilton and former Warhol assistant Mark Lancaster (not to mention the conceptual and process art Brian Eno absorbed at Ipswich from Roy Acott), Roxy Music was a direct realisation of Pop Art theory. Genre conventions were upturned, packaging techniques ruthlessly foregrounded. A weary model, cheesecake-as-piranha, bares her teeth on the first three Roxy Music covers. Mass-consumer standards are revisited here neither as irony nor pastiche, but as a half-mournful love letter to the heaven consumer culture promises and the doubled hunger which follows its non-delivery (“every idol a bring-down/it gets you down”). And mocking all that denim-scruff countercultural cliché stood for, these three covers boast a sublimely insolent inclusion in the credits. The formula varies; “Roxy Hair by Smile” is the gist.

Not all glam’s mainmen had been to art school. Bolan (as Marc Feld) and Bowie (as David Jones) had been Faces in the mid-60s Mod crowd, fashion-leaders in a subculture from the suburban/urban crossover which valued discernment and self-expression off-stage far more than it kowtowed to idols on-stage. Mods had formed groups (Bolan’s John’s Children, Bowie’s The Manish Boys) as an expression of avid, avant-garde, radical consumerism (Pop Art praxis) – because they knew as Mods they were ‘better’ than the groups that had formed to pander to them. Mod, as an ideology of audience self-love above all, rendered the membrane between on-stage and off-stage permeable; glam, especially Bowie’s version, explicitly explored this movement. No less than four of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ 11 songs have the word ‘star’ in their title, yet the lyrical point of view shifts constantly from watcher to watched, from audience to performer and back.

The skinhead movement – ska-loving, moonstomping – had evolved out of Mod also. But though to certain wised-up realists this reactive and minatory sub-crowd functioned as a marker of changeless proletarian authenticity, others chafed against such an arid self-definition (besides, the movement increasingly moulded itself on the edicts of Richard Allen’s phenomenally successful if deeply inauthentic pulp novels, 1971’s Skinhead and Suedehead, 1972’s Skinhead Girls, and so on). As Lydon puts it in Rotten: “I regard myself as working class, but I know damn well working class doesn’t regard me that way.”

By 1973 Allen was writing Teeny Bopper Idol and Glam; by 1977, Punk. He loathed the promiscuous category instability of these new fashion waves: though the loving detail of his racist and homophobic assaults is nothing if not sexual – far more so than the actual sex – Allen’s skinhead heroes wage eternal war on the subcults that were crowding them. Glam, by contrast, drew its force from (and gathered its ephemeral multitudes through) its jumpcut frenzy of parallel ambiguities: as trendy, slender androgyny declined to bother to sort male from female, so its songs, sleeves and posters, posing insouciantly as art, cut adult science fiction into heretical sociology, intimations of pornography into vaudeville, just-pubescent pin-up action into barely occluded violence. The unspoken laws of Brit dress and thought and mutual inter-penetration were suspended, as were class differences and stereotypes of provenance. The Spiders were from Hull not Mars; an alien from suburban Bromley got to fellate northern space-punk Mick Ronson’s guitar every night. Drummer Paul Thompson arrived at early Roxy Music gigs from the building site, still with his gumboots on. Out on glam’s bubblegum wing, glitter, half-despised but hugely popular, the Sweet and Slade (once a Wolverhampton skinhead band) combined a drag aesthetic with consistently brutal lyrical content.

Toni Collette as Mandy Slade and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Brian Slade in Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Somewhere in between, West Midlands Bowie protégés Mott the Hoople made themselves into perceptive prole historians of counterculture myth and Saturday-night brawling. For most of 1974, though unsettled by their growing gay following in America, they featured a magnificently un-elfin misfit guitarist named Ariel Bender – rotund with eyeshadow and hair highlights – whose stage style their mainly male UK audience seemed to adore and whose loss they never recovered from. On the reverse sleeve of Mott they quote D. H. Lawrence’s ‘A Sane Revolution’: “If you make a revolution, make it for fun/Don’t do it for the working classes/Do it so that we can all of us be little aristocracys on our own/And kick our heels like jolly escaped asses…”

But the most jarring take on category blur was one that echoed Allen, though it embraced the cross-border desire he pushed away so violently. Glam cast the coldest possible look at the nature of the fantasy relationship between performer and fan, the secret subject of every hit pop lovesong ever.

I wish I hadn't wanted then/What I want now twice as muchMott the Hoople, 'Ballad of Mott'

In Velvet Goldmine Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is a journalist (and former Maxwell Demon fan) who ten years after his hero’s on-stage assassination is assigned the task of finding out what happened and why, and where Brian Slade might be today. He begins his search by interviewing Cecil (Michael Feast), Slade’s first manager, who discovered him but was ruthlessly dropped when Slade moved into his Demon phase; then Slade’s wife Mandy (Toni Collette), who gives him the inside dope on Slade’s obsession, artistic and sexual, with rival performer Curt Wild. To understand what motivated Slade, and to uncover whom he became, Stuart must track down Wild – but this is less easy.

Despite many differences (stylistically it owes more to Ken Russell), Goldmine tells the same tale as Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976): a bizarrely gorgeous outsider embarks on a project meaningful only to himself; it fails, but not before complex transformations are unthinkingly wrought on the lives of not-quite-innocent, not-quite-sexy bystanders. Thus Farnsworth (Buck Henry), the accountant in Earth – small, balding, myopic, homely, quietly gay – who more or less runs the vast leisure-technology corporation owned by Thomas Newton (Bowie), maps on to Cecil in Goldmine. Tracked down by Stuart, Cecil is now wheelchair-bound, ill and alone. The scene of his dismissal is the nastiest in the film, Slade’s cold gaze withholding all emotional connection. Yet Cecil shrugs off the hurt and instead is bitterly, ruefully admiring. Just as the high-art motif in Roeg’s film is Bruegel’s Landscape With the Fall of Icarus, the shattering disaster that goes unnoticed by the ordinary passer-by, so Farnsworth and Cecil, who both flew too close to their respective suns, find their humanity in knowing why (they chose to) and accepting this.

The word ‘glamour’ derives from the same late Latin root as both ‘grammar’ and ‘grimoire’: from ‘gramarye’, meaning that exact use of words which casts spells. A ‘glamour’ is a thrown veil of witchy allure, an enchantment in which the victim always has a profound complicity – so perfect a deployment of the victim’s own language as to ensnare them in their own inner need. And as anyone knows who has ever been edged from a charmed circle – for being not young enough, or thin enough, or queer or prole or cool enough – it’s the aftermath nag of those of your values which made the circle seem so charming to you that you have to make your peace with to survive. The treacherous complexities of such self-reappraisal are often enough to turn radicals into reactionaries – and vice versa.

Mod was an ideology of community based on individuated self-love; punk exchanged this for self-hate, uglification, even self-mutilation, its mode of display a won’t-get-fooled-again body armour of refusal to trust in any salvation offered by others, communally or starguided. Glam – by foregrounding the grammar of the machinery of bewitchment – held momentarily the unstable balance point between these extremes. Bowie’s swagger – his manifest awareness of the perfect pan-sexual beauty of his own body and face – was always combined with a strange hesitancy: a speaking voice irritatingly placeless, on-stage movements all nervous doubt, an absence of confidence in himself as a star. As Angus MacKinnon wrote in NME in 1980, just before the singer’s plunge into two decades of graceless bombast: “Unsuspectingly, I’m sure, Bowie positively leaks loneliness; it wraps itself around him like a clammy shroud.”

Less than five years after Bowie shucked his Ziggy skin, in the early hours of 15 January 1978, John Lydon loses the plot, and slips out of character mid-song. He sits frontstage at the San Francisco Winter Gardens, face to face with his own self-loathing. “Have you ever had the feeling,” he croaks, to no one and everyone, “that you’ve been cheated?” Rejecting possession, he will never perform as Johnny Rotten again.

I guess everybody wanted to suck Iggy's cock. It was just so THERE, you know?Terry Ork, quoted in 'Please Kill Me'

“It has always seemed to me,” wrote Christopher Isherwood in the early 40s, hitting on the perfect metaphor for eternal queer subculture at its most radical, “that there is in fact only one Turkish Bath – an enormous subterranean world, a delicious purgatory, a naked democracy in which the only class distinctions are anatomical. And that this underworld merely has a number of different entrances and vestibules in all the cities of the earth. You could enter it in Sydney and emerge from it to find yourself in Jermyn Street.”

Christian Bale as Arthur Stuart in Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Most cinematic representations of this “delicious purgatory” were moralistic at best. Isherwood’s own Farewell to Berlin, becoming 1972’s Cabaret, let Liza Minnelli be cute and camply harmless – but also put the blame for Hitler on three-in-a-bed sex. Luchino Visconti declined to bother to sort homosexuality from Nazism in The Damned (1969); in Death in Venice (1971) this closeted self-hatred became self-pity, honeyed in sluggish, shallow grandeur.

Only Ken Russell and Fellini had any fun with decadence, the first periodically exploding into garish, lipsmacking, hypocritical disgust, the second the bumpkin ringmaster of the best cake-and-eat-it bashes since DeMille: roll up, roll up, come gaze at all that’s rotten and deplorable!

Admirably non-judgemental by comparison – though as Pop Art it was also voyeuristic, not to say vampiric – Warhol’s static camera-eye had documented (from Blow Job, 1964, to Blue Movie, 1969) a demi-monde of ‘superstars’ (this word his coinage). And inspired by the orgiastic underground nihilism of Anger and Burroughs, Donald Cammell’s and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1968, released 1970) had engineered an encounter between etiolated Chelsea-set rock dandyism and East End thug-life that was more alert to pop’s revolutionary possibilities than almost all of 60s European art-house cinema.

At a polar opposite, with its multi-racial skinnydipping and deftly edited vérité, Woodstock (1970) had made anonymous Warholian superstars of its gigantic festival crowds. With these seas of bare bodies somewhere in its subconscious, glam proposed to subterraneans everywhere not a secret descent into Isherwood’s vast bathhouse under the world, but rather that transgressive desire clamber proudly upwards, Mod-fashion, mounting the stage, claiming the limelight, plugging in and performing.

But this would be no back-to-nature idyll, for the decadence glam was so eagerly to lick up and spray out had another source: the vampire movies of Hammer with Christopher Lee, of Jean Rollins, of Mario Bava with Barbara Steele (at art school with Cammell and briefly a Fellini starlet, as was Velvet Underground’s Nico). Trashier, truer and more complex than their arty European cousins-in-morbidity, these movies heaved with class-and-sex anxiety: predatory aristocrats simultaneously leeched the vitality of the lower orders and enticed their prettiest children out of stolid yeoman repression into perilous, classless, SM-tinged carnal freedom.

Glam took vampire hunger as its counter-ideal to the affirmative Aquarian love-in, and reflected the Undead’s reproduction strategy – a recruitment drive thick with mutual hostility, manipulative envy, sentimental denial and endless role reversals – straight back at the fan-star relationship it was so pitilessly modelling. This is partly why it spoke so strongly to the awkward, the lonely, the self-hating, the meek – and why the vast bring-down its idols inevitably tumbled towards unleashed the counterglam wave of punk, an even briefer, more unstable moment. For in its fall, the decadence of a decadence, glam forced its fans to rescript their yen to make it with their personal jones, or to replicate their designated leper messiah. Now they seek fulfilment in the better richness of their own imaginations: Arthur Stuart escapes the provincial northern wasteland and becomes a journalist overseas; Lydon’s sometime friend Rambo the football hooligan today designs jewellery in Finsbury Park. If you can’t just shuck skins and be anything you want, you can at least avoid being what it seemed you were meant to be.

And besides, beneath the make-up there was vulnerability too. Self-confessed vampirism is far from triumphalist: Bowie’s envy of Bolan and even Mott the Hoople made him all the more popular among the uncool, the unconfident, the outcast. Glam’s dialectic of democracy and decadence – where the socially excluded seize the stage to create a new-order despotism of talent and looks and self-validated discernment – is thus the truth-nugget in Velvet Goldmine’s central love story, in which Brian Slade’s vampiric desire and art-envy for Curt Wild is very obviously requited. The hole in Bowie’s relentless plastic soul, argues Haynes, was always Iggy-shaped: this frozen suburban Brit-fraud had his eyes snatched from his own mirror by animal grace, by this untrammelled US trailer-trash id. Super-Ego enslaved by Ig: a hugely likable idea. In place of some Sadean social order, where pretty peasants of both genders are preyed on by power, hail the naked democracy, where (as SM theorists always insist) the bottom is the real top. Idiot love will spark the fusion – and my idols will be like my dreams tonight.