A question I’m honestly unsure of the answer to: if Michael Jackson had been found guilty of child molestation, what would have happened to his songs? Would “Billie Jean” or “Beat It” have emptied party dancefloors? Would “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” or “Human Nature” suddenly have become harder to like? And if Pete Townshend’s ‘research purposes’ hadn’t kept him out of legal trouble, would The Who’s old tracks have fallen from grace?
My hunch is that – after the news story had died down – the music would’ve been largely unaffected: already worked deep into pop history, it could be separated from the putative crimes. But in Gary Glitter’s case this didn’t happen – his music has been infected by his convictions for sex offences. His hits – so emblematic of seventies pop when I was growing up – have vanished from all that era’s compilations (Alvin Stardust seems to have been the main beneficiary here). Glam rock CDs occasionally feature the Glitter Band but leave Gary out. A couple of foreign Greatest Hits CDs surface on Amazon from around 2001, and then nothing.
It’s worth asking why this has happened. One reason, of course, might be that my hunch is wrong and that a child sex conviction of any kind means erasure from rock history. Another sensible inference would be that Glitter’s records weren’t good enough to survive exposure to his exposure. You could also argue that, even if they were good (and “Rock And Roll Part 2” is really good), their upfront party pop couldn’t bear the weight of darker associations in the way some records could.
Whatever the cause, listening to “I’m The Leader Of The Gang” and putting Glitter’s downfall out of my mind isn’t really an option. But is there anything in the record itself that makes the link so inescapable? This is a question I ask myself quite a lot when dealing with art by people who have done awful things. Take William Mayne, for instance, a children’s book writer of immense imaginative and empathic skill, and also convicted of serially abusing fans of his books. Is the thing that makes Mayne an excellent writer for children – his ear and head for how they talk and think – also what made him an effective paedophile, able to win and exploit their trust? An unpleasant thought, but that gift is also his art’s possible salvation: it’s not Mayne’s voice you’re hearing when you read his books. Whereas Gary is in your ear, informing you that he’s “the man who put the bang in gang”.
Hearing that, some kind of nervous chuckle is about the best he can expect. But it’s worth remembering that Glitter was never remotely a sinister figure before his conviction: he was always a largely comical one. My initial memories of him are of his eighties career, endless comebacks mocked in Smash Hits, and a Young Person’s Railcard advert with Gary in a facepack, supposedly trying to pass for under-26. A lame – but loveable – duffer who gave good show and was desperate to be young – this was his profile during his long twilight.
It probably wasn’t far from his profile back in his heyday – Glitter was a jobbing rock and roller who had seized hungrily on glam as a way to stardom, and maybe as a way to capture the remembered verve of rock and roll before the art school boys got hold of it. “I’m The Leader” kicks off with motorcycle noise lifted from the Shangri-Las but it has none of their sass, humour or emotion – it’s pure marching bludgeon, big on energy but doing nothing with it, leading the gang in tiny, repetitive circles. (It is to rock and roll what Calvin Harris is to eighties pop, you might say). It’s a cult-of-personality track made bearable because you know “the Leader” is a clown (“Who’d ever believe it?” he chirps, giving the game away) – and when suddenly he wasn’t a clown any more it couldn’t survive.