The summer of ’72 was possibly the most camp and sequin-studded moment in British history. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars — the fifth album by David Bowie — had landed. Glam rock was peaking. After striving for success for most of the 1960s, Bowie was now centre stage and spotlit, wearing nothing but a twinkle-knit unitard and a feather boa.
On Saturday 19 August, I laced up my towering Bata platform shoes, threw on my Mr Freedom pleated flares and headed — along with a bunch of mates from my hometown of Reading — to the Finsbury Park Rainbow to watch Bowie unleash his Ziggy incarnation. For me, a semi-closeted gay lad working at the local John Lewis and spending Saturday nights avoiding skinheads, it was nothing short of a religious experience. I took the train back to Reading knowing that I had found my people. This was my Emerald City.
Every glitter magpie in London — gay, straight, tarted up, blissed out — was at the Rainbow that night. And so, apparently, was Lou Reed. Not known for doling out praise, he described Bowie’s Rainbow show in the press as ‘the greatest thing I have ever seen’. Reed was spending that summer in London, working with Bowie, his guitarist Mick Ronson and Ken Scott, the record producer and engineer who helped Bowie craft his sound on Hunky Dory, Ziggy and, later, Aladdin Sane. Together, they were recording Reed’s defining album, Transformer, at Trident Studios in St Anne’s Court, a tiny Soho back alley (a Ziggy plaque now marks the spot.) The German musician and artist Klaus Voormann, one of the most beautiful blokes in rock, played bass guitar on four of the Trident tracks. ‘Lou and David got on like a world on fire,’ he recalls. ‘Those were two that found each other. Their discussions were witty, funny and cheeky. It was very camp. Lou had his fingernails painted black and played fantastic rhythm guitar.’
Lou and David got on like a world on fire. It was very camp
Happily, Reed’s Transformer interlude afforded him a break from the mean streets of America — the drugs, the Vietnam War, the race riots and his personal craziness — and plunged him into the frothy superficiality which defined London circa 1972. And why the hell not? Instead of exorcising his demons in the back room of Max’s Kansas City, he could be dancing with the Vogue model and Salvador Dalí muse Amanda Lear — or me! — down at The Masquerade in Earl’s Court; or hanging out at the El Sombrero, the aficionado’s disco on Kensington High Street, right around the corner from the cult fashion store Biba.
‘Glam rock was an incredible amount of fun,’ says fashion writer Tim Blanks of the particular frivolity of the moment. ‘It felt like something that belonged to us. We could be complete freaks, nightmarishly confident teenagers causing havoc. Glam rock was an incredible licence to be you and foolish and fabulous; to be the devoted fan rather than the detached onlooker.’
It has now been 50 years since Transformer was released on 8 November 1972. For fans like me, this album blew our gay gaskets. For months, every queen in London could be heard singing, ‘Vicious! You hit me with a flower’. We could all imitate Bowie’s ‘pom pom pom’ vocals on ‘Satellite of Love’. Transformer was our Sgt Pepper’s. I remember poring over the cover art for hours. Shot by the accla imed British photographer Mick Rock, the accidentally overexposed image shows Reed on stage at what is now the Scala (originally King’s Cross Cinema). Its edgy exuberance perfectly captures the moment. On first seeing the contact sheet, Rock told The Guardian: ‘Lou said immediately that was the shot.’
It shows Reed dressed in a long-sleeved velvet bolero, purchased under the guidance of Angie Bowie from the legendary King’s Road boutique, Granny Takes a Trip. Side note: Keith Moon bought the exact same ensemble. According to Paul Gorman, the journalist and cultural commentator, Granny’s tailoring wunderkind Freddie Hornik rushed Reed’s purchase to his skilled seamstress in Ealing, who stayed up all hours, attaching those sparkling embellishments, adding a couture flourish just for Reed.
The album was a huge hit and gave Reed the superstar status he had so craved. With his painted Max Factor face and swanky attire, he was now dubbed the Phantom of Rock. Yet back in New York, overwhelmed by the mixed reviews, he felt he was losing his rock-poet credibility. According to his wife Bettye, he drank heavily and complained bitterly that the phantom drag made him feel like a clown. A few months later he told Michael Watts of Melody Maker, ‘I only did three or four shows like that, and then it was back to leather. We were just kidding around.’
Yet during that fleeting summer of ’72, Reed and Bowie moved the goalposts of queerness. Some questioned their authenticity. Were they really gay, or just posing? After all, despite all the sexually ambiguous titillations devoured by the press, Bowie had a wife, Angie, and a kid named Zowie; and Reed had Bettye, whom he married upon returning to NYC, and for whom ‘Perfect Day’ had been written.
Here’s my take: with their free-wheeling fluidity they were a harbinger of today’s gender warriors — the pansexual, fluid, non-binary or queer identified. Bowie and Reed were, in other words, simply ahead of their time. They made Harry Styles possible, not to mention Boy George, who in a BBC documentary, Lou Reed Remembered, said: ‘If you’re a quirky kid, in 10 years time you will find Transformer. It might be in your dad’s record collection, or your grandfather’s record collection, whatever, but if you’ve got an ear for music it will resonate with you, and that’s the power of great music.’ RIP Lou. And thank you, London.
‘Transformer: A Story of Glitter, Glam Rock & Loving Lou Reed’ by Simon Doonan is published on 10 Nov (£16.99; HarperOne)