The summer of 1972 was perhaps the campiest and glitziest time in British history. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars — David Bowie’s fifth album — had landed. Glam rock was at its peak. After struggling for success for most of the 1960s, Bowie was now center stage and lit by the spotlight, wearing nothing but a shimmering knit leotard and feather boa.
On Saturday August 19, I laced up my towering Bata platform shoes, put on my Mr Freedom pleated flares and headed – with a group of pals from my home town of Reading – to the Finsbury Park Rainbow for watch Bowie unleash his incarnation of Ziggy. For me, a semi-closed gay boy 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. It was my emerald city.
Every glittering magpie in London – gay, straight, crazy, happy – was at the Rainbow that night. And so, apparently, was Lou Reed. Not known for his accolades, he described Bowie’s Rainbow show in the press as “the greatest thing I’ve ever seen”. Reed was spending the summer in London, working with Bowie, his guitarist Mick Ronson and Ken Scott, the record producer and engineer who helped Bowie create his sound on Hunky-dory, Ziggy and then, sane aladdin. Together they recorded Reed’s defining album, Transformer, at Trident Studios in St Anne’s Court, a small backstreet in Soho (a Ziggy plaque now marks the spot.) German musician and artist Klaus Voormann, one of rock’s hottest hunks, played bass guitar on four of Trident’s tracks. “Lou and David got along like a world on fire,” he recalls. ‘These are two who have found each other. Their discussions were witty, funny and cheeky. It was very campy. Lou had his fingernails painted black and played a fantastic rhythm guitar.
Lou and David got along like a world on fire. It was very camp
Fortunately, Reed’s Transformer interlude offered him a break from the wicked streets of America – drugs, the Vietnam War, race riots and his personal madness – and plunged him into the frothy superficiality that defined London. around 1972. And why not? Instead of exorcising his demons in the back room of Max’s Kansas City, he could dance with the vogue model and muse of Salvador Dalí Amanda Lear — or me! – at The Masquerade in Earl’s Court; or hang out at El Sombrero, the aficionados’ nightclub on Kensington High Street, just around the corner from cult fashion boutique Biba.
“Glam rock was an incredible amount of fun,” fashion writer Tim Blanks says of the particular frivolity of the moment. “It felt like something belonged to us. We could be complete freaks, teenagers of nightmarish confidence causing havoc. Glam rock was an incredible license to be you, stupid and fabulous; be the devoted fan rather than the detached spectator.
It has now been 50 years since Transformer was released on November 8, 1972. For fans like me, this album blew our gay joints. For months, all the queens of London could be heard singing “Vicious!” You hit me with a flower. We could all emulate Bowie’s ‘pom pom pom’ voice on ‘Satellite of Love’. Transformer was our Sergeant Pepper. I remember poring over the cover for hours. Taken by acclaimed British photographer Mick Rock, the accidentally overexposed image shows Reed on stage at what is now La Scala (originally King’s Cross Cinema). Her daring exuberance perfectly captures the moment. Upon seeing the contact sheet for the first time, Rock said The Guardian: ‘Lou said right away that it was on.’
It shows Reed dressed in a long-sleeved velor bolero, bought under the direction of Angie Bowie at the legendary King’s Road boutique, Granny Takes a Trip. Additional note: Keith Moon purchased the exact same set. According to Paul Gorman, journalist and cultural commentator, Granny tailoring prodigy Freddie Hornik rushed Reed’s purchase from her skilled seamstress in Ealing, who stayed on her feet all day, attaching those sparkling embellishments, adding a sewing touch just for Reed.
The album was a huge hit and gave Reed the superstar status he had so longed for. With his painted Max Factor face and chic outfit, he was now nicknamed the Ghost of Rock. Yet, back in New York, overwhelmed by mixed reviews, he felt he was losing his credibility as a rock poet. According to his wife Bettye, he drank heavily and complained bitterly that ghost drag made him feel like a clown. A few months later, he told Michael Watts melody maker, ‘I only did three or four shows like that, and then it came back to leather. We were just kidding.
Yet in that fleeting summer of 1972, Reed and Bowie moved the goalposts of homosexuality. Some have questioned their authenticity. Were they really gay or were they just posing? After all, despite all the sexually ambiguous titillation devoured by the press, Bowie had a wife, Angie, and a child named Zowie; and Reed had Bettye, whom he married on his return to New York, and for whom “Perfect Day” had been written.
Here’s my take: with their freewheeling fluidity, they were a harbinger of today’s gender warriors – the identified pansexual, fluid, non-binary, or gay. 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 rememberssaid, “If you’re an eccentric kid, in 10 years you’ll find Transformer. It might be in your father’s record collection, or your grandfather’s, whatever, but if you have a musical ear, it will resonate with you, and that’s the power of good music. RIP Lou. And thank you, London.
‘Transformer: A Story of Glitter, Glam Rock & Loving Lou Reed’ by Simon Doonan is out November 10 (£16.99; HarperOne)