Eyebrow Metal at the Disco Round


Glam in the ’70s may have been the least sonically defined of all musics. A glam band was glam if it was rock and it had people who dressed funny in a glam way (as opposed to funny in a disco way) (or funny in a metal way, though metal rarely admitted the attire was funny—except for Kiss); it also helped, but was not required, that glam singers sing funny in a showy glam way (as opposed to singing funny in a showy disco way or showy metal way). That’s about it. A few glam bands would indulge in a rousing sweetness (Slade, Sweet) that was otherwise not allowed in hard rock of the time. Beyond that, it’s not easy to give a musical reason why the Dolls should be considered closer to Bowie than to Bad Company, or Queen closer to Roxy than to Foreigner. And if a band wants to be glam now, in 2003, the clothes won’t define it, so they need a funnyshow singer.

Electric Six’s Dick Valentine is one of the showiest of them all, and he takes the glam-rock show to the disco round. (The rest of the band—Disco [Bassist], Surge Joebot [Guitarist], M [Drummer], and the Rock and Roll Indian [Another Guitarist]—could be Ziggy Stardust and the Village People from Mars.) About a third of the tracks have disco beats, but what really comes from glam and disco is Valentine’s attitude of “I’m just donning this voice as a way of playing dress-up.” And sure, he’s got virtuoso AOR vocal chops, closer to Foreigner and Bad Company than to the Dolls or Bowie, but AOR virtuosos never came across as “I will wear this particular voice to the Halloween party, as if it were a party hat.”

What’s intriguing is that Valentine wears the same voice to every party, but the effect is different each time. In “Danger! High Voltage” his voice raises its eyebrows in mock horror, in “Electric Demons” it raises its eyebrows in mock evil, in “Improper Dancing” it raises its eyebrows in mock disapproval, in “Nuclear War” it raises its ‘brows in mock lustfulness, in “Dance Commander” it comes on like Colonel Klink raising his eyebrows in mock authoritarianism, in “Getting Into the Jam” it raises its ‘brows in mock passion (and then it raises its pitch and makes cries of “eee-eee,” like a squawking bird, which cries are immediately imitated by the synthesizer). This is the funniest hard-rock album I’ve ever heard; also, the hardest-rocking funny album I’ve ever heard, since if you take away the jokes you’ve still got the power of the music. And the humor doesn’t fade after several listenings, since it doesn’t so much derive from the music doing funny things as from the music being funny. Or maybe it’s just that Valentine’s learned from Mark Twain that if a joke isn’t funny the first time you tell it, keep telling it and telling it until everyone laughs. The first time Valentine compares desire to fire, and passion to an explosion, it’s just a cliché; the second time it’s a stupid cliché; by the fifth it’s sidesplittingly hilarious. I’m TV-deprived, so I’ve yet to see the video, but I can envision “Danger! Danger! High voltage when we touch, when we kiss” being illustrated by little surges of lightning that jump from boy dancer to girl dancer. And I can imagine the boy’s face registering mock surprise at each surge.

The band gets away with playing extravagantly without seeming to be show-offs, since with all the pomp and yucks, their proggish big-guitar virtuosity is apparently beside the point. (Principle Five in the Book of Glam: The showier you are, the less you seem like a show-off.)

And just what does one make of rock-beat lines like “Naked pictures of your mother. Go!” and (all-time great song-opener), “Girl, I want to take you to a gay bar”?

The music swings both ways. On the axis that distinguishes glam from nonglam—the one that shows the relative staginess you’re putting in the singing—a Bryan Ferry, say, symbolizes staginess, while the equally stagy Paul Rodgers (Bad Company) and Lou Gramm (Foreigner) symbolize straightforward emoting. So, even though the Rodgers and Grammerstein sound has more actual twists and tucks and frills than Ferry’s, it’s Ferry’s air of stylized extravagance, not the actual fact of his rather unextravagant voice, that puts him into Glam Land. But Dick Valentine gets to do both, do the glamming and the emoting too. Though he’s got Ferry’s marble-voiced smirk, he can—like Gramm and Rodgers but unlike Ferry—make his voice do acrobatics. Yet he doesn’t fall into Gramm’s over-emoting; or, in fact, he does over-emote like crazy but pulls it off, since the emoting is such obvious and official scenery chewing, such raw comedy, that he can commit himself to all possible voice wiggles and shocks and shrieks without seeming overdramatic. I mean, how many people can sing “I invented the night” as just another line?