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Gary Glitter, Re-Writing Musical History & The Danger Of Censorship
Johnny Sharp , October 31st, 2013 11:36

Gary Glitter has been omitted from a recent major compilation about glam. Johnny Sharp argues that such censorship and re-writing of musical history is dangerous, no matter how heinous the artist's crime. Photo from Shutterstock.

There's no question that the new glam rock box set, Oh Yes We Can Love is a cut above your average genre compilation. It benefits from an imaginative track listing tracing glam's roots back to Noel Coward and the Ingoma drummers of Burundi Black, and then following its influence forward through artists as diverse as Suede, The Sisters of Mercy and Boney M.

It's a brilliantly curated collection that deserves the plaudits it has already received. Earlier this week, Alexis Petridis on the Guardian's podcast recommended it as a box set that "genuinely tells a story", and he's right. It stands as a shining example of how to put a historical genre compilation together. But he also says "All the obvious candidates are here".

Not quite – there is one notable omission. One major character from the glam rock story has been edited out: Gary Glitter.

With any compilation or list, there are going to be complaints about certain acts not making the cut, but this is different. Because we all know why Glitter isn't on there. Daryl Easlea, who compiled the track listing for Universal, argued: "If we'd included Glitter, it would have overshadowed everybody's contributions and music". Rubbish. For one thing, no single act is included more than once among the 91 tracks, so he'd hardly stick out like a spangly sore thumb. And even if the tabloids decided to stick their oar in and stir things up, the label could have presented the same argument as the BBC did when they showed an episode of Top Of The Pops featuring Glitter: We can't be expected to rewrite history.

But in omitting Glitter from this compilation, that's effectively what they've done. It was an inspired choice to include the Burundi drummers in the box set, so you'd have thought it would make sense to include, for instance, 'Rock & Roll (Parts 1&2)' as a seminal example of the double drummer stomp that was a trademark characteristic of the glam sound, which was so clearly present in post-punk pop like Adam & The Ants.

Instead they have included The Glitter Band's 'Angel Face', which Easlea argues is "on a par with any of their on-stage leader's work." No disrespect to the Glitter Band, who have not had an easy time of it (as John Robb recounted here), but I think he'll be in a very small minority taking that view.

Elsewhere, The Human League's cover of 'Rock & Roll' manages to get Glitter's music in there by the back door, but the man himself remains conspicuously absent.

I find that disappointing, and something of a dangerous precedent to set. Because it suggests that we should judge music's validity according to some sort of 'fit and proper person' test on the individuals who made it. And it seems to validate the notion that we should actively avoid listening to the music of anyone whose off-stage behaviour we disapprove of.

Once you start doing that, you could quite easily deny the significance of pop music's biggest figures. How can we still venerate John Lennon if we believe Cynthia's claims that he was a wife-beater? Aren't we basically adding insult to any domestic violence victim's injuries every time we put Plastic Ono Band on?

And surely it's worse when the records actively glorify appalling behaviour. When we play Beggar's Banquet, how can we not at least press 'skip' on the CD player when 'Stray Cat Blues' comes on? Or do we think having sex with 15-year-olds is OK, and a suitable topic for a rock & roll song, and that Bill Wyman did nothing untoward with Mandy Smith? Meanwhile, should we even be allowed to listen to Snoop Dogg's 'Ain't No Fun (If The Homies Can't Have None)' if we agree that it's not just full of misogyny, but is basically endorsing gang rape?

I can understand why people sometimes find it difficult to listen to music if they can't detach it from their views of the people that made it. There's no getting away from the fact that knowing unsavoury things about someone's character can taint your enjoyment of their art. And it's often a personal thing, even if the 'crime' is insignificant by Glitter's standards – I dare say I might have been less inclined to listen to Transformer if I'd been on the receiving end of one of Lou Reed's more gratuitously awful interviews. Likewise, my ex-girlfriend could never watch Vic Reeves on telly because he once told her to fuck off at a party.

But personal aversion to someone is different from suggesting that someone's off-stage crimes make their music somehow less fit for human consumption. And furthermore, that way lies censorship, which I honestly believe is anathema to the whole nature of pop music.

As an art form, rock & roll has always been outlaw country, and if we acknowledge that then we have to accept that it's a place where people can say the unsayable, and mad, bad motherfuckers can do their worst. And yes, I even believe that includes 24-carat scumbags like Skrewdriver. You can't have one rule for musicians advocating rape, murder and drug use and another for those spouting extreme right-wing views.

They all deserve to be called out on their views, their gigs picketed and their bullshit shown up for what it is. But trying to deny that these people and their views exist is counter-productive, and gagging them only gives them a chance to claim to be victims of a different kind of fascism.

But the platform-for-fascists question is a nest of vipers that lies slightly outside the subject we're addressing. To bring the argument back to its original hook, what if we were making an exhaustive historical box set of hip-hop? Would we omit odious twerps like The Geto Boys, despite the fact they represent the logical conclusion of the gangsta rap genre and made some half-decent records? Would we keep Mayhem out of a black metal retrospective because of their gruesome lyrics and appalling behaviour of past members and associates? And when representing the history of punk in musical form, would we leave out even the early, non-fascist material of Skrewdriver because of the Nazi poison they became synonymous with? I mean, maybe you'd leave it out because it's not very good, but…

Next month, the trial of former Lostprophets singer Ian Watkins for child sex offences is due to start. He may of course be cleared of any wrongdoing, but if he's convicted, next time someone makes a compilation of Welsh indie-rock from the early 2000s, are we to find Lostprophets strangely absent? If the very presence of music made by a man who is found to have done very bad things in his private life is an affront to decency, then maybe that's the only way to go.

But what else would you try to retrospectively censor? How about removing from sale all those back issues of Kerrang! featuring his evil face? If we can't ban their records like Mein Kampf in post-war Germany, how about slapping stickers on their CDs, warning kids that a bad kiddy-fiddler's voice is on this music, so be careful in case there are hidden messages imploring you to do very wrong things too?

Once you start, where do you stop?