Glam Palace

Originally published February 2008. Updated with more photos.

Shopping with my mum in the 1970s usually involved dull shops like C&A, Richard Shops, and British Home Stores looking at beige polyester slacks and brown nylon tank tops, but once in a while we’d go to the wonderland that was the Biba department store on Kensington High Street. Housed in the Art Deco splendour of the old Derry & Toms building, it looked like a Roxy Music album cover come to life: all mirrors, chrome, leopard skin, ostrich feathers and black walls, and with it’s dark lighting and loud rock music blaring from massive floor speakers it felt more like a nightclub than a store.

Biba started out in the 60s as a poky little boutique off the High Street selling miniskirts and skinny tops to the beautiful young things of Swinging London and by 1973 had expanded into the seven opulent floors of what became known as “Big Biba” which was like some mad Kubla Khan fantasy palace amid the dingy grayness of early 70s England. Their “look” evolved into an extravagant mix of Art Deco elegance with Hollywood glitz and bohemian decadence that defined the trashy cabaret and retro-futuristic look of Glam and the peacock style of 70s rock fashion. Not just the spangly shirts, tight pants, feather boas, and platform shoes, their dark and exotic cosmetics range was perfect for that elegantly wasted look. Lou Reed and Freddie Mercury both wore Biba’s black nail polish and a young suburban girl who would later call herself Siouxsie Sioux took the train into London to buy her red eye shadow there.

The shop’s founder Babara Hulanicki said she designed her clothes for “Fresh little foals with long legs, bright faces and round dolly eyes. Postwar babies who had been deprived of nourishing protein in childhood and grew up into beautiful skinny people” so it wasn’t exactly aimed at single mums with two children like mine, but it was a great place to take us for the day, only a short bus ride away and it was free. You could literally spend all day there and I think we often did, the store actually encouraged hanging out.

For a kid my age Biba was like a theme park, every one of it’s seven floors an exercise in high concept and pure fun, like the men’s department where you could play darts and bowl with a “Mistress Room” that sold lingerie and had a huge leopard-skin bed. For obvious reasons my absolute favourite place was the kid’s department which looked like it had been designed by Lewis Carroll, with a castle and a dog kennel that were big enough to walk into. I remember the kennel had a giant stuffed Snoopy sitting outside that my sister and I desperately wanted mum to buy for us but I think it was beyond her budget. It wouldn’t have fitted into our little council flat anyway.

But while the clothes were meant for skinny, 20-something, Nova-reading, girls about town, at Big Biba they stuck their famous black and gold logo on everything from fashion to furniture, toys, soap powder, and baked beans, so everyone could take home a bit of Biba cool — even eat it on toast. It was probably the world’s first lifestyle emporium (before the concept of “lifestyle” had been invented), you could wear, eat, wash, play, and literally live in Biba.

On the top floor was the gorgeous Rainbow Room restaurant and concert venue which dated back to the 1930s style of the original building. It was the place where 1970s rock and style collided, the clubhouse where Freddie Mercury had afternoon tea, David and Angie Bowie hung out with Mick and Bianca in the evenings, and Bryan Ferry shot his “Let’s Stick Together” video. The New York Dolls played two infamous concerts there (their only London shows I think) and it must be the only place ever to host both the Dolls and Liberace. The Wombles played there too but that’s a whole other story.

Suzi Quatro might not have been as chic as our Bryan but the video for “Devil Gate Drive” was shot at the store too (on the Ground Floor). It shows what a well-know cultural icon the brand had become that the Biba logo is shown so prominently here. Though this must be one of the few cases where a store looks more glamourous than the pop group.

Sadly, Big Biba was only open for two years and closed in 1975, the store was making money but not enough to escape the sinking gloom of the times. During those two years the miners went on strike, the country was put on a three-day work week and power cuts meant that people were living in darkness and some stores were lit by candles in the afternoon.

It’s been said that the store lived up to the rock and roll credo of “live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse”, and looking back there’s something all a bit Weimar Republic about Big Biba with it’s extravagant decadence in the middle of a country falling apart — according to Ziggy Stardust we only had five years left before the end of the world anyway so why not build a monument to dressing up and looking as fabulous as possible.

The Derry & Toms building is now occupied by a Marks & Spencer which about as far from Biba as you can get. I bet they don’t sell black nail polish.

Download: Make Up – Lou Reed (mp3)
Download: Something For The Girl With Everything – Sparks (mp3)
Download: Trash – New York Dolls (mp3)

Buy: “Welcome To Big Biba” (book)


My Favourite Record, age 13

Originally published June 2008.

Some old groups resist rehabilitation, being just too irredeemably naff to ever be reclaimed by the passing of time allowing a new appreciation of their talent. There have been times when, for example, Abba, Barry White, ELO or disco-era Bee Gees were all incredibly un-hip, but now people look back and see incredible pop craftsmanship and forget they were ever put off by their lack of coolness or poor choices in trousers and hairdos.

I can’t imagine that ever happening with Showaddywaddy, they were and will always be a rather cheesy novelty act, dressed up like cartoon Teddy Boys in their rainbow-colored drapes and brothel creepers and having hits (lots of them) with limp cover versions of 1950s rock and roll tunes like “Three Steps To Heaven” and “Under The Moon of Love”. They weren’t even as good as Mud who had a similar image but at least had the good fortune to have their songs written for them by Chinn and Chapman. The only good thing I can think of to say about them was that their drummer was called Romeo Challenger which I think is one of the greatest pop names ever.

I’m pretty sure I thought they were a bit rubbish even when I was a kid but Lord how I loved their 1975 single “Sweet Music” which was one of the few hits they wrote themselves. When I was alone at home I’d play it at full blast (well, as “full blast” as our crappy mono record player could manage) and would literally pump my fist in the air to the chorus (oh, the shame) as if it was some banging rock anthem. Listening to it now it’s not nearly as hard rocking as I thought it was back then, but the chorus is catchy as hell and it has a more of a Glam Rock edge than their usual fare so maybe there was a halfway decent Glam band lurking inside their drape jackets, or maybe they really were as duff as I thought.

Download: Sweet Music – Showaddywaddy (mp3)

Grim All Over

Originally published December 2006. The second ever post on this blog. The general shittiness of 1970s England was to become a theme.

Just how bleak were the 1970s in England? Well, we had a miner’s strike that brought down the government, power cuts that plunged homes into cold darkness, a 3-day work week, bombs going off in pubs, the Winter of Discontent, the National Front, a bankrupt treasury, and “Love Thy Neighbour” on television. No wonder brown was the dominant color for home decoration back then, very appropriate for a country totally in the shit.

Things were so grim that even our pop stars were making depressing movies. First there was pretty boy David Essex dying of a drug overdose at the end of Stardust, and then Slade came up with Slade In Flame in 1975. Given their image as fun-lovin’ glam bovver boys who wrote simple, dyslexic songs, you’d expect a colourful “Help!”-style romp but what you got was a gritty, cynical kitchen-sink drama about the rise and bitter break up of a Northern rock band. Though it had it’s funny moments it was generally as dour as an old Yorkshireman at closing time. If Ken Loach made a rock and roll movie it would have been like this. I only saw it once and remember liking it but my best friend at school was a Slade fanatic and claimed to have seen it 13 times.

The movie’s theme “How Does It Feel?” was another bitter pill and is probably the only time you could ever use the word “plaintive” about a Slade record. I think this is one of the best singles of the 70s, a reflective, melancholy ballad built around some very non-Slade things like piano and flute and a massive wall of brass. There’s something about that brass sound that reeks of leather coats and dirty pavements, I can’t really explain why. Much as I love their mindless headbanging numbers this gem shows that Noddy Holder and Jimmy Lea could write proper songs – with proper spelling too!

The British public didn’t warm to Slade as serious artistes, the movie wasn’t a big smash and “How Does It Feel?” was their first single in three and half years that failed to make the Top 10, so they reverted back to being cartoon characters and stayed that way ever since. Shame. a few more songs like this and their reputation could have been very different.

Download: How Does It Feel? – Slade (mp3)

Something for the Weekend

David Essex was about the only one of the early 70s teenybopper idols my sister worshiped that I wasn’t embarrassed to like. He could sing (as he proves in this clip), he could act, wrote his own songs, and his records sounded great due to their creative production by Jeff Wayne. The bastard was still way too good looking though.

Leather Girl

The idea of Glam Queen Suzi Quatro covering cult synth-pop classic “Warm Leatherette” is like some What If? game that music geeks play in the pub. What if The Sweet did “Shot By Both Sides”? Hot Chocolate covered “Transmission”? Chicory Tip did “Being Boiled”? It’s a fun game to play and the sort of thing that sounds amazing on paper, but you know in real life they would probably be terrible.

The difference is that this is real and very good indeed (better than Grace Jones’ version). While the original is cold and robotic, Suzi’s version is dripping with steamy sex. She even ups the ante by changing the original line “Let’s make love before you die” to “Let’s fuck before you die”.

Recorded during the sessions for her 1980 album Rock Hard it wasn’t released until it appeared on her retrospective boxset The Girl From Detroit City in 2014. I think they made a big mistake not putting this out back then. It’s way more interesting than the bog-standard stomping rock that did make the album and, given that Suzi’s career was past it’s peak by 1980, would have been the perfect record to make her cool again.

Download: Warm Leatherette – Suzi Quatro (mp3)


Apparently Glam Rock was so popular in Holland it inspired enough copycat bands to fill a compilation album and give the genre its own name: Nederglam.

Most of them are pretty terrible but this is great, like a cut-price Suzi Quatro with a chorus that is Glam Rock distilled down to it’s pure essence. This was a big European hit in 1972 but not in the UK for some reason.

Download: Clap Your Hands and Stamp Your Feet – Bonnie St. Claire & Unit Gloria (mp3)

A Bit of Bovver

I love the word Bovver. It reminds me so much of the 1970s when Bovver Boys and Bovver Birds wore Bovver Boots while indulging in a bit of Aggro.

I know Skins and Suedeheads were into Reggae, but I think the perfect soundtrack for sticking the boot in would be some primitive foot-stomping Glam like this from 1974. 

Download: Dance With The Devil – Cozy Powell (mp3)

A drum solo was usually the part of the concert when you went to the bar, but in the 70s they became hit records. I didn’t know until yesterday that Suzi Quatro played bass on this.

In The Pink

I came across this picture online and had to Google “Joanna Lumley + Pink Panther” to discover why she was dressed like that. Turns out she was in Curse of the Pink Panther, one of the misguided ones they made after Peter Sellers died. I haven’t seen it but I imagine it’s terrible. It did give us that picture though.

Some other blogs would have been happy to post “Pretty In Pink” to go with this but not me. I give you a Mud record that isn’t “Tiger Feet” because that’s how I roll.

Download: The Cat Crept In – Mud (mp3)