Glam rock was the era in which music openly acknowledged its superficiality. Originating in the United Kingdom in the early 1970s and characterised by artists wearing outrageous clothes, makeup and hairstyles. Platform-soled boots and glitter were commonplace and the flamboyant costumes and visual styles of glam performers were often camp or androgynous. Artists such as Marc Bolan and T-Rex, David Bowie, Sweet, Roxy Music and Gary Glitter enjoyed extraordinary success. However, for every one of these artists there were scores of glam divas waiting in the wings.
Take for example, Jobriath, the first openly gay rock star, who released two wonderfully camp and epic albums in the early 1970s, Jobriath (1973) and Creatures of the Street (1974) before the few members of the public who had been turned onto him turned against him. He lived out the rest of his days in the Chelsea Hotel, where he became one of the first rock casualties of the AIDs virus in 1983.
Whilst Jobriath briefly managed to release his music, the subject of today’s Song of the Day was dealt a more cruel fate. That subject is Brett Smiley, who to all intents and purposes had the makings of a successful glam rock superstar. Young, blonde, beautiful and androgynous, Smiley began his career as a child actor, playing Oliver on Broadway before being discovered by Rolling Stones manager, Andrew Loog Oldham at the age of 16 in 1972. Two years later, he was given a $200,000 recording deal and recorded the album Breathlessly Brett. The album was produced by Oldham and featured Steve Marriott on guitar. The first single from the album was the glam-stomping rock thrash out, Va Va Va Voom.
Va Va Va Voom was filled with all the elements that should have made it a glam classic, including wonderfully noisy guitars and a masterful sax line as worthy as those found in Bowie songs such as Suffragette City (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972).
The Bowie influence is also prevalent on Va Va Va Voom’s B-side, Space Ace.
Space was a regular theme in glam rock music, think T-Rex songs such as Spaceball Ricochet …
… and Ballrooms of Mars (both from The Slider, 1972) …
… and of course, probably the main source of inspiration here, Bowie’s most famous character creation, Ziggy Stardust.
The sound on Space Ace is suitably cinematic, fitting for the era in which it was born, whilst the lyrics, sung in Smiley’s distinctive and breathy voice, spiral like a freefall through outer space.
Around the time of the single’s release, Smiley appeared on the Russell Harty Plus TV programme, where he was interviewed alongside Andrew Loog Oldham and gave a startlingly over the top performance of Space Ace.
Unfortunately for a single that by all rights should have become a classic, it bombed and the album was shelved. Smiley all but disappeared, save for a blink and you’ll miss it cameo in Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo (1980), as well as starring roles in a few ill-advised pornographic movies, and wasn’t heard from again until 2003 when RPM Records acquired the master tapes for the Breathlessly Brett album. In the intervening 29 years, Smiley had been wallowing in a gargantuan drug addiction somewhere on skid row. In 2005, Smiley was the subject of Nina Antonia’s book The Prettiest Star: Whatever Happened to Brett Smiley. Now free of his drug addiction, Smiley is back recording and performing, mainly around New York City.