11/04/98 - City Pages
"From Flannel To Glitter"
by Peter S. Scholtes
"The idea of injecting glamour into rock is hardly novel in the City of
Prince, but the recent local revival of Velvet Goldmine-style early-'70s
glitter-rock theatrics signals something fairly new.
Frustrated with the low-key, barbecuelike atmosphere of most local rock
shows, an increasing number of bands are adopting glam rock's aesthetic
and making the show the thing.
And the shows keep getting better and better. Take All the Pretty
Horses, whose transgendered singer-guitarist Steven Grandell attacks his
ax in corset and high heels, while flanked by dancers in fetish gear. Or
look at the Sandwiches, Detroit, and the Odd, all of which churn out
different strains of goofy meta-rock while garbed in cartoonish outfits.
In their own way, these bands are catching up to the prefab sensibility
pioneered locally by major-label glam-punks Flipp, who have been
successfully championing style-as-substance for years.
But many fans of the current glam crop don't know that the Twin Cities
produced its own bona fide glam band well before the music's mid-'80s
hair-metal revival or Prince's purple reign. In fact, Minnesota glam's
roots can be traced to 1973, when Cheap Trick's first singer, Xeno, left
the Illinois-based power-pop group to join a Minneapolis theater-rock
outfit called Straight Up.
Speaking via telephone from Milwaukee, the singer remembers playing
First Avenue with Cheap Trick in '73, when the club was still called
Uncle Sam's. "That's where I first met Straight Up," he says. "They
showed up in a white limo and offered me $250 a week if I joined their
band, which was a lot for a 21-year-old single guy."
Cheap Trick was pretty glammy itself at the time--their moniker
suggesting both a practical joke and a cheap lay. "We were all dressed
up like sluts," laughs Xeno. "You'd wear your glittery clothes, some
makeup, some scarves, and that's how you went onstage."
But Straight Up took its Bowie-inspired theatrics far more seriously,
and when Xeno joined, he found himself rehearsing and choreographing
carny-style skits and stunts that would make even Kiss blush. With the
help of production manager Paul Stark, who went on to co-found Twin/Tone
Records, the band learned to make artificial snow for a song called
"Freezin' Slowly." They also added video backdrops, smoke bombs, and
shooting flames to their show, which toured to sold-out clubs and
ballrooms throughout the region.
"We did a song about a plane crash," remembers Xeno. "I came out in a
flight suit covered in blood, and at one point someone in the band would
rip my arm off. We'd always end like Alice Cooper, with the band beating
me up." Local rock fans remember other stunts: For one outdoor show,
Xeno was lowered onto the stage from a helicopter. "There were times when I would be raised on a swing to the ceiling and
scream, 'Oh, no!' and let loose a mannequin that looked like me," he
says. "It would fall down and bombs would go off and that would be the
end of the show. I miss doing that sort of thing."
Straight Up did have a lasting impact on the music landscape. Besides
catapulting Xeno into a life of rock 'n' roll--he enjoyed a long run as
front man for Milwaukee's legendary Bad Boy--it also gave an artist soon
to be known as Yanni his first keyboard gig in a band. As of this
writing, a reunion--sans Yanni--is reportedly in the works.
Today, Flipp front man Brynn Arens fondly remembers Straight Up's
excessive live show, while noting that he was too young to know it was
anything new. "To me, that was rock 'n' roll," he says.
Flipp's Arens had been a rabid glam-rocker since the early '70s, when
he bought his first pair of platform heels in the seventh grade. He even
formedhis own band, called Ash of Evil--later Evil Ash, and then just
Ash. "When I was first getting into glam," he says, "one of the things
it subconsciously said to me was, 'Don't be afraid to stand out, don't
be afraid to be yourself.' I always considered the Sex Pistols a glam
band." Glam offered many a Mid-American misfit the same personal freedom
and DIY ethic often associated with punk. As a child growing up in
Duluth, Grandell saw an early-'70s David Bowie performance on late-night
TV and was forever changed. "That was what I wanted to be," he says.
Today his band does a mean live cover of "Space Oddity."
Odd frontman Tom Siler's personal watershed was the early-'90s
Minneapolis band Bean Girl, who never sounded particularly glam but
donned outrageous costumes and satirized other bands in a way that was
unique at the time. "They totally changed a lot of people's idea of what
rock was supposed to be about," Siler says.
But glam, especially semiprofessional glam, is an inherently ephemeral
art; the concerts may leave lasting impressions, but they rarely
translate into great records. Straight Up never made an album, and now
survives only in fans' memories. And though Flipp, the Sandwiches, the
Odd, and All the Pretty Horses have put out decent albums, the
recordings pale in comparison to the live shows.
Yet Grandell, who has also been a painter and performance artist for
years, argues that the transition to the immediate art of rock 'n' roll
has led to a much more satisfying avenue for self-expression. "Painting
is too boring," he says. "I want to be the art, I want to be living in
it." Likewise, being a prominent transgender figure in rock 'n' roll
also makes for more pronounced political impact than in the insulated
performance art world. "With the band, I'm meeting more regular people
who have to deal with me," he says. "It's also easier for me to weather
oppression and discrimination if I know I'mgoing to perform that night.
When you have four-inch heels on, you can do anything."
All the Pretty Horses perform Friday at Club Metro; 489-0002. The Odd
perform Friday at 7th Street Entry, and Cheap Trick perform Thursday,
Friday, and Saturday at First Avenue; 338-8388.