Forty years ago Glam Rock was huge in Britain. In March 1974, Suzi Quatro’s Devil Gate Drive and Alvin Stardust’s Jealous Mind both in turn topped the singles chart; David Bowie’s Rebel Rebel wasn’t far behind in the top ten and even Lulu, repeat Lulu, got in on the act with the encouragement of Bowie, who co-produced her cover of The Man Who Sold the World and this also made the top ten. Then there was Marc Bolan and T.Rex, Mott the Hoople, Sweet, Slade, Roxy Music, Barry Blue and an assortment of others. Glam Rock was a broad church, some were fresh from art school, others were fresh from a summer season at Butlin’s.
Scotland had a few glam or glam influenced bands too, Salvation supported Sweet at the Glasgow Apollo towards the tail-end of 1973 and later changed their name to Slik and scored a #1 single, Molls Myre had a sizeable local following and claimed to be ‘Scotland’s No. 1 Glitter Band’ and there was also Bilbo Baggins, who went through a number of image changes but never embraced the full on glam look with the same gusto that the best of the bunch, Iron Virgin, did.
Hailing from the Edinburgh area, Iron Virgin, gigged regularly across the country, playing a mix of their own numbers along with some of the hits of the day such as David Bowie’s Suffragette City and Hang onto Yourself and Get Down & Get With It by Slade.
They signed to Deram, an offshoot of Decca that had been synonymous with psychedelia in the late 1960s, and went into the studio with Nick Tauber, who’d just established his reputation by producing a pair of Thin Lizzy albums, Shades of a Blue Orphanage and Vagabonds of the Western World.
I still remember reading about Iron Virgin in the pages of the Daily Record, where they were tipped for fame and fortune and photographed modelling a look that even by the excessive fashions of the day managed to stand out: red and yellow American football gear – including the helmets, although instead of NFL style cleats, Iron Virgin made the bold and possibly preposterous decision to stick with their monumentally high platform boots – I doubt they would ever have made many touchdowns wearing those but hey, the photo certainly lodged itself in my mind.
Unfortunately, the success predicted for them failed to materialise and the band wasn’t destined to stay together for too much longer after the relative chart failure of the two singles they released.
Maybe it would all have been very different if they had taken up one of the few publicity stunts that their record company suggested to them – biting the heads off budgies in Trafalgar Square. It certainly didn’t do Ozzy Osbourne’s career any harm when he did something similar with a bat, did it?
Like many other acts of the era, Iron Virgin quietly faded into obscurity until, that is, a new phenomenon surfaced that sought to give the flotsam and jetsam of the glam years a little bit more recognition. This was dubbed ‘Junkshop Glam’ and its arrival was signalled by articles springing up in Record Collector, Mojo and the Guardian, and on eBay, some of these records becoming much sought after collector’s items.
Compilation albums such as Boobs and Glitterbest, featuring an array of talent like Hector, Hot Rod, the Boston Boppers and Barry Blood, were released to wide and pretty much universal acclaim and perhaps the most enthusiastically received of these rediscovered gems was Iron Virgins’ Rebel Rules, an exuberant glam stomper written with a teenage rampage in mind, which possessed one of the great runaway choruses of the mid ’70s; a Scottish School’s Out that sounded like pop gold from the savagely pounded drum intro all the way through the sudden Stand Up-Up-Up-Up-Up! fade-out.
This song, track one on the excellent Velvet Tinmine Various Artists compilation released by RPM Records, would go on to give its name to a club night in Glasgow and be singled out for praise in one of the world’s most highly regarded newspapers.
I spoke with guitarist Gordon Nicol about his days as a member of what might well have been the best British glam act to never land a hit single about his time with Iron Virgin and his reaction to the renewed interest in his former band during the last decade or so.
What were the circumstances that led to you joining the ranks of Iron Virgin?
They came to my house to have a look at a Taylor amp (made locally) which I had bought as they were interested in getting one themselves. They were obviously thinking about adding another guitarist as, once they had tried out the amp, they asked me to join. But first, I had to shave my beard off!
Seems like a fair deal.
Yep, they were extremely image conscious so, if I wanted to join, the beard had to go. I’m sure there were a couple of other restrictive stipulations but can’t remember them now…
Did Iron Virgin see themselves as ‘Glam Rockers’ or just a rock band that happened to wear some of the styles of the day?
At that time, I’m pretty certain that the term glam rock didn’t exist. We were just a band that loved Slade, Sweet, Bowie, Elton John etc and we emulated our heroes by getting tarted up, wearing the biggest platform boots we could find and endeavouring to give our audience a great show.
We wanted to make people gasp and gawk at us.
Which leads me on to – I see you sold a pair of your old platform boots on eBay!
Yes I did. I lived in Texas for almost 30 years and then moved to Santa Barbara for just over a year. These boots had travelled with me all that distance, but things were really tough for me over there and I just gave up and decided to come back home to Scotland in 2009. So, since I had very little room in my baggage, I decided to sell them.
Is it true that the early image of the band was based on the Droog look from A Clockwork Orange?
It was really only John, our drummer, who went the whole hog and wore the bowler hat, eye makeup and carried a stick. I remember marching through the crowd to the strains of The March from A Clockwork Orange with John leading us. I was so sure we were going to get beaten up by the assembled masses and my heart was pumping big time. Fortunately, the crowd must have been more bemused than ready for bovver.
Who came up with the idea of the American football outfits?
Can’t quite remember who came up with that idea but I would bet that since it was such a crazy idea, it likely was Decca. We asked Decca (we always referred to them as Decca not Deram because in our minds it was Decca who signed us. We hadn’t even heard of Deram until our single came out and it was on the Deram label) to get us the outfits and they said they would. We asked over and over but, like most other things, as usual it was an empty promise. Unlike them though, we were always determined and, even although we had never seen an American football outfit close up, other than on TV, we made them ourselves!
I’m guessing nowadays you could just go online and order the outfits within minutes or even find a tutorial on how to make them but that couldn’t have been easy back then?
First we got motorcycle crash helmets and painted them. Then we got some aluminium tubing and attached it to the helmets for the face guard. Then we bought oversize bright red T-shirts. We found some foam backed cardboard and made that into our padding. Next, we cut out some numbers from some bright yellow fabric and Stuart sewed them on the T-shirts. Finally, we bought bright yellow ‘loon pants’ and… voila! Stuart of course already had some great looking yellow boots with red strips on the platforms so I’m betting that Stuart came up with the colour scheme so that it would match his boots.
Did you play live in that garb?
It’s amazing how many people thought that we actually played in these outfits but, to be honest, we never actually did, these were purely for publicity. I can’t begin to imagine how hot it would be wearing these helmets in the places we played filled with hot and sweaty teenagers. They were real padded motorcycle helmets not props.
Ha, I was thinking more the actual outfits rather than the helmets.
Possibly if we been able to purchase some extremely lightweight helmets, we might have managed but, as usual, our budget wouldn’t allow it and these cheapskates at Decca wouldn’t do anything for us unless they absolutely had to.
Could you tell me about playing live with Iron Virgin?
Our shows were pretty dynamic. We were never a band to just go on stage, put our heads down and play. We really loved to put on a show and give our fans more than their money’s worth. We always got dressed up as glam as we could and even dabbled in some makeup. Stuart, our front man, really was superb at making some of our costumes. As well as making all his onstage outfits, Stuart made most of mine too and, to be totally honest, we couldn’t have bought better outfits anywhere. The jump suit I wore was two pieces of material. One side was white with purple polka dots. The other was purple with white polka dots. He also gave the sleeves a ‘joker’ look with jagged edges.
And how did the live act go down tend to go down?
To give you an idea how some of our gigs went, here’s what happened when we played Clouds in Glasgow. It was a great place and we only played there once but it had everything going for it. A really amazing atmosphere and hoochin’ with tons of people thronging the dance floor.
Yeah I remember going to see bands there when it rebranded itself as Satellite City, great venue for live music.
But we were banned after our one and only gig there. At that time, we opened our act with ELO’s Roll Over Beethoven. But… the manager of Clouds told us before we went on, that if we did our usual open and the crowd stopped dancing we wouldn’t be back there ever again. This was serious stuff because Clouds was the kind of place every band would want to play and to risk losing this prestige gig was to throw caution to the wind.
We didn’t even need to discuss this. We were unanimous. The show must go on… All three guitarists were seated and Stuart, our singer, was resplendent in tux and tails with his back to the audience ‘conducting’ us in the intro which was the immediately identifiable Beethoven’s 5th. Just when it went into that unmistakeable Chuck Berry guitar riff, Stuart would rip off the tails (the whole outfit was cunningly velcroed by Stuart himself so he could quickly disrobe) and reveal his gold lame jump suit replete with chastity belt, ‘No Entry’ sign and padlocks.
The 1970s, eh? What can I say?
Then, the rest of the band would kick the chairs aside and leap to their feet and rock! This was a real showstopper and that’s exactly what happened. The crowd just totally stopped dancing and gaping at us, struck by the absolute theatre of it all and, because of that, we were banned. Management wanted the crowd to be dancing the whole time. I dearly wish we had a video of this great piece of staging.
So have I got this right – your record company encouraged you to release a version of the Wings track Jet from Band on the Run. And then Paul McCartney, who’d given you permission to record the song, decided that Wings should bring out their own version as a single. Which I’m guessing scuppered your chances of scoring a hit with it?
Yes and no. We wanted to record our own songs but Decca had other ideas. They didn’t ‘encourage’ us, Nick Tauber told us that we would be recording Jet. I actually never heard any mention at all of McCartney giving his permission or Decca asking him. They just said that’s the song we would be recording. We had it recorded round about Christmas but Decca dragged and dragged their feet, so it was February before it was released. Had they got it out sooner, I’m certain it could have been a hit. At that time, with no commercial radio, the only chance of getting a hit was that it must be played on the BBC. There was a show called Rosko’s Round Table.
I remember it. Early evening every Friday.
A couple of famous pop stars and a few BBC DJs would judge that week’s releases. Neil Sedaka was the celebrity and Tony Blackburn, Emperor Rosko and possibly others were on when our single hit the airwaves. That was an incredibly exciting day for us I can tell you. To hear your very first single ‘on the radio’. What an accolade! It was given a favourable review and got played a fair amount of times and we were sure that it was only a matter of time… but Mr. McCartney decided to release it as a single himself. End of story. Although, at a later date, Decca told us that we had reached number 11 in the Dutch charts but I have no corroboration of that.
How near did Rebels Rule get to the top 30?
To be honest, I have no idea. Back then in the prehistoric times of before the internet, there wasn’t much chance of finding out unless you got into the charts. I mean I don’t think anyone would say, “Well guys, you’re getting close.” Whereas today, I’m sure everyone’s only a few clicks away from gleaning that sort of info.
Have you got any theories why it didn’t do better commercially?
Glad you see such potential in Rebels Rule. I think it’s quite simple really, Decca did very little in the way of promotion. We were always begging them with our imaginative ideas like sending them silly poems just to try and get them off their fat arses and do something. But they did very little. One good thing was, at that time quite a few big name bands would do a jingle of their single for some of the BBC DJs and we did one for Noel Edmonds. It went, ‘Stand up, Stand up, Stand up for Noel Edmonds’ to the tune of Rebels Rule. He played that jingle for years. Wish I had a copy. So, I feel that, had the mass public been exposed to Rebels Rule it would have had a really good chance of becoming a hit.
Do you find it odd that’s there’s still so much interest in the band. Even the New York Times praised Rebels Rule when it was included in Velvet Tinmine.
I don’t find it odd. I’m constantly amazed at the amount of interest and I find it really quite fun and it really gives me personally a feeling of Wow! That people 40 years later are even talking about the band I was part of and the songs we played. It’s just really cool!
Glad you feel that way about it. I would be too if it was me.
I have heard many contemporary music critics and general punters say they can’t believe that Rebels Rule wasn’t a hit and what’s really amazing is that they are all youngish people – today’s generation. Anyone I play it to, young or older all seem to love it. So, it really has to just be lack of promotion I think.
After Rebels Rule, what happened to Iron Virgin? How did things end?
It didn’t take very long before we split up. It was a very fractious band. Laurie and Marshall could easily spend three hours just arguing about who knows what and totally wasting everyone else’s time. I just used to despair thinking that we could have spent all that time practising or doing something constructive instead of these two selfishly wasting our time. John was tossed out the band just as we were about to drive to London to record Rebels Rule and a few other songs. Fortunately, my twin brother George agreed to go down with us substituting for John and so the Nicol twins contributed quite a lot to Rebels Rule, Ain’t No Clown and a few other songs.
I love the drumming on Rebels Rule.
George gave it ‘laldy’ on the intro and produced that signature sound of thumping drums which quite defined Glam Rock at that time. Poor George had never recorded before and was in for quite a shock. He had never worn headphones and was totally distracted by the headphone cord which kept getting in the way of cymbal smashes and such. He never had a clue how long and arduous the recording process was and couldn’t believe it took a whole week to create a single. Our producer, Nick Tauber used to arrogantly brag, ‘It takes me 5 hours to get a drum sound.’ And it friggin’ did!!! much to George’s disgust. He was exhausted by the end of the week.
It was definitely worth it. Thanks for taking the time to talk, Gordon.