The Last Exquisite's Gasp

robert-campbell-cdRobert Campbell
Living in the Shadows of a Downtown Movie Show
(Decca)

A dandy from the wonder world of finer things, shot through by moments of rarefied charm, the 1977 LP Living in the Shadows of a Downtown Movie Show is probably the last orchestral gasp of Glam at its most mannered and sublime. Robert Campbell represents the poise and attention to detail that punk would ruthlessly eclipse in a chorus of sneers, a shower of spit, and an avalanche of noise. He seems to have quietly slipped into the shadows mentioned in the album's title. There is nothing to suggest that he is alive, or is one of the departed. His lone album the sole evidence of a brief, gaudy flowering, a last lost gem abandoned within the vinyl tin-mine, released too late for the glitter purists, he has been misfiled, ignored, and forgotten.

Campbell comes across like a rather English hybrid of Lou Reed's conversational croakiness. "Dreamboy," with lashings of "Lady Grinning Soul" piano and cascading strings, is a Genet-like prison fandango behind bars, glam at its breathy, prancing best.

Making love with my dreamboy in the hall
Writing our love on the prison walls

"On the Other Side of Town" provides an almost spaghetti western theme, a full but barren sound filling the spaces in a dangerous fashion. Fragile, vulnerable, but bordering on Bowie a la "Diamond Dogs" with neatly strummed guitar, it is a wonderful discovery. The dustbowl scenario has glitter in the sandstorm, and tinsel in the sedge grass blowing down deserted streets. In "Walls I Scream," you'd think Cat Stevens had covered his face with an Aladdin Sane zig-zag flash. If he'd been backed by the Spiders from Mars on Catch Bull at Four, this up-tempo enthusiasm would have been there. Deliciously self-conscious, it pleads,

Scream, I scream a lot you see,
well I stay awake so I can dream
and stay inside, so I can't see those eyes
that look at me.

"Talking About It" marries a neat tango of Bowie's "Rock and Roll Suicide" to Lou Reed's "Caroline Says." You can easily visualize Campbell spidered louchely across the mike stand, all corkscrew curls and Regency dandy cheekbones in a Dennis the Menace red-and-white-stripped, skin-tight top. A perfect cross between Bolan and Mika, but with a deadly stare that outshines them both. The effort of brazen effeteness reigns. "I've Been Here Before" introduces a string arrangement that would have shouldered some lost Scott Walker malady of tortured introspection, a decadent confection that might have graced Simon Warner's magnificent "Waiting Rooms." Campbell presents wasted elegance in a grand, baroque setting. He comes across like Steve Harley in "Toy Soldier," though I could never imagine the rebel Cockney imploring,

Stay and be my toy soldier,
stay and be my friend.
Stay and be my toy soldier
stay with me till the end.

The song has a discreet and dreamy charm, suggestive of quiet beaches on distant shores. "Lady Love" proves a standard rock song, probably included with an eye to becoming a single, but it seems that there never was one.

In "Lions and Shadows" the languid, funky cohesion of Bowie's "Young Americans" rubs shoulders with Jobriath's version of blue-eyed-soul effrontery, but despite wearing his influences bravely on his perfectly upturned sleeves, Campbell's coat of many colors remains defiantly a reflection of his particular personality. "Villa Capri" brings down the curtain, the perfect finale, not just for the album but for the whole Glam ethos. In its sad, heavily orchestrated, backwards glance to glory days, he intones sadly that the party is over. It is Glam's last will and testament. As the arc lights dim and the theater swallows the footsteps of the final stragglers, the last Bohemian leaves in a taxi waiting by the stage door where no-one had queued for an autograph.

Robert Campbell belongs alongside Brett Smiley, David Werner, Jobriath, and John Howard, all of whom have returned to prominence as tastes reconsider and change. His album slipped silently into a time of great change when his kind of fashion was going out of style. I can't imagine Decca troubled him much for a sequel.

Having been played at precious few parties of his time, one can only hope he gets an airing at some of tomorrow's, and that he still is here to emerge from the shadows to take a belated, but much deserved, bow. - Robert Cochrane

cochrane.jpg

Mr. Cochrane is a poet and writer living in Manchester, England. His work has appeared in Mojo, Attitude, and Dazed & Confused. He has published three collections of poems, and Gone Tomorrow, his biography of the rock singer Jobriath, will appear soon.

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