From Flannel to Glitter

It's all a blur: All the Pretty Horses' singer-guitarist Steven Grandell
Bill Kelley

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 formed his 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'm going 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.

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