IN THIS PHOTO: Marc Bolan in 1972/PHOTO CREDIT: Keith Morris
Remembering the Great Marc Bolan at Seventy-Two
THAT number, ‘seventy-two’, is important…
IN THIS IMAGE: The cover of T. Rex’s 1971 masterpiece, Electric Warrior
because that year was a pretty important one for T. Rex. I shall come to that in a minute but, on Monday, the late Marc Bolan would have been seventy-two. There are a few reasons why Bolan is on my mind. On 16th September, it was forty-two years since Bolan was killed in a car crash. It is tragic that he died at the tender age of twenty-nine. There were ups and downs in Bolan’s career but, in 1977, one feels that a new rise was beginning; a possible reinvention and growth. It is hard to say but, even though Bolan died young, He achieved so much in his life. We live in an age where there is fairly little joy in music. There is some character and colour, but one suspect we have entered quite a dark and generic time. There are no big scenes and movements uniting us and creating this wave of fascinating music. It is a little sad we do not have the same wonder and inspiration as there was years ago. When I think of Marc Bolan, I picture this man with glitter on his face; a cheeky smile and music that is both electric and seductive. Even though many are familiar with the legendary T. Rex, Tyrannosaurus Rex released four albums and were a different proposition. I think Tyrannosaurus Rex were criticised by some and seen as a bit hippy-dippy and cosmic.
Although the band (Marc Bolan was a constant member, and he was joined by Steve Peregrin Took and Mickey Finn at different points) released a couple of truly spectacular albums – including 1970’s A Beard of Stars -, it was the galvanised T. Rex that really broke through. Perhaps less inspired by the 1960s and a less urgent sound, T. Rex were one the pioneers of the Glam Rock movement. I discovered T. Rex when I was a child and remember listening to their music on cassette. Back then (in the early-1990s), I was listening to songs like Ride a White Swan, Metal Guru and Children of the Revolution and being startled by this unique and stunning sound. The band’s magic scored the songs but it was Bolan’s powerful and gripping voice that added personality and something fresh to each song. It is hard to explain, but I was attracted to this artist who seemed to inhabit his own world yet, oddly, was relatable and someone a child could understand. There was an innocence and playfulness to the music, but there was a sweaty and sexual edge. In fact, T. Rex’s music mixed in so many different emotional and lyrical elements. Although T. Rex released their first album in 1970, the quantum leap came on 1971’s Electric Warrior. With a core of Marc Bolan – vocals, guitar; Mickey Finn – congas, bongos and vocals; Steve Currie – bass guitar and Bill Legend – drums, tambourine, the album is almost like a greatest hits collection! The first side has the incredible Jeepster and Cosmic Dancer; the second side has Get It On, Girl and Life’s a Gas.
There is this great balance of the bigger hits and anthems and tracks like Planet Queen and The Motivator that are a little less urgent but then get into the head and under the skin. The album is unique but it is also responsible for inspired Glam Rock artists and developing the genre. One could say that David Bowie got inspiration from Electric Warrior – Bowie released Hunky Dory in 1971 and it would be a year until he released Ziggy Stardust to the world. It is clear what Marc Bolan and T. Rex created a revolution on Electric Warrior. In this review, AllMusic explain its genius:
“The music recalls not just the catchy simplicity of early rock & roll, but also the implicit sexuality -- except that here, Bolan gleefully hauls it to the surface, singing out loud what was once only communicated through the shimmying beat. He takes obvious delight in turning teenage bubblegum rock into campy sleaze, not to mention filling it with pseudo-psychedelic hippie poetry. In fact, Bolan sounds just as obsessed with the heavens as he does with sex, whether he's singing about spiritual mysticism or begging a flying saucer to take him away. It's all done with the same theatrical flair, but Tony Visconti's spacious, echoing production makes it surprisingly convincing. Still, the real reason Electric Warrior stands the test of time so well -- despite its intended disposability -- is that it revels so freely in its own absurdity and willful lack of substance.
IN THIS PHOTO: Marc Bolan in 1973/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Not taking himself at all seriously, Bolan is free to pursue whatever silly wordplay, cosmic fantasies, or non sequitur imagery he feels like; his abandonment of any pretense to art becomes, ironically, a statement in itself. Bolan's lack of pomposity, back-to-basics songwriting, and elaborate theatrics went on to influence everything from hard rock to punk to new wave. But in the end, it's that sense of playfulness, combined with a raft of irresistible hooks, that keeps Electric Warrior such an infectious, invigorating listen today”.
1972’s The Slider brought tracks such as Metal Guru and Telegram Sam; the band were on a hot streak and at the forefront was the insatiable, nuanced voice of Bolan. By 1974’s Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow, it is clear T. Rex were in decline and some of the stardust was missing. 1977’s Dandy in the Underworld was resurgence and, sadly, suggested T. Rex were hitting their stride once more. 1971-1972 is their classic period and one where Marc Bolan was sitting proud on the throne. I admire David Bowie hugely but there is something about Marc Bolan that defined the early-1970s and Glam Rock. As a child discovering Bolan and T. Rex years after their formation, I was used to Pop and a very different sound. Having my eyes and mind opened in such a way is an experience that has stayed with me. I just have to think of songs such as Hot Love (released a single in 1971) and Metal Guru and I am transported back.
Even though Marc Bolan has inspired musicians such as Johnny Marr, I don’t think anyone in the modern age could pull off the moves, looks and licks of Bolan. An incredible guitarist, songwriter and lead, he exuded charisma, sexuality and tenderness. There are some great Marc Bolan biographies available that give you an insight into this iconic. I have been looking at articles online that talk about Bolan; his highs and lows and more troubled side. Looking at this article from The Telegraph, it is clear that, underneath the hooks and catchy songs, there was this rare and, at times, egotistical star (as T. Rex’s producer, Tony Visconti, explained):
“Bolan took it back to its primal roots of snappy hooks and naggingly memorable choruses. Songs like Get It On, Hot Love, Telegram Sam were love letters to lusting adolescents. Beneath the satin tat, the feather boas and top hats, Bolan had
the sultry, pouting look of a corrupt cherub, strutting for a legion of adoring pubescent fans. 'It was like, this is where he belonged all along,' says Visconti. Bolan played the role of pop idol to the hilt. He splashed out on clothes, guitars, a Rolls-Royce (even though he was unable to drive). Always possessed of a self-belief that could border on the messianic, he now became impossibly self-regarding; his interviews bragging sessions.
'If God were to appear in my room,' he told one journalist, 'obviously I would be in awe, but I don't think I would be humble. I might cry, but I think he would dig me like crazy.' His friend and rival David Bowie was dismissed as 'a one-hit wonder'. Bolan accused Lennon of trying to imitate him, and boasted to Visconti that David Niven wanted to make a film with him. 'It was completely untrue,' says Visconti. No matter how successful he was, it was never enough. 'I used to phone EMI each day for the sales figures,' remembers Visconti, 'and at one point Hot Love was selling more than 25,000 copies a day - an astronomical number. It was number one for seven weeks. Marc would phone me 40 minutes later and say, "Hi Tone, guess what it sold yesterday - 50,000!" '
PHOTO CREDIT: Alamy
Forty-two years after his death, you can feel aspects of Marc Bolan in the air; elements and layers that have been passed down through the years. I think he is one of the most underrated artists of the 1970s and, as I said earlier, he made an impact on me when I was a child. I am still a huge fan of T. Rex and listen to the albums when I need that boost and blast. Their music can raise the spirits but it has swagger and potent spirituality – listen back to Tyrannosaurus Rex and there is a flavour of Marc Bolan discovering himself and sowing the initial seeds of promise. What makes Bolan so revered, timeless and cool? This feature discussed Bolan’s riffs, style and influence:
“Keith Richards may have rightly earned himself the epithet of ‘The Human Riff’, but it was to Bolan (a veritable guitar-slinger in his own right) that The Smiths and Oasis looked to in penning some of their most memorable numbers. Evidently, Morrissey didn’t take Bolan’s rejection of his request for an autograph to heart, as Panic is, according to Smiths bassist Andy Rourke, “more or less a note for note take on Metal Guru”, while the chorus of Shoplifters of the World Unite owes much to that of Bolan’s Children of the Revolution. It also goes without saying that without the raunchy riffery of Bolan’s biggest hit, Get it On, there wouldn’t have been the Gallagher brothers’ Cigarettes and Alcohol. So down and dirty were Bolan’s riffs that even Guns ‘n’ Roses covered one of his songs, Buick Mackane, on 1993’s The Spaghetti Incident.
It didn’t matter that Bolan was short – “I know I’m small, but I enjoy living anyway,” he sang on Spaceball Ricochet; what he lacked in length he more than made up for in style. One look at the cover of The Slider, featuring Bolan with a leather top hat above his trademark ‘corkscrew hair’, is enough to have Slash’s look all figured out. On the same note, Temples frontman James Bagshaw is a spitting image of Bolan, who had epitomised the whole ethereal curly-mopped look long before he or St. Vincent ever came tottering along. That’s all aside from the many who have imitated and been influenced by Bolan’s signature vocal quavering (which he’d picked up as a child by singing to records played at faster speeds), such as David Bowie (on Black Country Rock), Devendra Banhart, and Anohni.
From trippy acoustic folk to bluesy rock, glam, and even heavy metal, Bolan’s wide musical range was impressive. At times, it seemed there was nothing Bolan couldn’t do, and, while his most popular albums may be similar in sound and style, listening to his oeuvre in its entirety reveals a diverse array of aural vistas. In the late seventies, when punk and new-wave were taking over England, and the old establishment crumbling, Bolan actively promoted bands like Generation X, The Jam, and The Boomtown Rats – to children – on his television programme, ‘Marc’, in addition to touring with The Damned in 1977. Before he could tinker any further with his own sound, though, the dandy truly left the dudes above for the underworld, just two weeks shy of his 30th birthday.
I can imagine Marc Bolan turning seventy-two on Monday and still being the same man as he was back in the Seventies. I feel he would be a little shocked at how the industry has changed and, with David Bowie gone, he would be one of the last-surviving Glam Rock gods. I do think Marc Bolan was truly one of a kind and his music will last forever. You only have to listen to the majestic hooks and vocals and you are transported somewhere special. On Monday, I will be raising a glass to the truly…
MAGNIFICENT Marc Bolan.