The relatively fleeting period of Bolanmania and T. Rextacy notwithstanding, Marc Bolan was not always necessarily afforded the respect his extraordinary talent deserved. But the subsequent decades have brought a new admiration of a unique and quintessential pop star.
Each year, the anniversary of Bolan’s dreadfully early death on September 16, 1977, is marked by his loyal devotees with commemorative events. They celebrate a one-off frontman, poet, and poster boy for the glam rock years who is, in the minds of his fans, forever 29. Bolan would have turned 30 years old exactly two weeks after his passing.
Bolan’s finest moments, presented here, embrace some of his key early work in his own name, with John’s Children and Tyrannosaurus Rex, vintage hits from the height of Bolanmania, well-loved album tracks, and later T. Rex singles.
The wannabe star born Mark Feld in the Stoke Newington district of London signed to Decca Records a month before his 18th birthday, in the summer of 1965. Two months later, in one of his very early interviews and years before he achieved the fame he always craved, Bolan told Maureen Cleave in the Evening Standard in October 1965: “Personally, the prospect of being immortal doesn’t excite me; but the prospect of being a materialistic idol for four years does appeal.”
Patience was required: his debut single “The Wizard,” released that November, was advertised by Decca in the music press alongside other new releases by Chris Andrews, Crispian St. Peters, and others. Record Mirror reviewed it as a “Top 50 Tip” by “the highly-touted new ‘face,” but it failed to trouble the charts.
By 1966, Bolan was working with music mogul Simon Napier-Bell, who managed the Yardbirds and John’s Children, the latter of whom briefly featured Bolan as a member. Back as a soloist, and now on Parlophone after Decca‘s interest dipped, “Hippy Gumbo” became his third single, in 1967, but to no avail. The same year, with mod “bad boys” John’s Children, he released “Desdemona,” a song whose main achievement was to be banned by the BBC for a risqué lyric.
Marc then joined forces with “flower child” Steve Peregrine Took and, with Napier-Bell’s help, they flirted with Track Records. But the fledgling Tyrannosaurus Rex, as the group were now known, didn’t see much activity until the arrival in the UK of young American producer Tony Visconti. After meeting at the underground club Middle Earth, a creative bond was formed that would last for years.
The first Tyrannosaurus Rex LP for the newly-revived 1930s label Regal Zonophone was My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair… But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows. It climbed to No.15 in the UK and the non-album single “Debora” made No.34. It became part of Bolanmania for many new fans when an inevitable 1972 cash-in reissue took it into the Top 10.
One Inch Rock
Tyrannosaurus Rex set about building a catalog of four studio albums in little more than 18 months, appealing to the burgeoning LP market while keeping a toehold in pop radio. Their next single, later in 1968 and again with Bolan’s distinctively tremulous lead vocal to an acoustic, almost modern-folk setting, was “One Inch Rock.” Again a non-LP release, it took them into the UK singles Top 30 in that incarnation for the only time.
In a 1980 NME retrospective, Paul Morley wrote that the song “showed that Bolan wasn’t totally trapped in a Persian past.” On first release, Chris Welch, making it his Pick of the Week in Melody Maker, wrote: “The popping bongoes and chattering guitar kick up a humorous racket behind Marc’s strangely soulful voice and cute lyrics.”
Despite having some of the same strumming appeal as “Debora,” this next Tyrannosaurus Rex single wasn’t a hit. By the time of a 1970 interview with Beat Instrumental, Bolan was sounding annoyed that it had been released at all. “I never thought it was suitable, but a lot of people did, so we put it out. I’ve only done that once and I’d never do it again.” It was the group’s last single with Steve Peregrine Took, before the arrival of Mickey Finn.
King Of The Rumbling Spires
In this typically enigmatically-titled 1969 number, one begins to hear the transition from the old group’s hippy-folk style towards elements of their electric future. At the risk of alienating their early audience in an almost Dylan-plugs-in moment, Bolan would say: “We always played pop music anyway,” he said. “To me, it’s completely fair to use electricity.” Later, he would tell the NME: “People really think I fell out of the sky and landed on a mushroom holding my acoustic guitar. But before all that I was yer actual heavy guitarist. I wanted to get back to that.”
Ride A White Swan
A huge turning point in Bolan’s story, as the first single under the “new start” name of T. Rex, the first single on David Platz’s new Fly label, and Marc’s first major hit song. There’s an immediate swagger and certainty about “Ride A White Swan” that, easy as it sounds in retrospect, tells you that he knew he was on his way as soon as this appeared in October 1970. Immediately, he could bask in his new, hard-won acclaim, even down to talking about himself in the third person. “I had to get back into the guitar thing,” he told Sounds as the single climbed the charts. “I lost it at one time – I suppose I was too involved in being Marc Bolan the poet.”
On the back of the new hit came the first album as T. Rex, self-titled and released in December 1971. This track from it was a reminder of Bolan as the musical magpie, appropriating trinkets in the form of riffs as he did here by lifting the motif from Jimmy McCracklin’s “The Walk.” The Checker single had been a US Top 5 pop and R&B hit in 1958, when Marc was ten years old.
After the No.2 UK success of “Ride A White Swan,” it was no time before T.Rextacy was sweeping the nation. “Hot Love,” written during a US tour, became the first of four No.1s in just 14 months, reigning for a full six weeks. It featured Steve Currie on bass, Bill Legend on drums and Flo and Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan), formerly of the Turtles, on backing vocals. Now, the group truly had glide in their stride.
“The T. Rex sound was pure kismet,” Tony Visconti said later. “It was a story about how the right people met each other at the right time. Bill and Steve are never given the credit they were due. Bill was a unique drummer from the Ringo Starr school, and Steve came from a jazz background. Marc was not a classic electric guitarist; he didn’t come up through the Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page schools. It was more as if the Hobbit had learned to play electric guitar! The other secret is that the records were made very quickly. They don’t sound perfect, but boy do they sound fresh.”
Get It On
Hail the Electric Warrior. That was the name of the September 1971 album with which Bolan perfected the flamboyant rock‘n’roll that made him such a flag-bearer for the coming glam rock wave. The chugging backbeat, the lyrical riffing, the almost risqué sax lines, they were all there on “Get It On,” along with a tip of the hat to Chuck Berry. Listen hard to the fade, as Bolan quotes “Meanwhile, I’m still thinking…” from Chuck’s 1959 gem “Little Queenie.” A perfect pop 45 to sum up the early 70s.
Bolan in self-referential mood, on this Electric Warrior highlight. “I was dancing when I was 12,” he declares. “I danced myself right out the womb.” His couplets here, as was his occasional wont, could have an almost defiant silliness to them. “What’s it like to be a loon? I liken it to a balloon.” The effect was quintessential Marc. “It’s my life and I’m enjoying myself more now than ever before,” he told Keith Altham in Record Mirror at the time. “I’m a rock and roll poet man who is just bopping around on the side. I’m not about to do the Engelbert Humperdinck Show – they can rip me off when I get into that bag but what I do now is what I believe in and if they don’t like it they can go ride a bike!”
The final single of T. Rex’s unforgettable 1971 was again lifted from Electric Warrior and typified Bolan’s ear for a simple, irresistible riff and come-hither (if often nonsensical) lyrics. This time, it was Willie Dixon’s “You’ll Be Mine,” popularized by Howlin’ Wolf, that served as his template. “I know there’s an old blues song he copied,” Visconti told Uncut in 2016, “but he threw in some dramatic melodic and chord changes. The song’s in A but the chorus jumps to the key of C – no one in the 50s did that!” All that, and plenty of thinly-veiled sexual references to drive the teenybop girls wild, never more so than the closing “Girl I’m just a vampire for your love…and I’m gonna suck you.”
The one about Golden Nose Slim and Purple Pie Pete, and the first release on Bolan’s new T. Rex Wax Co. label. Within weeks of its release early in 1972, he was proudly telling the NME that it had sold 200,000 copies in the UK in four days. T. Rex were now appearing on Top of the Pops on what felt like an almost weekly basis, but they remained a bona fide live entity, touring exhaustively and starting another US routing just after the single’s release. He wasn’t no square with his corkscrew hair.
Bolanmania continued through 1972 as “Metal Guru” became T. Rex’s last UK No.1 single. “It’s a festival of life song,” said Bolan. “I relate ‘Metal Guru’ to all gods around – someone special, a godhead. I thought how God would be, he’d be all alone without a telephone.”
The bloom may have been off the rose by the time of 1973’s “20th Century Boy,” but in retrospect it’s one of the singles that captures Bolan and T. Rex at their most glorious: hedonistic, carefree, strutting, and entirely of their time. Its very title seems made for Marc. “By the end of 1972 the refinement had turned to rehashing,” wrote Ken Barnes in Bomp! the year after Bolan’s death, “and shortly thereafter the big hits stopped coming (although Bolan was almost always a chart contender up to his untimely death in September 1977, and always made records that were at minimum enjoyable rockers).”
In 1974, “Teenage Dream” was taken from the Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow album. The strings and grand scale of the piece couldn’t hide a certain disillusionment. “Silver Surfer and the Ragged Kid are all sad and rusted boy, they don’t have a gig,” sang Marc. As Visconti recalled in his memoir, drugs and alcohol were now playing their inevitable part, with typically destructive results.
The nonsense lyrics were still in full flow on 1975’s “New York City.” The single brought a return to the UK Top 20 and posed the previously unexamined question: “Did you ever see a woman coming out of New York City with a frog in her hand?” This writer remembers interviewing Noel Gallagher for a Bolan BBC radio documentary in which Gallagher recounted those words and said: “Er…no. Did you?”
The final T. Rex hit was the charming 1976 entry “I Love To Boogie,” a simple rock’n’roll shuffle on which Bolan returned to his early influences. The flagship of the Dandy In The Underworld album, it was redolent of dance hops, rockabilly rave-ups, and the early 45s of Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, and Marc’s other childhood heroes.
That single came from the album that also provides one last nod to a true star and, indeed, a “Dandy In The Underworld.” In one of his last interviews, with Paul Morley in the NME in March 1977, Bolan said of his new line-up, and with renewed enthusiasm: “I’ve even rehearsed this band, which I’ve never done before. I just played from record to record. So this new band is very solid.
“Everybody is proud to be in it. It’s what should really have happened at the beginning.” Sadly we’ll never know what he might have gone on to achieve, but Bolan’s catalog is a glorious reminder of what he already had.
Listen to uDiscover Music’s T. Rex Best Of playlist.