The British music press called it “T. Rextasy.” After four albums of fanciful psychedelic folk (with titles like Unicorn and A Beard of Stars), the band formerly known as Tyrannosaurus Rex abbreviated its name and embraced an electric, boogie-ready form of rock’n’roll. The artistic reboot worked: T. Rex’s eponymous album, released in late 1970, cracked the Top 20 on the UK Albums Chart, and just nine months later came Electric Warrior, which turned the group into one of the most buzzed-about bands in Britain. The follow-up, 1972’s The Slider, hit shelves at the height of T. Rextasy, and was Electric Warrior’s equal as an essential document of the glam rock movement.
David Bowie gets a lot of credit for popularizing glam, but no one did more to bring the genre to the mainstream than T. Rex frontman Marc Bolan. The two were friends and competitors, both rising to rock stardom in the early 1970s after pivoting from folk-indebted rock to a harder, campier style. (They even shared a collaborator/producer Tony Visconti, and a manager.) But while it took Bowie three or four reinventions over a few years to become Ziggy Stardust, Bolan’s transformation into glam rock warlord was complete within months, from the release of the “Ride a White Swan” single (hailed by some as the first glam rock song) in October 1970 to Bolan’s glittery performance on Top of the Pops in March 1971. By the time Bowie released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Bolan had already put out one glam rock classic and was a month away from dropping his second.
The definitive glam rock album
Ziggy Stardust casts the longer shadow over rock history, but The Slider may be the more definitive glam rock album, unburdened by overfamiliarity or grandiose narratives about alien rock stars. Opener “Metal Guru” is essentially a perfect song, right from the ecstatic howl at the start: It sounds like Bolan took the chorus of the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” and made an entire song out of it, piling string arrangements on top of a fat guitar riff that sounds more like a honking saxophone. (There are also backing vocals from the Turtles’ Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan – also known as Flo & Eddie – who sing all over the album.) The lyrics are full of religious overtones, but it doesn’t really matter what the song is supposed to be about. Everything about “Metal Guru” serves that irresistible boogie.
That boogie is the central element in T. Rex’s best songs – it makes you want to clap your hands, stomp your feet, and dance in a way that rock didn’t do anymore. In 1972, Pink Floyd, Todd Rundgren, and Yes were recording some of the most progressive and forward-thinking music of the era, but it was all head music. The Slider is body music, with Bolan emulating the rhythmic pulse of Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran. “Rock On” and “Baby Strange” practically bounce along on loping drumbeats and indelible guitar riffs, while the goofy strut of “Telegram Sam” (populated by a cast of characters who probably live just up the road from Eleanor Rigby and Polythene Pam) sounds like an early Beatles song plugged into a fuzzbox. And when Bolan added the blues to his boogie, as on the title track and the lumbering “Chariot Choogle” – which hits with the force of a Black Sabbath song – the results are fantastically heavy.
Subverting rock’n’roll tropes
Still, The Slider was a glam rock album from start to finish, and that meant doing more than simply breathing new life into old rock’n’roll tropes. Popular music has no shortage of songs about girls and cars – from Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” to Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” – but Bolan sang about them in ways that were weird and seductive. It’s unclear whether the subject of “Buick Mackane” is a girl named after a car or an actual car, while Bolan’s line about having “never, never kissed a car before / It’s like a door” on the title track is perhaps his sauciest vehicular come-on, rivaled only by the “hubcap diamond star halo” of “Get It On.” Bolan drew on his acoustic roots, too, creating a sort of glam folk sound that even Bowie couldn’t imitate.
A love song to a sorceress, “Mystic Lady” is one of the prettiest T. Rex songs, its string arrangements swaying like tall grass in a gentle breeze, while closer “Main Man,” shows a vulnerability behind Bolan’s glam rock grandiosity (“As a child I laughed a lot / O yes I did, O yes I did / Now it seems I cry a lot / Oh tell me true, don’t you?”). And even if Bolan was a bit too overt in paying tribute to Bowie with a song named “Ballrooms of Mars,” it’s easy to imagine Ziggy Stardust himself wishing he’d written it. It’s one of Bolan’s very best songs, name-checking Bob Dylan and John Lennon before the song gets carried heavenward on a pair of intertwined guitar solos.
Bob Dylan, John Lennon, David Bowie – in a more just world, Marc Bolan’s name would have rested comfortably next to theirs. But Bolan lacked Bowie’s chameleon-like ability to adapt to the changing rock landscape of the 1970s, so as glam rock fell out of fashion, so did T. Rex. Still, Bolan kept plugging away, incorporating soul and even disco into his sound and releasing new music every year; the final T. Rex album, 1977’s Dandy in the Underworld, was praised by critics and might have marked the beginning of an impressive comeback if Bolan hadn’t been killed in a car crash later that year, two weeks before his 30th birthday. Bolan’s reign as the king of glam was all too brief, but the list of artists he inspired is vast, including Nick Cave, Prince, Slash, and Harry Styles. One listen to The Slider is all it takes to understand why T. Rextasy was so intoxicating – it’s been almost five decades after its release, and it still makes us want to boogie.