Pop, Fragility & Dissolution: A Marc Bolan Reappraisal

As he reviews new reissues of A Beard Of Stars, T.Rex, Tanx, Zinc Alloy And The Hidden Riders Of Tomorrow, Neil Kulkarni puts forward a new view of the prime moments of T.Rex and Tyrannosaurus Rex

 "…Fenders are lying all over. He’s got his rock & roll jacket embroidered with sequinned clef notes. And, like any kid who’s just discovered rock, he’s digging out his favourite guitar solos.

"Did you ever hear the original version of ‘Suzie Q’?" he asks, as he slides the Dale Hawkins’ side on the juke. "That’s James Burton on guitar… the very first record he ever recorded man, when he was about 19." Bolan stands there, digging the funky chops, and playing an imaginary guitar with the correct charismatic surly look.

"That was the very first record that ever influenced me. Just listen to that guitar, it sounds so easy. Actually, he wasn’t as fast as you think, because Burton double-tracked those solos – you can’t do all that at once. He’d do the choppy stuff first, then lay that zoom-zoom on top of it. I spent hours trying to learn how to do that and, of course, I never could.

Just one year ago, a T.Rex concert was a quiet affair, maybe a few sticks of incense were burning, and everything was all arcane chicanery. ‘Now they’ve ballsed all that up,’ notes a petite fan of theirs, ‘they’ve said piss-off to all that and are doing teeny-bop stuff. It’s for the kids.’ – Rolling Stone, 1972.

Marc Bolan was wrong; there are no overdubs on ‘Suzie Q’. Three musicians, one mic in the room, one take. Burton chicken-picked it. Bolan could be wrong, had that sweet loveable fallibility that have always made him warmer than a mere ‘icon’, something as maddening and intimate as a friend. Bolan was right to balls it all up, say ‘piss off’ and make stuff for the kids, ditch the hippies. Bolan knew that electricity was exciting, with John’s Children he’d already sang ‘Desdemona’ like his voice came sparking out of a Leyden-jar, buzzing up from his innards and out that mouth in a skinny flame. What I dig about Bolan, his MODernity, his modelling side, his side that knew that "You have to have a certain feel; a certain something. I meant, ninety-five percent of my success is the way I look. The Beatles were mop-tops. The Stones were dirty, never-washed bad boys. That’s what people pick up on. The music is secondary. You do have to have good music, though, after the initial physical contact. But initially, it’s got nothing to do with music."

THAT side of Marc Bolan, the almost brutal pop nous and thirst, is barely suppressed on Bolan’s earliest, acoustic albums I never listen to any more. But it is definitely wing-clipped by sheer dint of the instrumentation, the deliberate pitch at the underground involved, a target audience, but a fuzzy, non-starry one, one that Bolan would eventually resent and reject. In a deep and palpable sense acoustic Tyrannosaurus Rex is distrustful of mass appeal, too committed to its esoteric ideals of earth poetry and sky music to possess the ambiguity, the oddity and openness, the glimmer and generosity so essential to the electric wow to come. You find yourself occasionally waiting for Bolan to grow up and get stupid until 1969. To loosen his spiritual yearning and start engaging in the more commercial yearning that propelled his greatest work.

I like it when he’s mixing the Tolkien and tales of the Beltane way with his worship of the new gods, the camera, and the motor car. And, simply put, I like it when Bolan’s voice has a proper solid Bill Legend groove to slide itself over. God bless future-Pink Fairie and pharmaceutical psychonaut Steve Peregrine Took, but his departure in 69 and pretty-boy Mickey Finn’s incorporation as percussionist, backing vocalist & occasional bassist, bolted the Tyrannosaurus sound down in readiness for Legend’s sublime contributions later on. It’s still, even with Finn, a bongo thing though. Hence, I still approach 1970’s A Beard Of Stars, chronologically the first of the new batch of T.Rex reissues, holding my nose somewhat.

Tyrannosaurus Rex were principled, defensive – stripped down and acoustic because Bolan, burned by bad times with Simon Napier-Bell’s interference in John’s Children, found himself sick of the band setup. Setting out with his only acoustic, and corralling Took, the drummer who flogged his kit and pinched a pair of bongos, into a tiny self-sufficient unit, they played the festival circuit and happenings like Middle Earth, pure hippie hideaways away from the vulgarities of the charts. In exact contradiction of John Peel, I feel the records Bolan made with Took are the albums that are actually an acute betrayal of his strengths, a bit too meandering, too cross-legged, too much for the underground, and at root sneery about pop.

Even after Took has gone, you can still smell hippies, which makes you suspicious of Bolan himself, though his voice is instant pleasure, and his guitar, even when acoustic, is an ever-cartoonish delight. With the underground in retreat, and with a grisly authenticity (public unpackings of inner ‘feelings’) becoming the post-1967 orthodoxy, Bolan was already out of the loop a little, at odds with the world that welcomed him. Bolan, Visconti and new pal/rival Bowie stayed up late getting high listening to Phil Spector and the Beach Boys, plotting their futures, intent on making a new pop for a new age.

By 1969’s Unicorn album and the ‘King Of The Rumbling Spires’ single that followed, Bolan and Visconti’s new clear-headed control was massively evident in the newly retooled Tyrannosaurus Rex, electricity allowed in, the wayward Took safely excised to heavier and more obscure climes. It’s obvious throughout Beard Of Stars that Bolan is starting to write pure pop, starting to let his innate rock & roll sense of oddity swing through, even as the instrumentation and arrangements are more redolent of the Incredible String Band, Donovan, Caravan. Beard Of Stars is half an hour long and only one song is any longer than three minutes, most songs clock in at under two. That’s not someone writing for hippies. That’s not someone overly bound up in the laments for auld-Albion that characterised his previous music and poetry. That’s someone writing pop but still, in the essentially homespun nature of the sounds, feeling a little scared of entirely losing his constituency and becoming the public persona and star his songs predestined him to be.

Don’t get me wrong, there are delights aplenty. The crepuscular unfolding psyche-gospel of ‘A Day Laye’, ‘Fist Heart Mighty Down Dart’ for the peripheral fuzz and sparks Bolan &and Visconti are able to weave through the mix, the wah-wah deliciousness that squelches through ‘Pavilions Of Sun”s coda, the weird drone-dumbness and dread of ‘Organ Blues’ and ‘Wind Cheetah’, the samples of prophetic crowd-noise that seethe through ‘By The Light Of A Magical Moon’. Love the marvellous ‘Great Horse’, ‘Dragon’s Ear’ and ‘Lofty Skies’ as well – gorgeous songs made more gorgeous by the overhanging arcs of electric guitar noise now gratifyingly allowed to run riot through Bolan’s music.    

What’s clear is that Finn, technically a weak player, visually amazing, deeply likeable, at least gave Bolan full lease to give his music the real excitement and potential for pop reach it hadn’t had before. By being less pushy/self-righteous than Took he gave Bolan more power over the music he put out, more control, even as Visconti bemoaned Finn’s pliability, perhaps dimly aware of how damagingly and insensitively dictatorial Bolan could get. Another crucial thing about Finn that you can hear all over Beard Of Stars is how influenced by black music he was (Master Henry Gibson from Curtis Mayfield’s band was a massive hero) – hence what rhythms there are on Beard Of Stars are finally danceable, more simple, a lot funkier to hear than Took’s fuss and fury. My lasting problem though with Beard Of Stars is less the lack of noise, more the lack of oomph and thump, the lack of BEATS. Bolan’s commitment to his fiction is more assuredly total than ever before but you’d be mad to not prefer his later, sexier music.

On T.Rex, the album that came out in 1970 (directly preceding the ‘Ride A White Swan’ single that would firmly and finally put the wedge in between Bolan, Peel and his former hippie followers forever) the process that would end up in the glorious monoliths of Electric Warrior and The Slider is by now firmly in place. The opener (after the atmospheric doodle ‘Children Of Rarn’) is ‘Jewel’ and it’s slathered with just the greatest fuzziest fucked up guitar Bolan had given us since the JC days. The songs that ensue are sharper, now sounding (and not just down to the name change) less like Tyrannosaurus Rex tracks and more like fully-fledged T.Rex songs just waiting on a drummer. Tantalisingly, the odd hi-hat, the odd kick-drum does emerge – it’s almost cruel how on ‘Childe’ or ‘Seagull Woman’ your ears half-fill in the drums that aren’t there – with them they’d be up there alongside other cubist-boogie monsters like the later ‘Chariot Choogle’ or ‘Rip Off’ in any Bolan fan’s affections.

Without them you can’t help feeling sold short, foreplayed and fingered rather than fucked ragged. The slo-mo twisted boogie (‘The Time Of Love’), the off-beat claps and strings (‘Beltane Walk’), the fuzzy randiness (‘Is It Love’) and sheer tin-pan rock & roll oddity (‘One Inch Rock’) that’d soon make T.Rex one of the greatest singles bands of all time are all over T.Rex. By the time you’re through to ‘Suneye’ and the epically nutzoid ‘The Wizard’ you grow impatient: all that’s lacking is Bill Legend, laying it down, making Bolan dance. He was a great dancer. Of course you know ‘Swan’, ‘Hot Love’, ‘Get It On’, ‘Jeepster’, Electric Warrior, ‘Metal Guru’, ‘Telegram Sam’, The Slider are all just round the corner. That two year period where he swallowed multiverses whole and spat out pure manna from pop heaven. Where I’d say Beard Of Stars is for completists, T.Rex is for anyone who loves Marc – especially those of us too tired to get up and dance these days. A fuzzy, folky, freaky delight.

The version has it that Bolan was on the slide by late 1972. The December release of the somewhat self-regarding Born To Boogie movie was critically mauled; America remained an impossible nut for this camp stylist to crack. Bolan, previously an almost ascetic definition of mod self-denial, had started hitting the champagne and other naughtinesses hard. An October 1972 letter to the NME (which reads suspiciously like it was written & sent by an insider, perhaps even Bolan himself) from ‘A.T.Rex Fan’ implored "You have knocked Marc Bolan, criticised him and abused him. He has now been driven to drink and if it wasn’t for his wife June he’d be dead by now. Yes he’s going to DIE SOON. And it will all be your fault."  

The autumn 1972 newsletter from the T.Rex Fan Club aimed to squash such speculation – "We have heard a lot of letters from people who have heard various and at times quite disturbing rumours about Marc. Well, to put a few minds at rest, Marc is a perfectly HEALTHY and HAPPY person! He does not wear a wig, he has beautiful soft hair which he washes twice a week with a really good herbal or protein shampoo, he does not have any serious diseases and he’s really a perfectly ordinary 5’7" tall guy." But even Bolan himself was acknowledging bad vibes, a sense of doom, by late 1972 he’s telling the NME "I don’t know whether I’m going to be around for much longer as a human being". Without a doubt a bit of that fantasised self-immolation was in the grand tradition of 50s doomed Fabian-style pop stars but Bolan was no dummy, and could sense that the ground was maybe moving away from him. In 1972 Marc was unequivocal about whether Bowie could provide him with serious rivalry:

"I don’t consider David to be even remotely near big enough to give me any competition. At the time the feud story hit England, my records were number one, and they stayed number one while David’s never came near. I don’t think that David has anywhere near the charisma or balls that I have. Or Alice has. Or Donny Osmond has got. He’s not gonna make it, in any sort of way. The papers try and manufacture a lot of things. They tried to do something with Slade. Slade is just a jive little group who are quite sweet and bang about a lot. They’re very valid for what they do, but I don’t think anyone can seriously compare them to me. Whether you think I’m good or bad, I’m still the best-selling poet in England. I don’t think anyone in Slade can write four words. And I don’t mean to be condescending; they’re nice people… Bowie just doesn’t have that sort of quality that I do. I always have. Rod Stewart has it in his own mad way. Elton John has it. Mick Jagger has it. Michael Jackson has that quality. David Bowie doesn’t, I’m sorry to say. Right now I’m the biggest selling poet in England. I hope to be even bigger.."

See, he could be wrong, very wrong. By early 1973 Marc had to have been wising up. Bowie’s ‘Jean Genie’ had replaced ‘Solid Gold Easy Action’ at the number two spot. Later that spring, the ’20th Century Boy’ single Marc had self-produced in Tokyo was the first T.Rex single in three years to get no further than No.3. After two weeks it started slipping down the charts, at the precise moment that Bowie’s ‘Drive In Saturday’ was slowly ascending. With Bowie seemingly winning the long game, and the American market Bolan so yearned for proving immovably resistant and more susceptible to Bowie’s charms than Bolan had predicted (The Slider had been his biggest selling US album and had only got to 17 on the Billboard charts) by the time Tanx came out in 1973 it was still safe to say Marc’s stardom was at its fullest flowering and British pop music was at his feet. He was, creatively, on fire.

Regardless of chart position, Marc’s post-Slider output – ‘Solid Gold Easy Action’. ‘Children Of The Revolution’, ’20th Century Boy’ and ‘The Groover’ (all included as part of Tanx and Zinc Alloy‘s innumerable extras) – are perhaps the most astonishing short run of singles by any British artist ever. When it came time to make the next album, Bolan found himself uneasily caught between those teen dreams and a desire for more sophistication, perhaps even ‘adulthood’ in his music. Reading the media from the time it’s clear that the inevitable omnipresence that Bolan had achieved had also rubbed plenty of people up the wrong way, not just the former hippies who’d been his fans but also more generally the wider press who saw him as an obsequious joke, someone they could blokeishly snottily disdain as purely for teens and Jackie readers. Bolan, as ever with a canny sense of the juvenile, made it easy for the haters – the sleeve of Tanx shows a somewhat bloated Bolan straddling a chrome toy-tank, its gun-turret semi-storked, Marc’s face half-appalled, half confrontational, eyes heavy-linered into themselves. Paul Gambaccini summed up the critical consensus in a dispirited Rolling Stone review: "No one will take pleasure in demeaning this effort. For years various people have been waiting for Marc Bolan to fulfil what they thought in different ways was his potential, whether it be in poetry, thoughtful soft rock, or out-and-out hard rocking. We have been waiting so long for him to fulfil his potential that at this point one has to wonder if that potential is really there."

But the critics at the time, including Gambaccini, were almost all wrong. Tanx is a blast, front to back, back to front, top to bottom – it’s precisely the slight woozy bloat to it, the way almost every note is swathed in effects, almost groggy under the lights with melting paint and pancake – it’s an excessive record in the best possible sense. The groaning, undulating fantastically false-started ‘Tenement Lady’ is a stunning opener, half funk monster from the Okeefenoke swamps, half mournful aria from old Europa. Clear that sparring with band members had driven Bolan in on himself a little, and that writing in the studio led to a slight loosening of the razor-sharpness that had characterised the writing on The Slider. ‘Rapids’ sounds like it took five minutes to conceive and play – the textures by now though are just utterly gorgeous, vocals rising in double-tracked horror from out of the by now perfected Visconti thump and dazzle, the glam zenith reached even as Bolan would go on to mock such manoeuvres on ‘Shock Rock’.

The sublimely fuzzy-headed ‘Mister Mister’, ‘Broken Hearted Blues’ and ‘Electric Slim & The Factory Hen’ finally thread in the pulse of black soul Bolan had always wanted to bring into his swirl, sax and flutes and strings fleshing out his bluey green-eyed soul vision a full two years before Bowie tried the same move on ‘Young Americans’. And there’s still space for psychoboogie monsters like ‘Country Honey’ and ‘Mad Donna’ and ‘The Street And Babe Shadow’ in Tanx‘ mix as well. Less consistent, less coherent, less of a ‘classic’ than Electric Warrior & The Slider? Indubitably and thus in a way closer to Bolan, closer to that way he could be gloriously wrong, an even more cherishably human document of a genius at play than either of those monoliths. Love Tanx forever.

1974 was a watershed, deluge-of-damage year for T.Rex. Bolan, who’d previously been the guy pretending to inhale, who’d booted Took from his life partly because he never forgave ‘The Phantom Spiker’ an unsolicited bad-trip he’d sent his way, was by now ingesting large amounts of coke and his band and his relationships were falling apart, his self-infatuation clung to and ballooning the more he realised his moment had passed. He was managing to repel everyone close to him.

The breakdown of his marriage to June Child (former secretary to Syd Barrett’s manager and for a long time a soulmate who doubled as a manager) in 1973 had taken its toll, and not just in the short-crop she had left him with as parting act. Bill Legend left the T.Rex set-up, Bolan declared glam-rock dead, peacocked loftily in interviews that "T.Rex no longer exists". New fixed-wage contracts drawn up for long-time bandmates Steve Currie and Mickey Finn (who initially had split things 50/50 with Marc) denigrated them to the level of session musicians. When the new set-up went on the road in the UK that year, they toured under the name Zinc Alloy And The Hidden Riders Of Tomorrow (Zinc Alloy was an alter-ego Bolan had devised in the late 60s – ironically he intended to deploy it at the height of his career). The album that ensued initially didn’t carry the T.Rex name anywhere on it (early prints carried the title as ‘A Creamed Cage In August’) until EMI pointed out fan’s confusion (and its similarity with Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars) and Bolan relented to allow ‘Marc Bolan & T.Rex’ to be inserted on the sleeve.

During recording of the album, Bolan’s long relationship with Tony Visconti had deteriorated to the point of them both promising they’d never work with each other again. Both publicly citing "musical differences", it’s perhaps more likely that Bolan cutting Visconti’s percentages in half precipitated their split. Given such messy birth pangs, it’s perhaps inevitable that the reception for Zinc Alloy was universally hostile, and that the record has split Bolan fans ever since (at least among those who’ve heard it – the album didn’t even receive a US release at the time).

Even the most devoted Marc Maniacs seemingly find it difficult to love Zinc Alloy And The Hidden Riders Of Tomorrow, now usually considered the moment that Bolan truly lost what he had, the record that together with 1975’s disastrous non-charting Bolan Zip Gun drove Marc into the wilderness for two years before his tragically brief re-emergence in 1977. But despite, or perhaps because of the psychological fragility and dissolution of 1974, Zinc Alloy can be heard now as a glorious document of a man at his mental breaking point, a man heroically still trying to find new ways to sing his songs, and crucially a man really now engaged in the full-on engagement with black music (through his long obsession with US black radio) that his rivals (Bowie, Ferry) STILL didn’t have the smarts or inclination to try yet.

‘Venus Loon’ and ‘Sound Pit’ are startling, fantastic openers, bustling with heavy-hitting proto-disco grooves and the kind of dramatic string-stabs more akin to the Chi-Lites or O’Jays than the purely rock & roll influences of yore. Even when he does step back to the boogie of ‘Explosive Mouth’ there’s an almost Beefheartian oddity to the grooves and shapes, a committed surrealism to the lyrics, an honesty about his own self-delusion and the destructiveness of his fantasism that imply far more self-awareness than the official story of Bolan’s demise allows.

‘Galaxy’ and ‘Teenage Dream’ swim in exquisitely dreamy breaks and bridges, your headspace as prone to sudden ruptures of noise as it is to being ravished by the sweetly soulful harmonies and ultra-phased fades. This isn’t Bolan’s soul album – his exploration of R&B isn’t the wholesale appropriation that Bowie would attempt the following year (Zinc Alloy was released in March 74, in July Bowie would start rehearsing his epochal Philly Dogs tour), rather he blends soul with funk, acid-rock, rockabilly, adds it to his palette to create a uniquely twisted stew still all his own, all Bolan, all T.Rex even as the band falls apart. ‘Liquid Gang’, ‘Carsmile Smith’ and ‘Painless Persuasion’ are some of the most gloriously over-the-edge anthems he ever wrote, and when the band gets funky (‘You’ve Got To Jive’, ‘Interstellar Soul’ and ‘The Avengers’) they manage to be more lethally in the pocket than any of the other white rockers then trying to tap a little of James Brown’s ancient-futurist magic (e.g. Led Zep, The Stones). ‘The Leopards’ fades you out with Marc not even singing – rapping like a Dadaist Last-Poet/Watts-Prophet, tentatively but tantalisingly hitting on an almost entirely new-type of music, somewhere ‘tween Kevin Ayers and Iceberg Slim. "I never seen a freak look as weird as you", he grins. And as ever with Bolan, you wonder what kind of mirror he’s looking in, where those big eyes were rotating, what it must be like to ‘spend a life within a song’.

A mess then, but a fantastic mess that still gushes like cream in your earhole, and a record whose continuing side-lining and defaming in the Bolan story seems more inexplicable the further in time we get away from it. The extras that accompany this brace of reissues are even better than they were with the Slider re-ish, some of the greatest singles of all time plus some demo and outtake versions that positively smoke with fetid funkativity and grit, home recordings with Gloria that damn well break your heart. Although Beard, T.Rex, Tanx and Zinc Alloy could easily be seen as the mere framing of a story that reached its zenith with the albums that bisect them (Slider and Warrior) what actually emerges listening to these neglected gems is that Bolan was always one of the most compelling songwriters and pop visionaries that this country has ever produced. Words like ‘development’ and ‘downfall’ are only useful to those who don’t like music to leave unanswered questions, those who like the past to fit neatly within old-school constrictions of egoism and it’s perils.

In pursuing himself, in brutally alienating almost everyone who dared to step between himself and his art, Bolan may well have been wrong, may well have frequently been a terrible human being, but ended up giving us some of the greatest most giving records of his time.

If you have none of these records, it’s time for a reappraisal. If you have nothing by Bolan, start with Electric Warrior and The Slider and then flail backwards and forwards until all of these are part of your picture of the man and his music. Not all masterpieces by any stretch but masterpieces are boring; masterpieces are too rigid to move. Bolan always moved, was always best when turning his own fractured consciousness inside-out and letting it spill into the world. It’s time for ALL of Marc’s output to be looked at with the same attention and awe as Bowie’s, cos frequently he got there before anyone else, pushed himself beyond his fans and detractors abilities to adequately follow or comprehend him. No excuses now. Dig all these immediately.

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