T. Rex's Marc Bolan, so obscure, so influential
By Tom Moon
Inquirer Music Critic
(Ed. Note- A wonderful read from the Philly Inquirer on a topic that has been a buzzing topic on Till Dawn and I'm sure other Bolan Fans minds. Do we want Marc to be known for his background music on a Ragu /Levis etc.,Montero TV commercials - IMHO TV commercials and Movie Sountracks have almost become the new radio Stations (or a sister station). I can't be sure but my guess is the people that turned the "Billy Elliot" sountrack into a Gold Record will forvere be Bolan fans - whatever gets his music out there is one more fan to discover it. Would be nice to see a article tackling just this area from the "Bolan fan's" percpective - )
Forget about the Mitsubishi Montero ad and that preposterous Ragu spot. The fact that cable's TNT used "Bang a Gong" during the NBA playoffs. And all the movie soundtrack appearances: Moulin Rouge!, The Truman Show, Velvet Goldmine and Billy Elliot, which featured five T. Rex tunes. Even without all that, we're having a T. Rex moment.
The English band of the 1970s, led by singer and songwriter Marc Bolan, had exactly one U.S. Top 10 hit ("Bang
a Gong," or "Get It On" as it was known everywhere else) and one album considered by critics of the era to be
truly memorable (1971's Electric Warrior).
But somehow T. Rex - whose retrospective 20th Century Boy: The Ultimate Collection (Hip-O/Universal) will be
out next month to mark the 25th anniversary of Bolan's death on Sept. 16 - now looms as one of the most
influential outfits ever to languish in obscurity.
This is the band that taught David Bowie how to be glam, helped hard-rock bands get in touch with their inner
Druid, presaged the attitude of punk, found new ways to tap the emotional reservoirs of the blues and boogie,
and used strings as more than just window dressing. T. Rex's irreverent smushing of the lewd and the
high-minded, the staccato guitar riff and the transcendent melody, looked boldly forward to what would become
entire rock subgenres.
All across the garage-rock universe, it's impossible to miss the influence of T. Rex. Close your eyes at a Strokes
show and you can sense Bolan's ghost in hooks that are earthy, sexy and slightly psychedelic. Same thing, for
different reasons, with scores of other bands, from the Vines to Marah to a hell-raising new Swedish band,
Division of Laura Lee. That big choir and wall of sound - from producer Tony Visconti, who became Bowie's
sound-shaper - remain an ideal. Bowie chases it again on his new Heathens, which reteams him with Visconti.
Bolan's lyrical approach, which used outlandish imagery and wordplay that didn't always make linear sense, is
returning as well: The Red Hot Chili Peppers' new By the Way contains several songs that bear the imprint of the
underground icon with the corkscrew hair and the netherworld whisper.
"It's weird to me," says Rolan Bolan, who was 2 when his father died, is now pursuing a career making
soul-inflected rock in L.A., and in September will participate in a series of British events in memory of his father.
"At the time he was making records, people in the U.S. didn't know him really... . But they're getting curious
now. People are realizing there's a lot to discover on those records."
Indeed there is. The Ultimate Collection, due out Aug. 23, starts with recordings Bolan and percussionist Steve
Took made as Tyrannosaurus Rex, including the mystical single "Debora," recorded around the time of the duo's
1968 acoustic debut My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair... But Now They're Content to Wear Stars on
Their Brows. The basic concept: image-rich fantasy themes sung over bongos and droning guitars, conjuring a
world-aware be-in similar to the trippy singles of Donovan. By 1970 and the pair's fourth album, A Beard of
Stars, electric elements were creeping in, and Bolan's choruses, many of them scat-sung, carried traces of the
Bolan and new percussionist Mickey Finn changed the act's name to T. Rex that year and released "Ride a White
Swan," which was dominated by electric guitars and Bolan's insinuating wail. In Britain, the track kicked off a
streak of 11 Top 10 singles between 1970 and 1974. Several tunes that didn't connect here - "Telegram Sam,"
the strident "Children of the Revolution," and the funk-influenced "20th Century Boy" - are among the most
riveting three-minute achievements of the era, songs that celebrate crazed street characters, take sly digs at
pampered stars ("I drive a Rolls-Royce 'cause it's good for my voice," he sings on "Children of the Revolution"),
and testify to the healing powers of "Hot Love."
Rolan Bolan - whose mother, soul singer Gloria Jones, was at the wheel and injured in the car crash that killed
his dad - says his father had very clear ideas about his music. "Sometimes it sounds like there's not much going
on, the chords and harmonies are very simple... . [But] they're really playing hard. There's a real tribal energy,
with the congas and everything. A lot of these things were recorded live in the studio, and you can hear it."
Unlike other hitmakers, who would sequester themselves for years between records, his father wrote and
recorded no matter where he was. He would come up with an idea, Rolan says, then grab his musicians and
work out the details.
"I know with 'Get It On,' he sat with the drummer in a hotel room when they were on the road. All they had was
a snare drum... . He would teach them the song one night and record it the next day. He wanted the moment.
He wouldn't let anyone think too much about it. That's why I think the songs sound so fresh still."
Copyright © 2002 The Till Dawn Organization/Tom Moon & Philadelphia Inquirer. All Rights Reserved.