Marc Bolan -Genius or Joke ?

Between 1970 and 1973, T.Rex clocked up over a dozen Top 20 hits, including four number ones, and became the first English group since the early sixties to evoke scenes reminiscent of Beatlemania. While progressive rock stressed seriousness, and singer-songwriters emphasised introversion. T.Rex stood for the immediacy of early Rock n Roll. Marc Bolan, once the King Elf of underground acoustic music, always wanted to be a rock'n'roll star. He made it via a series of short, rocking singles crammed with references to cars and girls. By dressing up in satin and putting glitter under his eyes, the waif-like androgynous Bolan led the glam-rock trend of the early 70's.

Once he'd found it ( and it took him three years ). T.Rex's sound was unmistakeable. It was led by Bolan's funky guitar with Mickey Finn's congas a hip addition to the rythm section of Bill Legend on drums and Steve Currie on bass. They were augmented by the backing vocals of two of Zappa's Mothers Of Invention - Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman - and typically English strings, written by producer Tony Visconti. Over it all was Bolan's distinctive warbly voice.

Beginning of doves

Born in 1947 in Hackney. Mark Feld was nine in the magic year of 1956 when rock and roll exploded. By a fortuitous mistake, his father brought home Bill Haley and the Comets' See You Later Alligator thinking it was Bill Hayes' Ballad Of Davy Crockett. The initial disapointment turned to revelation, and Bill Hayes went out of the window. In 1972, Bolan cited Presley 's My Baby Left Me as an influence - " I love the intro, and the guitar sound really inspired me " - along with Suzie Q by Dale Hawkins with James Burton. Captivated by the energy of Haley, Presley, Berry and Cochran, Mark wanted a guitar. His mother, Phyllis, bought him a Suzuki acoustic for £9, on HP. From there he went into school bands, including one with Helen Shapiro, who had several hits in the early 60s. He hung out at the Hackney Empire, where the show " Oh Boy ! " was playing, and the 2is coffee bar in Soho, and saw Brit rockers like Cliff Richard ( then touted as the UK's answer to Elvis! ). Marty Wilde, Adam Faith and Billy Fury. Legend has it that Mark once carried Eddie Cochran's guitar. By the time he was 14 he's split from school and embarked on a musical career. After working briefly as a model and visiting Paris, he came back with stories of meeting a man with real occult powers. He wrote reams of prose and poetry in his characteristically dyslexic style.

ln 1964. heavily into Dylan. he made an acetate of Blowing In The Wind. Although he failed an audition at EMI in February 1965, by August he had signed a deal with Decca. which produced two singles: The Wizard and The Third Degree. He was then managed by Simon Napier-Bell who handled the Yardbirds, and he cut Hippy Gumbo for Parlophone. This was the year Mark Feld chose the name Marc Bolan.

Are You Experienced ?

During this period, Bolan appeared on the same edition of the TV show Ready Steady Go (13 December 1966) as Jimi Hendrix, to plug the Wizard. Like Dylan, Hendrix became one of Bolan's musical heroes: "Cream's 'Disraeli Gears' was a tremendous album. It influenced me guitar sound-wise, as did 'Are You Experienced' by Hendrix. They both had a certain feel, definite sound. 'Eric and Jimi Live' obviously influenced me, too as did Pete Townshend".
It was through Simon Napier-Bell that Bolan became guitarist in John's Children.He was playing a Gibson SG and, according to Chris Townson of the band, "His first rehearsal with us was deafening, even by our standards! I think the band got worse when Marc first joined, because all he did was stand there and make this messy blurge, , .It was so bad, that I used to sneak round before a gig and retune his guitar ...He seemed to think it didn't matter."

On a tour of Germany, supporting The Who, in April 1967, John's Children tried to out-do the headliners with the outrageousness of their act, which led to £ 25,000 of damaged equipment. Their famous single, Desdemona, on which Bolan can be heard singing backing vocal.,released in May 1967, was banned by the BBC for the line " lift up your skirts and fly " The band broke up soon afterwards and Bolan was adrift in London.

ln June 1967 Bolan advertised for a new band. He formed an acoustic duo with Steve Took, caI1ed Tyrannosaurus Rex. They recorded three albums, with Tony Visconti producing. Visconti had been intrigued, when he saw them play live: "I was : impressed by this strange little person , seated on the floor, singing in what I thought to be something other than the English language". The first album, 'My people Were Fair And Had Sky ln their Hair (1968) was recorded on an eight-track at Advision Studios in four days, for £ 4OO. Took and Bolan went on to release two further albums -'Prophets, Seers and Sages' (1968) and 'Unicorn' (1969). Crucially, Tyrannosaurus Rex found an early champion in Radio One DJ, John Peel, who gave them plenty of radio exposure from mid-1967 onwards and took them on gigs. Peel was a close friend of Bolan's in the latter half of the 60s. until their acrimonious falling-out in the summer of 1971.

Message from another world

ln the heavy music scene of 1968, Bolan and Took stood out in contrast with their acoustic music, even if Bolan was prone to wacking chords with the frenzy of a Richie Havens. Filtered through bis high, warbling voice, the Iyrics of his songs became even more like messages from another world.

This mythology is evident throughout The Warlock of Love (1969), Bolan's book of poems. But, underneath the strange vocals and pounding bongoes, it is still possible to hear elements of the rock'n'roll that would one day make Bolan a star. Bolan's retum to the electric gnitar was only a matter of time.
Early in 1970, he played on Bowie's The Prettiest Star, and Mick Ronson followed that solo quite closely when Bowie re-recorded the tune for the 'Aladdin Sane' album. Bowie wrote Lady Stardust about Bolan and name-checked T.Rex in All The Young Dudes.

ln March 1970, Marc released 'A Beard of Stars'. It showed some significant changes. Bolan had formed two new partnership.. The first was with Mickey Finn, who replaced the increasingly unreliable and acid-phased Steve Took after a difficult tour of the US.
The second was with a white Fender Strat, acquired in March 1969 and featured on the single King of the Rumbling Spires, a splendid slice of Gothic pop.
Although 'A Beard of Stars' was still acoustic-based, Bolan layered electric guitar over it and the texture became more intricate. Live, he started playing lead solos over Finn's bongoes, which only showed how much his new songs needed a band

Striking a balence

Having spent some of the summer listening to old rock'n'roll records and Dylans 'Self-Portrait', Bolan ploughed on, recording the alhum simply entitled 'T-Rex. (1970) and known to fans as the 'brown' album because of its sleeve. It was the rockiest yet, with Bolan striking an exquisite balance between the old and the new in his music. During these recording sessions Bolan cut the song that would be bis first hit, Ride A White Swan, backed by an album track Is It Love? and a cover of Summertime Blues.

Ride A White Swan spent five months in the chart, reaching number two. In February the follow-up, Hot Love, was released and went to number one for six weeks. It was obvious that Bolan needed a rhythm section, so Steve Currie on bass and Bill Legend on drums turned T.Rex from a duo into a quartet. When they went out on tour later, in the spring, Bolan suddenly found his audience's age had dropped. In concert halls across the country, screams started to erupt for the sexy rock'nroll T.Rex were now playing. Bolans androgynous beauty, his stage movements, his sparkly jackets, connected with a generation looking for a figurehead. That summer Get It On went to uumber one for four weeks. T.Rex embarked on another tour in the automn to promote the 'Electric Warrior' album which became one of the bestsellers of 1971, andfrom that, against Marc's wishes, Fly Records put out Jeepster which went to number two.

T.Rex ended the year as the UK's most successful singles band, utterly dominating the chart scene, and with Bolan as a fully-fledged teenage idol. By an amazing stroke of luck, at the very peak of his success, his contract with Fly Records came up for re-negotiation. Bolan signed a deal with EMI which enabled him to set up his own label, the T.Rex Wax Co. The first release in its striking red and blue artwork was Telegram Sam, which went to number one in january, followed by Metal Guru (also a number one), Children of the Revolution and Solid Gold Easy Action later in the year. T.Rex put out 'The Slider'.. a patchy but, in parts, fine album, and Bolan's biggest ever UK gigs came when he played two shows in March at the Wembley Empire Pool (Wembley Arena).

Inflatable ego

By the end of 1972 Bolan had passed his commercial and artistic peak. Worries over security led to an announcement in June that T.Rex would not be playing any more UK dates for the foreseeable future. Many reviews of 'The Slider' were hostile. And there were continuaI criticisms that T.Rex records sounded all the same. Stardom caused Bolan's ego to inflate, and close and trusted friends either backed away or had the door figuratively shut in their faces. Bolan was obsessed with cracking America, but America stubbornly refused to find any virtue in either the records or the live shows.
Only Get It On managed to be a moderate hit in the US. Meanwhile, at home, a stampede of glam-rock acts overtook the front-runner. By 1972 everyone was dressing up. Rod Stewart was fronting the Faces, wearing a pink satin jacket. Bowie was in red boots as Ziggy Stardust. Gary Glitter was in baconfoil, and a host of plastic acts from the Chinn/Chapman stable were clogging up the charts. Most importantly, 1972 saw the rise of Slade, whose string of singles eventually overtook the T. Rex tally of hits.

Godfather of punk

Bolan proved unable to resist the drugs and egomania of stardom. He was less interested in writing good songs, and more interested in being the centre of attention. The music became little more than a prop, as The Groover demonstrated with its tasteless intro chant of 'T...R...E".X... !'.

By 1973 Bolan had split from his wife June, who had been the most important person in his life on almost every level since 1967.

In 1974 Bolan announced that Glam Rock was dead and that there would be a new T.Rex sound but it never happened. In 1976 he regained some credibility by befriending The Damned and positioning himself as the 'Godfather of punk'. There was also a Granada TV series -Marc -but that was little to write home about.

In September 1977, just before his 3Oth birthday, Bolan was killed when the Mini driven by his girlfriend, singer Gloria Jones, crashed into a tree on Barnes Common in the early hours. Despite filling his songs with references to cars, Bolan never leamed to drive, believing that, like Cochran, he would die in one. Bolan's influence has continued throughout the years. There have heen tribute albums and tribute band.. Michael Stipe sang of practising his T.Rex moves on Wake Up Bomb on R.E.M.s last album. Guns N Roses put Buick MacKane on the 'Spaghetti Incident', and Joan Osborne used a sample of Mambo Sun on Ladder from her 'Relish' LP. Sparky's Dream starts off with a riff in the style of T.Rex. Morrisey released his single Certain People in a design that paid homage to the blue/red T.Rex Wax Co. Label. The Smiths' Panic and Shoplifters of the World owe something to Metal Guru and Children of the Revolution, respectively. Children was also used by U2 on Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me. But the most celebrated 'steal' of recent years is, of course, Oasis's Cigarettes And Alcohol, which cops the rhythm guitar from Get It On. But then Marc took it from Chuck Berry... So the wheel rolls on!

Copyright -Guitarist May 1997
Rikki Rooksby