They broke the mould when Marc Bolan burst onto the unsuspecting ears of Londoners at the Electric Garden in 1967 but the little chap from Stoke Newington rarely stuck in any one place long enough for the pieces to be put back together again.
Early Tyrannosaurus albums were recorded in a blitz of activity, befitting a post-Mod maverick with urgent songs to impart. My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their hair…But Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows was a debut full of magic, followed by the equally impressive Prophets, Seers & Sages: The Angels of the Ages, the delicate Unicorn and the groundbreaking album A Beard of Stars. With producer Tony Visconti acting as technical genius for the nascent sea change in British rock music, Bolan had his ally. He also had his eye on the crown, mixing weird and wonderful tunes based on Middle Eastern sagas with bursts of classic Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran rock and roll.
As the 'head' era came into full swing, Bolan's albums were essential artefacts for the great-coated, Patchouli oil brigade and the switch to plain T. Rex in 1970 coincided with a move to electricification, and a stagecraft second to none. Break out tracks like 'King of the Rumbling Spires' and the effervescent classic 'Ride A White Swan' suddenly elevated T. Rex from club land to theatres. Soon sporting glitter in his hair and stuck on stars on his face Bolan became the elfin pin-up of the era, appealing to the important teenage girl market as well as the hairier male types. Sexually charged songs like 'Hot Love' and 'Get It On' made Marc an instant superstar with a following so large it merited the term T. Rextasy.
Electric Warrior (1971) could be cited as Britain's first total glam rock epic. It was such a gas that the band filled the old Empire Pool in Wembley for two heady shows in March 1972 with Beatle Ringo Starr filming the phenomenon for posterity as part of the Born To Boogiemovie. In fact, even the usually hard to impress John Lennon had name checked Bolan favourably - but it was Marc's ongoing rivalry with Bowie that became the Beatles vs. Stones battle of the bands back then.
While he avoided political or social commentary stuff Bolan perfected his own craft on The Slider (1972), which contained the number one hits 'Telegram Sam' and 'Metal Guru' – another prescient title. Now bossing a four-piece rock band, Bolan took stock and made a partial return to his peculiar roots. Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow – A Creamed Cage in August was a sideswipe at Bowie's own Ziggy invention. Who'd got there first? Bolan was convinced by 1974 that he was King of the Cosmic Castle.
Bolan's Zip Gun and his alter ego Zinc Alloy (he'd invented the role in 1966) emerged during a tough time for Marc. The usual perils of the era didn't escape him and he was justifiably aggravated to find other lesser talents trying to usurp him. Well capable of producing himself, Zip Gun was boosted by a new more soulful sound influenced by Marc's relationship with American singer Gloria Jones, as well as a heavily futuristic Sci-Fi mood captured in 'Space Boss' and 'Golden Belt'. This experimentalism didn't sit so easily with his pretty loyal fan club but is revealed today in its full glory.
Similarly, Futuristic Dragon, which featured the hit single 'New York City', is another disc that benefits from hindsight as Bolan starts to shed his past and passes his gaze across the new young punk scene. Around this time he was being championed by The Ramones, would tour with the Damned and returned to mainstream TV with his show Marc, where the curly haired host introduced and often played with fresh upstarts like The Boomtown Rats, The Jam and Generation X. He was never in their shadow.
Having been somewhat marginalised in the rush to conquer America by old pals Bowie and Elton John; it seemed Bolan found his niche again. His last studio album was Dandy In The Underworld (1977), which garnered positive reviews and sent many new listeners scurrying to catch up with albums that were themselves relatively recent. The album is a peach, showcasing the talents of Herbie Flowers and Tony Newman, as well as Steve Harley, Gloria Jones and jazz soul names, sax player Chris Mercer and drummer Paul Humphreys.
Six months after release Bolan died in that fateful crash, taken far too young at just 29. His legacy is significant. At one time in 1973 T. Rex records were shifting a reported 100, 000 copies a day! He played twin necked guitar alongside his mate Jeff Lynne on the Electric Light Orchestra's Ma-Ma-Ma-Belle, dashed off sessions with Ike and Tina Turner and even buried the hatchet with David Bowie when the two titans of teen appeared together on the TV show Marc in 1977.
A measure of his status can be gauged by the fact that amongst mourners at his funeral were Les Paul, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Bowie and Tony Visconti. Any of his albums is recommended and newcomers might wish to start with T. Rex before delving back into the wonders of Tyrannosaurus Rex. Bolan's influence would have amused him since the punk kids aside he has inspired everyone from Morrissey and Johnny Marr of The Smiths, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, Guns 'n' Roses, The Replacements, Power Station, San Francisco great Ty Segall and Oasis.
Great compilations are available, of course, but we reckon dig into Electric Warrior and The Slider and then experiment with the back catalogue. Delights abound. Bang a gong. Get it on.
The album that essentially kick-started the U.K. glam rock craze, Electric Warrior completes T. Rex's transformation from hippie folk-rockers into flamboyant avatars of trashy rock & roll. There are a few vestiges of those early days remaining in the acoustic-driven ballads, but Electric Warrior spends most of its time in a swinging, hip-shaking groove powered by Marc Bolan's warm electric guitar. The music recalls not just the catchy simplicity of early rock & roll, but also the implicit sexuality -- except that here, Bolan gleefully hauls it to the surface, singing out loud what was once only communicated through the shimmying beat. He takes obvious delight in turning teenage bubblegum rock into campy sleaze, not to mention filling it with pseudo-psychedelic hippie poetry. In fact, Bolan sounds just as obsessed with the heavens as he does with sex, whether he's singing about spiritual mysticism or begging a flying saucer to take him away. It's all done with the same theatrical flair, but Tony Visconti's spacious, echoing production makes it surprisingly convincing. Still, the real reason Electric Warrior stands the test of time so well -- despite its intended disposability -- is that it revels so freely in its own absurdity and wilful lack of substance. Not taking himself at all seriously, Bolan is free to pursue whatever silly wordplay, cosmic fantasies, or non sequitur imagery he feels like; his abandonment of any pretence to art becomes, ironically, a statement in itself. Bolan's lack of pomposity, back-to-basics songwriting, and elaborate theatrics went on to influence everything from hard rock to punk to new wave. But in the end, it's that sense of playfulness, combined with a raft of irresistible hooks, that keeps Electric Warrior such an infectious, invigorating listen today.
Words: Steve Huey
The fifth Tyrannosaurus Rex album was also the first T. Rex set, as Marc Bolan abbreviated the band name at the same time as enlarging everything else -- most notably the group's sound. Transitional through and through, T. Rex is the obvious successor to Beard of Stars, but it's clearly looking toward Electric Warrior, a point proven when the band hit the tour and TV circuits early in 1971. But "Jewel," "Sun Eye," "Beltane Walk," and "One Inch Rock" are all bona fide Bolan classics and, if T. Rex itself was to be overshadowed by the simultaneous success of the "Ride a White Swan" single (pointedly not included on the album), then that only allowed Bolan more time in which to plan his next move. In many ways, this is the quintessential Bolan album, the last to be made before his entire life was swallowed up by superstardom, but the first to begin imagining what that could be like. Certainly he has an awful lot of fun revisiting one of his earliest ever compositions, "The Wizard," while his ambition is writ large throughout the opening and closing snippets of "The Children of Rarn," excerpts from a full-fledged concept album that he was then contemplating. You also get "Is It Love?," one of his most contagiously underrated compositions ever, but really, there's not a sour moment to be found all album long. And it might just be the last Bolan album that you could say that about.
Words: Dave Thompson
Buoyed by two U.K. number one singles in "Telegram Sam" and "Metal Guru," The Slider became T. Rex's most popular record on both sides of the Atlantic, despite the fact that it produced no hits in the U.S. The Slider essentially replicates all the virtues of Electric Warrior, crammed with effortless hooks and trashy fun. All of Bolan's signatures are here -- mystical folk-tinged ballads, overt sexual come-ons crooned over sleazy, bopping boogies, loopy nonsense poetry, and a mastery of the three-minute pop song form. The main difference is that the trippy mix of Electric Warrior is replaced by a fuller, more immediate-sounding production. Bolan's guitar has a harder bite, the backing choruses are more up-front, and the arrangements are thicker-sounding, even introducing a string section on some cuts (both ballads and rockers). Even with the beefier production, T. Rex still doesn't sound nearly as heavy as many of the bands it influenced (and even a few of its glam contemporaries), but that's partly intentional -- Bolan's love of a good groove takes precedence over fast tempos or high-volume crunch. Lyrically, Bolan's flair for the sublimely ridiculous is fully intact, but he has way too much style for The Slider to sound truly stupid, especially given the playful, knowing wink in his delivery. It's nearly impossible not to get caught up in the irresistible rush of melodies and cheery good times. Even if it treads largely the same ground as Electric Warrior, The Slider is flawlessly executed, and every bit the classic that its predecessor is.
Words: Steve Huey
Until he joined John's Children, in March, 1967, Marc Bolan had never even owned an electric guitar. And once he quit the band, it is said, he abandoned it as quickly as everything else which that band represented -- freakbeat pop, adrenalined psych, electric soup. In fact, Bolan never lost sight of his electric destiny, even as Tyrannosaurus Rex sawed away on their acoustic toys, a point which producer Tony Visconti cottoned onto the first time he ever saw the duo play, "Marc sitting crosslegged on stage playing his strange little songs in a wobbly voice, while Steve Took was banging on his bongos." Visconti himself was a novice producer, "holding out for something really different and unusual. I thought Marc was perhaps that." He was, and the album which he and Took delivered emphasized all the qualities which Visconti had spotted that night at the UFO club. My People Were Fair approaches the listener from a totally unique angle. The Bolan voice, hardened from the slight warble which carried through his early solo material (still noticeable on the backups he performed for John's Children), remains uncompromising, but it blends so perfectly with the bizarre, almost Eastern-sounding instrumentation that the most lasting impression is of a medieval caravansary whose demented Bedouin cast has suddenly been let loose in a recording studio. It is an irresistible affair, if absolutely a child of its psychedelically-inclined time -- "Frowning Atahuallpa" even recruits DJ John Peel to read a Tolkien-esque fairy tale. But one of Bolan's loveliest compositions is here -- the gentle and deceptively melodic "Child Star," layered by harmonies which hit you sideways and are all the more mighty for it; one of his weirdest, too, is included, the mutant fairy dance of "Strange Orchestras," which sounds like it was recorded by one. Together with fellow highlights "Chateau in Virginia Waters" and "Graceful Fat Sheba," both are so far ahead of the material Bolan had been composing just a year earlier (subsequently made available on the Hard on Love/Beginning of Doves retrospective), that the inclusion of the "oldies" "Hot Rod Mama" and "Mustang Ford" is almost disappointing. They are, however, the only sour notes sounded on an album whose magic is discernible from so many different angles that it is hard to say which is its most astonishing factor. But it's hard not to be drawn to the actual dynamics of My People Were Fair, the uncanny way Tyrannosaurus Rex take the slightest musical instruments, pixie phones, glockenspiels and a Chinese gong included, to make them sound like the heaviest rock & roll band on the planet. Anyone could play power chords, after all. But who else would play them on acoustic guitar?
Words: Dave Thompson
There was a big and obvious change to Tyrannosaurus Rex on their fourth album, A Beard of Stars, as Steve Took was replaced by Mickey Finn, with Marc Bolan remaining the true captain of the duo act as singer and songwriter. Of more significance was the change in the band's sound, moving into far more electric rock territory with much greater use of electric guitar, though Bolan's songs were still often grounded in the fairytale-like musings of his earlier work. It was still a ways off from his glam rock approach, but it was definitely more accessible than the relatively homespun elflike folk-rock of the earliest Tyrannosaurus Rex albums. It also made some effective use of organ and somewhat more pop-friendly, conventional tunes like "By the Light of the Magical Moon," "Elemental Child," and "A Daye Laye," though weirder items like "Wild Cheetah" and "Dove" bore a slight similarity to some of Syd Barrett's gentlest compositions.
Words: Richie Unterberger
The third Tyrannosaurus Rex album, and their debut U.S. release, Unicorn was also the first to steadfastly state the game plan which Marc Bolan had been patiently formulating for two years -- the overnight transformation from underground icon to above ground superstar. Not only does it catch him experimenting with an electric guitar for the first time on record, it also sees Steve Peregrin Took exchange his bongos for a full drum kit, minor deviations to be sure, but significant ones regardless. And listen closely: you can hear the future. The opening "Chariots of Silk" sets the ball rolling, as slight and lovely as any of Bolan's early songs, but driven by a tumultuous drum roll, a pounding percussion which might be the sound of distant gunfire, but could as easily be a petulant four-year-old, stamping around an upstairs apartment. Either way, it must have been a rude awakening for the bliss-soaked hippy acid-heads who were the duo's most loyal audience at the time -- and, though the album settled down considerably thereafter, that initial sense of alarm never leaves. By the time one reaches the closing "Romany Soup," a nursery jingle duet for voice and whispered secrets, you feel like you've just left the wildest roller coaster on earth. If the peaks are astonishing, however, the troughs are merely comparative. "Pon A Hill" is certainly more remarkable for the backing chorus of absurd twitters than for a fairly standard Bolan melody. But "Cat Black," a song which had been around since before Bolan joined John's Children, comes on like a lost Spector classic, with apoplectic percussion and a positively soaring, wordless chorus. "She Was Born to Be My Unicorn," meanwhile, drifts by on piping Hammond and tympani, while "Warlord of the Royal Crocodiles" is no less resonant than such a title demands. Reprising his role on the duo's first album, DJ John Peel reappears to read a brief children's story, but that truly is the only real point of contact between Unicorn and its predecessors. Indeed, in a moment of pure prescient enthusiasm, Melody Maker's review tagged the once painstakingly eclectic acoustic duo "electrified teenybop" and, had things not gone horribly awry between Bolan and Took during their first U.S. tour that same year, all that T Rex was to achieve in the first years of the next decade might have instead fallen into place during the final years of the '60s. Because again, you can already hear the storm brewing.
Words: Dave Thompson
The first (but certainly not the last) of the compilations issued in the wake of T. Rex's U.K. chart breakthrough, Bolan Boogie was also many of the band's new fans' first chance to acquaint themselves with all that Marc Bolan had done in the past -- a point which the compilers certainly kept in mind. The catalog at their disposal was vast, reaching back to the acoustic birth of Tyrannosaurus Rex. Sensibly, however, Bolan Boogie concentrates on the material that lived up its title -- aside from one cut drawn from 1969's Unicorn, the entire album dated from the arrival of Mickey Finn, and the attendant headlong dive into electricity launched by the Beard of Stars album, and culminating with the epochal Electric Warrior album. Some incontrovertible classics emerge. "Beltane Walk," "The King of the Mountain Cometh," and "Fist Heart Mighty Drawn Dart" prove that Bolan's early flair for myth-weaving had effortlessly survived the move to amplification, while "Jewel" allies that assurance with some of the most gratuitously dirty guitar of the age. "Raw Ramp," a five-minute rock opera buried on the back of "Get It On," too, bristles with dynamism -- it opens gently, lavish strings and sad ballad sweet, pauses for a moment, then returns as a shuffling blues putdown ("you think you're champ, but girl, you ain't nothing but a raw ramp" -- whatever that may be), then concludes with a heads-down electric boogie. Perhaps the crowning glory, however, comes with T. Rex's take on "Summertime Blues," simultaneously the most unexpected track of them all, and the most appropriate one as well -- the ultimate anthem of youth disaffection, from the ultimate symbol of teenaged rebellion. The first new pop idol of the new decade, the first since the Beatles disbanded, Bolan hadn't simply shattered all predictions and preoccupations for the new decade. He had, single-handedly, dragged rock & roll out of a premature grave, then gift-wrapped it back to the kids who needed it most. They'd never have to work late again.
Words: Dave Thompson
The most underrated of Tyrannosaurus Rex's four albums, Prophets, Seers & Sages was recorded just six months after their debut and adds little to the landscapes which that set mapped out. There is the same reliance on the jarring juxtaposition of rock rhythms in a folky discipline; the same abundance of obscure, private mythologies; the same skewed look at the latest studio dynamics, fed through the convoluted wringer of the duo's imagination -- the already classic pop of the opening "Deboraarobed" is further dignified by its segue into the same performance played backwards, a fairly groundbreaking move at a time when even the Beatles were still burying such experiments deep in the mix. But if the album itself found the duo rooted to the musical spot, still it delivered some of Marc Bolan's most resonant songs. The nostalgia-flavored "Stacey Grove" and the contrarily high-energy "Conesuela" were as peerless as any of Bolan's more feted compositions. Equally intriguing is the confidence which exudes from "Scenes of Dynasty," a successor of sorts to the last album's "Scenesof," but presented with just percussion and some strange vocal noises to accompany Bolan's singing -- at a time when "singing" was maybe not the term a lot of listeners would employ for his vocals. The excited "one-two-three-four" count-in only adds to the dislocation, of course. Finally, the owlishly contagious "Salamanda Palaganda" offers a first-hand peek into the very mechanics of Bolan's songwriting. Other composers stuck for a rhyme either reach for the thesaurus or abandon the lyric altogether. Bolan simply made one up, and in the process created a whole new language -- half nonsense, half mystery, but wholly intoxicating. Just like the rest of the album, in fact.
Words: Dave Thompson
The most blatantly, and brilliantly, portentous of Marc Bolan's albums since the transitional blurring of boundaries that was Beard of Stars, almost seven years prior, Futuristic Dragon opens on a wave of unrelenting feedback, guitars and bombast, setting an apocalyptic mood for the record which persists long after that brief (two minutes) overture is over. Indeed, even the quintessential bop of the succeeding "Jupiter Liar" is irrevocably flavored by what came before, dirty guitars churning beneath a classic Bolan melody, and the lyrics a spiteful masterpiece. While the oddly Barry White-influenced "Ride My Wheels" continues flirting with the neo-funk basics of 1975's Bolan's Zip Gun, the widescreen sonic majesty of Futuristic Dragon was, if anything, even more gratuitously ambitious than its predecessor. "Calling All Destroyers," "Sensation Boulevard" and the magnificent "Dawn Storm" all bristle with lyrical splendor, while "Casual Agent" revisits some older glories with its near-slavish re-creation of the old "Rip Off" vibe. But if the other tunes pursue Bolan's new-found fascination for pomp over pop with barely disguised glee, he wasn't above slipping the odd joke into the brew to remind us that he knew what he was doing. "Theme for a Dragon" is an all-but Wagnerian symphonic instrumental -- with the sound of screaming teenyboppers as its backdrop, and the punch line lurking further afield among the handful of obvious hits which he also stirred in. The first of these, the big-budget ballad "Dreamy Lady," scored even before the rest of the album was complete. It was followed by the idiotically contagious "New York City," a piece of pure pop nonsense/genius which so effortlessly returned him to the British Top 20 that, for a few weeks through mid-1976, the idea of seeing "a woman coming out of New York City with a frog in her hand" really didn't seem as silly as it sounded. And when he followed that up with the rhythm'n'punk swagger of "I Love to Boogie," few people would deny that Bolan was on the way back up. That particular gem would be featured on his next album, 1977's Dandy in the Underworld; the Edsel remaster of Futuristic Dragon does, however, wrap up three further cuts from the era, the single sides "Laser Love," the languid "Life's an Elevator" and, best of all, "London Boys," a piece of undisguised childhood nostalgia which was allegedly written about David Bowie, one of Bolan's teenaged running mates. The song, incidentally, was drawn from a proposed concept album, ambitiously titled "London Opera" (one of two Bolan was then considering, the other was the sci-fi themed Billy Super Duper). The project was never completed, however -- for something else was stirring in the capital's bowels, that snarling monster which emerged as punk. And the moment Bolan saw it, he knew precisely what it represented. He began work on a new album right away.
Words: Dave Thompson