IT IS LONDON, JANUARY 1970. A new pop decade has begun, and two of its budding stars are huddled together at the Trident recording studio, down in old Soho.
David Bowie, whose session this is, has recently scored a big novelty pop hit, ‘Space Oddity’, while his pal Marc Bolan – busy adding licks to Bowie’s song ‘The Prettiest Star’ – is just about to release the final Tyrannosaurus Rex album A Beard of Stars.
The pair have known each other for two years. Both have emerged from the dandyish mod scene of the early ’60s before adapting to the more folky, more flowery style of the decade’s second half. Both are hungry for fame.
“Marc was thrilled that someone wanted to use him as a session musician,” says Tony Visconti, who produced ‘The Prettiest Star’. “He was dying to prove he could play. And David was really chuffed, because he loved Marc. So Marc did his solo and everyone applauded. But suddenly Marc’s wife, June, turned viciously on David and said, ‘We’re gonna go now – Marc’s too good to play on your record!’ It was the first time I realised there was any rivalry between them.”
Two years later, Britain would find itself in the grip of “T.Rextasy” and “Ziggymania” – of Glam Rock. The rivalry between Bolan and Bowie had reached fever pitch.
AS EARLY AS THE SUMMER of 1969, Marc Bolan was happy to alienate fans of his fey hippie duo T. Rex by releasing the electric pop song ‘King of the Rumbling Spires’. “We always played pop music anyway,” he said. “To me it’s completely fair to use electricity.”
It wasn’t as if Bolan was unacquainted with electricity. He’d even trashed guitars à la Pete Townshend in the mod band John’s Children. “Marc was a wonderful fraud,” recalled that band’s manager Simon Napier-Bell. “His guitar playing was unbelievably bad, but I just loved that voice. I thought he’d be the biggest star in the world.”
For Bolan, Tolkein-inspired Tyrannosaurus Rex songs about elves and unicorns were simply a stylistic diversion, a tailoring of his music to fit the times. His sub-Donovan, hippie-changeling persona nearly paid off with 1968’s divine ‘Debora’, but when the opportunity presented itself he happily moved on. When bongo man Steve Peregrine Took was replaced by gorgeous pouting Mickey Finn, the new duo cut its first fully electric album – the aforementioned Beard of Stars.
“There was an instrumental track called ‘Elemental Child’ on that album, and Marc played electric guitar on it,” says David Enthoven, then managing the group. “We thought it was fantastic, and we talked to Marc about standing up when he played guitar. The idea was just to get a band together.”
“There was nothing extraordinary in his shift at all,” said John Peel, king of the rumbling underground DJs. “He was just a quite ambitious lad with a small gift and a lot of good reference points who enjoyed being mildly famous.”
“I was very unhappy with the way we were really being ignored by the media of all sorts,” Bolan told writer Michael Wale in 1971. “I’d hear something like a new Dylan or Beatles record and I’d know I was as funky as them, you know… I knew I was that sort of level of being an artist.”
In August 1970, Bolan set about writing a hit pop song. The result was ‘Ride A White Swan’, in its writer’s words “a two-minute thirty-second, funky, snappy foot-tapper” that brilliantly combined kiddie-singalong cadences with an electric neo-rockabilly groove, with Marc warbling over the kind of crunchy Les Paul guitar riff that would define all the great T. Rex singles.
The hippies never forgave Bolan ‘Swan”s success after it hit No. 2 on the charts. “I see no reason why freaks shouldn’t be on the charts, but then they turn around and resent you for it,” he whined to Zigzag‘s Pete Frame.
Bolan understood that pop’s future lay with teenagers, preferably pubescent ones. “There was a kind of gap in the market,” recalled Nina Myskow, former editor of schoolgirl bible Jackie. “We hadn’t got our own Osmonds or Jackson Five, and yet the whole Beatles era was obviously over. Everyone was just waiting for something like T. Rex to happen.”
By early 1971, T. Rex’s music was urban pop art. With Steve Currie on bass, Bill Legend on drums and former Turtles Flo and Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan) on shriekingly camp falsetto backing vox, the group had its first No. 1 with ‘Hot Love’ in February. The superb Electric Warrior, featuring the classic singles ‘Jeepster’ and ‘Get It On’, followed later that year.
“The T. Rex sound was pure kismet,” says Tony Visconti. “It was a story about how the right people met each other at the right time. Bill and Steve are never given the credit they were due. Bill was a unique drummer from the Ringo Starr school, and Steve came from a jazz background. Marc was not a classic electric guitarist; he didn’t come up through the Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page schools. It was more as if the Hobbit had learned to play electric guitar! The other secret is that the records were made very quickly. They don’t sound perfect, but boy do they sound fresh.”
Just as significant was Marc’s new getup. “June Bolan employed Tony Secunda’s wife, Chelita, as T. Rex’s publicist,” says Visconti, “and Chelita saw that Marc was very pretty. It was her idea to take him around town and hit the women’s shops, getting him the feather boas and the beautifully embroidered jackets he wore.”
Topping it all off was the boldest statement of all – Marc’s make-up. With ‘Hot Love’ at No. 1, he made a spur-of-the-moment decision to let Chelita dab glitter under his eyes before appearing on Top of the Pops. At the next T. Rex gig he was greeted by the sight of hundreds of beglittered fans. Glam was born.
“Marc definitely started it,” says David Enthoven. “June had the vision about how to present this little pixie. She was very instrumental in picking Mickey Finn, who wasn’t much of a musician but looked fucking great. All Marc really did was give pop some attitude. He made it glamorous.”
“THE DAY POP CAME BACK!” roared a newspaper headline on March 19, 1972, the morning after T. Rex played a historic sell-out show at the Empire Pool in Wembley. T. Rextasy was now official, with Bolan hailed as the pinup idol of countless glitter girls (and boys). “I’ve never seen so many beautiful fourteen-year-old girls in my life as at the T. Rex Wembley concert,” reported Charles Shaar Murray in Cream.
Bolan was now red-hot, scoring two genius No. 1s with ‘Telegram Sam’ and ‘Metal Guru’. But he had serious competition, not least from his old mate David Bowie but also from Slade, Gary Glitter and Chinn-Chapman acts like the Sweet. “Bolan was without doubt the start,” says Nicky Chinn. “I’d seen him with Tyrannosaurus Rex and the transition was unbelievable.”
The following year, Bolan sang the line “If you know how to rock/You don’t have to shock” on the sub-par album Tanx. It was, he said, his response to “that glam-rock crap stuff” – the glitter-by-numbers teenypop he was hearing all around him.
“I used the song against the so-called glam rock, which I appear to be buttoned up with, and which I don’t necessarily believe in at all,” he announced. “Glam rock is sham rock.”
After the last great T. Rex single, ‘The Groover’, came out in June ’73. Bolan claimed there was “nowhere to go” after the Empire Pool triumph. Sadly, not helped by his prodigious use of cocaine, he lacked the vision to move beyond glam. Glitter or no glitter, his music was deteriorating badly. “He would never develop beyond the three-minute single,” says Visconti. “With Bowie, the glam rock smoothly segued into a kind of art rock.”
Churning out feeble singles like ‘Light of Love’ (1974) and unspeakable albums like Bolan’s Zip-Gun (1975), an increasingly porky Marc holed up in places like Monte Carlo and became a comical self-parody. “Monte Carlo was like la-la land, so he lost touch,” commented his sometime publicist B.P. Fallon. “Hanging out with Ringo and gambling every night isn’t going to tell you much about the music scene, is it?”
Coked to the gills and terrified of the way – in Mark Volman’s words – fame was “skirting away from him”, Bolan became increasingly defensive. “I haven’t slipped, not in my chart,” he said. “I’m still number one. I started the first teen wave, but I didn’t wanna get cemented in that environment.”
In the last years of his life, Bolan was saved by the box, first in the form of Mike Mansfield’s pop show Supersonic, and then through his very own kiddiepop show Marc. After releasing his best album since 1972’s The Slider, 1977’s Dandy in the Underworld, he bestirred himself to seize the pop moment once more. (A tour with the Damned had Marc, ever the opportunist, proclaiming himself “the godfather of punk”.)
Watching Bolan on Marc was mesmerising. On the one hand it seemed horribly undignified; on the other it defined what was great about him in the first place – his ability simply to revel in the evanescent charisma of pop stardom. “Bolan’s music was impermanent,” reflected Paul Morley in 1980. “He made it so because he recognized that the pop song was a moment, a mark in time, at most a period. He knew that the pop star, through the very nature of the phenomenon, faded away.”
MARC BOLAN’S GLAM YEARS CAME full circle when he invited none other than David Bowie to be a guest on the last Marcshow. Here was the former Ziggy Stardust – the man who’d brilliantly reinvented himself as a Berliner fallen to earth – sharing the mic with underworld dandy who’d washed up the shores of children’s TV.
Duetting on a hastily-written song called ‘Standing Next to You’, the two men had barely started singing when Bolan tripped over a wire and toppled off the stage. Could there have been a more painfully symbolic end to the Electric Warrior’s career?
He died just a week later when a purple Mini driven by his common-law wife, singer Gloria Jones, swerved into a tree in Barnes, London. “I’d hate to go now,” he’d told Cockney Rebel’s Steve Harley a month earlier. “I’d only get a paragraph on page three.”
The tree in Barnes is a shrine, and Marc Bolan is still one of the great pop stars.
© Nicky Parade, 2001