Simon Robert Napier – Bell
born 22 April 1939
Simon Napier-Bell, the veteran impresario who managed Bolan early in his career and went on to discover Wham!, remembers Bolan having ‘the biggest ego in the world. When he first came to me he said, “I don’t know why we need to make a record. All we need to do is put up posters all over town and I’ll be just as big a star.”
Napier-Bell first met Bolan in 1966, shortly after the release of The Wizard. ‘The story Marc told everyone was that he’d met this wizard in the Bois de Boulogne who had taken him back to his house where he’d stayed for three months, studying magic, making potions and so on,’ says Napier-Bell. ‘Actually, he’d gone on a weekend trip to Paris and met a conjuror in a gay club and spent the night with him. But if you faced him with this, he’d just laugh. Marc had the greatest sense of humour in the world. He’d laugh at himself more than anybody else.’ Bolan, says Napier-Bell, had a seductive charm and ‘an ambivalence’ that made him attractive to both men and women. He was ‘a hustler. I don’t think Marc would do anything, but he’d persuade people that he might. And there were an awful lot of people who helped him on that basis.’
Napier-Bell has written several times of Bolan in his witty volumes of pop business memoirs, and has described his young protégé as “a wonderful, charming fraud.” The openly gay Napier-Bell says that like many managers and musicians of the day, there was a strong sexual undercurrent to their relationship. They sometimes conducted business meetings in bed. On the whole, he believed the pushy young folk singer who turned up at his door was more gay than straight.
Napier-Bell’s first brainwave was to combine Bolan with a young rock band he was also trying to launch, called John’s Children who were better known for their ability to shock rather than for their music and who were thrown off a major tour of Germany for upstaging The Who with an act that included running round the audience throwing feathers in the air and whipping each other with chains.
The group’s style was groping towards a sort of ultra-violent psychedelia, more pop art than flower power, something like The Who. They already had a singer, Andy Ellison, but Napier-Bell believed it could be a vehicle for Marc as songwriter and secondary vocalist, helping to get him known in his own right. Though John’s Children soon imploded, Napier-Bell’s strategy had some success. Their best legacy is a Bolan-penned single, Desdemona, that featured an extraordinary warble from the back-up singer. Said warble was the wider world’s introduction to Marc Bolan’s bizarre new singing voice.
Nobody knows for sure where this noise came from. Napier-Bell and Bolan have claimed it was an imitation of R&B singers played at 45 rpm instead of 33. Others can hear the Cockney Buddy Holly-isms of Adam Faith. The commonest jibe of the time, however, was that it sounded like the stuttering puppet star of BBC Children’s Hour, Larry the Lamb.
After the split from Johns Children, Marc got a gig at the Electric Garden then put an ad in Melody Maker to get the musicians –
“Freaky lead guitarist, bass guitarist and drummer wanted for Marc Bolan’s new group. Also any other astral flyers like with cars, amplification and that which never grows in window boxes. Phone Wimbledon 0697. 9 am-3pm.”
The paper came out on Wednesday, the day of the gig. At 3 o-clock he was interviewing musicians, at five he was getting ready to go on stage…. It was a disaster. He just got booed off the stage.”
Napier-Bell said of Bolan that after the first disastrous electric gig, “He didn’t have the courage to try it again; it really had been a blow to his ego…. Later he told everyone he’d been forced into going acoustic because Track had repossessed all his gear. In fact he’d been forced to go acoustic because he was scared to do anything else.”