Marc Bolan: A Tribute to the Late T. Rex Legend on His 69th Birthday
The image of Marc Bolan—cheeks dotted with glitter, Les Paul slung low—is one of the most enduring of the early ‘70s glam-rock era. At his best–on songs such as “Get It On (Bang a Gong),” “20th Century Boy,” and “Jeepster”—Bolan put muscle into some of the period’s finest pop moments, forging a style centered on crunchy power chords, boogie riffs, and leads that sounded like blues crafted in outer space. Plus, just as Chuck Berry had done before him, Bolan saw endless permutations in what seemed, on the surface, like the simplest of approaches to guitar.
Born Mark Feld, on September 30, 1947, Bolan grew up in London in a nurturing family environment. He became smitten with rock ’n’ roll as a pre-teen, when his father brought home a copy of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.” His mother bought him his first guitar—an acoustic—when he was just nine years old. An early fascination with Elvis Presley (and Presley’s guitarist, James Burton) spread to include blues great Hubert Sumlin, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and Eddie Cochran—all of whom Bolan cited as influences.
In 1965 Bolan signed with Decca Records and released two singles: “The Wizard” and “The Third Degree.” Two years later he joined a Who-influenced band called John’s Children. His career got underway in earnest, however, in the summer of 1967, when he teamed with percussionist Steve Peregrine Took to form the acoustic duo, Tyrannosaurus Rex. Producer Tony Visconti, who helped shape Bolan’s work for the next several years, met the future star in the fall of that same year.
“He gave off an air of being very precious, very charismatic,” Visconti later said. “He knew he was going to be big, and he had everything to back it up: talent, imagination, and great songs. His melodies were absolutely superb.”
In contrast to the blues-based guitar rock popular in Britain at the time, Tyrannosaurus Rex specialized in folk-flavored fare that appealed to the hippie crowd. In 1969, however, Bolan decided to go electric. Replacing Took with percussionist Mickey Finn, he recorded an album titled A Beard of Stars that featured aggressive acoustic strumming coupled with electric guitar textures. Concurrent with a change in bandname, the rechristened T. Rex reached No. 2 on the British charts with a single titled “Ride a White Swan.” “Hot Love,” the follow-up, hit No. 1.
Building on that momentum, Bolan saw his popularity soar in Britain with a swiftness that hadn’t been seen since Beatlemania. Fleshing out T. Rex with bassist Steve Currie and drummer Bill Legend, Bolan recorded what many consider the definitive glam-rock album. Titled Electric Warrior, the record spawned two colossal U.K. hits in “Jeepster” and “Get It On.” Both songs featured subtly suggestive riffs—a Bolan trademark—that played to the pan-sexuality of the glam movement. Sporting the tamer title “Bang a Gong,” the latter song also reached the Top 10 in America.
Pundits in the U.K. began using the term “T. Rextasy” to describe the fervor and adoration that surrounded Bolan. “The music industry really needed Marc in 1971,” observed British disc jockey Bob Harris, years later. “It had splintered and the area which had suffered most was the singles market. There just weren’t any good singles being made, and no one had screamed since the Beatles. Marc changed all that.”
Such frenzy proved impossible to sustain, but for the next two years Bolan held his own as David Bowie, Slade, and other artists competed for the glitter throne. Ringo Starr—no stranger to such mania—documented the T. Rex phenomenon in Born To Boogie, an art-film that later incorporated two T. Rex shows staged at Wembley Stadium in the spring of 1972. Two superb albums—The Slider (1972) and Tanx (1973)–saw Bolan sharpen his songwriting skills even further. The non-album single “20th Century Boy”—a 1973 let-’er-rip anthem powered by ferocious guitar riffs—anticipated the punk movement by nearly half a decade.
Still, even at the time, Visconti felt T. Rextasy had run its course. “Now that Marc is a pop culture hero, people are saying he did the most meaningful things in the old days,” the producer said, shortly after Tanx was released. “He paved the way for people like Bowie, who wouldn’t have been possible without Marc coming along first. But I do think he’s done his T. Rex thing a little too long.”
Indeed, by 1974, Bolan’s magic appeared to be slipping away. Gradually, his creative energies were scuttled by personnel changes, divorce, substance abuse, and—most importantly, from a creative standpoint—a parting of ways between him and Visconti. Bolan continued to release albums, but critical favor and commercial success began to elude him. A failed attempt to win over America audiences, by undertaking a 1975 tour, intensified the downward spiral.
Against all odds, however, T. Rex began to take flight again in 1977. Thanks in part to the patronage of the punks, who embraced Bolan as part of their lineage, a revisionist view took hold—one that heralded Bolan as the gifted songwriter and innovative guitarist he was. Members of the punk band The Damned, with whom he toured, were impressed by the freshness of Bolan’s ideas and his newfound sobriety.
“He had cleaned up his act,” the Damned’s guitarist Captain Sensible later said. “He would jog around the service station while we stuffed our faces with egg and chips. It was great to meet a pop star who was human.”
Bolan’s burgeoning comeback hit full stride in August 1977, when Granada Television signed him to produce a weekly TV show titled Marc. Besides serving as a vehicle for Bolan to perform his own material (both old and new), the show featured up-and-coming bands such as the Boomtown Rats and Generation X. Bolan debuted what was to be his last single, “Celebrate Summer,” on one episode, and a new multi-album deal was purportedly in the works. On what was to be the sixth and final episode, Bolan’s longtime friend David Bowie joined him on-stage for a good-time guitar romp.
Alas, however, the comeback met with a tragic end. On September 16, less than a week after the last Marc show, Bolan’s girlfriend, singer Gloria Jones, was driving the couple home after a late-night dinner. Rounding a tight curve, Jones lost control of the vehicle and the car slammed into a tree. Jones survived, but Bolan was killed instantly. He was two weeks shy of his 30th birthday.
In the ensuing decades, Bolan’s legacy has attained monumental proportions. Bands such as Power Station, the Replacements, and Big Star have covered his songs, and both “20th Century Boy” and “The Slider” have been featured in American TV commercials. His influence looms large–no less a band than Def Leppard profess to have been impacted more by Bolan than by any other artist.
“He was chock full of talent,” Visconti reflected, in a 2003 interview. “He had the good sense of the times he lived in, and he knew just what to do, sing, and say. He knew he was gorgeous and charming, and he worked it. Most pop stars are subdued by comparison. Marc is one of the few who woke up and smelled the coffee.”