In 1972, Bolan told Rolling Stone that “a successful hit rock and roll record is a spell.” He claimed he’d spent his formative years learning rituals and incantations from a Black magician in Paris. He also said he’d concocted a rite that would turn himself into a satyr, but decided against it in a moment of clarity.
“What’s going to happen?” Bolan explained, “I’m not going to be able to walk onto an Arcadian hillside and go up to my cave and just hang out. I wouldn’t be able to go out of the house for a start.”
From nom de plumes to album titles, tall tales to guitar solos, Bolan was always telling a story, even if he was probably an unreliable narrator.
It might be easy to think Marc Bolan appeared all at once and fully formed. In reality, his path to T. Rex—and glam-rock originator—was serpentine and Sisyphean. But, one does get the feeling that if Bolan hadn’t found his way to glittering success, there wouldn’t have been anyone there to replace him. There’d just be a void in our vinyl collection between ‘S’ and ‘T,’ between The Stooges and Talking Heads.
Born Mark Feld in London, 1947, he likely spent the first half of the ’60s dressing like a Mod in Hackney rather than in Paris making magic. But he was known to take on pseudonyms. Post-Mod and during an American folk revival phase, he recorded under the name Toby Tyler, and laid down a sedated cover of “Blowin in the Wind.” He even tried Marc Bowland before settling on the simplified Bolan and he recorded at least one session under the name Big Carrot.
After playing in the freakbeat group John’s Children, Bolan left and created a duo, Tyrannosaurus Rex, opposite revolving percussionists. Ready to start telling his story, the psychedelic folk group recorded four albums, My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair but Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows and Prophets, Seers & Sages: The Angels of the Ages, both in 1968, the diminutive Unicorn in 1969, and Beard of Stars in 1970. Legendary helmsman Tony Visconti was always steering the ship, even before Bolan traded his acoustic for an electric.
The band had a few minor hits, and, of course, Bolan’s look had always stood out. Bolan had ivory skin, a square jaw and strong browline, and almost always exposed his neckline, which was framed by his curly coif. By the early ’70s these traits were glistening with glitter, boas, suede, gold and silver lamé capes, leopard print and oh so many heels. Add in an orange Les Paul and you have a legend.
Bolan honed a new sound, shortened the band's name, and found the holy grail of guitar tones, one that feels both traditional and spastic. The kind of guitar tone that lifts you off the ground, the kind that tells a story. Spells were cast, the hits started pouring in. “Hot Love” was first, then with the release of Electric Warrior and Slider, glam rock was founded. “Bang A Gong (Get It On),” “Jeepster,” “Telegram Sam,” “Metal Guru,” “Children of the Revolution,” and “Solid Gold Easy Action” all hit the top ten in the UK before 1973.
Bolan must have been a freight train at this time. He was recording and touring constantly, playing lengthy improvisations and flipping through band members and sports cars.
A classic T. Rex song from the band’s heyday has a kind of hazy sensuality to it, with ambiguous lyrics to match: “Well you're built like a car / You've got a hubcap diamond star halo.” There’s a golden Visconti sheen to the production and it’s likely unbearably danceable. But without exception, Bolan is cutting through the track with a butcher knife-of-a-riff, halving everything with that guitar tone of the gods.
T. Rex is the glam rock band, and they will be forever known because of Bolan’s ability to tell a story, with a guitar, with his clothes, with his words. He always had someone’s ear.
Bolan knew it, too. He told Rolling Stone, “Lennon, McCartney, Jagger, all the dudes’ll give me five minutes, man. They know where I’m at. I’m different. Like them. I’ve always known I was different, right from the moment I was born.”
Written by E. Ryan Ellis.
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