Remembering Marc Bolan, 40 years after he was killed
PUBLISHED: 17:46 19 September 2017 | UPDATED: 17:46 19 September 2017
Glam rocker Marc Bolan’s music from Get It On to Ride a White Swan continues to inspire 20th century boy Nick Richards
Forty years ago today as I was waking up to celebrate turning two-and-a-half, I had no idea that my favourite rock star had just died.
I probably spent September 16, 1977 innocently smashing Matchbox cars into the skirting board of my parent’s hallway, totally unaware that the body of Marc Bolan was being removed from the crumpled passenger seat of his purple Mini.
His girlfriend, Gloria Jones, had lost control of the car in a tragic early morning car crash in Barnes London. It had smashed into a sycamore tree, killing Bolan instantly.
It was a death that shocked the nation.
Bolan was just two weeks from turning 30 and left behind both a two-year-old son and something of a musical legacy.
I say something of a legacy as I, like many passionate T-Rex fans, believe he should have been more feted in the years that followed his death.
Bolan’s work seems by many to have been pigeon-holed as something they enjoyed in the early 1970s and, well, that’s about it. They moved on and left Bolan behind.
Lazy conclusions swirl around rock’s myth-kitty that he had a couple of great years, struggled to recapture those highs, put on weight, dabbled in drugs and was fading into obscurity just before he died.
But those outdated theories are in serious need of debunking.
I’d be the first to admit that Bolan has never had the same cutting-edge cool as artists of a similar age – he’s never carried the kudos of David Bowie, the inner torment of Nick Drake, the innovation of Brian Eno, or the sheer stadium flamboyance of Freddie Mercury – all born in the late 1940s, like Bolan, who blossomed in the early 1970s.
But he should have that iconic status, especially considering the short time he had to actually build a legacy. For while his early 1970s peers such as Bowie, Rod Stewart, Bryan Ferry and Elton John had 40 years to reinvent themselves, to play around with musical styles and to mature with the audiences that first identified with them, Bolan had less than 40 months from the moment chart success started to elude him in late-1973 until his death.
And, if we are talking diversity, reinvention and musical creativity, Bolan had it in droves, particularly in that three-year period from 1974 to 1977 when the hits dried up, the fans deserted him and the critics said he was slowly committing career suicide.
Indeed, three years after the release of the UK’s biggest-selling album of 1971, T-Rex’s Electric Warrior, Marc Bolan had become the eclectic warrior, reinventing his own sound, fronting his own TV show, embracing both soul and punk music and mentoring the next generation of chart stars.
But let’s rewind a little.
Five years before his death in the spring and summer of 1972, Marc Bolan was the biggest pop star in the country, with T-Rex playing sell-out dates at the Empire Pool (now Wembley Arena) to thousands and racking up ten top-five hits between 1970 and 1973 including the brilliant number ones Hot Love, Get It On, Telegram Sam and Metal Guru.
His pretty face, carrying a sprinkling of glitter and framed by his trademark corkscrew hair, was everywhere. He was, fey, effeminate, charismatic, confrontational yet personable and welcoming.
Huge self-belief emanated from his mouth, although he could be catty and awkward - bitchy, even.
He wanted to be a pop star and to have big pop hits. That was Marc’s meticulous mantra.
The former child model had started out in the mid-60s as Toby Tyler, joining psychedelic band John’s Children before forming the largely acoustic Tyrannosaurus Rex with bongo basher Steve Peregrin-Took where he could be found often hanging out in John Peel’s Perfumed Garden and headlining the first Glastonbury in 1970 singing songs about pixies, elves and spaced-out fairies.
Peregrin-Took was replaced with Mickey Finn around the same time that the band became T-Rex and Bolan explored a more commercial and electric sound.
Between The Beatles splitting and the arrival of punk, the music world had plenty of vacancies for colourful pop characters to provide some welcome relief to the grim economic uncertainly of the early 1970s.
Larger-than-life characters Elton John, David Bowie, Alice Cooper, and Gary Glitter all became huge stars, but in the years between 1971 and 1973, Bolan and T-Rex topped them all.
Under the production of Tony Visconti, Bolan focused on producing sharp, punchy singles that would dominate the charts, emulating the stars he worshipped as a child, like Elvis, Little Richard and Eddie Cochran.
While Bowie, also under the production of Visconti, was crafting amazing advanced concept albums, Bolan’s central interest was three-minute pop nuggets with simply catchy choruses. These songs would eventually strike a chord in my ears in the autumn of 1991, some 20 years after the T-Rex heyday providing a gentler alternative to the ferocity of Nirvana, Guns N’Roses, Manic Street Preachers and Public Enemy, bands grabbing my attention as I started my A-levels.
It was the Levi’s advert featuring Brad Pitt that did it for me – a blast of 20th Century Boy on the telly one night when I should have been doing my homework and my Marc Bolan obsession was kick-started.
I lapped up the newly-released Telstar Greatest Hits album which rode into the charts on the strength of that advert, but in the now scarcely believable pre-internet world of the early 1990s, the only way to hear more of Bolan’s work was to scour the secondhand record shops of Norwich to liberate those brilliant seven-inch singles housed in those beautiful distinctive red and blue EMI sleeves and albums.
I borrowed books, someone lent me some old cassette tapes, I saw tribute band T-Rexstasy, bought Bolan T-shirts and made a pilgrimage to the tree where he died.
Had I been 16 in 1971 and not 1991, Marc Bolan would probably not have pushed any of my musical buttons but I had his entire back catalogue to explore and I was taken in not only by the great music, his image and his personality, but also by the fact that I didn’t really know anything about him.
While I love the early Tyrannosaurus Rex records, I have a huge soft spot for those last four years of his life, where it can now be seen that he was actually laying down his legacy. This is where I suggest you have a dig and see if you too can appreciate his diverse talent.
After the amazing success of T-Rex between 1971 and 1973, Bolan’s life and music became far more complicated. He broke up with his wife June Child and started a relationship with backing singer Gloria Jones, whom he had met in the US in 1973. They had a son, Rolan, in 1975 by which time she was a fully-fledged member of the band a clear influence on the fresh and now heavily soul-influenced T-Rex sound.
In February 1974, T-Rex released Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow with this new soul sound complete with gospel backing vocals from Gloria Jones. It was slated upon its release, but songs on Zinc Alloy such as Explosive Mouth, Venus Loon and Intersteller Soul show Bolan producing music similar to the psychedelic party jams of Parliament or Sly and the Family Stone – and while David Bowie was still well over a year away from releasing his own much-lauded soul-sounding Young Americans.
In the background of all this turbulence was a drink and drugs phase that saw him pile pounds on to his once-slim 5ft 2ins frame, binging on brandy to no doubt help with his creativity and to mask dwindling record sales.
A downward and ultimately fatal spiral of substance abuse did for British stars of the same age like John Bonham, Keith Moon and, later, The Sweet’s Brian Connolly, but Bolan was better than that.
By 1977 he’d kicked the drugs into touch, the final T-Rex studio album Dandy In The Underworld was warmly welcomed and he’d started the children’s teatime TV show Marc.
Not only was Bolan now showcasing the older T-Rex songs to the younger siblings of his original teen fans, but he showed that his ears were wide open to new punk artists.
While an introverted David Bowie was moping around in Berlin, Bolan was holding court on national TV to an audience of millions, managing to get The Jam, Generation X and Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Boomtown Rats on his show. The last T-Rex tour in 1977, shortly before his death, had seen Bolan chose The Damned as support.
Had he survived into the 80s I am sure he would have been still decorating the charts as by 1983 the young rockers of the 1970s had become some of the biggest forces in global pop. David Bowie and Rod Stewart topped the charts in that year, Elton John, Queen and even Slade and Status Quo were all still regularly making the Top 10.
While Bowie was churning out MTV-friendly hits like China Girl and Let’s Dance, Bolan’s legacy was being cemented by far more confrontational chart upstarts sich as Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Soft Cell, who wrote big powerful anthems laced with bravado and showmanship that were right out of the Bolan stable.
I can hear the T-Rex influence in songs like Bedsitter and in particular Relax.
The bands’ frontmen Holly Johnson and Marc Almond were teenage T-Rex fans and have often talk about the massive importance of Bolan in their lives (Almond even altered the spelling of his first name as an homage).
Frankie Goes to Hollywood covered Get It On for a Peel session in 1983 and Soft Cell’s biggest hit, Tainted Love, was originally recorded by Bolan’s girlfriend Gloria Jones.
Other massive 80s artists such as Morrissey and Def Leppard’s Joe Elliot saw T-Rex as their first gig and you can hear Bolan’s influence even into the 1990s with bands such as Oasis.
Bolan was a big inspiration to many pop stars after his death, but had it not been for that car crash I believe the direction he was taking towards the end of his life would have stood him in good stead into the 1980s.
He was mixing with the next generation and would have adored the 2-Tone sound. All his peers went on to become huge chart stars of the mid-1980s and Bolan, probably by now a solo artist or producer, would certainly have done the same.
Had he not died 40 years ago, Sir Marc Bolan – for surely he would have been knighted by now –would have been held in the same esteem as British pop royalty like Paul McCartney or Elton John.
Today, two weeks from turning 70, he’d still be making music, still touring and probably dominating Twitter with his mildly catty and still very cosmic take on modern life.