"Electric Warrior" was the album with which Marc Bolan finally expunged the last remnants of his perfumed garden past and forged glam rock from a sackful of slow-motion Chuck Berry riffs and a cheek-dusting of glitter. What makes this album such an endearing listen so many decades after the fact is the sheer simplicity of it all. With just bass, drums and guitar, aided and abetted by a few restrained string and brass arrangements, there's not an ounce of flab here, just a Rolling Stones-style urge to break in, get straight to the heart of the song and be away again and covering the tracks before anyone notices. (As the 1970s progressed T. Rex albums became increasingly more elaborate and decreasingly successful, a decline only arrested by Marc's punk-invigorated swansong "Dandy In The Underworld"). And it's not just a smattering of big singles bridged by forgettable filler: "Cosmic Dancer" and "Life's A Gas" have been covered reverentially by Morrissey and Teenage Fanclub respectively, whilst "Girl" and "Rip-Off" are both astonishingly successful polar opposites, being delicate ballad and scorched-earth rock out respectively. Yes, the lyrics are utter nonsense cooked up to fill the spaces between the equally nonsensical choruses, but a) Marc had already spent four Tyrannosaurus Rex albums proving his poetic credentials and b) if you like a little meaning with your glam rock head for Bowie's "The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars" or Lou Reed's "Transformer", both of which could scarcely have existed in their released form, if at all, without this album.
Simply Vinyl have done great things with the packaging of their "Electric Warrior" reissue, with the full lyrics reproduced on the back cover and a picture insert that I hadn't seen before despite spending my school years with friends blessed with an obsessional devotion to the collecting of Bolan records. It's a shame that the labels are A&M ones rather than the Fly originals, presumably due to the fact that A&M own the master tapes to "Electric Warrior" this week. (A trivial point, I know, but one that Simply Vinyl usually go to great lengths to get right.) And sonically this reissue harks back to the bad old days when I'd grudgingly accept that spending £16 or so on an SV release was less of a hit-or-miss experience than scouring record fairs trying to net a mint condition original: here "Electric Warrior" sounds a little tired, compressed and distorted - faults that I acknowledge could be present on the original master tapes - compared to the other excellent Simply Vinyl reissues raved about above.
MARC BOLAN & T.REX 20th Century Superstar (Universal)
This lavishly presented 4 CD collection, packaged in the currently fashionable style for multi-disc sets as a hardback book, is the first ever overview of the entirety of Marc Bolan's musical career. Its closest competitor is K-Tel's 1985 double album "The Best Of The 20th Century Boy", which handled the Tyrannosaurus and T.Rex hits, at least, and was coincidentally the first ever T.Rex I clapped ears on, its excellence precipitating a decade-late (at least) mini outbreak of T. Rextasy amongst friends in my school year. "20th Century Superstar" adds a plethora of interesting album tracks, alternate versions, rarities and oddities, and takes the story back via his brief stint in John's Children and early solo sides to demos the 17 year old recorded under the name Toby Tyler, summing in total over five hours' worth of Bolan boogie. There's also the obligatory big booklet written by Marc biographer Mark Paytress, a foreword from T.Rex producer Tony Visconti, a discography and more rare photographs than you could shake a Leica at. Finally, it looks as if the Bolan legacy, for too long badly handled by rival record companies, rabidly obsessive fan organisations and almost continual dubiously motivated repackaging, has found itself a safe haven at last.
To the music, then, most of which is pretty great. Of the early solo material even the sub-Donovan jangling of Toby Tyler's interpretation of "Blowin' In The World" is quaint fun, whilst the inclusion of rocking-horse rare tracks such as "The Wizard" - later rejigged as a lengthy epic on the first, eponymous T.Rex album, here a compact folk rock thing not dissimilar to the kind of music his friend and competitor David Bowie was making at around the same time - fills fascinating gaps that have long existed in my appreciation of the man's work. A too-brief smattering of tracks by John's Children - once famously dubbed "the worst band in the world" if I remember rightly - accurately documents their brand of mod psychedelia of the kind that sold zip at the time but which has since become treasured by anyone with a Record Collector subscription. A demo of "Chateau In Virginia Waters" produced by Joe Boyd is one of this set's real discoveries: lush and elaborate compared to the version released on Tyrannosaurus Rex's debut album, it offers a fascinating, frustrating glimpse of what could have been had he continued to work with the duo.
Folk purists might sneer at the Tyrannosaurus Rex material - and admittedly its primitive production and Marc's pixie warble place it a long way down the evolutionary ladder compared to the contemporaneous work of the Incredible String Band, for example - but I think these selections still sound terrific today. It reminds me of the mind-altering experience of borrowing all four Tyrannosaurus Rex albums from a hip teacher at school and listening to them all in the same night - the arcane titles, the gnomic logic of the lyrics, the fairy stories, the sheer otherplanetness conjured up from primitive tools such as a larynx, an acoustic guitar and bongos. Naturally, Bolan's imagination and ambition soon outgrew these constraints - listen to the fabulous pixie organ lushness of "Chariots Of Silk", a pocket Phil Spector production if ever there was one, or the magnificent "King Of The Rumbling Spires" which, with its goth/glam fusion practically invents the Smashing Pumpkins 20 years too early. "By The Light Of The Magical Moon" skims even closer to the classic early T.Rex sound, a noise now precariously balanced between Middle Earth mysticism and Chuck Berry economy, a tussle that found its most fully realised expression, and ultimately its destruction, on the closing track of the final Tyrannosaurus Rex album, "Elemental Child". Essentially just Marc and an electric guitar, this astonishing five minutes was both a last kiss to his pixie past and a first glimpse of the future, the Electric Warrior. Unveiled live on a John Peel show on New Year's Day, 1970, the DJ's awed response was, "Scotty Moore would be proud of you".
One of the many delights of "20th Century Superstar" is the way it also trawls through the flotsam and jetsam of Bolan's career, one such example being the inclusion at this point of David Bowie's "The Prettiest Star" single. on which Marc played guitar. Not dissimilar to the version that would close "Aladdin Sane" three years later, it tellingly illustrates that, although the two stars might have been moving along similar trajectories they were still light years apart, the song appearing as a bottomless pool of sophistication in this company. And now T.Rex emerge fully formed and triumphant with the effortless "Ride A White Swan" single and a representative selection of similarly supercharged gems from their eponymous debut - songs as crisp, simple and addictive as "Beltane Walk" and "Diamond Meadows" are rare, even (or perhaps especially) today. The remainder of CD2 finds the band's sound easing into overdrive, positioning a few highlights of "Electric Warrior" (check the free jazz sax versus long, dragged-out string arrangement versus feedback outro of "Rip Off") alongside killer singles ("Hot Love") and breathtaking b-sides (the astonishing, strutting triptych "There Was A Time/Raw Ramp"). Should you be seeking a brief, jolting explanation as to why Marc Bolan matters, plug in here.
From here on in the elegant simplicity of the formula became gradually overburdened with Spectoresque ambition. Some great songs were still able to peep up through the aural sludge - witness "Telegram Sam", its killer b-side "Cadillac" (surely home to the most exhilarating opening "Yeah!" Marc ever put on wax), "Baby Strange", later covered by Big Star, a band who knew a thing or two about three-minute pop perfection themselves - but the cream had definitely begun to curdle. Bolan's songwriting became more wistful and reflective on songs like "Spaceball Ricochet", this particular trait reaching its apotheosis on the bedraggled, bewildered glitter of "Teenage Dream".
In the booklet Paytress pleads the apologist's case for Bolan's fat Elvis (or "glittering chipolata sausage") years, but in truth the selections included here from "Zinc Alloy And The Hidden Riders Of Tomorrow", "Bolan's Zip Gun" and "Futuristic Dragon" are rather more than your collection needs from this period. Even so, I will always have time for the floaty disco party of "Dreamy Lady", the swaying strings behind "Till Dawn" and the acoustic introspection of deservedly rescued b-side "Life's An Elevator". Unfortunately there's only room for four tracks from Bolan's premature 1977 swansong (pun unintended, honestly) and punk-era near-comeback "Dandy In The Underworld", the most enjoyable, interesting and assured album he had made in at least five years, but if the thunderous glory of "Teen Riot Structure" doesn't leave you itching to hear more I would suggest you've probably just wasted the preceding five hours of your life working through this excellent set. "20th Century Superstar" stands as exactly the kind of career celebration Bolan has long deserved, rounding up both all the singles and salient album tracks for the newcomer but also a tranche of hard-to-find rarities and alternate takes for the committed enthusiast. If you're interested, or even think you might be interested, in Marc's music, bar the £40 price tag this set is pretty much unassailable.
MARC BOLAN & T.REX BumpNGrind (Thunderwing)
The fascinating genesis of this release began when a pile of T.Rex master tapes came up for auction at Bonhams in London. When they failed to sell, a group of Bolan aficionados pooled their resources to save and preserve them. In the process, they discovered the tapes contained much previously unheard instrumental and vocal work, as well as false starts, introductions and extended outros that added significantly to the accumulated knowledge of Marcs working methods.
BumpNGrind collects some of those discoveries, and its fantastic. From setlist to sound to performance, its like eavesdropping on the ultimate T. Rex gig, albeit one attended by a curiously unresponsive audience. Bolan sounds wired and charged, amped and vamped on these recordings. Even though several are the same takes as the released versions, shorn of their extravagant orchestrations and radio-friendly fades they mutate into more potent beasts altogether.
Nevertheless, this is no exercise in hair-shirt, warts-and-all authenticity. The compilers have sensitively preserved Bolans artistic dignity even when the captured performances have attempted to betray it. For example, The Soul Of My Suit has been topped by Marcs own explanation, taken from a different run-through, of the complex intro that was abandoned at some point in the two years between this recording and the songs eventual release. Its tailed by an early fade due to what the booklet calls some spirited out-of-tune guitar playing. When the original drum track drops out four minutes into 20th Century Boy, the lack is carefully made up using headphone leakage, preserving this fabulously unexpurgated version of the take that supplied the single for grateful posterity.
The Groover is abandoned once after Marc erroneously counts in 1-2-3-4 rather than the iconic T-R-E-X!, and again because its too fast. Dishing Fish Wop is revelatory, a harmonica-puffing soulful shimmer that appeared in diluted, diminished form, on the Bolans Zip Gun album retitled Golden Belt. Come On, Bill, he yells encouragingly to drummer Legend during Telegram Sam, and Silver Lady, later to become Dreamy Lady, is beguiling even in prototype. Some raucous slide guitar powers Fast Blues (Easy Action) towards its eventual number 2 chart position as Solid Gold Easy Action, Bolan dismissing it with the comment Rough voice on that, let me come back to it later.
Perhaps not all of BumpNGrind matches the hype. A closing Children Of The Revolution is a lumbering, shuddering 12 minute jam that totters perilously close to collapse at times. But when it seems like every last T. Rex studio sweeping is being made available, this album stands almost alone in its commitment to presenting the bands raw, primal power. If youve ever felt the slightest tingle of T. Rexstasy you cant possibly be disappointed. Like the man says, its good for your mind.
TYRANNOSAURUS REX A Bears Of Stars (Universal/A&M)
On the fourth and final Tyrannosaurus Rex album you can practically hear the cogs and gears of Marc Bolans stardom masterplan creaking and grinding into place. Consider that the front cover depicts only him and his waterfalling curls, the replacement of percussionist Steve Peregrine Took with Mickey Finn to create what would become the inaugural T. Rex lineup and the streamlined songs that dwell within admittedly, theyre still a long way from Top Of The Pops, but these slender, charming works are both more refined and elaborately adventurous than the Tolkein bongo that made his/their name. A small but significant shift is taking place you can hear it in the way that Pavilions Of Sun wants to float and chug at the same time, yet the sly, seductive By The Light Of The Magical Moon makes Ride A White Swan sound like Slade. Organ Blues, meanwhile, is exactly that imagine a hobbit on his back porch with a tiny toy keyboard.
Its on Elemental Child, that the Vamp-powered T. Rex bursts from the chrysalis, sounding a little crackly on this reissue but resplendent with its power undimmed. Marc had been under the informal tutelage of a certain Mr Clapton, and it shows as Bolan pushes against the outer edges of his limited musicianship during the fabulous, furious 210 second solo that closes the song, and the original album.
There follows a clutch of demos recorded with the ousted Took but rejected for the album, according to producer Tony Visconti because Bolan was keen to avoid having to pay his former bandmate any royalties. This trove includes such fragrant miniatures as Find A Little Wood, Blessed Wild Apple Girl and Once Upon The Seas Of Abyssinia, titles discussed reverentially with schoolfriends if never actually heard during my belated Bolan-fan youth. Alternate takes are presented of a generous 11 of the main features 14 tracks, infuriatingly slightly askew compared to the original running order. Nevertheless, of these only Organ Blues was subjected to any significant overhaul on its path to the platter.
Always one of the duos greater achievements, in this slipcased Expanded Edition, replete with restored artwork and informative booklet notes by Bolan biographer Mark Paytress the oft-mistreated A Beard Of Stars finds its worthiest incarnation since the original Regal Zonophone issue.
T. REX The Slider (Get Back)
If Electric Warrior sounded hesitant at times, barely aware of the monster it was about to awaken, the third studio album under the T. Rex banner, The Slider, fervently embraces the stack-heeled silliness of glam from the first. Its all there in the glitter-daubed Spectorian overload of opener Metal Guru: the burping brass, the amped up, dumbed down blues forms, the orgasmic grunting and enough tinsel to make it Christmas everyday until at least next Christmas. Similarly, Telegram Sam is Get It On cranked up to 11, just brash enough to drown out the sound of a production line grinding into action. Then again, both the 1970s and 1990s incarnations of Big Star saw fit to cover Baby Strange, which, given Alex Chiltons then pre-eminent position as purveyor of the finest available British Invasion-inspired power pop, is a pretty remarkable compliment.
However, its the mellow, melancholy side of The Slider, typified by Mystic Lady, Ballrooms Of Mars and Main Man, that wears the years better. Away from the hollow flash of the rest of the album, theres a vulnerability here thats oddly compelling: when Marc invokes the rock he sounds almost scared. His lyrics are like a dimestore Dylans, with the purity of words chosen for their sounds, where any meaning is almost accidental. He still manages to namedrop a Sgt. Pepper sleeve-ful of celebrities, though, including the aforementioned Mr Dylan, John Lennon, Alan Freed, Howlin Wolf and Pasolini.
Shallower and more formulaic than Electric Warrior, and probably less lovable for it, The Slider captures T. Rexstasy at full throttle whilst also sowing the seeds of the fads imminent burnout. Despite containing two number one singles, and released in the wake of two compilations hitting the top spot, The Slider failed to struggle past number four in the album charts. Get Backs vinyl reissue is lovely, though, arriving on fine-sounding 180 gram vinyl in a gatefold sleeve containing the lyrics.