Fearing that the world is heading to hell in a handcart, John Scott takes refuge in T Rex’s Electric Warrior.

An old Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.  For many of us in the UK, these are becoming quite possibly the most interesting times we have ever lived through.  Just over a week ago, as I write this, the UK voted to leave the European Union.  The result came as a surprise, not least to many of those who voted to leave but never seriously thought the vote would go their way.  The two main political parties are in meltdown, both scrabbling around to replace their incumbent leaders.  Scotland is determined to remain part of Europe, as is Northern Ireland, and is preparing a case for a second Independence vote in case things don’t go its way.  In short, people are baffled, bemused and even a little bit scared.  What do we need to help see us through?  Well, you can’t go wrong with a perfect piece of pop music from a more simple time so for this month’s classic album I bring you Electric Warrior by T Rex.trx_electric_warrior_front_conver

Born as Mark Feld to working class parents in east London, Marc Bolan was determined to become a star from an early age.  He was given his first guitar at the age of nine and immediately formed a skiffle band.  One of his school bands featured vocalist Helen Shapiro who would go on to have a massive hit with Walking Back To Happiness.  After being expelled from school at 15, Bolan – although he had not yet taken that name – worked as a fashion model and began making contact with a number of show business managers and recording demo discs. Hopping on the Mod bandwagon, he experimented with a number of personas including Toby Tyler and Mark Bowland before settling on the name Marc Bolan, signing with Decca Records in 1965 and releasing his first single The Wizard.  Some months later, Bolan turned up unannounced at the home of manager Simon Napier-Bell and announced that he was going to be a huge star and needed someone to help make that happen.  Napier-Bell welcomed him in – I can’t imagine that happening these days if you turned up unannounced at Simon Cowell’s house – and, impressed by Bolan’s songs, arranged an immediate recording session.  This eventually lead to Bolan being given a place in the group John’s Children. That band broke up quickly after Bolan joined and he decided to start his own band, Tyrannosaurus Rex, recruiting the band members just hours before their first gig, which was, unsurprisingly,   a disaster. Bolan quickly decided to ditch the band apart from percussionist Steve Peregrine Took and Tyrannosaurus Rex proceeded as a duo.

The band’s acoustic pop psychedelia met with some success – DJ John Peel was a big fan – and their popularity built steadily over the course of their first four albums, despite musical differences between Bolan and Took resulting in the latter being replaced by Micky Finn for the album A Beard Of Stars.  This album also saw electric guitars beginning to contribute to the band’s sound, a development that continued with the next album as the duo renamed themselves as T Rex and relaunched themselves with an album of the same name.

While a couple of tracks from the T Rex album, namely Beltane Walk and One Inch Rock hinted at a more commercial direction, the band’s change of direction towards glam rock was clearly signalled by the singles Ride A White Swan and Hot Love – these were the days when singles were often stand alone releases to tide fans over until the next album release, not just a selection of tracks plucked from an already released album.

Bolan added bass player Steve Currie and drummer Bill Legend to the band.  Producer Tony Visconti provided the signature glam rock sound – overtracked blues-based guitars with spare, drum and bass often accompanied by Visconti’s intricate string arrangements.  There is some ongoing argument amongst pop fans as to whether Bolan or David Bowie gave birth to glam rock.  Bolan fans cite Electric Warrior as the first glam album while Bowie aficionados claim that title for Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World which had been released the previous year.  As Visconti produced both albums, perhaps he deserves to be crowned as glam’s creator. Regardless of whether or not Electric Warrior qualifies as the glam Big Bang, it does represent a textbook  example of an artist redefining how they wish to be perceived, distilling it into 11 songs and nailing it so perfectly that it becomes the template for a whole musical genre.t-rex-electric-warrior-inside

Opening track Mambo Sun taps into a primal voodoo groove.  Bolan’s new teenybopper audience might not have heard anything like it before but but put together with Bolan’s androgynous good looks it spoke to parts of them that contemporary pop stars like Cliff Richard, one of Bolan’s early heroes, simply did not reach.  With Cosmic Dancer Bolan takes superficially disposable lyrical and musical themes and turns them into something joyous and life-affirming by dint of nothing more than his own charisma and self-belief.  Jeepster and Get It On provided the big hits, Life’s A Gas provides a moment of reflection but as its lyrics make clear, Electric Warrior contains no profound insights into the human condition: “it really doesn’t matter at all, life’s a gas.”

Having refined his persona to exactly what he he wanted it to be Bolan found himself somewhat hoist by his own petard. Follow up album The Slider continued what Electric Warrior had started but failed to build on it.  Lacking his friend David Bowie’s ability to constantly reinvent himself – but let’s be honest perhaps no one other than maybe Bob Dylan has matched Bowie for that – Bolan’s mainstream popularity waned and his subsequent albums became more and more unfocused.

1977 saw Bolan staging a successful comeback playing to newly appreciative audience and securing a weekly TV show, Marc, in which he introduced new bands and was reunited with old friends including David Bowie.  The show was a hit with its teenage target audience and a new phase to Bolan’s career seemed assured.  Unfortunately, with the cruel irony that life seems to save for our true stars, Bolan was killed in a car accident 9 days after the final show was recorded.

For just a couple of years, Marc Bolan defined what it meant to be both a pop star and a genre-defining artist.  Check out Electric Warrior to see how it’s done.  Get it on.

John Scott

 

 

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