Marc Bolan: The Jurassic Years
Mojo. September 2002
IN DECEMBER 1967 The Observer devoted a large portion of its Sunday Colour Supplement to the London Underground. Complete with obligatory hip-speak glossary (an "A to Z of Zowie!") the magazine talked to the key music industry faces of the day. Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp were caught in their prime, buoyed by the success of Track Records. In passing, the article noted that Track had registered only one failure so far, a group called John’s Children.
Elsewhere in the issue, a breathless piece called Promotion and Two Per Cent documents a day in the life of record promoter Tony Hall. Sandwiched between Halls daytime meetings with record companies and nocturnal visits to Blaize’s and Ronnie Scott’s the following incidental detail appears. "At 10.15, back at Green Street, Mark and Steve are curled up in the doorway. They are hopefuls. Mark is a guitarist, singer: Steve, long hair, dark glasses, hops from foot to foot and says "I prefer the bongos and the gongs."
Mark and Steve – just another couple of hopeful buskers, door step hustlers, and in Mark's case, already a failure, just another flower-power footnote. Within four years he would be the biggest thing since Beatlemania.
If Marc Bolan had died in a car crash in the summer of 1970 without ever having had a hit record in his life he would still have been lauded as one of the most magical and unique figures that ever inhabited the pop landscape. Bolan was an extraordinary pop presence long before he ever became a pop star, a legend in his own head years before the public cottoned on to him. Simon Napier-Bell noticed Bolan’s star quality the moment he walked through his front door in 1966, a quality he defined in his book You Don’t Have Top Say You Love Me as "the artist seeing himself as the essential material of his own art." This was the Stamford Hill individualist who turned to Jeff Dexter one night in a club in the early sixties and sneered dismissively, "too many mods in here." This was the young fashion model who bemoaned his appearance in a Town magazine photo-shoot because by the time the mag hit the news stands in September 1962 the clothes were months out of date. "I was never a mod" he re-iterated to Zigzag magazine in March 1970. "There was no such thing then. That all came later with Ready Steady Go and all that sort of stuff."
Bolan was there before the beginning. An 11-year-old Face. The original working class dandy in the underworld. The boy who invented himself. Over and over again. Softening his barrow boy vowels till he all but affected a lisp. "Everyone else wanted to sound like cockneys. We all wanted to sound better than our backgrounds" notes Jeff Dexter of those aspirational times. Agent Eric Hall, like many of Bolan’s boyhood friends, saw his teenage poetry and declared that he was a bit mental. Producer Tony Visconti calls him "the most focused artist I've ever worked with". His detractors called him a pushy little hustler on the make, a scheming wannabe, ready to ride any bandwagon in order to achieve the fame he so clearly craved. But who in their right mind would have tried to get rich quick singing incomprehensible lyrics about Mages called Aznageel in a quivering vibrato, or chosen to accompany themselves on a £12 Woolworths organ while attired in a plastic roman breastplate and girls ballet shoes? In an age when rocks heraldic crest depicted a rampant erection bursting rapier like from a pair of lilac loon pants, Bolan sang about a liquid poetess who shrank him to one inch tall and put him in a bottle. On ‘Dwarfish Trumpet Blues’ on the first Tyrannosaurus Rex LP (another peon to shrinkage, and surreal even by early Bolan standards) he sings "everybody small with no lips to play the trumpet/ everybody living inside a giant deaf aid." In ‘Juniper Suction’, on the second Tyrannosaurus Rex LP, he appears to vaporise upon orgasm. All this from a man who stood 5 ft 3 in his slingbacks and named his band after the king of the pre-historic beasts. Freud would have had a field day.
Born to a market trader Mum and a lorry driving Dad in Hackney, East London, in 1947, Mark Feld had little formal education, and left school at 14. Analysis of his illegible scribble suggests that he may have been dyslexic but they didn’t have dyslexia in the '50s. You just sat at the back and dreamed and doodled. It was here as much as anywhere else that Bolan’s imagination took wing. "All those lads from that kind of background were into getting out of what they were surrounded by" notes Jeff Dexter, who first met Bolan at Connick’s, a tailors on Kingsland Road, "it had a great boys department. I became a model for their 1961 show at Earls Court. So did Marc. We just used to glare at each other, check each other’s clothes out."
Initially the teenage Feld flirted with the stage name Toby Tyler before allegedly francophiling the harsh K off his forename and collapsing BO (B DY) LAN into Bolan. The story may be apocryphal. It hardly matters. Bolan was dream-weaving from the off. His debut single, ‘The Wizard’, released on Decca in the winter of 1965, was arguably the first English Underground record, a truly extraordinary two minutes worth that doesn’t sound remotely like anything else of its time. ‘The Wizard’ also gave birth to one of it’s creators most enduring myths.
"He came back from France where he claimed he’d met this wizard in the woods and lived with him for three months and learned his magic spells" remembers Napier-Bell. "In fact he’d been for a weekend package tour and met some gay guy. But Marc was a great fantasist and in the end he believed he’s met a wizard. But the great thing about him was that if he knew you knew the truth he’d have a laugh. I said ‘it’s just some bloke you met in a gay club isn’t it? Marc said ‘yeah, but he could do conjuring tricks’. Marc got this reputation for being precious but he wasn’t really. He was always funny with his friends." "He could spout a lot of bullshit but give you the wink while he was saying it" confirms Dexter. "He was always totally sussed to what was going on around him".
Bolan’s second solo single ‘The Third Degree’, released in June 1966, garnered a few plays on the offshore pirates, even reaching "boss sound fifteen" on the American-financed pirate Radio England. Its raw spikey demo-like quality sounded completely out-of-kilter with the mellifluous pop of that golden summer. Compared with everything else on the pirate playlists Bolan already sounded like a punky little upstart. When the third, and arguably most inventive, of Bolan’s solo singles, ‘Hippy Gumbo’, made zero impression on the charts at the tail end of 1966 Simon Napier-Bell co-opted his young protege into John’s Children. "I said to him go and write a song where Andy (Ellison) can sing the verse but you can come in with the chorus. We’d decided that this funny quivering voice was too much for the public to take in a full song." The resulting single ‘Desdemona’ achieved notoriety, but no UK chart success, and was banned for the line "lift up your skirt and fly".
On the follow up ‘Midsummer Nights Scene’ the contrast between Bolan’s and Ellisons vocals was even more extreme. Bolan is only let loose at the very end, screaming the chorus line like he has no previous acquaintance with the lyrics he’s singing. He sounds unhinged.
Although Bolan took enthusiastically enough to John’s Children’s penchant for instrument-smashing and riot incitement he was never going to be a team player and in June 1967 the following ad appeared in the one-shilling-a-word "Musicians Wanted" section of Melody Maker. "Freaky lead guitarist, bass guitarist, and drummer wanted for Marc Bolan’s new group. Also any other astral flyers like with cars, amplification, and that which never grew in window boxes."
He didn’t get the amplification for long. Track Records re-possessed his equipment. What he got was Steve Peregrin Took (né Porter) and his bongo’s and gongs’s. Out of such simple expediency the two piece Tyrannosaurus Rex was born.
The Beginning of Doves, the collection of demo’s that Bolan made with Simon Napier-Bell between late 1966 and the summer of 1967, documents a young artist in transition, still touching a peaked folkie cap to universal soldier period Donovan in its rudimentary strumming and with a clear lyrical nod to Mr Zimmerman in places, (the "luggage eyes and roman nose" of ‘One Inch Rock’ for instance are pure Dylan.) Recently re-issued on CD, and now including tracks from the earliest Tyrannosaurus Rex sessions, The Beginning of Doves also reveals the extent to which Bolan would shrewdly re-work lyrics and re-cycle riffs throughout his career. ‘Jasper C. Debussy’, which commences with Bolan’s brattish instruction to "fuck off or keep cool, you know" was clearly the template for ‘One Inch Rock’. ‘Mustang Ford’, from the first Tyrannosaurus Rex LP, was a rewrite of the John’s Children track ‘Go-Go Girl’. The Catblack that rhymes ‘honey’ and ‘money’ on Doves would be re-incarnated in full Tolkeinesque garb as ‘’Cat Black (The Wizard’s Hat)’ on the third Tyrannosaurus Rex album, Unicorn.
"He always had a way of coming up with something poetically peculiar," says Napier-Bell, citing ‘Sarah Crazy Child’, originally a John’s Children number and re-recorded during The Beginning Of Doves sessions. "He’d say ‘I’ve written this wonderful song. It's about this young girl in Brazil. She’s 11 years old and her father's beaten her up and she’s left home and become a prostitute’. He’d talk for an hour telling you this complete screenplay for a movie. And then he played me the song and it would be amazing because the song would say all that, or at least would capture the essence. In his mind there would be an entire film there. He knew what Sarah’s grandmother did and how many brothers and sisters she had. And he could do that with every song." Napier-Bell pauses and reconsiders. "It may have been the other way round of course. He may have hit upon these clever little lyrics and then wondered what they meant."
John Peel first encountered Bolan through hearing John’s Children’s ‘Desdemona’. He then began to champion them during the final weeks of his legendary Perfumed Garden show on the offshore pirate Radio London. On his August 8th show, just six days before the pirates closed down he thanks Peter Farrikan from the Radio London office for loaning him ‘The Wizard’ and ‘The Third Degree’ from his own collection. It’s clear from Peel’s on air comments that he was both unaware of when these records had been originally released and knew little about their strange beguiling singer. Bolan heard this broadcast and immediately mailed an acetate of two early Tyrannosaurus Rex demos, ‘Highways’ and ‘Misty Mists’, to Peel. After playing ‘Highways’ at 3.55 a.m on the final Perfurmed Garden al- nighter on August 14th, 1967, Peel ecstatically acclaims "what a voice that is. That’s Marc Bolan who I’m going to go and see as soon as the opportunity presents itself. I’ve got to meet him and find out where that strange voice comes from."
"He used to write me these fey letters, although not disagreeably so," says Peel. "Given the level of pretension and bullshit that was around at the time they seemed relatively modest." A friendship was struck and for the next three years Peel was to champion Tyrannosaurus Rex with a devotion equal to that accorded to his beloved Beefheart, giving them regular exposure on his Radio One shows Top Gear and Night Ride, and making it a condition of his live dj work that the band should be booked too, a strategy which initially met with considerable resistance. "Social secs would often phone up to re-book Peel and say ‘next time don’t bring Larry The Lamb’," remembers Clive Selwood, who was Peel’s manager at the time. "At the very early gigs people were impatient" agrees Peel. "They would come up and say ‘what is this?’ They just wanted to hear a bloke playing Pink Floyd records. Half the audience would leave during the first number. The other half would stay and be enraptured." Peel warmly reminisces about "getting all the equipment - and the pair of them - into a mini and going off all over the country. Getting the milk train back from Exeter at 4 in the morning. Him and June and me and Sheila going off and climbing Glastonbury Tor," his fondness for this period still apparent.
Tony Visconti had been equally mesmerised when he first encountered them at Middle Earth. "I heard Marc's voice and Steve’s bongos wafting up the stairwell. The circle of fans sitting around them were silent and waving like a wheat field to the music. This was a strange sight and I realized that something very important was happening here. I loved the exotic quality of the music. I approached Steve after the set because Marc looked a little too menacing. Steve was stoned out of his brain and redirected me to Marc."
The Visconti-produced Tyrannosaurus Rex debut, My People Were Fair And Had Sky In Their Hair But Now They’re Content To Wear Stars On Their Brows, was recorded on a shoestring budget in four days and released in July 1968. The second, Prophets, Seers and Sages, The Angel Of The Ages, took eighteen days to make and was released just three months later. "Marc was very grateful to get a chance to go into the studio at all!" says Visconti of those first two albums. "In those days the industry really disliked him. John Peel, Jeff Dexter and myself were virtually his only supporters."
Although both albums are uneven affairs, Bolan’s gift as a melody writer is abundantly evident. ‘Child Star’, ‘Chateau In Virginia Waters’ and ‘Knight’, all cry out for fuller choral or string arrangements. "I always told Marc that I loved his melodies" says Visconti. "One time I recorded ‘Deborah’ in my home studio on recorders and bass, with counter melodies added. I wanted to point out to him that his music could have a wider appeal and just to show him how much I appreciated his writing talents." Took’s contribution was also integral; that nasal drone on ‘Hot Rod Mama’, the monkey chatters and mumbles that skitter all over ‘Mustang Ford’ and ‘Strange Orchestras’, his subtle high harmonies on ‘Chateau In Virginia Waters’, all contribute to the exotic ambience. As did his ability on an array of miscellaneous instrumentation, such as the ubiquitous pixiephone, a children’s xylophone, that Took picked up in Harrods. At times Bolan compensates for not having a full band by cramming songs with so much imagery that his vocal delivery takes on a percussive quality, as on ‘Conesuala’ where a line like ‘quiver mouth chants a crooning moon rune’ spills out like some abstract incantation. Towards the end of ‘Strange Orchestra’ he breaks into scat singing. To non-converts it probably all sounded like scat. Perhaps the most magical moment on Prophets Seers and Sages is that bit halfway through ‘Deboraarobed’ where the track goes into reverse and it doesn’t sound any different.
Appearing on Peel’s Top Gear in February 1968 Bolan revealed that he had lost none of his story spinning charm. Asked by Peel to explain ‘Child Star’, he replies, "its about a little boy, a sickly elf of a kid who had a head full of orchestra’s and things and he was exploited when he was about five years old with all these pieces, and all the people in higher circles dug him very much but not for the real things, and he died, and they mourned but didn’t really understand." ‘Child Star’ has often been portrayed as a barely concealed statement of intent, the young Bolan mythologising his quest for fame. Dig deeper and it’s the testimony of an artist gearing himself up for failure. An epitaph. Bolan’s deepest secret fears laid bare.
By now Bolan had forged a unique untutored poetic language built on weirdly-skewed assonance and alliteration ("daubed in doom in his tongue tombed room") and quaint archaisms ("for ‘ere to go unheard") stacked with references gleaned from books on classical mythology. These songs don’t have a narrative in the traditional story telling sense, they’re just lots of beautiful words strung together. Names like Atahuallpa, Icarus, Pan, exist purely as imagery, they’re there because Bolan liked the shapes they made. If a word or phrase didn’t fit he hammered at it till it did ("Aslanically" in ‘Trelawny Lawn’, the merriment that "gushed and soared niagarally" on the children’s story read by John Peel on Unicorn.) He hybridised words when it suited, e.g. forging tragition out of tradition and tragedian for ‘Travelling Tragition’. If he couldn’t find the word he wanted he simply made one up, rhyming for the joy of rhyming, as on ‘Salamanda Palaganda’.
"There are certain words that have a kind of poetry in themselves and he seemed to sense this," says John Peel. "Even though they possessed a kind of silliness at times I liked the effort that he went to to make it into a coherent whole. I used to get up and read the children’s stories he wrote at the Albert Hall and if you analyze them they’re complete bollocks but at the same time they’re not. I’m not going to say they’re Joycean but they still retain a certain charm."
"He was on a road to discovery and he read a lot, even if he didn’t read all the books he claimed to have read," says Dexter. "He did every gallery, every statue, every monument, took the imagery from that experience and turned them into songs. All those songs characters came from that."
"You encounter genuine naive painters and you also meet people who affect naivety, but I think Marc, as far as his lyrics went, was genuinely a naive," says Peel.
Bolan brought the same naive untutored approach to his guitar playing, often ending chord sequences by playing open strings, or turning a major into a minor simply by lifting his little finger. "Marc was very limited as a musician," concedes Visconti. "He only knew seven chords on the guitar. But he was mesmerizing and his audience was fiercely loyal."
Visconti refutes the suggestion, often retrospectively applied, that the Incredible String Band attracted the underground cognoscenti while Tyrannosaurus Rex got the suburban weekend hippies "They attracted much of the British flower children contingent and Marc often referred to a segment of his audience as ‘heads.’ Even when we were making the pop albums and the flower children were no more he said we had to include some special effects like flanging and phasing for ‘the heads.’ "They also attracted lots of young girls," notes Dexter. "That was obvious from fairly early on. Marc was a beautiful man and he looked like nobody else."
And he knew it too of course. Look at him on the cover of the Unicorn album, yellow singlet, corkscrew hair, piercing eyes, unrelenting gaze. Hardly the little boy lost. "You were aware that there was a little bit of steel to this character," says Peel. "I could tell there was a bit of a hustler element to him. There was no shortage of self belief there."
Unicorn was a great leap forward, both musically and production wise. "By then we had grown in recording sophistication," says Visconti. "We revered Phil Spector and I think the influences are obvious on the writing and production." More care was taken over the albums arrangements. A piano appeared for the first time (played by Visconti on ‘Catblack’.) Bolan’s increasingly sophisticated gifts as a melodist come to the fore on tracks like ‘Iscariot’ and ‘The Pilgrim’s Tale’, while on ‘Throat Of Winter’ there are signs of a genuine poetic sensibility at work, not one just revelling in words for their own sake. The quasi-title track, ‘She Was Born To Be My Unicorn’, is very Spectoresque. "Very intentional, but our version," admits Visconti. "As Marc would like to say, we were ‘inspired.’ Other people nicked, we were ‘inspired.’
Equally significantly, around this time, and for the first time since John’s Children, Bolan started playing electric again. After thrashing away on Visconti’s Strat he went out and bought himself one. "His lead guitar playing was a kind of twisted, rehashed version of Clapton, Beck and Hendrix" remembers Visconti. "One weekend June had taken him to Clapton's house in the country. Marc jammed with him for a bit but mainly sat at his feet and listened whilst looking at his hands. He came back from that weekend and told me, "I sat at the feet of a master!"
The effect was immediate. Bolan unleashed his new electric sound on the single ‘King Of The Rumbling Spires’. An astounding record, again sounding like nothing else around during the summer of 1969, it’s characterised by sudden lurches in tempo and laden with fuzz-drenched doomy chords. Listeners who thought they detected a more direct and economical style of lyric writing would have been no less startled by the flip side, ‘Do You Remember’, which appears to commence with the line "her face was like a cunt to me". Took, who played kit drums for the first time on the A side, sang lead on the early takes of ‘Do You Remember’. Bolan stepped in for the final version, unable to share the limelight, even on a B side.
‘King Of The Rumbling Spires’ turned out to be Took’s swansong. The duo having apparently already agreed to a parting of the ways during the making of Unicorn, now embarked upon a final tour of America. Took spent much of the tour sampling the local acid, often performing in a completely fried state and concluding sets by trashing the equipment. "Steve was a wonderful musician," reflects Visconti. "He was extremely intuitive and complimented Marc's quirky style perfectly but his one big problem was his penchant for drugs. He was often at the verge of incomprehensibility. Had Steve been a little more clear-headed he could've been a great, recognized talent." "A lovely fella who went wrong," is Dexter’s assessment. "He over-indulged. I always found that very sad because he had a nice gig there and he blew it. Marc wanted success. Steve wanted to have a good time."
Bolan abandoned Took at the end of the tour and returned home without him. In October 1969 he placed another "Musicians Wanted" ad in the Melody Maker, but unable to face the auditioning process he found the man he was looking for in Ceres health food restaurant, a good looking biker called Mickey Finn. For someone apparently so wrapped up in his own ego that he couldn’t even bear his former partner to sing on a B side it was a remarkably magnanimous gesture of Bolan’s to now share his stage with another good looking guy, but then Bolan was shrewd enough to realise that a little extra eye candy was going to do the bands prospects more good than harm. "Marc knew what he was doing there," confirms Dexter. "He knew all about marketing and packaging and how to dress things up."
Meanwhile Took’s contribution to tracks intended for the fourth Tyrannosaurus album were wiped and Bolan’s former partner was ruthlessly excised from the picture. "I was reading a new pop book that came out," he mused in a 1972 NME interview with Charles Shaar Murray, "the time was like 1969 and suddenly I turned into Mickey Finn, and there was no mention of any change".
"Just stick a picture of me on the cover," Bolan had advised Simon Napier-Bell in the early days when his manager pondered how he was going to sell this unusual, albeit extremely photogenic, talent. On the Beard Of Stars sleeve Bolan appears resplendent in velvet and ruff. If you’d chanced upon that image, framed and distressed, in an antique shop or auction room you would have thought it was a portrait of a great lost pre-Raphaelite poet. Beard Of Stars was an equally extraordinary album, and although no one knew it at the time it was the last of Bolan’s adventures in the underground. Doomy pronounced minor chords dominate songs like ‘Woodland Bop’ and ‘Wind Cheetah’ while Bolan’s recently acquired £12 Woolworth’s organ was now, along with his Fender Stratocaster, an integral part of the duo’s sound.
"The £12 Woolworth's organ was a basic reed organ with one sound and it had a little motor built in that blew across the reeds" remembers Visconti. "It was made of brown plastic, to simulate wood. Bowie also used one on ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’. Bolan also unveiled a totally unique guitar sound on Beard of Stars. You also hear it on his guest appearance on Bowie's ‘The Prettiest Star’, an eerie clunky chainmail sound which the more technically proficient Mick Ronson was unable to replicate when Bowie re-recorded the track for the Aladdin Sane album. So what was the trick? "It was a standard Strat, light gauge strings, HH solid state amp. The rest of it was miking technique and the special effects I used during mixing" says Visconti, a little nonplussed that people still ask him about it.
Beard of Stars provided further evidence that Bolan was beginning to simplify his rock and roll poetics. More significantly he also displays for the first time an audible willingness to moderate the extremities of that voice. Standout tracks like ‘Lofty Skies’ and ‘Dove’ anticipate the tender ballads of the T. Rex album, while ‘Organ Blues’ is a stripped-down dead ringer for ‘Hot Love’. Most notoriously there was ‘Elemental Child’, Bolan’s own six-minute microcosm of the Dylan goes electric saga. In Bolan’s case he was returning to his roots, not betraying them, although the more disgruntled elements of his audience didn’t see it like that. Nobody actually shouted Judas but this writer remembers seeing that final incarnation of Tyrannosaurus Rex several times during 1970, including what was in retrospect a valedictory Radio One In Concert at the old Paris Theatre in Regent Street. On each occasion a small but significant trickle of the faithful walked out as soon as Bolan hit the wah-wah and went into his torch girl of the marshes bit.
After the inexplicable failure of a second electric single, the magnificent ‘By The Light Of The Magical Moon’ (which actually sold less than ‘King Of The Rumbling Spires’) Bolan had hinted that he was through with 45’s. Rex singles had always sold steadily, ‘Deborah’ and ‘One Inch Rock’ had even scrapped into the top thirty, but even though Bolan had been prepared to put himself through the promotional treadmill for ‘Magical Moon’, even turning up one lunchtime on the abysmal Radio One Club to plug it, it had still bombed.
"I knew he would become a pop star," says Dexter. "I always said as soon as he got his face on major television and a record with a slight bit of rock and roll in it, he’d make it." In the end all it took was a producer's whim and a few judicious plugs to a captive audience. "‘Ride A White Swan’ took us all by surprise," admits Visconti. "We tried just as hard with earlier single attempts. The main difference was that we put strings on this one and it seemed to be the missing link to a hit record". We superstitiously added strings to all the singles thereafter." "I took an acetate of ‘Ride A White Swan’ to the Isle of Wight festival which I played every two hours or so throughout the entire five days," remembers Jeff Dexter. "By the end of the festival 600,000 people knew it."
And the rest is T-Rextasy. Well not quite. Much of the subsequent animosity towards Bolan the pop star originates, with considerable justification, over the way he dispensed with John Peel’s services. "It’s not something I talk about to be honest but it was disappointing," says Peel. "It was the first time I lost a friend to showbiz. As things started to work for him he became busier and quite remote and I can understand that, but then he quite plainly dropped me. Friends did say ‘well we told you so’, and I felt I had been used to a degree. I only saw Marc once again after that, this from having spent virtually every weekend with him. I’ve never been particularly bitter about it. In fact, people have been much more bitter than me on my behalf. I just wish he was still alive. I’d like to have got to know him again in old age."
We all would. You can just imagine it can’t you? This little toby jug of a middle-aged man, looking a bit like a diminutive Jimmy Page probably. Nice waistcoats. Good value on chat shows. Saying no to panto and the revival circuit. Still bullshitting about that wizard.
© Rob Chapman, 2002