❉ “It’s not even ambition, it’s total obsession with being a star”
Last night, on the eve of the fortieth anniversary (if that’s the right word) of Marc Bolan’s tragic, untimely, death, BBC Four continued their track record of thoughtful, well-researched rock documentaries – the yardmark for which must be Francis Whateley’s brace of Bowie documentaries, Five Years and The Last Five Years – with Marc Bolan: Cosmic Dancer.
Over the years, there have been several Marc Bolan documentaries, but without exception they have all come from the stable of the UK’s independent stations, such as Granada TV and Channel Four – due, in no small part, to the fact that the vast majority of Bolan’s TV appearances were on “the other side” of the tube: In The Round, Russell Harty Plus, Supersonic, thus easier to pick off the shelf and license.
It’s surprising that it’s taken forty years after Marc’s death for BBC to ‘canonise’ Bolan with a documentary – indeed, Marc was far more ITV than BBC, more Diana Dors than Joan Bakewell, more fish & chips than tapas – but it’s been worth the wait, although one senses a three-parter might be better to get under the skin of the enigmatic Bolan (“He wouldn’t let people in too far, you couldn’t figure Marc out”) and it’s not for nothing that Mark Paytress and Lesley-Ann Jones’ Bolan biogs are real doorstoppers for such a short life.
The documentary starts off on the back foot with a promise to present his story “narrated in his own words”, actually presented by a Bolan (not-very-)soundalike, unlike the Bowie documentaries’ artful use of archive interviews, although once the clips come into effect, the documentary bursts into life: Not only an impossibly beautiful man, but also a spellbindingly charismatic presence, with his mix of fey chatter and macho bluster. Fortunately, the absence of Bolan commentary is more than compensated for by the testimonials of family and friends such as older brother Harry, producer Tony Visconti, Andy Ellison, Bob Harris, Steve Harley, former producer/Svengali Simon Napier Bell (“It’s not even ambition, it’s total obsession with being a star”) and Ringo Starr; not to mention fans such as singer Toyah and writer Paul Morley.
It’s to the documentary’s credit that rather than fast-track to the T-Rextasy age, time is spent on Bolan’s childhood roots as part of a Jewish family in the East End (“He was only Jewish on his mother’ side”, says one pundit, forgetting that Jewish lineage is matriarchal), his joint influences Bob Dylan and Cliff Richard, his Mod period and quick journey from frontman for Who-wannabes John’s Children to hippy troubadour, by way of catching a Ravi Shankar gig.
But that’s not the real start of the story, which is of course how Marc (in tandem with Visconti scattering pixie dust over the tapes) “accidentally” invented glam rock, during one of pop’s fallow periods, when what was needed – as B.P. Fallon reasserts – was “something with a bit more of a hard-on, a bit more pokey, a bit more effervescent. And when Marc came along, it was like rockets going off!”
The original and best T Rex tribute act T Rextasy’s frontman Danielz puts it best when describing Marc’s effect as he arrived a true star: “There was no one that spoke to me, personally; when Marc came along, the first glam rocker there ever was and put the song together with his image, it was absolutely amazing.”
In its own small way, Danielz’ recollection rights a wrong that has almost become enshrined in rock and pop lore, even moreso with the posthumous canonisation of Dame David Bowie – Bolan’s friend and rival summarily gets all the plaudits for turning the ‘70s into full colour with Ziggy and that ‘Starman’ moment, but it’s easily forgotten that Marc opened that door.
The groundbreaking effect of Marc’s “feminine, androgynous quality” is rightly championed by Toyah Willcox, who eloquently explains: “He was like a harlequin, like a Pierrot; I didn’t fully recognise the femininity – I just recognised someone who stepped aside from the norm, who wore glitter on his face, and wrote songs that physically and mentally lifted you.” As Nina Msykov (Jackie Magazine) puts it, “It was frivolous… but we were living in an age where a man wearing makeup was anathema! But socially… It filtered out into the suburbs. The boundaries started crumbling.”
In the field of what was then called gender-bending, Bolan was arguably more extreme than Bowie – who can forget his ‘New York City’ image, resembling nothing so much as a future avatar of Sigourney Weaver as Gloria Swanson, or the ‘Dreamy Lady’ incarnation that inspired Siouxsie Sioux’s presentation?
As if to remind you that this is a BBC Four documentary, meditations on Bolan’s image is rewound back to Beau Brummel’s obsession with sartorial outlook. Context is everything.
Perhaps the tragic note of this documentary, is that it’s well documented that the story of Marc Bolan does not end happily – unfolding with all the tragic inevitability of a Greek opera. Fame fed his egomania (“He saw stardom as an exercise in reality”), his tax exile lifestyle led him to a lifestyle of champagne and cocaine, alienating his friends and colleagues, and he struggled to keep abreast of his pop stardom. One of his colleagues tempers this reading, with empathy and equivalence: “He was a lot better than a lot of people gave him credit for, and not as good as he gave himself credit for.” Similarly, Paul Morley sticks up for Marc against the vitriolic vindictiveness of how the music press turned against him for being too popular, and not serious enough (“My instinct was to stay with him, he’d become SO vilified”). A brief clip of Bolan performing Spaceball Ricochet on Granada’s Music In The Round underlines the poetic sensitivity behind the “pantomime rock”, so it’s even handed, even as the documentary gets onto Marc’s “bad timing” trying to court the States – indeed, his much-underrated move into soul and funk with Gloria Jones is given a fair hearing (“This wasn’t a contrivance”). As Steve Harley points out: “Gloria opened up a new vista for Marc.” Once again, worth noting that Bolan got deep into soul, funk and R&B before Bowie – but it was at the expense of leaving his wife June Child, who appears here in the form of archive footage (Many of the major players of T Rextasy – not only June but also John Peel, Steve Took, Mickey Finn, et al – are no longer here to tell their stories).
Time is spent dwelling on how Marc “lost his way.. for too long”, a sad but essential part of the story. In real terms, the unhappiness and commercial failure of his ‘lost’ years only covers late ’73 to sometime in ’76 – a mere blip in modern career terms, but a lifetime for a 70s celebrity – when he relaunched himself as a domestic star again, with appareances on Supersonic, a regular column in Record Mirror, and a brief stint hosting Today, interviewing his hero Stan Lee and others. But in this period, he found stability and security with Gloria Jones, fathered a child (Rolan Feld) and began the fight back comes across. It’s a story arc, people. “I’ve got to pull myself together, so that I can live”, he told Gloria. After his Fat Elvis years, he’d grounded, regrouped, and arrested the decline.
As to that Indian summer that was his comeback, Bob Harris attests: “It wasn’t until 1976 that we began to see Marc sharpening up again, slimming down again, arriving – funnily enough – in the middle of the punk thing, where so many of those bands absolutely saw Marc as a major influence and great idol.”
The key to that surprising renaissance? In Toyah’s words, “What I love about Marc Bolan is that he remained being Marc Bolan, he didn’t patronise the punk movement by trying to be a punk. He just stayed true to his roots, which was the East End streets.” Bolan didn’t have to embrace punk, and in 1977, when the punk movement was (contrarily to what retrospectives on the topic will tell you) being written off as a fad or a tabloid scare, he took the Damned under his wing on his 1977 tour, and gave valuable early screentime to Generation X, The Jam and Eddie and the Hot Rods on his teatime TV show. He was a poser, but knew what punk was all about.
Is Cosmic Dancer a worthy competitor to the Whately Bowie documentaries, and others of its ilk? No. The unavoidable lack of main players and shortage of valuable archive footage ensures that. But it avoids tasteless mawkishness for the most part, disregarding the footage of a Mini Cooper crawling through the streets in 1977, and his death is not dwelt on at all – instead, the viewer is left with reminiscences and recollections of his life and career, and we’re left with the memory of a man who never entered his fourth decade, captured in amber, always in his prime, and through the highs and lows, was powered by invincible self-belief: In Steve Harley’s words, “He looked in the mirror and saw someone special, no doubt.”
❉ ‘Marc Bolan: Cosmic Dancer’ was broadcast on BBC Four, 15 September 2017, and can be seen on iPlayer: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b094mcwl/marc-bolan-cosmic-dancer