❉ 40 years on from Bolan’s passing, a personal appreciation of an underrated album.
The release of Zinc Alloy in 1974 marked a more reflective phase of Bolan’s career, where he had been opened up to US-centric soul through his relationship with Gloria Jones and T. Rex’s US tour, which was to ultimately prove unsuccessful as an attempt to break through into the US market.
Although the album wasn’t appreciated by the British public, and has certainly not been seen as a classic, I think it’s a far more interesting example of the era than the efforts of Bolan’s fellow rock stars of the time. After all, it’s the album which I picked up at random from my parent’s record collection during a particularly tedious Easter break when I was 15 and which made me a Bolan obsessive for several years.
Zinc Alloy kicks off in style with Venus Loon, the song that caused my young eyes to widen and realise that I’d found something a lot more exciting than the boy bands that I was into at the time. The contrast between the sparky rockabilly guitar and soulful backing singers really causes the song to fly, introducing the listener to the space rock opera vibe that permeates the whole album. This vibe is encouraged by Galaxy and Change, soulful ballads with a rock edge, with Galaxy asking the question that was no doubt forming in my adolesent brain; “Which galaxy are YOU from?”.
Nameless Wildness continues the theme with a song that would have been perfect as a Summer Nights-type song in a soulful version of ‘Grease’. The rock opera theme is visited at the end of the album with Painless Persuasion V the Meathawk Immaculate, with Marc appearing to take a trip to ‘Dante’s Inferno’, and The Leopards Featuring Gardenia and the Mighty Slug, which features a ‘Hair’-like refrain, almost like the whole band is still suffering a hangover from the Age of Aquarius.
Indeed, Teenage Dream, probably the most famous song on the album, does seem to be a melancholy examination of the 1960s, with the optimism of the age fated to morph into the more cynical, disillusioned 1970s, and an obvious parallel exists with the development of Bolan’s career, with his having been such a major part of the psychedelic scene before moving into more mainstream rock.
But the album is more than simply an intergalactic rock opera. There’s something truly revolutionary about the second track, Sound Pit, with a delicate male voice leading a strong female chorus, including a little-used pause to slow the tempo, so very different to much rock around at the time. It still feels unusual, but Marc litters the song with back-references to past hits in poetic lyrics, bringing us into his world as a sort of reassurance that we ought to trust him and follow him into his musical Narnia.
Metal Guru’s in the loo with my glue, yeah,
Telegram Sam bought some land in Milan,
I wonder why
Marc’s confidence shines through in this album, and perhaps his relationship with Gloria was reflected in his music here, with Marc feeling assured enough to greater express his feminine side and to further explore his sexuality, having expressed a more stereotypical masculinity in Tanx. Explosive Mouth is probably the most expressively sexual Marc ever was, and it sounds very much like the sort of baton Bowie and Prince were to pick up and run with later.
In fact Interstellar Soul, a teasing tribute to an unknown woman, uses the same emotions as Prince’s Raspberry Beret and Little Red Corvette; a man both admiring and feeling overawed by feminine power, trying to reject his attraction whilst utterly failing. Interstellar Soul‘s “Bullshit! Bullshit!” refrain is a rare example of swearing in Marc’s music, and it’s interesting that it’s not sung by him, but by Gloria Jones. Bolan’s sexuality was that of a dandy; an expressively gentle machismo, used to varying effect in the New Romantic scene a few years afterwards.
A direct link to the New Romantic scene can be heard in Liquid Gang, a thumping, joyful tune whose “You’re gonna be, gonna be grand” refrain can be heard in Adam Ant’s Prince Charming. No doubt Marc would have approved of Adam and the Ants, had he lived to see them, given that he lived their lyric “Ridicule is nothing to be scared of”. Although, as his widow June Feld has said, Marc hated the implication that he’d been a bit too unduly influenced by anyone, and I expect he’d be very annoyed by my view that Carsmile Smith and The Old One feels very much like Eleanor Rigby reinterpreted in a bombastic soul style. Sorry, Marc, but that’s what my ears told me.
However, the difference between Zinc Alloy and its contemporaries really can’t be overstated, and Marc deserves credit for his absorption of US soul, helping to bring the sounds of a genre that could have easily been neglected through white chauvinism into the mainstream, anticipating the disco boom soon afterwards. Perhaps the best example on the album is The Avengers (Superbad), which really does sound like a Blaxploitation Avengers theme, with its refrain of “Dig This!”. It feels like a sadly missed opportunity.
Perhaps Zinc Alloy was so ahead of its time that the themes which so many record buyers rejected when it was released were music to the ears of a 1990s teen, prepped by 1980s pop and searing hormones to receive and be thrilled by its message. Even 25 years or so later, Planet Bolan seems more interesting than anything around at the moment.
❉ ‘Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow, or A Creamed Cage in August’ was originally released on 1 February 1974 by EMI/T Rex Wax Co. ‘Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow’ was first reissued on the Marc On Wax label in 1983, and then by Edsel in 1994. A companion release, entitled ‘Change (The Alternative Zinc Alloy)’, was released in 1996 and a 2CD Edition was released by Edsel and Rhino Records in 2002. ‘Zinc Alloy & The Hidden Riders of Tomorrow (The Visconti Master)’ was released on 26 May 2014 by Demon Music.