❉ Marc Bolan’s ‘difficult’ years – but are they worthy of reappraisal?
Marc Bolan – born Mark Feld, to a working class Jewish family in Hackney – was the first self-made star of the post-Beatles era. Armed with little more than invincible self-confidence, impish good looks, a way with rhyming doggerel and an ear for blues riffs, he rose without trace to plant himself at the centre of the underground folk scene, feted by the likes of John Peel and courted by pop svengali Simon Napier-Bell, Syd Barrett’s former management Blackhill (marrying their secretary June Child into the bargain) and Tony Visconti and Denny Cordell’s proto-indie outfit Straightahead Productions. From here, with top 40 singles under his belt as the dominant half of hippy duo Tyrannosaurus Rex, he noted the leadership void in the pop god stakes, drove a truck through the standard kindergarten pop fare clogging up the charts (think Mouldy Old Dough, Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep, Sugar Sugar etc.), sprinkled some glitter over his eyes and traded bongos and pixiephone for Eddie Cochuran riffs and the T. Rex boogie machine, launching a charm offensive on the affections of the nation’s teenyboppers.
The bopping elf and his electric warriors dominated the charts for a solid eighteen months, aided by the production pixie dust of Tony Visconti and the heavenly chorus of former Turtles Flo & Eddie, freshly decamped from Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, until his friend and sometime rival David Bowie swiftly usurped his throne, followed by a raft of acts including Roxy Music, Mott the Hoople, Alice Cooper, Sweet and the now-ignored Gary Glitter.
It’s a classic story of a pop star whose meteoric rise to stardom was as precipitious as his fall. Even now, if you ask a casual music fan to name Marc Bolan’s greatest hits, they will be from his short-lived but triumphant period of pomp: Hot Love, Get It On, Telegram Sam, Metal Guru, Children of the Revolution and Twentieth Century Boy – an era whose full stop was his grandiose, self-indulgent big screen home movie, Born To Boogie, directed by Ringo Starr for Apple Films.
After such a dizzying career peak, with those songs still fondly remembered by anyone who grew up in “the decade that taste forgot”, the last four years of Marc Bolan’s life and career remain unacknowledged, generally seen as a tragic decline comparable to Elvis Presley’s after his Indian summer of Aloha From Hawaii and Burning Love.
This is something of a shame as – while a cursory glance at the chart stats confirms that Marc Bolan’s commercial status was in freefall after 1973’s album Tanx and the personal testimony of his friends and colleagues confirms that Marc had succumbed to a Sunset Boulevard-style masking of his declining fortunes in a haze of Chablis and cocaine on the Riviera – there were signs of renewal, and a determination to plow his own furrow, disregarding the changing trends of the charts that saw the pop kids trade his pin-up posters for those of the Bay City Rollers, Kenny, Mud and Hello, while Bowie and Roxy Music went with the smart money and shifted their style to a more sophisticated brand of glamorous adult rock.
It’s this era that Demon Music’s latest offering in their series of T Rex deluxe editions concerns itself with, repackaging 1975’s Bolan’s Zip Gun and 1976’s Futuristic Dragon under one hood complete with bonus tracks and a rich booklet by T Rex biographer Mark Paytress.
Demon Music are to be saluted for the work they have done in rehabilitating Marc Bolan’s catalogue. After Marc Bolan’s untimely death forty years ago, his back catalogue had been poorly treated for many years. The ’80s saw a raft of unimaginatively compiled and packaged ‘cash-in’ cheapo compilations on uber-budget labels (Anyone remember Pickwick?) and Marc’s T.Rex albums rejacketed by his fan club label in unflattering, era-inappropriate sleeves while the pre-Slider work slummed it on Castle Communications (Universal currently have the rights to pre-1972 material).
It took Levi’s successful advertising campaign strategy of bringing new currency to hits of yesteryear to remind many casual record buyers of Marc’s genius when, in 1991, Twentieth Century Boy roared back into the charts on the back of a retro-styled ad starring a young Brad Pitt; within a couple of years Demon had taken the reins on the T Rex Wax Co. catalogue and repositioned Marc’s catalogue as one of equal worth of other artists who’d received the heritage treatment: By the mid 90s, all of Marc Bolan’s albums from The Slider to Dandy In The Underworld were on disc, bolstered by their non-album tracks, along with “alternative” versions of demos, outtakes and rough mixes, the sleek 3CD rarities set A Wizard A True Star and the exhaustive “Unchained” 8-CD series of demos and session outtakes. You could even walk into HMV and buy on CD Light of Love, an album only released in the States, and an album of a 1977 live show supported by The Damned.
Which brings us to Bolan’s Zip Gun/Futuristic Dragon Deluxe Edition. Marc’s previous T Rex Wax Co. albums The Slider, Tanx and Zinc Alloy recently benefited from sympathetic new masters by Marc’s producer Tony Visconti. By the time Marc unleashed Bolan’s Zip Gun to a largely disinterested UK public in February 1975, Visconti had departed to be reunited with his former proge David Bowie on Young Americans, and Marc was ostensibly producing himself – watched and guided by his lover and collaborator Gloria Jones, a Motown veteran (she oriinally recorded Tainted Love, later a hit for Soft Cell) and he had made as his base Music Recorders in Hollywood, with a band that included keyboardist Dino Dines, drummers Paul Fenton and Davy Lytton and (on occasion) ghostbuster Ray Parker Jnr. T Rex bassist Steve Currie was the sole survivor of the original line-up, acting as a lynchpin for Bolan’s excursions into “interstellar supersoul”.
By the time Bolan’s Zip Gun landed in UK record shops in February 1975, many of its tracks were already familiar to hardcore Bolanites, as seven of its 11 tracks had already appeared six months earlier stateside on Marc’s US-only album Light of Love, with import sales of Light of Love allegedly contributing to Bolan’s Zip Gun’s non-appearance in the UK album charts. Its two singles, Light of Love and Zip Gun Boogie were also relatively elderly, having been released in July and November 1974 respectively. Tragically, neither single set the UK charts alight, despite Light of Love being the freshest-sounding T. Rex 45 since Metal Guru, an infectious, basic singalong with deceptively sad lyrics and sporting a spare arrangement of syncopated handclaps & percussion and funky keyboard (it was even supported by a wonderfully cheesy promo video); meanwhile Zip Gun Boogie was the T.Rex formula at its most redundant, a dumb, ugly glam stomp that made Truck On (Tyke) sound like a work of staggering genius and was infamously immortalised in a hideous live performance on Don Kirschner’s Midnight Special, not to mention earning T.Rex’s lowest chart placing.
But these two singles are not entirely representative of Bolan’s Zip Gun. Even a die-hard Bolan fanatic could not make any claims to Bolan’s Zip Gun being one of Marc’s greater efforts, but there are some moments of undeniable power in its brief running time: Solid Baby is an intense slice of funk, powered by the dual drums of Fenton and Lytton, while buried in the middle of this album of rather basic throwaways that see Bolan far from the peak of his powers are two genuine jewels: Think Zinc, a track that still sounds futuristic and neatly merges funk and glam, complete with a faux-orgasmic breakdown, really deserved to have been a worldwide single, and Till Dawn stands tall as a gorgeous, epic ballad in the finest T.Rex tradition, its string arrangement a hangover from the masterful Visconti years.
With Bolan’s Zip Gun failing to set the world alight, Bolan regrouped and consolidated his losses. By the time of his next single, New York City, released in July ’75, he fixed his sights on regaining his audience back in England, and could be found eagerly talking up his latest schemes on Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio with Andy Peebles (“I’m doing balllrooms, I reckon I need to get back to the kids”), plugging away New York City, bigging up his friendship with Bowie (“We’re very similar in many respects… Basically we write the same kind of songs – just weird, weird songs!”) and giving away copies of Bolan’s Zip Gun in a phone-in (Let’s face it, he must have had a few knocking around).
New York City was a work of simple genius that took T.Rex back to basics: A two-line song built around the One Inch Rock riff, with soaring backing vocals that echoed Flo & Eddie, and saw Bolan sporting a flamboyantly camp “take it or leave it” look. It certainly captured the audience’s attention, returning Marc back to the top 20.
Two months later, in September ’75, a re-energised Bolan was back in the charts with Dreamy Lady (credited, unusually, to T. Rex Disco Party), a unique mixture of Northern Soul, disco and torch song, and once again he was courting England’s airwaves, rocking up on Yorkshire TV’s Pop Quest and giving not one but two memorable mimed performances of Dreamy Lady on Mike “Cue the music!” Mansfield’s Supersonic: The first saw Marc having a one-man Ibiza foam party, while the second saw Marc dusting off the high-rising neon star from the Tanx tour, sporting a silver streak, a deathly pallor and in a purple jumpsuit. Siouxsie Sioux certainly noted this look for future reference.
As before, by the time Bolan’s next album appeared, January 1976’s Futuristic Dragon, it consisted of tapes that had sat in the can for some time. In the incredibly detailed and well documented booklet that accompanies this reissue, T Rex biographer Mark Paytress notes that, by October ’75, the album (mostly recorded well over a year ago) “was becoming something of an albatross” until the last minute addition of the overture Futuristic Dragon provided it with a new focus and a cover concept (realised by George Underwood). The title track sounds out of place in the context of 1976, but it neatly encapsulates Bolan’s prior ambitions, combining Hendrix-style guitar and Bolan rapping poetry reminiscent of the Unicorn album.
To anyone not put off by the sub-Diamond Dogs spoken word introduction to Futuristic Dragon, it contains (again, quoting Paytress) “strong, Rex-style material”. It’s a superior selection of songs, with string arrangements to the fore recalling the Visconti years, and the highlights include the euphoric Jupiter Liar (of a piece with similarly celestially-themed album openers Venus Loon and Mambo Sun), the salsa-inflected ode to the gilded cage of fame All Alone, while Sensation Boulevard (working title Presley The Motherfucker, fact fans) and the infectious Casual Agent recalled the beat poetry of Bolan at his peak (“Distorted contortionist barely Saved his cool As he rubberised Hannah by the ‘lectric school”).
Whilst the throwaway charms of Bolan’s Zip Gun is a relic of Bolan’s lost weekend, Futuristic Dragon marked a return to something approaching form, although tellingly only New York City and Dreamy Lady remained in his live act in ’76, suggesting that he had already moved on from that over-produced, glossy sound. His next three singles, Laser Love, London Boys and I Love To Boogie, would see a return to a more stripped-down, direct sound – “T Rex Mk. II: Unchained” – as he cannily aligned his nostalgia for his London Mod roots, sans glam and glitter, with the emerging punk movement.
Bolan’s Zip Gun and Futuristic Dragon are the proverbial curate’s eggs in Marc Bolan’s recording career, a bridge between Bolan leaving T-Rextasy and a significant part of his audience behind to try on funkier threads and the brave fight back undercut by his tragically untimely death, but this handsome Deluxe Edition places them in their proper context thanks to the expansive 10,000 word booklet by Mark Paytress, liberally illustrated with foreign picture sleeves and news cuttings to tell the story of what Marc did next. The collection is rounded off by outtakes and alternative takes, some of which will be familiar to collectors and some of which are making their official debut – it’s moot as to what extent Bolan fans will triple dip into a set consisting largely of material previously issued, but it’s certainly an admirable addition of Demon’s ongoing mission to present his back catalogue in a manner fitting for an artist worthy of consideration alongside Bowie and the rest. What’s really needed now, to square the circle of Marc’s ‘difficult’ solo years, is a “what if” album of ’74/75 cuts a la Marc On Wax’s Billy Super Duper and Dance In The Midnight albums, only done properly. There’s a wealth of powerful Bolan recordings from this era that fell between the cracks of Zip Gun and Dragon – some of which are mentioned in the booklet (Sanctified, Down Home Lady, I Never Told Me) and spread out over volumes of Unchained. How about it, Demon?
❉ ‘Bolan’s Zip Gun / Futuristic Dragon deluxe edition’ was released by Demon Music Group on 3 March 2017.