There are musicians always in constant evolution; reinventing themselves every few years to avoid getting stuck. These include chameleon musicians like Miles Davis, the Beatles and David Bowie; but there are others, instead, who find their sound and try to be as faithful to it as they can for the rest of their career. On this side of the quation are people like Chuck Berry, the Ramones and AC/DC. Marc Bolan is a strange case, since ideologically he seems more like one of the former (we are talking about someone who started as Mod, became a hippie singer-songwriter and succeeded as King of Glam), but in reality he is much closer to the latter, with two specialties to which he was always faithful: his irresistible boogie and his acoustic ballads. With those few ‘strands of wicker’ he was able to produce some of the best songs of the 70's. From Guitars Exchange we want to remember the date of his birthday by recalling our 10 favorite songs from his, sadly, short career.
Get It On (Bang A Gong)
Simplicity is the key to the best rock & roll, and this mythical song is good proof of it. One day Marc Bolan was fooling around with Chuck Berry's Little Queenie when he came up with one of those simple but effective riffs that were his trademark. Bolan started singing the first thing that came to his mind, "Get It On, Bang A Gong"; it was absurd but with his sexy voice it sounded indecent. More than a chorus, it was a total invitation to unbridled debauchery, and the voices of the indispensable Flo & Eddie, Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman of the Turtles, would do the rest. Get It On, on which he played his white Stratocaster (although he came out on Top Of The Pops with his Flying V), would become the zenith of T Rex’s career, becoming the band’s second number one in the UK and, incredibly, the only Top Ten of his career in the US.
20th Century Boy
1973 was seen as the first year of the decline of the T. Rextasy, the phenomenon closest to 'Beatlemania' that the UK experienced in the 1970s, but today it seems ridiculous. That year not only saw the appearance of Tanx, an album that is at the level of the two previous masterpieces, Electric Warrior and The Slider, but it was also the year in which the wonderful singles, 20th Century Boy and The Groover, appeared. The former is one of Bolan's best songs and has the best, and heaviest, riff of his career. Of course, it also has a devastating and unstoppable chorus. One of the peaks of Glam rock.
Children of the Revolution
Released in September 1972, a few months after the appearance of The Slider, Children Of The Revolution should have been T. Rex's third number one that year, although the band had to settle for second place. Another iconic riff, with great work by Visconti on production, and another totally addictive chorus, sung again with Flo & Eddie, on a song in which Bolan talks about the children of the revolution; with his revolution being not so much political, but sexual and hedonistic.
Marc Bolan invents a colorful collection of characters suchas the title figure, and adds Golden Nose Slim, Purple Pie Pete and Jungle faced Jake, on a song that is the definition of irresistible and catchy.
A three-note riff, a few strings, the harmonies of Flo & Eddie and Marc Bolan shrieking, grab our attention in less than ten seconds. Bolan draws blood from his Les Paul of the late 50's, with its Custom neck, to which he added a touch of orange to resemble the Gretsch of his idol, Eddie Cochran. Morrissey and Johnny Marr of the Smiths built one of the most iconic songs on a similar riff in the 80's: Panic.
Before becoming the King of Glam in the early 70's Marc Bolan had been an acoustic hippie troubadour in the late 60's. And he never left his more acoustic side behind, one of his favorite guitars being a Gibson Hummingbird, as you can see in this version of Cosmic Dancer, one of the best songs on Electric Warrior. Tony Visconti dresses the track up with a wonderful string arrangement, but it is Bolan who delivers one of his best melodies and vocal interpretations in an autobiographical lyric in which Bolan seems to make clear that his star would be shining but would not shine forever "I danced myself into the tomb".
There Was A Time/Raw Ramp
But if there's one song that I think best sums up Marc Bolan and T. Rex's career, it's There Was A Time/Raw Ramp, which was the B-side of Get It On. The song opens with a wonderful string arrangement by Visconti, then Bolan enters with his acoustic guitar singing, with Flo & Eddie on the harmonies, like hippie minstrels, then the drums come in and Bolan's boogie begins, as recognizable as a Chuck Berry intro. The lyrics are lascivious, with Bolan splurging on sex, "Woman, I love your chests ooh, Baby, I'm crazy 'bout your breasts", a lyric no other singer could have sung without sounding stupid. But there is a third part, an unstoppable guitar riff and another sample of that characteristic "electric boogie". A song that could have been a success in its own right, without any problem.
Ballrooms Of Mars
The most brilliant lyrics of his career fit like a glove into one of his most melancholy and beautiful melodies. His strange poetry seemed to speak of weird and distant places but his voice made it seem as if they were just around the corner: " You talk about day, I'm talking 'bout night time, when the monsters call out the names of men (...) We'll dance our lives away in the ballrooms of Mars ".
If Ride A White Swan was the song that propelled him to success, Hot Love was his first number one and the song that officially opened 'T. Rextasy'. Here were already all the elements that were going to make him great: nods to the rock & roll of the 50's, the harmonies of Flo & Eddie, Visconti’s sumptuous strings, catchy choruses, and the sexiest voice of all time. Glam Rock became popular when in March of '71 Hot Love rose to the top of the UK charts and Bolan appeared on the Top Of The Pops with his Les Paul and a few drops of glitter on his cheeks to perform it.
Life's a Gas
Another wonder of Electric Warrior, and further proof of Bolan’s acoustic and melancholic facet. As a curiosity it contains a brief solo with Bolan on slide, although again the best comes with his vocal performance. It is impossible to hear this song now and not feel a lump in the throat when he sings, half sighing, "Life's A Gas, I hope it's gonna last".