The king of Glam

By Sergio Ariza

The best rock and roll has always been built on spectacular riffs and addictive hooks, from "Go, Johnny, Go" to "No Future, no future, no future for you" through to "Talking about My Generation" or "Get It On, Bang A Gong, Get It On. " Marc Bolan knew all about it; maybe his technique as a guitarist left a lot to be desired but his Les Paul Custom was pure rock and roll, bringing the energy, simplicity and pure fun of the pioneers of the 50s to rock at the beginning of the 70s, this time with a little glitter, and causing teenagers to be affected again by "the rocking pneumonia and the boogie woogie flu".    

Mark Feld
was his birth name, and always knew that he would be a star, as he would write later in Cosmic Dancer: " I danced myself right out the womb, Is it strange to dance so soon?” He was born in London on September 30, 1947, and even as a child his family had him down as someone very special, so it's no wonder that when he saw The Girl Can’t Help It and discovered Little Richard and Eddie Cochran his mother did not hesitate to buy him a guitar. At the age of 12 he already had his own band, and a year later he wore tailor-made suits and went on his own to see his favorite artists. The one that he felt most excited about was Cochran, to whom he waited at the exit of the show, taking his mythical Gretsch 6120 orange up to the car.

But Feld's career had only just begun. He lurched a bit until he found his place. In August 1965 he got his first record contract and adopted the name by which he would be remembered, Marc Bolan. He released a couple of singles without much success and the following year he turned up with his guitar at the home of Simon Napier-Bell, one of the most famous managers in the United Kingdom, and told him he was going to be a star. Napier-Bell saw potential in him, with his beauty, his careful mod image and his songs, and decided to put him in one of the bands he managed, like the Yardbirds. In the end he decided on John's Children, where he would be a kind of Pete Townshend, in charge of writing the songs and playing the guitar. For this he got a Gibson SG, on which Bolan used to create a real storm of distortion. Also he offered up the great Desdemona but, despite its quality, the song did not enter the charts, partly due to the BBC banning the phrase "lift up your skirt and fly."

Bolan decided to continue on his own and form a band. His first intention was that it was electric but the SG was the property of the record label, so he formed an acoustic duo with Steve 'Peregrin' Took on percussion and called it Tyrannosaurus Rex. His main literary influence was Tolkien, his lyrics were a mixture of mythology and poetry, his music folk and psychedelic. Bolan was now a hippie troubadour. He soon found two fundamental people to achieve his goal, Tony Visconti and John Peel. The first became his trusted producer. The second, one of the most important radio broadcasters in the country, an absolute fan, giving him exposure to the public, and helping make his first single, Debora, get into the English charts.

But after three records Took asked him to add some of his own songs on and Bolan refused. There could only be one star in the band, plus the troubadour costume was beginning to feel insufficient and the feverish idea of the electric was again starting to bite. He bought a white Fender Stratocaster and replaced Took with Mickey Finn. A Beard Of Stars can be considered as the turning point in his career, with Elemental Child and his nods to Hendrix.

Shortly after he bought a late 50s Les Paul and in the summer he recorded what was to be his next album, on whose cover the guitar would appear. In those sessions he recorded Ride A White Swan, with his Stratocaster recorded with a strong echo, reminding some of the first Elvis albums on Sun Records. Visconti added a small string section and lent him his Fender Precision bass. The album was then released under the shortened name of the band, T. Rex.

In January 1971, three months after it was released, Ride A White Swan climbed to number 2 in the charts. Bolan had moved quickly and by that time had signed up Steve Currie on bass. That same month Bolan and Visconti returned to the studio to record their follow up, and this time Visconti brought a drummer, Bill Legend, and the former Turtles, Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman to do the backing vocals. Bolan had the right song, Hot Love, and the T. Rex sound was about to be immortalized. Sumptuous strings, the sexiest voice of all time, winks at the rock and roll of the 50s and some hooks that stuck like chewing gum. In March the song climbed to number one in the charts and Marc Bolan appeared on the Top Of The Pops with his Les Paul, a few drops of glitter on his cheeks and a green satin shirt. Glam Rock was born.

That same month the band left for the USA for a tour. In a few magical days they recorded Jeepster, Monolith and Bolan taught them Get It On; when they returned to England, with enough material for the expected new album, Hot Love remained at the top of the singles list; six weeks on! T. Rextasy has begun, the fever that would infect the United Kingdom during the next two years, making T. Rex the closest thing to the Beatles since the distant days of Beatlemania.

If rock and roll had lost the effervescence of its beginnings and the desire to have fun, Bolan and his T. Rex were going to bring it back. His next single, Get It On, would become the official anthem of the movement and their second consecutive number one. So that its referents are clear, Bolan admitted that it came out while he played Chuck Berry's Little Queenie. The song would be included on Electric Warrior, his first masterpiece, and the best-selling album of the year in the United Kingdom. The Electric Warrior had reached the top and Marc Bolan was already what he had always known, a star. Exultant, he began to wear high top hats, feather boas, scarves ... His music combines a basic rhythm, which some will begin to call 'Bolan's Boogie', with acoustic wonders, enhanced by the Visconti strings. To round the year off, in the US Get It On reaches the top ten in the charts and T. Rex becomes a reference for the American Glam scene, like the New York Dolls.

We arrive in 1972, the year in which the Glam dominates the United Kingdom and T. Rex reigns in the movement. Ringo Starr, a self-confessed fan of Bolan, asks permission to record two concerts of the group in the Wembley Empire Pool for March (some concerts ended with a cover of his beloved Cochran, but of course, the person he still adored most of all was himself; it was not for nothing that he went on stage with a shirt bearing his own face). At that time, sales of T. Rex records in the United Kingdom accounted for 6% of the total industry. 6 of every 100 records that were sold were from Bolan! He took the opportunity to leave EMI and creates his own record company. During the year, Telegram Sam and Metal Guru, two incredible songs, would get to number 1 in the singles charts and Children Of The Revolution and Solid Gold Easy Action were on the verge of being there too. He also released his second consecutive masterpiece, The Slider, and a reissue of his first two albums are made that sneak into the number one spot, where it would be succeeded by Bolan Boogie, a compilation by his former company.

As if that were not enough, on December 14, Ringo's film Born to Boogie (where he plays a Gibson Hummingbird at Lennon's house) opens and David Bowie writes the definitive Glam anthem with All The Young Dudes. His lyrics could not make the sign of the times clearer: "The television man is crazy saying we're juvenile delinquent wrecks, Man I need a TV when I've got T. Rex?"

But it would be precisely his friend Bowie who would end up dethroning him and ending the movement. 1973 would confirm this, as that year six albums by Bowie appeared in the charts and he was the best-selling artist of the year. Despite this 'sorpasso', Bolan was still in form as two of his best songs prove: 20th Century Boy, with one of the best riffs in history, and The Groover, reaching at numbers 3 and 4, as well as Tanx, an album on which Bolan maintained the level of Electric Warrior and The Slider, and completed his most representative trilogy. It was not bad, but for someone with Bolan's ego, his self-esteem was affected. To top it off on July 3, 73 Bowie killed Ziggy Stardust, his glam alter ego and many saw it as the end point of the movemente. It did not help that Bolan's next album, Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow, was seen as a copy of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. His narcissistic personality suffered a severe blow and he paid for it by drinking, eating and taking drugs in excess. In a short time the resplendent king of glam had become a caricature of himself, getting fat and being almost forgotten. Bolan had lived a kind of reduced version of Elvis Presley's career, with an artistic, physical and success decline.

But after the birth of his son, he began to get fit again, losing weight and leaving drugs and junk food behind. Musically he saw in the emergence of punk a vindication of his work. While other rock stars fled from the new generation, Bolan decided to take the Damned on tour. Seeing himself as the 'Godfather of punk' once again did wonders for his self-esteem, and Dandy In The Underworld became the best record he released since Tanx. In addition, the Granada television network offered him a television program, at the time of Sesame Street, simply titled Marc. It was there that Glam lived its epilogue. On September 7, 1977, his friend Bowie appeared on the show. He had become an international star and he played one of his best songs Heroes, then Marc took the stage to play together "a new song." The two biggest glam stars started playing the Roadrunner riff and suddenly it was as if we were back in 1972. But history likes to play with irony and when Bolan approached the microphone to sing he stumbled and disappeared from the stage. Bowie was left alone at the top. The program had so little budget that no other take was done and it was left with this one. But Bolan would never see it broadcast.

On September 16, 1977, a month after the king of rock, the real king of Glam died in a traffic accident; in four years he had gone from being ‘the new Beatles’ to presenting a children's television program. But at least he saw how the flame that he had ignited again in rock, returning to the simplicity and fun of the early days, has hooked with a new generation and created a new style, punk. However of course, he never lived to see how every subsequent rock band, from U2 to Oasis, going through R.E.M., Nirvana and Guns N 'Roses, has not been able to resist his Boogie.