Friday, 27 January 2017

Marc Bolan & T. Rex part 1

Sorry for being away for a couple of days, guys & dolls! Busy time of the year. Hope I can produce at least 4 or 5 different posts weekly during February. Then I may try for more.

The first two genres of music that heavily embraced and were embraced by gay people, which managed to get mainstream glory, both arrived in the 70s. In the second half of that decade Disco ruled. We'll get to that in a fortnight or two. In the early 70s, there was Glam Rock that took Europe by storm (less so the US). We've practically started this blog with the glam phase of Bowie's great career. We've introduced Mott The Hoople's most gay-friendly song, which not coincidentally was written by Bowie, as well as Lou Reed's Bowie-produced Transformer. A few days ago we checked out the New York Dolls and Jobriath. Our current subject is the man who started it all: Marc Bolan and his band, T. Rex.

Born Mark Feld at Stoke Newington, 30 September 1947, he was the son of Simeon Feld, an Ashkenazi Jew of Russian/Polish extraction, who was a lorry driver, and Phyllis Winifred Feld (nee Atkins). The Feld family later moved to Wimbledon in south east London. At about that time, Mark fell in love with Rock & Roll. He received his first guitar when he is 9 years old. “I started as a poet,” he would later claim. “I wrote when I was about 9.”

Playing guitar and writing poetry weren't the only things he was doing at nine. According to his childhood friend Jeff Dexter: "It's true he was having sex from the age of nine. We always preferred girls who were older and much taller than us." Hmm, OK...

While at school, he played guitar in "Susie and the Hula Hoops," a trio whose vocalist was a 12-year-old Helen Shapiro. During lunch breaks at school, he would play his guitar in the playground to a small audience of friends. At 15, he was expelled from school for bad behaviour. That didn't seem to faze him; he was a teenager already seeking fame.

There are claims that Marc’s very first recording was with Joe Meek. This is based on a scratchy anonymous acetate disc discovered by the Joe Meek fan club, which has a resemblance to Marc’s vocal delivery. This recording, a song called Mrs Jones, is thought to date from 1963.

He briefly joined a modelling agency and became a "John Temple Boy", appearing in a clothing catalogue for the menswear store. In 1964, Mark met his first manager, Geoffrey de-la-Roy Hall, and recorded a slick commercial track backed by session musicians called All at Once, a song very much in the style of his youthful hero, Cliff Richard.

Mark Feld then changed his stage-name to Toby Tyler when he met and moved in with child actor Allan Warren, who became his second manager. Warren, a gay man who was also a very popular photographer with the rich and famous, as well as a photographer of erotic portraits of the male form. As he stated, "everyday I have made a point of talking to and photographing a stranger. As the years have passed I have photographed 1,000’s of them, some have become firm friends, others lovers and a handful my assailants or would be assassins!"

This encounter afforded Bolan a lifeline to the heart of show business, as Warren saw Toby Tyler's potential while Tyler spent hours sitting cross-legged on Warren's floor playing his acoustic guitar. Warren also hired a recording studio and had Bolan's first acetates cut. Two tracks were later released, the Bob Dylan song Blowin' in the Wind and Dion Di Mucci's The Road I'm On (Gloria).

Mark then tried his hand at acting. He got small character parts in British television series such as ‘Orlando’ (1965).

When trying to get back into music, Mark Feld a.k.a. Toby Tyler changed his name again. “The first person who really turned me on … was Bob Dylan,” Marc later stated. Some believe that the new surname of Bolan was a contraction of Bob Dylan. Another theory is that the name was inspired by his roommate at the time, fellow aspiring actor James Bolam. Thus Mark Feld became Marc Bolland, then Marc Boland, and finally Marc Bolan. “I don’t know what I am or where I’m from,” Marc later shrugged. “I just know I’m not from here.”

Marc Bolan’s first single (under that name) is The Wizard, released by Decca Records on 19 November 1965.

In 1966, Bolan turned up at Simon Napier-Bell's front door with his guitar and proclaimed that he was going to be a big star and he needed someone to make all of the arrangements. Napier-Bell already was the manager of the very successful Yardbirds. According to his later revelations, Napier-Bell had a one-night stand with Bolan just hours after they met in 1966. He said: "That is what people did in the 60s. It wasn't an affair - just a good 60s shag." The manager claims Bolan was really bisexual but never came out publicly about his sexuality.

Anyway, Napier-Bell invited Bolan in and listened to his songs. A recording session was immediately booked and the songs were very simply recorded (most of them were not actually released until 1974). One of these was You Scare Me To Death:

Only Hippy Gumbo, a sinister-sounding, Baroque-Folk song, was released at the time as Marc's third unsuccessful single.

Still, Napier-Bell refused to give up. He was also the manager of a band called John’s Children. Napier-Bell slotted Bolan into John’s Children in March 1967, because they needed a songwriter and he admired Bolan's writing ability. The band achieved some success as a live act but sold few records. A John's Children single written by Marc Bolan called Desdemona was banned by the BBC for its line "lift up your skirt and fly."

Marc Bolan left John’s Children before their break-up, departing around August 1967. Bolan, unperturbed, rallied to create Tyrannosaurus Rex, his own Rock band together with guitarist Ben Cartland, drummer Steve Peregrin Took and an unknown bass player. Napier-Bell recalled of Bolan: "He got a gig at the Electric Garden then put an ad in Melody Maker to get the musicians. The paper came out on Wednesday, the day of the gig. At three o'clock he was interviewing musicians, at five he was getting ready to go on stage.... It was a disaster. He just got booed off the stage."

Following this concert, Bolan pared the band down to just himself and Took, and they continued as a Psychedelic-Folk Rock acoustic duo, playing Bolan's songs, with Took playing assorted hand and kit percussion and occasional bass to Bolan's acoustic guitars and voice. Napier-Bell said of Bolan that after the first disastrous electric gig, "He didn't have the courage to try it again; it really had been a blow to his ego... Later he told everyone he'd been forced into going acoustic because Track (the record company) had repossessed all his gear. In fact he'd been forced to go acoustic because he was scared to do anything else."

The first Tyrannosaurus Rex album came out on 5 July 1968 by record label Regal Zonophone. It's title: My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair... But Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows. Quite a mouthful, right?

The album was produced by Mary Hopkin's future husband, Tony Visconti, who would produce all of Marc's classic recordings, as well as Bowie's works from the same period. The opening track was Hot Rod Mama:

The opening track of the vinyl album's B-side was Mustang Ford:

The closing track was Frowning Atahuallpa (My Inca Love):

The duo's first single was non-album Debora. It peaked at #34, UK:

The next single was called One Inch Rock: it peaked at #28, UK:

Both songs were re-released in 1972 as one double A-sided single. This time they collectively made #7.

The second album with the slightly smaller title Prophets, Seers & Sages: The Angels of the Ages was released just 3 months after the first. This album contained Stacey Grove:

... As well as Salamanda Palaganda:

Tyrannosaurus Rex had two more non-album singles in 1969. First came Pewter Suitor:

... Then came King of the Rumbling Spires. Both singles failed to generate much public interest.

The third album was simply called Unicorn (May 1969). It opened with Chariots of Silk:

One of my favorite songs of Marc's pre-fame period is found in this album: She Was Born to Be My Unicorn.

Warlord of the Royal Crocodiles was also in this album:

In September 1969 Steve Peregrine Took quit Tyrannosaurus Rex. He was ‘disenchanted with his inability to stamp his own personality on the duo’s work’ – but then Tyrannosaurus Rex was always going to be Marc Bolan’s vehicle. The duo format was retained with new percussionist Mickey Finn starting in October 1969. 

Quite possibly the best Tyrannosaurus Rex album was their fourth (and their last as Tyrannosaurus Rex), A Beard of Stars, released on 13 March 1970. A track from this album was Woodland Bop:

... Which was followed by Fist Heart Mighty Dawn Dart:

By the Light of a Magical Moon was a single off the album. It flopped, which is a great pity because it's outstanding:

The album closes with Elemental Child. The prominence and the sound of the electric guitar gave us a taste of what was to come:

In October 1970 Tyrannosaurus Rex changed its name to the abbreviated T-Rex and a new era began. Ride a White Swan was released as a stand-alone single on 9 October 1970 and made its way to one step away from the top, peaking at #2. The song, inspired in part by Mungo Jerry's success with In the Summertime, inadvertently founded Glam Rock mania, although Bolan did not wear characteristic glam stage clothing until the promotion of follow up single Hot Love.

To a nodding rhythm, Bolan’s ‘distinctive, otherworldly vibrato’ intones, “Wear a tall hat like a druid in the old days / Wear a tall hat and a tattooed gown / Ride a white swan / Like the people of the Beltane / Wear your hair long, babe, you can’t go wrong.” The Beltane are witches and pagans; it’s an old Gaelic term. On paper the lyrics sound vaguely sinister and supernatural, but Marc Bolan’s guileless delivery coupled with a sense of playfulness actually made it endearing. He was finally where he wanted to be all along.

Tomorrow we'll visit Marc's superstar period and what came next, until his tragically early death. Till then!