Marc Bolan : An Appreciation Of One Of The Greats
Lyrical genius who made nursery rhymes sound profound and could make three chords sound symphony, the most perfect bleating vocal that dripped melody had the perfect hair and with the ‘c’ on the end of his first name even had the perfect monicker – Marc was the effortless genius who wille himself into the middle of the pop pantheon in the early seventies. He invented glam rock and then went on to make great funk glam records at the trial end of his career.
Every album is full of lost gems, songs like Mambo Sun which is the greatest pop record that has never been released as a single. His demos are full of rough cut diamonds
“I got a Rolls Royce, it’s good for my voice”. Once sang Marc Bolan in one of those genius lyrics that meant everything and nothing at the same time and that he seemed to toss out with ease. The bopping poet from the Beltane with the beautiful voice that cuts through the years made records that still sound amazing. Whilst writing this blog I listened to all the albums in order and there is hardly a bad moment in there.
He was part of the DNA of our youth, the Top Of The Pops and kids TV regular and the one who epitomised everything about being a pop star. This was a pop star with a mystical undertow and sexual ooze that captivated the girls with his androgynous looks. He came from the sixties underground when his mystical acoustic songs with far out lyrics were about as sixties underground as you could get. He then ruled the early seventies charts – a pin up for the post sixties comedown that made the Beatles exit more than bearable. John peel might not have approved of his old friend going pop perfect but the teenage droogs were enthralled as marc owned Top Of The pops and left behind the perfect hit singles collection.
He made it look so easy.
There was a new single every couple of months. Another great series of TV performances. Another classic anthem with off the wall imagery and those genius words because, for me, Marc is one of the best ever pop lyricists. Metal Guru is a perfect song title- it may not mean anything or it may mean everything but it’s typical Marc- poetic brilliance in two words.
Each single would be another brilliant twist around those classic chord sequences with blues licks. He made it sound so simple and that he has often been overlooked in the rush to rightly acclaim Bowie as a genius but Marc was Bowie’s equal. He just made the complicated sound simple which gets him overlooked.
With his distinctive wavering voice, premium guitar skills, brilliant songwriting talent and poetic genius, Marc Bolan was one of the great pop stars and defined the pre punk musical landscape. Like the Beatles in the sixties each one of his singles was a signpost the times. They also remain timeless and a reminder of what full octane rock n roll sounds like.
His death 35 years ago on Sept 16th 1977 is one of the most tragic moments in British pop history. I remember the moment clearly, it snapped me out of my teenage punk momentum and back into the instant past. Before Marc had died pop had seemed immortal and that was despite the death of Elvis four weeks before. At the time Elvis had seemed so distant and, in a way, already dead but Marc was part of our lives – he couldn’t possibly die.
Marc is still here in spirit though. At the time of his death he may not have been dominating the charts like he did a couple of years before in his prime but his TV series had been big that summer with his support of the punk movement and on the last show, when he finally played on stage with Bowie, was a legendary moment – the only time the twin metal guru godheads of the time played on stage together. That was the time when Marc fell of the stage- some say this was a sign of his death three days later but that maybe that’s pushing it a bit.
His death was even more tragic because after a fallow period in the mid seventies he was on the comeback trail. His then current album, ”Dandy In The Underworld” had gone top 30 and he was showing signs of escaping his pop idol shackles and moving into a new period of his career.
Meanwhile the punk wars raged. It’s one of the endearing myths of punk rock that the class of 77 arrived to save the seventies from itself.
And whilst punk was great, there is a bit of convenient myth making going on, as glam rock had been the fab soundtrack to the first half of the decade. Arguably the last of the real future musics, Glam had a sci fi twist that made it feel like it was going forwards. Marc may have rooted his sound in Eddie Cochrane and fifties rock n roll but he was always going forwards musically and that’s why his songs have never dated. The same with his albums which are really consistent- a rare thing for the glam rock generation, who were the last great singles generation but often quite weak when it came to albums.
There has been a lot airbrushing over the years and glam is always looked on as a poor musical cousin. Marc mainly escapes this because he is sat there at the top of the glam throne, one of the all time greats whose breathless talent saw the songs pour out of him in a ten year career that straddled speed driven mod, acoustic psych, glam anthems and neo-funky workouts and was equally brilliant at each one.
There’s hardly such a thing as a bad Bolan song. I have nearly all of them racked up here. Demos, rehearsal tapes, outtakes, all the bits and bobs.
It’s amazing to listen to those demos now- a stray guitar lick that is going nowhere is suddenly turned into a piece of magic by the Bolan voice and then discarded. This is the impatience of pop in its peak years. The search for instant karma, the search for the instant hit. Bolan was child of his times. Impatient and on fast-forward, he defined hip.
At the time of his death he was one of the few pop stars that the punks respected and he was quick to repay the affection, taking the Damned out on tour with him in 1977. He also made sure that he had punk bands on his 1977 ”ËMarc” TV series when hardly anyone else would go near them- it was revolutionary then and unimaginable now in 2012 when any music that is beyond the grey world of alternative is ostracized from the media.
From his start as he grafted on guitar in Johns Children in 1967 Marc stood out a mile. At the time he was sharp neo-mod with an already great skill at the guitar and a clutch of his own recordings that have a hint of Dylan to them. You can hear him on Johns Children, a backing vocal here, a guitar inflection there and he wrote a couple of songs for them.
It could never work and the band imploded after a German tour and Marc came back to the UK. Advertising for a band he put his own group together. He hooked up with Steve Peregrine Took on percussion and put together a four piece electric band. The group was played a gig at the Rock Garden in 1967 in London but it was a disaster so they made the decision to strip down to an acoustic two piece with Marc sat down on acoustic guitar and Took on the bongos and percussion playing a collection of Marc’s esoteric, trippy acoustic songs with a finger picking guitar like a hyperventilating Donavan.
They were a hit on the student underground circuit and John Peel was an early champion. Peel told me once about driving round from gig to gig in his tiny mini with the duo. They would play up and down the country, Peel was the DJ and the band would play a gig. It was a lightweight guerrilla way of touring and built all three of them a reputation on the burgeoning UK underground head scene.
Marc’s amazing songs really made a mark with a cult audience who were tripped out on his amazing words that mixed hippy gumbo with a mystical leaning, Indian culture and romantic poetry. Marc would sit down and play his guitar and Took would sit on a chair playing is bongos.
The first three albums capture the brisk and imaginative acoustic songs stuffed full of nonsense lyrics. Luckily nonsense is a key part of English writing from the centuries and in modern terms it’s after the likes of Lewis Carol onwards, the whimsical nonsense that speaks a thousand more truths than the stark and boring words of the truth tellers.
The Tyrannosaurs Rex songs on the first three albums are acoustic blues with hippy leanings, they go off at tangents with their silver lined melodies and are never tuneless, already you can mark out Bolan as a major latent. Sure there are influences- a touch of Donavan, a smudge of Bolan, the acoustic Blues, a smudge of Howling Wolf, some folk and a massive dollop of the king of Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett.
Syd’s shadow hangs over this whole scenario, the permed hair mastermind behind the early pink Floyd had pretty well patented this try English school of whimsical pop, with his songs of gnomes and psychedelic excursions. Syd’s genius was far too short lived but the people who worked with him talk of six months of total creativity when the ‘music poured out of him’ before he burned himself out after one acid trip too many.
Marc picked up the mantle and ran with it for a decade. He was clearly enamored with Syd, he had the look and the imagination and he took the ain’t no square with corkscrew hair model of Syd to its logical conclusion but no-one had ever sounded like this before- Larry the Lamb as his future publicist and school friend Eric Hall once told me when I bumped into him in a London street and we got talking about Marc.
In 1970, after an American tour Mark fired Steve Peregrine Took and took on new bongo player Mickey Finn and the band went from cult level with albums that got to number 20 to full of pop stars.
The moment Marc went overground his old friends deserted him in droves and he was, perhaps, the first pop star to put up with the childish jibes of ”Ësell out’. If there is one thing that always makes the underground look poor is its resentment of its heroes being picked up by the rest of the country. This rampant snobbery has always choked the scene from day one and Marc was an early victim of this. When Marc went electric it was greeted in the same that when Dylan went electric- like some kinda capital crime but with the added glitter as Bolan invented the seventies and put the distance between that decade and the sixties that was needed.
There are few real geniuses in rock n roll but Marc was one of them. His songs contained all the compressed excitement of rock n roll combined with the mysticism and spiritual longing of the sixties. 35 years after his death his is still with us in that weird way that pop never dies and leaves it’s timeless, youthful voices in the forever.
Marc Bolan, we salute you.