From the perspective of one group of individuals, the catalogue of pop cultural catastrophes that shattered the 60s kicked down a door they’d spent years trying (and failing) to prise open. A new decade was less than eighteen months old, yet it had already lost The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison before The Rolling Stones hot-footed it to the South of France lest the taxman got his hands on them. There was a sizeable vacuum, but it was quickly filled by Elton John, Rod Stewart and Slade; all three had been biding their time for a long time and now their moment had arrived. Yet the man who made the biggest pop splash of 1971 had endured an apprenticeship stretching back way farther.
From the early 60s onwards, working-class cockney Mark Feld had been a star in search of an audience. He’d graced the glossy pages of magazines as a teenager modelling the Mod look; he’d tried the folk singer route in the wake of Dylan and Donovan’s impact; he’d had a crack at proto-Punk Art Rock as a member of John’s Children; he’d embraced the Summer of Love and achieved cult success as one half of an acoustic duo much-loved by John Peel. But what he wanted more than anything was mass acceptance, and it wasn’t hip to admit that at the end of the 60s. By this time, he’d changed his name to Marc Bolan.
Bolan’s butterfly flitting from one scene to another betrayed his hunger for success on the same scale as the 60s giants whose influence remained a potent one. Few imagined it would come to him, though; Bolan had an odd, quirky vocal style and wrote elaborate Tolkien-esque lyrics that matched the esoteric Syd Barrett-meets-The Incredible String Band stew he cooked-up with his bongo-playing partner. Calling his outfit Tyrannosaurus Rex because he wanted them to be the biggest thing since the biggest animal ever to walk the earth was characteristically ambitious Bolan immodesty; but when Bolan unexpectedly penned an irresistibly infectious pop gem that necessitated a controversial switch to the electric guitar, he finally found what he’d been looking for.
Lyrically, ‘Ride A White Swan’ retained Bolan’s poetic imagery, though this time he married it to a unique commercial sound that was only kept from the No.1 spot by Clive Dunn’s ‘Grandad’ as the Christmas spirit hung over the beginning of 1971. Come the follow-up, Bolan expanded the band with a drummer and bass-player that helped push ‘Hot Love’ one place higher in the charts. His first stint at No.1 was promoted on ‘Top of the Pops’ by one of the great moments of inspiration in pop history: Bolan sprinkled glitter on his cheeks, bestowing a glow upon his elfin face that caught the camera with every shake of the head. The nation’s teenage girls fell in love overnight. The band’s name had been shortened to the far easier mouthful of T.Rex, and Britain suddenly had its first proper pop star in years.
Seeking to spread his musical wings, Bolan went for a bigger, slicker sound on his next single, ‘Get it On’. Whilst the music press accused him of selling-out, Bolan took over the No.1 spot for six weeks that summer and also gatecrashed the upper echelons of the Billboard Hot 100. That autumn, he was top of the LP charts with ‘Electric Warrior’, and his eccentric take on primitive Rock ‘n’ Roll stripped away the layers of complexity threatening to suffocate Rock, appealing to a new generation of record-buyers too young for the 60s and eager for heroes that hadn’t been handed down by older brothers. T.Rex revitalised the singles chart and Bolan’s striking flirtation with cosmetics challenged the macho consensus as well as sparking a new genre christened Glam Rock. At his best, Bolan outshone the competition with charisma, panache and a string of pearls that sound even fresher today than they did at the time.
T.Rex spent more weeks on the UK charts in 1972 than any other act; they had two more chart-toppers (‘Telegram Sam’ and ‘Metal Guru’), and with Bolan’s lyrics now peppered with references to fast cars, the hippie underground he’d long outgrown was swept away as a cultural touchstone by a fresh wave of theatrical Rock that encompassed everyone from Alice Cooper and Roxy Music to The Sweet and Gary Glitter. But it was the re-emergence of David Bowie as his exotic alter-ego of Ziggy Stardust that took Bolan’s template onto another level altogether. For a moment, the two old friends were bitter rivals in a Beatles Vs Stones fashion, but a bigger threat to Bolan was the wholesome US teen idols such as Donny Osmond and David Cassidy, who fatally lured away his vital female fan-base.
By the back-end of 1973, Bolan was being usurped by the Glam Rockers who had none of his artistic pretensions; but Bolan himself appeared to be rapidly losing his mojo. He fled to temporary tax-exile in Monaco, dissolved the classic T.Rex line-up, and committed a cardinal sin for a pop star by getting fat. It seemed as if he had descended to Vegas Elvis in record time. His singles started falling short of the top ten and many of them weren’t that good anymore either. Come the mid-70s, he was regarded as a has-been and had to watch from the sidelines as the scene he’d inadvertently inspired carried on without him. But Glam Rock was now a bandwagon with too many passengers; when it ran out of steam, Bolan was still standing and the kids who’d made him a star in 1971 were now forming their own bands.
The Punk generation venerated Bolan and he returned the compliment. He toured with The Damned and when he was given his own teatime TV show by Granada in 1977, he invited the likes of Generation X, The Boomtown Rats and The Jam onto it as guests. The final edition of the series even saw a long-term rift healed when Bowie appeared and played his one and only duet with Bolan as the credits rolled. By the time the episode aired, however, Bolan was already dead, killed in a car crash forty years ago today, just a fortnight short of his 30th birthday.
Marc Bolan was the product of an era in which Rock stars were otherworldly creatures who existed to escort their audience to alternate dimensions of endless possibilities, just as movie stars had before them. The grim climate of early 70s Britain needed their superlative escapism. As Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones later said of his adolescence, ‘I thought Rock stars fell from the sky.’ Bolan was the first pop phenomenon of the 70s as well as the first to reconnect with the trashy glamour and primal simplicity of 50s Rock ‘n’ Roll; he was his own creation from a time before stylists and before the resurrection of the cynical Svengali prepared to package any old formulaic crap as long as it made money. We won’t see his like again because the world doesn’t live there anymore.
© The Editor