In Spring 1971 an album came out that was ignored. It was by David Bowie and it was looking more and more that the hit he had with ‘Space Oddity’ barely two years previously had cursed him as a one-hit wonder. Bowie was at a crucial point where he had to find a direction as he already had something of a reputation as an artist with no direction. He had also suffered a flop single in ‘The Prettiest Star’ and not even the soon to be famous Marc Bolan guesting on it as a guitarist could save it from obscurity. Bowie seemed lost to the fringes of rock music, an invisible artist who just couldn’t fit in with the times. But the album was to prove to be a stepping-stone to something much bigger. For now though, a rescue mission was nowhere in sight.

 ‘The man who sold the world’ doesn’t have the sophisticated song craft of ‘Hunky Dory’. Nor does it have the consistency and space-rock pop of ‘Ziggy Stardust’  but nevertheless, it’s an album with staying power. I find myself returning to it after all this time and immersing myself in the proto-goth rock of the album. Yes, this is Bowie’s most goth album, music from the crumbling mansion of Miss Havisham in ‘Great Expectations’.

From the opening feedback of Mick Ronson’s guitar on ‘The width of a circle’ you are in a sinister world of sexual ambiguity, existential questing and a dash of the occult. It’s like Bowie heard Black Sabbath and placed them in a different parallel universe. The hard rock riffing of that opening track is informed by the heavy rock of the time, but it’s heavy rock with an intellectual force behind it.

The conceptual vibe of that opening track also puts Bowie into the progressive realm. It’s possible – with a strained ear – to even hear the multi-song parts of the Who’s ‘Tommy’ and – whisper it – the Moody Blues, whose songs were frequently conceptual, with several parts to them.

1970 was a year of reckoning for Bowie. He was frustrated and feeling his career had stalled, trying to expurgate himself from a contract with manager Ken Pitt and also trying to find someone strong-arm and audacious enough to help him find the wider public acclaim that was slipping away from him. He was in a state of stasis, but also full of new ideas. He wanted to move into a more rock direction but wasn’t quite sure how to do it.

Bowie forged ahead, forming a band called The Hype, with producer Tony Visconti on bass, John Cambridge on drums and a person who would make an important contribution to help Bowie realise his musical ambitions – guitarist and arranger Mick Ronson.

Recommended by John Cambridge, Ronson was a gift to Bowie’s then flighty and ungrounded talent, able to quickly jump into Bowie’s songs and work at the frenetic pace Bowie demanded. Within only a few days of meeting Bowie, Ronson played on a BBC session, claiming to not having had any time to learn the songs:

‘ I just watched his fingers’ Ronson remarked, with a typical laconic shrug.

In a cruel ironic twist, Cambridge’s introduction of Ronson to Bowie proved to be his undoing. He did one gig and was then replaced with drummer Woody Woodmansey, brought in on Ronson’s insistence that they needed a more solid and creative drummer. In Ronson’s mind, he wanted the band to be an improvisational blues rock band like Cream. But of course, with Bowie’s songs, they could never be that. They would be something else entirely.

The Hype played a smattering of gigs, even playing places as far flung as the Penthouse in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, which was the debut gig of Woody Woodmansey. However, the band was always going to be a short-lived affair as Bowie’s grasshopper mind was soon back to thinking of presenting himself as a solo artist once again, only with a band. Besides, the record company would never go along with an album by The Hype. They had signed David Bowie as a solo artist and that was how it had to stay.

By April of 1970, Bowie was back in the recording studio at Trident, starting an album that was originally to be called ‘Metrobolist’, in a homage to Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’.  However, the final album would appear as ‘The man who sold the world’ as the record company, Mercury, didn’t like the original title and changed it without Bowie’s input or consent.

The sessions for the album were somewhat nervy and fraught. Bowie was ill-prepared, with only a handful of completed songs and not having the budget of being able to spend as much time in the studio as he wanted to, producer Tony Visconti found himself having to cajole Bowie along, who spent too much time kissing and canoodling with his new wife, Angela Barnett.

Bowie’s flippant and seemingly disinterested attitude exasperated Visconti. It was Visconti who took on the pressure, as he was not only the bassist, he was also the producer. Engineer Ken Scott had no choice but to just sit it out, while Visconti tried to work out what Bowie wanted. The band, with the addition of Ralph Mace, brought in to play Moog synthesiser – were often left to blindly work out arrangements, having to roll along with Bowie’s haphazard and chaotic methods of working. Bowie would then approve or disapprove of the workings of the band. Meanwhile, the studio clock was running down and Visconti fretted whether they’d manage to finish the album.

Thankfully, some songs had previously been worked out live in the short-lived Hype. ‘Width of a circle’ and ‘The Supermen’ had been road tested and arranged but still, Bowie left the recorded version of ‘Width of a circle’ to the band, directed mostly by Mick Ronson. It’s a stunning opener and show case for Ronson’s often unhinged and manic guitar soloing.

The song moves through three stages: the hard rock almost Kinks-like riffing of the verses, to a dreamy middle section that then morphs into a boogie rock with Bowie relating an obviously homosexual encounter with some unnamed demon. It was all very H.P. Lovecraft and it was outrageous – nobody in rock music was writing such openly homo-erotic lyrics.

 ‘The width of a circle’ is followed by one of Bowie’s most haunting songs ‘All the madmen’. This was actually the first song that the band worked on and it was one of Bowie’s more completed songs prior to the recording sessions. This gentle strummed acoustic song was more like a folk song, almost like a more spooked cousin of ‘Space Oddity’ and it’s one of the album’s most compelling tracks.

It’s well documented how Bowie himself was fearful of becoming mentally ill as his half-brother Terry had become, suffering a life-time of schizophrenia and frequent spells in a mental asylum. ‘All the mad men’ is Bowie working through his anxieties and delivering an in character lyric.

This song once again benefits from the input of the band, who go into a faux- flamenco style musical passage that gives the song a musical diversion not unlike Jeff Beck’s ‘Beck’s Bolero’. It ends on the bizarre refrain of ‘Zane, zane, zane, ouvre le chien’, repeated and sung in a weird doo-wop parody.  The opening two tracks alone must surely have left the listener thinking this was no conventional rock songwriter. Bowie was determined to be subversive and left of the mainstream.  He wanted success, but he insisted on his own terms.

‘Black country rock’ is a throwaway track that Bowie originally only had a few lines for, leaving the rest of the music to Visconti and Ronson, who came up with a T.Rex style backing track. (Visconti was T.Rex’s producer at the time)

This pastiche was not lost on Bowie, who did a perfect impression of Marc Bolan on the last chorus of the song. It was an off the cuff joke that everyone liked, so it stayed. Although it’s a flimsy song after the intense two opening tracks, it’s bit of light relief in the album’s often brooding and claustrophobic atmosphere.

‘After All’ is one of Bowie’s most inscrutable lyrics. It has references to Aleister Crowley – ‘live till your rebirth and do what you will’ – and the fact that the song is in waltz time gives it a macabre nightmarish quality. The strange refrain of ‘Oh by jingo’ adds to the enigmatic vibe of the song. The song is shadowy and floats on a swirling cloud of Moog synthesiser.  The lyrics have a pessimistic tone to them. ‘Man is an obstacle, sad as the clown/ so hold on to nothing and he won’t let you down’. Bowie was already tuning in to the grim feeling of the new decade. The 70s were here and there was the feeling of a long party being over.

‘Running Gun Blues’ must rank as one of Bowie’s least written about or talked about songs. It opens side two in a bleakly comic mood, Bowie singing in a camp high register about being a soldier on a killing spree in Vietnam. The lyrical content as you can imagine, is rather absurd and it comes across as unconvincing, a rare Bowie mis-fire that almost threatens to break the spell cast by side one of the album.

However, the passing years have revealed it to be a Bowie curio, as if it’s the last sighting of the ghost of Anthony Newlay and could have been a song written in 1967 for Bowie’s first album.

‘Saviour Machine’ would have been a much better opener for side two. It’s Bowie in sci-fi  mode and predates his decadent rock of ‘Diamond Dogs’. After the character invention of Major Tom, Bowie introduces another character, President Joe, but doesn’t elaborate beyond the first verse when he switches voices and becomes the voice of the machine, warning its creators that obliteration is inevitable.

Apocalyptic science fiction that warned of a coming dystopia was one of the niche strands of popular culture in the early 70s. A popular TV programme called ‘Doomwatch’ reflected the future-shock concerns of technology and how it would affect humanity. The space race seemed to have propelled culture into a new world of uncertainty. Bowie was one of the first voices in pop music to latch onto this.

 ‘She shook me cold’, like ‘Running Gun Blues’ is another Bowie anomaly. Not so much a song, as an exercise in heavy blues riffing that is mostly the invention of the band. Bowie sings about a sexual encounter and then uncharacteristically slips into a braggadocio about breaking the hearts of virgins. The song is another showcase for Ronson’s guitar playing and a chance for the band to stretch out in a jammed section. Bowie seems almost incidental on this track and his lyrics are perfunctory and seem contrived.  This track is probably the closest the listener gets to hearing what Mick Ronson’s idea of his vision for the music is.

The title track ‘The man who sold the world’ remains one of Bowie’s greatest songs and ranks alongside his classics. One thing I’ve always wondered is what the hell is it about?’ The answer, as with all ambiguous lyrics, is whatever you want it to mean.  I view it as a druggy meditation on alienation, a kind of precursor to the ‘girl with the mousy hair’ in ‘Life on Mars’ who is lost in the illusion of a media created universe.

On the other hand, it was an era when some lyric writers were becoming equivocal and some rock songs became almost cabbalistic messages to be interpreted while you sat stoned on the floor of your bedsit. 

(The lyric is apparently inspired by the supernatural themed poem ‘Antigonish’ by William Hughes Mearns )

The album closes with the bombastic ‘The Supermen’, a track that Bowie apparently said to Woody Woodmansey ‘I want it to sound like Cyclops stomping through a village and destroying it!’ Woody was soon to get used to Bowie’s abstract instructions and obliged by suggesting they use some kettle drums that had been left in the studio after an orchestral session.

It was a melodramatic end to a somewhat scatter-gun album, made on the edge of nerves as Bowie left everything until the last possible minute. Tony Visconti related the story of how Bowie only wrote the lyrics and recorded the vocals for the title track only hours before the album went to be mastered. The band up to that point had no idea what Bowie was to sing, or even if he would bother to.

What I like about the album is that it sounds like a record that is as much the band’s album as it is Bowie’s. The unmistakable sonic fingerprints of Mick Ronson especially are all over this album. The drumming is superb, almost free form in places, the influence of Ginger Baker is apparent, and Visconti’s creative bass playing and other musical input make this a joint effort. If we must talk percentage splits, I’d say this is 60 per cent Bowie with the other 40 going to the band. It captures Bowie at a stage in his life where he is prepared to throw all the cards in the air and take them as they land.

‘The man who sold the world’ had been recorded for almost a full year before it came out in Britain. It had its first release in America in late 1970, with a cartoon cover of a cowboy that apparently Bowie had no say in and hated. He arranged for a different cover for the UK release. The record company, Mercury, might have expected a straight forward Bowie with band shot but what they got was Bowie reclining in a chez lounge in a dress. A man’s dress, Bowie would often assert. The record company disapproved of the cover and this is likely the reason the album release was delayed. It came out, and despite some good reviews and the patronage of DJ John Peel on ‘Top Gear’ sank with no trace.  The album suffered from under promotion as the record label has gone cold on Bowie. They were probably expecting another ‘Space Oddity’ but what they got was something totally unlike that album. It was a perverse trend Bowie was to continue throughout the rest of his career.

By the time the album was released, Bowie was re-energised as he now had a new manager who was to have a life changing impact on his life – Tony Defries.

Defries apparently said to Bowie ‘You’re a star and I’ll make you one’ Bowie was in such a frustrated and wound up state that he is said to have cried with relief to have somebody at last who could change the direction of his then flat-lining fortunes. Within months, Defries had negotiated a new record deal for Bowie with RCA. (Bowie already had his next album in the can)

‘The man who sold the world’ captures Bowie at the start of a musical trail that would finally pay off with ‘Ziggy Stardust’ but for now, Bowie had to be content with being an obscure artist who nobody really knew how to market or categorise but most who knew him agreed, it was inevitable that soon his talent would break big.

The Wizard (single, 1965)

In autumn 1965, an 18 year old Marc Bolan put on his Polish sailor coat, his light brown corduroys and his suede boots and did his first photo publicity session with photographer Michael Wedgbury for his first solo single on Decca. His hair is not yet the tumble of corkscrew locks he would become known for. Marc looks every inch the folkie hipster, the beatnik poet, and is ready for the world to fall at his feet. His confidence is already fizzing, his self belief is unshakeable and his destiny is assured. At least in his own mind.  Not long ago, he was Mark Feld, then became Mark Bowland, but then settled on Marc Bolan. He put the ‘c’ in Mark to make himself sound ‘french’, a nod to the symbolist poet Rimbaud, who Marc was hip to. His surname was dreamed up to sound a bit like ‘Dylan’ who was Marc’s idol at that time.  It might also have been nicked from the actor James Bolam, who Bolan was sharing a flat with at the time.  Or, it could have been dreamed up by the publicity department of his record company. Which version is actually true, nobody knows for certain, as Marc was already a supreme fantasist and he came out with increasingly outlandish stories to build a mystique around himself. Marc would hang around the music business pubs of Soho and tell anybody who would listen how he was going to be a massive star. They tolerated him but mostly saw him as just another starry-eyed kid thinking he was going to be the next big thing. His first single ‘The Wizard’ came out and the world was indifferent. It flopped. But it got a handful of good reviews from writers in both Melody Maker and Disc magazines. ‘The Wizard’, for all its naiveté and lack of a chorus, is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of its creator. Marc has already taken on the persona of his imagined poetic alter-ego and this quirky first single release is the first starting point on Marc Bolan’s creative map, that was to become more steeped in fantasy and take many twists and turns in the next five years.

The Third Degree (single, 1966)

Decca stuck with Marc for another single and this time Marc is totally under the Bob Dylan influence, with a song that apes the style of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, a record that had a big impact on him. The stream of consciousness lyric of the Dylan song, with fragmented imagery that seemed random and often took surreal turns is probably the biggest single influence on Marc’s lyric writing. Dylan showed you could put bizarre lyrics into a pop song and make it work. And also, it didn’t have to patronise its audience with simplistic clichés. Dylan’s whole individualistic persona drove Marc to believe that he too, could be a maverick and pursue his own style.  Marc’s voice is not yet the extreme warble, this was to be another stylistic invention but for now, was about a year off as another flop single forced Marc to reconsider his options.

‘Desdemona’ (John’s Children single, 1967)

With no record deal, having being dropped by Decca, Marc sought out somebody in the industry who could help him. Marc contacted manager and pop hustler Simon Napier-Bell to tell him that he was going to be huge and needed someone to arrange it all for him. Legend has it that Napier-Bell a few minutes later heard his door bell ring and there was Marc with his acoustic guitar, he had phoned from a call box just outside his flat. On meeting Marc and listening to his songs, Simon was convinced that Marc was a star in the waiting and booked a studio demo session so he had something to take to record companies. But there were no takers, at least not for now. Simon decided the best option in the meantime was for Marc to join a band he was already managing, the psyche-Mod John’s Children. Marc wrote ‘Desdemona’ for them and uncharacteristically, took a back seat, being a kind of Pete Townshend figure in the band. This was the first airing of the famous Marc ‘warble voice’ as he is heard on the chorus, answering the singer Andy Ellison, in a distinctive voice that sounds strange and extreme in contrast to Ellison’s dead pan very English delivery. ‘Desdemona’ attracted radio play on the pirate radio station Caroline, the hip alternative to BBC radio that was soon to launch Radio One. The BBC banned the single, which Napier-Bell thought would attract adverse publicity, but it in fact just sank the record and Marc Bolan once again must have felt frustrated that he wasn’t yet the big star he hoped he be. ‘Desdemona’ is a remarkable early song; displaying that Marc was developing his own style lyrically and was learning how to integrate pop hooks into his songs. The subject matter was probably too obscure to reach the 60s pop audience, but as Marc realised, Pop was changing and becoming more strange at the edges, with singles like ‘See my friend’ by the Kinks and ‘Arnold Layne’ by Pink Floyd bringing new shapes to Pop. But this was not to be Marc’s time.

‘Debora’  (Tyrannosaurus Rex single, 1968)

John’s Children imploded after a German tour supporting the Who and in June 1967, Marc left them. An attempt to form another band led to a one-off disastrous gig at the Electric Garden and this convinced Marc to stick to being a duo with Steve (Peregrin) Took who initially answered the ad Bolan placed in the Melody Maker. Legend has it that Marc had his electric guitar and amp repossessed by the record label, Track, who owned the equipment. Whether this is true or not is another enigma in the Marc Bolan story. Whatever the truth, Marc and Steve became Tyrannosaurus Rex. It was now well into autumn 1967 and Marc’s new incarnation was in tune with the flower child/hippy vibe of the times. Leaving the brash Mod behind, Marc was now a soft-spoken vegetarian, steeped in the works of Tolkien and Celtic mythology. Marc’s fortunes were to change when producer Tony Visconti was out scouting for talent for the production company he worked for and chanced upon Tyrannosaurus Rex playing the Middle Earth club to a rapt audience, hanging on every strange word of the prophet-like figure sitting cross-legged with Steve Took beside him, bashing bongos, looking cool in wraparound shades. Visconti was struck by the unique aura surrounding Marc and approached them after the gig, offering to produce them. After being given some Bolan bluff (Marc told Visconti that he was about the seventh producer who’d seen them that week and also that John Lennon was interested in signing them to Apple – all pure tosh of course!)  Tyrannosaurus Rex turned up at Visconti’s work place the next day, eager to impress Visconti and more importantly, his boss, Denny Cordell who had the final say. Cordell didn’t know what to make of them but knew the music scene had changed and that freakier sounds were popular, so agreed to sign Tyrannosaurus Rex as their ‘token underground group’. And so began the long road to Marc becoming the star he’d always wanted to be. But for now, Marc would play the role of gentle poet-hippy. Visconti was given a recording budget and soon, he was in the studio with Marc and Steve, recording their first single for their new label, Regal Zonophone. ‘Debora’ might have come across as something of a novelty single when it was released, as it was so unusual and it seemed only DJ John Peel understood Marc’s music. Peel was essential in spreading the word about Tyrannosaurus Rex. He became friends with Marc and generously promoted Marc’s releases all through the late 60s, even when people were laughing at Tyrannosaurus Rex and that ‘bleating Larry the Lamb’ voice as some critics called Marc’s singing.

‘Debora’ is the template for the more commercial side of Marc’s songwriting. It is structured around a simple three chords and it is in the unusual key of B flat. This is because Marc put a capo on the third fret of his guitar and played it as a G shape. This use of capo was something Marc did often in Tyrannosaurus Rex. It enabled him to get different tones and to transcribe his rudimentary chording to other keys. ‘Debora’ is also the first real song on which Marc displays his talent for a catchy melody. And the fantasy lyrics took on new poetic blends, with words that sounded good together, almost anarchic in their defiance of rules of syntax and language generally. ‘Debora’ even managed to nearly make the top thirty singles charts, stalling at number 34. It wasn’t a big smash hit, but it was enough to give Marc a new creative energy. It must have spurred him to realise that his weird songs could reach a wider pop audience. However, the next few years would prove to be frustrating, as singles-wise, Tyrannosaurus Rex repeatedly (except for the follow up to ‘Debora’, ‘One inch rock’ got to number 24 in the singles charts) see their singles quickly disappear. For now, Tyrannosaurus Rex remained a fringe curio.

‘Salamanda Palaganda’ (album track: ‘My people were fair and had sky in their hair, but now they’re content to wear stars on their brows’, 1968)

Even at his most lyrically dense with unintelligible vocal phrasing, there is always a strong pop sensibility. This song demonstrates that even with an acoustic guitar and bongos, Marc Bolan played with a rock dynamic and that he understood the power of a catchy chorus. The frantic pace of the song might be described as kind of Pixie Folk Punk. Almost impossible to categorise, even Marc’s own label didn’t know what kind of genre to put Tyrannosaurus Rex in. Comparisons with the Incredible String Band – as they were briefly compared to – don’t even come close to the freaky weirdness of Marc Bolan’s songs.  Daytime radio DJs remained baffled but despite their only patronage coming from John Peel, Tyrannosaurus Rex incredibly made a respectable chart placing with the ‘My People Were Fair’ album, rising to number 15, staying on the charts for nine weeks. Not bad at all for a duo that most promoters didn’t want John Peel to bring with him when he did DJ road shows.

‘Chariots of Silk’ (album track, ‘Unicorn’)

By 1969, Visconti was a much better producer, having been a novice working his way with studio equipment; now he was getting closer to perfecting his recording techniques. Working with other artists such as folk-rock band the Strawbs, helped Visconti become a more confident and skillful producer. Tyrannosaurus Rex were now close to their final days and within a year after this album, Bolan would be on a new musical path with a new musical partner but for now, he was content to play the fairy queen’s poet troubadour. ‘Chariots of Silk’ shows a newer dense production and Marc’s words perfectly blending in to become part of the musical soundscape, rather than a thing in themselves. Marc was now a well-established stylist of his own genre; his songs sounded like nobody else’s and this song has that strange other-worldly quality that permeates a lot of his songs in Tyrannosaurus Rex. Again, the chording is simple and the melodic flair shown on ‘Debora’ is evident. Marc had such a knack for writing catchy melodies it sounded like songs just poured out of him like water from a tap. He was a natural talent, albeit one that was yet to find his place and his wider audience.

‘Cat black’  (album track ‘Unicorn’)

Marc may have been playing the mystical hippy, but his real heart was into rock n roll and the doo-wop music of the fifties and early sixties and Phil Spector too. ‘Cat Black’ takes one of Marc’s favourite chord sequences – C-Am-F-G and hangs it around one of his densest and imagery packed fantasy poems. I cite this song also because Marc wrote many songs in this chord sequence, it was something he considered magical and he always said he could write ‘ a million songs’ around this sequence. The ‘doo wop’ chord sequence became something that Marc was most associated with, right up to the end of his life, when he revisited it one last time on ‘Dandy in the Underworld’.

‘She was born to be my unicorn’ (album track, ‘Unicorn’, 1969)

The ‘Unicorn’ album is widely regarded as being something of a creative peak for Tyrannosaurus Rex with Steve Took, and given the quality of songs on it and Visconti’s bigger production sound, it’s hard to disagree. ‘She was born to be my unicorn’ is built around a drone and has one of Marc’s most beguiling melodies and richest lyrical imagery, blending words in fascinating combinations that defy meaning or interpretation. Bolan’s approach to lyric writing was a stream of consciousness and he was uninhibited in trusting the words to just pour out of him; the effect was strangely shamanic. The atmosphere of the song is as if Phil Spector met Bilbo Baggins and decided to make a record. If that sounds bizarre, it goes to show what a struggle it is to define this song and its sound. What is more, you can hear Marc Bolan edging closer to composing crafted pop melodies and it was only a matter of time before his own brand of cosmic pop became the mainstream norm.

‘King of the rumbling spires’ (single, 1969)

Sometime after recording the ‘Unicorn’ album, Marc started to experiment with electric guitar, something he hadn’t done since John’s Children. Perhaps egged on by Steve Took to get ‘heavier’, Marc recorded this one off song that is a hint of the electric T.Rex to come. The song is important because it uses a similar descending note riff as Marc later used on ‘Metal Guru’. Although this track is very different to that later T.Rex classic, it is nevertheless linked to it in the guitar riff stylings. Marc had also acquired a wah wah pedal, and this is an effect he would use for the next few years. Marc’s electric playing developed quickly and he styled his own unique guitar riffs and solos, often as melodic and as hook-laden as his vocal melodies. Marc also played a kind of skewed blues, with notes that took unexpected turns. Never a technically accomplished player, he went for dynamics and feel over anything flash and ‘fast’. His main electric guitar at this time was a Fender Stratocaster, doubtless a guitar Marc chose in honour of his then guitar idol and musician, Jimi Hendrix.

After this single, Marc parted company with Steve Took, whose drug taking lifestyle clashed with Marc’s clean-living lifestyle, as he was so focused on the music and determined to stay away from all the negative trappings that many musicians fall into. Marc now had a very solid and steadying influence in his life – June Child, who Marc was to marry the following year. She was very good for Marc, acting as an informal manager and adviser as well as his lover and partner. With June’s total faith in Marc, he now had extra wind to his sails. But by the end of the 60s, Marc was frustrated that he was still lingering in the underground, a regular on John Peel’s show, but really no further on.

‘Dove’ (album track, ‘A Beard of Stars’)

After the problems with Steve Took, Marc was now of the opinion he didn’t want to get embroiled with anyone who may have expected to be an equal to him. Hence, the appointing of Mickey Finn, the new percussionist recommended by photographer Pete Sanders, a friend of June Child. The chemistry between Marc and Mickey was right – Mickey was easy going, agreeable and generally went along with what Marc wanted and more importantly, accepted that Tyrannosaurus Rex was about Marc and his songs. He also brought a new visual dimension as June said ‘they looked amazing together’. So, after a week rehearsing in a cottage in Wales, Finn was in the studio with Marc for the latest album. ‘A Beard of Stars’ can be seen as the stylistic bridge from Tyrannosaurus Rex to T.Rex. Marc was still steeped in mysticism but his songs were now being shaped into a more pop format. He even started to write pretty straightforward love songs inspired by June. ‘Dove’ is a beautiful vignette, like a love poem set to music, its gently lilting melody one of Marc’s best from this period. His songwriting was now becoming more refined and edging closer towards pure pop. His electric guitar playing has his own unique signature. The use of the Stratocaster, with a slight echo on it, recalls the clean tones of Elvis guitarist Scotty Moore. This clean, trebly sound was characteristic of this album.

‘By the light of a magical moon’ (single and album track, 1970)

With ‘A Beard of Stars’ Marc was newly energised but surely must have felt deflated when this lead off single from the album failed to change Marc’s chart fortunes. It’s a new Marc Bolan, sounding confident and comfortable in his musical skin, now honing his melodies into something that might attract more radio play. It was as if Marc was leaving behind the hippy dippy-ness of Tyrannosaurus Rex but wasn’t quite sure how far to take it. He was yet to find his younger audience as ‘A Beard of Stars’ was mostly bought by the older heads that got into Marc through John Peel. The new bopping Marc was noted by the Melody Maker’s Chris Welch, who was one of the few journalists, along with Penny Valentine, who sensed that Marc’s fortunes would soon change for the better. The next single, and an abbreviated name to T.Rex was to prove that Marc’s long years of relative obscurity were soon to be behind him.

‘Ride a white swan’ (Single, 1970)

1970 was a weird year and something of a downer. The Beatles split, pop music seemed in the doldrums and it was albums that most serious musicians were concentrating on. Pop was seen as something vacuous and lacking in credibility. There was a new generation of musicians who turned their noses up at Top of the Pops, some, like Led Zeppelin, didn’t even bother to release singles. Marc Bolan was to break away from this rather snobbish mentality and usher in a new age of pop as ‘Ride a white swan’ became his first big hit. It didn’t happen quickly. The record took an agonising 11 weeks before it showed in the top twenty but then swiftly moved up to number two. Marc’s chance to shine had come. Visconti too, who had shared in Marc’s aspirations and frustrations, was rightly vindicated as it being his success too. Visconti has said that when it reached number two, they were both ‘floating off the ground for about a week’.

So what was it about ‘Ride a white swan’ that made it that special record that broke big?

The timing, for one thing. There was a back to roots feeling in music with bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Canned Heat bringing a raw and direct approach back to music. These bands used rudimentary chordings and rejected the more prosaic aspects of pop music since ‘Sgt. Pepper’. Audiences were now up for having a good time at gigs, the age of hippies sitting stoned on the floor was passing. Besides, a lot of them were growing up and getting married and snapping out of their utopian delusions.  It was a sense of an era passing. The party that was the 60s was over. There was now a post-60s generation who were too young for the Beatles, Dylan and the Stones, and were ready for their own pop heroes to emerge. ‘Ride a white swan’ captured a wave that was coming; a wave that was not yet named. Elton John in his autobiography tells of how he heard ‘Ride a white swan’ and felt it ‘came out of nowhere and it sounded like nothing else’.  Dave Hill of Slade also said in an interview that he remembers hearing it and it sounded fresh and exciting.

Everything about the song is catchy; the melody, the guitar riff and the guitar solo itself. And then the sing-along play-out of the ‘da-de-de-dah’ refrain. It was essentially a twelve bar. There seemed nothing to it, like the answer had been staring Marc in the face all along: keep it simple, keep it catchy and look back to rock n roll for your inspiration. As Visconti has said, Marc by-passed the 60s and made music that harked back to the rock n roll of the 50s. But it was executed with a post-psychedelic mind-set, nobody in the 50s would have written songs about riding a white swan ‘like the people of the beltane’. The 70s had begun with Marc Bolan ushering in a new movement. But even he had no idea at this point just how much bigger he was going to become.

‘Beltane Walk’ (album track, 1970)

‘Ride a white swan’ preceded the new T.Rex album, simply called ‘T.Rex’. Yet, the track wasn’t on the album. Marc made the decision to release singles as a thing in themselves, to give more value to his new-found audience. It proved to be a smart move as from now on, T.Rex singles were something of a gift for fans. ‘Beltane Walk’ was not a single, but it’s a track that shows the new Bolan pop sensibility perfectly.  Visconti was now adding strings to most of Marc’s songs and this became something of a superstition, as both believed it was the magic ingredient that may have made the songs more radio friendly. ‘Beltane Walk’ is a song that is the template for the new pop Marc; it revolves around a twelve bar verse that then goes into the early 60s pop chord sequence of C-Am-F-G.  This gave Marc’s songs a vaguely nostalgic feel, as if they’d been around for years, but somehow sounded fresh and original.

‘The Time of love is now’ (album track, T.Rex, 1970)

The T.Rex ‘brown album’ had many good Bolan songs on it and this over-looked gem is one of them. The spare accompaniment of acoustic guitar and hand percussion allows the melody to shine and the harmonic movements are so unlike anything Marc had used before. The lyrics reveal a more stripped back approach, without the dense imagery of previous Tyrannosaurus Rex songs. The T.Rex album still had elements of previous albums, but the new economy and directness of Marc’s songs was a tentative bridge to what T.Rex would eventually become on  ‘Electric Warrior’, the album after this one.

‘Jewel’ (album track, T.Rex, 1970)

The Bolan boogie sound was already there on tracks like this, it just lacked the dynamics of having a drummer behind it. ‘Jewel’ is a song that Marc styled around a riff that is a prototype of the riff he would use for ‘20th Century Boy’ three years later and has a Hendrix type manic guitar break in it that shows Marc is becoming more and more accomplished as an electric guitarist. Essentially, ‘Jewel’ is another 12 bar structure, Marc was obviously searching for a pop rock style that he could inhabit. More and more, Marc Bolan the rock ‘n’ roller was coming out and was soon to become the ‘Electric Warrior’ of T.Rex. This particular track is more Tyrannosaurus Rex and would not have been out of place on the ‘Beard of Stars’ album, the lyrics still steeped in Tolkienesque fantasy. Soon though, Marc was to leave all this behind and enter a new phase.

‘Hot Love’  (single, 1971)

As ‘Ride a white swan’ lingered in the top 20 well into early 1971, Marc had to think of a fitting and strong follow up. There was no way he was going to let his moment slip away from him. ‘Hot love’ more than did the trick. It reached number one in the second week of its release and it was the start of a massively successful next three years. ‘Hot Love’ was conceived, according to Marc, as a ‘bopping song’. He and Visconti pulled out of the bag almost every pop trick they could think of. The riff recalls the Beach Boys ‘California Girls’ and the beat is a hand claps on the snare drum bounce, giving it an insistent and very danceable rhythm. Marc sings in a close-mic’d intimacy that makes it sound like he is singing right into your ear.  His guitar playing is great, with an interval that recalls ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and an atmosphere that conjures a potent rock n roll spell. Then, for the first time on a T.Rex single and another essential production ingredient is the backing vocals of Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman. The record plays out on an extended sing-along ‘la la la’ coda. It was perfect pop heaven, made all the more alluring with Visconti’s bigger string section arrangement. T.Rex was now a four piece rock band with the addition of drummer Bill Legend and bass player Steve Currie.  They were now a touring band, born out of necessity more than anything. The new fuller sounding T.Rex needed those rock dynamics that had been missing from the T.Rex album. Suddenly, it all fell into place: Marc’s face was all over teen magazines and his appearance on Top of the Pops with glitter powder brushed under his eyes is generally called the moment when Glam rock was born. Marc never called it that himself, but he took on the role with gusto, becoming more and more flamboyant.

‘Get it on’ (single, 1971)

By mid 1971, T.Rex were now the hottest ticket in town and Marc Bolan the new pop superstar. Marc took to his new fame in a way that made it look he was born to do this. And in his mind, he was. Critics however started to snipe that Marc had sold out from his underground days and sold his credibility to the uncool disgrace of being on Top of the Pops.  John Peel, a solid supporter of Marc, now withdrew his support, calling ‘Get it on’ silly cock rock. Marc was understandably upset but had no time to look back and regret anything. He was exactly where he wanted to be and he was still in the honeymoon period with his new pop audience. John Peel was wrong. ‘Get it on’ is a sublime record and it’s long since been recognised as a pop rock classic. Marc manages to fuse his coolest lyrics with another great T.Rex groove. T.Rex records were ones you could dance to and also, if you were more into rock n roll thrills, ‘Get it on’ had everything in spades. Musically, it could be every Chuck Berry song as much as it could be something by Howlin’ Wolf but it is unmistakably Marc Bolan. The chords on the chorus move up to G and A and are a master class in tension and release. The added subtle thing not widely known, is that the A on the chorus is an unconventional A minor chord. It’s just that you can’t hear it under the lush production. Visconti and the whole band really excel on this track. It was the first peak of Marc’s popularity and it was also a first creative peak too.  Marc Bolan and T.Rex had become a band with staying power and ‘Get it on’ was the third ace in Marc’s incredible year. He was now unstoppable and undeniably a pop original who brought back rock n roll excitement, making Pop cool again.

‘Raw Ramp’ (b-side of ‘Get it on’, 1971)

Any critic who thought that Marc’s melodies are slight, might like to listen to the opening part of this three section song. The opening is a melody that extends over 16 bars, changing and moving across two different keys before finally landing in an unresolved harmonic shift that leaves it hanging in the air. It comes across as a piece of songwriting that Marc didn’t quite finish, it could be that the song was used to lead into another track, like the Beatles did on their ‘Abbey Road’ medley that had different bits of songs stitched together. After this, the drums come in and we’re into a classic piece of sexy Bolan boogie. Essentially, it’s a different song but it works as a follow on and then takes another twist before it ends and resurfaces in another song fragment: ‘Electric boogie’. This last part of the song is like a super fuzzed up ‘Get it on’ with Marc playing some great guitar on the extended play out.  That this track was left off ‘Electric Warrior’ is a remarkable testimony to the strength of and wealth of material that Marc had stock piled. As Tony Visconti has said ‘Marc was on fire’ and that fire was a long way off showing any signs of diminishing.

‘Cosmic Dancer’ (album track, ‘Electric Warrior’, 1971)

With T.Rex now having two number one singles behind them and two number twos, ‘Electric Warrior’ was an eagerly anticipated album. It finally arrived in September 1971, recorded in the frenzy and chaos of success and touring. Visconti had to follow Marc and T.Rex on tour to capture the new songs. Marc had been writing and writing since ‘Ride a white swan’ had been a hit. He was never short of songs, keeping a lyric book in his pocket that he would pull out, leaf through and then decide which songs they were going to record.  ‘Cosmic Dancer’ is one of Marc’s finest songs and it is one of the many highlights on the classic ‘Electric Warrior’ album. The lyrics are strange and haunting. Marc is now self-mythologising his life and sings about dancing out of the womb and then into the tomb. It is a lyric that would take on a chilling significance later of course. The song was one that Marc had no fixed idea what to do with, so he left it to Tony Visconti who arranged the most rich and complex string parts on a Marc Bolan song to date. It gave the track a quality that elevated the song to another level of sophistication. The chord sequence is a circular one, with Marc crafting one of his best melodies on a song that has no chorus and this makes it all the more intriguing as it unfolds in a mesmerising loop. The acoustic songs became a highlight of T.Rex albums and showed – as if it was needed to be shown- that Marc was a writer who had depth and another side to his more rock ‘n’ roll songs. He was a songwriter who could come up with a great tune and atmosphere, but was never really given credit in the same way that contempories Elton John and Cat Stevens were. His lyrics were often dismissed as being glib and pretentious. But Marc Bolan couldn’t be anyone else than Marc Bolan. His originality was often overlooked and his flamboyant image detracted from his talent. It would take critics another ten years before they fully understood Marc for the one-off talent he was and that was sadly an accolade that Marc didn’t get at the time of his big success.

‘Jeepster’ (album track, ‘Electric Warrior’, lifted for single, 1971)

Recorded in New York when the band were on a tour of America, ‘Jeepster’ is one of the most exciting rock ‘n’ roll records T.Rex made. It captures the energy and ecstasy of Marc Bolan surfing a wave of popularity and emanates total confidence. It even has the authentic sound of Marc stomping his feet and dancing as the band recorded it. The lyrics have some great Bolan couplets. ‘You slide so good, with bones so fair, you’ve got the universe reclining in your hair’ is a potent mixture of Marc’s lyrical fusing of sexy come-hither imagery and his more poetic mythological side. The use of car imagery as sexual metaphor was another lyrical motif that cropped up in his lyrics at the time. The riff is a lift from Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘You’ll Be Mine’ and Marc places it in a setting where it is off-set by an unusual chord progression for the chorus, which shifts from A on the verses to a descending riff starting in C, giving it a gothic strangeness. Marc’s guitar fills on this track are superb, punctuating each verse with a spontaneous energy, giving the whole track the feel that it wasn’t laboured over too much. In fact, this is true. Marc wanted to capture the spark and excitement of early rock n roll records and had a pathological aversion to doing too many takes of a song. It was an approach that produced some great exciting records, but it also frustrated the rhythm section of the band who were expected to fly in the moment. Fortunately, it is a tribute to their skill that they were mostly able to go along with Marc’s instant groove attitude. This T.Rex track is also notable because you can clearly hear Mickey Finn’s conga playing in the mix, giving T.Rex a funky ethnic swing. As much as anything, it shows that Mickey was an essential part of the T.Rex sound at this point, as he was often unfairly typecast as being surplus to musical requirements. ‘Jeepster’ is another classic, and was only kept off the top of the singles chart by a silly novelty record, which was often the curse for a lot of artists in the 70s.

‘Life’s a gas’ (album track and b-side, 1971)

Another great Bolan ballad is this under three minutes gem, that proved to be such a popular song on ‘Electric Warrior’ it was taken off it for the b-side to the single ‘Jeepster’, a move that Marc disapproved of at the time, but his record contract with Fly was about to run out and his company were milking his success for every last pound they could. ‘Life’s a Gas’ is the song on ‘Electric Warrior’ that DJ and recent friend of Marc’s Bob Harris said ‘was as good as a Beatles song’. He thought Marc was ‘terribly underrated as a talent’ and at last, Marc had someone on radio on his side. Whether it is as good as a Beatles song is beside the point, this pretty love ballad is one of Marc’s most poignant songs that has a mass appeal to it, although as with all songs of Marc’s it is anything but a conventional love song lyric, with lines like ‘ I could have loved you girl like a planet/I could have chained your heart to a star’ are lines that could only come from the cosmic imagination of Marc Bolan. Most of the song’s appeal is in its simplicity but as any songwriter will tell you, writing a simple song that reaches millions of people is the hardest thing to achieve. By now, Marc was making it look like the easiest thing to do, so natural was his talent.

‘Rip off’ (album track, ‘Electric Warrior’)

Unlike any other song or track in his back catalogue, ‘Rip off’ is such an oddity, it’s hard to pitch where the influence for this song comes from. It finishes the ‘Electric Warrior’ album in a mad energy rush, with a break beat from Bill Legend leading into a power chord thrash that is discordant in its harmonic sequence, not rooting itself to any real key. Over the top of this, Marc raps lyrical couplets that spin off in the manic surreal manner of the music.  Nothing makes sense. Marc is ‘caught like a skunk in space and time’ and ‘rocking in the nude, feeling such a dude’ and the whole effect is like the kind of spontaneous beat poems that Allen Ginsberg used to perform. It’s Marc at his most inspired, Marc perhaps cracking up with the pressures of fame, Marc losing his grip on reality. It’s perhaps the ‘ rock n roll madness’ that Marc’s friend Pete (Beep) Fallon talked about when it came to T.Rex fan mania. ‘Rip off’ showed that just when you think you’ve neatly categorised Marc Bolan’s musical style, he throws the weirdest of curve balls as this song is.

‘Metal Guru’  (single, 1972)

After another number one with ‘Telegram Sam’, the first release on Marc’s new T.Rex Hot Wax label, Marc hit another peak with this song, which is not really a conventional song as such, more an extended series of hooks that breathlessly unfold like a rollercoaster ride you can’t get off and don’t want to end. It’s Marc Bolan’s distinct weird pop fused with Visconti’s greatest production to date. The doomy gothic sounding riff subtly underpinned with saxes and cellos, the layered guitars and soaring backing vocals make this one of his most thrilling records.  It’s Bolan and Visconti piling on the production tricks and pulling off a rock pop classic that is their own ‘wall of sound’ echoing the melodramatic energy of Spector’s ‘River deep, mountain high’. This was Marc’s last number one single and although there were plenty more highs to come, he’d never reach such dizzying heights as on ‘Metal Guru’.

‘Thunderwing’ (one of the b-side songs to ‘Metal Guru’)

Did Marc waste songs on b-sides? This track could have been another A-side or a great album track but such was Marc’s determination to stick to his ‘two songs on the b-side’ policy, he often put songs on b-sides that could have benefitted from being better placed. ‘Thunderwing’ is a quality Bolan song, its riff made heavier with a sax line that gives it a soulful Memphis Horns feel.  The tune is another catchy hook with a nursery rhyme simplicity and the whole song sounds like a party in the studio, with Marc and the band on top form. It’s also got a great hooky guitar solo that perfectly compliments the song.

‘Sunken Rags’ (one of two b-side tracks, single: ‘Children of the revolution’, 1972)

A song that was about a year old, as Marc had donated a demo version to the Glastonbury Fayre double album in 1971; he re-recorded this electric full band band version for another great b-side. The lyric takes an oblique swipe at his critics, ‘It’s a shame, it’s sunken rags, the way you play me down’, and it’s another quality song confined to the flip side of another great T.Rex single. The song moves through some snakey changes that gives it a slight edge of menace, with Marc bringing something fresh to his usual 12 bar boogie.

‘The Slider’ (album track, 1972)

1972 was a euphoric year for Marc Bolan but it also had its down sides. He had to go to court to issue an injunction against his old manager (Napier-Bell) to stop him releasing demo recordings Marc had made way back in 1967. These eventually did surface as ‘The Beginning of Doves’ album a few years later. He also had his previous record label reissuing and repackaging his Tyrannosaurus Rex albums as double packs. Not to mention another compilation, ‘Bolan Boogie’ that was released in May of that year. The market became flooded with Marc Bolan material and this doubtless stole some of the sales for his new album of that year, ‘The Slider’.  It got to number 4 in the album charts, not doing as well as ‘Electric Warrior’ and of course, this was a chance for Marc’s critics to snipe about Marc’s decline in popularity. Despite the misgivings of some critics, ‘The Slider’ was a very consistent album and strong follow up to ‘ Electric Warrior’. It has some of Marc’s best songs on it and it has Marc at the peak of his creative powers with the T.Rex sound now firmly established and with some new production tricks. The title track ‘The Slider’ is Marc Bolan in Syd Barrett mode, fusing a boogie riff with another classic Bolan tune and lyrics that are playful and surreal.  Sure, structure wise, the song is nothing different from Marc, but it shows that he has refined his style and is now supremely confident in his writing.

‘Mystic Lady’ (album track, The Slider 1972)

A lovely mellow vibe emanates from this well crafted song that shows Marc’s songwriting is developing into a new maturity. It also has a wistful melancholy about it that reveals Marc’s vulnerable state of mind, even though he cloaks it in fantasy. The melody is another superb Marc creation and this would have made a great and very different single if it has been released after ‘ Metal Guru’.

‘Ballrooms of Mars’ (album track, The Slider, 1972)

The whole of the Slider album was recorded and mixed in 17 days according to Tony Visconti. One of the most satisfying tracks was the haunting ‘Ballrooms of Mars’. With a slap back echo on his voice and a chord sequence that foreshadows the descending chordings of Lennon’s ‘Mind Games’, ‘Ballrooms of Mars’ is something different from Marc Bolan. It also has some of his darkest lyrics, with a spooked ambience that makes the track all the more compelling. The verses are bookended by manic guitaring that are different guitar takes blended together. His electric guitar playing was now coming more to the fore, as Marc started to become exploratory as a player. This was a hit and miss approach as Marc didn’t have the patience nor the inclination to spend too much time on guitar overdubs. For now though, he was getting the balance just right and moreso than ‘Electric Warrior’, Marc’s guitar is definitely heavier on ‘The Slider’, as demonstrated on ‘Buick Mackane’ that revolves around a heavy blues riff, a style he would revisit for ‘Children of the Revolution’ later in the year.

‘20th Century Boy’ (single, 1973)

If the single before this – ‘Solid Gold Easy Action’  – had some critics thinking that Marc was now putting out glib, substandard material, ’20th Century Boy’ was a great comeback single. In some ways, it’s the natural follow up to ‘Metal Guru’ as it has a great driving energy in common with that track. Recorded in Tokyo in December 1972 when T.Rex did a short tour there, it is another T.Rex classic. The record is thrilling high energy from its opening bars to its manic wailing sax fade out and it has a fuller and heavier sound than previous singles, with soaring soulful vocals by Gloria Jones and Pat Hall. ‘20th Century boy’ is one of Marc Bolan’s most enduring tracks and is a master class in how to fuse an almost punk energy (it wasn’t for no reason that the song was covered later by Siouxsie and the Banshees) with elements of rock and soul.

‘Electric Slim and the Factory Hen’ (album track, Tanx, 1973)

Despite lawsuits and increasing critical maulings, Marc kept up his prolific song output so much that by August of 1972, only four months or so after finishing ‘The Slider’, Marc and T.Rex were back in the studio recording more new songs with another album in mind. The sessions that became ‘Tanx’ were by all accounts more relaxed than before and Marc was eager to get down new songs he had written in another fevered creative outpouring. ‘Electric Slim’ is something different from T.Rex, with a funky shuffle and a chording that uses a major seventh as its main musical motif. The feel is more mellow and for Marc Bolan, is a more soulful style, not as in soul music, but open-ended groove music, not so landlocked by a chord sequence. Marc would have been wise to pursue this new-found groove but as it is, ‘Electric Slim’ stands out as a one-off.

‘Highway Knees’  (album track ‘Tanx’, 1973)

Making records with Marc was now a well-oiled machine for Tony Visconti and it became relatively easy to set up what he called ‘the T.Rex sound’.  On ‘Tanx’ however, Visconti continued to find new textures to bring to that sound and it yielded some great results, like this track on which he plays Mellotron. ‘Highway Knees’ is again, something different from Marc Bolan. Despite what critics said, Marc was refining his style and attaining a new found maturity and the only review that recognised this was in the Rolling Stone magazine in which it declared that song for song, this was the best T.Rex album. Meanwhile, the British music press continued their hatchet job on Marc Bolan and the ‘Tanx’ album was received as being not as strong as its predecessors. This is just not true; there is plenty on ‘Tanx’ that holds up to the best Bolan songs, and ‘Highway Knees’ with its bittersweet melody and its groove is another under appreciated classic in Marc’s song legacy.

Venus Loon’ (album track, ‘Zinc Alloy’, 1974)

After a magnificent single in ‘20th Century Boy’ in Spring 1973 that got to number three, and a top five hit with ‘Groover’ in June of 1973, Marc got to thinking of his next musical move. He declared that ‘Groover’ would be the last single with that T.Rex sound, which even fans could hear, had already ran its course. Evidence that even the fans were tired of the T.Rex formula came in late ’73 when the one off single ‘Truck On (Tyke)’ failed to make the top ten. Critics were now really down on Marc and it was taken for granted that soon, he would be taking a long slide back to obscurity. Marc retaliated by talking up his next musical move, which would be ‘Interstellar Soul’. The problem was, Marc was not in a mental state to commit himself to a new direction that would take time and energy. According to Tony Visconti, when it came to making the album, Marc said ‘one more for the kids’, which frustrated Visconti as he knew Marc could do something really different if he would only follow his ideas through. A lot was changing in Marc’s life. His marriage to June was about to end (although they never actually got fully divorced) as he embarked on an affair with singer and musician Gloria Jones. Sessions for the ‘Zinc Alloy’ album were tense, with Marc’s ego and behavior made worse by drink and drugs (Cognac and Cocaine to be precise)

However, the ‘Zinc Alloy’ album is not as bad as critics of the time made it out to be. It is often called a ‘scrappy and unfocussed album’ but, like the Beatles ‘white album’ this is what makes it one of Marc’s more interesting albums. It is the sound of an artist trying to find another musical avenue to explore without totally losing the essence of what made him so popular in the first place.

‘Venus Loon’ has all the coked up manic energy that Marc was running on. The female backing vocals are more to the fore, giving the track and the album, a funky soul flavour. Visconti scored strings that swoop and dive like on O’Jays records. The song itself used familiar Marc Bolan structures, but with a few added twists to keep it interesting. The potent mixture of rock and soul sets the album off to a thrilling start.

The Avengers (Superbad)  (Album track, ‘Zinc Alloy’, 1974)

A funky T.Rex on this track, tucked away on side two of ‘Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow’ and a much over-looked track in the Bolan canon. Stylistically, Marc takes the boogie and funks it up and the result is a track close to the funk and rock fusion of Funkadelic. One headline at the time in the music press was ‘Bolan gets the funk’, which at least acknowledged that there is a new direction being explored on this album. As producer Tony Visconti has remarked, if Marc wanted to make an ‘interstellar soul’ album, he maybe needed a whole new band and new setting. As it is, this track is a tantalising glimpse of how much funkier the ‘Zinc Alloy’ album could have been.

(Whatever happened to the) Teenage Dream? (single and album track, 1974)

A surprising and different single at the time, ‘Teenage Dream’ is like the Tyrannosaurus Rex song ‘Cat Black’ updated for the 70s Glam generation. It’s a fitting lament to an era that was already on the fade. Glam was now something Marc had left behind, yet he seemed at the same time trapped in that era, unable to totally shake off his Glam image. On the other hand, you could never imagine Marc dressing down in denim like someone out of Status Quo. Marc just couldn’t do ‘ordinary bloke’. For the first time on a T.Rex single, Marc didn’t sound ebullient and celebratory, he sounded rather like he was jaded and resigned to his fate. The lyric mixes the personal with the mythological, and manages to name check Pope Paul and the Silver Surfer on the way. It was a fantastic Bolan lyrical mash of the real and the unreal and one of the best lyrics he ever wrote.

The song has a production which is overblown, with strings that almost sound like the soundtrack to a western film, but elevates the song to a kind of melodramatic pathos, a truthful mirror that shows even Marc is aware that this glory years are over, even if he wasn’t yet facing up to it.

‘Teenage Dream’ was Visconti’s swan song as Marc’s producer too and it is fitting to end this article on a high as Marc’s best work was when he had Tony Visconti as his musical soundboard and mentor. Sure, Marc went on to make some interesting material after this era, with the odd great single, but he never again reached the stellar creative heights of his classic years with Visconti and also, the underrated contributions of the original T.Rex line up, who gave so much to help make Marc’s songs great. Let us not forget that Marc was not the only factor in his success story. Sure, he was the star and main man, but he had a great supporting cast too.

Bowie’s 70s were a warp speed blur of amazing shape-shifting and creative re-invention. Anybody who was a fan in that decade knew that when it came to Bowie, expect the unexpected. Apart from Roxy Music, Bowie was the only mainstream artist in that decade who really pushed his boat out into increasingly new and thrilling waters. By the mid-70s however, Bowie was a physical wreck. He had driven himself to the brink of self-destruction and was a chronic cocaine addict and was living mostly on nervous energy.

One of the astonishing and uncomfortable truths about Bowie is that his drug intake didn’t diminish his creative powers. If anything, a case can be made that his mammoth appetite for drugs increased his questing persona.  Coupled with a diet of peppers and milk, many people around him were concerned about his health at this time. Bowie for now remained oblivious, having just come out of his first acting role in ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’, which if anything, only enhanced his other-worldly charisma.

Bowie was commissioned to write the soundtrack for that film but his efforts were rejected and the soundtrack commission went to somebody else. Bowie blamed his new lawyer/manager Michael Lippman for this, and so began a breaking up of that relationship, with an expensive lawsuit that would almost bankrupt Bowie over the next few years. The rejection of his soundtrack music made Bowie really angry, but it didn’t go to waste as some of it was used to form the instrumental side of the album after this, ‘Low’.

The recording sessions for ‘Station to Station’ Bowie claims he can’t remember. ‘I was completely out of my gourd’ he said later. But it’s apparent that in these sessions, he was really committed and focused as the musical results are startling and Bowie was to deliver another classic album, one that stands among his best albums of that incredible decade. Bowie produced this album with Harry Maslin in the role of co-producer and it was recorded in the relatively low key Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles.

‘Station to Station’ arrived in a cold January of 1976 and was a new departure for Bowie. There is nothing of the slick and glossily produced grooves of the previous album, ‘Young Americans’ on ‘Station to Station’.  Bowie opted to make what he called ‘a dry album’ that resisted the more radio friendly reverb of his previous release. It’s a funky album too, but the funk is brittle and has an almost robotic drive to it. However, it’s far from a spaced out android album as Bowie produces some of his most emotional and convincing vocals on this record.

So, how can a man caked out of his skull on cocaine possibly make such a focused artistic statement?

Part of the answer can probably found in his strong supporting team on this album. Namely guitarist Carlos Alomar, together with bassist George Murray and drummer Dennis Davis who managed to help Bowie craft the compelling title track from the separate sections of music he had in mind. Alomar had long since got used to Bowie’s method of working, bringing in song fragments and ideas he left to be developed in the studio. Alomar admitted in one interview that although he got used to it, this was still a very haphazard way of working but fortunately, after a few hours of scratching their heads, the musicians eventually got there and Bowie was adept at shaping phrases into songs.  Guitarist Earl Slick also joined the usual Bowie band to give the album a rock edge – something that Bowie could not quite yet give up, even though he said in an interview at the time that ‘rock n roll is embarrassing, it’s like a toothless old woman’.

‘Station to Station’ you can tell, is a result of this ‘happenstance’ approach to writing. The song has three distinct parts to it, the weird chord shifting ‘The return of the thin white duke’ verses into the ‘once there were mountains’ shift of gear, galloping into ‘It’s not the side effects of the cocaine’ section. All of this is stitched together in a way that is seamless and amounts to one of the most mesmerising opening tracks on any Bowie album. The lyrics are oblique and peppered with occult references. It’s a mirror of Bowie’s time in Los Angeles, when he was so out of his head on cocaine – and probably keeping some strange company – he was suffering paranoid delusions and became obsessed with the Nazi links to the occult as well as esoteric teachings of the Kabbalah. During this period, Bowie took to wearing a crucifix as a symbol to ward off dark forces. This goes to show just what a paranoid nervous wreck he’d become.

Yes, it’s safe to say he was extremely psychically disturbed when he came to make this album, but it’s far from the rantings of a mind on the verge of a break down. If anything, Bowie sings like he is totally in control of his nervous faculties.

‘Golden Years’ started as a two chord vamp on the piano that apparently Carlos Alomar said ‘but that’s On Broadway, David!’ and Bowie, being a master magpie, shaped the song into something uniquely his own creation. Co-producer Harry Maslin was amazed at Bowie’s modesty as a vocalist, when Bowie told Maslin ‘I’m not really a singer so be patient with me’. Bowie then delivered a perfect vocal in one take. This was something Bowie was legendary for; he could nail a really good vocal take without spending too much time on it. The song itself is one of Bowie’s greatest groove songs; it rolls along in a see-sawing swing between two chords with a cool riff, courtesy of an interplay between Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar. The harmonic shifts on the chorus is classic Bowie, leading the listener to unfamiliar chordings that somehow manage to sound conventional but are in fact, anything but.  Bowie by now could pull off this masterly song-writing trick with ease – to subvert musical clichés. ‘Golden Years’ was a song that Bowie had sent to Elvis Presley to cover. He obviously passed on it – or maybe didn’t even get it? – but the sound of Elvis covering this song is a rare delight we will never get to hear.

The lyrics hover between the ‘got to get my act together’ self appeal and also, addressing somebody else in the song ‘I’ll stick with you baby for a thousand years, nothing’s gonna touch you in these golden years’…could it be his final – albeit desperate– appeal to his wife? Bowie’s marriage was by now starting to fall apart as his drug intake and increasing alienation from Angie Bowie was becoming more and more pronounced. The following year, a file for divorce would be submitted. Bowie’s personal life was starting to unravel and on this album, he often comes across as someone desperate to transcend his problems, something he would not seriously undertake for at least another year.

‘Word on a wing’ comes across as a soulful hymn; it is a man undergoing a personal and spiritual crisis and making a pledge to his creator ‘Lord I kneel and offer you my word on a wing…and I’m trying to hard to fit among your scheme of things’…are two of the most powerful lines he ever wrote. They come across as being deeply personal and sincere; two qualities that Bowie is not normally known for. Bowie intones ‘I’m ready to shake the scheme of things’; this is a man desperate to disassociate himself from his natural pessimism and is looking for light in the darkness. It’s as if the artifice of his character persona is starting to fall away and he can’t keep up the pretence any longer. Indeed, this ‘Thin white Duke’ character that Bowie slipped into for this album was ironically one of his most emotive characters, far from the ‘nasty ice man’ that Bowie said he intended him to be. Some of the songs come across as his most personal and confessional.

‘TVC15’ comes across as a bit of light relief after the intense ‘Word on a wing’. It features the barrel-room piano of Roy Bittan, who gives this track a strident and tongue in cheek mood. Bowie sounds like he’s having fun on this track with kitsch backing vocals that show his campy sense of humour. He scat sings the vocals like a cabaret singer in a nightclub. The lyrics are some of Bowie’s most puzzling, Bowie once saying in interview ‘it’s a song about a holographic television’, which only adds to the enigma of the lyric. It’s the album’s odd-ball track but it somehow fits and works as a light diversion.

‘Stay’ is funk-rock that wouldn’t have been out of place on ‘Young Americans’ and it’s the only track that makes a tenuous link to that album’s style. But nothing on ‘Young Americans’ is as intense and obsessive as ‘Stay’. It was soon to become a live highlight with the guitar play out extending for up to seven or eight minutes. Earl Slick has a guitar style that is slightly left of the dial of traditional rock guitar, hitting some elliptical notes that spin off in unusual twists. ‘Stay’ was obviously a song that Bowie himself liked as he kept it in his live sets for the next five years or so, reviving it in the 90s on his ‘Earthling’ tour.

The final track on the album is one of Bowie’s best vocal performances of his career. ‘Wild is the wind’ has Bowie in chanson mode, the european flavour of the album perfectly complemented with this cover version of a song he’d first heard being done by Nina Simone. Bowie has been likened to Frank Sinatra on this track but the truth is probably that he was modelling his rich baritone style on Scott Walker, a singer he frequently declared an admiration for, several times in his life.

‘Station to Station’ remains one of Bowie’s most fully realised and enduring albums, made at a time Bowie himself described as a ‘being in a state of psychic terror’. If anything, it signals his creative impasse, leaving behind the Glam Bowie of the early 70s and the slick ‘plastic soul’ of ‘Young Americans’ into a new future that was to reach astonishing heights on his albums after this, with Bowie foreshadowing his new creative arc when he sang ‘The European canon is here’…

 

bowie diamond dogs

I was at school when ‘Diamond Dogs’ came out. I’d been a Bowie fan since ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and this new album was very eagerly awaited by me; I’d saved money ready to buy it.

It had a difficult birth. At first it was to be called ‘The 1980 Floor Show’ as it was going to be a concept album based on George Orwell’s ‘1984’. But that idea was derailed when the estate of Orwell refused the rights for Bowie to use it.

Bowie by now was established as probably the most important contemporary musician and songwriter/performer in the UK at that time. He was attracting all kinds of plaudits from unlikely corners – even William Burroughs rated Bowie and they did a photo shoot together after Bowie had a meeting with Burroughs.

Artist Guy Peellaert did the artwork for the cover, having just released a book called ‘Rock Dreams’ which portrayed legendary and then current musicians in fantasy form. I bought the book and remember vividly been quite shocked at Mick Jagger and Keith Richards being portrayed as pirates dancing on the grave of Brian Jones.

It was an age of shock-rock in pop culture and Bowie of course, lapped it up and fronted it and also, flaunted it. It was to be his final fling though with Glam sexual ambiguity and conventional rock stylings.

1974 was a year after the Oil crisis of 1973 and the economy was on a continuing downturn. The political climate in Britain at the time was one of distrust and malcontent. IRA bombings were a constant fear and the whole atmosphere of the country was something of a downer. It was, to coin a cliché, an apocalyptic mood that Bowie tuned into. He was already a confirmed pessimist and his future-shock vision on ‘Diamond Dogs’ was rolled out.

It was a future set in Hunger City, where gangs of teenage mutants roamed the streets in a wanton anarchy. This was a remarkable symbolic foreshadowing of Punk Rock, that was barely two years after this album came out.

Bowie had jettisoned the Spiders from Mars and although guitarist and arranger Mick Ronson played on demos made for the album in late 1973, he was not invited to play guitar on the final album. Pity, because you can easily imagine Ronno shining on this album, that is peppered with dissonant guitar noise.

Bowie took on guitar duties himself, with the help of guitarist Alan Parker, who plays the lead riff on ‘Rebel Rebel’, the first single released in February 1974, that trailed the release of the album in May of that year. It set the tone for the album; music that was often jarring, rough-shod, but also expertly produced, with a drum sound that improved on Bowie’s previous two albums. It had a deeper resonance, especially on the title track ‘Diamond Dogs’.

Bowie’s guitar playing was wiry and sounded very ‘first take’ as if to deliberately avoid it sounding too worked out and slick.

The album itself came in a gatefold sleeve, with Bowie morphed as a mutant dog. The cover reflected the mention of Todd Browning’s ‘Freaks’ in the title song. Bowie as usual, was the lightning rod that led you to other interesting things extraneous to his music. I discovered a lot of writers and cult films through Bowie. I always say, he was my other proper education. He directed me to things that thrilled and captivated me, which is more than can be said of school where as the Clash sang ‘they teach you to be thick’. This was pretty much how I was feeling in those final years of my secondary education. I couldn’t wait to leave and to pursue my own interests: things that were meaningful to me.

Back to the music…

A cacophony of synthesisers takes you into Bowie’s dystopian landscape. Then he narrates:

“And in the death

As the last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy thoroughfare

The shutters lifted an inch in temperance building, high on Poacher’s Hill

And red mutant eyes gazed down on Hunger City

No more big wheels

Fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats

And ten thousand peoploids split into small tribes

Coveting the highest of the sterile skyscrapers

Like packs of dogs assaulting the glass fronts of Love-Me Avenue

Ripping and rewrapping mink and shiny silver fox, now legwarmers

Family badge of sapphire and cracked emerald

Any day now, the year of the Diamond Dogs

“This ain’t rock and roll! This is genocide!”

It’s pretty much a Glam dream – or should that be nightmare – for a Glam kid like me, totally hung up on the imagery of decadence and decay that emanates from this album. And that’s only from perusing the cover art. This is the beauty of album art, it’s all part of the holistic experience.

‘Diamond Dogs’ itself is almost a T.Rex track, (is it a coincidence that Tony Visconti mixed the album?) a twelve bar chug, with a similar groove to ‘Telegram Sam’ but of course, Bowie makes it his own. We are introduced to a new character in the Bowie gallery: Halloween Jack. We hear that he ‘meets his little hussy with his ghost town approach’ and ‘the elevator’s broke so he slides down the rope’. Bowie’s lyrics are really on form. Bowie’s saxes honk and beef up the verses. This will be the last album for a while that Bowie plays sax on, not picking up the instrument again until ‘Low’.

Then after the title track, comes Bowie’s tease that this album just might be his masterpiece, even going places where ‘Ziggy’ and ‘Aladdin Sane’ only hinted at: ‘Candidate/Sweet Thing’ is a stagey centre-piece, taking the dramatic Brel-like aura of ‘Time’ (from ‘Aladdin Sane’) and places it in a sleazy sci-fi setting.

The lyrics are classic Bowie intrigue. Is this about a straight sexual encounter or is it a gay one? Or is it another example of Bowie’s lyrical cut-ups, a dislocation of words and lines that screw with reality?  ‘If you want it, boys…get it here thing…oh, it’s a cheap thing’ would suggest that it’s about male prostitutes. Almost too much for my 15 year old mind to take in.

It has some other great lines in it: ‘We’ll take some drugs, go see a band…then jump in the river holding hands’. This was the perfect lyric to thrill the teenage weirdo mind and make you forget you lived on a council estate in Middlesbrough.

The track ends in a grinding noise of feedback guitar that is unlike any guitar on any other Bowie recording. Another precursor of the noise ethic of Punk, or maybe a nod to the Velvet Underground of ‘White light white heat’.

Then it’s into ‘Rebel Rebel’ and that classic circular riff that never lets up, being the major hook of the song. This song was apparently written about the New York Dolls, or rather, inspired by them, although Bowie himself never confirmed nor denied this. ‘Rebel Rebel’ is like the ‘Satisfaction’ of the Glam generation; it has that Stonesy beat to it and that half rapped/half shouted Jagger delivery. Not as melodic as other Bowie singles such as ‘Drive In Saturday’ but that’s not the appeal of this song. It’s more of a sleazy rock n roll vibe and one that was rated as great by none other than Johnny Rotten when he was asked to compile a list of favourite records. Bowie had effectively created his own kind of Punk rock with this song.

‘Rock n roll with me’ is an anomaly on the album. It opens side 2 and is Bowie in lounge crooner mode, albeit in a very louche way. The song is the most conventional in terms of its structure and is a tuneful diversion from the rest of the album. It then later occurred to me that the reason this song is different and seems to be a one-off is because it is a co-write with pianist Warren Peace. Bowie apparently vamped the lyrics for the song quickly and decided to use it for the album.

‘We are the dead’ takes us out of the lounge and back into Hunger City. This is one of Bowie’s most emotive songs on the album and he might just be singing out the psycho drama of his increasingly problematic marriage when he sings ‘Something kind of hit me today…I looked at you and wondered if you saw things my way’…

This sparse keyboard dominated track is punctuated with ghostly bursts of distorted guitar that are effected to sound intrusive and atmospheric. This is the sonic signature of this album – invasions of discordant noise that disturb the conventional backing. It’s almost like Bowie is deliberately trying to make it sound ugly.

‘1984’ is next. With its Shaft-like intro and disco groove, it’s a bit of an odd-ball curio on the album as stylistically, it doesn’t sit well with the other tracks. The strings, scored by Tony Visconti, have an O’Jays type of sweep to them, reflecting the trend for Philly Soul at that time in the 70s. ‘1984’ is a funky diversion that somewhat ruffles the consistency of the album. It’s more of a signpost for the musical direction Bowie would take next, on ‘Young Americans’.

The synthesisers reappear for ‘Big Brother’ and we’re back to the sci-fi decay motif of side one of the album.  This track has a contrivance about it that comes across like a number in a musical. In fact, this is what Bowie intended for ‘Diamond Dogs’. He built a stage show around it and designed a stage set. The album was toured, but only in America and by the end of that tour, Bowie abandoned plans to bring it to Britain and Europe. Bowie fans in the UK got to see footage of this tour on the TV documentary ‘Cracked Actor’, which was a riveting insight into Bowie at work. Also, for the more observant viewer, a revealing snapshot of an artist who was in the throes of a cocaine habit. Bowie’s physical shape at this stage of his life was worrying. He was drinking milk and eating red peppers to sustain himself and skirting dangerously close to becoming a drug casualty. A live album recorded on the ‘Diamond Dogs’ tour, ‘David Live’ had a cover shot that even Bowie said of himself:  ‘My god, it looks like I’ve just stepped out of the grave’.

‘Chant of the ever circling skeletal family’ is one of the weirder Bowie album closers. It’s a fractured, circular riff, again, quite prescient in its punky tone; a grinding motorik rhythm that foreshadows his work on ‘Low’. The chant of the title itself ends with Bowie caught in a tape loop on the word ‘Brother’, which sounds strangely like ‘rock, rock, rock, rock’ as only one of the syllables is caught in the loop.  It’s a neat production trick that leaves an enigmatic question mark over the album  (It also may have influenced John Foxx Ultravox with their ‘Rockwrok’ track, some three years later)

‘Diamond Dogs’ then is a flawed album but it has more than enough highlights to elevate it somewhere into a similar quality realm as  ‘Aladdin Sane’.  It also has an influential reach that had an impact on Punk and New Wave. That trebly, wiry guitar sound on the album can be heard in a lot of Post-Punk bands too.

So happy anniversary to Halloween Jack and the last Glam party among the ruins of the early 70s.

t.rex 1970

When you see articles about Marc Bolan/T.Rex albums, it’s usually ‘Electric Warrior’ and ‘The Slider’ that come up as the acknowledged classics. Or maybe the more obscure Tyrannosaurus Rex albums might be lauded for the unique period pieces they are.

Curiously, an album that Marc Bolan made just on the brink of success gets overlooked, or rather, not written about so much. That album is the ‘T.Rex’ album, or as fans call it ‘the brown album’. It is one of Marc Bolan’s most consistent and satisfying albums and the 50th anniversary of this release, and the breakthrough single ‘Ride a white swan’ comes up later this year. When Bolan started to record the songs for this album, he was still a cult figure with a small but appreciative audience. But this status frustrated Marc Bolan. He wanted more. He wanted to be a rock n roll star. His time was about to come…

 Spring into Summer 1970.

Marc Bolan must have felt he was banging his head on the wall. The latest Tyrannosaurus Rex album ‘A Beard of Stars’ had been well received, charted modestly, but the single from it ‘By the light of a magical moon’ did nothing. Bolan was still part of the late 60s underground and by now was feeling impatient to reach a wider audience.

His friend David Bowie had had a hit single with ‘Space Oddity’ in late 1969 and this doubtless irked Marc Bolan, who is rumoured to have gifted Bowie with the stylophone that Bowie used on the record. Still, mutual producer Tony Visconti managed to bring them both together for the only time the two future stars were in the recording studio.

Marc played a tuneful guitar riff on Bowie’s ‘Prettiest Star’ single, the follow up to ‘Space Oddity’. The single did nothing but put Bowie back to square one again as it didn’t chart. The session ended with Marc’s wife June souring the atmosphere, saying Marc’s guitar was the best thing about the song. June and Marc left in something of a huff. Perhaps it was because June was ambitious for Marc, and felt he deserved better than playing session guitar on a Bowie song. This of course is all conjecture, but it’s broadly how it has been reported elsewhere.

Marc Bolan had been tying to break through in the music business since 1965. He had tried the solo route but flopped, he had been in a Who-like band called John’s Children and finally, come the psychedelic era, was in the quirky acid-folk duo Tyrannosaurus Rex. A small hit single in ‘Debora’ was one he failed to follow up and the next three years were creatively very prolific, with a modest and appreciative audience, but ultimately, Marc Bolan grew more and more frustrated as the golden decade of pop drew to an end.

Tyrannosaurus Rex had ended the sixties by splitting up. Or to be more accurate, percussionist and backing vocalist Steve Took was fired by Marc after a disastrous American tour in which Took’s drug intake was becoming a major problem. If anything, this split made Marc even more determined as he asserted through his publicist, that Tyrannosaurus Rex had always been about Marc Bolan’s songs and voice anyway.

Bolan was soon back, with another bongo basher and good looking side-man in Mickey Finn. Together, they made a highly photogenic pair and to insiders working for the furtherment of Bolan’s career, it was only a matter of time before they became pop pinups. They rehearsed together at a cottage in Wales, playing rock n roll songs as well as Marc’s new songs. An instant bonding, mainly over a mutual love of rock n roll happened.

The new songs Marc and Mickey started to record in July of 1970, took the electric stylings of ‘A Beard of Stars’ even further. A purchase of a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard ensured that his music became heavier and heading towards the trade-mark boogie blues pop that he was soon to develop, under the auspices of producer Tony Visconti, as hungry for wider success now as much as Marc.

The music was changing and had been since Marc picked up an electric guitar for the single ‘King of the rumbling spires’ in late 1969. Still, the flower child fantasy landscape of the 60s was there in Marc’s lyrics but there was a more conscious pop sensibility being worked into his songs. Marc Bolan was at heart, a rock n roller, and on these new songs, he was edging towards becoming the rock n roll star his teenage self had always wanted to be.

Marc started to look back to the music of the 1950s to inspire him. The prototype of Bolan’s new bopping pop rock was there on ‘Beltane Walk’. Even the title was a clue to where he lifted the guitar riff from: ‘The Walk’ by Jimmy McCracklin.

The song structure was a simple blues twelve bar that then shifted to the doo-wop chord sequence that Marc frequently re-wrote and re-visited, even right up to the end of his short life. C-Am-F-G was a sequence that a million songs had been written around and it was a motif that Marc came to re-brand as his own.

Other notable songs recorded were the fuzzed up freak beat of ‘Jewel’ that took the spirit of Link Wray and Jimi Hendrix and fused it with Bolan’s horny pixie lyrics. It also includes some of his most off the wall avant-guitar playing, a manic burst of chaotic wah-wah riffing.

Another nod towards the new boogie was ‘Is it love?’ Like ‘Jewel’ it was a twelve bar blues form, with a guitar solo that displayed Marc’s gift for a hook, his guitar lines becoming as catchy as his tunes.

The acoustic ballads on the album illustrate that Marc was fast developing his own style of singer songwriter musings. ‘Suneye’ and ‘The time of love is now’ both have the slight haze of the now long gone summer of love over them, not quite stepping into the bold new confessional starkness of the 70s. There was nothing really self-confessional about Marc’s ballads, they were more from his rich and fantasy cloaked imagination, although ‘Suneye’ was a love song to his new wife, June.

‘Diamond Meadows’ has a nonsensical nursery rhyme feel to it, more in tune with the cosmic whimsy of Syd Barrett. The chorus though, hints at a new sexual tease in Marc’s lyrics :’Hey let’s do it like we’re friends/let’s do it do it’.

The monster hit machine of T.Rex was still some way off on these new songs, but at the same time, tantalizingly close. All Marc Bolan needed was the song to change it all for him. That song turned out to be one that was not included on the album even though it was recorded right at the end of the recording sessions in August of that year.

‘Ride a white swan’ was a short song that producer Tony Visconti instinctively felt had something instant and appealing about it. In fact, it was so short that he had to make an edit to extend it to 2 minutes and 32 seconds. There was something in the sharp, clipped guitar riff and the catchy, uplifting melody that screamed ‘pop single’. Although Marc had written some appealing melodies before, this one felt special. Strings were added to the sparse production of guitar, vocals, simple bass and handclaps. Everything about the recording was a hook, perfectly complemented by a brilliant guitar solo that was as much a feature as the vocal melody itself.

‘Ride a white swan’ had come about when Marc’s wife June told him to go to the music room and make some music as Marc was moping around, feeling restless and fretting about his future. Marc had married June Child in January of that year and it was June’s unflagging support that gave wind to Marc’s wings. Her importance to Marc’s success cannot be underestimated. June was his wife, friend, de facto manager and often drove him to gigs as Marc didn’t drive. She was also by all accounts, a feisty negotiator and fiercely protective, matriarchal figure who totally believed in Marc’s talent and more importantly, keeping Marc on the straight and narrow from the more destructive elements of the music business.

Although when put in front of a camera or microphone, Marc appeared supremely confident and self-possessed, in private he was probably wondering when his fortunes would change and looking for a way to bring that change about.

Some things in the pop culture happened over summer that sent Marc into higher and more hopeful spirits. Mungo Jerry had a massive summer hit with ‘In the summertime’, a simple jugband blues song not unlike a Marc Bolan song, with a singer, Ray Dorset, that even seemed to be imitating Marc’s voice.

Rock music on the one hand was becoming heavier and more serious, but on the other hand, there was a good time back to basics feeling coming from bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival and even the Beatles had entered the 70s with a back to basics sound, before splitting.

The timing of Marc’s new catchy and direct pop rock style felt right.

Shortening the name to T.Rex had a talismanic effect; it was also a conscious parting with the Marc Bolan of Tyrannosaurus Rex. Out went the misty eyed poetic Marc, in came the new brash Bolan, determined to find a new audience he knew was out there, but shrewd enough to court his old hippy audience for now.

‘Ride a white swan’ in the meantime was turning out to be that ‘special song’.

DJ friend Jeff Dexter played it all over the weekend of the Isle of Wight festival that summer, even though the single was not released until October. The exposure must have gone a long way to plant it into the consciousness of the thousands of people there.

By the autumn of 1970, T.Rex were creating a buzz, with John Peel enthusing about Marc’s new material and the good timing of the band Family cancelling a radio broadcast concert, gave T.Rex a slot on ‘Top Gear’.

A new young record plugger, Anya Wilson, took on promoting and pushing ‘Ride a white swan’, which she felt sure was going to be a big hit. The make or break time had come. Her connections with producers at Radio One proved to be a clincher and soon, Radio One DJs started to play the record.

But it wasn’t an instant hit.

‘Ride a white swan’ was an agonising slow burning single; it took eleven weeks from entering the bottom end of the charts, to make a journey eventually to number two, where it was kept off the top of the charts by a daft novelty song called ‘Granddad’ by Clive Dunn.

Despite the frustration of not making number one, T.Rex at last had arrived and it was no fluke. Suddenly, Marc and Mickey were courting the teenage pop magazines such as Mirabelle and Jackie. Here was a new pop star for the new decade and Marc was also interesting in interviews; witty and charming.

The T.Rex audience changed very noticeably. The older ‘heads’ were now at the back of the concert hall, and down the front were mostly teenage girls. Fan mania had not yet struck, but was soon to happen as Marc’s face and image started to become more widespread in the media.

Longer standing fans of Marc Bolan probably looked on in a state of disbelief as a man who not so long ago, was an underground cult figure, was now on Top of the Pops.

A friend of mine saw T.Rex live at this point. He had bought ‘ A Beard of Stars’ and this is what he had to say when he saw T.Rex, then still only a duo, yet to expand to a four piece rock group:

‘I went to the gig with a few mates of mine and all these girls were there. They looked about 12 or 13. We were like ‘what’s going on?’ We’d heard Marc Bolan on John Peel but these girls probably heard him on Tony Blackburn. There was a definite split in the audience. It was obvious that T.Rex were now a pop band and were getting bigger. I talked with some of the other lads there who like me, knew Bolan from John Peel. They didn’t really like the way it was going. After that, Marc Bolan became massive and we were all feeling left behind, like he deserted his original fans’.

The album ‘T.Rex’ was released in December 1970 and even the cover was a knowing nod to the new young audience. The cover folded out as a poster of Marc Bolan and Mickey Finn and unlike the stark monochrome of ‘A Beard of Stars’ it was in striking colour. Marc’s face was whitened, his gaze intent on casting a spell over the new teenage audience. Hand rested over his new beloved Les Paul guitar, this was a new Marc for the new decade. Mickey Finn was the more square-jawed handsome male counterpart to Marc’s more ambiguous sexual aura.

The ‘T.Rex’ album is one of Marc Bolan’s more underrated albums, a perfect bridge between the Tolkien fantasy folk of Tyrannosaurus Rex and the new harder rock-edged T.Rex. It wasn’t a jarring crossover from unicorns to cadillacs though; Marc Bolan still kept the fantasy and whimsical aspect of Tyrannosaurus Rex for now. In fact, having a hit single had fuelled his new musical direction further and Marc was surfing on a new-found confidence. He was soon to follow up ‘Ride a white swan’ with ‘Hot Love’ and T.Rex now officially became a four piece rock band. The number one slot denied for ‘Swan’ was given to ‘Hot Love’, which became number one for six glorious weeks.

From being called ‘The Bopping Elf’ by Melody Maker journalist Chris Welch, Marc was soon to transform into the ‘Electric Warrior’ and leave the joss sticks and hippy underground far behind, to become the first pop superstar of the 70s.

 

 

© Alan Savage, March 30th 2020, revised and edited May 21st 2020

Fab Art Pop!

Posted: January 10, 2020 in beatles, pop

the_beatles_magical_mystery_tour

 

 

Although enough has been written about the Beatles to circle the Earth at least ten times, one more credit to be added to their many plaudits is that they invented Art Pop. Or, to put it in basic terms, bringing arty ideas into Pop Music.  It was after all, the Beatles who continually pushed the studio envelope around the time of ‘Revolver’ and warped Pop music into something weird and thrillingly original, paving the way for more progressive ideas in pop and rock music that took its influences from the avant garde as much as Chuck Berry.

By 1966, Paul McCartney especially, had become interested in the more fringe aspects of art and music. The most man-about town of the Beatles, McCartney visited art galleries, independent art house films and performance art happenings throughout that year with his friend Barry Miles, who was a hip mentor to McCartney when it came to all things arty and esoteric. McCartney was blithely eclectic, also going to classical concerts while keeping his ever hungry and competitive ears open to anyone in pop music who was doing freakier and more outlandish things. It is well documented that when McCartney heard the Beach Boys ‘Pet Sounds’, he knew that the Beatles had to up the ante to compete and surpass songs such as ‘God Only Knows’ and ‘Don’t Talk (Put your head on my shoulder)’. Pioneering innovation was in the air; perhaps McCartney and the other Beatles knew that it was time to really rise to the zeitgeist. Rise to it they did.

‘Eleanor Rigby’ was a surprise to people when it was released in August 1966. After the euphoric summer high of England winning the World Cup, here was a song that was a monochrome downer.  Where had the chirpy upbeat Beatles gone? It was the first indication that McCartney’s approach to songwriting was becoming more sophisticated and taking a much bolder step into an uncharacteristic darkness. The song’s over familiarity now sounds conventional, but this was absolutely not conventional for the time. As bleak as a Samuel Becket play, this was no happy clappy fab song. It ended with the pessimistic and atheistic line ‘no one was saved’ Tellingly, this line came from John Lennon, who always brought the shadows into McCartney’s usually sunny compositions. But on this song, Paul too was not glossing over his subject matter with optimism. The character in the song is lonely and abandoned, nobody comes to rescue her, and even the other character, Father Mackenzie, finds no resolve to his loneliness. McCartney may have surprised people with this wintry composition, but he offset it with pleasant ditties on ‘Revolver’ like ‘Good Day Sunshine’ and ‘Yellow Submarine’ as if he couldn’t resist getting back to being the one who entertains the audience.

Not so Lennon. He now gave the impression he was willing to jettison his cuddly mop top image. His infamous ‘we’re bigger than Jesus now, Christianity will go, it will vanish and shrink’ remark caused an uproar when he said it. Now he had gone too far wailed the tabloids. Beatle John, he with OBE, must conform! Lennon was on a quest to distance himself from almost everything the Beatles had done before. It was like he killed off the John who wrote ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and forced a re-birth through the ego death effect of LSD or acid.

Lennon’s compositions on ‘Revolver’ showed that his mind was being altered by his increasing drug intake. Even the jaunty ‘And your bird can sing’ asserts a druggy ‘you don’t get me’ arrogance as if Lennon was relishing his new experimental self, happy to be someone on the outside of reality. Lennon was always the most unconventional of the Beatles and he didn’t need to visit art galleries or hob nob with painters to be an outsider artist. He was a natural surrealist, as evidenced in his writings and drawings in his books ‘In his own write’ and ‘A Spaniard in the works’. He was also a supreme piss taking debunker and walked the line between being a put on and a genius. In an interview, Lennon once proclaimed ‘avant garde is french for bullshit’. Of course, he didn’t mean it, this was more his working class chip on the shoulder speaking.

‘Revolver’ is for me, the Beatles most enduring artistic achievement. Sure. ‘Sgt Pepper’ took the monochrome of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and re-decorated it with gaudy psychedelic colours, but it is ‘Revolver’ that shows the Beatles as being the Masters of Surprise.

Lennon had been reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead’ and came up with ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ – the first time a drone had been used in Pop (yes, the Kinks ‘See my friend’ was the precursor of this drone, but it shifted into a different key for the bridge so was not a total drone) ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is also the first song to use tape loops, something that is more from the avant garde fringe, with composers like John Cage experimenting with cut ups of sound. This Art Idea came from Paul McCartney, and although he had no hand in the writing of this one chord song, his contribution was crucial to the song’s pioneering spirit.

The drone was also being explored by George Harrison, whose first Indian classical music influenced track, ‘Love you too’ mirrored Lennon’s psyched out journey into the void (the original title of Lennon’s track was ‘The Void’) Taken in this context, it is possible to see that Harrison was probably closer to Lennon’s couldn’t give a stuff about being commercial any more persona in this phase of the Beatles, with McCartney keeping up the tunesmith role more than the others (brilliantly of course, not to lessen Paul’s artistic standing)

‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is that much over-used phrase, ahead of its time. And it really is. Predating the tape experiments of German bands like Faust and Can and also, Eno from Roxy Music, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is what rock would be exploring some four years later. So, although it’s a bit of a leap of faith to say so, the Beatles anticipated Kraut Rock.

The Beatles were now a band looking to see how far out they could take Pop music and it was their good fortune that their audience stuck with them. Chiefly, it was Lennon who drove the band into weird waters, as his next major Art Idea was ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. Starting off as a plaintive folk flavoured song, Lennon wanted this one to be really special and something in his creative yearning made him seek the impossible – to splice together two different versions, both in different keys, which at first, producer George Martin said couldn’t be done. Varying the speed of both versions and then matching them was an incredible serendipitous move; it could have been a total mess, but instead, it came out as the strangest and most haunting dream pop single of that year, 1967. George Martin described it ‘as an electronic tone poem’ and this is not far off an accurate description.

Although the Beatles were in essence, a traditional guitar bass and drums outfit, it was plain to hear that they had now outgrown these limitations and their studio creations were morphing them into something else entirely: a studio band who were using the studio like an artist uses a palette, creating new sounds and new innovations. ‘Sgt Pepper’ is too immense to discuss here, and such a lot has been written about it that to add more would be superfluous. What must be mentioned though is the cacophonous orchestral surge in ‘Day in the Life’, in which Lennon abstractly ordered that the orchestra would rise and explode like a musical orgasm.

As with ‘Strawberry Fields’, George Martin had to bring Lennon’s off the wall ideas to reality and he did this by instructing the orchestra to start on the bottom note for each instrument and to rise to the top note on their instruments. The result still sounds astonishing today, a musique concrete surge that metaphorically drew a line in the sand – the Beatles could never be the same again after this, and neither could any musician in rock. The race for the freakiest sounds in rock and pop was on, and the Beatles, with ‘Sgt Pepper’, leap-frogged a march over Brian Wilson’s masterpiece ‘Pet Sounds’.

The Beatles next major weird pop moment after ‘Pepper’ was ‘I am the Walrus’. The innovation of this song was it used ‘found sounds’ and integrated them into the remarkable layers of electronic distortion and effects treated backing track. ‘I am the walrus’, with its anarchic Goons type of lyric and Lennon’s over-driven vocal, is as extreme as the Beatles ever got on a pop single. It was relegated to be played less than its A-side, Paul’s bouncy piece of pop fluff ‘Hello Goodbye’.

The radio planners were not yet ready for the pop extremist Beatles and neither were large chunks of their audience. The Beatles now crossed over into Rock, albeit a tuneful kind, as a strong melody and sense of pleasing harmony was always present in most of their songs. It was now official that the lovable mop tops had joined the counter-culture. The Mums and Dads who had liked ‘Yesterday’ and their bouncy upbeat style now had the sneaking suspicion that they had ruined themselves with drugs. And John Lennon especially, seemed to be becoming more and more weird.

The aural perversion and subversion of sound on ‘Walrus’ was yet again, another Beatles first and the ripples of this one track alone would inform Progressive rock, Space rock and – like ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ – Kraut Rock. The random radio interference on the play out of ‘Walrus’ is also a bold experimental move; the interruption of an external sound source alien to the track was more from the realm of the avant garde than pop and rock.

This random approach of found sounds ultimately led to the track ‘Revolution #9’ on the Beatles 1968 double album, also known as ‘the white album’. That particular track is often called the self-indulgent stinker on the album, the one track that most people skip and the one track that at least two other Beatles tried to keep off the album. But when you put it in the context of Lennon’s creative trajectory since ‘Revolver’ is actually makes perfect sense. Lennon was determined to challenge the Beatles audience with freaky weird sounds and soon, McCartney took up the weirdo art gauntlet too, making the minimalist ‘Why don’t we do it in the road?’ on that album, a song stripped back to its bare bones and so unlike anything else McCartney ever recorded (apart from the extreme ‘Helter Skelter’ of course)

By 1969, after four years of fevered innovation and pioneering sounds, the Beatles took a great leap backwards and decided to get back to their rock n roll roots. Ever the restless spirits they were, we all know what happened soon after – they imploded, with John Lennon determined to stick to his ‘freak artist’ agenda and for the others to pursue more conventional solo careers. Lennon continued to be the controversialist and genuinely seemed intent on burying the Beatles and starting all over again; another death to re-birth persona, as evidenced on his remarkable ‘Plastic Ono Band’ album of 1970, which was like a personal exorcism of the past.

I suppose the final question remains to be posed – did the Beatles, as well as everything else they achieved – also invent Art Pop?

The answer, given the wealth of evidence, has to be a resounding YES.

One more feather in the Fabs already over-feathered cap, then.

 

*article is from the forthcoming book, a collection of essays:  ‘Pictures of Jap Girls in Synthesis (The influence of Art in Popular Music)

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Album review ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’ – Lana Del Rey.

Roll back 7 years to 2012. Lana Del Rey has had a hit with ‘Video Games’ and followed it with ‘Blue Jeans’. Her debut album as Lana Del Rey ‘Born to Die’ has stormed the charts both here and in the US. In the US, it stays on the Billboard top 100 for over 300 weeks, making her only one of three female artists to ever achieve this. (the others being Adele with ‘21’ and Carole King with ‘Tapestry’)

Her music has a singular vision and here is an artist who was like the anti-Katy Perry, the polar opposite of the feel-good bouncy pop of ‘California Girls’. Calling your album ‘Born to die’ isn’t exactly an invitation to a beach party.

Lana Del Rey created a sonic twilight world where she’s on a kind of road trip of self-discovery and carnal longing. Dennis Hopper might even turn up at some point. It’s sexy noir pop in other words, with a slightly twisted psychological undercurrent. There is an unease in this Lana world. The Prom Queen gone to the dark side? Maybe.

Lana appealed to everyone from moody teenage girls, to indie rock guys and middle aged perverts. Her voice is more of a coo in your ear on the pillow, like she is singing just for you and the effect is intoxicating. It really helped that she had an image too that perfectly mirrored the music. In her own words ‘a gangster Nancy Sinatra’. Younger fans might have to google who Nancy Sinatra was, but to the rest of us old enough to remember the Banana Splits and when Batman was on TV, we got the vibe exactly.

And then, everybody started to ask ‘Who is she and where does she come from and how did she get here on the radio, on TV and bust the internet on youtube?’

As with all seemingly out of the blue successes, the trolls started to research Lana’s past and soon were accusing her of being a manufactured hype who was bank-rolled by her rich father. Here was a total faker who was an invented persona, a calculated corporate career whore and us real music fans were all being –shock horror – duped by her.

I read all of this after the fact of hearing her music for the first time and not having any pre-existing bias. The first words that came into my head on reading what a fake Lana Del Rey was, were ‘David Bowie’. He too had built a career on inventing different personas. He too had stirred up similar criticisms of ‘is this real music or is it a kind of theatrical put on?’ And my next thought about the lack of authenticity charges against Lana Del Rey was ‘so what?’ When did authenticity ever matter in rock and pop music except to beery old pub rockers and boring anti-image musos?

Pop and rock has always been about fantasy, about creating alternative realities, about taking you out of yourself and your surroundings. It’s not real and it never has been.

And Lana Del Rey does just that, like so many others before her – takes you somewhere else and out of yourself.

For me, I admit I hit a ‘bored with Lana’ wall with her third album ‘Honeymoon’. After the compelling ‘Ultraviolence’ album before it, this album to me was Lana-by-numbers and apart from a few tracks, more or less passed me by and the CD ended up in a box in the back of my car, never to be re-visited.

However, her last album ‘Lust for Life’ drew me back in again and there was definitely a shift of mood on this album. Maybe Lana wanted to cheer up. Just a little bit. She was even smiling on the cover, but of course, smiling in a creepy Karen Carpenter type of way. Or was I reading too much into it?

Now, we’re five albums in and the authentic or artificial arguments are now more of a mumble in the corner, as Lana Del Rey has outclassed and outlasted most of her critics.

So what’s her new album ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’ like?

I bought the album before I read the reviews (which I’ve since been pleasantly surprised have been overwhelmingly positive) and find this to be another blissed out road trip through pop culture references and glamorous despair, only this time, the sound and stylings are impeccably refined. The songwriting is more honed and nuanced; this is an artist in total command of her craft and rolling it out with confidence and ease. The lines she writes and sings sometimes come with an arch wink of the eye. She knows we know. And she knows what her audience wants from her. It’s a whole lotta Lana in other words, with a deep and richly layered production. Her singing on this album is fantastic; she stretches out words playfully and puts in little extra trills. It is the sound of a singer enjoying and loving what she does.

The stand out track for me out of the album’s really strong opening three tracks has to be ‘Venice Bitch’. In this, she maxes out the Lana-isms with a sweary opening line that comes across as more tongue in cheek than edgy. The rise to the chorus is one of the best vocal lines she’s ever come up with. It has a lift to it that echoes some vague and hazy radio memory of 60s pop. That’s the thing with Lana Del Rey – she somehow manages to straddle the border between the mega-pixel present and the black and white past. ‘Venice Bitch’ also has a long play-out which I can only describe as a kind of psychedelic dub. It’s something she’s never done before and it works a treat. For almost ten glorious minutes, this is her fuck it, I’m going to let this one run and run moment.

Elsewhere on the album, from beginning to end, we get Lana is your angel, Lana is your femme fatale, Lana is your ‘man’ (in ‘Mariner’s Apartment Complex) Lana is your whatever-you-want-her to be. This is an actress with a well-rehearsed script but it’s ok, she can improvise some scenes and see where it goes.

‘Love song’ starts with the Lana-come-hither line of ‘In the car, in the car on the back seat, I’m your baby’ and it’s the Lana seduction scene of lonesome sounding piano, hushed vocals in the front of the mix and a dream-pop chorus that is not unlike anything she has done before, but it’s now something she does so well and you still want more of it.

Another track worth mentioning is ‘Doing Time’. I didn’t realise that this is actually a cover version of a song by Sublime, who I have to admit I’d never heard. This track is the most breezy and casual on the album and stands out as being stylistically opposed to the rest of the album but is a welcome frivolous diversion.

‘Next best American Record’ is a later in the album highlight, starting with a simple sparse guitar riff and building to a lush chorus that lifts itself out of the neon gloom of the verses. The lyrics are perhaps personal, perhaps fantasy – who cares? The words name-check Led Zeppelin’s ‘Houses of the Holy’ and once again, Lana probably realises us pop culture spotters are listening in. Is this calculated nostalgia or is it just an image of a living loose, dope-happy time? Again, who cares? I don’t need authenticity anyway. I don’t need autobiography. It’s a vibe and it feels good. You’re either in the car with Lana or you’re on the road-side.

So how does this album rate alongside her others?

If you bought or heard her last album ‘Lust for Life’ I suppose you could say that this new album lacks the light and shade contrasts of its predecessor, yet this album has a consistency about it that makes it one of those albums that the longer you stay with it, the more rewarding it becomes.

‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’ then is a triumph overall but it also feels to me like Lana Del Rey is at the peak of her noir pop stylings and where she goes next should be interesting.

So Lana, when are you going to make a weird cosmic country album? I think it would really suit you.

jamie hawkesworth scottwalker_exclusive2 copy

 

The magnificent awkwardness of Scott Walker is a quality that I most admire him for. Scott was the first pop star who refused to play the inane teen pop game and didn’t care to pander to commercial concerns, at least, not when he went solo. From big moody ballads, with a Spector-like widescreen production in the Walker Brothers, Scott delivered a unique debut album in the last autumn quarter of 1967 that was evidently at odds with the prevailing peace love and flowers pop zeitgeist.

He was the first western pop singer to bring Jacques Brel to a wider audience and a certain unknown singer called David Bowie was busy taking notes and would later re-visit some of Scott’s song choices,

Scott’s take on Brel’s ‘Jackie’ gave him his biggest solo hit single; the song was banned by the BBC, who deemed the lyric to be not suitable for a young pop audience with its homosexual referencing lyrics (‘Cute! In a stupid ass way!)

Then, there were Scott’s own compositions, which ranged from baroque vignettes to glimpses into outsider characters – ‘Montague Terrace (in Blue)’ was a song unlike any other at the time. What Scott insisted on was that pop could have philosophical depth as well as emotional resonance.

It didn’t insult your intelligence and it didn’t care too much if you didn’t quite get it.

‘Scott 1’ was a success and Scott’s transition from teen-pop idol to a kind of Frank Sinatra if he’d read Albert Camus and re-located to the left bank of Paris, was complete.

A second album followed quickly, with more of Scott’s unique songs and then there was ‘Scott 3’, an album that perfectly juxtaposed Scott’s torch song persona, with his own songs that were becoming more and more obtuse. ‘It’s raining today’ started with a droning dissonance that provides a startling interference with the song’s pretty melody. Despite inching further away from the mainstream with each release, he was given his own TV show, which ran for six episodes in 1969. The show was somewhat incongruous as it presented Scott as a middle of the road entertainer, duetting with Dusty Springfield for example, but it soon became evident he was left of the road with his song choices for the series, which included more dark chanson by Brel, alongside songs more associated with crooners like Tony Bennett with the odd contemporary composer like Tim Hardin thrown into Scott’s increasingly catholic mix.

The series was cancelled after its brief run, the BBC not really knowing how to pitch Scott. Who was he? The enigma continued to grow around him.

To make matters even more confusing, he released what has now become regarded as his solo masterpiece, ‘Scott 4’ in the closing months of that epicurean decade. It did nothing but alienate the light entertainment audience of his TV series and Scott found himself in an impossible conundrum, torn between his true art and the need to keep an audience.

To this purpose, he further confused his audience by seemingly reverting back to what was expected of him – lush, heart-yearning ballads that a middle of the road older audience would take to. (this was because he had contractual obligations to fulfill and not because he had an artistic volte face)

The problem was, his audience mostly ignored him, so Scott found himself in a wilderness for the next 5 years until he relented and agreed to a Walker Brothers reunion, around 1975.

Scott, although only barely into his thirties by this time, was now a pop veteran, ill suited to the more frivolous side of the 70s, just coming out of its Glam rock phase. Scott, with the reunited Walker Brothers, appeared on Top of the Pops, with the hit single ‘No Regrets’, as if it was a personal reflection on his artistic endeavours. Despite this slight career resurgence, the Walker Brothers didn’t follow through with anything particularly remarkable and looked set to tread the 60s has-beens circuit.

But Scott wasn’t going to be satisfied being a nostalgia whore. He threw another career curve-ball in 1978, with the release of ‘Nite Flights’ billed as a Walker Brothers album but it is Scott’s songs that are the centrepieces.

The songs, ‘Nite Flights’ and in particular, ‘The Electrician’ were elliptical pieces of electro-noir that nobody at the time could fathom. It was like The Carpenters has suddenly decided to go satanic heavy metal, as many still saw Scott Walker as a singer of big torch ballads from the 60s.

Indeed, by the early 80s, Scott’s mystique and outsider status as a pop weirdo was given a further push by Julian Cope of all people, who curated a compilation album called ‘Fire escape to the sky – the god-like genius of Scott Walker’.

Thanks to Cope’s determination to write a fitting resume of Scott’s artistic brilliance, a new audience – albeit a tiny one – were now discovering his solo albums which could be found in second hand vinyl shops and charity shops for very little money. Me included.

Scott re-emerged in 1983, on the Virgin label, with a new album ‘Climate of Hunter’. It was a startling mix of synthesisers and sparse, seemingly random songs, that went over the new shiny pop conditioned heads of the 80s and sank without trace.

Scott once again did another disappearing act and went back to his difficult shed in the obscure forest that nobody else but him lived in.

Like a ghost that had vanished into mist, he came back in the mid-90s, with his most radical work up to that point – ‘Tilt’.

It was an album that was impossible to categorise: often disturbing, challenging and downright weird. It was also hauntingly beautiful, as the deep sweeping strings of ‘Farmer in the city’ take you somewhere you’ve never been before.

Scott continues to not only push the envelope today, but also burn it.

His last studio album was as enigmatic and impenetrable as it was brilliant. Simply, nobody is making music as out there as ‘Bisch Bosch’.

As Scott said in an interview around the release of the album ‘I don’t see the point of mining seams of music that have been over-mined already’.

Long may Scott piss on the conventional and lead us to strange dark mines.

Amen.

*this article was written six months before the death of Scott Walker.

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The Zig Kid and other assorted freaks

I am walking through mist. Strange words are coming at me, like ripped up bits of newspaper blown by the wind from some kind of neon-lit fantasy world where people talk in random snippets. I’ve just bought Bowie’s ‘Jean Genie’ single and its got me hypnotised. Something in that sound, that dirty murk, that haunting noir harmonica and the persistent rhythm really gets me. Bowie’s voice is a cool rap; the way he intonates the words, the way he phrases, is pure insouciant cool.

David Bowie is now a huge part of my teenage life. ‘Starman’ was no flash in the pan and Bowie’s star is now starting to go into its own stellar orbit. ‘The rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ finally had Bowie jettison into a million teenage bedrooms, including mine.

I go to Marton coffee bar and put ‘John I’m only dancing’ on the jukebox, asking the Saturday job girl who works there what she thinks of it but soon find out she’s more of a David Cassidy girl. To like Bowie is to render you an outsider, a freak, but that’s fine because I want to be a freak.

Another freak is on Top of the Pops tonight and I can’t wait.

‘What the hell’s a ‘Metal Guru?’ says my Dad, as Marc Bolan boogies around, singing lines like ‘Sitting there in your armour plated chair, oh yeah!’ and ‘Just like a silver studded sabre tooth dream’.

The record is magnificent. A nuclear blast of Bolan’s ego, now at critical mass state.

Soon after, I buy ‘The Slider’ LP, with saved birthday money and hold it as if it’s a sacred relic all the way back home on the 263 bus. I pore over the red inner sleeve, reading the lyrics like they are runes from the Wise One Who Knows Your Inner Dreams.

I am now cultified, converted and irredeemably lost in music. I can’t get enough of it. My mania for Bolan and Bowie is a deep obsession I can’t shake and never do. Soon, Roxy Music are to enter my teenage soul and steal it too.

Top of the Pops is a bizarre window to another world, a world away from grim chip shops on council estates and graffitied library walls.

One week, Hawkwind are number 2 with ‘Silver Machine’ and Alice Cooper’s ‘ School’s Out’ is number one. Roxy Music appear on Top of the Pops for the first time, playing ‘Virginia Plain’. They sound like a rock band from the 23rd century. The glam rock train started by Marc Bolan is now almost careering off the tracks at breakneck speed.

I like Slade too and find ‘Mama Weer All Crazee Now’ to be so exciting, I knock over a glass of Dandelion and Burdock in sheer exuberant freak dancing in my bedroom.

Sweet appear, taking the piss out of Glam, with their bass player Steve Priest wearing hot pants and on another appearance, a Nazi armband and heavily made up face, with the guitarist Andy Scott blowing him a kiss.

Girls will be boys and boys will be girls it’s a crazy hazy shook up world sang the prophet Ray Davies in 1970 and here they are.

The New Musical Express, Sounds and Melody Maker with the occasional Disc or Record Mirror become my new bibles of rock n roll tales of excess and are an arcane gateway to cool records and more bands I’d never heard of like Faust, whose album ‘The Faust Tapes’ I bought mainly because it was only 49p. I listen to John Peel every now and then, who plays loads of bands I haven’t heard of. I began to realise there was a whole galaxy of music that wasn’t in the top thirty.

Bowie name-dropped the Velvet Underground in an interview, so of course I checked them out. The first thing I ever heard was ‘Sweet Jane’ and I loved it immediately. Bowie’s name also was associated with the Stooges and I remember seeing the cover of ‘Raw Power’ and looking at the song titles like ‘Search and Destroy’ and ‘Your pretty face is going to hell’ and knew that these were the anti-christ to the squeaky clean Osmonds.

I listen to Alan Freeman one Saturday and he previews ‘Houses of the Holy’ the new Led Zeppelin album. Already a legendary band, because of ‘Stairway to heaven’, I get to listen to them at length for the first time on Fluff’s show.

‘Houses of the Holy’ is rock as I’d never heard it, such a feast of different styles and even has a reggae track on it, ‘D’yer M’ker’ which has serious overcoat music types up in arms because it’s ‘too commercial’ and ‘it’s not serious, it’s a joke’. The phone in on Freeman’s show reveals an audience of fans who are split down the middle. Some hate it, some love it but at least none are indifferent. I try to phone in from a phone box outside but can’t get through. I put 2p in the slot for dial-a-disc instead and it’s playing ‘Drive In Saturday’.Bowie is now everywhere, with three of his pre-Ziggy albums in the charts.

Marc Bolan is starting to boogie a little bit too much and an appearance on the Cilla Black show earlier that year seems to suggest he has succumbed to light entertainment. Cilla Black sings weird lines like ‘I could have built a house on the ocean’, and does it absolutely sincere and straight.

‘20th Century Boy’ is a great single though and perhaps the last of the great T.Rex singles as it’s a long slow slide out of the charts from hereon.

By late ’73, the pierott mask is starting to slip from the cool face of Glam and it is all becoming a bit of a seaside pier farce with Mud taking it to parody Elvis imitations. Alvin Stardust duetting with Basil Brush sums it up. Bowie senses the sea change, is now wearing a suit and Roxy Music are in their own weird world anyway, so it doesn’t affect them. Bryan Ferry takes to wearing tuxedos as if to distance himself from the more pantomime aspects of Glam, reinventing himself as a cocktail lounge lizard persona.

Roxy make magnificent albums in ‘For your Pleasure’ and later that year, ‘Stranded’.

The first time I heard ‘Do the Strand’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was so original; it signaled that the 60s were over for good and the Beatles and that entire ilk were now pretty much erased from the pop collective memory. We were the dudes as Mott the Hoople sang, and we never got off on that revolution stuff.

I’m now half way past 14 and not bothering to go to school on Wednesdays so I miss double Maths with Mr. Moody. No point going in on the afternoon either, because then it’s double PE and I don’t fancy running cross country in an icy north sea gale.

I have one burning thing on my mind – I must get a guitar, I must get a guitar. I say it over and over as a mantra, forcing it to come true.

I do get one that Christmas 1973, a second hand one that my Dad bought off someone at work. I still don’t know to this day what make it was but it was white, had a single cut away and f holes in the body.

It sits there in my bedroom for about three months before I bother to find out how to tune it up. When I do, I buy a chord book and take to it very quickly. So quickly that my Dad is amazed when he asks if I can play ‘Peggy Sue’ by Buddy Holly and I work it out in front of him and play it perfectly about five minutes later. Maybe I was born to boogie too.

Chapter thirty-five

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The Nashville Rooms is a small venue in Kensington, London, and it’s hosted many a Punk band since the Pistols first blew the doors open for other bands to come through.

We’ve got a gig there coming up soon in July, supporting a band called Shake.

We’ve organised for a coach full of our supporters to come down with us so we can make an impression and we easily fill a coach and others make their own way down in various shared cars.

It’s a beautiful summer’s day when we travel down, the band going down in the coach with the Teessider crew.

Tubeway Army, with the soon to be solo Gary Numan, have just been number one with ‘Are Friends Electric’ and the electronic vanguard is soon to be upon us, although it takes a good year or so for all those synth bands to start coming through in the wake of Numan.

Gary Numan seemed to come out of nowhere, although I’d heard ‘Down in the Park’ earlier in the year and had a feeling we might be hearing more of him.

It’s encouraging that such a strange and different record as ‘Are Friends Electric’ can get to number one.

We’re not exactly a purely electronic band, but the synth is a big feature of our music so we feel the timing could be right for us.

In truth, we’re pretty confused musically. We have a Kraftwerk side to our music but we also have a more new wave guitar side to it and the two are battling it out in a struggle for direction. This is the wisdom of hindsight speaking now; we never had big talks about musical direction because we were too busy flying in the moment and just doing what we did.

Such thoughts, if we ever had them, are banished because this is a London gig and this is a chance to get some music press.

London gigs always have this strange pressure because we’re all aware that London is where the major music industry is and we’re all aware that we mustn’t waste an opportunity. It all starts to feel vaguely desperate but exciting too.

John always tried very hard to attract press and did eventually manage to get us featured in the newly published ‘Smash Hits’ magazine when they ran a feature on the Teesside scene. We waited for journalists to show up after the very positive feature, but nobody ever did. We were always having to fight apathy and indifference.

Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool and Edinburgh and soon Glasgow were the outside of London focus cities for music in the music papers, but Teesside was ignored.

It used to frustrate and exasperate us, because we knew that apart from ourselves, the Teesside music scene had a lot of bands worthy of wider coverage but it was like we were living in the forbidden zone and nobody wanted to come up to Middlesbrough and the surrounding towns to check out the scene.

So, because of that lingering feeling of being in obscurity, this London gig was a big deal for us.

We arrive in London in good time. Enough time to walk around. John goes off with Alan and buys some singles from a flea market, Jeff goes to buy a reed for his sax with Mick Todd and I walk around with a lad called Dom who is dressed in a black shirt and asks me if he looks like Gary Numan.

I later meet up with Benny Fuchsia with Jeff and Mick. Benny is a Punk character from Teesside who is now living in London. Benny turns up with another ex-Teesside Punk called Greshy. He is dressed in clown-like clothes, is wearing a small pointy hat and his face has silver greasepaint on it. The London scene has changed and clubs like the Blitz and Club for Heroes has characters like Steve Strange and Boy George spearheading something new. I am yet to find out what this scene is called because nobody has yet named it. I just presume it’s a London fashion scene, but I thought that about Punk and it exploded into the provinces within a year. We promise to put Benny and Greshy and some other ex-Teesside punks we know on the guest list.

We go back to the Nashville to do the sound check. We end up sitting around while the headlining band buggers around for ages, as headlining bands always do. We eventually sound check and it sounds shit but we’re almost used to it now and with a shrug, just get on with it.

It’s now time for the venue to open.

The place starts to fill out and the crowd who came down with us is in good spirits. The drinks start to flow and soon it’s time to take to the stage.

I go on stage dressed in an overcoat which is a bad idea because I already feel the lights start to make me overheat and sweat profusely, before we’ve even started.

Overcoats had become fashionable but that’s in Teesside and I’m probably about a year out of date in London, where fashions change so quickly.

Somebody down the front shouts ‘take your coat off you twat!’ in a London accent. I ignore him.

We open with ‘Success’, a song we always start our set with. The sound on stage is abysmal. I can’t hear my singing and my singing becomes more of a shout because of this. Alan keeps shouting back to have more guitar and bass in his drums monitor and we get ear shredding feedback squeals instead. The Teessider crowd is down the front, cheering us on, oblivious to musicianly concerns.

The rest of the set becomes a blur as we play too fast, the adrenalin motoring us up a notch of two. I can’t remember much about the set we played but I do recall that ‘Hollywood Strut’, already a fast tempo song, was played so fast, I could hardly get the words out. ‘Kirlian Photography’ was a bit of a mess because the synth stated playing up again but I don’t think anyone in the audience noticed.

We get an encore and come back on to play ‘Death’, a song I actually hate but it seems to have become a staple part of our set.

The local Teessider and Rock Garden crowd start to chant ‘We’re the barmy Basczax army!’ to bemused onlookers who can see we’ve brought rent-a-crowd with us.

The set finishes and we come off stage, having gone down great with our own lot but I notice the rest of the crowd were polite but pretty indifferent.

It’s the curse of the support band. You are just a band to pass the time until the main band comes on to most people. This is how it is. Plus London audiences are known for being notoriously cool with an ‘ok then, impress us’ folded arms attitude.

We mingle with the crowd after the gig and notice people like Paula Yates there, and various members of XTC and we wonder what they thought of us but don’t bother to ask because that would be uncool.

We meet a journalist from Sounds called Phil Sutcliffe who tells us he liked us, despite our complaints of the sound being bad. He takes down our set list and promises to review us.

A certain person from Smash Hits also tells us he thought we were good. His name is Neil Tennant, who will go on to be a mega pop star in the 80s, in Pet Shop Boys.

Shake come on; they are professional sounding but mediocre. Joe Callis will soon go on to join the Human League where he will be important in helping them write hits, but there is nothing in Shake that hints at this.

I am not being bigheaded when I say I think that we were the more interesting band, even if we only had a half hour to play and the sound was crap where we were standing.

Time has flown and it now all seems like something we dreamt as we travel back up north. The journey is long and boring and we don’t really know what to think about the gig but we seem to have impressed the right people.

A week later, we are thrilled to see that Phil Sutcliffe of Sounds has given us a favourable write up, calling us ‘an angry urban Roxy Music’. I am flattered by the review but wonder where the ‘angry’ came from because I certainly wasn’t angry up there. Another word is used, that I have to look up in a dictionary. The word is ‘belligerent’ and again, I think, why did he write that?

But it’s nice to get write ups and we’re all pleased that we got the coverage.

Back in Teesside it’s back to Friday nights at the Teessider.

We play ‘Waiting for the man’ and I dedicate it as thanks to our loyal followers who travelled down to the big smoke with us.

A memorable night that summer is when the Flowers come down to play with us. They top the bill and we charge 75p on the door so we can cover their travelling expenses. The Teessider is packed and they play a great set, with people dancing in front of them in the small cramped space. An enduring memory is of Drop singer Richard Sanderson dancing with his newly backcombed shock of hair and his dangly earrings with his new girlfriend Philippa.

The Flowers go back to Mick Todd’s house to stay over and that is the night I got chased by skinheads with a friend of mine called Robbo as we go for the train.

We ended up running alongside the railway track in the dark, with the skinheads pursuing us. We eventually lost them, but not before I got multiple stings from running through waist high nettles.

Robbo plays bass in band called Discharge and I remember one winter night when Robbo was drunk and he started to shout and swear at the icy wind and snow as he made his way to the train station to get back to Redcar where he lived. He ended up throwing his bass at the falling snow and I ended up having to retrieve it before a passing car ran over it. Robbo came to most if not all of our gigs and he became a great friend who I regularly kept in touch with.

Skinheads were starting to turn up at the Teessider to cause trouble and would often pounce on Punks and anyone who looked different to them coming from the Teessider.

One weekend, I go out with some friends from the Teessider and skinheads started on us, trying to incite us to fight them and they would fight you whether you wanted to fight or not.

Life was beginning to get scary, just as it has been when I was 12 and 13. Skinheads were also starting to sour the atmosphere at the Rock Garden. They were a total blight on the local scene and most people hated them.

(note: this extract is an edit of the chapter)