Electric Warrior – 40 years on…

Posted: September 14, 2011 in 70s, marcbolan, pop, rock

I remember the first time I dropped the needle onto side one of ‘Electric Warrior’…because it changed my life, or at least, the world around me. It was an internal dialogue, like entering a church. Yes, it sounds corny, but it was almost like I imagine getting religion to feel.

It was also simultaneously external: I could make sense of the world through the music of Marc Bolan, I could meet other like-minded people: I felt alone, but not lonely. I had the vague sense of belonging to a sect, a cult even. I imagined signs and strange incantations. I became a fan in other words.

My head became a maelstrom of sex, identity and music, battling it out on some cosmic plane between the good the bad, the cool and the uncool.  I entered the mind of Marc Bolan: I was connected. My universe – the universe of me, started to form. I was 12, and Marc Bolan caught me at the right time. If I had been three years older, maybe the impact would not have been the same. I had no preconceptions of what was cool, or even what good music was – but hearing T.Rex earlier in the year with ‘Hot Love’ on the radio, I was transported to the wonderful fantasy world of near-adolescence. I was transformed by the experience. I started to think differently, to dress differently. The old ‘child’ me was dead, or rather, buried for now, as my butterfly persona started gradually to emerge and awkwardly form.

Yes, it was that intense.

‘Electric Warrior’ was a major landmark in my emotional development, to say the least. It was the first album to really captivate and steal me away.

Even the cover fascinated me. Black and gold, with an outline image of Marc Bolan hunched over his guitar; the ‘Vamp’ amplifier behind him: it seemed cool and enigmatic at the same time. The inner sleeve had drawings of Marc Bolan and Mickey Finn, cosmic images weaved into both faces. The label on one side had the ‘Fly records’ logo; the other side a colour picture of Marc and Mickey: two pansexual men challenging traditional ideas of how men should look. A pre-Raphaelite iconography exuded from them.  This was an album as a whole auditory and visual package. The image was the music and the music was the image.

So the needle hit the grooves of the slightly crackling vinyl and the rock ‘n’ roll tablets from the mount were handed down to me. I can still smell the hot valves of the Dansette record player.

Track one, ‘Mambo Sun’, was Marc directly addressing me and his new found audience:

‘My life’s a shadowless horse…if I can’t get across…to you’…the invocation hypnotic – he really was seducing us all, and we were for some reason ready and willing to be seduced.

That was the effect: a sonic seduction as much as anything. T.Rex records were produced in such a way that the sound drew you in, made you want to swim in the sound waves, to live inside those grooves. I studied every nuance of Marc’s voice, I pored over every sound that I could hear hidden in the mix, or imagined in the mix. The off-mic talk back, the casual ad libs, the snakey weavings of the guitar: I spent many hours listening very intently.

In a dream-like state, I await track two…

‘Cosmic Dancer’ is the first Marc Bolan song and track I would call superb. It is a whimsical and haunting song, built around a cyclical chord sequence, mirroring the song’s theme of reincarnation. This is Marc playing up the ‘mystic’ – still perhaps conscious of his old hippy audience. The song has a rather oblique spiritual atmosphere. Marc was not yet the hardened rocker of ‘20th Century Boy’, he was not yet on the conveyor belt of hit after hit: it was all new and fresh to him. He was exploring his musical options and open to new ideas, new avenues.

This is the track where the production of the album really shines for the first time.

Tony Visconti was Marc’s producer. He was also crucial to his success; a musical partner who gave Marc’s songs form and shape from Marc’s vision.  I cannot stress enough the importance of Tony Visconti. He did after all, help Marc form T.Rex: bassist Steve Currie and drummer Bill Legend were Tony’s strong suggestions. Conga player Mickey Finn was also Visconti approved: Tony knew a great visual foil when he saw it too; Marc and Mickey made a very photogenic pop subject matter – until it soon became ‘all about Marc’…

T.Rex as a whole band is exemplary throughout the whole album. On ‘Cosmic Dancer’ the performance is great; all locked in to the trance like tempo of the song; great drum fills from Bill Legend and excellent sympathetic bass from Steve Currie. Micky Finn too, weaves some great congas throughout: he was just as essential to the sound of T.Rex as anyone else in the band. Pity he got such short thrift from the press, who saw him as surplus to requirements mostly. This persists today too. Let’s set the record straight and repeat so it sinks in: Mickey Finn was part of the T.Rex sound too. Got that?

On ‘Cosmic Dancer’, the string arrangement by Visconti is excellent; it takes surprising turns and introduces new counter- melodies to Marc’s vocal melody. It spirals and snakes around the tune; a perfect piece of Beatle-esque strings, but uniquely Visconti. His strings elevate the song to a classical plane. It is for me, the best example of the Bolan and Visconti partnership: and at this point, it was a partnership, not a dictatorship.

It was this track, ‘Cosmic Dancer’ that really reached me at the time. I had not expected such a soft, mesmerising song from Marc Bolan. I had ‘Hot Love’ and ‘Get it on’ in my mind, but this acoustic side was new to me. Two tracks in, and ‘Electric Warrior’ already cast a powerful spell over this listener.

‘Jeepster’.

Had to put a full stop there because what can you say about this track that has not already been said? It is a classic toe-tapping rock ‘n’bop song, a party on record, a sexual come on loaded with innuendo; a great, catchy tune. It is Marc Bolan knocking out cool couplets – they come in rapid fire: ‘Your motivation/is so sweet/your vibrations are burning up my feet’…’you slide so good/with bones so fair/you’ve got the universe reclining on your hair’…and the killer line ‘just like a car/you’re pleasing to behold/ I call you jaguar if I may be so bold’…

The car as sexual metaphor was a lyrical theme that Marc returned to a few more times. He liked his cars, even though he couldn’t drive. He also liked his rock n roll and blues. ‘Jeepster’ is a great example of Marc Bolan’s pop and rock nous:  the riff is lifted, sure, you’ve heard that rock n roll riff before, but somehow he makes it all his own. Talent borrows, genius steals: something that applies very much to Marc Bolan at his best. He was a rock magpie, a library of musical references, a doo wop aficionado, a lover of 60s pop and also The Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Beach Boys. Hell, ‘Hot Love’ lifts the riff from ‘California Girls’ pretty much wholesale.

Speaking of Doo Wop – a mostly vocal harmony, ‘barbershop’ form of music popular in the fifties and early sixties – track number four: ‘Monolith’, reinvents Doo Wop as a kind of cosmic meditation on the meaning of meaningless things. The lyric is one of those Marc pranks – making nonsense sound good. What is ‘the throne of time?’… ‘lost like a lion in the canyons of smoke’ is more Bonzos surrealism than anything else. Marc Bolan was great at sounding like he meant every word of it. And you believed it. You sang along. You talked to friends about the meaning of the words. And all the while, Marc Bolan was probably giggling to himself: his lyrical schism was mostly word play and playful nonsense; with a bit of mysticism and eroticism thrown in. He blended words for the way they sounded; it was all part of the overall sound: a sonorous mash of vowel collisions and pop culture references. And he started to use the word ‘baby’ a lot and whoop and scream on his records like he was having the time of his life. Because he was.

So ‘Monolith’ – why the title? – who knows? – it fuses mystical bollocks to ‘Duke of Earl’. And it works a treat. Haunting backing vocals from Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan – both ex-Turtles – give the track a weird aura.  And Marc gets to show off some of his weird blues guitar riffing, with his foot on the Hendrix wah-wah pedal.

The last track on side one ‘Lean Woman Blues’ sounds like any blues song you ever heard really. It comes across as a fun track, a goof off from serious artistic duties. It is also immensely enjoyable and fits in great with the vibe of the album. T.Rex music was also plain fun, let’s remember. ‘I’m like a child in the sand on the beach of the land…of you’…Marc gets to explore the infinitesimal. Done with tongue very much in cheek. Let us not forget that Marc had a wicked sense of humour too and was referencing riffs for the hipsters in his audience. He was enjoying himself on these sessions and you can hear the exuberance of the whole band on the album. It is a unit in tune with each other. It is T.Rex as a band with Marc Bolan as the singer, songwriter, guitarist and front man. Not yet ‘the Marc Bolan show’…

Speaking of referencing riffs, the opening track of side two, ‘Get it on’, references Lightning Hopkins, via Chuck Berry and the vocal is almost Peggy Lee in its ‘come hither’ intonations. It has a similar sexy atmosphere as ‘Fever’ – yes, it lifts Chuck Berry of course, as often has been said; Marc’s own ‘Little Queenie’ – but it is also drenched in the horny coo of female singers like the aforementioned Peggy. There was a feminine as well as masculine power in Marc’s peacock blues poetry strutting: it is the indefinable essence of his vocal charisma that is so hard to really pin down. It creates a kind of enigma: these are sexy words, but with strange mythology referencing lines ‘You’re dirty and sweet/you’ve got the teeth of a hydra upon you’….and ‘a cloak full of eagles’…are not your regular pop song words. This was another quality that gave T.Rex records a unique aura: the words were often a potent blend of the strange and the sexy. But somehow, not sexist, or macho blues braggadocio…that came later with ‘Groover’ and the feeling that Marc was becoming all rock but no roll. This is the essential difference between the Marc Bolan of ‘Electric Warrior’ and later albums like say, ‘Tanx’. ‘Electric Warrior’ had some great grooves going on: latter T.Rex did not, they became rather hard edged, concrete rather than liquid, clompy rather than slinky. ‘Electric Warrior’ was simply an album that was almost impossible to better: it has all the great and quintessential elements that make Marc Bolan so great: he out classed and out gassed himself on ‘Warrior’.

‘Planet Queen’ is another strange seduction song. Quasi mystical verses give way to obvious sexual intent:  ‘flying saucer take me away/ give me your daughter’…is almost a grooming line: Marc’s young female (and male) audience would have gladly been stolen away by Marc Bolan. The song takes the basic blues template of ‘Get it on’ but recasts it as a funky kind of shuffle. In the key of E, like a lot of Marc’s songs, it threatens to sound too samey, but gets away with it as the chorus takes a different turn. It also has more great backing vocals on it – Kaylan and Volman echo and response Marc’s vocal line perfectly, giving the song a textural depth in the production.

‘Girl’ is another Marc ballad: a philosophical troubadour song, a kind of vignette to off-set the boogie tracks. It starts, like ‘Cosmic Dancer’, with a spiritual atmosphere: ‘O God, high on your fields above Earth…come and be real for us’. The lyrics then move through different scenarios: ‘the boy – sunk like a boat’….the ‘electric witch’ and the subject matter of the song, the un-named ‘girl’ of the title. The melody is also a similar shape to ‘Cosmic Dancer’ – circular and looping back onto itself – something of a trademark of Marc’s songwriting. The track is beautifully scored – again, like ‘Cosmic Dancer’ – by Tony Visconti, with some unusual Flugel horn, giving the song a chamber pop feel.

‘The Motivator’ is another of the album’s fun, feel-good tracks.  It is like ‘Get it On’ and ‘Planet Queen’, another blues pop song in the key of E, this time played choppy and to maximum repetition. Still, the song has a playful, seductive (that word again) atmosphere to it, before ‘Electric Warrior’ unleashes its final two killer tracks: ‘Life’s a gas’ and ‘Rip off’.

‘Life’s a gas’ is arguably Marc’s most popular acoustic love song, although being Marc Bolan, the words were anything but straight forward. They replace love song lyrical clichés with a series of couplets, short but memorable all the same: ‘I could have loved you girl like a planet/ I could have chained your heart to a star’…is almost Shakespeare in its use of cosmic imagery, but let us not get pretentious: it was a catchy tune with some unusual words that sounded romantic. It also has an air of self-pity about it: ‘But it really doesn’t matter at all/ Life’s a gas’…was probably an irony lost on Marc’s new young audience. I certainly had no idea what he meant by ‘Life’s a gas’…a friend unhelpfully told me he didn’t mean that life was good at all…which I admit, went over my head at the time.

‘Life’s a gas’ could have been released as a single. It turned up in fact as the b-side to ‘Jeepster’, and doubtless many casual single buyers may have been surprised by this track – something very different, and more conventionally ‘songwriterly’ from Marc Bolan. Cat Stevens fans might have liked it.

The final track on ‘Electric Warrior’ is the most bizarre recording by T.Rex. It is a thrash with mostly shouted lyrics: spinning around a loony tune chord sequence that is a strange, almost gothic sounding heavy metal progression. It is almost a proto-rock ‘n’ rap track, with the drums and congas playing a break beat loop over which Bolan riffs in block bar chords. It ends with a kind of musical nervous breakdown, Ian Macdonald riffing some hard bop sax over the feedback fade out, that ends with sustained strings that quickly disappear after the track finishes. ‘Rip off’ is a total surprise, and gives ‘Electric Warrior’ a kind of enigmatic yet manic finish: rock n roll madness, Marc vamping and ad-libbing his way into a frenzy of nonsense: it was the wordless spirit of ‘awopbopaloombop’ revisited: a cool ending to a cool album.

So, ‘Electric Warrior’ was an album that did not disappoint: it hit all the right ‘teenage’ buttons and was the start of Marc Bolan’s three and a half year reign as a hit maker. It crossed over from Marc’s old audience and initiated a new pop audience, average age 13. Me included.

But is ‘Electric Warrior’ an album as great as any great album? I am talking ‘Revolver’… ‘Ziggy Stardust’…any acknowledged and critically sanctioned ‘classic’?

I say yes it is.

‘Electric Warrior’ has endured over the passage of time. It is not nostalgic ears that say this: the album still sounds fresh, funky and vital today as it did then. Other T.Rex records do not: ‘The Slider’ for example, although a strong album, is too rooted in the glam rock summer of its release in July 1972. ‘Electric Warrior’ in comparison, is an album that seems timeless. It was an early ‘birth of glam’ with the production values: handclaps on the back beats for example on some tracks. But, apart from the glitter on his cheeks and the flamboyant dress sense, no one had yet uttered the term: ‘glam rock’. That came a little bit later.

‘Electric Warrior’  captures an important time in British pop: the moment when a mass teeny pop audience emerged after the sixties had sunk into a kind of serious sulk with itself, and  Marc Bolan made pop music  invigorating, catchy and cool again. But this was a different kind of pop: it was informed by psychedelia as well as sixties pop and blues. It was retro as well as forward looking and not everyone understood that at the time. ‘Electric Warrior’, was a synthesis of the Warholian pop art/trash aesthetic, but also of ‘progressive’ musical ambition. Although Marc Bolan’s songs are essentially blues in form, 12 bar, and elsewhere folk like ballads, they are arranged with a musicality (Tony Visconti mostly) that gives the album a sheen of sophistication, contrasting and complimenting the raw and edgy rough take quality of T.Rex. The album has a spontaneity about it, inhabiting a place in time that is somehow then but also now.

The album is Tony Visconti’s, as well as Marc Bolan’s triumph.

On ‘Electric Warrior’ you are hearing a ‘live performance’ in the studio, but also a pop production par excellence: the perfect marriage of Marc Bolan’s songs and ideas, realised and in sympathy, by Tony Visconti.

There is also magic in the grooves, something unique and unrepeatable happened during the recording of the album: I won’t even try to define it.

It not only reached a new young pop generation, it also inspired a whole host of musicians, who were very encouraged by the almost punk-like simplicity of Marc Bolan’s songs. This album was made in an era of musical noodling and increasing self-indulgent virtuosity.

It was a big two fingers up at so called progressive rock, at authentic rock and blues bands.

Some musicians at the time, doubtless, were scornful of its simplicity.

But, just like the blues, which are easy to learn and play but difficult to play really good and get the feel, ‘Electric Warrior’ reminds us that simplicity that is engaging and magical is very difficult to achieve.

The illusion is: Marc Bolan, T.Rex band members and Tony Visconti, make it sound so effortless and easy: herein lies the greatness and lasting appeal of ‘Electric Warrior’.

So this is it: I officially declare and confirm ‘Electric Warrior’ to be a classic and important album in the canon of great British pop and rock.

Comments
  1. I was approaching ten, my favourite and most magical year. Electric Warrior reminds me of Ace of Wands and The Tomorrow People, but mostly of Thin Lynn who helped my mum in the day nursery in one half of our house. Quiet, beautiful and slightly aloof. A Marc Bolan fanatic. She looked like the poster pop girls in my sister’s ‘Jackie’ magazine…Did she really have glitter on her cheek?
    I was listening to The Wombles and Great War Movie Themes. Then Marc and Lynn started the murmer of the riptide that would sweep me into far deeper waters. Is it strange to dance so soon?

    • ‘Ace of wands!’ – you are the only person I know who remembers it. Used to love the theme tune. Yes, Mickey Finn would not have been out
      of place in the groovy guy line up of that show…as for Marc…well, he holds a strange spell over me still. I still get a massive thrill hearing
      his stuff and ‘Beard of Stars’ reminds me of sitting in my bedroom reading ‘The Hobbit’ as I did when I was about 13, going on 14. ‘Beard of Stars’ was an original copy on Regal Zonophone. I borrowed it from a friend’s older brother.

  2. I’ve still got my original copy of ‘Beard of Stars’ which I picked up 2nd hand in that little fleamarket in the yard behind Hobnob next to Green Dragon Yard – which could be a Bolan song! – in about 1979. I also got “The Beginning of Doves” on Track there around the same time – that, too, still gets its fair share of spins here in Schumm Towers. AND I remember seeing a hardback of Bolan poetry in the 2nd hand bookshop in the building in the middle of Stockton market at the time but not having the cash on me. When I went back, it’d gone – one of those misses that still annoys me…!

    Yep, reading ‘The Hobbit’ & ‘Lord of the Rings’ & listening to the above, ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ & ‘The Madcap Laughs’ (Fearnleys, 2nd hand) and feeling all clever that I knew about Syd’s Floyd and Tyrannosaurus (not T.) Rex.

    Stockton always represented a real hippy haven for me. Buying books about magic mushrooms and Freak Bros comics in the head shop upstairs in the Green Market (next to the hotel where I came with you to meet your future managers that day), checking out the hippy chicks in Hobnob & hanging out with the patchouli crowd in the basement of The Talbot. AND it was a bus-ride away from home where, try as I might, I couldn’t find any remnants of the late sixties/early seventies shangri-la I spent my late teens looking for.

    Great writing – your best yet. You manage to make you, the writer, disappear whilst dealing with very personal recollections. I’ve passed it on to a Manchester mate of mine here, Mark, who formed a glam-punk band, V2, in the late ’70’s and he was well impressed, not least because your thoughts/timeline above match his exactly! So, if a Mark Freeman gets in touch on fb – that’s him.

    I wonder if my copy of ‘Beard of Stars’ was once your friend’s older brother’s…? x

  3. Oh yeah, are you able to delete one of my doubled-up comments? I thought I’d lost it, rewrote it & then they both turned up! Doh.

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