Archive for the ‘70s’ Category

1973-07-14

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.

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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)

marc_bolan-t-rex-20th_century_boy_the_ultimate_collection-booklet

 

A first musical crush is an intense experience.

Mine, as most people on here know, was Marc Bolan. He caught me at a time in my young life when I just on the cusp of becoming a teenager. His image and music totally gripped me and I became a big fan. He seemed unstoppable for about three years and then sadly and perhaps inevitably (where else is there to go when you are that huge?) went into a swift decline. Like a lot of that early 70s generation, I went on to David Bowie and Roxy Music , with T.Rex becoming a sideline interest; the odd single getting my attention, but not interested in the albums as such, after ‘Tanx’ in 1973.

In only five short years after his peak of popularity in 1972 with ‘Metal Guru’, Marc Bolan was no longer with us. Killed in a purple mini. Not a Cadillac or a glamorous American car that often inhabited his lyrics, but a humble and very English mini. There is something very Marc Bolan about that though, because he was prone to exaggeration and flights of fancy, when in fact, he didn’t ‘drive a Rolls Royce ‘cos it’s good for my voice’ (Marc couldn’t actually drive)

As is often the way with pop stars that die young, we tend to think of only the good times and ignore or make excuses for the not-so good times. The emotional connection is so strong; the jukebox of the mind keeps playing those songs over and over.

The truth is, Marc was creatively lost –or at best at an impasse – when he died and had been for the last three years. He had struggled to find a new and credible direction and came across as increasingly ridiculous on tacky pop shows like ‘Supersonic’ and ‘Get it together’, where he stumbled through smoke machines, looking like a relic of another pop age by 1975.

I remember hearing ‘Zip Gun Boogie’ on the radio only once and thinking it was awful – because it was. Bolan by that point had boogied himself into a stubborn cocaine denial and had a bunker mentality when he should have taken some time out to re-think his direction.

I believe he was certainly capable of doing this. He had, after all, transformed himself from a fey hippy cosmic-folk troubadour, into a fabulous Glam rock peacock pop star in the early 70s. Why couldn’t he change one more time?

I can only speculate of course. I suspect that fame – that hall of mirrors that claims the souls and senses of so many who enter it – went to his head and cocaine made him ego deaf, refusing to listen to those around him such as producer Tony Visconti, who tried to persuade Bolan to re-invent himself and his music. He threw in the producer towel after the album ‘Zinc Alloy’, sometime in early 1974.

Tellingly, Marc’s fortunes took a dive. Visconti had been so important to the success of T.Rex and by now, Marc was running on hubris and a smaller but loyal fan base barely kept his profile above obscurity.

He tried to give his music more of a funky soul flavour for the next year or so– largely with the help of his girlfriend Gloria Jones, now in T.Rex on keyboards and backing vocals. But it all sounded so incongruous and didn’t go far enough to convince as a change of direction. Bolan going soul just didn’t suit him either – his voice was too idiosyncratic and his lyrics too surreal to fit soul music’s more direct lyrics and emotional rawness.

A single, ‘Dreamy Lady’, billed as ‘disco T.Rex’ was actually more of the old doo-wop structure than soul.

Then, in 1976, Marc was suddenly back in the charts with a new single: ‘I love to boogie’.

It was Bolan doing what he did best. Toe tapping, upbeat fun pop rock n roll. The delusional period of trying to go soul was over and Bolan was up for the pop rock game again. He even had his hair cut, as if shedding the baggage of the past.

Marc had recently aligned himself with the emerging Punk scene in London and put his money where his mouth was by having the Damned as his support act in early 1977, when a new slimmed down Bolan, took to the road for a T.Rex tour to promote the album ‘Dandy in the underworld’.

The album had been trailered by a single, ‘Soul of my suit’, which I liked and felt hopeful that Marc was on a creative up.

I got the ‘Dandy’ album and to be honest, didn’t think it was the ‘return to form’ as it had been feted as in some quarters. However, it was a lot better than the previous two albums and Marc seemed to have got his mojo back, sparked by the Punk movement.

He got his own TV show on which he showcased Punk bands that nobody would go near. But the show itself was awful – typical 70s late afternoon tasteless tack, with Marc being flanked by dancers as he ran through old hits with a band that consisted of session musicians. It was great to see Marc back on TV but a lot of it made me cringe. I just wasn’t that star-struck 13 year old anymore I guess and had more sophisticated tastes by then.

An exclusive was announced: that David Bowie was going to be on Marc’s show. I couldn’t wait – two old Mod friends and rivals in Glam together at last.

Marc’s latest single was ‘Celebrate Summer’, a disposable piece of 60s surf-pop with glib lyrics that rhymed ‘punk’ with ‘junk’ and with a slightly punky edge. Maybe if the Ramones had covered it…it might have made sense?

‘Celebrate Summer’ didn’t chart but for now, it didn’t matter.

With a new buzz around Marc, and a new-found credibility among the Punk generation, I decided to forgive and forget the kitsch naffness of the ‘Marc’ show and looked forward to Bowie appearing on it.

Then, on the morning of Friday, September 16th, I turned on the radio and caught the back end of ‘Ride a white swan’. The DJ said ‘I hope that’s of comfort to fans of Marc Bolan’.

I turned on the TV and waited for the news, an agonising half hour or so away. ‘Pop star Marc Bolan has been killed in a car crash in the early hours of this morning. He was 29’.

I suddenly felt guilty for having negative thoughts on Marc. I also felt a strange hollow numbness come over me. Marc figured so highly in my early teenage years, it was like a part of me died with him.

I went upstairs and played ‘Electric Warrior’, an album of Marc at his creative peak (one he managed to sustain for ‘The Slider’ and most of the ‘Tanx’ album)

All the memories flashed back at me: Marc on Top of the Pops, loving every moment of his fame, Marc bizarrely on the Cilla Black show duetting on ‘Life’s a Gas’, Marc in interviews with headlines like ‘T.Rextacy!’ and ‘Bolan’s Triumph’. Marc Bolan posters in the Jackie magazine that you had to collect for three weeks to get the three parts of them. Hearing ‘20th century boy’ on Radio Luxembourg for the first time and thinking it sounded fantastic and thrilling.

The final episode of ‘Marc’ – with Bowie appearing and jamming with Marc, was transmitted a week or so after his death. It was great to see them together but also a sad, shambolic finale, as Marc slipped and fell over before the song hardly got started. The camera crew had pulled the plug on them too, over a union dispute. Two legends, stopped in their tracks by officious union men. Didn’t they know that his was a unique event? Or were they secretly Carpenters fans who just hated strange exotic pop stars?

Then suddenly, as if time quickly forward-wound itself to a horrible present – there was a photograph in the papers of Marc’s funeral, with Rod Stewart’s head bowed in grief and David Bowie, visibly upset. A white swan made of flowers spelling his name. It was all too surreal for a fan like me to take in.

Marc Bolan’s death felt like the end of an era, and maybe it was. It was after all, the death of a Proper Pop Star – the kind of star that does not apologise for who they are, a star who is pathologically individual and could never be anything else other than a Pop star. You could never ever imagine Marc Bolan going to a 9 to 5 job, or living a normal life. He really did seem to be someone who was born to do what he did.

When I think about it now, it was Marc Bolan who first showed me the possibility of another world beyond the factory lined horizon of Teesside. A world where it was ok to not fit in, to feel different, to celebrate your strangeness and to meet others who felt the same. It’s weird when I meet other fans of Marc; there is an instant connection, an unspoken understanding.

I still play his music and a lot of it I never tire of.

The elegant and funky simplicity of ‘Hot Love’ and ‘Get it on’ still amaze me. Marc took three or four chords and made them into something magic and enduring. His words were mostly a mixture of beat poetry and playful nonsense, like a child discovering the sound of language for the first time. He was a master of the pop hook too and for catchy as hell evidence, listen to ‘Telegram Sam’.

The acoustic and very English whimsical Marc was another side to him. Listen to ‘Cosmic Dancer’ or ‘Mystic Lady’ and be charmed.

Marc could merge Syd Barrett and Chuck Berry too: try ‘The Slider’ to hear this cosmic fusion.

In retrospect, Marc Bolan didn’t really need to change musical direction. He just needed to keep making good Marc Bolan music.

I have his latest album in my head right now, but you can’t hear it, because it’s personal to me.

Boogie on in peace, Marc Bolan: the original cosmic Punk.

bowie and spiders

 

Absurd really.

A man pretending to be a bi-sexual space alien, five years before the end of the world, makes it big as a rock star and then at the end of his fame, commits suicide. That is the basic idea of David Bowie’s ‘The rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’. How did it happen and how did a generation of young dudes fall for the hammy and extremely contrived persona of David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust?

Well, it was the 70s. And like most places in the past it is a  foreign country now. This was a country of economic gloom, post-sixties epicurean comedown, post-Beatles, post optimism. And pop music was being re-born again, this time around, dressed in satin and tat. Marc Bolan had signalled it was tongue in cheek party time, with his sexually infused blues pop and glitter under his eyes. He made Top of the Pops something worth watching again.

So, mid 1972 and the freak party that was Glam rock, was in full swing, with Marc Bolan at the centre of it all…well, that is, until Bowie came along.

Except Bowie’s glam rock party was taking place in an end of the world setting: ‘Ziggy Stardust’ was a pretty gloomy affair, when you think about it…

Bowie’s pessimistic take on culture was one of those zeitgeist defining moments. He would often refer to himself in interviews as ‘an actor’ and ‘ a Xerox machine’. His ironic detachment made his Ziggy Stardust persona a Grand Pop Experiment. It appealed to the teeny boppers who dug T.Rex, but also the ‘heads’ into progressive rock. Hey man, ‘Ziggy’ was a concept album after all…well, kind of. It was also an escapist fantasy ride, a diversion from the IRA bombings and terrorist-threat atmosphere of the early 70s.

But of course, I was blissfully unaware of all this at the time. Like most kids and teenagers, I lived in the sensation of the moment.

I had just turned 13 in June 1972. I was already reading the music press like New Musical Express (not yet, ‘NME’) ‘Sounds’ and ‘Melody Maker’.  I was aware of David Bowie of course, because of ‘Starman’, a recent hit. I was taken by its camp ( I didn’t even know what the word meant then) aura and its sci-fi vibe, being a Star Trek and Dr.Who child of the space age sixties. Bowie tapped into my on-the-brink-of –teenage-psyche, as he did for millions of others. ‘Starman’ was also a great tune with a chorus that soared, not unlike ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’. Plus it had that great boogie chug on the ‘la la la’ play out.

Shit!

I didn’t see the Old Grey Whistle Test appearances, heralding the arrival of David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, in around early 1972. But I DID see Bowie on a late afternoon pop programme for kids called ‘Lift off with Ayshea Brough’. This was when ‘Starman’ was not yet a hit. I asked my friends if they had seen this ‘weird bloke singing this weird song’ as I broadcast it to my school mates. They hadn’t seen it. I felt like someone who had seen a UFO, and found it hard to relate it back to reality bound terrestrials. If someone had told me he was indeed, Martian, I probably would have believed them.

The next I knew, aided by airplay by the unlikely Bowie champion of Radio One’s Tony Blackburn, Bowie was on Top of the Pops; that famous arm with the calculated limp wrist, adorned with bangles, draped around guitarist Mick Ronson. (thinking of it now, Bowie’s ‘gay persona’ was more Danny La Rue end of the pier camp than anything)

It was the appearance that made your ICI process worker Dad, squirm.

(Interestingly, a couple of years ago, I played this famous TV appearance via youtube to a class of Year 8 kids (ages 12-13) and their response was to laugh at it – they just thought he looked silly and funny)

Everyone was talking about him now. The perception at the time was that he was some kind of novelty – but reading the music press, now gushing about his singular talent- it became apparent that this was man who was about to become huge.

If only Middlesbrough Town Hall had reflected this, when Bowie played there as Ziggy, in June 1972. It was apparently only two thirds full, the Teesside macho rock ‘n’ blues contingent perhaps too embarrassed to attend a concert by a man in a Japanese designed jump-suit and a jock strap, who sang vaguely gay themed pop songs such as ‘Lady Stardust’. (‘People stared at the makeup on his face / laughed at his long black hair/his animal grace’)

I remember seeing the advert for the tour in the music press. Bowie was drawn as a cartoon character and the tag line on the advert read: ‘David Bowie IS Ziggy Stardust’. I had read about the amazing show he put on and desperately wanted to go. I was now buying any publication with Bowie in it, absorbing his interviews and being totally entranced by his image.

I begged my cousin to take me to the gig, but she was more of a Tamla girl and not really interested in strange insectoid men with bright red hair. In her opinion, he was ‘probably a bum chum of that other talentless freak, Marc Bolan’ (well, she was from Middlesbrough, remember and she was strangely accurate in one way)

So alas, I did not attend this gig – my parents would not let me go on my own, possibly fearing I would be abducted by drug addled homosexuals, who would convert me to a life of debauchery and start quoting Oscar Wilde. And so, the Ziggy Stardust stage show passed me by, much to my eternal regret.

I did not even own a copy of ‘Ziggy Stardust’ until the following year. The copy I heard, and tried to hang onto as long as I could, belonged to an older brother of a school friend of mine.

But how I remember playing that album. It was a teenage bedroom moment: my imagination stolen away by the opening track: ‘Five Years’. The soft pitter patter of the drums fading in;  it was the musical equivalent of curtains being raised, when Bowie sang ‘Pushing through the market square…so many mothers sighing’…and then there was that weird echo repeat on the last word of the line, making it sound like he was walking through empty city streets at night. It conjured to mind visions of clockwork orange droogies stalking deserted alleyways. (Another influence on Bowie was this film: it is not hard to see that he based the Ziggy and the Spiders outfits on the droogie characters, except making them into ‘cosmic yobs’ as Bowie called himself at the time)

Ziggy Stardust had arrived, and his tenure for me, was to be a life long duration.

For someone who pored over the lyrics of Marc Bolan, I think that by the third track into ‘Ziggy Stardust’, I was aware that Bowie was a talent operating on a much higher creative plane than Marc Bolan. Sure, Bolan was my first major musical crush, and his weirdo pop still haunts me today, but with Bowie it was something else entirely.

Bowie’s songs took unexpected turns that made the hairs on the back of my neck raise. The play-out of ‘Moonage Daydream’ sounded like a band being transported into warp drive deep space. The bridge on ‘Soul Love’ delighted and surprised, and this was uplifting, life-affirming music too. The ‘wham bam thank you ma’am’ show stopping moment in ‘Suffragette City’ was another ‘wow’ moment on the record. ‘Ziggy Stardust’ was a great album because it had great tunes, great hooks, as well as being the compelling work of a pop art imagination.

The closing track ‘Rock ‘n roll suicide’ was simply amazing to my fresh teenage ears at the time. The whole song is a psycho drama, climaxing in the audience of the mind plea of ‘gimme your hands! You’re not alone!’ Instantly, I wanted to be in that audience. And I was.

I had no idea why I was responding to the emotional resonance of the album, because it was a strange, sexually ambiguous atmosphere that emanated from the grooves of the record – but that is what it was: emotional. Despite Bowie’s ironic detachment from his subject matter, despite his claims in interviews to ‘being a bit of an ice man’ – this was emotional music and it lodged itself into my mind like a kind of bomb. It blew my mind to listen to ‘Ziggy Stardust’ at the time, in other words.

Now, the stench of the familiar and the over-played, has given the album the aura of being a period piece – a kind of ‘Sgt Pepper’ of the Glam rock era in Pop music.

But on the right day, the opening power chords of ‘Moonage Daydream’ still manage to jettison me back to that initial thrill, that euphoric moment of ‘what the hell is this?’ excitement.

The jangly intro to the title track ‘Ziggy Stardust’ still gives me an excited flutter in the stomach. The way the song unveils its vignette of a rock star ‘killed by the kids’ still takes me on a journey, if I let go and remember how I used to feel as a young teenager.

The barely pausing for breath near segue from ‘Ziggy’ to ‘Suffragette City’ is still one of the most exciting pieces of track sequencing on any album. The Who-like power chords are traditional, yet the synths on the track give it a futuristic flavour. Droogie rock ‘n’ roll is what it was. You can imagine Alex and his friends getting reading for a night out of ultra-violence to this track.

Bowie of course, went on to make decade defining music after Ziggy. (In fact he was already doing this with the two albums before ‘Ziggy’ – ‘The man who sold the world’ and ‘Hunky Dory’ – but nobody but a tiny minority of hipsters were listening then)

I am not going to use this piece to go into pretentious piffle about how Glam rock was a kind of social and sexual revolution (it wasn’t – it was mostly a Top of the Pops phenomenon and collision of effete cross-sexual fashion meets post- Warhol rock ‘n’ roll sensibility)

(Now that’s pretentious – I can’t help it, can I?)

I would however, like to simply say that ‘Ziggy Stardust’ still sounds like a tremendous achievement of the pop imagination and that the songs – after all the space alien drag act hype – still stand up today, forty years after its release in 1972.

And let us not forget: discovering Bowie was a world that led to other rock ‘n’ roll outsiders like The Stooges and The Velvet Underground, hitherto, unknown to most. Bowie brought the perceived rock ‘n’ roll losers out into the mainstream and basically initiated some kind of weirdo ball that was to cast its long shadow up to and including Punk: which when you think about it, was as much about the art of self re-invention as Bowie’s ‘Ziggy’ was.

But now I am stating the obvious.

Awwwwwwwww….

Wham bam thank you ma’am!

Happy 40th birthday, Ziggy Stardust.

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.