Archive for the ‘rock’ 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.

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.