Marc Bolan would have been 67 years old today, were it not for the car crash that took his life in 1977, two weeks before his 30th birthday. Today we celebrate his fascinating musical career.
I first heard The Slider by T. Rex, the loosely-termed “band” Bolan fronted for the majority of his career, when I was 12 years old. I listened to it almost exclusively for the next two years. In fact, Marc Bolan’s music was probably the only thing that got me through middle school. It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before; heavy guitars with slick, glistening string arrangements, congas, and Marc’s ethereal voice. The Slider is one of those rare albums on which every song is amazing: from the opening chords of “Metal Guru” that hit you like a freight train, to the quiet, almost meditative fadeout of “Main Man.”
To this day, Marc doesn’t get enough recognition for his music. It was some of the coolest, sexiest rock and roll of the ’70s, and even today it still holds up. Marc’s melodies are gorgeous. Of course he ended up rehashing the same old rock and roll riffs ad nauseam with a handful of chords, but whatever, I’m not trying to listen to Yngwie Malmsteem or some shit. Marc could play boogie rock like nobody’s damn business, and he did it well. Sure, when he dabbled in soul, disco, and new wave–all of which he did ahead of the crowd, I might add–it still sounded like boogie-rock T. Rex doing soul or new wave or disco. But the same could also be said of the Stones’ Emotional Rescue. And Marc’s ability to adjust the T. Rex formula to nearly any subgenre of music shows how adaptable his sound truly was.
And yet, beneath all the glittery boogie-rock swagger is a sad undertone to Marc’s music that makes it so endearing and real. Just listen to “Ride a White Swan“: even when Marc is plucking out the buzziest, springiest guitar riff, there’s still a tinge of melancholy. “Metal Guru” is one of the happiest and saddest songs all at once, and Marc’s ballads were some of the most beautiful things on earth. “Cosmic Dancer” to this day, no matter how many times I hear it, makes me fall to the ground weeping uncontrollably in the fetal position. And “Ballrooms of Mars” has the spookiest, loveliest lyrics ever written: “You talk about day/ I’m talking ’bout night time / When monsters call out the names of men.” The song really does sound like a waltz at some sort of outer space ballroom, with its two spindly guitar solos annotated by Bolan’s gravelly yell of “ROCK!”–which, aside from fathering a child, is probably the only masculine thing he ever did.
A lot has been said about Marc’s gobbledygook lyrics, and with lines like “hiding in the road / like a Pasolini toad / gonna give up all my load / and go oooo yeah,” I can’t say I blame anyone for finding them an easy target. His lyricism was inspired by Bob Dylan, but oftentimes he comes off sounding like Dylan’s little brother who has Asperger’s and a penchant for Dungeons & Dragons. Yet, it is the bizarre and idiosyncratic nature of his lyricism that makes Marc’s music so fascinating. Marc didn’t bother writing about the world we live in; instead, he created his own world, with distinctive characters and images. and then invited us in. “Telegram Sam” is a perfect example of this, with Marc dropping colorful nicknames for people he knows, including “Purple Pie Pete,” “Golden Nose Slim,” and “Jungle Face Jake.” And I have to say that “Spaceball Ricochet”‘s “with my Les Paul / I know I’m small / But I enjoy living anyway” are just the most simplistically beautiful lyrics ever.
So now, here are my favorite songs by Marc Bolan–well, some of them anyway. Spotify doesn’t have any of his late ’60s albums as Tyrannosaurus Rex, which is both a shame and a blessing, as it made it easier for me to narrow the following playlist down to eleven tracks:
1. “Raw Ramp”
(1971 B-side, available on Electric Warrior: Expanded & Remastered)
Yeah, I added the B- Side to “Get It On” rather than the song itself because I’m an insufferable hipster. I mean, practically everyone has heard “Get It On,” even in the U.S. Don’t get me wrong, “Get It On” is a fantastic song, but for some reason “Raw Ramp” is just one of my favorites. First of all, “raw ramp” is the closest Marc Bolan ever got to calling a woman a ho. Also, the line “woman, I love your chest / Ooo baby, I’m crazy ’bout your breasts” is one of the dumbest lyrics about a woman’s body ever written by someone over the age of thirteen. You have to love it.
2. “Life’s a Gas”
(from Electric Warrior, 1971)
Electric Warrior was full of great ballads, and “Life’s a Gas” will always be my favorite. The melody and lyrics are so beautiful.
3. “Planet Queen”
(from Electric Warrior)
This song is just so weird and otherworldly. Flo & Eddie are tearing it up in this one, too.
4. “Baby Strange”
(from The Slider, 1972)
Ridiculous intro aside (“one and a-two and a BOBBLY BOBBLY BOO BOO YEEEEEAH”) this is seriously the sexiest song that T. Rex ever recorded, never mind that it makes no damn sense.
5. “Ballrooms of Mars”
(from The Slider)
The most beautiful song ever. That’s it.
(from Tanx, 1973)
One of the sleaziest boogies Marc ever laid down. On the album cover to Tanx, a flabby Marc Bolan is crouching with a strategically placed toy tank, which I guess was supposed to illustrate sexual prowess, but like, dude, it’s a TOY tank.
7. “Interstellar Soul”
(from Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow, 1974)
When I was younger I couldn’t even listen to Marc’s later music. Not only does it sound different but, like every other teenage girl, I was in love with the cute little elf Marc Bolan, not the fat, drunken, washed-up Marc Bolan who used heavy drugs and cheated on his wife and looked like somebody’s Wiccan aunt. But now I have a new appreciation for Marc’s music from the mid-’70s. It was strangely ahead of its time: despite having poor critical reception when it was released, it now sounds contemporary. One thing I have to say about Marc’s music at this time, though: who the hell BUT Marc would use his girlfriend Gloria Jones, a bona fide soul singer, as a replacement for Flo & Eddie’s squalling harmonies? Good grief.
8. “Teenage Dream”
(from Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow)
This song is so absurdly dramatic, with the string arrangement and of course Marc’s Dylanesque delivery. And the television performance above is absurdly awkward, with fat Marc Bolan rolling his fat belly around in some kind of black-and-silver bat-winged travesty and the audience just sitting there staring.
9. “Token of My Love”
(from Bolan’s Zip Gun, 1975)
Marc Bolan began implementing soul into his music before his frequent rival David Bowie. Of course, one could argue that Bowie did it more convincingly, but Marc’s soul is so idiosyncratic that it’s almost more interesting.
10. “Dreamy Lady”
(from Futuristic Dragon, 1976)
Oh, gosh, now we get to the T. Rex disco song. I used to be embarrassed about this song for, I feel, very obvious reasons. The lyric “O dreamy lady / Won’t you come to my bed / Night is the right time / To get acquainted with my head in my bed” just sounds so gross that it makes me feel squeamish. I think part of it is the idea of Marc being sexually aggressive–which is weird enough–and I always think of “head” as an explicit reference to his penile anatomy. I don’t know why this song is gross, but the “I wanna ball you” line in “Baby Strange” is fine, but that’s just the way it is. Plus, the video. Anyway, now the very things I used to hate about this song are what I love about it. Marc’s version of disco is just so bizarre.
11. “The Soul of My Suit”
(from Dandy in the Underworld, 1977)
And finally, a touching track from Marc’s final album. At this point Marc had completely changed his sound, which was now laden with synthesizers in place of strings.
Rest in Peace, Marc Bolan. I’m sure you’d be mad as hell that Bowie is stealing the thunder from your birth and death month with his exhibit at the MOCAD, but hopefully I’ve done my part to give you some well-deserved accolades.