INCIDENTS CROWDED WITH LIFE
‘The future belongs to the dandy. It is The Exquisites who are going to rule.’
Glam Rock, like Merseybeat nine years earlier, arrived just when British Pop needed it most. It also, like its Liverpudlian predecessor, harboured impostors. In 1963, after ditching the Brylcreem, many previously unsuccessful acts adopted a Mop Top fringe, put on a suit and tie, pulled on Beatle Boots and aped the Mersey sound. It was the route to success in the charts which had eluded them. In 1972, artists and bands, similarly desperate for a hit record after years of releasing flops, or at best so-so singles, raided their sisters’ wardrobes and jewelry boxes and took the glitter plunge. They pinned on big garish earrings, squeezed themselves into glittery over-tight outfits and caked their faces with badly-applied make-up. After practicing walking in five-inch platform heel boots in front of their bedroom mirrors, banging their heads a few times on the lampshade, they clumped excitedly out onto streets now suddenly paved with golden glitz.
Like transformed Cinderellas at the Glam Rock Ball, their new image and sound offered them the Prince Charming of record deals, singles in the charts and glittery appearances on Top of The Pops.
Glam Rock appeared like a multi-coloured rocket in the sky. Everyone went ‘Wooo!’ as it billowed out twinkly gorgeous stars for a short while. Then, when people had moved their gaze onto something different and more interesting, it fizzled out and fell to the ground. Its burnt-out stars floated gently down, their beautiful but temporary lights fading. As they lay forgotten and ignored by the screaming crowds in the next field, a kid in torn jeans and safety-pinned T-shirt stomped on them and yelled “Anarchy!” .
Glam’s main protagonists and leaders in the parade, Marc Bolan and David Bowie, were, again like those who’d fronted the Mersey Boom of 1963, artists who had been around for years. Through the mid-to-late-‘60s, they’d both gigged and released several records under various monikers, trying out several images, and playing with different bands. In the end, as with the Merseybeat stars, fame and fortune only came knocking when they created something new, entirely their own and, because the time was right, wildly exciting to millions.
But it was Bolan who had actually lit the flame. In November 1970, Marc took a match to the very blue-grey touch paper of the British Hit Parade, and set off one of the most eagerly-awaited firework displays in pop music.
I became initially a ‘distant shore’ fan of Marc Bolan when, in 1969, my school friend Pauline first played me Unicorn. Tyrannosaurus Rex stared beautifully out at us from the L.P. sleeve, which I remember was a glossy gorgeous thing. Marc and his fellow Rex-er, percussionist Steve Peregrin-Took, made a great noise together, a surprisingly big noise for two such elfinesque pretty chaps. Occasionally given an even more panoramic sound by their producer Tony Visconti on piano, the duo impressed me greatly.
I particularly liked ‘The Seal of Seasons’, with its lovely falsetto backing vocals and catchy chorus, ‘Just like a prancer, a gypsy dancer’, and ‘Cat Black’, with lines like ‘Spun in lore from Dagamore’. Marc’s lyrics wove fantastical tales, poems set to music, with their Lord of The Rings construction and fairytale woodland-warlock imagery. Indeed, Took, born Stephen Ross-Porter, had renamed himself after a Tolkien Hobbit character.
The songs were all presented with Marc’s heavily strummed acoustic guitar, accompanied by Took’s wild bongo slapping and occasional bangs on bits of a drum kit. Together they created a sound you couldn’t find anywhere or from anyone else. It was cute without being cloying. Hippie-esque without being overlong. With short catchy melodies and hooks, it was pop-py without being Pop.
And then there was Bolan’s voice. His warbly mangling of the English language, strangulated vowels and bizarrely hiccupped words, tripped and skipped along over the acoustic ocean Marc and Took skilfully helmed. I found it fascinating and, again, unlike anything else around at the time. Of course, odd vocal styles in popular music were nothing new. Buddy Holly had hiccupped and cackled his Texan way to No.1 more than ten years earlier, followed by his British imitator Adam Faith; at the same time, Elvis had burbled and gurgled his way into teenage hearts and the global charts.
The Beatles had promoted a much less mannered way of singing, but they still kept a decidedly American accent in their delivery. Bolan brought something entirely different. Hippie fey, beautifully tousled, this warbly, wobbly-voiced girlishly pretty man sang in a very posh, very English, enunciated voice. Every consonant was pronounced with a kind of camp sibilance, every vowel stretched surreally out of shape.
Consequently, his lyrics were often hard to understand or grasp. They became more a sound, a light drone, a fairyland wobbly chant. He actually sounded as though he lived and made music in a forest. Even more delightful, Bolan made words up, e.g. ‘doopy-doopy doi doi’, to provide his own vocalised bass and rhythm lines. His music made one smile. Always.
There was actually an odd commerciality to what Tyrannosaurus Rex were coming up with, which separated them from the currently big-selling singer-songwriter, albums-only brigade. The Incredible String Band were doing something similar in terms of woodland, whimsical, pastoral folk music. But their songs, unlike Bolan’s, were never written with an ear to what could possibly – just possibly – be a hit single.
On the other hand, it was all too strange and otherworldly, in fact a million miles away from what mainstream pop radio was playing in the late ‘60s, to ensure anything like singles chart superiority.
Most people in the know believed (and their big fan, John Peel, hoped), that Tyrannosaurus Rex would forever remain a niche act. They were selling enough albums to the Uni and Hippie crowd to mildly, briefly, dent the UK Top 30. The duo even had a couple of singles, ‘Debora’ and ‘One Inch Rock’, played by their gushing fan Peel enough times to see them briefly trouble the lower echelons of the UK Hit Parade. ‘Yes,’ many pundits decided, they were ‘fun to have around, and brightened the place up a bit.’ But pop idol? Marc Bolan…? ‘Never!’
In the Spring of 1970, I heard a record on the radio which pricked up my ears and intrigued me. It was the new one by Tyrannosaurus Rex, called ‘By The Light of A Magical Moon’. It had a great melody, some lovely guitar licks – was that an electric guitar I heard??! – and featured that familiar, strangulated sibilant warble out front. ‘I’ll barefoot dance – da-dance, with my baby – a-baby, by the la–light of a ma-magical moon – alright!’, Marc trilled, like a pixie inviting us to a lovely party in the woods. This new one, though, was much poppier than anything on Unicorn and I thought, ‘Ooh, that sounds like a hit!’. It wasn’t, in fact it didn’t even touch the Top 40, but I liked it enough to go to my local record shop and buy the brand new album it came off, Beard Of Stars.
Another great quality L.P. sleeve showed a black and white slightly fuzzed photo of Bolan on the front, his curly hair now cascading down his back. On the back sleeve there was…no, not Peregrin-Took, but another chap, who Pauline told me was one Mickey Finn. I loved the album, it was full of what I could see as potential hit singles (what did I know?). The urgently compelling ‘Fist Heart, Mighty Dawn Dart’ – which today, over 45 years later, sits amidst my iPod ‘Gorgeous’ playlist – frenetically bounced along with a great chorus, ‘Funny how the day comes, funny how the day comes slow-oh-woh!’. ‘Woodland Bop’, a very cute dancey number, was short on lyrics but made up for that with their beauty, ‘In the hallowed morning see her in the moon-white, streaking across the skies.’ ‘Great Horse’ was another lovely piece, with adept, evocative lyrics, ‘Tall bowman from the burnt pastures, saw Champer and he bowed, ground kissing to his lord, Strange beastie from the legend lair, Sire, I can master with the aide of this skull-powdered cord.’ The majestic ‘Dove’, which soared within a stunning melody, wound around a simply, but eruditely, told love song, ‘All my days are leafy blue, because I’m not with you, All my words are ragged steel when I’m not with you, See how the sun shines like an arc where you walk.’
The album was full of gloriously melodic folk-pop, the songs creating their own special scenarios, like temples built in landscapes from another world. It also boasted a much fuller sound than before. Marc was, yes, occasionally playing electric as well as acoustic guitar, there were more backing vocals and percussion, and an altogether more dynamic, tighter pop sound. The Lord of The Rings-style lyrics were still there, but somehow simplified and more accessible. And of course, there was the astonishing album closer, ‘Elemental Child’. It was Eddie Cochrane Rock’n’Roll meets 1970 Hippie Folk. A message was being sent to his fans, though, at that point, they weren’t really hearing it.
The truth was, Marc was challenging himself and his listeners, progressing, albeit gently, to another level. I had a definite feeling that Bolan was now onto something, and in time would hit paydirt. He just needed that record to do it.
One evening in mid-November, I was mildly enjoying watching Christie perform their latest Top Ten hit, ‘San Bernadino’, quite fancying a hairy-chested bloke called Neil Diamond growling out ‘Cracklin’ Rosie’, and yawning during White Plains’ ‘Julie Do Ya Love Me’. It was the usual 1970 Top Of The Pops fare, not bad but not great MOR pop. Tony Blackburn chuckled on set, bobbed his head around and almost had me heading for the kettle, when his next announcement kept me in my seat:
“Okay everyone! Now we have a new name to many of you, with their first Top 30 hit record, in at No.30 this week, it’s T.Rex!”
The camera panned quickly right, and there stood Marc Bolan. Electric guitar to the fore a la Chuck Berry, his wild corkscrew hair blowing in the wind of beckoning stardom, he was a cameraman’s dream. As he warbled out the utterly wonderful ‘Ride A White Swan’ – ‘Wear a tall hat like the people of the Beltane, wear your hair long, girl, you can’t go wrong’ – he pouted and preened, clicked his head and neck like a catwalk model, and shimmied his pink-jacketed shoulders at the gawping girls out front. Charmingly, constantly, he always found the camera, wherever it was, and then watched himself on the monitor. With a “Look mum, it’s me on the telly!” smile, you could almost read his mind – ‘This is what I was born to do! I look fabulous!!’. You could also read the minds of millions of teenage TOTP viewers. As one, they went ‘Wow!’. I remember thinking, ‘At last! A new bona fide pop star! He has finally arrived!’.
Bolan had, with one glorious single, exploded across the pop galaxy, and bopped sensationally into kids’ hearts. He’d thrown down the mantle, claiming the deserted crown which The Beatles had thrown aside months earlier. It suited him well. And, for a while, it looked like it would sit on his head for some time to come…
One morning before Christmas, a college friend of mine, Dave told me that T.Rex were playing a gig in Blackburn that weekend.
“Do you want to go?”
Not knowing what to expect, I said yes.
It was an unforgettable evening…Marc wandered on unannounced to a full-house and smiled at the audience, who wafted patchouli oil round the room as they applauded him on. He sat on a pink satin cushion, placed centre stage on the floor by a stagehand a few minutes earlier, as a shy Mickey Finn followed him on and took up his place stage left on a tall set of bongos.
“Hi, thanks for coming, it’s cool to see you all!” Marc said in his lovely lisping London brogue, “I hope you like our music tonight.”
The duo launched into ‘Salamanda Palaganda’, a song I didn’t know. As though reading my mind, Dave leaned over and whispered, “It’s from Prophets, Seers and Sages,” and I made a note to self to buy that one very soon. For forty five minutes, Marc thrilled the hippie crowd with acoustic gems from his first four albums – Dave kindly enlightening me to songs I didn’t know, prompting another note to self, ‘Must buy My People Were Fair’ as well.’
Bolan was utterly delightful, looked gorgeous in his little pink satin top, green slacks and powder blue pixie slippers. His curls bobbed about as he beamed over at Mickey, grooving to the rhythms they were creating together. During the final number, I think it was ‘One Inch Rock’, I heard a stifled squeak of ‘Marc!’ from the back of the theatre, followed by a couple of other similar girlish squeals. The rest of the audience didn’t seem to notice. They were too busy gently swaying their long manes in time to the music, feeling as one, wholly part of Marc and Mickey’s enchanted gathering. Head-banded girls sitting with their boyfriends were smiling, but much too cool to squeal their hero’s name.
“Okay,” Marc said at the end of the song, standing up and wandering over to a mike next to Mickey, “We’ll be back in about fifteen minutes…hold on for some fun!”
As Dave and his girlfriend Christine and I stood in the bar during the interval, I noticed a distinctly young crowd of girls hovering by the doors which led into the theatre. Many of them were wearing Marc Bolan T-Shirts, holding copies of ‘Ride A White Swan’ and giggling everytime one of them kissed Marc’s photo on the sleeve. Nearby, a bunch of long-haired guys, resolutely ignoring the cooing teenagers, were downing their pints and discussing the finer points of ‘Stacey Grove’.
“Yeah, he’s a nice guy, man!” one of them said, laughing at his own in-joke.
“Cool gig!” said another. “I thought he’d gone ‘pop’.”
“Yeah. So did I. But he’s still the same. The commercial stuff pays the rent, but he knows what his real fans want.”
Just then, a statuesque bald-headed woman wandered by and headed for the Ladies.
“My God!” the first chap said, open-mouthed. “That was June Child!”
“Marc’s wife,” Dave quietly prompted me.
“What’s she done to her hair?” the second guy said, horrified.
“Oh my God!” they both moaned.
After the interval we took our seats as the room filled back up. I noticed the pink satin cushion had gone, while, resting against a speaker, there stood a white sparkly electric guitar. It emitted a low static buzz which matched the mumbling hum of concerned hippies, spreading round the theatre. As a white light hit it like a starbolt, Marc strode on in a gold satin jacket, silver satin pants, silver-sprayed boots, and a sequinned T-Shirt. He put his hands on his hips, revealing ‘NYC Rocks!’ emblazoned across his chest, shook his curls provocatively, and gave the audience the thumbs-up sign. Nodding at an expectantly nervous Finn, he strapped on the guitar and walked to the mike, now centre stage where the cushion had been.
“Hi everyone! You’re still here!” he giggled and I was struck at how charming he was. “Okay, we’re gonna do something new now, and it goes like this…”
He slammed his hand into his screeching guitar strings like a stroppy electrified pixie, screamed out a lung-throttling “Oooowwww!” and ‘Rip Off’ hit us like a bomb blast.
Two things then happened…several shell-shocked hippies began standing up, pointing at the stage angrily and chanting ‘Traitor! Traitor!’, while a whole group of the girls I’d seen during the interval aptly let rip and ran to the front of the stage, screaming their heads off. At that, huge swathes of the sheepskin-and-jeans brigade angrily got up and walked out, shouting ‘Sell-Out!’ as they left. Bolan, obliviously, was having a marvellous time. He strutted across the stage, phallically jutting his guitar out at the growing groups of fans who had crowded at the front. They waved and screeched, singing along with every number, arms held aloft their yelling heads. The place was bedlam. It was wonderful.
During a searingly brilliant guitar solo, Marc looked up and beamed at them all. It resulted in even louder screaming. He then launched into ‘Raw Ramp’. ‘Oooh woman, I love your chest, ooh baby I’m crazy ‘bout your breasts’ he sang, shaking drenched curls at his adoring hysterical fans. I was wondering if the song would prompt some mass ripping off of blouses, but thankfully it didn’t.
I looked at Dave, who shrugged his shoulders, glanced at Christine, and the three of us stood up and boogied for the rest of the evening. I was exhilarated. I had witnessed the birth of the UK’s new pop superstar. Even the mass walk-out of his hippie fans thrilled me.
“It’s like Dylan goes electric all over again!” I yelled at Dave through the ear-splitting rock, which two tiny little guys were making on stage.
Marc finished the astonishing evening with, of course, ‘Ride A White Swan’, and there wasn’t a person in there who wasn’t jumping up and down, singing along – ‘Catch a bright star and place it on your forehead, say a few spells and baby there you go’, we trilled ecstatically. I was in love.
The week that ‘Ride A White Swan peaked at No.2, at the end of January, Dave came into college one morning with T.Rex, Marc’s brand new album. He put it on the record player and by track 2, ‘Jewel’, I was literally dancing round the room. Marc had lessened the warble and concentrated on writing even catchier fantastic melodies and hooks, through fifteen terrific pop nuggets. They included the instantly adorable ‘The Time of Love Is Now’ and ‘The Visit’, while beautiful string arrangements adorned the likes of ‘Diamond Meadows and ‘The Children of Rarn’. He boogied with ease through ‘Is It Love’ and the sensational Motownesque ‘Beltane Walk’ – ‘Gimme love, gimme little love, gimme little love from your heart, and then we’ll-a-walk’, he chirruped to thousands of new adoring fans. The song also hinted at a bisexuality we hadn’t heard from pop stars before. It would come to define the Glam Rock movement: ‘Walking down by the west wind, I met a boy he was my friend, I said Boy, we could sing it too, and we do – ooh!’. On so many levels, the album set a new bar in the creation of fun, commercial pop music for a new decade.
While T.Rex was still riding high in the Top Ten, Marc released his new single, ‘Hot Love’. It got blanket airplay on pop radio and hit the Top 20 first week of release.
“Have you heard the new T.Rex single?” my friend Anita exclaimed, eyes wide with amused shock. “I mean, really – ‘well she ain’t no witch and I love the way she twitch, ah-ha-ha’. Who does he think he is? The new Elvis fucking Presley?!”
‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘That is exactly who he thinks he is. And he’s absolutely right.’
Glam Rock, of which Bolan is rightfully credited with being the creator, actually began rather by accident in March 1971, when T.Rex appeared on Top of The Pops to perform ‘Hot Love’. Marc now fronted a bona fide band, a four-piece consisting of him and Finn now broadened out with drummer Bill Legend and bassist Steve Currie. Before going in front of the cameras, Marc had two spots of glitter placed under his eyes. The studio lights caught them beautifully as Bolan preened and pouted his way through what would be his biggest-selling single yet. A simple rolling rock rhythm trotted along as he intoned gleefully, ‘She’s my woman of gold and she’s not very old, ah-ha-ha’. Toss of curls. ‘I’m her two-penny prince and I’ll give her Hot Love, ah-ha-ha!’.
The ending alone ensured it would hit No.1. With the repetitive intoxicating chant of La-la-la’s, interspersed with Marc’s little spoken bits of sexy hokum as he stomped gorgeously in front of his new band, a nation sang along and took it to No.1, where it remained for six weeks. The single became the UK’s Spring pop anthem overnight.
His shows were now entirely peopled by screaming girls, the hippies had left the theatre for good, even John Peel derided Marc publicly for ‘selling out’. T.Rexstasy had been born, and Bolan’s starry glittery face was splashed across every music magazine, Sunday supplement and pop music TV show. T.Rex became the biggest selling British pop band since The Beatles. The T.Rex album stayed in the UK charts for over six months, while alongside it his record company cheekily issued an extremely premature ‘Best of T.Rex’ compilation to cash in on their most successful act ever. It too hit the Top 30 with ease. But the best was yet to come.
That summer, T.Rex once again appeared on Top of The Pops to perform their new No.1 single, the stunning Chuck Berry-riff-happy, ‘Get It On’. Marc even quoted a line from Berry’s ‘Little Queenie’ as the track faded – ‘and meanwhile, I’m still thinkin’’. Elton John, then a burgeoning pop star with just one UK Top Ten hit and a Top Three album to his name, sat in on piano for some of the TOTP sessions (though he was actually miming to Rick Wakeman’s playing on the record). The track was augmented with terrific sax riffs, courtesy of King Crimson’s Iain McDonald, and the falsetto backing vocals of the former lead singers from one of America’s big pop groups of the ‘60s, The Turtles.
Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan had hit it big during The Summer Of Love with the ecstatically multi-harmonied ‘Happy Together’, the even better ‘She’d Rather Be With Me’, and their brilliant ’68 pop song send up, ‘Elenore’ – ‘You’re my pride and joy, etcetera’. Now with flowing locks and renamed ‘Flo & Eddie’, they became as much ‘the sound of T.Rex’ over the next couple of years as Marc himself. In fact Volman was once quoted as saying that when Marc stopped using them, his records stopped selling. Whatever the truth of this, they certainly added a new gloss to T.Rex’s productions, usually singing a full octave above Bolan, whose vocal range was in fact quite limited.
In October, T.Rex’s new album, Electric Warrior got rave reviews, huge sales figures and topped the UK charts for weeks. It was Marc’s last bona fide release on the indie Fly Records. He’d begun negotiations with EMI to start up his own label, T.Rex Hot Wax, so Fly cutely released a track from ‘Warrior’ as a single to ensure they had at least one more Bolan smash for Christmas. It worked. Even without the band promoting it at all on TV, ‘Jeepster’ smashed into the Top 10 within a week. Because T.Rex were by then so huge, just the sight of another slice of Bolan on vinyl was leapt on and snapped up by his ever-hungry fans. They were already screaming their heads off whenever Marc performed the song on stage, as he got down on his knees and sang, ‘Girl I’m just a vampire for your love, and I’m gonna suck ya!’ to a sea of waving arms.
The single stayed in the Top Three for seven weeks, and even though its release pissed Marc off, it actually set up his next venture rather brilliantly. It ensured that his profile stayed high, as 1971 came to an end and 1972 dawned. When he released his first Hot Wax single in January, ‘Telegram Sam’ – ‘Me I funk, but I don’t care, I’m no square with my corkscrew hair, Telegram Sam, you’re my Main Man!’ – ‘Jeepster’ was still hovering around the lower echelons of the Top 40.
‘Sam’ entered the charts at No.3 and climbed effortlessly to No.1 the following week. T.Rex were officially named the biggest selling singles group of 1971, with Electric Warrior one of the Top Five best selling albums of the year. It was a tremendous feat of self-belief and sheer hard work which, in just two years, had lifted Marc Bolan from cult hippie elfin troubadour to the biggest thing in pop Britain had seen for eight years.
In April 1972, while ‘Telegram Sam’, was still in the charts, and their reissued Prophets, Seers & Sages album was at No.1, I was offered a job selling posters at one of their Manchester gigs. It was an outdoor show and the deal was I did the hawking for nothing but got in free to see the band play. I was struck straight away by not only the size of the audience, but their average age. All of them, bar me and a mate who’d also sold Marc posters before the show, were pre-pubescent teenagers – teeny boppers. They all sported glitter and stars on their cheeks and screeched Marc’s name before he’d even taken the stage. Once he appeared my ears began to hurt, as thousands of girls bellowed and yelled, screeched and screamed ‘Marc! Marc!’ for two hours. At the age of only nineteen, I felt rather old.
What also stayed with me afterwards was how aggressively the kids screamed at Bolan to ‘Stand up!’ when he’d sat on his little pink cushion to perform ‘Debora’, which had recently been reissued by Marc’s former label, Fly, and was rapidly climbing into the Top 10. T.Rex’s audiences were now so huge, with everybody standing screeching their heads off everytime Bolan so much as scratched his nose, they actually couldn’t see him sitting on the floor any longer. Met with a barrage of screams and yells as he stood up to do ‘Get It On’, Marc was the kids’ property now. They had invested many pounds buying his releases and they wanted their money’s worth.
The following month, T.Rex released their biggest selling single, ‘Metal Guru’. It was a glorious Spector-ish Visconti production, utterly huge sounding from the get-go, and enormously successful. Flo & Eddie wailed gorgeously along as Marc sang what was in fact a very simple song with a chugging infectious riff, repeating several times the same chant-like lines, ‘Metal Guru, is it you, all alone without a telephone, Metal Guru, could it be, you’re gonna bring my baby to me?, Metal Guru, is it you, she’ll be wild, you know a rock ‘n’ roll child’. It was all rather nonsensical but totally fabulous. It stayed at No.1 for four weeks and one began to think that this guy could do no wrong. But there was trouble ahead…
T.Rex’s summer ’72 album, The Slider, coincided with the band’s concentrated attempt to break America. They spent weeks over there gigging and trying to repeat the modest Top Ten success they’d had in The States a year earlier with ‘Get It On’ (‘Bang A Gong’ as it was renamed there). It meant that, while the cats were away, the new kittens on the block came out to play. A new band of Glam Rock pretenders to the throne, who’d been waiting in the wings, were ready to pounce and steal Marc’s glittery crown.
Former skinhead combo Slade had reinvented themselves in 1971 as everybody’s mates, with brilliant, singalong football chant chart-toppers like ‘Coz I Luv U’, ‘Mama Weer All Crazee Now’ and ‘Take Me Bak ‘Ome’, the misspelled titles a direct attempt at appealing to schoolkids (or ‘skoolkidz’). But whereas they had initially struck gold with a mainly male audience, as opposed to the T.Rex teen-girl fans, their image gradually changed. In evermore radiant appearances on Top of The Pops, they began donning sequinned hats, ever higher glittery platform boots, promoting an altogether more Glam Rock image. As the group’s guitarist, Dave Hill, paraded up and down TV sets like some glammed-up Boadicea, they became the assumed successors to the T.Rexstasy dynasty. It was reminiscent of when The Rolling Stones had vied for The Beatles’ top pop position in the ‘60s – though The Stones never quite pulled the coup off.
Other Glam contenders were also hitting the chart highs…Gary Glitter, formerly failed ‘60s pop singer Paul Raven née Gadd, shot into the UK Top Three with his Mike Leander-created ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Parts One & Two’, setting up what became a two-year career as the Baco-Foil Prince of Glam. Art-rock band Roxy Music, fronted by glamorously sleazy lounge lizard Bryan Ferry, and the futuristically adorned Eno on electronic keyboards, hit No.4 with their divine debut single, ‘Virginia Plain’. With its exotic Hollywood-esque lyrics, ‘Baby Jane’s in Acapulco, we are flying down to Rio!’ warbled out in true Bolanesque style, it ensured glitter fans, starved of seeing Marc on TOTP for the summer, bought it in the hundreds of thousands.
While I loved Roxy, I always found them slightly detached. They looked beautiful and otherworldly, but they could never be yours. Look, admire, but don’t touch. As he sneered stylishly on TV, Ferry’s fans were, in effect, being given an audience by their louche Lord of Leopardskin Pop. Keeping the Vogue-ish glamour, they featured top models on their album sleeves. Kari-Ann Muller lay draped on a rug on the band’s eponymous debut L.P., while the stilettoed fully-fashioned legs of Amanda Lear paraded a jaguar on a shiny lead on their second – and finest album, For Your Pleasure. That L.P. included the Roxy single that should have been, the utterly fabulous ‘Do The Strand’: ‘Tired of the Tango, fed up with Fandango, dance on moonbeams, slide on rainbows, in furs or blue jeans, you know what I mean, Do The Strand’.
But there was another, much more significant threat to Bolan’s still-accepted place as The King of Glam Rock. One David Bowie, the late-starter in the Glam Rock race. He’d hit the UK Top 5 in September 1969, with his single ‘Space Oddity’, promoting a rather fey, gentle persona as he smiled nervously at the camera and strummed his jangly guitar. His odd, rather doomy little song about ‘Major Tom’, a spaceman lost amongst the stars, struck a chord with a public still mesmerised by the recent first manned moon landing. But, as quickly as he had apparently appeared in the firmament, Bowie had fallen down pop’s hungry black hole. Unlike Apollo 11, he failed to return to Earth, unable to follow-up his novelty hit single. There he stayed, ‘floating round my tin can, far above the moon,’ until in 1972, Major Tom metamorphosed into a certain Ziggy Stardust…
In the Spring of that year, Melody Maker had featured Bowie on its front cover, looking foppishly coiffured and heavily made-up, with the headline ‘I suppose I’m bi-sexual’. The piece, along with some small but significant gigs around Britain with his new band The Spiders From Mars, encouraged music buyers of both sexes and all persuasions to try out his recently-released offering, the album Hunky Dory.
It featured on the sleeve a long-haired David, heavily made-up and cleverly tinted to give him the appearance of a movie starlet. It was actually a look he’d already ditched, having also used it on his previous, unsuccessful album, The Man Who Sold The World. The image chameleon Bowie was, as became the case throughout the rest of his career, ahead of the fans.
Within that divinely decadent wrapping there inhabited some great songs. The utterly camp ‘Queen Bitch’ harkened back to Velvet Underground – ‘Well, I’m up on the eleventh floor and I’m watching the cruisers below’, and the sumptuous chorus, delightedly self-mocking his previous image, ‘She’s so swishy in her satin and tat, in her frock coat and bippety boppety hat, oh God, I could do better than that!’. ‘Life On Mars?’ was a pop symphony extraordinaire, featuring probably David’s greatest ever melody and a breathtaking lyric, ‘Sailors fighting in the dance hall, oh man, look at those cavemen go, it’s the freakiest show, Take a look at the lawman beating up the wrong guy, oh man, wonder if he’ll ever know, he’s in the best-selling show, Is there life on Mars?’.
And then there was the stunning album closer, ‘The Bewlay Brothers’. It knocked me sideways when I first heard it. ‘Good God,’ I thought, ‘Something incredible just entered my life.’ It talked of ‘mind-warp pavilions’, ‘the crutch-hungry dark’, and how ‘Their heads of brawn were nicer shorn, and how they bought their positions with saccharin and trust’. ‘It was stalking time for the Moonboys,’ Bowie yelled gloriously, ‘The Bewlay Brothers’. Setting out surreal, slightly disturbing panoramas, like a screenplay writer in a moonlit park at midnight, Bowie intoned each line perfectly. He described each scene within each sculpted phrase, poetically, beautifully, set within a new intriguing scenario. He sang of times gone, like a lost Atlantis, while sounding utterly ‘Now’. None of the scenes he described seemed wholly real, yet you could imagine them so easily. Like Bolan had before him, Bowie was turning the English language on its head and making it work differently. Moulding words into sentences which made no sense, and yet made perfect sense.
But, whereas Bolan had used a mix of folk-ish woodland whimsy and raunchy teen love as the base for his great pop songs, Bowie was using literature, surrealism and erudition to create catchy enthralling pieces. While his songs had the potential to net the teeny pop fans from Bolan’s arena, they had already captured the hearts and minds of the older teenage intelligentsia. This was perfectly executed in the irrepressible ‘Changes’: ‘I watch the ripples change their size, but never leave the stream of warm impermanence, and so the days float through my eyes, but still the days seem the same, and these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds, are immune to your consultations, they’re quite aware of what they’re going through, Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes, don’t tell them to grow up and out of it’. We had a new spokesman for all teenage youth, our generation’s Dylan, in fact.
When Bowie sang ‘Oooh, look out you rock ‘n’ rollers, pretty soon now you’re gonna get older’, it was like a direct challenge to Bolan, who had constantly alluded to his fans wanting him to ‘rock’ and absolutely refusing to change tack.
Indeed, Marc’s producer, Tony Visconti, has been quoted as saying that he was constantly nagging Marc, during the height of T.Rexstasy, to finish his Children of Rarn Suite to give the fans something new and more challenging, to which Bolan would reply each time, “Nah, the kids want another rocker.”
One Thursday evening in July ‘72, the nation and I were watching Top Of The Pops. There were highs in that week’s programme – Roberta Flack’s beautiful ‘First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, Dr. Hook’s plaintive country-rock odyssey, ‘Sylvia’s Mother’, Love Unlimited’s soul-pop ‘Walking In The Rain With One I Love’ (created, written and produced by the then-unknown Barry White), and the breathlessly breathtaking harmony-fest, ‘Betcha By Golly Wow’, by future soul sensation The Stylistics. But in between these gems, one made cups of tea or went to the loo while The Sweet performed their inconsequential fourth bubblegum hit, ‘Little Willie’, Gilbert O’Sullivan astonished me as he trilled out the truly awful ‘Oh-Wakka-Doo-Wakka-Day’, and The Partridge Family’s ‘Breaking Up is Hard To Do’ indicated a new addition to the teenybop stable was about to emerge onto the race track. As I waited for Slade to finish the show, doing their latest chart-topping scream-a-song, ‘Take Me Bak ‘Ome’, a new star appeared, like a newly-emerged butterfly, in front of the cameras.
In at No.29 that week with ‘Starman’, David Bowie shimmied up to his mike, an exotically white-faced boy/girl alien with spiky red hair, and caused my mother to gasp, “My God! What is that?!”. While a nation’s parents were simultaneously outraged, the nation’s youth inwardly shouted, “Yes!”. In a tight padded jump suit, which left you in no doubt as to what sex this androgynous creature was, and with a confidently impudent glare at an astonished TV-viewing public, he began his gorgeous tale about a man in the sky who was coming down to meet us all, a Starman who would be a saviour for kids everywhere. ‘He told me, Let the children lose it, let the children use it, let all the children boogie’ went the fabulous chorus which, for good measure, pinched its notation from Judy Garland’s Wizard of Oz hit ‘Over The Rainbow’. How could this not fail?
And then David clinched it. He grabbed hold of his heavily mascara’d guitarist, Mick Ronson, put his arm salaciously over his shoulder and made lyrical bruv-love with his bandmate in front of millions of viewers. It became a clarion call to any young person who was unsure about his or her sexuality. It said, “Come on, be like us, be yourself, it’s ok. We’re here now.”
A couple of weeks later, I was at a college disco when the DJ put on a track which stopped me dead as I was going to the bar: ‘A soldier with a broken arm fixed his stare to the wheel of a Cadillac, a cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest and a queer threw up at the sight of that,’ it gave me goosebumps. I sat down and listened as the singer, whose voice I recognised as Bowie’s, wailed, ‘We got five years, stuck on my eyes, five years, what a surprise!’. But there was more, the next track – ‘Soul love, the priest that tastes the word and told of love, and how my God on high is all love, though reaching up my loneliness evolves by the blindness that surrounds him.’ ‘Moonage Daydream’ then slammed out across the hall, ‘Keep your mouth shut, you’re squawking like a pink money bird, and I’m muzzing up my brain for the words’. It sent me into an ecstasy as the chorus told us all to, ‘Keep your ‘lectric eye on me, babe, hold your ray gun to my head, press your space face close to mine, love, Freak out to a Moonage Daydream, oh-yeah’.
As Ronson’s supersonic guitar screamed gloriously around the hall in the track’s fade-out, I walked over to the DJ.
“What is this album?” I asked him, just as ‘Starman’ ooh-hoo-hoo’d out of the speakers.
He proudly gave me the sleeve. Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders From Mars, with its orange-haired space troubadour grinning out at the world, became my Must-Have Summer ’72 album.
Up in my bedroom during those hot days and nights, I soaked in every nuance, every camp yelp and sexual innuendo. I stood in front of the mirror, miming that pointing limp hand gesture Bowie had wiggled at the camera during his ‘Starman’ TV performance – ‘I had to phone someone so I picked on you-hoo-hoo’ – and fell in love with David Ziggy Bowie. There is no doubt that my own songwriting style changed forever with that album. Its influence on me was as big as Roy Harper’s had been two years earlier, as huge as my late discovery of Dylan had been a year earlier. In effect, it set the template for Kid In A Big World. Shortly after buying Ziggy Stardust I wrote ‘Small Town, Big Adventures’ and ‘Third Man’.
Ziggy was a brilliant creation, born of a clever Magpie’s imagination and nous. It was as though Bowie had been wondering just what he could do to achieve the pop domination his mate Marc was enjoying. One can imagine him, sitting on the balcony of Haddon Hall, his decaying grandeur mansion in Beckenham, sometime in 1971, and thinking, ‘Now, what was successful for me before? – a song about space travel. And what’s selling now? – great pop songs by a beautifully androgynous man wearing make-up. Hm.’
“Angie!” he’d (possibly) called to his wife, “What do you think about this idea?”
However he arrived at it, David had struck gold. By September, both Ziggy Stardust and the previously critically welcomed, but low-selling, Hunky Dory were in the albums Top Five.
That month, Bolan re-emerged from his failed American tour with ‘Children of The Revolution’, a track lifted off August’s under-performing The Slider, which had surprised everyone – not least I would imagine Marc Bolan – by failing to dent the UK Top Three. The track was slower than usual for a T.Rex single, with quite a good chunky rhythm and an excellent cello arrangement. As had become his norm by then, it was full of both self-reverential references, aligned with car images to create a glossy dynamism – ‘I drive a Rolls Royce ‘cause it’s good for my voice’ – along with a rather self-conscious ‘nod to the kids’ chorus, ‘But you won’t fool the children of the revolution, no-no-no’.
It was roundly beaten to the punch by the latest offering from new teenybopper screamathon, American TV actor turned pop star, Partridge Family frontman, David Cassidy. ‘How Can I Be Sure?’ leapfrogged the T.Rex ‘45’ to No.1, after it been kept off the top spot the previous week by Slade’s ‘Mama Weer All Crazee Now’. Somehow, the writing was being quickly scribbled on the wall.
Bowie increased the pressure by hitting the Top 20 in October with the out-and-out bisexual love song, ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ – ‘She turns me on, but I’m only dancing, don’t get me wrong, I’m only dancing, oh John!’ – and in November his first two albums, which had failed to make a mark when first released, now repackaged with Ziggy photos replacing the originals, also entered the Top 30.
In December, T.Rex issued, with almost indecent haste, the riff-laden, frantically breathless ‘Solid Gold Easy Action’, once again full of the usual self-aggrandising nonsense lyrics, ‘All my hair will keep her smiling, with my wondrous walk and my telephone dialling’. It reached No.2, but was knocked off that perch after just one week by Bowie’s grindingly gorgeous ‘Jean Genie’, his pop peon to the openly gay author, Jean Genet. ‘The Jean Genie lives on his back, the Jean Genie loves chimney stacks, he’s outrageous, he screams and he bawls, Jean Genie, let yourself go!’.
And it wasn’t just Bowie who was proving that you could still make it big in your mid-twenties, still achieve pop superstardom, if the time – and the music – is right. The newly-glammed-up-camped-up Elton John was in the Top Five through Christmas ’72 with his ‘50s pastiche, ‘Crocodile Rock’. Bedecked in glittery, impossibly high-heeled platform boots, star-studded jump-suits and an array of outrageously huge Designer spectacles, he was not only making waves in Britain, he had also become America’s new pop darling.
Ziggy was also starting to make strides across the Atlantic too, preparing the ground for Bowie’s larger-scale invasion of America’s pop scene a year or so later. Meanwhile, T.Rex were never to have a hit record there again.
Although they were the best-selling UK singles group in 1972, and third in the best-selling albums category, just twelve months later T.Rex had fallen to sixth in the year’s singles best sellers list, and didn’t even figure in the albums listing. Cruelly, David Bowie topped both best selling listings that year.
As T.Rex’s fortunes continued to fade during 1973, ironically, the Glam Rock bandwagon was firing on all cylinders. Former bubblegum group Sweet enjoyed their first No.1. ‘Blockbuster’, written and produced by Mickey Chinn & Mike Chapman, took every Bowie/Bolan element known to record buyers, mixed it all together in a pseudo-hard rock coating, and crashed to the top of the charts within three weeks of entering at No.16. The band had now ditched stripy tops and summer slacks for full-on glitter-suits, caked-on make-up and girly eyelashes. Guitarist Steve Priest fluttered them prettily at the ever-ready camera as he mock-wailed, “I haven’t got a clue what to do!” like a frantic housewife whose washing machine had broken down. The fact he was straight as a die meant not a jot to anyone. This wasn’t Gay Pop, it was Glam Rock, and as we all know, many straight men absolutely love wearing a dress and high heels for ‘fun’ occasionally. Have a Vicars & Tarts party and you can be sure most of the Tarts will be the husbands.
Slade followed Sweet at the top with their fourth chart-topper, ‘Cum On Feel The Noize’, now equalling Bolan’s four-time No.1 chart feat of the previous year. Gary Glitter hit the Top Three with ‘Do You Wanna Touch Me?’, equally self-obsessed as Bolan’s recent fare, but with more of a twinkle in the eye. Where Marc seemed to believe in his lyrical proclamations of greatness and sexual prowess, Glitter completely sent himself up. Alice Cooper, previously a Goth-rock act from America who’d specialised in demonic on-stage displays of Draculaistic proportions, had turned campy Glam the previous summer, with the beautifully timed ‘School’s Out’ hitting the top just as kids went on their annual six-week break. Lead singer, Vincent Furnier’s devilish make-up and leather jump suit was no longer frightening the kids, it was Vaudevillian excess, which they lapped it up as he camped it up like a rather creepy children’s entertainer each week on TOTP, with three further Top Ten hits through ’72 and ‘73.
Mud, another bubblegum act from the ‘Chinnichapp’ house of hits, began clumping about various TV studios in the prerequisite platform boots, long dangly earrings, lipstick and rouge, pouting out hit after hit, their lead guitarist becoming just a tad away from a full-on drag act. Roxy Music hit the Top Ten again with another slice of vampy art-rock, ‘Pyjamarama’, which burbled along prettily as Ferry leered from highlighted slitted eyelids, without ever acknowledging the fans who danced beneath him. ‘60s pop star Roy Wood, who had been responsible for some of the catchiest hits of that decade with his band The Move, painted his face, put on a scary wig, created a new band Wizzard and delighted hundreds of thousands with rock’n’roll gems turned Glittery stompers like ‘See My Baby Jive’, my own personal juke box fave during the Summer of ’73.
Even former Velvet Underground man, Lou Reed, turned up in panstick and mascara, droning out the brilliant Bowie-produced ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ to great effect and Top Ten honours. ‘Sugar Plum Fairy never once gave it away, everybody had to pay and pay, a hustle here and a hustle there, New York City’s the place where they say Hey babe! Take a walk on the wild side!’. His lyrics told of pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers and life in the back streets, as they had always done since the ‘60s in songs like ‘Waiting For The Man’ – ‘I’m waiting for my man, twenty-six dollars in my hand, up to Lexington 1-2-5, feeling sick and dirty, more dead than alive, I’m waiting for my man’ – but he now performed them with a Ziggy limp wrist and more than a handful of stardust.
Another refugee from nicheworld rock, Mott The Hoople, also benefitted from the magic touch of Bowie the producer, as well as top-notch songwriter. He wrote the magnificent ‘All The Young Dudes’ for them (after they’d turned down ‘Suffragette City’!), sang backing vocals on the session, and gave them their first, and biggest, hit single. He even cheekily name-checked his Glam buddy Bolan in the lyric, ‘Television man is crazy, says we’re juvenile delinquent wrecks, oh man, I need T.V. when I got T.Rex!’ while cleverly decrying what had gone before Glam hit the scene, ‘My brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones, we never got it off on that Revolution stuff, too many snags, what a drag!’. Utterly wonderful and absolutely right for its time, the single took just three weeks to crash into the Top Five. Mott were never really a Glam-Rock band but they certainly looked the part while it gave them three Top Ten smashes and a Top Ten album.
Even label owners jumped onto the Glamwagon. Peter Shelley, who co-owned Magnet Records with Michael Levy, wrote and recorded a glitter hit called ‘My Coo-Ca-Choo’ under the pseudonym ‘Alvin Stardust’. Ripping off Norman Greenbaum’s ‘Spirit In The Sky’ riff (as Bowie had done for ‘Jean Genie’ and The Sweet had done for ‘Blockbuster’) it entered the charts at No.50 and two weeks later had cracked the Top 30. With Pop TV producers keen to book ‘Alvin’ to perform his hit record, Shelley, who had no interest at that time in becoming a pop star, hired one Bernard Jewry to adopt his pseudonym and mime to the record.
It was probably a surprise to both Shelley and Jewry when ‘Coo-Ca-Choo’ shot to No.2 and ‘Stardust’ became the talk of the nation. With his leather-clad, diamond-ringed, moody guy image he took the UK by storm. Even Russell Harty had him on his chat show, featuring a hilarious non-interview when Alvin famously refused to speak to him.
Jewry was no stranger to either the pop charts, nor to the phenomenon of performing in another man’s shoes. In 1960 he had been a roadie with the band Shane Fenton & The Fentones. The band’s lead singer, Johnny Theakstone, died suddenly of rheumatic fever so Jewry stepped in, adopting the singer’s pseudonym. The band had four Top 40 hits before going the way of most rock’n’roll acts in late ’62 with the onset of Beatlemania, which swept almost all before it onto the wasteland of yesterday’s heroes.
With another single demanded by his fans, Stardust/Jewry released the even more successful follow-up, ‘Jealous Mind’, which topped the charts in early ’74, showcasing an uncannily perfect imitation of Shelley’s voice. The leather-clad moody guy image, however, soon began to pall. But very adeptly, Stardust adopted a new, softer, nice-guy-next-door look, and went on to have several hits through the ‘80s.
Just one girl got in on the all-male Glam act. Mickie Most prodigy Suzi Quatro bopped her own leather-clad frame to No.1 with Chinnichapp infectious pop froth. ‘Can The Can’ and ‘48 Crash’ were lyrically utter nonsense, but they sounded great and did the trick in cashing in on a wave of Teen-Glam fervour.
And what of Mr Bowie? Well, he did what he did throughout his career, just when we thought we had him sussed, he changed tack. Publicly killing off Ziggy Stardust to a gasping spiky-haired London audience in the summer of 1973, he replaced one alien persona with another. Aladdin Sane became his first No.1 album. It featured two hit singles and a swathe of dark, cascading pianoed, Orwell-esque visions of a scary post-Apocalypse future. Written while on tour in America, and reflecting the increasing paranoia he was experiencing, as success, gigging and various chemicals took over his life, the album rejected the lighter Glam-Camp which had made him a star in 1972. He continued the theme with ‘Diamond Dogs’ in the Summer of ’74, which was filled with even doomier scenes of canine/human mutants walking city alleyways in a bleak, unforgiving landscape of the future. The hit single from the album, ‘Rebel Rebel, harked back to his Ziggy sound, but now, without Ronson alongside him, it was harder and less decorative. It chilled, rather than embraced. Featuring an effective Jagger impression, David yelped his way through the UK Top Five hit which signalled the end of his particular Glam road: ‘You’ve got your mother in a whirl, she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl… Rebel Rebel you’ve torn your dress, Rebel Rebel, your face is a mess, Rebel Rebel, how could they know, hot tramp, I love you so!’. The Exquisites were in disarray, the make-up was running, the glitter had fallen, the streets were awash with the decadent remnants. The album’s title track bade a final farewell, and opened the door to their destruction: ‘In the year of the scavenger, the season of the bitch, sashay on the boardwalk, scurry to the ditch, just another future song, lonely little kitsch, there’s gonna be sorrow, try and wake up tomorrow, will they come?’. It set the scene for his next planned chameleon-like character change. The Thin White Duke waited in the wings while Aladdin stood weeping over the body of Ziggy Stardust, torn to pieces by the Diamond Dogs. ‘The Diamond Dogs are poachers and they hide behind trees, hunt you to the ground they will, mannequins with kill appeal.’
During his Ziggy heyday, David had become the supreme creator of Theatre-Pop. Incorporating mime, costume changes, and songs which gave his fans hope that they could be whoever, whatever they chose. During 1973, his shows, and his full houses of hypnotised Ziggy lookalikes, proved that he was the new Supreme Pop Being. Even old tracks like 1971’s ‘Life On Mars’, issued as a single with a Ziggy-upped new video, hit the Top Three.
Everyone wondered what 1974 would bring for Bowie. We needn’t have worried. His White Soul tour of America was a triumph, he became the darling of U.S. chat shows and New York scenesters, and began work on what was one his finest albums, released in the Spring of 1975, the funk-sassy Young Americans with its incredible title track: ‘They pulled in just behind the bridge, he lays her down, he frowns, Gee my life’s a funny thing, am I still too young? He kissed her then and there, she took his ring, took his babies, it took him minutes, took her nowhere, heaven knows she’d’ve taken anything but all night, she wants the Young American’ .
Of course, as we all know, this was just the beginning of the global domination Bowie achieved. He constantly, seamlessly, changed creative course over the next four decades, adopting, just as his fans thought they had him sussed, a dizzy array of new looks and musical styles. Brand Bowie became a self-created phenomenon, which is still in top gear months after his death in January 2016.
Through 1973, Bolan strutted about the TOTP studios ever more desperately. Clad in feather boas and increasingly heavier make-up, he began to look like one of the drag queens Lou Reed sang about. His previous, intuitively light touch had become a clumsily leaden attempt to keep up with the panto-Glam excesses of his competitors. In March, he entered the charts at a respectable No.3 with ‘20th Century Boy’ – which is now considered one of T.Rex’s classic singles. At the time, without benefit of retrospective rewriting of history, it sounded suspiciously similar to his No.1 hit of a year earlier, ‘Telegram Sam’. But where that song had boasted fun lines like ‘Bobby’s alright, he’s a natural born poet he’s just outtasight!’, and ‘Purple Pie Pete, your lips are like lightning, girls melt in the heat’, this new take on the same chord structure and melody, bombastically boasted, ‘I move like a cat, charge like a ram, sting like a bee, babe I wanna be your man!’. He growled it out and searched for the monitor, flailing his arms around his thrust-out cock-guitar. What had been fun-camp two years earlier now looked simply ridiculous. And oddly, he looked much older. As his feather boa looked ready to throttle him, he had become a pastiche of the younger, more nimble Bolan. Admittedly, the single had a very big sound, touching on an almost rock vibe, but it got no higher than its first week position. It remained there for three weeks then fell out of the Top 20 just three weeks later.
He’d guested on Cilla Black’s weekly TV show earlier in the year, duetting with her on ‘Life’s A Gas’, and performing ‘Mad Donna’ from the just-released Tanx album with the band. Looking fresh and prettily made-up, his performance with Cilla, complete with feather boa, was actually charming. The bombast was in check as he sat next to her and turned on the Bolan charm for the ‘60s chanteuse-turned-Family-Favourite. Ms Black obviously found him extremely alluring too, quoted as saying, “It was like being jealous of your best girlfriend. He had everything – the hair, the eyes, the makeup, the glam. The worrying thing was you did kind of fancy him, being this feminine-looking guy. But then you had the music as well, both things together, and the combination was unbelievable.”
The Tanx sleeve pictured him sitting astride a toy tank, pumped-up pecs on view, the now mandatory feather boa slung around his neck. If it was meant to look sexy, it failed. He just looked a bit daft. It did ok chart-wise, matching The Slider’s peak of No.4, but it hung around the charts for much less time and spawned no hit singles.
Rolling Stone’s reviewer, Paul Gambacinni wrote, “This one album might have made a good E.P., since there are four worthwhile tracks, but the remaining nine are flights of Bolan’s fantasies, that might be interesting to his numerous devotees, but less so to more casual listeners. It’s a sad indication that Bolan really hasn’t progressed, and I can’t see many people being truly pleased with it.”
The album did, however, feature the title song from the T.Rex movie, ‘Born To Boogie’. Filmed by Ringo Starr at the band’s 1972 sold-out Wembley Empire Pool show, and featuring edited-in vignettes featuring Bolan, Starr and Elton John, filmed partly on the estate of John Lennon’s Tittenhurst Park mansion, it was something of a curate’s egg. The live concert scenes captured T.Rexstacy really well, while the odd pseudo-surreal performances filmed later seemed out of place and badly inserted.
I went to see the movie in early ’73 and was struck by how poorly attended it was. The hysterical scenes at Wembley seemed sadly out of time, bizarrely vapid in such a cavernously empty cinema. It brought it home even more clearly that T.Rex as Pop Phenomenon were no more.
Bolan’s next offering that summer was his worst single release to date. ‘The Groover’ began with a ‘butch’ male-chorus chant, spelling out his band’s name like some cheap advert for a cleaning product. Maybe he felt we needed to be reminded who and what T.Rex was. A chugging rhythm then supported boorish, joyless lines such as, ‘When I’m on the floor the kids they yell for more, more, more!’. Fact was, they weren’t yelling any longer. They had, as one, begun to yawn. The picture sleeve showed Marc on all fours, wearing oversized shades and a strange shapeless little white cape. He resembled an aging disco diva. ‘The Groover’ entered at No.6, climbed to No.4, dropped to No.5 and had left the charts two weeks later. His singles were reaching increasingly lower positions in the chart, and selling less each time.
What had, in fact, happened was that Marc’s hard-core fanbase were, while dwindling in numbers, still rushing out to buy his singles in the first week of release. But the records were no longer sustained in the charts by the wider general public also falling in love with them, and keeping them in the Top Three for several weeks more. This was what had made gems like ‘Hot Love’, ‘Get It On’ and ‘Metal Guru’ such enormous sellers.
His year-end offering, the woefully slight ‘Truck On Tyke’, did not even bother the Top Ten, stalling at a peak of No.12 after four weeks in the charts. Visconti called it quits, realising that Marc would never complete his Children of Rarn Suite, leaving T.Rex to fend for itself in their increasingly bleak new world of diminishing returns.
On the other hand, Marc’s once possible heirs to his throne were not only biting at his heels, they were gobbling him up whole. During 1973, Slade hit No.1 again with ‘Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me’, Dave Hill’s outfits becoming increasingly more bizarre with every TOTP appearance; Gary Glitter, after several No.2 smashes, finally hit the top with ‘(I’m The) Leader of The Gang’; Wizzard hit the Toppermost for a second time with ‘Angel Fingers’ and Sweet crashed into the Top Three with their blistering GlamSlam goldie, ‘Ballroom Blitz’.
Elton John also was going from strength to strength, enjoying his biggest-selling album yet with Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It spawned numerous Stateside million-sellers for an adoring public who cheered every extravagant costume he modelled on stage, a feather-encrusted Janet Baker lookalike one minute, a strutting Glitter Michelin Man the next. Excess to Success seemed the order of the day. And we loved them all for it. This was Pop Music! This was fun! This was what pop was all about.
The Glam Circus truly came to town in 1973, but T.Rex, as we’d known and loved them for three years, had finally fallen from the tightrope. In January 1974, Marc released what was, in effect, a solo single, ‘Whatever Happened To The Teenage Dream?’ and declared in the music press that “Glam Rock Is Dead.” A music journo wrote that, where once a T.Rex spot on Top Of The Pops ensured they would be No.1 the following week, it had now reached a point where the opposite happened. Marc appeared on TOTP with ‘Teenage Dream’ at No.13 after two weeks on the chart, the following week it dropped to No.18 and was gone seven days later. It kind of answered the song’s question.
Ironically, it was actually a really excellent record, the first of his I’d bought for twelve months, and his first one recorded without Visconti. Sweeping pianos and chunky acoustic guitar were the backdrop for a superb heartfelt ballad which housed some terrific lyrics, some of his finest, in fact: ‘Silver Surfer and The Ragged Kid, all are sad and rusted, boy, they don’t have a gig, believe me Pope Paul my toes are clean, Whatever happened to the teenage dream?’.
In March ’74, Bolan had one last moment in the albums Top 20 when Zinc Alloy and The Hidden Riders of Tomorrow, an apparently belated attempt to do a Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, briefly climbed to twelve, stayed three weeks in the charts and was gone. His next single, ‘Light Of Love’ crept to No.22 and got no further.
So why did this happen? Why did the public en masse desert the Elfin Glam Lord? I think there were several reasons, some of Marc’s own doing, and other circumstances beyond his control. Mainly, it was a matter of timing. This had worked in Bolan’s favour in 1970, when he’d come along just when pop music needed a kick up the arse. He’d done that beautifully and garnered the suitable rewards. But by 1973, he was literally in the wrong place doing the wrong thing. He was out of time, as Chris Farlowe had sung so magnificently in 1966: ‘You don’t know what’s going on, you’ve been away for far too long, you can’t come back and be the first in line…you’re out of touch my baby, my poor discarded baby, I said baby, baby, baby, you’re out of time.’
In effect, Bolan got stuck in the netherworld between the art-rock of Bowie and Roxy Music and the teeny stuff churned out by Glitter, Wizzard, Sweet et al. The former was, I think, beyond Bolan, he didn’t have the theatrical nous to offer that; the latter was what he’d done so well as T.Rex first took off, but was now too wrapped up in himself, and his own self-image, to give the kids the unharnessed fun-pop the new Glam stars sold by the bucketloads. The joy had gone, replaced by a desperate need to tell everybody how fantastic, how sexy, how ‘The Best’ he was. That wasn’t his job, or indeed necessary, his fans had been telling him he was great for the previous three years, by buying his records. That should have been enough. But as he lost the plot and slipped further down the rankings, his need to still claim greatness sounded ever emptier and more desperate, like a man shouting from the bottom of a well.
Then there were the new younger record buyers, those kids whose older sisters had screamed at Marc in his heyday but who had now grown up and moved on, most likely to Bowie and Ferry. The new teenyboppers were spending their pocket money on Donny Osmond, Michael Jackson and David Cassidy. And, it’s fair to say, being so aligned to Glam Rock as Bolan and T.Rex were, literally the fathers of the genre, it was hard to find another scene to move onto. There were no more left to him. And, truth be known, he was no longer capable of developing his style or his sound, beyond what he’d succeeded at between 1970 and 1972.
Marc had deserted his Hippie followers in 1970 for heights of pop stardom he could only have dreamed of a year earlier. But to change again and attempt, say, a concept album approach, which Bowie had done so successfully, or woo the cool art college crowd, who Roxy Music appealed to, was not possible for him as an artist. I think he was tired and disenchanted, puzzled and unsure what he could do to get back the fans he’d lost. They had moved on. He had not. Bolan had reached that dreaded pop desert of ‘Has-Been World’, and from that there is rarely any true recovery or comeback.
Bolan became, in effect, pop music’s Norma Desmond –
“You used to be big, Marc Bolan”
“I AM big! It’s the records that got small!”
Bowie stole Glam Rock when Marc wasn’t looking, made it his own, then, when it had done its work for him, threw it away, walking into a new sunrise of global domination; but what of the others who briefly feasted on Bolan’s hors d’ouevres? What became of them all once the genre was overdone, the kids had grown up and out of it, and their former heroes’ careers were on overkill…
…1974 was the last year that Wizzard had any hits, each one a less interesting retread of their ’73 chart-toppers; Sweet ‘went heavy’ in ’74 and managed a couple more Top Three hits until 1975, when their sales rapidly fell off; Suzi Quatro had also abandoned the Glam route by ’75 and found the hits were few and far between on that particular new highway; Gary Glitter’s pantomime dame act had palled by 1975, with no more Top Five hits coming his way; Roxy Music split up in 1976 and reformed three years later with a new, sophisticated dance-soul sound which proved even more successful than their fling with Glam; Slade had their final No.1 album in early ’74, and by ’75 found the charts a harder slope to climb; Mud were the only Glam-band who actually became more successful once the earrings had been left at home, hitting No.1 three times between January 1974 and April 1975, and scoring their last Top Ten hit at the end of 1976.
And that was the year, of course, when a wholly different kind of pop genre took off. Punk was unleashed, spitting and snarling, onto a quivering stagefull of former Glam stars and rock legends. The Sex Pistols sneered at anyone who just wanted a nice time, at anyone who had been there before them. They were the self-professed new voice of angry kids who ‘needed an outlet for their venom’. At the time, it felt threatening, but in fact was just another publicity stunt by a clever marketing man. The Pistols’ manager, Malcolm McLaren, portrayed himself as some kind of Svengali of the Disenfranchised Youth of Britain, as his band tore up the charts and ripped shreds out of any pop magazine which didn’t feature them. I found it hilarious that music papers like NME and Melody Maker, who had ignored Punk at first, suddenly realised they were missing the boat and began only featuring any act which claimed to be ‘Punk, man!’. It was all too tuneless and angry for me, based on some stupid premise that you didn’t have to be good to be great. It was all an empty marketing ploy, a vapid prat-pose on a barren stage. It worked, to a lesser or greater extent, for various punk bands, but, like anyone who shouts for too long, people eventually stopped listening to them. And of course, McLaren fell out very publicly with his former charges, whose movie ‘The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle’ said it all.
Punk’s only saving grace was that it led to New Wave, The Stranglers, Elvis Costello, Blondie, The Clash, The Jam, The Boomtown Rats, who all knew how to write a great melody housed around fantastic lyrics. They had grown initially out of Punk, had tried the snarly pissed-off thing, but quickly discovered that making truly creative and groundbreaking records was the only way to find lasting success. The Pistols lasted for a couple of years at the top, finally imploding in the mire of their own saliva and manufactured ire.
Bolan accurately announced Glam-Rock’s demise in January 1974 and T.Rex never again reached the heights they’d achieved three years earlier. The band’s final Top 20 hit was ‘I Love To Boogie’ in the Summer of ‘76, his biggest hit at the time for almost three years. What was interesting about it was that many of the people who bought it were not T.Rex fans. I had friends who, while it was climbing the charts, told me, “I’ve never really liked T.Rex, but that ‘I Love To Boogie’ is great!”. They simply loved the record, and their enthusiasm kept it in the charts for over two months. It was his best single – and best lyric – since the glory days of 1972. It basically said it all about the Elfin King who’d bopped into the history books at the end of 1970:
‘The passions of the Earth blasted its mind
Now it’s neat sweet ready for the moon based grind
We love to boogie
We love to boogie on a Saturday night
High school boogie, jitterbug boogie
We love to boogie on a Saturday night’
Marc was killed while being driven home by his partner Gloria Jones on 16th September 1977. He’d just enjoyed something of a career resurgence, hosting his own six-week TV series, ‘Marc’, aimed squarely at ‘the kids’. It was an interesting format, being not only a showcase for Marc and his new-look T.Rex, but also featuring guest performances from other acts. It was an eclectic mix of artists, The Jam and Showaddywaddy on Show 1, 10cc, Mud and The Bay City Rollers on Show 2, The Boomtown Rats and Hawkwind on Show 3, Steve Gibbons Band and Queen’s Roger Taylor on Show 4, Thin Lizzy and Radio Stars on Show 5, Generation X, Eddie & The Hot Rods and David Bowie on the final Show, which was recorded on the 7th September. Marc looked well, slimmer and healthier than he had for years, and obviously newly energised.
He briefly duetted on the final show with Bowie, but the number was cut short when Marc tripped over a cable during their number, and fell off the stage. Bowie was left looking down at his old pal, highly, and rather affectionately, amused. The moment was left in, unedited.
The two old Glam Dames actually wrote a song together after the recording, ‘Madmen’, which was covered by New Wave band, The Cuddly Toys, who took it in the Indie charts after Bolan’s death.
Marc died just nine days later. The show was transmitted shortly after Bolan’s funeral on the 20th September. The series had been a big hit, and a second series had been commissioned. Marc seemed to have finally left the demons behind, back on TV, looking great and having a ball. Perhaps even on course for a chart comeback too. We’ll never know.
Years after his death, Bolan was re-evaluated by media and music fans who weren’t around when he’d hit the Melody Maker and NME headlines each week. He was posthumously given the accolade of Father of Glam, Grandfather of Punk, although I never quite saw the latter as in any way true or accurate. His recordings were used in TV commercials and films, prompting, in 1991, the return to the Top 20 for his 1973 Top Three hit, ‘20th Century Boy’ and a Top Five placing for T.Rex – The Ultimate Collection.
At his peak, Marc had shone like a multi-coloured beacon amidst the monochrome pop world of the early ‘70s. Without Marc, there would have been no Glam Rock, none of the fantastic singles which lifted our charts and hearts for those three glittery years. It’s even debatable that, without Marc’s success, there would have been a Ziggy Stardust – i.e. a Bowie comeback. Glam Rock certainly gave Ziggy The Starman the lift-off he needed. The public’s minds had been opened to the possibility, and the delight, of androgynous pop stars, via the pouting, preening prettiest star. It opened a new door for the cleverly opportunistic Bowie, who saw the way, and seized the day.
Marc kissed us with his gorgeous songs, blowing them to us like wishes in our ears. Flashing his starry eyes, he’d waved his electric guitar wand and made a wish:
“Let my songs do you good and make you happy!”
I believe that’s all he ever wanted – that his music make us smile and want to dance. And it did. And still does.
The scene in Billy Elliott, where Billy jumped delightedly on his mattress as T.Rex’s ‘Cosmic Dancer’ rang out around the cinema, was one of those movie goosebump moments for me. You could almost see that gorgeous smile once more, beaming around the place, as we sang along to his simply beautiful lyrics: ‘I was dancing when I was eight, is it strange to dance so late, I danced myself into the tomb, is it strange to dance so soon?’.