T. Rex, English glam-rock innovators, and one of the biggest bands in England during the 1970s. Membership:Marc Bolan (b. Mark Feld), voc, gtr. (b. London, England, Sept. 30, 1947; d. there, Sept. 16, 1977); Steve Peregrine Took (born Steve Turner), pere, voc. (b. England, July 28, 1949; d. Oct. 27, 1980); Mickey Finn, pere, voc. (b. June 3, 1947); Steve Currie, bs. (b. May 21, 1947; d. 1981); Bill Legend, drm. (b. Bill Fyfield, Essex, England, May 6, 1944); Jack Green, gtr. (b. Glasgow, Scotland, March 12, 1951); Gloria Lynn, voc. (b. Long View, Tex., Sept. 12, 1938); Pat Hall, voc; Dino Dines, kybd.
Marc Bolan’s parents were working-class Londoners: his mom worked at a fruit stand, his father held a number of odd jobs. By all accounts, his parents doted on their son. They spent a month’s salary to buy him his first guitar, filled his closets with clothes that he would change three or four times a day during the mod movement, and encouraged his dreams of becoming just like pop singer Cliff Richard some day. In many ways he did. While Bolan only earned one American pop hit, and charted but two albums in the Top 40, in early 1970s England he ruled the charts. He and his band became so popular, the British tabloids dubbed the period “T-Rextasy.” His influence on everything from glam to punk to 1980s “hair metal” cannot be overstated.
In his youth, Bolan’s friends included the likes of Keith Reid (of Procul Hamm), Cat Stevens, and David Jones (a.k.a. David Bowie). In his early teens, Bolan was in a skiffle band with Helen Shapiro, who beat him to the charts by about five years, becoming an English teen sensation. Bolan became a mod, his wardrobe impressing a journalist from the Evening Standard to do a photo feature on him that led to modeling jobs. However, by the time he was 17, Bolan was back playing music, doing his best English Bob Dylan impression under the name of “Toby Tyler.” He cut a few demos (released in the 1990s), but nothing much came of these recordings. Bolan did some TV extra work before going to France for a couple of months. There, he allegedly met a magician who turned him on to Celtic mysticism as epitomized by the work of J. R. R. Tolkien. On his return to England in 1965, Bolan took to writing songs reflecting this new infatuation, landing a singles deal with Decca to release “The Wizard.” When he got the test pressings, Decca had changed his name to Marc Boland. He asked them to shorten it to Marc Bolan, and he kept that as his professional name for the rest of his career, although that single and several that followed didn’t reach an audience.
Bolan hooked up with manager/producer Simon Napier-Bell, auditioning in person in Bell’s office for over two hours. They worked on a couple of solo singles that went nowhere. Bell had Bolan join another group he managed, John’s Children, who already had a recording contract and had attracted a great deal of press thanks to their naked publicity photos. They recorded a Bolan tune called “Desdemona” that was banned by the BBC for lyrics they deemed offensive. Bolan lasted six months in the group.
Being in a band led Bolan to the conclusion that he had to be in charge. He met a percussionist named Steve Turner, who demonstrated an uncanny knack for harmonizing with Bolan’s voice. He convinced Turner to change his name to Steve Peregrine Took after one of the hobbits in Lord of the Rings. They started playing shows around London as Tyrannosaurus Rex, with Bolan on acoustic guitar and Took on bongos. They came to the attention of former pirate radio operator John Peel, who was booking a Covent Garden club. He hired them as the house band. Before long, Peel became a personality on Radio One and had the band play live in the studio.
After a show at the UFO club, producer Tony Visconti, who worked with TRO/Essex music, approached them. He signed them as the company’s token under ground group, got a $1,000 budget, and took them into a small, eight-track studio to cut an album’s worth of songs and a single. The album was released in 1968 as My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair...But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows. The album rose to #15 on the English charts, and the single “Deborah” hit #34. They started playing better venues and earning about five times the fee they previously charged for an evening. Later in 1968, they released Prophets, Seers and Sages, The Angels of the Ages. The album did okay and the single “One Inch Rock” hit #28.
Up to this point in their careers, Tyrannosaurus Rex was an acoustic band, appealing to the folkie/hippie audience that didn’t buy many records. For their next album, Unicorn, Bolan started moving away from the more mystical themes. With better sound than their previous albums, it rose to #12, in the U.K. It came out in the U.S. as well, but failed to reach an audience. By this point, Bolan had started playing electric guitars. This blatantly commercial move repelled radical hippie Took, who left the band during a disastrous American tour in 1969. Bolan found another percussionist, Mickey Finn, who joined the band. Together, they cut A Beard of Stars, even more pop than the previous records, but oddly not as successful. After four albums, Bolan was still more or less a cult artist.
The next album was such a radical departure—with a decided electric/pop slant—that it required a new identity. The group became T. Rex. The “new” group’s first single, the bluesy, chiming “Ride a White Swan,” rose to #2 in 1971. Then, before an appearance on Top of the Pops, Bolan started playing with makeup, adding glitter to his look. His appearance caused a sensation and marked the beginning of glitter or glam rock. The new electric sound demanded more of a band than just pick-up musicians, so Bolan added Steve Currie on bass and Bill Legend on drums. The second single, “Hot Love,” became the first T. Rex chart topper. The band and Visconti went into the studio while on tour in the U.S. and recorded “Get It On (Bang a Gong).” It again topped the U.K. charts, and became the group’s only chart single in the U.S., hitting #10 in the winter of 1972. They followed “Get It On” with “Jeepster,” another bit of skiffle-boogie that went to #2 in the U.K. The more experimental “Telegram Sam,” with its modified strings, went to #1, the group’s third chart topper of the year.
Bolan next worked with Ringo Starr on the tracks “Have You Seen My Baby” and “Back Off Boogaloo,” which actually went to #9, in the U.S. Starr, in turn, filmed a documentary about Bolan and the band called Born to Boogie. In the film, he recorded a version of “Children of the Revolution” with Starr and pianist Elton John. He recorded the next T. Rex album at John’s favorite studio in France. Presaged by the group’s fourth U.K. #1, 1972’s The Slider topped the album charts in England and rose to #17 in the U.S. A remake of “Children of the Revolution” went to #2, as did the follow-up “Solid Gold Easy Action.” The next single, the distorted, hard rocking “Twentieth-Century Boy” hit #3. Ironically, it was followed shortly by the next T. Rex album, Tanx, that was somewhat mellower than Slider and the first since the name change not to find an audience. A non-LP single “The Groover” hit #4 in the U.K., but didn’t stay on the charts very long.
In 1974 Bolan added two female vocalists, Pat Hall and Gloria “Tainted Love” Jones, to the band as well as guitarist Jack Green. Jones eventually became Bolan’s lover. Bolan released the next album, Zinc Alloy & the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow, without even including the T. Rex name on the record’s first pressing. Although the single, a string-laden 1950s pastiche “Whatever Happened to the Teenage Dream” did fairly well, the album tanked. Bolan, who had rarely even indulged in a glass of wine with dinner, began to abuse cocaine and alcohol. He and Visconti parted company and Bolan moved to Calif, to avoid the high English taxes in 1975. He released a few singles and the album Bolan’s Zip Gun that were among his worst. During this period, Mickey Finn left the band and opened an antique shop.
When Bolan seemed to reach rock bottom, Jones became pregnant. This seemed to energize him. They moved back to England, quit drugs, and reformed the band with Currie and others. He cut a tune called “New York City” that made use of some of the new synthesizers hitting the market. It went to #15, a reasonable comeback. While Bolan was doing the talk show circuit, Thames TV was impressed enough to hire him to do his own show. In 1976 he cut the Futuristic Dragon album and the single “I Love to Boogie” went to #13. He toured with the Damned, at once embracing punk and claiming to have innovated it. In 1977 Dandy in the Underworld was released, which didn’t do as well as peak T. Rex, but sold reasonably well. Bolan also began writing a monthly column for the magazine The Record. On the cusp of this rebound, he and Jones were in an automobile accident that killed Bolan instantly. Took choked on a cocktail cherry pit in 1980, and Currie was in a fatal car accident in Portugal in 1981.
Bolan’s influence on rock continued after his death. In the late 1970s, rockabilly revivalists the Polecats had a minor hit with “Jeepster.” Hanoi Rocks brought the T. Rex sensibility to hair metal, covering several Bolan tunes. The Power Station took “Bang a Gong” to #9 in the U.S. some 13 years after Bolan rode it to #10.
My People Were Fair (1968); Prophets, Seers & Sages (1968); Unicorn (1969); A Beard of Stars (1970); T. Rex (1970); Electric Warrior (1971); The Slider (1972); Tanx (1973); Light of Love (1974); Zinc Alloy & the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow (1974); Bolan’s Zip Gun (1975); Futuristic Dragon (1976); Dandy in the Underworld (1977); Precious Star (1996); Live 1977 (1997).