Direct predecessor of two important trends in the music of the 1970s—glam rock and punk—T. Rex was the manifestation of one highly original musician’s personal vision. The core of the band was its singer and lead guitarist, Marc Bolan. Bolan employed a series of percussionists, and other musicians rounded out the band’s sound on records and in concert; butT. Rex was essentially a vehicle for Bolan’s songwriting and distinctive stage presence.
T. Rex is perhaps best remembered for its single American hit “Bang a Gong (Get It On),” recorded in 1971. But at the peak of their popularity in England, in 1972 and 1973, the band attracted fan adulation rivaled only by that of the Beatles in their prime. And the musicians who would create the rock styles of the future were carefully observing the mix of stage flamboyance, concept-album fantasy, eroticism, frenzied guitar work, and mystical poetry that Bolan concocted.
Bolan was born Mark Feld in London on September 30, 1947 (some sources list his birth date as July 30, 1947.
Members include Marc Bolan (born Mark Feld, [according to most sources] September 30, 1947, in London, England; married Gloria Jones [second wife; a singer); died in an automobile accident, September 16, 1977), vocals, guitar; Steve Currie (bandmember c. 1971-72; died in 1981), bass; and Steve Peregrine Took (born July 28, 1949, in London; replaced by Micky Finn [born June 3, 1947], 1970; died in 1980), percussion.
Group formed as Tyrannosaurus Rex in London, 1967 (name shortened to T. Rex, 1970); released albums in U.S. on Blue Thumb label; signed with Reprise Records in U.S., 1970.
or September 30, 1948). As a teenager he was drawn to London’s “teddy boy” and “mod” fashion scenes, and he even worked, briefly but apparently successfully, as a fashion model. A penchant for unusual outfits would remain with Bolan throughout his career. On stage he often appeared in the striking combination of black stovepipe hat and V-neck sweater, an image captured on the famous cover of T. Rex’s album The Slider by photographer and ex-Beatle Ringo Starr.
But like many other British young people of his generation, Bolan was also drawn to American rock and roll, and he soon began to aspire to a musical career. He joined a group called John’s Children, which had some success before disbanding in 1967. Then Bolan joined with percussionist Steve Peregrine Took to form Tyrannosaurus Rex. He chose the name after experiencing a hallucination in which a dinosaur pictured on a poster on the wall of his room began to move.
The titles of Tyrannosaurus Rex’s early albums, released in the U.S. on the Blue Thumb label, offer pointed suggestions of their content; two examples are 1968’s Prophets, Seers & Sages and the following year’s Unicorn. Bolan’s compositions from this period had a fantastic air inspired by the quasi-medieval writings of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. But more significant was the duo’s unique sound. Possibly due to a finance company repossession of his electric instruments, Bolan favored an acoustic guitar on these recordings; the results fit well with the late-1960s trend toward folk rock. And his vocal style was instantly memorable for its drawing out of long notes into a strangled, rapid vibrato. Took contributed a varied palette of bongo drum sounds, and the two musicians created free musical structures that matched the imaginativeness of Bolan’s lyrics. Indeed, such early recordings as “Strange Orchestras” and “Deborah” sounded as novel to many in the 1990s as they did when they were first released.
The latter song was a Top 40 hit in Britain, and, with the support of the influential BBC disc jockey John Peel, Tyrannosaurus Rex’s albums gained a strong following. But Bolan hoped for wider success. Took left the act and was replaced by Micky Finn in 1970, also the year that the band’s name was truncated to T. Rex.
It was at about this time that producer Tony Visconti, who would later team with David Bowie, began to devise a more elaborate and grandiose sound for T. Rex, including the use of a variety of instruments and even occasional string and orchestra arrangements. Bolan reverted to an electric guitar. This caused a small furor among his folk-oriented fans, not unlike the one American folksinger Bob Dylan had experienced in 1965 when he made a similar switch. But as they did in Dylan’s case, the changes opened the door to a popular breakthrough.
The new T. Rex sound was displayed at its simplest and most intense on 1971’s Electric Warrior and its successor, The Slider, released the following year. Bolan had discarded fantasy themes in favor of short blues and rock forms that frequently bore erotic content. A series of metaphors likening women to automobiles—“You’re built like a car/You got a hubcap/Diamond-star halo,” Bolan intoned in “Bang a Gong (Get It On”)—might have seemed ludicrous coming from someone with less vocal authority.
Bolan’s lyrics were obscure, seemingly more concerned with the sound of the words than with their meaning. To be sure, we may never know what Bolan intended by “She’s got luggage eyes,” from 1970’s “One Inch Rock.” But he had an undeniable gift for simple, alliterative images of great power, like the fragment “You’re windy and wild,” from “Bang a Gong (Get It On),” or even the bacchanalian refrain that gave the song its title.
Certain junctures in these songs were augmented by producer Visconti with backing vocals that mirrored Bolan’s singing one octave higher, which created an eerie, gothic atmosphere that greatly influenced socalled glam rockers like David Bowie in the ensuing years. Bowie’s early music, described by Scott Isler in the New Rolling Stone Record Guide as “heavy metal with an art-school education,” owed much to T. Rex. But the influence of Electric Warrior and The Slider led in another direction as well. Electric Warrior’s “Rip Off” featured full-throated screams of barely coherent complaint (“The President’s weird/He’s got a burgundy beard/It’s a rip-off/Such a rip-off”) from Bolan, with loud rudimentary guitar accompaniment, frenetic drumming from Finn, and a swirling, abrasively blown saxophone. Offerings of this sort earned T. Rex the respect of musicians in the nascent punk movement. On tour shortly before his death in 1977, Bolan featured a punk band, the Damned, as his opening act.
The effect of all this on youthful English audiences was extraordinary. Michael Thomas of Rolling Stone quoted an English newspaper account as having reported: “Girls, mostly young, went mad. Their eyes glazed in delirium. They danced adulatorily in the aisles. They emitted falsetto shrieks. It was all rather reminiscent of Beatlemania.” T. Rex notched a total of 11 Top Ten hits in Britain. “Bang a Gong” reached the same level in America, but despite an extensive television advertising campaign—the first of its kind, on the part of T. Rex’s American label, Reprise—the band never really achieved mass success in the U.S., though they did cultivate a die-hard cult following there.
Even in Britain, Bolan’s period of real stardom was brief. Ringo Starr directed a 1973 documentary on T. Rex’s career called Born to Boogie; but even by that time public attention had shifted elsewhere and the film was a commercial failure. Later T. Rex albums were panned by critics and generally ignored by the public, and Bolan descended into what he described to Rolling Stone as “a twilight world of drugs, booze and kinky sex.” He died on September 16, 1977, when a car driven by his second wife, an American soul singer named Gloria Jones, crashed into a tree. Took died in 1980, and Steve Currie, who had played bass on Electric Warrior and The Slider, met his end in 1981.
By the early 1990s there were signs that Bolan’s talent and T. Rex’s immense historical significance were beginning to receive their proper appreciation. The Power Station released a hit version of “Bang a Gong” in 1985 (arguably that short-lived group’s best work), and in 1993, heavy metal superstars Guns ‘N’ Roses—who began their career with a decidedly glam look—covered 1972’s “Buick Mackane,” the cutting of which guitarist Slash said finally got the song “out of his system.” A boxed-set compilation of the band’s recordings was made available, as were individual CD reissues of some of their albums, though the early Tyrannosaurus Rex folk-rock albums remained mostly unavailable. (Electric Warrior is among the handful of classic rock albums that have remained in print continuously since their date of release.) Perhaps most telling of the band’s influence, though, was the emergence in 1993 of the much-hyped British group Suede, which made a splash with an admittedly T. Rex-inspired sound; it seemed the glam movement that Bolan had largely created was on the verge of a full-blown revival.
Prophets, Seers & Sages, Blue Thumb, 1968.
Unicorn, Blue Thumb, 1969.
Electric Warrior (includes “Bang a Gong [Get It On]” and “Rip Off”), Reprise, 1971.
The Slider, Reprise, 1972.
The T. Rex Collection, Relativity, 1991.
20th-Century Boy/The Best of T. Rex, Relativity.
Bolan’s Zip Gun, Relativity.
Futuristic Dragon, Relativity.
Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow, Relativity.
BBC Live, Windsong.
The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Colin Larkin, New England Publishers Associates, 1992.
Marsh, Dave, and John Swenson, The New Rolling Stone Record Guide, Rolling Stone Press/Random House, 1983.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Ward, Ed, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker, Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1986.
Rolling Stone, July 23, 1970; September 16, 1971; March 16, 1972; September 26, 1974.
—James M. Manheim
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