MARC BOLAN was pop’s preening, platform-heeled peacock.
In the early Seventies, the T.Rex star struck a genius groove of hooks and hits.
Ride A White Swan, Hot Love, Get It On, Jeepster, Metal Guru, Children Of The Revolution . . . the list goes on.
Slight of build and just 5ft 4in in height, Bolan towered over the charts as he kickstarted a music revolution called glam rock.
With a mop of dark curls framing his baby face, he was the first male artist to don satin, sequins and glitter (not to mention a pink feather boa).
“Me I funk but I don’t care,” he sang on Telegram Sam. “I ain’t no square with my corkscrew hair.”
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Teenage girls screamed their way through his shows and adorned their bedroom walls with images of the elfin pocket dynamo they called “Supermarc”.
“There was nothing quite like Beatlemania, until T.Rextasy,” says producer Tony Visconti, who was at Bolan’s side throughout the glory years.
I’m speaking to the 77-year-old American to mark the release of 1972, a fabulous box set focusing on the year of peak T.Rex.
‘Felt a bit threatened’
It includes seminal album The Slider, non-album singles and B-sides, the soundtrack to the Ringo Starr-directed film Born To Boogie, a Wembley concert, BBC appearances and US radio sessions.
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Visconti is in New York, armed with endlessly fascinating Bolan insights, and I’m in London but, as is the way these days, we’re connected via Zoom.
He raves about the supremely talented showman and explains why he’s still in awe of strange lyrics like: “Well, you’re built like a car, you’ve got a hubcap diamond star halo.”
He mentions Bolan’s cocaine-fuelled dark side and imagines what might have happened had his former charge not had his life cruelly cut short at 29 by a car accident in the early hours of September 16, 1977.
Of course, Visconti is also known for his long and fruitful association with another androgynous, flamboyant, ground-breaking British artist: David Bowie.
That makes him uniquely placed to contrast and compare the two chart rivals, who, he says, “kept an eye on each other”.
“When it came to creating glam rock (in 1971), I’d say Marc beat David by about a month,” he decides. “He was the first to put on eye make-up and have glitter on his cheeks.”
Bolan’s favourite boutique was Granny Takes A Trip on Chelsea’s Kings Road, also a haunt of The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart and Bryan Ferry. And in Chelita Secunda, he had a personal dresser who pushed him towards ever more daring attire.
“The glitter was her idea,” says Visconti. “She also took him to Bond Street, where she encouraged him to try out a lot of women’s clothes. It wasn’t necessarily cross-dressing but he looked really cool — fantastic, in fact.
“Plus he was getting into five-inch heels and no one ever wore shoes like that before.”
Visconti describes how Bolan and Bowie had bonded long before Supermarc and Ziggy Stardust strode the world stage.
“They were aware of each other since their teens,” he says. “Both were doing little gigs in London and often met up.
“They used to hang out on Old Compton Street (in Soho), leaning up against Vespas or cars and showing off their latest fashion items. It was more about the clothes than the music.”
Visconti remembers the pair “breaking around the same time” but reacting in different ways to each other’s progress.
“Marc felt in competition and a bit threatened by David,” he says. “He would react by lashing out and being super-critical of him.
“By contrast, David only wanted the best for his friend and would say, ‘Fantastic, little Marc has got his day in the sun’.” To illustrate his point about Bolan’s behaviour, Visconti casts his mind back to a 1970 Bowie gig at The Roundhouse in Camden, which the T.Rex frontman felt compelled to check out.
“I’m on stage with David and Mick Ronson and we’re dressed in what you’d probably call drag,” he says. “It was David’s idea. He said, ‘Let’s not wear jeans — and Tony, you shave your beard and cut your hair’.” Later, a photograph emerged of Bolan, his face hidden under a big newsboy cap, “elbows leaning on the edge of the stage looking right up at David”.
This was the year before the big T.Rex breakthrough album, Electric Warrior, complete with No1 singles Get It On and Jeepster.
It also contained Visconti’s favourite Bolan song, the sublime Cosmic Dancer. “I’ve listened to it over and over again,” he says.
“People have covered it but I’ve never heard a cover as good as the original. Marc and I looked at each other after it was mixed and said, ‘Wow!’ We pushed ourselves to great heights.”
If T.Rex in their pomp were sleazy, sexy and powered by Bolan’s hot Fender Stratocaster licks, this was a far cry from his first forays into music.
The lad born Marc Feld from Stoke Newington, North East London, was more “the epitome of the perfect hippie flower child”.
I ask Visconti to give me his first impressions of the unsigned and yet-to-be abbreviated psychedelic folk-rock act Tyrannosaurus Rex (basically Bolan and Steve Peregrin Took).
In 1967, the budding producer was on a talent-scouting mission for his boss, Denny Cordell, when he attended the duo’s gig at a small club on Tottenham Court Road. DJ and tastemaker John Peel had been bigging them up and Visconti was curious.
“They were sitting down in a cross-legged position,” he says. “And doing songs from what would become the first Tyrannosaurus Rex album. I was simply entranced.
“There was a genuine aura around Marc. He was singing really softly. I had no idea that in a few years’ time he would be doing Get It On.”
When Visconti approached Bolan afterwards, he “got a taste of what was to come” from this man of contradictions, fragile yet egotistical, insecure yet confident.
“I said, ‘You’re absolutely great and I’d love to work with you’. He replied, ‘Well, John Lennon was here last night and you’re about the seventh producer who came here this week and asked me’.
“Everything he said was a lie. Lennon had never heard of Tyrannosaurus Rex!”
Anyway, to cut a long story short, Bolan turned up at Cordell’s office the next day.
Visconti continues: “Denny said, ‘I don’t like them but they can be our token underground group’.”
Cue a relationship between producer and star that spanned seven years and eight albums.
“We made the Tyrannosaurus Rex records on a 12-quid acoustic guitar Marc picked up on Portobello Road,” he says.
“Towards the end of that period, when the royalties started coming, he was able to buy his white Fender Strat.
“Marc always wanted to be a rock star but just didn’t have the financial means.”
In 1970, the band, which by then consisted of Bolan and Mickey Finn, shortened their name to T.Rex, plugged in and scored their first proper hit, Ride A White Swan.
A year after that, recalls Visconti, “Hot Love was selling 60,000 copies a day.”
Some claim 1971’s Electric Warrior, with its gold guitar-hero image on a black background, is the best T.Rex album.
Because it was made “haphazardly” during the first wave of T.Rextasy, Visconti argues for the follow-up, The Slider.
“Electric Warrior is still a very nice album — it really catapulted him,” he says.
“But The Slider was made more with a whole concept in mind, not in four different cities, and was a joy to make.”
Most of the work was done at Chateau d’Herouville outside Paris, the place where Elton John had just recorded his LP Honky Chateau, including Rocket Man.
Visconti says: “We worked really hard on The Slider. In fact, at one meal break, Marc yelled at us for not getting back into the studio quick enough. He said, ‘I’m not paying you to eat!’”
Bolan did allow his producer free rein over the gorgeous string arrangements that became a key part of the T.Rex sound.
“He always gave me carte blanche on the strings,” Visconti reports. “He loved them and never contributed a single note himself. There was real trust.”
I’m keen to hear his thoughts on Bolan’s extra-special qualities.
'Cocaine was ubiquitous'
“His lyrics were literally fantastic,” he enthuses.
“When he was learning his craft during Tyrannosaurus Rex days, he was channelling Tolkien. He actually made me read The Lord Of The Rings.
“He started out with lovely imagery of knights and unicorns but, in his rock ’n’ roll days, he was also able to turn the lyrics into fantasies.
“Lines like ‘diamond star halo’ just came out of nowhere. Even Bowie didn’t even have such a good grasp on metaphor as Marc.
“He was really on the money and the fans understood him. It was a private language between him and them.”
How did Bolan come up with The Slider’s odd but compelling opening track, Metal Guru, I venture.
“That was to do with his relationship with cars,” answers Visconti. “It was about a Cadillac. There are so many damn cars in his stuff, he could have been a car salesman.”
(It’s worth noting that Bolan couldn’t drive and that his partner Gloria Jones was driving their purple Mini when he died.)
As for that distinctive, quavering vocal style, Visconti says he learned it from records by Bessie Smith and other blues singers. “He bought them as 45s but made the mistake of playing them at 78, so they sounded speeded up with a very fast vibrato.
“He stated that by singing along to those records, he was training himself to get that lovely warble in his voice. He learned to glide up to the note like a black female blues singer!”
Before they went their separate ways, Visconti witnessed how the superstar existence affected Bolan.
The singer alluded to it on The Slider’s title track when he hisses in a half-whisper: “When I’m sad, I slide.”
“I was very, very close to Marc and when we weren’t recording, he’d often still come to my flat in Earl’s Court,” says Visconti.
“Cocaine was ubiquitous in that decade and word on the street was that it was not addictive, just a fun drug.”
No Starr turn behind the camera on Slider cover
MARC loved The Beatles and Ringo Starr loved T.Rex. So when the drummer tried his hand at directing films, he made the concert movie Born To Boogie about the band. During filming,
The Slider’s cover photo was taken – and credited to Ringo. It was actually shot by Tony Visconti.
When the producer confronted Bolan, he replied: “Whoopsie!”
Both Visconti and Bolan were among many in the business “who couldn’t live without it”. “I realised I was destroying my body, so I stopped quite early,” he says. “I also did exercise and martial arts.
“But Marc had that rock ’n’ roll life. He always mingled with other artists and everyone was doing cocaine, not just him.”
After The Slider, Visconti produced two more T.Rex albums, the commendable Tanx (1973) and the patchy Zinc Alloy And The Hidden Riders Of Tomorrow (1974).
“I didn’t know him in his final years because we split after Zinc Alloy,” he says.
“But David (Bowie) was hanging out with him and he got Marc in very lucid moments. They used to have really good chats about life and their careers.
“Marc knew he had to pull his socks up to get another hit because they weren’t coming towards the end of his life.”
Just before Bolan’s death, Bowie joined him on the Granada TV show, Marc. Their meeting threw up the tantalising prospect of a reunion with Visconti.
“They hung out that night and David said, ‘Would you like to come down to Soho and see Tony’s studio on Dean Street?’
“Marc went to look at it and said, ‘Oh, this is such a great place — I’ve got to work here and I’ve got to talk to Tony again’.
“A couple of days later, he died. And that was that.”
Visconti firmly believes he would have worked with Bolan again “if not then, maybe five years later.
“He would have had a Bowie-style career. David was getting grown-up T.Rex fans when Marc was still making teeny-bop music.
“But, maybe after a break, I think he would have come back in the Eighties with a new sound.”
Finally, Visconti assesses Bolan’s place in history. “He’s a rock icon and although he has a smaller output than, say, Bowie or Morrissey, he’s influencing other artists to this day.
“There should be blue plaques across London, even where he had lunch.
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“He deserves all the accolades as one of the greatest rock ’n’ rollers that Britain ever produced.”
That diamond star halo is glowing brighter than ever.
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