Composer, author, lecturer, guitar teacher

Marc Bolan 1947-77

Last Saturday saw the 40th anniversary of the death of the English rock musician / songwriter Marc Bolan. It was marked by two new documentaries, on BBC4 and Sky Arts, and a celebratory gig in West London. I saw and enjoyed the BBC4 film which had some fresh material.

For those of my subscribers who are outside the UK, I should mention that Marc Bolan’s group T. Rex were the Top 40 sensation of 1971-72, having a run of hit singles and several successful albums which lasted well into 1973. The hysterical reaction of fans at live T Rex gigs drew comparisons with Beatlemania. During the late 60s Bolan had been part of a mostly acoustic duo Tyrannosaurus Rex playing to a hippie / underground / student audience. The four albums released under that name 1968-70 had Bolan writing poetic lyrics which seemed like postcards from a Tolkeinish world of his own invention – pastoral, innocent and enchanted.

As he gradually introduced electric guitar these lyrical preoccupations faded, but there was enough of that enchantment hanging over to make the early T. Rex quartet’s music a special blend of magic and rock’n’roll such as has never been heard in the Top 40 before or since. Who else but Marc would put in ‘Get It On’ a line like ‘You’re an untamed youth … (name-checking an Eddie Cochran film) … with your cloak full of eagles’, not to mention the ‘hubcap diamond star halo’ and the ‘teeth of the Hydra’. Along the way he almost single-handedly invented glam rock, dressing up on Top of the Pops a year before Bowie put his arm round Mick Ronson for ‘Starman’.

Sadly, the decline, musical and personal, was precipitous from 1974 on. But the inspiration from that earlier music has lasted a lifetime for me. T. Rex were the first rock band I saw live, and made me want to take up playing guitar and writing songs. Bolan’s example is for songwriters an encouragement, in terms of how much you can do with little material if the creative energy is high, and how you can get stuck if you don’t care enough about the parameters of your music. He also had a wonderful palette of electric guitar tones which are tricky to emulate. But in recent years a few of them have come alive under my fingers, and that has been a thrill.

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4 responses

  1. Steve

    Hello Rikky. What do you mean when you talk about caring about the parameters
    of your music in talking about Marc Bolan? Do you think he was too basic and ran
    out of original ideas because of that? I remember reading somewhere that his manager wanted him to go away and write something original and not Chuck Berry/12 bar blues based. He was great but just wondering if there is a lesson for all of us songwriters there.
    Perhaps you could blog about it.

    April 30, 2018 at 12:47 am

    • Hello Steve, thanks for your comment. I think he did get stuck as a songwriter for a number of reasons. Once T Rex became very successful he enjoyed the fame aspect and was too restless and impatient to spend time thinking about musical issues other than those raised by questions of production / arrangement. He was also not going to take instruction from anyone else. He tried to change the sound of T Rex by changing the arrangements in 1973 but this often didn’t work because the musical core of the music remained similar – by which I mean he was using the same few chords / keys and progressions. A good example of this would be the single ‘Teenage Dream’1974 which has a single section for the entire song and recycles almost the same chord progression as ‘Cat Black’ from 1969. So by parameters I was referring to things like that. For example, how many of his songs have a bridge section? Not many. And of course he could never have made his concept story The Children of Rarn work unless he had expanded his musical language. As for his approach to 12 bars in that area he was actually more original than most. I don’t think any manager told him to write something different. But Tony Visconti did say to him that some musical expansion work would have to be done to make The Children of Rarn possible. I hope this clarifies what I was getting at.

      April 30, 2018 at 7:08 am

  2. Steve

    Thank Rikky. You once sent me an email (which I sadly can’t find) dealing with the issue of why many songwriters can’t write great songs in middle age that they did in their youth.
    It dealt with how we see the world based on our experiences, not having the earlier hunger after you’ve made it (like a boxer trying to win the championship the second time vs the first) and other reasons. It might be a good idea to write an article about it in the future.
    The email was several paragraphs long and made me realize by the Stones can’t/don’t do another Paint It Black, Honky Tonk Women etc, same with McCartney, Springsteen and other artists. Their best work was in their 20’s. Maybe it is touring and having to play the same songs over and over, family commitments etc. I remember Donovan saying that when he helped the Beatles learn fingerpicking in India he wasn’t surprised at some of the love songs they wrote because he and they were still young enough to fall in love and believe the best about someone else. It is easy to see why someone couldn’t write the same love songs if they had many failed romances, marriages etc the way they would in their late teens and early 20’s and they may not have the touch for more expansive or general topic songwriting. In Roy Orbison;s case once he left Monument fof CBS the people who collaberated with him weren’t there anymore and he never had a similar great song like when he was new. As a matter of fact it was only when he left Sun records that he had those great romantic ballads in the first place. Then again maybe if the Wrecking Crew, Funk Brothers at Motown, Muscle Shoals or some producer aren’t around anymore it was the reason they were good in the first place. Please expand upon this topic. Thanks.

    May 27, 2018 at 11:38 am

    • Thanks for your comment, Steve. I will give this some thought and see if there is anything I can add.

      May 31, 2018 at 1:48 pm

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