I wrote this sprawling piece for The Word issue of June 2005. Though I saw Marc Bolan on stage many times, he died before I ever had the chance to meet him. For my research here I drew upon interviews with colleagues and friends including David Bowie, Ringo Starr, Mickey Finn, Bill Legend, Simon Napier-Bell and Tony Visconti.
A good deal of this material would find its way into my book on London pop, Into The City.
They don’t make pop stars like Marc Bolan any more. For about 18 months he was the most famous man in Britain. Everybody loved him. He was the National Elf.
In fact, “they” didn’t make Marc Bolan, either. Marc Bolan made Marc Bolan. He was Britain’s first entirely self-invented pop star. He prepared for fame from the day he was born. Once he found it, debates raged about how “real” he was. In fact Marc Bolan was just as real as any work of art. But in his case, he was the work of art.
A new DVD, Born To Boogie, documents his finest hour: T. Rex’s triumphant 1972 concert at the Empire Pool, Wembley. Aptly the original film was made by Ringo Starr. There was a feeling back then, after The Beatles’ abdication, that pop was looking at an empty throne. And along came this miniscule Cockney chancer to fill it. A small chap who told tall tales, he seized his moment and gloried in his success. The press called it “T. Rextasy”. And life for Bolan was sweet.
Alas, it was not the dawn of a new era. Wembley was Bolan’s peak. There was Bad Stuff just around the corner, and lashings of it. We shall hear tales of opportunist gay sex, of uncontrolled ego, of jealousy, betrayal and the Devil’s Dandruff. There will be a most unhappy ending. But let’s not forget to celebrate this strange man’s brilliance. He was unique, funny and made the greatest pop of his day. His art came out of his own curly head; it was not constructed in marketing meetings. He won the nation’s heart by casting a spell over the land, not by getting a lazy population to push a button on its TV remote. The Marc Bolan story won’t happen again.
If you have ever been to Stoke Newington, N16, you would not mistake it for Dingley Dell, Fairyland. But in one young boy’s imagination, that’s exactly what it was. The boy who became Marc Bolan was originally Mark Feld. The Felds lived in a flat here, on the cusp of North and East London. Sid Feld was a lorry driver whose roots were East End Jewish. Sid married Phyllis Atkins, a Fulham girl who ran a stall in Berwick Street market. Mark, their second son, was born in Hackney Hospital on 30 September, 1947.
He grew up small, but lively and popular. At nine years of age he discovered Elvis Presley and Mum bought him a cheap guitar on hire purchase. An older school friend was Helen Shapiro, from neighbouring Clapton. The pair played together in a very rudimentary rock’n’roll group that might have been called Susie & The Hoola-Hoops, though no one can swear to it. Whatever, it came to an end when Helen left for the big school. With his Mum’s market being in Soho, Mark would often slip around the corner to Old Compton Street and a coffee bar called The 2i’s, generally considered the cradle of English rock’n’roll.
Here, he used to say, the boy watched stars in the making like Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard. One can never be entirely sure, for Bolan was always big on self-mythologising. But it’s obvious that he grew up wise to the ways of show business. In that Absolute Beginners world of post-War Soho, he was observing Tin Pan Alley from close quarters, as only a London kid could do.
He got to know “the rag trade”, too, as everyday fashion businesses were called, whether in Soho or the premises of Jewish tailors in Stamford Hill near his home. With a quick eye for style, young Feld observed the twilight of the teddy boys and the rise of the jazz-inspired “modernists”, an élite who would give way to the more inclusive mods. Obtaining his clothes money by fair means or foul, the 14-year-old Feld was featured in a mod story for *Town* magazine. “I’ve got ten suits,” he boasted, “eight sports jackets, 15 pairs of slacks, 30 or 35 good shirts, about 20 jumpers, three leather jackets, two suede jackets, five or six pairs of shoes and 30 exceptionally good ties.”
Excellent quote. But was it true? As so often happens in the Marc Bolan story, nobody knows for sure.
Around this time a thunderbolt struck. His old friend Helen Shapiro became Britain’s biggest pop star. Still in her mid-teens but possessed of a booming voice, she was having hits like Walking Back To Happiness and Don’t Treat Me Like A Child. Her run of luck continued until the arrival of The Beatles, with whom she toured. They of course kicked solo singers out of the limelight. But while it lasted, the effect on Mark Feld must have been tremendous. Already ambitious and self-aware to an exceptional degree, here he saw a girl from his own gang becoming the country’s top teen celebrity. It could be done! Maybe it was his turn next!
Fate, however, had a trick in store. The Feld family were suddenly re-housed by the council, down to the other side of the River Thames. Summerstown has a pleasant, almost Tolkien-like name, but in 1962 it was a nondescript patch, on the border of Wimbledon and Tooting. Sundered from the mods of Stamford Hill, Mark Feld lost momentum. He soon left school and told the Labour Exchange he wanted to work as a poet. They sent him to wash dishes in the Wimpey Bar.
He lasted but a week, with an equally brief stint in a Tooting menswear shop. Then he gave up work as a bad idea, preferring to loll around his parents’ new pre-fab and concentrate on the only project that really fascinated him – himself. Morale restored, he ventured back up West, to the sort of peacock shops that were just starting to appear in a Soho backwater called Carnaby Street. Here, it’s believed, he did a spot of male modelling. He was putting his pretty face about, getting to know the pop people. He was a little over five foot tall.
He took a flat-share in Earls Court and hung around TV studios. He landed a bit part in a series called Orlando. He may, and again it’s only speculation, have become bisexual. The Who’s Pete Townshend has said of the period: “I remember Marc Bolan with full make-up on, working as a rent boy to buy clothes, in and around the Scene Club. He was about 15.”
The biggest and best fib Bolan ever told was the one about the wizard. For years he claimed to have been befriended in Paris by a mysterious older man, who was a sorcerer. From this shadowy mentor, Marc insisted, he had learned all forms of forbidden knowledge, including the spells that could summon up spirits or – he implied – turn three chords into solid gold.
It would have made a wonderful French new wave film. Perhaps it already had. Whilst it’s true that Bolan took a short trip to Paris, nobody who knows him has ever taken the story seriously. His later manager, Simon Napier-Bell, believes it was a basic gay pick-up. And yet the yarn became the foundation myth of Marc Bolan’s whole career.
He had already struggled to become a Dylan imitator, cutting some demos of himself as a serious-looking folkie called Toby Tyler. When that didn’t work he took some more songs to Decca, particularly an eccentric thing called The Wizard (“Walking in the woods one day, I met a man who said he was magic”). The record company agreed to release Mark Feld’s fantasy as a single – under a new name, Marc Bolan. Depending on the version you accept, this name was either Decca’s own invention, a subtle homage by Mark to Bo(b) Dy(lan), or an adaptation of the elegant French designer Marc Bohan. Alarmingly, Decca’s first press release endowed him with an umlaut: Marc Bölan.
The same document assured the world Marc had spent 18 months at the chateau of his Parisian shaman, followed by a solitary spell in the woods outside Rome. Furthermore, he now owned “a magic cat”, presented by a girl he had met “at dead of night” in the King’s Road. The enchanted young troubadour began hustling the London scene. Music journalists of that time recall a persistent young man, pestering them in pubs and prophesying a brilliant future. But a second single flopped, just as The Wizard did, and Decca went cold on their mystically-destined discovery.
Amongst Marc Bolan’s fellow young schemers in 1965 was one David Bowie, another Londoner, just a few months older than he. The pair struck up a friendship through a song publisher, Les Conn, who briefly managed both of them. “We met each other,” Bowie told me, “when we were poured into the manager’s office to whitewash the walls. So there’s me and this mod whitewashing Les’s office. And he goes, ‘Where d’you get those shoes, man? Where d’you get your shirt?’ We immediately started talking about clothes and sewing machines. ‘Oh I’m gonna be singer and I’m gonna be so big you’re not gonna believe it, man.’ Oh, right, well I’ll probably write a musical for you one day. Cos I’m gonna be the greatest writer ever. ‘No, no, man, you’ve gotta hear my stuff cos I write great things. And I knew a wizard in Paris,’ and it was all this. Just whitewashing walls in our manager’s office.”
Marc found his first serious manager in Simon Napier-Bell, a perceptive hedonist who looked after The Yardbirds (and would, many years later, re-emerge as manager of Wham!). Napier-Bell has written several times of Bolan in his witty volumes of pop business memoirs, and has described his young protégé as “a wonderful, charming fraud.” The openly gay Napier-Bell says that like many managers and musicians of the day, there was a strong sexual undercurrent to their relationship. They sometimes conducted business meetings in bed. On the whole, he believed the pushy young folk singer who turned up at his door was more gay than straight.
Napier-Bell’s first brainwave was to combine Bolan with a young rock band he was also trying to launch, called John’s Children. The group’s style was groping towards a sort of ultra-violent psychedelia, more pop art than flower power, something like The Who. They already had a singer, Andy Ellison, but Napier-Bell believed it could be a vehicle for Marc as songwriter and secondary vocalist, helping to get him known in his own right. Though John’s Children soon imploded, Napier-Bell’s strategy had some success. Their best legacy is a Bolan-penned single, Desdemona, that featured an extraordinary warble from the back-up singer. Said warble was the wider world’s introduction to Marc Bolan’s bizarre new singing voice.
Nobody knows for sure where this noise came from. Napier-Bell and Bolan have claimed it was an imitation of R&B singers played at 45 rpm instead of 33. Others can hear the Cockney Buddy Holly-isms of Adam Faith. The commonest jibe of the time, however, was that it sounded like the stuttering puppet star of BBC Children’s Hour, Larry the Lamb.
Although John’s Children collapsed, they briefly shared a record label with Jimi Hendrix, who fuelled Marc’s ambition to front an incandescent electric rock band. Thus, when he retreated to his parents’ home in South London, he composed an ad for the Melody Maker classifieds: “Freaky lead guitarist, bass guitarist and drummer wanted for Marc Bolan’s new group. Also any other astral flyers like with cars, amplification and that which never grows in window boxes. Phone Wimbledon 0697. 9 am-3pm.”
In the event, this ad assembled a shambolic five-piece so bad that they lasted for just one gig. Chastened by the fiasco, Marc sacked everyone but his new bongo-player, a moody young hippy with the Tolkien-inspired name Steve Peregrine Took. Napier-Bell observed Marc’s conversion to the Age of Aquarius with some scepticism: “He sensed that the hippy attitude, which was totally prevalent then, would not accept a glossy rock star, and because that had become the flavour of the day, he was going to have to go with it.”
Bolan christened his new two-piece Tyrannosaurus Rex, after the biggest and baddest of prehistoric beasts. His speaking voice changed from streetwise barrow boy to fey fairy prince. Cross-legged, he strummed rudimentary acoustic chords and sang in a strangulated bleat, like a motherless baa-lamb lost on a wintry fellside. And the bongos pattered like mice behind the skirting board.
Next to enter to Marc Bolan’s story was perhaps the most important character he would ever meet. In September, 1967, Tony Visconti was a young New Yorker who had fetched up in Swinging London He was now working for a production company, Straight Ahead, who had a deal with EMI’s least prestigious label, the largely forgotten Regal Zonophone. Visconti takes up the tale:-
“My boss told me to go find an act of my own to produce, so I opened up the International Times and around the corner from our offices was a club called UFO, the underground psychedelic club of the time. I walked in on the beginning of Marc’s set and he was sitting cross-legged with Steve Peregrine Took. It was dark, but the impression I got was that he had some kind of a spell over the audience. There were about 100 kids sitting cross-legged on the floor, and they were *swaying* – not screaming or clapping, just swaying back and forth. I thought, What is this? I was immediately taken in.”
Another key convert was the hippy DJ John Peel. He booked Tyrannosaurus Rex for studio sessions and his own live dates at venues like the Middle Earth (those Tolkien references were everywhere in ’67). He lavished airplay upon Bolan’s debut Rex single Debora. And he would duly pop up on the first Tyrannosaurus Rex LP, reciting a slightly twee children’s story (“Kingsley Mole sat high on a windy knoll,” etc.). For a long time, Bolan and Peel were inseparable.
The early Rex albums are period pieces but full of pleasing, delicate tunes and whimsical word-play that seemed drawn from enormously wide reading. Inca kings and Celtic witches dallied with mythological animals in dappled fairy groves. The instrumentation was sparse, but as Visconti says, that was Marc making a virtue out of a necessity: “He wanted to be a rock star and John’s Children was supposed to launch him. It didn’t pan out and they took everything away from him, including his guitar and amplifier. So he was bruised. But he was a tough little guy and he got himself a 12 quid acoustic guitar, all he could afford.”
Having split from Napier-Bell he joined the Blackhill management team, whose other “underground” client was Pink Floyd. At their Westbourne Park office he met and fell for his future wife, June Child, who worked there as an assistant. The gay thing, we must presume, had not worked out. For a week they lived together in the back of her van, parked off Wimbledon Common, before finding a cheap flat in freak central, Ladbroke Grove. June supplied Bolan with the everyday anchor he had always lacked, and broadened his acquaintance with the hip authors and set texts of the day. Even so, many onlookers came to doubt the depth of Marc’s attachment to the hippy ethos.
His co-manager of that period, Peter Jenner, told me: “It was the era we used to call Buttercup Sandwiches, when everything was very beautiful, man, and we’d sit cross-legged on the floor. We had no contracts because we were all beautiful human beings, buttercup sandwiches. And I bought the line that he wasn’t into being commercial. In fact, looking back, he was incredibly ambitious. I think that’s why John Peel got turned off by him, because Peel had bought all of Marc’s bullshit too.”
Tony Visconti: “Right from the beginning – and this may have been the rift he had with John Peel – we weren’t making aesthetic underground records. Immediately from day one he was talking about hit singles. I knew this. And Debora was: ‘This is going to be a Number 1! We’ll take England by storm!’ Meanwhile John Peel was like, ‘Oh, this is my lovely little flower power group.’ He later described Marc as a flower child with a knife up his sleeve.”
Was Marc too calculating to be a hippy?
“Well, he wasn’t very hippy-like himself. He didn’t do drugs, he didn’t even drink alcohol when I met him. If a joint was offered to him he’d turn his head and go, ‘Man, I’ve got enough going on up there.’ Steve Peregrine Took, however, was the real deal. He was living the life that most people who looked like that were living.”
In its scaled-down, Legoland kind of way, the duo’s next album Unicorn has hints of Marc’s pop ambitions. True, its songs are all about wizards, white stars and sea beasts. And the back cover has Marc and Steve posing with books of William Blake and Kahlil Gibran. But in its title track are spectral echoes of Phil Spector. “We really didn’t have a lot of money,” explains Visconti. “This goes back to Marc losing his electric instruments. We were pooling our resources to get a bigger sound. Steve’s drum kit was an actual Chad Valley kit that you could buy in Woolworth’s. The royalties weren’t big; the first two albums had only sold about 20 to 25,000 each and you can’t retire on that.
“But we wanted that big sound. We adored Phil Spector. Until the second album Marc was still living at his Mom’s house, then he and June got that little flat in Notting Hill Gate and they used to come to my place to have a bath. We would spend the evenings listening to Buddy Holly records, Ricky Nelson’s guitarist James Burton, The Beatles, of course. We would look at each other and say, How did they do it?”
With the clear-headed nucleus of Marc, June and Tony Visconti plotting the day-to-day progress of Tyrannosaurus Rex, the spacey Peregrine Took was increasingly marginalised. He got the push. A well-liked character, and not without talent, he struggled all the same to rebuild a career. In 1980 he would choke to death on a cherry stone – bought, ironically, on the proceeds of a long-anticipated royalty cheque.
Steve Peregrine Took’s replacement was a strikingly handsome character called Mickey Finn. (In a world of implausible pseudonyms, he really was called Michael Finn.) A former art student who had done some modelling, Finn was looking for a way into music and readily agreed to take up the bongos. I met Finn many years later. He was a delightful chap, but fidgety: I thought he looked ravaged. (Sad to relate, he died of liver failure in 2003.) Anyone seemed tall in photos next to Marc Bolan, but it was shocking, even so, to see how shrunken the percussionist appeared. “I fitted the bill,” he shrugged. “We got on well, and I looked the part… at the time.”
Mickey Finn was someone whose existence was irrevocably altered by meeting Marc Bolan: “I remember he turned up in a long black cloak with a hood, and his hair, and his little ballet shoes with a gilded strap.”
What did you think of him?
“I thought he’d come to put a spell on me. He probably did. I still don’t know.”
Some wondered how genuine a hippy Marc Bolan really was; others have questioned his poetic credentials. John Peel came to conclude that his talent was for unusual words in pleasing combinations, best enjoyed for their surface effect. As for his much-praised scholarship, it now seems unlikely that Bolan ever read much at all.
“One of the first things he did,” remembers Tony Visconti, “was he gave me the Lord Of The Rings trilogy and he said, ‘If you want to understand where I’m at you’d better read these books.’ So I said OK.”
Do you think Marc ever read it himself?
“No. He was dyslexic.” (This view is shared by Bolan’s long term friend and PR Keith Altham.) “He couldn’t read or write very well. His handwriting was very stick-like with lots of mis-spellings. June Bolan read it out loud to him. She sat down and read the entire trilogy to him. As well as the C.S. Lewis Narnia novels, and The Hobbit. He could memorise the passages, he could recite *The Hobbit*, but he never actually read it. He was a very slow reader.”
He must have had a bright, retentive intelligence? A magpie mind?
“Yes, he knew about ancient history too. He would mix the mythology together, Abyssinia, Egyptology. He would take references then invent his own mythology. In The Children Of Rarn [a high-concept rock opera that Marc would never complete] he had quite a complex mythology going on, with names of creatures and kings. I was really encouraging him to go down that direction around the time that we parted. But he put it aside for too long. He had a very fertile mind. In the old days he would have been the storyteller in the tribe. You don’t have to read and write to have that role.”
“He was a poet first and foremost,” Mickey Finn told me. “That’s where his heart was. But I don’t think that would have paid the rent. He was very much into surrealism. I bought him a few books of Salvador Dali. I gathered he wasn’t very well read at school but he was well read after school. Up to his early stuff he was drug free. That really came out of his head, all that stuff.”
If there is whiff of the dilettante to Bolan the poet, nobody doubts his dedication to rock’n’roll. Through a friendship with Alice Ormsby-Gore, Marc became acquainted with her boyfriend Eric Clapton, and studied electric guitar at the maestro’s feet. “All he wanted to be was a rock’n’roll star,” said Finn. “He used to eat, drink, sleep music. He used to spend a lot of time after gigs with his acoustic guitar, while we went out and burned up the town rampaging.” Tony Visconti agrees: “He was all about music. He wanted to spend hours in the studio, he was really keen to prove that he was a great musician and songwriter. He wanted people to mention his name in the same breath as The Beatles.”
In 1970, following a brief and uncharacteristic fling with the singer Marsha Hunt, Marc finally married June, at Kensington Registry Office. Mickey Finn and Alice Ormsby-Gore were among the buttercup sandwiches present.
That year’s Tyrannosaurus Rex album, A Beard Of Stars, saw Marc and Mickey taking cautious steps toward the electric rock configuration that Bolan had always dreamt about. Personally, at the time, I was the sort of bedroom Rex obsessive who pored over these records, and I wondered if something were afoot. There was a lovely song in there called By The Light Of The Magical Moon which appeared to phase out on a weirdly disembodied sample of hysterical female fans. What was on Marc Bolan’s mind, I wondered?
Thirty-five years later, the record’s producer Tony Visconti confirms my suspicions. “You know, that was funny,” he laughs. “We had a sound effects record in the library, of a playground, with children screaming and playing. But at the level we mixed it, it sounds like an audience. And then we looked at each other with a cheeky grin because we knew it was going to be confused. And June Bolan called us on it: ‘You chaps are just trying to get people to think girls are screaming at you!’ No, honestly, it’s just little kids! What we were doing was subliminally planting that in people’s minds. Some day, this was really going to happen.”
In fact it happened with gob-smacking speed. In a decisive break with the last decade, Bolan abbreviated the band’s name to the infinitely less forbidding “T.Rex”. He hastened to the studio to make the second entire album of that year, T. Rex, featuring some unrestrained rock-outs such as *Jewel* and a swaggering new version of his juvenile experiment The Wizard. But far more importantly, he cut a pert, bouncy little thing called Ride A White Swan.
“It was an afterthought,” confesses Tony Visconti. “It wasn’t going to be the single. In fact it was so short that I had to make a loop of the ending. Where he goes ‘Dada di-di da,’ he only sang it twice; I had to loop it so you hear it about 20 times. But when we finished it, we thought, My God, this is the single we should have made a long time ago! We were trying desperately to get to that audience and we were always slightly missing the mark. Up to Ride A White Swan, it was Marc and June and myself and Mickey Finn. The management didn’t really care or put any effort into it. No one was really on our side. We couldn’t get the funds. We were trying to get to that audience and we finally got there, but it was a struggle.”
Ride A White Swan ascended to Number 2 in the singles chart. In the endearingly lunatic manner of the British hit parade, it was kept off the top spot only by Clive Dunn’s Grandad. Still, it was enough to send a shiver of excitement through the whole domestic music scene. Here was a record so fresh that it seemed the 1970s were finally beginning.
In fact Marc Bolan had “gone electric” and “gone satin” simultaneously. In Visconti’s words: “Beards and check shirts weren’t working for anyone any more.” Herein lay the schism that tore the old fan-base apart. Had Marc Bolan “sold out”? Grumbles surfaced on the Letters page of the Melody Maker. Where, his earnest devotees would ask despairingly, had their hiccupping little pixie gone? Was he flirting with that horrid manifestation of Beelzebub, “teenybop music”? Had “the Man” stolen Marc’s soul? It was a worry.
The underground press, in those days quite as influential as the music weeklies would later become, took an instant dislike to Bolan’s new direction. Many “heads”, indeed, were still personal friends of the banished Steve Peregrine Took. By 1970, the London hippy community had fragmented in several ways – some into drugged oblivion and some to leftist politics, while others took the new age lifestyle route, selling magic crystals and inedible carrot cakes. If one thing could still unite them, it was contempt for their old comrade in the Portobello Road culture wars, Marc Bolan.
Marc himself had found a different path. Just as new T.Rex music evoked the trashy glamour of his ’50s childhood, so his own style turned to the flashy retro look developing in Kensington and Chelsea shops like Mr Freedom and Biba. People of a “progressive” political outlook were hostile to all this, because it implied that youth culture was not a revolutionary force after all. People of a “progressive” musical outlook were hostile, because it suggested rock was not a linear ascent, but simply cyclical.
And yet, did Marc Bolan really care? He revelled in his stardom. He made a new single, called Hot Love, and this time there was no Clive Dunn to stop it becoming Number 1. It was a smash. Built on a simple 12-bar blues riff, Hot Love brought the Bolan poetic style to pub jukeboxes across the land. Hairies, skins and long-distance lorry drivers supped Red Barrel and bopped to its gentle chug: “I’m her two penny prince and I give her Hot Love!” There were, if you cared, echoes in there of Elvis, Little Richard and John Lee Hooker. And if you didn’t care, it didn’t matter. Hot Love was still a smash.
“What you hear with Hot Love,” says Visconti, “that’s what we were really going for.” They recorded it with a four-piece, including newly-recruited bassist Steve Currie. The guest drummer, Bill Fifield, came from another band Visconti was producing, called Legend. Given the urgent need to follow up Hot Love with a proper rock album, they auditioned the drummer for a permanent place, and Bolan re-named him Bill Legend (though a less legendary bloke than Bill, you never saw). And with that, T. Rex took off for an American tour, recording what became the Electric Warrior LP during studio stop-offs in New York and Los Angeles.
Released in Britain in September, 1971, Electric Warrior remains the towering achievement of Bolan’s career. Of its spin-off singles, Get It On was an immediate Number 1. (But the normal rules of British pop were not entirely suspended – its follow-up, Jeepster was held at Number 2 by Benny Hill with Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West).) T. Rex were deemed to be the titans of a whole new movement, dubbed “glam rock”. They had changed the pop landscape. From Rod Stewart to The Strawbs, rock acts had to adapt or die. Elton John did likewise, and his career took off like a rocket. Formerly struggling acts like Slade flourished in the new atmosphere. According to Marc, John Lennon had tried to imitate the Bolan voice as long ago as 1969’s Cold Turkey (and demo versions do bear out the claim). Now ex-Beatles queued to praise their heir apparent.
But others looked on with more complex emotions. John Peel, who once said he had wept with joy when he heard Hot Love had reached Number 1, famously refused to play Get It On at all. He was openly critical of the new sound; Bolan dropped him from the inner circle. The two friends never spoke again. Meanwhile David Bowie, whose career had stalled after one novelty hit, Space Oddity, could only feel a pang of jealousy. “Oh yeah,” he told me. “Boley [the insiders’ name for Marc at that time] struck it big and we were all green with envy. It was terrible: we fell out for about six months. It was ‘He’s doing much better than I am.’ And he got all sniffy about us down in the basement.” (This imbalance in their fortunes was short-lived. Soon, Bowie was on the rise with a hit album Ziggy Stardust – modelled, in part, on his observations of the Bolan phenomenon.)
The grown-up media came on board. In May of ’72 Anne Leslie of the Sunday Mirror found Marc “like a battered glove puppet,” subsisting on cognac-and-Coke. June Bolan, she deduced, was the rock of stability in the little superstar’s life, though at 28 she was denounced as “terribly old” by the 14-year-old girls who were now camping outside the house.
Kieron Murphy, Marc’s “court photographer” at the time of the Electric Warrior sleeve, remembers, “I had lots of vague left-wing and hippy ideas, like Property Is Theft and Let’s put LSD in the water supply. But he was far more hard-nosed about business and making money. We used to sit up all night arguing about capitalism versus socialism, and he was on the capitalist side.”
Marc and June had recently moved from their cold water flat in Ladbroke Grove to the highly agreeable Little Venice district of Maida Vale. Though in fact he never did learn to drive it, Marc acquired a fittingly splendid car as well. In his latest hit Children Of The Revolution, he could not resist a moment of bread-headed taunting: “I drive a Rolls Royce, cos it’s good for my voice.” The underground journal International Times was not impressed. Noting Bolan’s face on a new series of posters for “Keep Britain Tidy”, the paper urged its readers to add the graffito: “Stop driving your bloody Rolls Royce.”
But the frowning beardies were no match for the squealing teenies. That year’s T. Rex tour was pandemonium. In his recent WORD interview the Prime Minister Tony Blair recalled the transformation in Bolan’s following: “The audience changed from being, you know, hippies to screaming girls.”
I can vouch for that. In 1970 I sat a few yards from Tyrannosaurus Rex as they played “in the round” at the Liverpool Philharmonic. Introduced by John Peel, who lisped as beatifically as they did, the acoustic duo played to a crowd of “gentle cats” in crushed velvet loons. In support was a pale and serious boy who gave a purgatorially boring sitar recitation. (“Really nice,” said John Peel, kindly.) Amid the groovy tribe of Restoration-maned students, I was about the youngest person there and burned with the indignity of a regulation school haircut. But one year later I saw T. Rex at the Wigan ABC. At 16 or so I was suddenly the oldest person present. It was a scene of shrieking mayhem. Foreseeing carnage, a panicked theatre manager announced he would stop the show if the girls did not calm down. John Peel, of course, was nowhere near Wigan that evening.
“I was amazed by how people used to go crazy,” Mickey Finn told me 25 years later. “It was beyond my comprehension… For us it was like going to the funfair, being on all these rides. We were just very isolated from everything, in limousines and airports.”
America was still proving problematic, though. Another tour was arranged, to capitalise on a Top 10 placing for Get It On (renamed Bang A Gong). But the live rock audiences just didn’t get it. Bolan’s camp interpretation of pop and his sexual ambiguity were a world away from standard stadium fare in those days. At one Chicago show, the entire crowd seemed to prefer dour prog-rock support act Uriah Heep. It was that bad.
For now, at least, it was possible to shelve the American difficulties and enjoy life back in Blighty. So famous had Marc Bolan grown that the press coined a new word, “T. Rextasy”, to describe the frenzy that he inspired. With The Beatles only recently disbanded, there was a common assumption that their successors must be on the way, and in Marc Bolan’s band we seemed to have the answer. It came as no surprise when Ringo Starr, no less, announced that he would make a film of the group.
Bolan ruled. He was on top of the world. Realistically speaking, what could possibly go wrong?
Ringo’s film of T. Rex, Born To Boogie, was released on the last day of 1972. But, from its opening moments, there are signs of some unravelling. Triumphant Roman emperors, it is said, employed slaves to stand by them in their chariots, whispering “Remember, thou art mortal.” It makes sense. But here was Marc Bolan standing in a Cadillac, being driven by a Beatle (a Beatle, moreover, dressed as a dormouse) who apparently worshipped him.
It’s true that 1972 had been a very good year for T. Rex. Among the hits off their latest album, The Slider, was a joyous, clanking giant of Spectoreque pop genius, Telegram Sam. Everybody wondered what the title meant. Some thought it might be a reference to Sam Goldwyn, who once quipped that movie-makers with “a message” ought to stick to telegrams. Others said that “T.S.” stood for Bolan’s manger of the time, Tony Secunda. But when I finally got to ask Mickey Finn, he had a different story:-
“When we were in Los Angeles, coke was the musicians’ pay. We were in the studio laughing and snorting and Marc’s curiosity brought him down there, and he got into it. It progressed from there. He certainly got a liking for it. As for ‘Telegram Sam’, Sam was his accountant in London, who used to deal out the money. And he couldn’t get hold of Sam, cos he wanted to get some coke brought to him in a car at the airport as soon as he got off the plane. So it came out as ‘telegram Sam, my main man.’
In fact, as Finn recalled, the previously clean-living Marc was falling for the Devil’s Dandruff in a big way. “We had some moments. We were picked up from one gig in a Black Mariah and the policeman said, ‘You two all right?’ We had a jar of coke and he said, ‘Oh, you two sound like you’re going to catch a cold!’ Then he dropped us off at our hotel. Marc always looked like sugar wouldn’t melt in his mouth. Everybody knew, in the nucleus of the band, but it was kept under wraps. It wasn’t something to be proud of.”
He had taken to socialising with his new best friend Ringo Starr, whose other best friends of that year were Keith Moon and Harry Nilsson. It was nobody’s idea of a rest cure.
“Whoever was coming out to play that day,” Ringo told me, “we’d play together. Marc was a dear friend who used to come into the office when I was running Apple Movies, a big office in town, and the hang-out for myself, Harry and Keith. From there we’d go on to various venues, but we’d always start down in the office. Marc would come in, and he was so much fun. We were only 30 then but we were looking at him like some crazy kid.”
The uncomfortable fact remained: Ringo was the ex-Beatle least likely to make a second career out of music. Hence his interest in running the group’s Apple film division. He proposed a movie deal to Marc, to be split on a 50-50 basis, with Ringo as director and producer. “It was an important time for Ringo,” says Tony Visconti, himself an Apple insider by virtue of his marriage to the label’s Welsh songbird Mary Hopkin. “He was setting out to prove he had another career. He had to do something like this, and who better than the flavour of the month, which was T. Rex?”
From the start, there were danger signs. When pop stars sit down to plan movies, beware the phrases “fantasy vignette”, “surrealist” and “You admire Fellini? Hey, me too!”. Marc and Ringo uttered all three. There was talk of “having a loon”. It seemed The Beatles’ drummer had learned nothing from the Fabs’ woefully unfocussed Magical Mystery Tour. Sure enough, Born To Boogie begins with kooky footage in remote airfields, elaborate fancy dress and the total absence of a script. Rather better are some knockabout rock songs, filmed in Apple’s basement studios in Savile Row, where T. Rex are joined on piano by Elton John. But Ringo and the film crew still wear clown outfits.
The looning resumes in Tittenhust Park, the country estate of John and Yoko. (The Lennons, in fact, had recently upped sticks for America, and the property would soon be sold to Ringo.) Here amid its leafy bowers, where cedars weep and peacocks wander, Marc and pals stage a “Mad Hatter’s Tea Party” in colourful costumes. A string quartet saws mournfully. A bearded man is dressed as a nun. Playing a butler is the actor Geoffrey Bayldon – famous then as TV’s Catweazle, he was perhaps the nearest Bolan ever came to a real wizard.
These indulgences aside, the redeeming feature of Born To Boogie and its core element, is the footage of Bolan’s second Wembley show of 18 March, 1972. While Tony Visconti manned the mobile studio outside, five cameras caught all the action. The Empire Pool’s “security” looked utterly unlike our modern equivalents. These were elderly men in black uniforms, with peaked caps and horn-rimmed glasses. Always known as “jobsworths”, they were basically commissionaires, retired men from the War, attempting King Canute manoeuvres before orgasmic waves of Bolan-crazed girls.
The girls themselves – and likewise the boys – wore feather haircuts and glued glitter to their faces. Their clothes were nursery-bright with outsized patterns: tight little tank tops and mile-wide trousers. They screamed and screamed and screamed.
Up on stage Marc Bolan struts. He sashays and pouts and wiggles. He does the Chuck Berry duck-walk. To the girls he is a hybrid of fairy tale prince and rampant boogie man. He wears a pinched-in pearl satin jacket with green trousers, and a portrait of himself on his T-shirt. On his feet: tiny tap shoes in a woman’s size. (Bolan never minded being compact. He wore ballet pumps instead of stack-heeled boots and posed for photos in huge armchairs.) Suddenly sitting cross-legged, for every T. Rex set must have an acoustic interlude, he sings the lilting Spaceball Ricochet: “With my Les Paul, I know I’m small. But I enjoy living anyway.”
All in all, he was in heaven.
That week’s NME proclaimed itself a “T. Rextraspecial” and called it “the concert that changed the face of British rock”. Their correspondent gasped: “For thousands of Rexmaniacs, secure in their fundamentalist faith, it burned with all the fervour of a religio-sensual experience. A Dionysian Rite of Spring in which they flocked to pay frenzied devotive offerings.” In a brilliant tabloid stroke, the paper’s cover put a shot of Marc in his pomp by one of Ringo with his camera, staring up in awe: “The picture that says it all.”
Isn’t it funny how there’s never a slave in your chariot when you need one?
“A successful hit rock’n’roll record,” Marc declared, “is a magic spell.” Yet spells can be broken.
On its release, Born To Boogie already looked like the portrait of a glory that was fading. The previous single, Children Of The Revolution was a fond anthem for Bolan’s own young audience. But its riff was stale beyond belief. Within his musical limitations, Marc used to operate very cleverly. As Mickey Finn put it: “He was only too happy to say, I ripped this off from Chuck Berry, or Muddy Waters, or Johnny Burnette. I liked that in him, it was a nice quality. He always told everybody. But he did use it magically.” Despite a few really enjoyable singles such as 20th Century Boy, however, the sound was getting repetitive.
“The last album I did,” says Tony Visconti, “was Zinc Alloy, which was good but very ragged. It was the end of T. Rextasy in the sense that Marc was very formulaic, he wouldn’t listen to reason. I gave up defending him in the press. People would say, ‘Isn’t Marc getting a little samey?’ And I would say, ‘No, this is his style.’ But I was secretly looking to Marc to branch out. It wasn’t just a matter of getting a French horn or a cello. It was internal. I think he had to grow a little bit. I encouraged him to take a year off. Pete Townshend had just done *Tommy*. Prog rock was beginning to happen. People’s taste in rock was getting more sophisticated. But he wouldn’t listen to any of that.”
At the pop end of things there were new acts distracting the boppers, like David Cassidy and The Osmonds. More ominously, contemporaries like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin were filling US stadiums with sounds that made T. Rex seem toy town. And worse yet, David Bowie had *really* hit his stride. “Bowie was doing so much better than him,” says Visconti, who had produced both. “There was a point when David was looking to Marc for the lead, then all of a sudden it switched. They were rivals since they were teenagers. But now Zinc Alloy And The Hidden Riders of Tomorrow was so close to Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. David named his kid Zowie and Marc named his kid Rolan. It was getting a little too weird.”
“We’ve conquered the American continent now,” Marc announced to the readers of Disc & Music Echo. But it was another fib. Apart from pockets of Anglophile glam sympathisers, the US remained indifferent. Mickey Finn told me: “It was hard work. We went and supported a lot of bands. In my opinion, to be wise after the event, we should have stayed with that longer. Marc wanted it too quickly and Warner Brothers didn’t do anything for us. They probably took out a couple of big billboards on Sunset Boulevard. I don’t think they knew how to take us. I think it was a great disappointment to Marc, knocked the wind out of his sales. He took it quite hard, though he’d never admit it in a million years.”
Top Of The Pops viewers who tuned in for Marc’s next few singles, Light Of Love and Zip Gun Boogie, noticed a striking addition to the T. Rex line-up. She was Gloria Jones, an American woman who had sung back-up on the US dates. Now installed on keyboards, she may have looked like a glamorous accessory, but in fact her musical pedigree was formidable. An old recording of hers, Tainted Love, had done brisk business as a cult import to the Northern Soul scene (and later became the song that launched Soft Cell). She’d been a busy session singer whose credits include the Phil Spector Christmas album. And as a contracted songwriter for Motown, she had chalked up hits including The Four Tops’ Just Seven Numbers (Can Straighten Out My Life).
Still, the T. Rex singles stiffed. The line-up began mutating. The cameras stopped loving him, too. Marc was putting on weight; his manner was hard and tired. The eyes looked dead; his chipmunk grin had turned to a leer. He looked more Rocky Horror Show than elfin minstrel. And by 1974 the corkscrew curls were definitely looking dated, so he started trying shorter styles. Unfortunately, rather like Robert Plant, he just looked wrong any other way. Unlike Plant, he didn’t live long enough to ride out the fashion cycle and reclaim the long hair as his lifetime trademark.
Every friend of Marc knew he could be fairly hard-nosed. It was the hollow-nosed Bolan, though, that proved so hard to take. Tony Visconti decided it was time to leave the party. “He got spaced out,” says the producer. “He was doing a lot of drinking, a lot of drugs – chiefly cocaine. June left him, she was disgusted with it [June Bolan died of heart ailment in 1994] and then I left him, and then the band started to leave. We were having these late night sessions like Elvis did with his posse, the Memphis Mafia. We’d go to his house, open the fridge and he’d have 24 bottles of champagne and a piece of boiled chicken. That’s what he was living on. It just got too weird; he would not listen.
“Marc didn’t know how to survive on his own, he didn’t know how to cook, how to drive, never had to wash his clothes. He was just a rock star! It was really sad.”
Bill Legend was next to jump ship. He bailed out after an Australian tour and resumed life as plain Bill Fifield: “I decided that enough was enough,” he told me. “I just got on a plane and came home on my own. I never said a lot, I never fought for myself. I just let it go. I came home and I was totally bewildered. But nobody even tried to find out where I was.”
Even the loyal Mickey Finn saw the writing on the wall: “Marc did have a magical aura. Even if he was angry with you he was difficult not to like. But we all grew out of that thing. Playing the same hits, you don’t feel you’re a musician, just a wind-up clockwork thing. You might as well do cabaret. I was getting pissed off. And I was probably hanging out with the wrong crowd, going to clubs. I started not turning up at photo sessions. There was a showdown. I split.” The last of the old gang to leave was Steve Currie. (He would later die in car crash in Portugal, in 1981.)
Marc, meanwhile, had openly taken up with Gloria Jones and the couple occupied a private world of their own. Whilst her musical skills could not revive Marc’s chart fortunes, their personal bond grew deeper. In 1975 she bore him his only child, the son they named Rolan Bolan. Professionally, however, these were bleak years for Marc. “He took things very seriously,” said Mickey Finn. “He was bewildered when things weren’t hits. He had the hit formula for the time, but it didn’t move on.”
From 1974 to 1976, Bolan looked like a little pop Napoleon, plotting his return from exile.
Surveying the rise of punk rock, Marc was thrilled to hear that some of the new breed held him in affection. For most of them, I think, Marc was a likeable nostalgia item. In a sense, by 1976, he just wasn’t important enough to dislike. He invited The Damned to be his support act on the 1977 tour. I caught the North London show, more for The Damned’s sake than Bolan’s, and found the T. Rex set an anti-climax. It was nice to see him again, after those wilderness years, but the new material was out-shone by the old, and his band were just not right. They were too good musically and too bad visually.
On 2 March, 1977, Marc made his 49th and final Top Of The Pops appearance, playing a rotten song called Soul Of My Suit. It toiled as far as Number 42 and lost the will to live.
But he was contracted for a short TV series, Marc, and for the final show his guest star was David Bowie. There seemed little doubt as to who was doing whom a favour: by this time, Bowie and Tony Visconti were in the midst of that career-defining trilogy, Low, “Heroes” and Lodger. According to Visconti: “Around the time Bowie was on the last television show, he and Bowie wrote a couple of songs that might have been the precursor of a very interesting album. David always adored him. He wanted to be friends. He never saw him as a rival as much as Marc saw him as a rival. He always felt compassion for him. He felt sad that Marc had been so big in the early ’70s then became this chubby little has-been.”
On 15 September, 1977, Marc and Gloria hit the town, They spent the evening at a club, the Speakeasy, and went on to Morton’s restaurant in Berkeley Square. At some point in the early hours, they climbed into Gloria’s purple Mini and headed for home – a sizeable house in south-west London on the road to Richmond. (Conveniently, Sid and Phyllis Feld lived nearby, where they could look after Rolan.) Their route took them over Putney Bridge and through the tree-lined lanes that scythe across Barnes Common. On one of them, Queen’s Ride, you drive up a hump-backed railway bridge with a bit of a twist, just as it joins Gypsy Lane.
And that’s where it all came to an end, in the early morning of 16 September. The car smashed into a tree. Marc, of course, was in the passenger seat, which took the brunt of the collision. He was killed immediately. The couple were only a few hundred yards from home. And Bolan was two weeks’ short of his 30th birthday.
“Sad to see them mourning you, when you are there within the flowers and the trees.” These are the words, from the old Tyrannosaurus Rex song Child Star, that you always see pinned to that dead tree at the crash site. Gifts and messages dangle off it from all over the world. Little bells tinkle and ribbons flutter in the breeze. It’s just about the eeriest place in London.
Ringo Starr: “Marc was such a cool guy, it’s such a shame. But he didn’t actually go out with a drug overdose like many of our players there.”
David Bowie: “He was fabulous, one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met. We would be on the floor rolling with laughter most of the time. I really miss him. He was stellar.”
And Tony Visconti: “There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t think about him.”
The last years of Marc Bolan looked like a time of decline, but it wasn’t necessarily terminal. It only ended because a car smashed into a tree. He wasn’t bent on self-destruction, and there was still great affection for him. It’s entirely conceivable that his surviving talents, his charm and his cheek, might have pulled him through.
Mickey Finn told me: “Failure was the worst thing for Marc. It was taboo. But the ironic thing is that he didn’t fail. He’s there in the records. He was a big part of many people’s lives. He would have been in his glory today. He probably is.”
For an earlier Bolan piece (for Mojo in 1997), click here.