Graded on a Curve:
T. Rex,
Electric Warrior

Never got into T. Rex as a kid. I lived too deep in the sticks, and the only kid I know who owned a T. Rex record refused to tear off the cellophane shrink wrap and play the damn thing because that’s the way he was with all his stuff; he was saving it for posterity, or for somewhere down the line when it would fetch a pretty penny for being in mint condition. He’s probably a millionaire now. I thought he was a complete imbecile.

And the songs I heard after that struck me as a bit fey and simplistic; Marc Bolan truly was a dandy in the underworld, and I failed to get the whole “T. Rextasy” thing that swept England in the wake of 1971’s Electric Warrior.

Before that Bolan was an unreconstructed hippie, in a duo with the wonderfully named Steve Peregrin Took. Their acoustic-guitar-based material had a raga-like feel and ran towards lyrics about paisley unicorns leaping through peace symbols in the tie-dyed sky. But the two band mates had a falling out, and Bolan caught the glam wave, with a funky and more pop-oriented electrical guitar style and a flashier sartorial style. Indeed, he is credited with founding glam, after he appeared on Top of the Pops with a spots of glitter beneath his eyes. Superstardom followed, as little girls swooned and little boys prayed nightly for a pair of platform glitter boots to appear magically in the morning by their bed. Hit followed hit in a manner not seen since the Beatles, and it mattered not a nonce that Bolan and Took’s old hippie audience cried, “Sell out!”

Electric Warrior is generally credited as being the high-water mark of T. Rex’s career, although 1972 follow-up The Slider also wins big props from fans and critics. Electric Warrior was, as its title indicates, Bolan’s move towards an electric rock sound, with irresistible hooks and an almost child-like approach to melody. The journey begins with the shuffle funk of “Mambo Sun,” which highlights Bolan’s almost whispered vocal delivery and playful lyrics, and it’s good, infectious fun. Bolan stuck to the basics, with relatively simple grooves that might run the entire song, and it’s an exhilarating formula. Call it white glam funk.

“Cosmic Dancer” is a slower but more beautiful cut, with Bolan singing, “I danced myself right out of the womb,” and “I was dancing when I was eight” to the lovely accompaniment of some uncredited strings. And he plays a wonderful warbling guitar solo backed by chanting backing vocalists, provided by, if not on this cut then on others, the wonderful team of Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, or Flo and Eddie as they’re better known. “Jeepster” is the perfect Bolan song: simple and absurdist lyrics, a choppy but mesmerizing melody, and lots of droogie-friendly percussion. Toss in some funky guitar and one cool solo, and the way the normally unexcitable Bolan goes wild on the vocals (he even screams!) at the end, and you’ve got yourself a great song.

“Monolith” features one distorted guitar, lots of Flo and Eddie backing vocals, and is slow but oh so hip, and “it’s no joke” as he says right in the song. Love that guitar sound—it’s like a telegraph wire, humming the arrival of a new supernova, and once again Bolan goes a bit wild at the end, before taking it out on guitar. “Lean Woman Blues” opens with Bolan saying, “Take ten,” and, “One two buckle my shoe” before breaking into a blues that would leave B.B. King scratching his head. Another scream leads to a gutsy guitar solo, while Bolan offers asides and obscure lyrics before breaking into another solo to take the tune home. As for “Bang a Gong (Get It On),” it was T. Rex’s only U.S. hit, and no wonder; that big guitar groove that opens the song will stay with you forever, and the miraculous chorus (thank you, Flo and Eddie!) that follows both make it a keeper. And it’s hard to beat, “You’ve got the teeth of the hydra upon you/You’re dirty sweet and you’re my girl.” Bolan practically reeks of sex appeal, and I love the way he pronounces “dance” as “donce,” just as much as I love the horns that come in towards the end. “Take me,” he sings before one final guitar riff, then, “Meanwhile, I’m still thinkin’.”

The mid-tempo “Planet Queen” boasts a funky congas opening, with Flo and Eddie singing while Bolan plays it cool, until the hip glam chorus comes along and Bolan and the dynamic duo sing, “Well it’s all right/Love is what you want/A flying saucer take me away/Give me your daughter.” The song is one long funky glam groove, and ends with Flo and Eddie repeating, “Give me your daughter.” “Girl” is a lovely romantic thing, with some great horn backing, or so you think until you listen to the lyrics, which are so much glitter gibberish: “O girl/Electric witch you are/Visually fine/Oh yes you are/But mentally dying.” I don’t know what “limp in society’s ditch” means and neither did Marc Bolan, but if it made him happy it makes me happy too, because this tune is toot fucking sweet.

“The Motivator” hinges on a really hip guitar riff, bears a more than passing resemblance to “Bang a Gong (Get It On),” and boasts some really cool guitar wank by Bolan. “Love the way you walk,” sings Bolan, and he loves the way she talks too; she’s a “cool motivator” with eyes that “shine like Egyptian rubies.” He even loves her “broken crown,” and I’ll bet you he’d have been willing to pay for repairs had she just asked. As for the short and fetching “Life’s a Gas,” it opens on an acoustic note with Bolan singing, “No it doesn’t really matter at all/No, it really doesn’t matter at all/Life’s a gas,” and kinda ends with Bolan singing, “I hope it’s gonna last.” Alas, it wasn’t in the cards for Bolan, and the album’s closer, the fast-paced and savage “Rip Off,” could serve as Bolan’s epitaph, as his fame waned and he died in a car crash in 1977. On “Rip Off” Bolan cuts loose on the vocals, while the tune boasts big Bowie horns. The chorus is great, a saxophone tosses off a quick solo, and that more or less ends the tune, which demonstrated that Bolan had a hard rocker in him, literally dying to get out.

Bolan’s fading star was somehow more pathetic than tragic; his elfin good looks disappeared in a bloating orgy of booze and cheeseburgers, and he was more or less considered washed up. But at their best T-Rex produced a sound that could be mistaken for nobody else’s, and helped spearhead what I continue to believe is rock’s most interesting genre, glam. He was spot on about the brevity of life and fickleness of fame in an interview about Electric Warrior, in which he said, “I don’t feel there’s that much time to jive about, anymore… whereas I was never aware of that… I realized the urgency to do whatever you’re going to do, now.”

He did that, and the kids of England responded, and we will always have Electric Warrior and The Slider and Tanx, although by 1974’s Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow his golden years were considered past. That said, his final LP, 1977’s Dandy in the Underworld, was seen as a critical success and led to an upswing in popularity. Alas, he never got the chance to make his big comeback, and should you ever reach the underworld be sure to give the dandy there a flower for his buttonhole, and tell him he’s loved above ground by many, including yours truly.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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