We all know ‘shock rock’ as a genre, aimed squarely at youngsters with easily offended families. It was a big thing in the 90’s. What Marc Bolan has to say about that – despite being dead long before that whole conversation rolled around – is “If you know how to rock, you don’t have to shock.” Most likely, all Bolan had in mind when he wrote those words was probably sex …or nothing. Bolan had a habit of churning out hard-boogieing riffs and leaving the words for an afterthought. But I think that he would agree with my out-of-context interpretation; shock value is no substitute for knowing how to rock.
“Wear you hair long, baby, can’t go wrong”
Riding a white swan is symbolically not the same as riding a white horse, just so you know. Swans represent grace, beauty and refinement. Marc Bolan had a vision of himself as a mythical character, a warlock warrior prince with a guitar. A swan was the perfect mode of transportation for such a fantastical personage, though he had a taste for nice cars as well. With that image, Bolan took his phantasmagorical collection of interests and rode to stardom. It was a harbinger of future fashions, the first glam rock hit from the first glam-rocker.
Any excuse to listen to a lot of T. Rex. I’ll be over here doing that. I’m aware that I’m most likely the only one who cares about the minute gradiations of the T. Rex sound over time, or the steps Marc Bolan took that were ahead of his time. Bolan’s problem was that he was ahead of the times but not far enough ahead to get all the credit for it before others caught up and popularized his ideas into the stratosphere. Still, the T. Rex sound is instantly recognizable, and nobody else ever sounded quite like that.
Unfortunately, I think this might be a sexual reference rather than the setup for a Redwall-style fantasy universe. But it’s Marc Bolan, so it may well be both. We know he loved his talking animals. And his sexual references. Not that it matters. The Slider remains a must-have among must-haves. You have to give yourself over to it and concede that Bolan can “rabbit fight all over you” any day. And there must be something deeply wrong with you if you can’t.
Please take a moment of silent awe for what may be the only recorded collaboration between David Bowie and Marc Bolan. Bowie and Bolan were frenemies whose clashing egos made for one of the great rivalries in music history. Bolan was full of great ideas and made many trailblazing breakthroughs in music and image, but Bowie kept overshadowing him and stealing his thunder. This is a prime example. A romantic ballad featuring Bolan’s instantly recognizable lead guitar, it was a failed single in 1970. Bolan’s playing is outstanding, while Bowie is in earnest mode, emoting like a leading man in a Hollywood musical. It’s a slightly weird combination of Bowie’s theatrical tendencies and Bolan’s fluid pre-glam psychedelic style. A few years later, when both players had become big stars and even bigger rivals, Bowie re-recorded the song, with Mick Ronson taking over on lead guitar. The tune is the same, the arrangement is similar, but Ronson’s style couldn’t be more different. Bowie has gone full Ziggy, his earnestness gone, the camp factor turned up to 11. It’s apocalyptic cabaret on crack now. This is the version everybody knows, while the earlier, arguably better version is a rarity. It certainly shows how much David Bowie changed his outward style in just three years; how he could twist his own sentiments from romantic sincerity to drag-queen burlesque; and, unfortunately, how he didn’t mind erasing other people’s contributions. Bolan was pissed that his work had been thrown away, and he hadn’t been informed or invited to the rerecording. The two didn’t talk again for several years. David Bowie was a great collaborator, but only with people who could accept that their spotlight would always be the less bright.
It goes without saying that I want to go away on Marc Bolan’s flying saucer. Take me away to an alternate universe of sex and glitter. Bolan is offering to rescue you from your mundane life; music will make you free, it will make you cool, it will take you to a higher consciousness. It’s a promise of redemption through creativity. Or just being a libertine if you’re not the creative type. That’s really all rock music ever had to offer, its one big idea; self-expression as sea change. Can we thank rock music for the way we understand our identities today? The idea that who you are means something. Create yourself and you create the world.
Where does this fit into Marc Bolan’s cosmology? Firmly on the elves and talking animals end of the spectrum, where Bolan explored childlike and whimsical realms of fantasy. In the face of history, it’s clearly the strutting rock songs about cars and babes that hold the place of honor. That’s what people respond to, and that’s where Bolan’s legacy lies. But the fey charm of the Tyrannosaurus Rex years has its own appeal, though it’s obviously not for everybody. It’s for people who never grew out of loving The Wind in the Willows, who like to get lost inside their own heads and see little faces in the trees and imagine the inner monologue of every animal.