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.
Swans do fly. One from the Tyrannosaurus Rex vaults. This one does a real 180 on you; it starts off like a mellow head trip with the bongos, then it explodes into a raging guitar solo. All in less than three minutes. It’s Marc Bolan being split two ways with his persona. It’s a tiny capsule in which you witness the failed ‘new Donovan’ reinvent himself as a guitar god. To use one of Bolan’s favorite animal images, the glam rock swan arises.
Marc Bolan is at his most profound when he’s at his most nonsensical. How he pulled it off, I don’t know, but it’s a unique talent. He made sense to himself, presumably. That’s what made him a great rock star, though – having a personality so strong that it didn’t matter whether anything he said or did made sense or not. That’s why people become rock stars, and why we still look at them with fascination long after they’ve left the mortal coil. So what if Tanx is a play on words that is not very clever? So what if posing with a toy tank to drive the joke home is also not very clever? It’s a fine line between clever and stupid, and Marc Bolan teetered along it many times. Yet, despite frequently being silly, he never became a joke. He made sense by sheer force of personality, and his music makes sense emotionally. He was genuinely glamorous.
Does every obscurity deserve to see the light of day? Up for debate, but when it comes to metaphysically challenged artists who won’t be adding anything new to their relatively short catalog, every scrap is of interest. In the case of Marc Bolan, it is unfortunate that he produced a lot of mediocre work. There’s no questioning the heights of his highest and his best, but dang, he really phoned it in sometimes. You can’t really blame him for trying to rekindle the initial spark of T.Rextasy, or for hoping to break big in the States, both of which he failed to do, but a string of lazy albums between 1974 and ’76 did his legacy no favors. Reissues of Light of Love, Bolan’s Zip Gun and Futuristic Dragon, complete with all the requisite demos and B-sides only went to show how disappointing those albums had been in the first place. However, if there’s one forgotten jewel in Bolan’s crown that deserves belated accolades it’s Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow. Ziggy-derivative title aside, it’s unique in the Bolan annals, and trailblazing in a broader sense. If Zinc Alloy is remembered at all, it’s for fusing the elements of Glam with Motown and Soul influences, creating a blueprint for the Blue Eyed Soul that Young Americans ran all the way up the charts with less than two years later. Sadly, it flopped for Bolan, and he took trying to steer T.Rex back into Slider territory, with not much success. Still, it is very much worth exploring, and that includes an entirely alternate reissue with a glut of B-Sides and outtakes. Considering that Bolan released so much sub-par material, it’s surprising and delightful to find a wealth of unreleased music that’s very much up to par, if slightly different from what we usually expect from him. It’s also interesting to ponder, if the more experimental sound of Zinc Alloy had been a success, would Bolan have been encouraged to continue expanding his musical directions to ever greater and more interesting heights. Could there have been a second wave of T.Rextasy, an unimagined new phase of greatness, instead of a droop into self-repeating mediocrity? As it were, after the record failed, Bolan, with his egoistical insecurity, seemed to shrink away from pushing his own boundaries again for several years. Wasted years.
You’re gonna be grand. This is short but funky, much like Marc Bolan himself. In the latter seventies Bolan began to incorporate strong elements of R&’B, soul, and funk music into the usual T.Rex boogie. No doubt thanks to the influence of his girlfriend and close collaborator Gloria Jones, whose career up till that point included writing hits for Motown groups like The Supremes and recording her own material such as the original version of Tainted Love, later a smash for Soft Cell. In short, Jones was a professional songwriter who knew her way around Motown, gospel, soul, funk, pop and what-have-you. The T.Rex sound had always been firmly rooted in rockabilly, leavened with mysticism and exotic percussion. Jones greatly expanded Bolan’s musical repertoire, and their apparently wildly different musical styles yielded surprising results. It was glam rock morphing into a funkier, more Americanized creation, what became known as blue-eyed soul. It was a fresh new direction for Marc Bolan & T.Rex, but unfortunately it lacked commercial appeal. It just wasn’t as instantly accessible as peak-era T.Rex. Tanx had been a good album, but it, and its accompanying singles, were still treading the same ground as previous records, and the fickle teenage wildlife grew distracted. Bolan’s career was losing momentum, and Zinc Alloy wasn’t the huge hit it deserved to be. A year later, blue-eyed soul became the latest Bolan creation taken credit for by David Bowie. Then came a few years of floundering around trying to recapture that Slider magic in a series of increasingly mediocre releases. After 1974, Bolan truly was phoning it in, and it was sad to see someone so capable of greatness making music so unremarkable. But amidst all that, Zinc Alloy really deserves to be up there with the classic T.Rex albums, not although but because of it being such a radical departure.