T. Rex

Dinosaur Sr.

Marc Bolan wasn't a terribly talented individual. He only had, at most, two musical ideas, and all of his songs sound the same: atmospheric four-chord ballads that cleverly disguise their nursery rhyme melodies, and three-chord rockers that revel in their nursery rhyme schemes and melodies. However, the same accusations can be hurled against Chuck Berry and the Ramones; Bolan endlessly rewrote one song, but what a song it was! If you like "Bang A Gong," his only American hit, then by all means dive in - there's plenty more where that one came from. For a while in the early '70s, T. Rex was the brightest star in England, causing "T. Rex-stacsy" that echoed Beatlemania, and consistently racking up Top 20 hit after Top 20 hit. He stood at the head of the glitter-glam movement, delivering catchy teenybopper guitar anthems with just the right amount of rock edge to his fanatical horde of adolescent fans. Alas, it ended almost as soon as it began; by the end of 1973, musical fashion had passed Bolan by, and he wound up spending his final years hosting a rock'n'roll TV show. In 1977, a year in which punk rock made T. Rex's glam rock of five years earlier seem like an ancient relic, Marc Bolan died in a car crash. His music defined his time, the early '70s, and like a great deal of music that "defines its time", his old records can sound dated, of their time in a way that David Bowie's records of the same era don't. Which isn't to say that his records aren't enormous fun. T. Rex's music is the rock equivalent of early Elton John's pop: camp, meaningless, trashy, and disposable, but a total gas in spite of (or perhaps because of) those facts.

I only have three T. Rex reissues right now on CD; these are rumored to be his best work, and I have trouble tracking the others down. I'd be interested in checking out Bolan's early hippie career, when he spun Tolkein-rock albums with long-winded titles like My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair, But Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brow, and I'll do my best to track his other albums down (unfortunately, I believe most of them are out of print). Still, the man is major enough to warrant a page all of his own.

Electric Warrior (1971) ****

The eleven tracks here are divided between rockers that consist of fuzzed-up rockabilly riffs modernized for futuristic teens, and spacey acoustic-driven ballads that indulge Bolan's fantasy/metaphysical side. Bolan's the type of guy who sounds like he was heavily into Dungeons and Dragons (I'm not sure they had D & D back in those days, but you get drift). His lyrics are nimbly clever but clearly meaningless, slinky word games that register as neat syllables to trip the tongue - you try and come up lines like "Rockin' in the nude/And feelin' such a dude/It's a rip-off" or "Oh Girl/Electric witch/You are limp in society's ditch" or the definitive "You're built like a car/You've got a hubcap diamond star halo". There's much more than "Bang a Gong," which isn't even the strongest song on this disc. That might be the massive hookfest of "Mambo Sun," that kicks off the album, or the spooky ballad, "Cosmic Dancer," in which Bolan's delivery of the line, "I danced myself into the tomb," has an eerie impact considering how young he did indeed die. Then there's the vampire rock of "Jeepster," that utilizes the same two-chord "Bang a Gong," riff to better effect - but then again, didn't Bolan repeat that same riff on about half of his songs? "Girl," addresses God and still winds up not meaning much of anything, which doesn't mean that it doesn't sound deep, man. "Life's a Gas," might be Bolan's best ever ballad, and "Rip Off," the manic rocker that ends the album, is one of his strongest fast ones. Cut for cut, this is probably his strongest album, and justifiably considered a classic, despite a few weak tracks ("Lean Woman Blues") and the fact that it all sounds the same. Too bad the reissue doesn't add any bonus tracks.

The Slider (1972) ***

I have a hard time getting thrilled about this one; Bolan simply repeats the same formula he developed on Electric Warrior, with diminishing returns. The sound's slightly more ornate (see the whooshing opener "Metal Guru," a #1 hit in the U.K.), but otherwise T. Rex finds itself in a less-than-interesting holding pattern. The formula reeks a bit too blatantly of formula, a perception reinforced by the pacing of the album: first a ballad, then a rocker, then a ballad alternating ad naseum. This cleverly distracts the listener from realizing how closely the rockers all sound like the other rockers and all the ballads sound the same, too...the first couple of times you here this, that is - you wise up pretty fast. However, all this said, taken as individual pieces, the rockers do generally rock and the ballads are pretty engaging. Easily the highlight is the exceptional "Baby Strange," a blatantly sexual ("I wanna ball ya all night long" - sheesh!) riff rocker that might be T. Rex's best ever song. "Telegram Sam," possesses an infectious chorus, and the epic "Ballrooms of Mars," is an ambitious anomaly in Bolan's canon - a sweeping ballad that contains the tropes, "Bob Dylan knows/And I bet Alan Freed did". Among the three bonus tracks (all B-sides) "Lady," is more than worthwhile.

Tanx (1973) ****

Someone must have told Bolan, "I like your albums, but they all sound the same!" so he tweaked his sound more than a bit and came up with his best album. Why is this better than the rest? Because it's got what the others don't: dynamic variety. Bolan and producer Tony Visconti (who was almost as responsible as Bolan for the T. Rex sound) discover the studio and all the tricks it can pull, which in the first song, "Tenement Lady," means splicing two separate songs together (the second half's by far better), and in several other tracks means throwing violins in (don't worry, though, they work). The sound's much fuller and more fleshed out than on the previous two albums, which makes the T. Rex sound less distinct but more satisfying. Bolan's soul influence comes into play, which helps by adding another ingredient to keep the same old stew from growing stale. Alongside exquisite by-the-numbers ballads like "Broken Hearted Blues," "Highway Knees," "Life Is Strange," and somewhat less stellar than usual rockers like "Shock Rock," (which is anti-), "Country Honey," and "Born To Boogie," are a number of songs of a type that Bolan hasn't written before. Chief among these are the glorious pop anthem, "Electric Slim and the Factory Hen," (did I mention that Dylan was a huge influence? anyway, that's the best song on the album - "Me I'm loose like a golden goose/You been on my mind"), and the gospel (not you kid!) "Left Hand Luke and the Beggar Boys," that works better than you'd think - in fact, it's a triumph that perfectly closes the album. But that's definitely not the end - if you've got the reissue, which appends 7 generally stellar bonus tracks, at least two of which are essential: the A-sides, "Children of the Revolution," that has one of the most heavenly melodic choruses this side of "All the Young Dudes," and that has to be ironic ("I drive a Rolls Royce/'Cause it's good for my voice...But you won't stop the children of the revolution") and the hard rock masterpiece, "20th Century Boy," a terrific slice of mock-cock-rock posturing with killer riffs. Both are among the best things Bolan ever released, and the other five bonus tracks aren't too shabby (except for the 12-second, "Xmas Message," which is exactly what it bills itself as). With the bonus tracks on the reissue, Tanx now takes its place as the one T. Rex disc to own if you only buy one. And I don't begrudge you only buying one, because as I've said about a dozen times on this page, they all sound pretty much the same - except some are better than others.

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