Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Unsung Giants of Modern Music (IV): T. Rex

I may never understand the differences in pop music taste with American and British audiences, but it sure showed itself in the case of T. Rex who, from 1970-74, recorded three top five albums (two at #1) and six top five singles (three at #1) on the British side, but had only one single, Get It On (incidentally, with the name changed to Bang a Gong [Get It On]), reach the top ten in America. Now, even their stake in the Classic Rock is that one measly single (sometimes even going as far as playing the Power Station version instead. Thanks, Robert Palmer, for remaking the song and thanks, Albuquerque’s own Arrow, for playing it), compared to Journey’s fifteen (it seems, at least). They had plenty of other good singles, and it’s not like those playlists couldn’t use some freshening up. Like the Velvet Underground and other high quality, if less successful, rock acts of the early-‘70s, those who heard T. Rex were more heavily influenced than could ever have been intended.

T. Rex’s origins as a folk band are pretty amusing. Marc Bolan started Tyrannosaurus Rex (only briefly under it’s full name) with percussionist Steve Peregrine Took (aka Steve Turner, who was asked to change his name to reflect Bolan’s strange beliefs in Tolkein’s Middle Earth) as a hippy-folk act. What is on 1968’s “My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair…But Now They’re Content To Wear Stars on Their Brow” is a far cry from 1973’s “Tanx,” and not just in title length. They weren’t a half bad as a dippy folk act, if you like that kind of thing, but there was a lot more going on for Bolan than singing about hobbits. After three albums, Took apparently washed out on acid, eloped, and left the band. In a clear monetary decision, with new drummer Mickey Finn, Bolan plugged in and, on 1970’s “A Beard of Stars,” though still a two-man act, they started sounding like a real rock band. It took a cool-down on the Tolkein, electrification and, finally, shortening the name to something speakable before so-called T. Rextacy kicked into full force and, over the next three years with the releases of “Electric Warrior” that featured “Get It On,” “The Slider” (my personal favorite), and “Tanx,” all of which reached the top five, they were on top of the British music scene. Then, all of a sudden, they slid as fast as they could. In the fickle pop music industry, despite any previous success, Bolan struggled to write anything successful from that point on. By the end of his life, his career was on the upturn with a well-received new album, “Dandy in the Underworld,” and a television variety show that had him introducing acts like The Damned, Billy Idol and Generation X in the emerging punk scene.

Marc Bolan, in many ways, stands as a bridge in the rock gap between the ‘50s and the ‘70s beyond. His lyrical subject matter aside, Bolan’s music, much like the innumerable punk acts he would influence, was inherently stuck in a simple three-chord progression. This isn’t a bad thing. Bolan once said in an interview “There are certain chords—you play a C major chord and I hear 25 melodies and symphonies—I’ve just got to pull one out. It’s all there….” He was genius at making masterful melodies out of very small foundations, without making anything too complicated (it was still pop) and simultaneously kept one foot in the past and one in the future. He kept with the simple progressions because that is the style he grew up with—the Eddie Cochrans, the Chuck Berrys, the Little Richards of the world were where he got his influence, both in the musical style and the stage presence. Bolan looked at these performers as role models, like so many who later looked at him; his one goal was to be a rock god like his heroes. He crafted himself in whatever way would most get him farthest. This gave him a basis for success, but it was his vision that made him. Grounding himself in the past gave him a launching pad to move, slowly but surely, down the road from the hippy-folk teen idol to the metal and punk godfather he became by the end. His music was, essentially, fuzzed-out ‘50s R&B, which in turn became the template for any number of punk acts, all the way up to our current obsession with “punks” like Green Day, as well as softer rock bands like REM. Bolan’s signature look, which helped greatly in his popularity—corkscrew curls, top hat, feather boa, and platform shoes—became the cliché that acts like Enuff z’ Nuff, Britny Fox, et al took for granted, a look that wouldn’t be accepted for a number of years, really until KISS came down the pike. This may be one of the most dubious of legacies, paving the way for ‘80s hair metal. Even if the results of Bolan’s groundwork aren’t the most artistically sound, or even listenable, he was one of the founders of both rock theatrics and was possibly the one artist who most facilitated the increasing heaviness of rock and roll. At times, he looked at his music as throwaway but, given what has come since, it is a true shame that his beauty has, indeed, been thrown away. It’s not like I lament the lack of good classic rock stations out there, but let’s get some “Jeepster,” “Children of the Revolution,” and “Metal Guru” on the airwaves.