Friday 26 July 2013

Marc Bolan At The BBC - 6 CD Box Set

Review by Steve Sims

There's an awful lot of music covering 1967 to a month before Marc’s death 10 years later. Six and a half hours spanning 118 tracks, a dozen of them interviews. It starts with John’s Children back in ’67 (it says in the sleeve notes 1968, but Marc left the band in early '67) and ends with the last T.Rex single (the lamentable) 'Celebrate Summer' in August 1977. The hook "summer is heaven in '77" became Bolan's in heaven in '77.

This six-CD set is not for the casual listeners – if you love Marc Bolan buy it, there are still a lot of us about, enough to get this into at least the lower regions of the chart. But for the uninitiated, stick with '20th Century Superstar', or better still buy 'Electric Warrior', 'The Slider' and 'Tanx', then get all the others.

Most of the tracks on this box set I already have or had, often on dodgy old cassettes I got 35 years ago, so it’s hugely useful to have them all in one place - especially 'My Baby's Like A Cloud Fall' (not 'Cloud Form') which I heard only once at a now dead friend's house in 1979. It’s still a terrible recording but it means a lot to me. Reclaimed Bolan rarities are not to be sniffed at.

The first CD covers Oct '67 to Nov '68, though the John's Children stuff must have been recorded earlier. There are a number of JC tracks that Marc later recorded as Tyrannosaurus Rex and the transition is quite amazing. JC are an aggressive bunch of kids who basically had no idea how to play and they would have been massive 10 years later. The guitars are out of tune and as Marc would later say, he just threw himself at it, which makes it magical. Look at Wikipedia and you're told that JC were an influence on the punk scene, which I doubt. Without Marc they wouldn't even get a mention today, though they had a great drummer in Chris Townson (who with Andy Ellison went on to much better things in Jet and the Radio Stars in the '70s). JC's most memorable moment was undoubtedly being chucked off a Who tour for being too disruptive. The best John's Children track 'Sarah Crazy Child' sadly was never recorded as a session.

After JC we get the early Peel Tyrannosaurus Rex sessions, which though a bit rough clearly show that in those days Marc was much better suited to acoustic guitar and Steve Peregrine Took was a damn good percussionist. 'Frowning Atahuallpa' (from the first Tyrannosaurus Rex album) has a strange little story from John Peel near the end. It's worth buying all six CDs for that alone. The little interviews throughout are fantastic, you can’t help noticing the way Peel and Marc speak, it's all very gentle and hippyish, both of them grasping the zeitgeist for all they were worth. 'Juniper Suction' (a song about the brief exciting life of an erect penis during coitus) is splendid. Peel asked at the end “Do you think that that particular song will get many plays on the BBC?”. Marc missed the irony completely, clearly under the misapprehension that no-one ever understood his lyrics. There are a lot of lovely little insights like this throughout the whole box set.

"I've constructed your frame in a plasticine game
And your eyes are the sweets of my youth
But I'm naked and bare in the ice of your stare
And I'm useless at telling the truth
So I hide with my head in the tent of the bed
And my body is sucked through your eyes
Then I quiver and shiver and start to deliver the goods
Then I vanish in size."

The last four tracks are from 'Prophets', the 2nd and 'Unicorn' the third albums, and clearly demonstrate that Marc was learning more chords and developing his song writing techniques, but he was still three years from Godhood.

The 2nd CD runs from the 'Unicorn' album ('69) through 'Beard of Stars' to the 'Brown Album', T.Rex in 1970. The band are clearly becoming tighter and more powerful, Bolan had been on the road almost constantly for three years by 1970. Peel introduces 'Once Upon The Seas Of Abyssinia' (land locked by the way) with “There’s a new Tyrannosaurus Rex album out shortly and this one isn't on it” and it really should have been on 'Unicorn' if only for the line “His robes of chintz were wilting in the snow.” The electric guitar is gradually introduced. It won’t take your breath away but nobody else ever played like it again, even Marc. The man who recorded '20th Century Boy' was someone else entirely.

The standout tracks are 'Iscariot', a beautiful song of betrayal (which for trivia geeks features the same Woolworth's organ as Bowie's 'Memories of a Free Festival'), 'Elemental Child' and 'The Wizard. Elemental Child' is the final track on 'Beard' and is real the first "heavy" T.Rex song. It's 7:05 on the CD, much of which is a guitar extravaganza which Marc at the time in a way couldn't carry off, but it's carried on immense wings of enthusiasm. It's almost the album version until the guitar kicks in at 2:20. 'The Wizard' is even longer at 9:20, a rerecording of Marc Bolan's first single, and a magnificent acoustic scream fest. It’s the last track on the 'Brown Album' (1970) and in effect the last Tyrannosaurus Rex track (though the name was already shortened).

CD 3 has 14 tracks, three of which are 'Ride a White Swan', two 'Elemental Child' and three 'Jewel', with the guitar style that Marc invented coming to the fore. The Electric Boogie is arriving. The only acoustic song is 'Sun Eye' from 'The Brown Album'. A number of the tracks are a Radio One In Concert, transmitted on 20/12/70 just before Marc walked into the sun, 'Ride a White Swan' was approaching the #2 spot, kept off #1 by Clive Dunn's 'Granddad'. For me, this is the best of the six CDs, recorded right on the cusp of Marc’s underground and superstar period. It also becomes clear that a lot of Marc's guitar techniques, the rhythm syncopation and the little fills, were because there was only guitar and percussion and he had to fill out the sound. Bass and drums were becoming conspicuous by their absence. Which brings us to CD 4.

The first three CDs cover about three, years the last three cover seven. Marc wanted to be promoted in the early period; from 1971 onward it was less important and there was a lot of other stuff to do. There are only three sessions on this the 1971 (mostly) CD. The first four tracks were recorded in early March when there were only really three T.Rex songs, and one, 'Ride A White Swan', isn't here. 'Hot Love' is remarkably like the record, but not quite. But up until 1973, most T.Rex songs were recorded in one take and then more guitars and strings etc were put on so they could lay down sessions very quickly, 'The Slider' for example was recorded in just three days. This pissed the drummer off because he said he never had chance to learn the songs. But if you listen to those albums it worked. Oddly, there's a perfect backing track for 'Seagull Woman', so obviously these sessions were taken very seriously, and as I said the band could lay stuff down accurately and quickly.

Which brings onto 'Electric Warrior'. At some point in the early summer of 1971 T.Rex emerged fully-formed, 'Get It On' was recorded in New York and the wistfulness was mostly gone. This is evident in the Radio One Club sessions in late July, with 'Jeepster', 'Electric Boogie' (B-side of 'Get It On') and 'Get It On', again alarmingly like the record though the rhythm guitar in 'Jeepster' (maybe Bolan's finest) is even more frenetic.

Bolan's time had come, and at this stage the cocaine hadn't raised it's ugly head. The next session recorded a week later contained 'Sailors Of The Highway', an 'Electric Warrior' outtake; a great song that wouldn't have worked on the album. For me, the box set is worth it just for this track, though I already have it. It did come out during Marc's lifetime in 1976 as a cover on 'Vixen', a Gloria Jones album Marc produced. Then there's a stripped down 'Girl' from 'Warrior', another beautiful song, followed by 'Cadilac' (Marc's misspelling), the B-side of 'Telegram Sam'. This is almost a whole song constructed from D-Dsus4 which is '71-'72 T.Rex personified. 'Cadilac' is followed by a great 'Jeepster', quite different from the record, then a version of 'Life's A Gas' I've never heard before, a charming silly little Christmas jingle and then 'Telegram Sam', Marc's anthem to the joys of coke. John Peel features heavily on the first three CDs but not at all on this one. He wouldn't play 'Get It On', Marc was very hurt and Peel completely fell out of Marc's life. Marc did speak to him once more, shortly before he died (Marc not John) when he bumped into him at the BBC, which is a little sad.

CD 5 covers mid '72 to mid '73, the 'Slider'/'Tanx' period. The blurb says that all mixes were specially done for the BBC so I imagine this is what we get. Certainly 'Rock On' is different but 'Metal Guru', 'The Slider' and 'Main Man'  are indistinguishable, though the others could be different recordings. This is the heaviest of the CDs, with '20th Century Boy', 'Free Angel' and 'Rapids', with it's unique chopped slide rhythm which Marc never used again post 'Tanx', and 'Mad Donna', heavier than on the album. Finally, Marc's last top 10 hit, 'The Groover' and it's B-side 'Midnight', both as heavy as T.Rex ever got, mark the end of the Electric Boogie, and the end of Marc Bolan Superstar. It's always struck me as somewhat ironic - Marc by 1973 had become an extraordinary and unique lead guitarist and pretty well stopped playing it on record after the next album 'Zinc Alloy And The Hidden Riders of Tomorrow'. This has always been a major irritant for me.

'Zinc Alloy' is pretty well ignored here bar a weird 'Teenage Dream', which seems to be backed by an amateur doo wop band. It was played on TOTP and unsurprisingly got to #12. It's followed by a great interview with Michael Wale, where Marc explains how he engineered his fall from grace. It's nonsense from beginning to end. The classic "I can do no wrong and everybody else is wrong" cocaine symptoms.

Then we have the 'Light of Love', which scraped #27, followed by 'Explosive Mouth', which is magnificent and was the B-side to the 'Light of Love' (it should have been the other way round). Both tracks are indistinguishable from the record. 'Zip Gun Boogie' comes next, which got to #40, and again it's the record, not a good song but amazing live. Next is 'Zip Gun's B-side 'Space Boss', which I love, lots of horns and very much 'Interstellar Soul', a track on 'Zinc Alloy'.

Which takes us to 1975. Marc was fat, unhappy, drinking two bottles of brandy a day and the coke flowed like shiny talcum powder. Against all the odds, he got a summer hit with 'New York City', there's a version here without all the synth. I don't know if it's any good, it means too much to me to say - it was in the charts when I first saw T.Rex in July '75 at Hastings Pier Pavilion (burnt down now). It was one of the best nights of my life, and T.Rex were a shadow of what they would be two years later. Then we get the dreary 'Dreamy Lady'which should never have been put out. Then, Marc's last top 20 hit (in his lifetime),'  I Love To Boogie', a bit heavier than the original and just as good. A great record though very much not 'Get It On', but Marc was back on track. Then he went and died (and ruined this 18 year old's life) with 'Celebrate Summer' on release - not a serious record and Marc would have agreed. We have a poor quality recording of it here.

Don't buy 'Bolan At The BBC' for 'Celebrate Summer', there are a lot of better reasons. The Tyrannosaurus Rex stuff is bloody marvelous (I forgot to mention 'Dwarfish Trumpet Blues'). The incremental change from Tyrannosaurus Rex to T.Rex is fascinating, perfectly brought into focus by all the interviews - very gentle at first, cocksure swagger in the 1972/3 and then a little more humility toward the end. So if you love Marc Bolan buy it; if you merely like T.Rex then this isn't for you; if you don't like T.Rex you probably stopped reading 2000 words back, so it pointless even being rude to you. This is a fascinating documentary of a man who in the end would have reinvent himself but he did reinvent pop music. The real shame of it is, he wasn't recognised for it in his lifetime. Paul Morley was I believe the first rock journalist to describe Marc as a genius and I don't wish to bicker.

Marc Bolan at the BBC, a new six-CD box set of BBC recordings, is released on 26th August 2013

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