As 1977 dawned, it was easy to laugh at MARC BOLAN, T. Rex's Glam Guru turned "Glittering Chipolata." And many did. Yet a punk-powered hit, riotous tour and extraordinary TV rebirth were just around the corner. It was as if, nearing the end, his best side
T. Rex’s Bopping Elf began 1977 with a new lease of life, a back-to-basics album and a bevy of punk pals. Making what followed all the more tragic…
WHEN DAVE VANIAN FIRST SET EYES ON the real-life Marc Bolan, he was jogging towards a tour bus in Victoria, london, in a tracksuit. a green tracksuit. The first man of glam. The one they used to call SUPERMaRC. It was March 10, 1977. The Damned were punk rockers, noted for their rowdy songs and rowdier pursuits. Bolan, who’d pressed the self-destruct button some time around 1973, was on the comeback trail. He’d been here before, in 1974, in 1975, in 1976. This time he was serious. “He was still a bit portly,” remembered Captain Sensible, The Damned’s bassist whose sporting of a T.Rex T-shirt had aroused Bolan’s interest. The reward was a support slot on an eight-date tour, T.Rex’s most anticipated nationwide jaunt since early ’74. “He’d cleaned his act up in a big way,” Sensible added. “He didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t take drugs. While we’d be in the service station stuffing our faces with egg and chips, we’d see this little figure keep jogging past the window.” When all were back on the bus, suitably refreshed, one of Bolan’s backing musicians, probably drummer Tony Newman, hijacked the driver’s microphone. “Hi,” he cooed, Marilyn Monroe style. “My name’s Marc Bolan and it’s really nice to have The Damned on tour with us…” The man in the back in the green tracksuit flashed a two-fingered salute and roared with laughter. “It was great to meet a pop star who was human,” Sensible told me. “Rock stars behaving like rock stars is disgusting. That was what punk was against. Bolan was genuine. He wasn’t the done-it-all merchant. That was the remarkable thing.” Even months earlier, such self-deprecation would have been unthinkable. But Bolan, the elf-like pop mystic who between 1971 and ’73 was believed by millions of teenyboppers to possess superhuman qualities, whose inflated ego and brash claims earned the wrath of critics and peers alike, had changed.
IN OCTOBER 1976, BOlaN was back where he started, in Decibel Studios in Stamford Hill, just a mile or so from his childhood home in Stoke Newington, north london. His bid to extricate himself from glam rock, to build a new career in los angeles based on a new “interstellar soul” sound, had failed. His two most recent albums, Bolan’s Zip-Gun and Futuristic Dragon, had flopped. He’d still have the occasional middling chart hit, like 1975’s New York City, invariably promoted by in creasingly barmy press inter views (“I’ll always be Number 1!”). Bolan was a fallen star, hurt, deluded and self-medicating. No more SUPERMaRC headlines. He’d bewant come “The Glittering Chipolata”. That all changed when I love To Boogie, an infectious, disarmingly simple number, became a surprise hit that summer. It was an old R&B tune (Webb Pierce’s Teenage Boogie, according to the old Teds who burned copies in protest) sexed-up and sugarcoated. It sounded as effortless as a vintage T.Rex classic. and it was fashionably back to basics in a pub rock way. Bolan had been returning intermittently to the raw, simplified sound of his youth – his Funky london Childhood, in the words of one of his more recent songs – ever since John lennon released his Rock’n’Roll covers set in February 1975. Now, by autumn ’76, and with punk rock threatening to eclipse pub rock, he was ready. “I’m last generation rock’n’roll!” he declared. “I’m going to do the raunchiest stuff you’ve heard in your whole life.” The eighth T.Rex album – eventually titled Dandy In The Underworld – came together quickly. “We’d roll up at [Decibel] studio and within 10 minutes they’d have a drum sound and a bass sound,” remembers Herbie Flowers, a recent recruit to a new-look group. “Marc would run through a song, then we’d all run through it. They’d record it once, and again for safety. We’d have a cup of tea. Then we’d go back and do another song. The speed that he worked at… it was brilliant. The first take was always the best.” Bolan’s jive, so messed up in ’75, was reborn. Expect a revved-up Electric Warrior, he told the press, with that unlikeliest of trimmings – a dash of politics. Though he was wary of punk rock’s hype and sonic brutalism (“The kids don’t it,” he’d said initially), Bolan was fired up by its energy. and hadn’t the little man who’d described himself as a ‘Cosmic Punk’ back in ’71, released Children Of The Revolution months later to inspire the next generation? Well, here they were. But Bolan didn’t quite get punk’s latestfruition. He abhorred the violence and later decried the proliferation of “moronic” bandwagon-jumping bands. Punk, he insisted, was Fellini, Frankie Valli, Orson Welles, big-screen iconoclasts and falsetto-voiced street-corner singers. and, of course, himself. “My love is as strong as a raging sea,” he crowed, quoting a line from another recent misfire, laser love. “You can’t get any punkier than that, can you?” Neither could you find a punkier venue in which to launch Dandy In The Underworld, on March 2, 1977, than the Roxy, Covent Garden. Various Damned, Pistols and Gen X ruffians posed with Bolan, elegant in his new handtailored canary yellow jacket. Sid Vicious rubbed quiche into Billy Idol’s face and got slung out. Bolan poked his tongue out for the cameras. among the re-
cently self-appointed Godfather Of Punk’s guests were Donovan, Alvin Stardust, Paul and Linda McCartney, and Cockney stage impresario Lionel Bart. Dandy In The Underworld chugged away all evening. It was fit and lean. But it wasn’t punk rock. Bolan had been listening to The Flamin’ Groovies and Lou Reed. He’d also clocked the emergence of Patti Smith. The verse-fixated pair had once communed in New York, inspiring him to write Baby Boomerang for 1972’s peak-T.Rextasy album The Slider. As a nod to the punk poetess, Bolan quietly exhumed the song and stuck it on the flip of I Love To Boogie. For all his fixation with fame, Bolan was big on life’s B-side – the power of the hidden, the poetry of things, the underworld. Smith had the tombs of Père Lachaise and Rimbaud, Bolan the treasures of the Louvre and ‘The Wizard’. That February, while playing a few warm-up dates in France, Bolan made a point of returning to the Parisian art gallery where, in 1965, he’d claimed he’d met ‘The Wizard’, who became the subject of his first single that same year. The Wizard would become a key motif in Bolanic lore, but whether he really existed, at least in a corporeal sense, is moot. Keith Altham, Bolan’s PR during the ’70s, argues that the manifestation was illustrative of Bolan being “a sort of innocent abroad. A child’s vision can be much clearer than an adult’s because of the lack of static about them. Marc had that in abundance. Sometimes it was quite disturbing. He’d do or say things and you’d think, How does he know about that?” Back in the Louvre, in the Department of Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities, Bolan found what he was looking for – a bronze statuette, 27cm in height. It was Hercules, an enduring symbol of strength and courage. “Just the artistic inspiration to key the Bolan brain for boogie,” he noted in his tour diary in his distinctive, hieroglyphic hand. A new chapter in the Book Of Bolan was clearly being written. “I have stopped using drugs,” he said in February. “I stopped drinking six weeks ago. I just want to work… This is going to be my year.”
AND SO IT BEGAN TO APPEAR. DuRING THE SECOND WEEK OF MARCH, Dandy In The Underworld hit the uK Top 30, becoming Bolan’s most successful album since 1974’s Zinc Alloy And The Hidden Riders Of Tomorrow. T.Rex were out on the road, heading in the right direction. Or just about…
“We were on our way to play the first night in Newcastle,” said Captain Sensible, “and I see us going past fucking Birmingham. I said, Hold on, you’ve taken the wrong turning here. We’re heading towards Carlisle! I saved the tour…” Touring with a punk band was a gamble: “People said, There’s gonna be fights and all this stuff,” Sensible recalled, “but it worked well.” The Bolanites returned, vastly outnumbering the punks. Before The Damned opened their set with a blitzkrieg version of The Stooges’ I Feel Alright, bin-liners were stretched across the T.Rex backline, protecting the gear from the blizzard of beer cans and phlegm that never came. “Then old Bolan went on and he was well over the top!” says Sensible. “The punk crowd appreciated that.” Gigs were close to sell-outs. Screams were sometimes heard. “I was mobbed everywhere,” Bolan purred later. “I love it all. It makes my ego bigger than it is already.” “He was the guv’nor, lovely,” says Herbie Flowers. “Like Bowie, he stuck to the great tradition, the Shakespearean minstrel, the masquerade. He wasn’t afraid to dress up and get the bird for it. I mean, you don’t go and hear a band, you go and see a band.” Dressed in skin-tight plum-coloured trousers, with a tour Tshirt visible under his prized yellow jacket, Bolan looked as sharp as the rejigged T.Rex sounded. Herbie Flowers and new drummer Tony Newman were solid session aces, both veterans of Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour. With Dino Dines on Hammond and a dextrous second guitarist, Miller Anderson, T.Rex had never sounded so authoritative – or looked so old. It was close pal Jeff Dexter who’d advised Marc that he needed stability around him. Especially with The Damned on board. “Occasionally we’d give a couple of girls a lift back to the hotel,” remembered Sensible. “Marc was always par anoid that they were talking to us to get through to him. And he was right! We’d be up in the hotel room doing all sorts of dubious acts and they’d be saying, ‘What’s Marc really like?’ Oh, I’ll tell you later…” The relationship between what Bolan claimed was “the best of the established bands [and] the best of the new wave bands” was warm. “Marc wasn’t the enemy,” said Sensible. “Whispering Bob [Har ris] droning on about Little Feat and Emmylou Harris was. Bolan came out for punk when it was controversial to do so, he paid for us to go on tour which was unheard of, and he was very much the Godfather figure giving advice. He didn’t have to do it. He was just genuine.” The Damned also had some advice for Bolan. “We said, You’ve got to release the version of [1968 debut Tyrannosaurus Rex single] Debora that he was doing on tour. It was wild, an electric freaky guitar version.” (Bolan later described it as “a cross between The Ramones and the Eagles”.) The tour ended in Portsmouth on March 20 with both bands onstage for a disorderly, superlong Get It On. “I’d like to take The Damned to America with me,” Bolan said afterwards. Two weeks later, The Damned were on a coast-to-coast US tour of their own. In Philadelphia, they found themselves playing to a sit-down crowd eating pizzas. “So we put a table on stage and started eating pizzas too,” said Dave Vanian. The crowd pelted them with ice cubes.
BOLAN, MEANWHILE, WAS BACk IN HIS LARGE detached house at 142 Upper Richmond Road in Sheen, west London, his home since September 1976. He was still on a high. “My band is so strong at the moment it could blow Queen, Led Zeppelin and The Who right off stage,” he bragged to Record Mirror. But apart from one date scheduled for Stockholm in May, there were no gigs. Instead, Bolan rustled up several new songs, Dino Dines, Miller Anderson and a few session musos, and in April returned to Decibel, then Air Studios. Celebrate Summer, Write Me A Song and Hot George were fast if not exactly furious. Love Drunk, Mellow Love, Shy Boy and a ballad for his singer girlfriend Gloria Jones, 20th Century Baby, were classy takes on bobbysoxer schmaltz. Also recorded that month was a new version of the DandyÉ title track, thinner sounding and without the reference to “cocaine nights”. Whether this was in deference to Bolan’s new drug-free lifestyle or to gain radio play wasn’t clear. Indeed, there are those who insist that Bolan’s noticeable weight loss during the year owed a little something to powders. “Everybody tooted,” said Jeff Dexter. On June 29, T.Rex promoted the new single on the afternoon TV show Get It Together. Out were the trappings of punk. This was the old supernatural Bolan, empowered by cascading ringlets,
white-faced and poet-handsome, a half-presence like his hippy hero Syd Barrett. The song, inspired by the Orpheus legend, now had the performance to match. It sounded like a grand finale. And it was the first T.Rex single not to chart since 1970. The uncertainty in Bolan’s career was reflected at home. “It was a funny period,” remembered Gloria Jones, “with all the renovation going on. Marc was never comfortable having builders in the house.” On account of the domestic chaos, the couple’s young son, Rolan, born in September 1975 (“I pulled him out of the hat!” claimed Bolan), sometimes stayed at Marc’s parents, who lived nearby in Inglis House, a council block in Putney. “Marc had a bike and he’d ride it over to his mom and dad’s,” Gloria recalled. Being fighting fit was one thing. But waiting for the next offer to come, as was his wont, was never easy for Bolan. “We were homebodies who did relaxing things,” said Gloria. “But, you know, the tears would come along sometimes.” Without an audience, the man who’d recently likened himself to Captain America could feel his mask melting away. So when Muriel Young, a staff producer at Granada Television whom Bolan knew from his days as a folk-beat singer, offered him his own TV series, he jumped at it. Filming for Marc began on August 9; the first of six episodes was broadcast on August 24 at 4.20pm. Bolan saw the show as a chance to support what he called “the noo wave”. Generation X, The Jam and Boomtown Rats (“They have the ability to become huge”) were booked. But so too were Mud, Rosetta Stone and Bay City Rollers. Bolan was the main musical act and, as host, delivered campy asides while introducing acts. He mixed vintage and new T.Rex material with covers of Chris Montez’s Let’s Dance and the old Marty Wilde death disc, Endless Sleep. The show’s big coup came when David Bowie arrived at Granada’s Manchester Studios on September 7. It was the final episode, and Bowie was due to unveil his new single, “Heroes”. The pair had played tag with each other since 1964, when both hustled for songwriting deals in Denmark Street, London’s Tin Pan Alley. Bowie released the first 45, the first LP. Bolan was the first to land a single and an album in the charts. Bowie won the first big breakthrough in 1969 with Space Oddity. Bolan dominated 1971, ushering in glam rock. By 1973, Bowie had eclipsed him and it had stayed that way ever since. Now, just for one day, they were equals. But it was very nearly a disaster. First, Bowie’s entourage began throwing their weight around. Then Bolan retreated to the dressing-room nursing a couple of bottles of wine. Generation X arrived late. By the time the pair were ready for their big finale, the time-conscious technicians were due to pull the plugs. After Bolan uttered a sad-eyed “Thank you and goodbye”, the pair launched into a walking riff that sounded like Fats Domino on guitars. As Bowie leant into the mike, he lost his grip on his opening line, “What should I do?”. When Bolan leant towards the camera, he fell off the stage. What threatened earlier in the day to become a full-on Bette Davis/Joan Crawford bloodbath ended up more Laurel And Hardy. “They obviously loved each other,” says Herbie Flowers, who played bass for both that day. “It was right that the last time David looked at Marc, he had a big smile on his face.” “Oh that’s really Polaroid!” Bowie was reported to have said as the cameras stopped rolling. “You’ve gotta keep the ending!”
WITH THE MARC SERIES WRAPPED, THE BROAD-cast date for the final episode was scheduled for September 28. And with Gloria Jones still in Los Angeles working on a solo album, Bolan hung out with his London pals, Jeff Dexter, agent Eric Hall and Steve Harley (though rarely all at once). There was talk of a second TV series, of producing a punk band – Siouxsie And The Banshees, who played T.Rex’s 20th Century Boy live, perhaps. As always, Bolan talked up a collaboration with Bowie, the latest being a joint album, one side apiece. Given the pair had jammed up a couple of songs back in March, when Bowie was in London for Iggy Pop’s The Idiot tour, and both looked set to survive punk’s cultural purge, a combined venture wasn’t purely a fantasy. Notwithstanding the unpredictable nature of Bolan’s musical impulses, things were still looking up. Thursday September 15, 1977: Bolan’s day began with a visit to his dentist. Upbeat thanks to the recent return of Gloria and her singing brother ‘Big’ Richard Jones, he opened a bottle of wine. The trio met for lunch. No green tracksuit for Marc Bolan that day. By the time they rolled up at the Speakeasy, Marc was “uncontrollably pissed,” remembered Jeff Dexter, “loud, aggressive and full of himself.” Around midnight, the party moved on to Morton’s in Berkeley Square to meet up with Eric Hall. Dexter bailed. “It was a wonderful evening with all of our friends,” says Gloria Jones. “Marc asked me to sing, so I got up and did a number. Then everybody asked for more. Marc was telling me how much he loved me; I was telling him how much I loved him. We all had a beautiful night.” Some time around 5am, the night ended. The purple Mini GT5 that Gloria Jones was driving along Queens Ride alongside Barnes Common had hit a concrete pillar before crashing into a tree. Bolan, in the passenger seat, took the full impact. Though his body was crushed, his face, save for a minor cut near the eye, was spared. A funeral for Marc Bolan took place at Golders Green Crematorium on September 20, 1977. Although in life he was sometimes mocked or undervalued, music would feel his absence ever after – this gaudy creature whose belief in the magical properties of rock’n’roll endured to the last. “He was still out on a limb,” said Captain Sensible. “He didn’t write lyrics about people with frogs in their hair to make money. Marc Bolan was destined to make weird pop records.”
Mark Paytress is the author of Bolan: The Rise And Fall Of A 20th Century Superstar.