Dropping the needle on T. Rex’s 2nd album, Electric Warrior, you may think “groovy,” your thoughts may turn carnal or even amorous, you might want to get up and dance, but you probably wouldn’t think you are listening to an album that drastically changed the course of rock music. You’d be wrong.
Tracing the history of rock, it’s clear that trends often move in equal and opposite reaction to each other. The pop-oriented era of early Beatlemania gave way to a more thoughtful Dylanesque folk-oriented songwriter period, which was followed by psychedelia and hedonistic acid rock, after which came a more pared-down, austere funky era inspired by The Band, which included Country Rock and the beginnings of the ponderous, confessional singer-songwriter era of the early 70s.
There’s only so much seriousness rock can withstand. Enter T. Rex.
As the story goes, by 1970, Marc Bolan’s wife June Child was tiring of her husband’s two-man band, Tyrannosaurus Rex and their lack of exposure beyond the hippie festival circuit. Their twee lyrics about gnomes and faeries, their droning music (just acoustic guitar and hand percussion) devoid of memorable hooks, and their shows limited to watching the two members sit cross-legged, playing their blissed out folk-ragas, Mrs. Bolan resorted to locking Marc in a room one night with his guitar with the necessary provisions and the direction to not come out until he had written her a hit song. The next morning, he played her “Ride a White Swan” and T. Rex was born.
Initially a flop, “Ride a White Swan” was re-introduced later that year and given some promotional juice. It rocketed to #2 on the UK singles chart. The band’s manager shortened their quasi-psychedelic name as well so that it could be displayed in a much larger font on festival posters, plus the modern brevity of “T. Rex” had a certain swagger that matched the band’s new sound. Their self-titled debut album (actually the band’s 5th but the first one under their new name) caused a stir which, along with the successful release of the interim “Hot Love” single, readied U.K. market for what would be the top selling album of 1971, the wildly appealing Electric Warrior.
Here in “Get It On,” Bolan and producer Tony Visconti present the prototype for a new style, paired with the feather boas and makeup, we have what would be coined by the music press, Glam Rock. The big beat T. Rex sound, bolstered by guests Rick Wakeman on throbbing piano and King Crimson’s Ian McDonald on chugging low tenor sax, is not particularly innovative, in fact, it’s twice derivative, kind of a funkier, more danceable take on the white English blues that dominated the previous decade. But so what — the hooks are everywhere in this song, the feel is slinky, the rhythm is seductive, the “dirty sweet” lyrics are downright carnal, and the chorus “Get It On” hook is pure fun.
Although the re-titled “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” only peaked at #10 in the U.S., and was T. Rex’s only charting hit in America, “Get It On” stayed at #1 in the U.K. for 4 weeks (“Hot Love” was at #1 for 6 weeks). T. Rex would score two more #1 hits in the U.K. in the same period and would dominate not only charts, but the hearts, minds, and boogieing asses of the English public for the early 70s.
The songs of Electric Warrior are uniformly excellent. It’s a great album. Gone is the shy, high warbling voice and rambling lyrics of Tyrannosaurus Rex, in their place is a more commanding, succinct vocal delivery, full of intention and sexy confidence. The music is self-assured and hooky, steeped in a new rhythmic sophistication and distilled to its musical elements, adorned here with sly unison background vocals on the album opener, Mambo Sun:
Although the band’s subsequent albums would adopt a tougher, more rock sound, on Electric Warrior, producer Tony Visconti preserves a slightly wispier texture, often supported with the warmth of a subtle string orchestra as in track two of Electric Warrior, the folky but still swaggering, Cosmic Dancer:
Though T. Rex never really had an impact in the U.S., Marc Bolan’s influence on U.K. artists was pervasive and significant. Elton John released the sparsely funky Honky Chateau in early 1972 which was clearly influenced by the lean, hard-bitten music of The Band:
Later that same year came the much more pop Don’t Shoot Me album, full of Glam Rock influences and specifically, a shift in his vocal delivery. Gone is most of the chesty, belting bluesy style of Elton’s early songs in favor of a more shimmering, breathy pop quality that sounds a lot like Marc Bolan, a vocal style he will carry on with through the 70s, along with feather boas and other trappings of Glam:
And after their instant success, the chugging, Boogie Rock influence of T. Rex can suddenly be heard all through early 70s rock made in England. The Hollies reboot their 60s sound in 1972 with the Bolanesque “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress.” Never too far from their Chuck Berry influence, the Stones mine their inner-boogie on 1973’s “Only Rock and Roll.” But nowhere is the band’s impact on the history of rock deeper than the influence Marc Bolan and T. Rex had on David Bowie.
Friends long before either was famous, it’s no accident that the musical styles shown through each stage of their careers are similar, Bowie’s early music being just as hippie-acoustic, with lyrics just as hobbity and verbose as Bolan’s. Competition fueled their musical relationship as much as amity; the Bolan-Bowie friendly rivalry is well documented with Bolan and Tyrannosaurus succeeding first, securing a record contract, a producer and festival bookings while Bowie, still performing under his given name David Jones, couldn’t get arrested. Then, David Bowie has a well-timed U.K. hit in 1969 with Space Oddity, his Major Tom ascending into the heavens at the same moment that Neil Armstrong holds the world’s fascination by touching a human foot on the moon. And it cannot be coincidence that soon after, Bolan emerges from obscurity with “Ride a White Swan.”
Once T. Rex is born, the competition goes into overdrive and Bowie picks up the Glam Rock baton, scoring a #10 U.K. hit with “Starman” off the Ziggy Stardust album, a song whose instrumental hook sounds like a direct T. Rex lift. No matter. It’s a great song and not similar to Bolan’s music in any other significant way.
What really matters about the Bolan/Bowie crossover at this point is the injection of Mick Ronson, the golden boy lead guitarist of Bowie’s Spiders from Mars band, one of a handful of genius-level rock musicians and a ballsy guitarist with a swaggering style and a fiery sound. In the hands of Ronson, Glam Rock is elevated and supercharged and, after the gutsy Ziggy album, it’s Bolan who shifts his sound to emulate the hard rock approach of the Spiders from Mars with his next album, The Slider (1972), and the heavy singles, “Telegram Sam” and especially, “20th Century Boy,” all big hits in the U.K.
But in my opinion, there’s a forward progression that runs from Bolan’s cool and seductive Electric Warrior to the much more vital Bowie/Ronson Ziggy Stardust album and onward — whereas Bowie uses this moment as an artistic jumping off point for an entire career, Bolan seems caught in a cul de sac of fame-seeking and self-referential attempts at chart success. Ronson will continue to wield his talents through the decade and his playing will deeply affect the style of rock guitarists from this point on, Glam will morph and remain one of rock’s most vital and renewable strains, continuing to inspire rock artists right up until the present day.
Though limited in scope, T. Rex’s entry into the history of rock is essential. It was Marc Bolan that flipped the script in 1971, the progression that runs through Bowie and on through rock history starts with his talent and vision, and it’s one of the most important contributions in rock.