Forty years after his death in a car crash, fans still travel to England to pay homage to T.Rex’s leader
Marc Bolan (1947-1977) was the lead vocalist, songwriter and guitarist of the glam rock group T.Rex. In the 1970s, the band enjoyed massive success in the UK, which prompted Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr to say they hadn’t seen anything like it since Beatlemania. At the height of “T. Rextasy,” the group was selling 60,000 records a day.
Sadly, Bolan was killed in a car accident two weeks before his thirtieth birthday.
Despite his small stature, Bolan was larger than life. Forty years after his death, he continues to influence the world with his music, and has inspired countless designers and musicians with his androgynous glam-rock style.
Marc Bolan was born Mark Feld on September 30, 1947 in East London. He and his brother Harry were raised by their father Simeon Feld, a lorry driver, and their mother Phyllis Winifred, a market stallholder. As a child, Mark was influenced by Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran, as well as blues artists from the 1950s. It’s well documented that he would play his blues records at the wrong speed so that the artists’ voices were unintelligible and then would sing along to the altered songs. A 45 record played at 78 rpm may seem odd to some, but to Mark, this was a way of creating a new sound.
When he was 9, the year Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” was in the British Top 5, his mother gave him his first guitar. By 12, he’d formed his first band, Susie and the Hula Hoops, with schoolmate Helen Shapiro. The band gained recognition at local schools, where they’d play a repertoire that included Elvis hits like “Teddy Bear,” “Hound Dog,” and “Don’t Be Cruel” and the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love,” among other then-popular tunes.
While Shapiro went on to become a successful pop and jazz artist, releasing U.K. hits such as “You Don’t Know” and “Walkin’ Back to Happiness,” Mark, all of 12 years old, convinced legendary producer Joe Meek to record a song he wrote called “Mrs. Jones”—to little notice.
By 1961, when he was 14, Mark had been kicked out of school for bad behavior. At that point, he began hanging out at the Stamford Hill Jewish Youth Club, where he was leader of a Mod gang. Shapiro recalls, “Mark came in (to the youth club) with his crowd from a rival club in Stamford Hill, and I hadn’t seen him for a while. The change in him was unbelievable. He was very slim, taller and dressed from head to toe in his Modernist clothes. He was obviously the leader of this gang, very aware of himself, and he came in and took the place over.”
Mark knew it was important that he look the part of a Mod gang leader. Because he was so short, most of his clothes had to be altered—an expensive proposition. In order to enhance his wardrobe, he’d steal motorbikes and sell them so he could have money for clothes. His sartorial fixations led him to a job at Edgar’s menswear shop in Tooting Broadway, and he was commissioned by the West End Modeling School to pose for mail order catalogues and local chain stores. In September 1962, he had his moment as the ‘star’ of Hackney, when he and his friends were approached by journalist Peter Barnsley, a writer for Town magazine who was working on an article called “The Young Take The Wheel.”
Although his friends were older than him, Mark left a lasting impression on Barnsley, who admired his style and confidence. In the article, Mark remarked, “You got to be different from the other kids. I mean, you got to be two steps ahead. The stuff that half the haddocks you see around are wearing I was wearing years ago.” However, by the time the story appeared in print, seven months later, the wardrobe he and his Mod cronies favored had become old hat.
By 1965, Mark Feld traded his tailored suits and Mod attire for black pea coats and turtleneck sweaters, inspired by Bob Dylan (he even took to wearing a corduroy cap like his idol). Through his manager, Allen Warren, he recorded a version of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” at London’s Maximum Sound Studios under the pseudonym “Toby Tyler”. Warren submitted a second recording, Feld’s cover of Betty Everett’s “You’re No Good,” to EMI, but it was rejected.
Though his music drew little notice that year, Mark Feld did make one successful change that eventually would—he traded in “Toby Tyler” for “Marc Bolan” (reportedly a combination of ‘Bob’ and ‘Dylan’) and teamed up with producer Jim Economedes. His debut single, “The Wizard,” was released on Decca in autumn 1965. Although not a hit, the song did draw interest from other producers. Not too much later, Bolan was telling manager Simon Napier-Bell that he was going to be the “biggest British rock star ever.” Napier-Bell, who managed The Yardbirds and John’s Children, was impressed by Bolan’s persona and good looks.
In 1967, he replaced guitarist Geoff McClelland in John’s Children, which recorded one of Bolan’s songs, “Hippy Gumbo.” Though the track was a flop, it did catch the attention of the influential BBC deejay John Peel, who began promoting Bolan’s records on the radio. If Peel was asked to make a television appearance, he would tell management, “I’ll do the gig if I can bring Marc.” Alas, John’s Children disbanded soon thereafter but not before their final single, “Desdemona,” was banned from the radio because the lyrics “‘Lift up your skirt and fly” were considered obscene. That, combined with a disastrous gig in Germany with The Who—which led to a riot—was enough for Bolan, who left the group just four months after he joined.
He realized that if he wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll star, he’d have to form a band of his own. So, in late 1967, he joined guitarist Ben Cartland, drummer Steve Peregrin Took and an unknown bassist to form Tyrannosaurus Rex. After a failed gig, Bolan dismissed the guitarist and bassist, cutting the band down to himself and Took. He befriended Eric Clapton who gave him electric guitar lessons and was soon incorporating electric guitar into his songs.
The duo began playing gigs around London with Bolan billed as a “hippie poet.” In 1968, producer Tony Visconti saw Tyrannosaurus Rex at the Middle Earth Club on Tottenham Court Road. Visconti recalls, “Marc played a guitar he’d bought for £12. It had a broken tuning peg, so he carried around a pair of pliers to tune it. And they were dressed in tatters because that was all they could afford. Marc was surreal even in his folk period. I thought he was singing in French! Or, you know, Croatian or something. So when I approached them the first time, I went to Steve Peregrin Took who definitely spoke English. I didn’t know where Marc was from, or even if he was from the Earth. He was that surreal.”
That year, Bolan and Took played a show at Hyde Park, the first time a free concert had ever been held there. Among the other artists on the bill were Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd. The following year, Bolan invited David Bowie to open for his band, and Bowie performed his one-man mime routine, which depicted China’s invasion of Tibet. Throughout the tour, Bowie got a negative reception and was sometimes heckled by the audience. (Lucky for us, Bowie ditched his mime act and went on to record “Space Oddity” which became an instant hit).
Bowie and Bolan first met in 1964 when publisher Les Conn (who managed both artists) employed them to paint his office. Years later, Bowie recalled, “So there’s me and this Mod whitewashing Les’ office and he (Marc) goes ‘Where d’you get those shoes, man? Where d’you get your shirt? We immediately started talking about clothes and sewing machines.” Although the pair had much in common, and would often meet up at local cafes, it would become more apparent as the years progressed that they were, in a sense, rivals.
By 1970, Bolan was married to June Child and had decided that performing as a duo with Took wasn’t helping his career. Took, often referred to as the ‘Phantom Spiker,’ was hooked on STP, a hallucinogenic drug, and his playing suffered. Just months before, the band had embarked on a U.S. tour on which Took was contractually obligated to play. Before the tour ended, the band’s manager fired Took. In an interview with the NME, Took said, “We were playing and I whipped myself till everybody shut up. With a belt, y’know, a bit of blood and the whole of Los Angeles shuts up. ‘What’s going on, man, there’s some nutter attacking himself on stage.’ I mean, Iggy Stooge had the same basic approach.”
That year, Bolan hired drummer Bill Legend, bassist Steve Curry, and percussionist Mickey Finn. Finn, who was hired more for visuals than drumming, recalled, “Next thing I know, Marc turned up (at Finn’s home) at ten o’clock in the morning, really keen with his cloak and his Spanish shoes, full of high spirits. He came up and we just played and jammed for about three hours. Lots of coffee. We joked and laughed and just took off. (Eventually) when we went to Wales, I didn’t know what was happening! I was just going along for the trip! And before I knew where I was, I was on the stage playing.”
Simultaneously, after much insistence from Tony Visconti, Bolan shortened the group’s name to T. Rex. “We did this gig in Boston, and we turned up very keen, and the lady… the stage manager said ‘Ahh, this is Tortoise Shell Rex, is it?’” recalled Mickey Finn. “Everybody used to get the name inside out and outside in, and nobody could actually get round the word.”
In September 1970, T.Rex were approached by promoter Michael Eavis to play the first Glastonbury Festival, which was previously called the Pilton Pop, Blues & Folk Festival. Originally, the Kinks and Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders were scheduled as headliners, but they bailed at the last minute. T.Rex filled in for them, and played to a crowd of 1,500 fans, sharing the bill with Al Stewart, Quintessence, and Stackridge. Bolan also played guitar on Bowie’s single “The Prettiest Star.”
In 1971, with Tony Visconti producing, T. Rex released “Ride a White Swan.” The single rose to #2 on the British charts, and earned them a spot on the British television show Top of the Pops. With a hit single under his belt, Bolan began to experiment with different music styles and incorporated Celtic and tribal imagery into his songs.
Visconti recalls, “’Hot Love’ was released and went to #1 and we knew we were onto something really, really big and we went ‘Oh my gosh we’d better record some songs quickly’, we have to put out an album! We had no other songs with drums on them and electric guitars. ‘Hot Love’ was the only thing we had recorded. So quickly we took a little studio in New York and in six hours we recorded “Jeepster,” “Monolith” and some other track. Then they did some more gigs, flew to L.A., and we booked a studio for one night and recorded “Bang a Gong Get it On,” and a few other tracks. So we had the makings of an electric T.Rex album. We had yet called it Electric Warrior, but that’s what we were recording.”
It was during this time that Bolan morphed from ‘hippie poet’ to glam rocker. He took to wearing metallic jackets, feather boas, and glitter on his cheeks. “It was like being jealous of your best girlfriend,” recalled singer Cilla Black. “He had everything – the hair, the eyes, the makeup, the glam. The worrying thing was you did kind of fancy him, being this feminine looking guy. But you had the music as well, both things together, and the combination was unbelievable.”
The best thing about Bolan was that he didn’t strive to be a perfectionist. He wanted their sound to be as raw and as natural as possible. Often the group would get to the fifth take and Marc would say, “That’s it, we’ve got it!” Drummer Bill Legend would say, “I’ve only just learned the song, give us another chance!” but Marc would be insistent that the tracks were fine. As a last resort, he could ‘Throw a few guitars on it and cover up the mistakes’.”
After “Ride a White Swan” came the chart toppers: “Hot Love,” “Get it On,” “Telegram Sam” and “Metal Guru.” In 1971, the Electric Warrior album was #1 for six weeks. “At the height of “Hot Love,” we were selling 60,000 records in one day,” said Tony Visconti. “Record labels would die if they heard that today. They’d be lucky if they could sell 60,000 in three weeks!” T.Rex albums accounted for six percent of total British record sales. At this rate, they had officially outsold Hendrix and The Who.
In the UK, T.Rex resembled a resurgence of Beatlemania. Paul McCartney had told the press, “Bolan is the only British singer who can follow the Beatles’ success in America.” Both he and Ringo Starr had not seen fans so hysterical since The Beatles. During this time, the band’s publicist BP Fallon coined the term “T.Rextasy” to define the mass hysteria that was occurring at their concerts. Sure enough, by 1972, T.Rex entered the U.S. Top 20 with their single “The Slider.”
Music presenter “Whispering Bob Harris” witnessed this mass hysteria firsthand: “I came out on stage, and it was like somebody had detonated this explosion. It just went absolutely crazy! I mean, people were rushing to the sides of the stage, the level of screaming and that particular sort of vibrating pitch that you get from hundreds of girls screaming at the top of their voices. I’d been at Wembley in 1966 and had seen The Beatles play live, and this was the first time I’d seen anything like that. To me this was a re-ignition of Beatlemania only this time it was T.Rexstasy.”
Ringo Starr, a friend of Bolan’s, directed, produced, and financed a T.Rex film titled Born to Boogie. Starr and Bolan were greatly influenced by Federico Fellini and they wanted their film to have a “surrealistic vibe.” The Fellini influence, combined with scenes reminiscent of the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, made for an interesting film, composed of a series of vignettes that included Elton John performing “Children of the Revolution” at Apple Studios in Saville Row, T.Rex concert footage at Wembley, as well as the infamous “Tea Party Medley,” which was filmed at John Lennon’s mansion in Ascot, where Bolan, clad in a massive brown top hat, played an acoustic rendition (complete with orchestra) of “Jeepster.” The film was entirely improvised, with the exception of the line, “Some people like to rock, some people like to roll, but movin’ and a-groovin’s gonna satisfy my soul.”
By 1973, Bolan and Bowie were neck and neck. Bowie’s “Life on Mars” and Bolan’s “20th Century Boy” had peaked at #3. It also didn’t help that they shared the same manager (Tony Howard) and producer (Tony Visconti). That year, Bolan played guitar on a new track of Ringo Starr’s called “Hold On”. He also employed a second guitarist, Jack Green, along with Gloria Jones to sing backing vocals for T.Rex.
By 1974, Bolan’s mental and physical health was deteriorating due to cocaine use, his audience was dwindling and he couldn’t understand why this was happening. Within the next year, Bolan’s producer, bandmates, and wife all left him because they couldn’t deal with the argumentative persona the drugs generated. “It happens to most rock stars,” Visconti said. “We’d be in that studio saying ‘What’s going on? Why is he shouting at us?’ Marc would be womanizing and cheating on his wife June, and she was the first to leave. I left after her. I couldn’t take it any longer.”
In 1975, Bolan’s girlfriend Gloria Jones gave birth to their son Rolan. The birth was a wakeup call for Bolan, who realized he had to kick his drug habit. Once he regained his health, he formed a new band and made several appearances on British pop shows. Unlike many contemporaries, Bolan embraced the punk movement, and supported bands like The Ramones, Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Damned. Bolan was a punk at heart himself, with his ‘I don’t give a fuck’ attitude and androgynous style. He described the punk movement as “back to basics rock ‘n’ roll,” and chose The Damned as the opening act for his UK tour. Many journalists at the time couldn’t understand why his musical direction had changed. He had recorded hits year after year, and it didn’t make sense that he should tour with a “short-lived” punk group.
When questioned by journalist Phillip Crawley, Bolan’s response was a simple one: “I picked The Damned to tour with me because I wanted to put the best of the established bands against the best of the new-wave bands, so we’ll see who can out-punk the other every night.”
After embarking on his tour with The Damned, Bolan was approached for a six-part television series for Granada TV called “Marc.” As the host of the show, he would have new and established bands perform their latest hits, and would even perform some of his own songs. David Bowie was the last musician to appear on Bolan’s show, in which he performed his latest song “Heroes”.
“Sometimes I get a funny feeling inside me that I shan’t be here very long, and I’m not talking in terms of things like success. It frightens me sometimes.” – Bolan, 1971
Two weeks before Bolan’s 30th birthday, Gloria Jones was driving them home when their Mini Cooper swerved and hit a steel fence. A tree, rumored to have killed Bolan, actually prevented the car from sliding down an embankment, which would have killed both Bolan and Jones. Bolan died on impact from a severe head injury but Jones survived with a broken arm and jaw. The site where the tree stands, referred to as the “Bolan shrine,” is now owned and maintained by Fee Warner, founder of the T-Rex Action Group.
On a recent trip to England, I visited the location in Barnes, London. As you access the site from the road, a large bulletin board allows fans to post notes or photographs. As I looked at the notes pinned to the board, I was impressed to see that some fans had traveled halfway across the world to pay homage. The shrine itself is a bronze bust of Bolan. While it’s rather creepy, it does bear a likeness. Past members of the group are immortalized in gold plaques on a step beside the shrine, and written at the base of the bust are the lyrics to T.Rex’s “Child Star”: “So sad to see them mourning you when you are here within the flowers and the trees.”
“We were looking at the car that was used in the film (Born to Boogie) which is a really nice car, and Marc said ‘Tell you what, take a picture of me behind the wheel of the car, because I’ve always had this premonition I would die in a car crash.’ So he got behind the wheel of the car, and as I pressed the button he just threw his head back and made this maniacal laugh and I’ve got this picture to this day, which is really, really weird when you look at it and actually know what happened.”–Keith Morris, photographer
More from PKM:
MARC BOLAN DOCUMENTARY, ‘RIDE ON!’
THE DAY DAVID BOWIE TURNED DJ FOR THE BBC
ROCK STARS WEARING GRANNY TAKES A TRIP!