Jurassic Marc: The Queen's Ride on Gipsy Lane
Words: Major Tom Alexopoulos
Photography © Evening Standard
Words: Major Tom Alexopoulos
Photography © Evening Standard
Marc Bolan, born Mark Feld, grew up in the East End of London. His brother says Marc was actually very quiet, introverted, but also popular. His father was a truck driver, his mother worked at a fruit stall in a Soho street market, where Marc would often help while his older brother was, well, his older brother. Marc was well known by all the vendors and shop owners. He eventually built the courage and neighborhood familiarity to safely venture around the area, meet new people, quickly learn the rules of the streets, and establish his early street cred.
He also hung out at bars and the stage door of a nearby theater, coming into contact with anybody and everybody, just to get noticed and make connections. He claims to have carried Cliff Richard's guitar to a waiting car after a show. That was considered a big deal at the time, if you believed him. Marc became an intuitive hustler, always pitching himself to the music business and media people who would go for drinks just around the corner from his mom's stall. He told anybody who would listen, that one day he would be 'bigger than Elvis'. They would laugh, brush him off, and politely tell him to come back when he was old enough to buy a drink. Little did they know who they were talking to.
The common wisdom of the day was, if you want to be important, you've got to look and act important, and be seen with people more important than you. That still applies today. It was an early life's series of lessons. Marc used his ever growing, self made, public image, and networked relationships to formulate a battle plan to zero in on his target - stardom. With a cheap guitar that his mom bought with monthly installments, slung over his shoulder, this small 9 year old kid spent hours looking at himself wiggle around like Elvis in the mirror, and never passed a store window without checking himself out.
Marc Bolan was obsessive-compulsive, but also dyslexic. Bored to death, he left school. To keep his pride intact, telling everybody that he had been expelled. If you can't cut it in school, you've got to learn a trade, so he went down to the Labor Exchange and told them he wanted to work as a poet. They sent him to wash dishes in a bar instead, that lasted for about a week, as did a brief stint in a menswear shop. A few other regular jobs were also short lived before realizing that having a normal job was not for him, being a complete waste of his time. He preferred to concentrate on the only thing that really mattered to him – becoming a new Mark Feld. Becoming a star.
Marcs' first self financed demo recordings for Decca was under the name Toby Tyler. Here, he attempted to gain a foothold as a Bob Dylan/Donovan type poet - singer, performing where he could get a gig. He posed in almost total photocopy promo shots as the real stars had done, and sang very similar sounding songs. In his mind's game, a replica of the real deal could work. He's seen others do it before and it was worth a shot. Any shot at the big time was worth trying, but the record company wouldn't bite. He may have had the chops down to a point, but just wasn't as well known as he thought he was, Toby Tyler pretty much vanished without trace.
It's a jungle out there, Simon Napier-Bell, is veteran impresario who managed Bolan's early career before going on to discover the duo Wham!, George Michael's first outfit. He claimed Marc had the biggest ego in the world. When he first came to see him, Marc had stated "I don't know why we need to make a record. All we need to do is put up posters of me all over town, and I'll be just as big a star." He was partially correct. Contrary to popular belief, the inspiration for Feld's new, professional name was not Bob Dylan, but his roommate at the time, fellow actor James Bolam. Thus, the name evolution: Bolam > Bowland > Boland > Bolan.
His first single as Marc Bolan, 'The Wizard', was released in 1965, and was supposedly written about his experience with a shaman in Paris. Napier-Bell first met Bolan in 1966, shortly after its release. He had delivered many other demos to him, but they were all rejected. He took a chance on this one and arranged for Marc to get a slot on the TV music show 'Ready, Steady, Go!'. Like any self-promoter, Marc developed the background hype to push the song. The story Marc told everyone was that he'd met this wizard in the Bois de Boulogne. The wizard took Marc back to his house, and he stayed there for three months, studying magic, making potions and casting spells.
Napier-Bell added Bolan into one of the bands he was trying to launch called John's Children. Bolan was to play the roll of a Pete Townshend type guitarist and singer. Bolan correctly surmised that their songs sucked, so he wrote his own for the group. The rest of the band was less than enthusiastic about this new talent that their manager dropped in their midst. But they couldn't deny Marc's contributions raised them up several notches musically and in the press. On the up side, Marc's songs were better, and got the band some notoriety, including having his song 'Desdemona' banned by the BBC. Getting banned wasn't cool until the Sex Pistols made it so.
Bolan bitched and moaned about not being the boss of his own show, so he put an ad in a music paper seeking a new band, and so, with Stephen Ross Porter, (aka Steve Peregrin Took- named after the character in 'Lord of the Rings'), he formed Tyrannosaurus Rex. Many contend that the Tyrannosaurus Rex psychedelic folk-rock acoustic songs may be the best of Bolan's career. As one re-listens to his post-transition songs, you can almost feel what was lost because of the hard drug use and the bar rock songs that have come to define Bolan almost completely in the public eye. Even today, the first 3 Tyrannosaurus Rex albums are very popular in their own right, and have a growing following among new listeners. They developed musically, so that 'Unicorn' may be thought of as a work of art. Took's backing vocals and multi-talented instrumentation gave an 'other worldliness' to their sound. To some, the last two tracks on 'My People Were Fair...' are great songs. To others, it was just a bunch of words that sounded good and flowed together, with lifted references from books like 'the Hobbit' and 'Lord of the Rings' - the Harry Potter books of the time.
At the time, radio and TV was totally controlled by the British government. If you wanted your music heard, it had to pass through the BBC censors. There were no private stations or broadcasters. It was illegal. The only exceptions were pirate stations, such as Radio Caroline, which broadcast from a ship floating off the coast in international waters, and everybody listened to it. It was like the voice of freedom from a distant galaxy.
One of the BBC's star broadcasters was the whispering DJ John Peel, a Brit who came back home after working in Texas. His cool voice attitude was nicked from the American underground FM producers he listened to while stateside. Peel heavily promoted Tyrannosaurus Rex on the air, played their songs ad nauseam, and had them perform at his DJ club gigs. Their audience were mostly John Peel fans. They wanted to be the most underground thing going, and they wanted to hang on to that. Peel and Marc became inseparable friends, and both were addicted to playing slot car racing together, making long distance phone calls to Captain Beefheart, and taking messages from Bowie, before David hit it big. Later, Marc ran up huge phone bills talking to Robert Zimmerman (or Bob Dylan) for hours at a time. It turned out to be a small world, indeed.
Together with Took and with Peel's full court pressure backing, they began to build a following in London's underground clubs. Their biggest gig was performing as a fill in, a spot left vacant by another group, at the first 1968 concert in Hyde Park in front of thousands. But the big break came when American producer Tony Visconti was told by his boss to be on the look-out for the next big thing, and ultimately produce them. What Visconti saw in Bolan was possible success just waiting to happen, because Bolan had the complete package. This may be why Tony jumped ship from Bowie in order to produce Bolan. In doing so, he missed out on Bowie's big breakthrough albums.
Eventually backed by a full band that included new percussionist, Mikey Finn, the doors were beginning to open on a whole series of hit singles, including "Hot Love", or "Bang a Gong, Get It On", his only US top 10 on which Elton John played keys, as well as a series of highly acclaimed albums. At the height of his popularity, the Bolan - Visconti team had a string of #1 hit singles in the UK. He became a teen idol, as well as one of the leaders of the Glam Rock movement. But, it still wasn't enough for him. Years before, Bolan claimed he didn't do hard drugs, because he said that he liked to be in control. Whether straight or high, Bolan was a control freak. But his life's erratic roller coaster ride went over the top, and flew off the rails in a rapid G-force decline after he fell in love with cocaine in L.A., because 'the more I see, the more I do, and all the while, I think of you’.
Near the end, and like others before him, Bolan had been reduced to record the last in the series of amusing kids’ TV shows. He salvaged some credibility by championing punk rock within its confines, and tried setting himself up as its godfather, hanging out with the Ramones, the Banshees and Generation X, while having The Damned support him on a small tour. David Bowie was even a guest on his last TV show. Marc Bolan, one of founders of the British glam-rock, engineered and role played a Dandy - a self-made man who placed great importance upon physical appearance, pseudo-refined language, as he aggressively pursued stardom with the appearance of leisurely nonchalance. He ultimately created a cult to and of himself. And it worked.
His untimely death in September 1977, aged 29, was doubly unfortunate for his close family. At the time he died, Bolan had a young son, Rolan, by his American girlfriend, Gloria Jones, but he was still legally married to June Child. With Gloria still in critical condition, Bolan's house was cleaned out of all photos, guitars, amps, tapes, letters, and receipts. It was not a break in. The house cleaners had a key or locksmith tools. And family members were never allowed to return. Some items turned up at small auctions years later. For example, a home made demo cassette sold for an easy 1,500 GBP, and the guitars alone are each worth a fortune.
Marc’s funeral was held at Golders Green Crematorium, on Tuesday 20th September 1977. It was a Jewish ceremony, attended by a supporting cast that almost gave it a circus atmosphere, with David Bowie, Steve Harley, Rod Stewart, Les Paul, Eric Clapton, the Damned, and hundreds of fans. Bolan’s chrysanthemum swan decorated coffin moved slowly along a small railroad track into the mouth of the incinerator. The swan was allegedly sent by Elton John, as a nod to T. Rex’s first hit single, 'Ride a White Swan'. As the metal doors of the incinerator opened, the inferno's flames could be seen engulfing the casket as it slowly rolled in. As the spectators gasped, Bolan's mother screamed, 'My boy!' And the crowd totally lost it.
Some say Bolan was a one trick pony that never really developed, since all he wanted was fame, money, and power. And having achieved that, he took his foot off the gas. It's one hell of a trick though - creating a monster discography, plus the vast body of timeless hits, all released within a few years of each other. Damn, think it's easy? Go ahead, give it your best shot. The world is waiting.
Thinkbabymusic © In—Print Issue #07, 2019
(Major) Tom Alexopoulos is a Greek, American journalist, producer, and radio presenter, also known for his residency at AIR 104.4 FM, Athens, as well as his long—standing editorship at Thinkbabymusic. Photo: Marc Feld, London England. 15th October 1965.