The peacock feathered, coke-snorting, effeminate Englishmen of the past are often remembered because of their rank in society, their money, who they knew and hung out with, but especially because of their impact on pop culture or hipster society at the time. Some of them are still downright copied by today's generation of artists because, all things being cyclical, its time may have come again in one form or another.
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, and quickly learn the rules of the streets.
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.
Impressed by the teen film, 'The Girl Can't Help It', Marc and a friend merged to form a duo called Rick and Ellis, this friend recalls young Marc appearing possessed with making it, and glowed with a charisma and self-determination that made him seem larger than life. Marc's conviction about his destiny often spooked some of his other friends, as well, laughingly remembered in ways such as 'Marc was a V.I.P. before he was 11, for Christ's sake.'
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 once claimed: 'Actually, he'd gone with a tourist group on a weekend trip to Paris, and met an illusionist in a gay club, and spent the night with him. Marc was more gay, than straight. he cruised gay bars, and scored extra money from basic gay pick-ups.' Nonetheless, this wizard song and dance became the foundational myth of Marc Bolan’s entire career.
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.
We don't need no education, and we don't need no thought control. 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.
Before meeting Took, all of Bolan's solo singles flopped. But together, 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. He remembers: 'I walked into a club, Bolan was on stage, sitting cross-legged on a carpet, hunched over his guitar, his face half-obscured in a cloud of curls, while Peregrin Took banged his bongos beside him. Marc wasn’t really a hippy. Later, when I was recording him, he was still living with his parents. He never did hallucinogenic drugs, but he certainly dressed the part. These were very poor, working-class kids who had a symphony in their heads. What I saw in Marc Bolan had nothing to do with strings, or very high standards of artistry. What I saw in him was raw talent. They were a folk duo, but I saw a potential rock star in Marc, right from the minute, the hour I met him.'
What Visconti also 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. This is the guy who didn't even produce the track 'Space Oddity'. Some of the best Bowie albums are produced by Tony Visconti. Some of the very best. But, let's not pretend the 3 great Ken Scott glam era albums from the Glam period aren't on that list. Very different producers, of course. But right for the job.
Meanwhile, back at the Bolan Ranch, Took was about to get tossed under the bus. In 1969, Took was fired by Marc prior to the US tour. The reasons include Took hanging out with the anarchists of the London Underground Scene. Took also did lots of drugs, doing so many times with Syd Barrett, Marc idolized Syd but would never go on to be friends with him, making him beyond jealous. And perhaps Took's fatal mistake, asking Marc if they could do some of HIS songs, too. Took was gone soon after. Took was fired BEFORE the US tour. But he was contractually obliged to go on the tour or face a bill for £2,000 (£32,970.00 in 2017 money). To put that into perspective, Tyrannosaurus Rex's first album cost just £400 to record in 1968. The average UK house price in 1969 was £4,640. So Took did the math and saw he had no choice, and went on the tour. When it ended, Took was abandoned in the US, and the June Child - Marc Bolan duo returned to the UK without him. The official story to the press was that Took had been fired AFTER the tour because of the huge amount of drugs he consumed.
With 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’.
Cocaine is the ego drug, which suited Marc just fine. According to many close to him, Marc became an Elvis drama-Queen. Repeatedly mega-hyping himself and his fictitious projects, making up anything he thought the press would eat up and print, and friends would believe. Today, that's called public relations and marketing. And the willing press did eat it up, and published the myths, because Bolan always made for such good copy.
Near the end, and like others before him, even Tony was humiliated, ripped off, heartbroken, and resigned. Visconti wrote Bolan a letter of resignation, listing the reasons why he quit. In true drama queen fashion, Bolan never responded, only telling the band at their next studio session: 'Tony's not with us any more.' So, Tony refocused his energies on Bolan's friend, yet rival, David Bowie - and you know how that turned out. The rest is history. It's taken almost four decades and seven legal teams just to begin to unearth and recoup a fraction of Visconti's production rights and money owed to him.
Marc Bolan’s 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.
Sadly, just a week before his death, 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.
Marc Bolan’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.
In the meantime, respect, Marc Feld Bolan.