Marc Bolan - At The BBC - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Marc Bolan - At The BBC

by Rich Morris Rating:7 Release Date:2013-08-26

There are so many Bolan compilations, best ofs and previously-unreleased mopping-up jobs clogging shelves in record shops, it can sometimes be hard to get your hands on the actual albums the guy released in his lifetime. Do we really need any more? If you answered that with a shrieking 'Yes!' then congrats, you can only be the kind of genuine Bolan freak who'll buy anything with his name on it.

Let's not beat around the bush here, Marc Bolan at the BBC is very definitely for completists only. It's a whopping six CD set which basically brings together everything the short-arsed genius recorded for the BBC, which it turns out was a hell of a lot. Bolan was, after all, championed with an almost religious zeal by legendary DJ John Peel, a relationship which swiftly turned sour once the diminutive starlet achieved the fame and fortune he so desperately craved, turning his back on the hippie scene quicker than you can yowl "hubcap diamond star halo".

This collection's roughly chronological ordering means we start with Bolan's pre-hippie psych-garage act John's Children, and thus we don't actually hear Bolan's unmistakable vibrating yelp until track five, the hard-rocking 'Hot Rot Mama' which, with its mixture of lacerating blues riff and preeningly camp vocal, resembles nothing so much as a White Stripes track.

John's Children were one of the first bands to take The Who's amphetamine-driven R&B, douse it with acid and stretch it to its limits. Their brief but explosive back-catalogue (their one official album was titled Orgasm) is well worth exploring for anyone who likes Nuggets or Nuggets-inspired bands. Of the band's songs here, 'Jagged Time Lapse' and 'Daddy Rolling Stone' are excellent examples of what they did.

The collection then moves on to Bolan's psychedelic folk duo Tyrannosaurus Rex, and there's a lot of their daffy, airy-fairy, jingle-jangle ditties to get through, unsurprisingly since they appeared on John Peel's Top Gear show so often they might as well have lived in his studio. They even recorded a jingle for it.

There are plenty of introductions, interviews and general interjections from Peel among these tracks. Some of these are quite interesting for the view they give into Bolan and Peel's friendship, their lives at the time and the cultural milieu they mixed in (at one point Peel recounts a gig with David Bowie), but mostly he just sounds like a posh, over-serious (he doesn't like people dancing at gigs, he declares), slightly sycophantic wannabe bohemian hanging on Bolan's every nonsense lyric. It's no wonder he was so taken in by Bolan, who under his hippy man-child exterior was actually as gimlet-eyed and career-driven as the early Rolling Stones. Thank God punk came along and lightened old Peel up.

As for the Tyrannosaurus Rex tracks present, well, in isolation the likes of 'Afghan Woman' and 'Nijinsky Hind' might be pretty lovely examples of Bolan's instantly recognizable folk songwriting, but there's just so much here and most of it sounds very similar. That said, there are definite highlights in the form of 'Highways', Hot Rod Mama' (a couple of renditions) and 'Knight'. There are also better known numbers: 'Deborah' (three versions) and 'Salamanda Palaganda' are early classics in Marc's songbook, but given Tyrannosaurus Rex's very limited musical palette (acoustic guitar and bongos mostly), the versions here are almost identical to the officially released ones.

The early interviews with Bolan could be interesting but, in fact, Bolan seems quite cagey about revealing anything about himself, happy just to suck up Peel's awed adulation. Peel, for his part, mostly witters on poetry and stories in a way that's teeth-grittingly embarrassing. It's a bit difficult to believe people took all this seriously.

Where this compilation is interesting is in the way it charts Bolan's musical evolution. At the start of CD two, Brian Matthews asks if he's bothered by his band's lack of record sales. Bolan affects bohemian indifference but in actual fact you can already hear him broadening his sound on the following 'Chariots of Silk', bringing in organ and more conventional drumming. It's a hint at the hunger he shared with friend and fellow perennial also-ran Bowie, a professional and creative rivalry which would spur both of them on to grab 70s pop by the balls and make it their own.

The squalling, melodramatic guitar playing with which Bolan would become synonymous first rears its head on the ballad 'Iscariot'. Like his idol Bob Dylan, it was a clear sign that Bolan was ready to kiss the underground goodbye. However, the mainstream was not yet ready to embrace the new, poppier Tyrannosaurus Rex.

There's a funny moment when Matthews introduces the group as "progressive" and talks to Marc about recent recruit Mickey Finn, whose easy charm and heart-throb looks (in comparison with former percussionist Steve Peregrin Took's stoned style) marked another firm step on the road to Top of the Pops. The following 'Fist Heart Mighty Dawn Dart' might have a very silly name, but its funky guitar and easily discernable lyric make it the first definite T. Rex track here, and bloody awesome it is too, a genuine classic. Bolan was finally ready to boogie.

Some outrageously funky electric guitar also features on the following 'Pavilions of Sun', which heralds the first appearance of another Bolan trope: the lyric which manages to sound both sweetly hippy-dippy and bloody filthy at the same time: "Come into my garden, lady love", indeed. 'A Day Laye' is a lovely acoustic strum-along, while one of the two versions of 'By the Light of the Magical Moon' included here is arguably even better than the official version.

There's no doubt that Bolan's songwriting improved immeasurably once he stopped trying to please his chin-stroking hippy audience and let fly with his rock 'n' roll dreams, just as Bowie's did. One fancies one can detect a snide tone in Peel's voice when he introduces the new, all-electric rendition of 'By the Light of the Magical Moon', describing it as "a little rock-a-boogie opus". That kind of thing just wasn't cool in those days, maaaan.

After this, Peel describes how he and Bolan enjoy listening to old rock 'n' roll records together, which makes you wonder why he had such a problem with his friend going electric and emulating their heroes. I guess it was academic anyway, since Bolan couldn't dump him fast enough once Top of the Pops took an interest. Bolan was going to be a star and no one, not even the man who had helped him more than anyone else through the lean years, was going to hold him back.

CD three opens with 'Ride a White Swan', Bolan's first hit and a palpable light-bulb moment for him as a songwriter. The version here is a little rough 'n' ready, with no strings and too-loud bass, presumably from new recruit Steve Currie. But it's a deathless classic and its magic shines through. The following 'Jewel' features the first instance here of Bolan's trademark sexy little scream (you know what I'm talking about) as well as some excellent echo-drenched soloing.

Now he was rocking out, Bolan's acoustic numbers became fully-formed ballads. His echo-slapped vocal transforms 'Suneye' into a lovely, limpid thing. Meanwhile, the poor, compressed sound quality of 'My Baby's Like a Cloud Form' makes it sound intriguingly like a ditty from the 1920s, as if the hippy movement had happened 40 years too early.

'Funk Music' is a brief jam, the point of which seems to be to allow Bolan to pretend to be James Brown, complete with howls and "Ow!"s. It's a first hint at the Motown-inspired sound he tried to move onto after glam and which, unlike Bowie, left his fanbase largely disinterested. But in the very early 70s, Bolan found he could do no wrong, his 'Hot Love' here being an utterly gorgeous, languid stroll, quite different from its glittery single version.

CD four opens with the unmistakably oily tones of Tony Blackburn - as pure showbiz schmaltz enters Bolan's world and he embraces it utterly. 'Woodland Rock' is a strutting, turbo-charged 50s rock 'n' roll number which still pays lip-service to any lingering hippy fans with some backwards guitar in between lyrics about a girl with "legs like a rail road". Bolan knew which side his bread was buttered by now, and he had no doubt how to keep himself in cocaine and cognac.

There are still oddities. 'Seagull Woman' may just be a backing track but as a piece of instrumental music it's very lovely in its own right. 'Sailors of the Highway' is a fantastically weird sci-fi ballad in which Bolan purrs that his going to "kiss you/ and caress you/ and make you look just like me." You can almost hear the teen knicker elastic snap.

When questioned about his move from the underground to the mainstream by Keith Altham, Bolan is baldly disingenuous in claiming Tyrannosaurus Rex were never an acoustic act. However, when Altham wonders aloud if T. Rex would draw as many punters to the Royal Albert Hall now they've gone electric, he draws a richly deserved (and pretty hilarious) incredulous "Whaaaaaa-!" from Bolan. These heads just couldn't keep up and Marc was right to leave them to their Grateful Dead albums.

The versions of 'Jeepster' and 'Get It On' are both identical to the originals, to the point that I'm not sure they aren't the single versions just with Blackburn yammering over the top ('Electric Boogie' is, according to Blackburn, "calculated to make your hair curl" - 'calculated' being the operative word by this point). Bolan had found his formula and was determined to milk it for all it was worth.

There's a fun interview with Tony Norman in which Marc talks about sticking a guitar lead up his bum. Norman, though less po-faced than other interviewers on here, still patronisingly claims Bolan is "clowning around" with his glam rock. Bolan, for his part, talks about his interest in using media and keeping gig prices down, demonstrating how ahead of his time he was in a lot of ways - part punk, part new romantic, before the fact of either.

He also points out, probably for the millionth time, that he started out in a rock band, something a second Altham interview picks up on, thankfully. Exploring Marc's past makes for a much more interesting interview than the usual, "You used to be one of us and now you're a silly pop star - why?"

By the time we reach CD five, T. Rex is the biggest thing to hit UK pop since The Beatles, and 'Metal Guru' sounds justly massive and in awe of itself. However, it would be Bolan's final number one, although when we hear him ramble on to Andrew Salkey about his film Born to Boogie and working with Ringo Starr there's no hint of how swift his fall from the pinnacle will be. Salkey speaks to Bolan in polite, reverential tones. The way he pronounces and then gravely analyses 'Metal Guru' is hilarious, and to hear him pontificate creamily ("There is always a second level of meeeeaning, Marc…") is a sign that Bolan has hit such a level of success that he can insist on being taken seriously. Salkey certainly isn't about to accuse him of 'clowning around'.

While Bolan was still churning out a steady supply of instant classics such as 'The Slider' and 'Solid Gold Easy Action', there's a definite drop in quality on the likes of 'Rock On' and 'Main Man', a definite sense that pop's main man had taken his eye off the ball. By 1973's Tanx, Bolan himself had tired of the formula and tried to move into new sounds, but he discovered that the teeny-bopper fanbase he'd so assiduously cultivated had no interest in non-glam-slam Bolan boogie.

Received wisdom has it that the Bolan muse was irreversibly on the turn at this point, that he spent the remainder of his short life chasing the success he had lost. This is bollocks. Bolan left glam behind but kept on writing pop songs, many of which were stone-cold classics even if they weren't hits.

Which means that CD six is relatively stuffed with great songs. It starts with Bolan bitching about what glam has become to Annie Nightingale (and unfortunately calling Gary Glitter "beautiful, so sweet… An angel"). He sounds clear-headed and thoughtful, giving the lie to the caricature of him as a coked-up, showbiz-humping queen during this period.

We then get a recording of 'Blackjack' a song Bolan released under the pseudonym Big Carrot and didn't sing on. It's not a great song but its distinct soul stylings show clearly that he wanted to leave the glam thing behind. Unlike Bowie, whose creative sensibilities unerringly led him to the cutting edge throughout the 70s, Bolan didn't quite know how to leave the mainstream behind. He had only ever wanted to be a star, after all.

'Truck on (Tyke)' is possibly Bolan's nadir, a moderately good refrain repeated to the point of utter inanity. 'Teenage Dream', a bloody big ballad, is a little better, but you can't shake the feeling that Bolan just doesn't know where to take it.

"Wither Marc Bolan in 1974," asks Michael Wale with justification. Bolan fights a valiant rearguard action, insisting he never wanted to be a big showbiz dame, but I doubt anyone was buying it. When you're born to play a role, you can't expect to shake it off so lightly. Hidden in there, though, is a solid manifesto for pop music: bands should release more singles (a brave thing to say in the ever-so-serious mid-70s), showmanship is good, everyone should be free to wear what they want. It still holds up today.

He also says he's into "black American rock music", something made clear on 'Light of Love', which wasn't a hit but is one of the best singles he ever released. Its b-side, 'Explosive Mouth', also gets an airing and it's a wonderfully weird beast, a glam swoon shot-through with warped sax, heavy breathing and sleazy innuendo ("I wanna lay my lips on your explosive mouth!"). It's an uber-camp off-cut from Iggy Pop's The Idiot and it's amazing. 'Space Boss' is cut from similar cloth, druggy and horny with sax that sounds like it wants to hump your leg.

We also get a version of Bolan's sort-of disco number 'Dreamy Lady', which sounds very similar to the single - that is to say, awesome. He also re-imagines The Beach Boys 'Do You Wanna Dance' in a disco style, providing a weird parallel-universe version of The Ramones' garage-rock interpretation. The collection closes with a fuzzy recording of 'Celebrate Summer', Bolan's final single after he had discovered and to an extent been rehabilitated by punk. It's without doubt right up there with his best work, which only makes his death soon after even more tragic.

This compilation's major selling point is probably the dozen interviews, many of which have never been commercially available. But it's hard to believe even the most ardent fans are going to come back for those a second time. However, there are a good fistful of tracks here which make it well worth the while of anyone who loves Bolan and the magic, sexuality and glamour he injected back into pop music. Ultimately, what this collection does best is tell Bolan's story, and show that, even at his lowest, he never lost his mojo.

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