Tyrannosaurus Rex - Unicorn

by Kevin Orton Rating:9 Release Date:2015-01-26

T. Rex fans seem divided when it comes to the band's previous incarnation as the duo Tyrannosaurus Rex. True, the duo’s elfin freak-folk comes off as a bit lo-fi, loopy and twee compared to the majestic heights of Electric Warrior or Slider, but to dismiss Tyrannosaurus is to miss out on half the fun. Not to mention it’s the best way to eavesdrop on the evolution of one of rock’s major game changers.

In fact, had Electric Warrior never happened and Bolan faded into obscurity, I maintain his early stuff would still attract a revered cult status akin to the likes of Syd Barrett and The Incredible String Band. Something this series of deluxe Tyrannosaurus reissues goes out of its way to show.

Formed with percussionist Steve Peregrine Took, the duo’s extravagantly entitled first two 1968 albums (My People Were Fair etc and Prophets, Sages etc) can admittedly be rough and monotonous. Bolan’s signature warble more than a little over the top. So I understand the turn off.

Bolan and Took would soon part ways but not before laying down what is arguably the finest of the Tyrannosaurus releases, Unicorn, a loose acoustic masterpiece of florid wordplay and dizzying melody. Lyrically name-checking the likes of William Blake and Cottingly Fearies, Bolan’s vocals are a little more restrained but his charm is not.

The lilting 'Chariots of Silk' is an infectious opener with its “congested canary”, words one could use to describe Bolan’s singing style here. True, ‘Pon a Hill’ goes down best with a few tokes and a tab of acid, but with 'Seal of Seasons', you soon find yourself lost in a wood, a country mile more strange than Donovan at his most incense-and-patchouli. 'Seal of Seasons' also has some positively gorgeous harmonizing making it an album standout.

The major classic here is the infectious 'Black Cat (The Wizard’s Hat)', which is Bolan at his finest and a harbinger of what was to come. Other pre-electric Rex classics are 'She Was Born to Be My Unicorn', the haunting 'Iscariot' and 'Nijinksy Hind'.

The original album closes with a Bolan-penned short story, narrated by the late great DJ John Peel (an early champion of the band). Let’s just say it’s of its era and if music didn’t work out, maybe Bolan could have cut it as an author of children’s books.

Also included in this deluxe reissue are some essential non-album singles hinting on Bolan’s next move. The acoustic 'Pewter Suitor' is decidedly more driven than most of Unicorn and would have seriously improved the album. 'King of the Rumbling Spires' features electric guitar for the first time, laying the groundwork for Unicorn’s follow-up, A Beard of Stars.

'Spires’ b- side 'Do You Remember (Cult)' is a lost gem. Among other rare treasures are 'Once Upon a Sea of Abyssinia' and 'Demon Lover' (from 20th Century Superstar). Another treat is the 'Blessed White Apple Girl' (from Best of T. Rex). 

To cap it all off, there’s a rough, live cut of 'The Lion and the Unicorn', giving us a cinema verite glimpse of Bolan and Took back in the day. The whole deluxe package draws to a close with a revealing interview with Bolan himself.

From first cut to last, one can’t help but be drawn into Bolan’s otherworldly, Tolkien-inspired realm of damask, wizard hat and rumbling spires. Call it freak-folk or acid, psychedelic folk, this is the sound of Bolan finding his voice as a songwriter, laying down the groundwork for the phenomena that was to come. In addition, one can hear Tyrannosaurus Rex’s influence on everyone from pre-Ziggy Bowie to Guided By Voices and, most obviously, on today's Devenda Baneheart.

Love or hate it, 1969’s Unicorn signaled a decided sea-change in Bolan. It's a pivotal and transformative album. A Beard of Stars and T. Rex (both 1970) would follow, and while both amped things up a bit, they didn’t quite launch Bolan into the stratosphere. I’d argue that the foundation for what was to come was cemented here in Unicorn

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