T. Rex – Electric Warrior – Classic Music Review

Let’s begin the new year with a lesson to the women in the audience who have heterosexual relationships and need some tips on how to handle the inferior male half of the species. I will use a recent, real-life example to demonstrate.

When I told my dad I was going to open 2018 with a review of Electric Warrior, his response was positively apoplectic.

“I can’t believe you’re going to waste your time on that teenybopper CRAP!”

When men get angry, the worst thing a woman can do is to attempt to soothe the savage beast. It is also a mistake to try to match anger with anger, because that takes you off your game. No, the best thing to do is detach yourself from his rage and display your superior emotional intelligence.

“You sound angry.”

As expected, that made him angrier, and the sheer force of his incredulity caused his eyes to bug out. Men often have to act things out to get the fantasy of superiority out of their system. Just ride the waves.

“ANGRY? ANGRY? You’re damn right I’m angry! T. Rex was no better than The Archies. Adolescent three-chord CRAP for fourteen-year old dipshits. Bubblegum garbage!”

I let his outburst roll around my palate like cheap wine for a few moments, reflecting on his response. As is usually the case, his anger was based on a fallacy, and the obvious lack of foundation in his argument made him feel vulnerable. Men do not like displaying vulnerability, so they roar like lions to try to scare you off. Instead of running away, run towards—call him on his bullshit.

“Hold on. I remember talking to you about The Archies and asking you how the fuck “Sugar, Sugar” became the best-selling single in 1968. You weren’t angry then, so there’s got to be more to this than ‘teenybopper crap.’ ”

“MORE? MORE? You bet there’s more! I heard of them before I heard that record—the buzz from England was they were going to be The Next Beatles. I was open to the possibility of the next big thing, so I went out and bought it. What a fucking joke. Lennon and McCartney wrote better songs when they were sixteen. How dare that little prick Bolan compare himself to The Beatles!”

Now I understood. In his mind, T. Rex had dared to replace his sainted Beatles. Oh, the gall! The impertinence! Men are so attached to their childhood fantasies! And when they’re really emotional, they just make shit up to support their lame figments of imagination. It was time for me to give dear old Dad a whack upside the head with a sharp application of cold, hard truth spoken in a calm, reasonable voice.

“Dad, it wasn’t Marc Bolan’s fault that the U. K. press made a big deal out of T. Rex. They weren’t the only band who was supposed to be The Next Beatles—there was Badfinger, The Bee Gees, The Knack—shit, they even slapped that tag on Oasis.”

His eyes retreated to normal size and his shoulders slumped a little. Now he was embarrassed by his outburst. Good! When you see that, don’t go in for the kill—give the poor baby an out.

“Tell you what—read my review, listen to the album and we’ll meet for lunch to talk it over.”

His shoulders slunk another six inches and he mumbled, “All right.”

Nothin’ to it!

*****

Electric Warrior was the moment when Marc Bolan finally got his timing right . . .

He’d wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll star ever since he was a kid, rocking out to early greats like Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. He started his first band when he was nine, spent some time working as a mod model and made a demo of sorts in the style of Cliff Richard. The demo went exactly nowhere. He changed his name from Mark Feld to Toby Tyler, caught the folk music bug and started dressing like Dylan and Donovan. After failing to get any attention from EMI, he changed his name again to Marc Bolan and somehow managed to convince Decca to give him a shot. For the next several years, in various forms and configurations, he produced what some have termed “psychedelic folk” music, remaining on the distant periphery of musical stardom, despite enthusiastic support from influential BBC Radio DJ John Peel.

It wasn’t until he changed the name of the last configuration (Tyrannosaurus Rex) to the-fans-would-have-done-it-anyway moniker T. Rex that stardom seemed within reach. A single from the T. Rex album, a simple and pleasant little ditty called “Ride the White Swan” made it all the way to #2 in the U. K. A follow-up single, “Hot Love” (which really isn’t all that hot) shot to number one, stayed there for six weeks . . . and T. Rextasy was born.

Marc Bolan was as surprised as anyone that “Hot Love” made the British birds go bonkers—but he responded to market demands by increasing the supply of electric guitar-driven rock songs in his repertoire to fill what would turn out to be Electric Warrior. That is not to imply that Marc Bolan was only motivated by pecuniary considerations any more than John and Paul were when they produced hit after hit to satisfy the insatiable hunger of Beatlemaniacs. Sure, they all wanted to get rich, but validation itself is both energizing and motivating to an artist. Every artist wants to please the audience—even the Sex Pistols, who delighted fans by telling them to go fuck themselves. Marc Bolan responded to the growing clamor for T. Rex songs by channeling his schoolboy rock ‘n’ roll roots, then flavoring the music with ample sexuality and hints of titillating androgyny. His rise to stardom was also facilitated by the curious disappearance of guitar-based rock singles in 1971. I checked the 1971 UK and US charts and found only two guitar-based rock songs that made it to the Top 10 that year—-“Brown Sugar” and Dave Edmunds’ “I Hear You Knocking.” By expanding the presence of electric guitar in his music, Marc Bolan pretty much had the field to himself. Bolan also had other inherent advantages, including his diminutive stature (estimates range from 5’2″ to 5’7″), which made him adorable and accessible to teenage girls.

However, it should be pointed out that T. Rextasy was a largely British phenomenon. “Hot Love” topped out at #72 on the U.S. Billboard charts. Electric Warrior didn’t make much more of a splash, peaking at #32. Even the most iconic single from the album (“Bang a Gong (Get It On)”) barely squeaked into the Top 10. T. Rex may have been big in the Mother Country and a few other spots, but their popularity never approached the worldwide adulation heaped upon The Beatles during the Beatlemania period.

Feel better, dad?

Why did Electric Warrior get such a ho-hum reaction in the States? Since tastes in American music in the early 70’s had embraced the back-to-the-roots movement, one might have thought that an album featuring fairly straightforward, minimalistic rock ‘n’ roll would have been embraced wholeheartedly by the Americans. My gut tells me it didn’t have a fucking thing to do with the music, and everything to do with the glitter and make-up. The United States (to this day) is a very masculine society, and was even more so in the 70’s—the decade that produced a string of macho heroes like Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood and Sylvester Stallone. My dad remembers very well (because he told his elephant-brained daughter, who never forgets a thing) that Mott the Hoople was almost booed off the Winterland stage in the early 70’s by the bubbas who had come to see Joe Walsh. Even David Bowie faced the same challenge—Hunky Dory was completely ignored in the States at the time of its release, and Ziggy Stardust peaked at #75. Although Americans appeared to loosen up about guys wearing make-up in the 80’s thanks to Michael Jackson and Prince, they were black dudes, and they could get away with it because they were already outcasts in the eyes of most Americans. Gender-bending was just another charge to throw against them.

But like Bowie’s early work, Electric Warrior is more appreciated today in many quarters, even in the racist, homophobic land of the free. The minimalistic rock style foreshadowed the emergence of punk, and several artists who followed T. Rex cite Electric Warrior as a significant influence. For a brief period in the early 70’s, Marc Bolan was the keeper of the rock ‘n’ roll flame, and the songs on Electric Warrior are easy enough for any wannabe rocker to develop some chops.

“Mambo Sun” establishes the prototype: the musical pattern is repeated several times, the melody is reproduced in the guitar solo, the guitar riffs are short and to-the-point, and the sucker just keeps moving to an easy, butt-wiggling beat. Marc Bolan’s husky whisper varies only with the introduction of animalistic vocalizations that indicate a rising hard-on and a tickle in his testicles. Honestly, I don’t find Marc Bolan’s vocals sexy in the least, but I can understand how someone going through puberty might think he’s the bee’s knees. What I like about the song is the minimalism—bass, drums, guitar and not a whole lot of hoo-hah, making it a near-perfect dance tune and not a bad accompaniment to foreplay. Much of Electric Warrior lends credence to my Count Basie Theory that less is more, and “Mambo Sun” is a perfect example. The lyrics are a set of euphemistic gibberish (as are most of the songs on Electric Warrior), and while I personally prefer my sex songs and my sex talk to be fucking explicit, I can’t fault Marc Bolan for engaging in euphemism when nearly every artist I’ve reviewed has done the same. If anything, some of his sexual euphemisms (“I’ve got a powder-keg leg”) are at least original.

I don’t think I’d fuck a guy who told me he had a powder-keg leg. Sounds messy.

“Cosmic Dancer” shifts to acoustic guitar and strings, lovely backing for a gentle poem with an unusual structure: AABB, AABA, AABB, AABA, ABCD, AABA, AABA. The verses with repeating lines are structured to communicate the forward movement from birth to death; the varied lines are used to emphasize either self-doubt (“Is it strange to dance so late?”) or change in perspective (the ABCD verse). The narrator describes himself as a dancer, a figure that should be interpreted symbolically rather than literally. There are people who plod through life, and there are the more sensitive souls who dance through life, free from conventional restrictions (and who are often dismissed as weird by the plodders). The time shifts in the song are interesting, as the narrator moves in a non-linear fashion from twelve to birth to the age of eight and then into the tomb. I think the return to the past the narrator’s realization that dancing is his natural state and that all the doubts cast by the plodders will not stop the way he chooses to move through life. The ABCD verse is where we get the perspective, a reflection on the very fragile state of human existence:

Is it wrong to understand?
The fear that dwells inside a man
What’s it like to be alone?
I liken it to a balloon

“Cosmic Dancer” is really a lovely piece with an excellent string arrangement (I love the sound of sharply-bowed cellos and bowed string bass) and easily the best poetry on the album.

“Jeepster” bears a passing resemblance to Willie Dixon’s “You’ll Be Mine,” with the first couple of lines directly lifted from Howlin’ Wolf’s version. However, this is a long way from plagiarism, as Marc Bolan added a nifty descending C-B/C-A7 transition pattern between verse and chorus, then transplanted a similar pattern to the end of the chorus, this time beginning the descent from G-F# and finishing with a nice half-step flourish.

Ever wonder what the fuck a Jeepster is? Urban Dictionary has the answer:

Jeepster is a term utilized to refer an individual (primarily an adolescent or young adult male) of average or insignificant stature, who pursues the object of their affections with almost unwavering tenacity. Modern usage of the term can be delineated back to the 1970’s, where the concept was explored and popularized by the T. Rex classic with the same title. Marc Bolan expresses the predicament of pursuing a person above one’s social stature via the metaphor that is the dichotomy between automobiles, the Jeep (the average person) and the coveted Jaguar (the object of romantic affection).

Hmm. I have no idea how the Jaguar became a coveted car, since it’s legendary for breaking down with astonishing regularity, but I’ll accept the metaphor anyway. Other than the hyperbolic but somehow effective line, “You’ve got the universe reclining in your hair,” the lyrics are pretty typical I-want-you-let’s-fuck lyrics disguised in off-the-wall metaphors. Like “Mambo Sun,” the song is more about the feel than the content, but the feel is completely broken for me when Marc Bolan shifts to the vampire metaphor and commits the serious crime of overacting when he delivers the line, “And I’m gonna suck ya!” Man, if a guy snuggled up close and laid that shit on me, he’d be out a couple of testicles before his drool hit the floor! It’s too bad Bolan went there because I really like the song up to that point—but if there’s one point in Electric Warrior where my dad’s teenybopper tag applies, it’s that dreadful sucking sequence. It also blows the lower-status guy’s chances to smithereens by proving to the Jaguar that he’s a no-class adolescent not worthy of her attention.

We now shift back to the 1950’s for “Monolith,” with its “Angel Baby” chord structure. This is where Bolan’s lyrics cross the line into “exceedingly pompous gibberish”:

The throne of time
Is a kingly, a kingly thing
From whence you know
We all do begin
And dressed as you are, girl
In your fashions of fate
Baby, it’s too late

Shallow are the actions
Of the children of men
Fogged was their vision
Since the ages began
And lost like a lion
In the canyons of smoke
Girl, it’s no joke, oh no

Whence? What? The only thing that could have saved this turkey would have been a full-on doo-wop commitment like Gene Chandler did on “Duke of Earl.” The whole premise of “Duke of Earl” is even more absurd than this one, but Gene Chandler and The Dukays sell it. There are some background vocals, but nowhere near enough to exploit the song’s potential campiness. “Monolith” sounds like the pseudo-psychedelic rambling of a frustrated English major, the kind of stuff that left Marc Bolan on the periphery for too long. I classify it as pure album filler—as is “Lean Woman Blues,” with way too many grunts, gasps, snorts and odd vocalizations that fail to disguise the simple fact that T. Rex was a terrible fucking blues band.

Let’s flip it over to side two for the iconic “Bang a Gong (Get It On),” where the boys cling to their sweet spot and deliver a generally spare, disciplined performance featuring the famous muffled guitar opening, straightforward rhythm guitar fills and steady drums. Marc Bolan’s vocal is largely unintelligible, with the words “dirty” and “sweet” rising from the vocal mist—it sounds more like “dirty talk,” the slurred messages you lay on your loved one when you’re in the sexual trance. Flo and Eddie (ex-Turtles Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman) do a stand-up job with the backing vocals, and although I’d like it to be more prominent, Ian MacDonald is solid on the sax. The one huge mistake in an otherwise fine production by Tony Visconti is the insertion of orchestral strings on the chorus. What the fuck, man? I don’t want no Mantovani bullshit messin’ with my rock ‘n’ roll! Although Blondie’s live version has its own flaws, I prefer it to the original due to a combination of Debbie Harry’s sassiness and the complete absence of a string section. The downside is that Debbie does a much better job of enunciating the muddled lyrics, where we hear Marc Bolan repeating his fascination with automobiles and throwing in a hydra for good measure. If you can ignore the lyrics, shut out the strings and just think “sweet and dirty,” it’s an appealing piece of music.

I don’t know why the two early glam rock idols had a fixation with outer space, but we get Marc Bolan’s contribution to the sub-sub-sub genre with “Planet Queen.” It’s not much of a contribution—an odd stew of disconnected imagery featuring dragon heads, sacrificial daughters and more fucking automobiles—but I do like the use of crisp acoustic guitar in the mix. Still, it’s a long, long way from “Space Oddity” or “Starman.” It’s followed by “Girl,” which starts out as a reasonably nice acoustic number with a relatively strong lyrical theme involving the dichotomy between public appearance and inner mental decay . . . but the insertion of flugelhorn is both superfluous and distracting.

Next comes—wait, is this the “Bang a Gong Reprise?” Same vocal tone, same beat, same melodic pattern in the first two lines . . . wait . . . they break up the E with a shift to C/Am . . . but jeez, talk about making the formula obvious! If you’ve heard “Bang a Gong (Get It On),” you’ve heard “The Motivator.” I do like the lyrics better than “Bang a Gong” (with a few glaring exceptions—he actually uses the word “doth,” for fucketh sake), because they clearly and directly express appreciation for female beauty and style.

“Life’s a Gas” features a memorable, melodic chorus that helps you forget about the odd hyperbolic statements in the verses (“I could have loved you, girl, like a planet/I could have chained your heart to a star”). I like the downtempo, relaxed feel of the piece, though I wish they would have varied the fills more, given all the possibilities presented by the melody (the one departure from the pattern is a very messy riff in the closing moments that is completely out-of-place).

The most interesting piece on Electric Warrior is the one that doesn’t fit the pattern and calls into question the value every song that has come before it—the closing song, “Rip-Off.” Marc Bolan abandons his hoarse whisper for a relentless vocal attack that comes across as a man dying to get something off his chest after spending too much time engaging in subtleties. Backed by an energetic one-man horn section in the form of Ian MacDonald of King Crimson—who delivers a series of thrilling riffs that migrate from classic rock patterns to modern jazz—Bolan launches a full-fledged attack on a variety of cultural rip-offs, most of which involve exploiting sexual fantasies that are intertwined with pervasive feelings of sexual inadequacy:

Rocking in the nude and feeling such a dude, it’s a rip-off
Dancing in the dark with the tramps in the park, it’s a rip-off
Such a rip-off, yeah
See your baby’s stud sliding in my mud, it’s a rip-off
Bleached on the beach, I want to tickle your peach, it’s a rip-off
See the girl dance in her man-skin pants, it’s a rip-off
Terraplane Tommy wants to bang your gong, it’s a rip-off

The last line is intriguing—was Marc Bolan the character of Terraplane Tommy, implying that the “Bang a Gong” nonsense he was peddling was a rip-off? Perhaps—but only on a subliminal level. After all, when John Peel expressed his disappointment with “Bang a Gong,” Bolan cut him off in fit of pique—an excessively defensive reaction that tells me Peel hit a nerve. What I hear when comparing and contrasting “Rip-Off” with the rest of the songs on Electric Warrior is that Marc Bolan was capable of far more complex and interesting musical and lyrical ideas than he chose to realize on the bulk of this album. And while it’s not a three-chord, two-minute song, the fury in Bolan’s voice on “Rip-Off” foreshadows the vocal styles of Johnny Rotten and early Joe Strummer.

T-Rextasy lasted a few more years before fading into memory. Unlike The Beatles, Marc Bolan wasn’t successful in his attempts to move beyond the catchy tune and incorporate a broader sound palate in a way that appealed to the listening audience. He did make a promising turn towards the emerging punk scene in his waning days, and I think he might have found his niche there. Sadly, just like his hero Eddie Cochran, he died far too young in a car crash in England, leaving a legacy of influence and a whole lot of unrealized potential.

5 responses

  1. Very interesting that your dad thinks T. Rex was no better than the Archies. If I had been old enough to have opinions at that time (I was born in 1966), it’s hard to believe I would’ve thought that, but who knows? As you point out, Americans were not ready for an androgynous rock and roller back then, and it wasn’t just that. T. Rex was campy. The whole thing was kind of tongue-in-cheek, yet it was serious at the same time. He was walking a fine line there. The Brits got it, because he was one of them, but the Americans didn’t know what to make of it.

    I didn’t hear this album until I was in my thirties, and by then I was ready for it and instantly loved it. It remains a favorite to this day. When the lyrics get ridiculous, I just ignore them. “Monolith” is one of my favorite songs on the album. I love the way the music rises during each verse, complemented by those great guitar fills. There isn’t really a chorus, because there’s no need for one. It’s a simple song, but it’s unique and effective. I don’t care what kind of gibberish he is singing, I’m okay with it. I admit that the “I’m gonna suck ya!” line in “Jeepster” is pretty hard to take, though it doesn’t ruin the song for me.

    A lot of the album’s appeal is in the sound. It’s stripped-down yet still very warm. You can feel the heat coming out of all those tube amps, which is why the album cover is so perfect. I like The Slider and Tanx almost as much as Electric Warrior, but I’ve had no luck at all with the earlier or later stuff. He hit upon the perfect formula for a few years, and that was it, as far as I’m concerned.

    Thanks for the review! It was fun to read, even if you don’t like the album as much as I do.

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    1. Dad is the most mellow person I know and I thought he only got angry when watching sports on TV but apparently I stumbled across an invisible hot button. I have heard him express outrage concerning disco music, but I never knew about his T. Rex boner. He read the review, mumbled, “I guess they weren’t that bad—but they WEREN’T THE BEATLES!” so I don’t think he’s really ever going to get over it. I agree with you about the campy nature of the album, and I only wish Bolan had taken it even further in that direction. Remember, I grew up in an environment surrounded by gay males in the Castro who adored Barbra Streisand so I expect my camp to be taken to the max!

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  2. Thanks to my Mum being a big Bolan fan, T-Rex were embedded in my DNA at the earliest age, but I gotta admit, I can barely stand listening to them now save for a handful of singles, especially “Ride A White Swan” which was downright unique for its time and remains endearing. As for what followed…

    The appeal of Bolan was down to many factors – the voice, looks and tongue in cheek attitude. I’m sure when he went “glam” by dabbing glitter on his face for the first time in 1971, it was simply for a laugh but ended up resonating deeply within the British public and triggered off 2 or 3 years where others followed in his wake, making pop fun. One also has to remember that during this era, popular music was being taken very seriously whereas Bolan and co were simply saying “stuff that… let’s have some fun!” and it did get more ridiculous and campier as time went on until by 1974, everyone had enough of the nonsense and pop music fell into a ghastly coma until punk and new wave shook some life back into things again. A great many punks had been Bolan fans so Marc was able to regain some credibility in his final year thanks to that.

    OK. A couple of things in your piece. The use of strings… that was a superstition that Marc and Tony Visconti had. Visconti had added them to “Swan” and when it became a hit, it was believed to had been a good luck charm hence following singles HAD to have strings added somewhere… lest us not forget “Jeepster” was not designated as a single, was released as one without Marc’s approval causing so much displeasure that Marc went and quit the record company and formed his own. I can’t remember which single from 1972 or 1973 it was, but they did a mixdown of it then freaked out and witheld the release so Visconti could dub on a strings part to keep up the formula as he and Bolan were scared that if they didn’t have the strings, it wouldn’t be a hit.

    The fixation with outer space is easy. The moon landing of 1969 had captured the imagination of the world, so space exploration was very much in vogue. I also think Bowie and Bolan thought of themselves as being a bit otherworldly and unusual so was something they exploited to maximise their oddness. Bowie with his odd coloured eyes, penchant for dressing up, adopting personas and the whole “Spiders From Mars” he was going all out for the alien quality and for a while it did seem they had beamed in from another planet!

    As for this album, it’s a great production – Visconti got a terrific sound and holds up well today on that level, but musically and lyrically, a little goes a long way for me. I much prefer the album that preceded it and as for the ones that came after, I’d be more than happy if I never listened to them again. So, “Electric Warrior” is the moment where Marc Bolan cracked the big time, but for me, ceased to be interesting musically.

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    1. It’s curious how the moon landing sparked the imagination of the world except in the United States. Dad’s recollection is that people were proud that the US pulled it off but after that it was “Okay, what else you got?” 1969 was the year of the moon landing but also the year that the original Star Trek series was cancelled! I’m sure Vietnam and Nixon had a lot to do with their loss of interest in space, but as the USA appears more and more distant in my rear-view mirror, the more I think Americans are just fundamentally fucking weird. It’s a country that does a lot of stuff without the slightest idea why they’re doing it.

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      1. I recall reading a quote by Stewart Copeland many years ago about Americans which was rather revealing and derogatory given he’s American where he opined that Americans simply buy any rubbish that a computer tells them to buy.

        I haven’t known many Americans to have any valid opinion of my own but I do hold them responsible for giving the world some great things… and TONS of utter crap. The way American culture has been infiltrating British culture is disturbing as it’s usually the crappier parts!

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