Marc Bolan Interview - February 1976
Ain't No Square with my Corkscrew Hair
By Spencer Leigh
You don't have to be dead to have a hit record but it helps. Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin can tell you that. Or rather, they would if they could. Death fascinates us. Elvis Presley's record sales were astronomical in the weeks following his demise. The membership of his UK fan club soared from 15,000 to 30,000.
Rock music is a young man's world but there have been numerous deaths since the plane crash which accounted for Buddy Holly in 1959. It's travelling, not drink or drugs, that is the main killer. Plane and car crashes account for some more stars every year.
1977 was a tragic year. Elvis Presley died, a victim of his own life-style, on August 16th. He had changed the whole course of popular music and had sold more records than anybody else. But he'd never been able to make the biggest-selling single ever. That went to Bing Crosby's 'White Christmas' and ironically the Old Groaner died shortly after Elvis.
When Elvis died, Marc Bolan said "I certainly hope I don't pop off in the next few weeks as I'll only get page 3 coverage." He died a month later in a road accident. His death wasn't the lead story on 'News at Ten', but it was noticed. There was a debacle at his funeral when autograph hunters pursued the famous mourners.
The newspapers dwelt on Marc's drop in popularity, but I believe there was much unfilled potential left in him. He wasn't the kind of artist to be doing the club circuits when he was 50. He'd have found some spectacular way to be noticed. You could even imagine him masterminding the scenes at his own funeral.
Bolan was the focal point of his group, T. Rex. In the tradition of the great rock 'n' roll stars, he was a supreme poseur. He knew how to grab your attention. Glam Rock originated with him and his rouge, mascara and painted teardrops.
At the height of his fame, Marc Bolan moved to the States. He wanted to make an impact in America, and although he denied being a tax exile, such a move was financially sensible. While he was out of the UK, his record sales slumped. So much so that his tour in February 1976 was regarded as an attempt at a come-back. I saw him at Southport Theatre. The house was half-empty but enthusiasts cheered his every move. "I'm glad you've stood by me," he yelled.
Bolan had his own explanation for the missing seat-holders, "I did this tour without any publicity just to get the feel of things again. Now I want to do more live shows. I was the first artist to play Wembley and I did it twice with 20,000 there each time. I feel like doing it again and I know that they'd sell all the tickets in a day."
Bolanmania was still in evidence. A champagne bottle thrown into a dressing-room cut him on the arm. I was able to discover the pressures of being a teenage idol myself. Marc grabbed my hand and I ran with him as he made his dash from-the-theatre-to-the-coach-and-from-the-coach-to-the-hotel. He was clawed and pawed in the hotel lobby and his fans would have caught him if they'd followed him to his room. He had to wait outside the door for his key. "I wanted you to get into the coach with me because I wanted you to see what it was like. There's glamour in being on the stage but people don't appreciate how awful being famous can be. I used to have a bouncer who was a great guy but one night the fans broke his neck and his spine. Now I try to keep the fans off on my own and it's not working too well. I've got a broken rib at the moment because some guy smashed me with a rugby tackle. He wanted a piece of me and he chose my rib."
Once inside the room and settled with his girl friend Gloria Jones, Marc was calm and friendly, free from pretension and prepared to talk. "I don't mind talking to you at all. Nowadays I'd rather have a couple of drinks and a sandwich after a concert than go screwing."
And of course Bolan could choose from any number of girls. "My fans are always in the 14 to 17 age group. I never seem to get them any older. Now I want them to listen to the music and I don't try to excite them in the way that I used to. A couple of years ago I'd whip my guitar into a frenzy and almost take down my trousers to create a riot. Now I want the primal scream which is emotion. Of course they can still screw me if they want to, but don't get me wrong. I know a lot of people who want to screw 12 year olds but I'd rather have 18 year olds. My music is all about sex. 'Get It On' is a great screwing record. I bet over 20,000 kids have been conceived to that one. 'Hot Love' is another and so is 'New York City'. People write in and tell me their experiences. I think that's great. I like to think of my records being used for other purposes than listening and dancing. I think of myself as a utensil like a non-stick pan."
As we talked autograph books and programmes were being brought in for his signature. "There's a note here from a girl saying she's available. I get them all the time. I always look at what I'm signing. I've had people put cheques in front of me so I've got to be careful."
Such ingenuity was worthy of Bolan's younger self. "I was quite a villain, although I never hurt anybody. It came about because I was really into clothes, I mean, obsessionally into clothes. I was about 12 and I'd steal or hustle motorbikes to pay for them. All that mattered to me were clothes. I used to change about five times a day. It was a good thing. I was so dedicated, not like a lot of the kids today."
I looked at what Marc was wearing and commented that times had changed. "I've had this sweater since 1964. It feels good and so I don't mind if there's a hole in the elbow. It doesn't matter what you wear, although I did spend £1,000 on clothes earlier today. Katharine Hepburn is the scruffiest person I've ever met. She had on a big football shirt and old sneakers. She had her hat on back to front rather like the Dead End Kids."
Bolan's reputation as a flashy dresser started in 1962 and a single about his East End life 'London Boy' looks back to those times. 'Town' magazine featured his wardrobe ("I had 22 suits and over 50 shirts."), and this enabled him to acquire new clothes more legitimately. "I got a job modelling for John Temple. I was the cardboard cut-out that they had in every store. Their suits were terrible but the job was worth £1,000 to me. I earned in one day what my dad earned in a whole year."
Music was Bolan's other passion. At school he played with Helen Shapiro in Susie and the Hula-hoops. He practised guitar and in 1965 recorded his own composition 'The Wizard' for Decca. On release he saw that his name had been changed from Mark Feld to Marc Bowland.
Marc first tasted success when he recorded 'Desdemona' as part of John's Children. The song begging a lady to lift up her skirt and fly had restricted airplay and the controversy helped it into the charts. "John's Children was an electric group and I joined them because they needed a songwriter. You'll laugh at this but I left them because I thought that they were getting too commercial."
Marc's plans to start another group were thwarted when the record company repossessed what equipment he had. He busked in the Hyde Park Underpass with his flat-mate Steve Took. "I was really envious of Elton John. He made about 72 sides for those cheap labels. The idea was to copy the big hits of the moment like 'Signed, Sealed and Delivered' as accurately as you possibly could. Elton was brilliant at it. He could do ten a day and he'd get paid £8 for each one. I also wanted to do them but even then my voice was thought to be too distinctive. I could never impersonate anybody else. It's funny because sometimes I hear people cover songs of mine on those cheap labels and they usually do them very well."
Marc's finances were low. "I was totally broke but I was busking. I did the Electric Garden which became the Magic Garden. I worked for £5 and later £10. I was on with Pink Floyd at the time of their first hits. There would be full houses but I'd still only be getting £5."
Marc's friends included David Bowie, Cat Stevens and Roy Harper. "We all wanted success but none of us thought that this would happen. Our main influence was Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd. We used to nick songs from each other. I wrote part of David Bowie's 'Space Oddity' and it was me who suggested that he sang the song like the Bee Gees. I played on his follow-up 'The Prettiest Star' and I also wrote the middle bit. David was on 'Debora': he did the hand-clapping.
'Debora' was an early single Marc made with Steve Took as Tyrannosaurus Rex. The duo played accoustic guitars and sang quiet, mystical songs with quirky titles like 'Salamanda Palaganda' and 'She Was Born to be my Unicorn'. One album was called 'My People were Fair and had Sky in their Hair but now They're content to Wear Stars on Their Brows'. "I wasn't deliberately trying to be obscure. It's just that I think in an abstract way. I don't think like an ordinary person and I couldn't write 'I love you' or a romantic ballad. Val Doonican would have a hard time with my lyrics, although I do think I write acceptable melodies that even he could sing. Perhaps I could have made a better choice than Val Doonican as he did, after all, do Bob Lind's 'Elusive Butterfly' and that's got quite a strange lyric."
So Marc wasn't deliberately being obscure? "Not at all. My songs fit my personality and my lyrics are very important to me. Donovan has these things about 'the velvet caverns of your eardrums' but I don't think that is very stimulating. I like my songs to be durable to the ear and exciting to the mind. My lyrics always come before the music. Repetition comes into my songs a lot because I think my lyrics are so obscure that they need to be hammered home. You need to hear them eight or nine times before they start to make sense. I don't see anything wrong with that. Some artists repeat the most simple lyrics about 40 times over. Look at 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' or 'All You Need Is Love'."
Bolan's avant-garde music with Tyrannosaurus Rex was supported by the hippies, and many assumed he was into drugs. "None of the albums were written under drugs. I came into drugs very late and I never wrote under any kind of stimulant. I took acid about four times in 1970 but I didn't like it. I spiked STP and was under sedation for two weeks. I came out and wrote 'Ride a White Swan'."
Tyrannosaurus Rex were often heard on 'Top Gear', the BBC's token underground programme hosted by John Peel. "Hippies aren't consumers and the records we made didn't sell very well. I wasn't really aware of the charts but I knew that I was getting bored with the music. I was bored with not being recognised. I wanted to make an impact because there mightn't even be a world left in ten years. So I went electric for 'Ride a White Swan' and put on a string quartet. The record company didn't think that it would sell at all but I was sure it would. It did after being played to death at the Isle of Wight festival. John Peel thought we'd sold out and I can see now that he was helping himself more than us. He needed an obscure group he could use and we were that group. He didn't like 'Ride a White Swan' at all. I think he was paranoid that we would do anything that was even remotely commercial. I haven't seen him since and he certainly never plays our records now."
'Ride a White Swan', under the abbreviated name of T. Rex and with Bolan's new partner Micky Finn, reached No. 2. He added bass and drums and topped the charts with the insidious 'Hot Love'. Bolan changed from nature boy to city kid. He sang about harsh metallic objects and his music illustrated this technological change. Smash hits included 'Get It On', 'Jeepster', 'Telegram Sam', 'Metal Guru', 'Children of the Revolution' and 'Solid Gold Easy Action'. Bolan's beat made them instantly commercial. Even if his face had never been seen, I'm sure they would have sold well.
But of course Bolan reached the dizzy heights because he had the image to go with his sound. He knew how to excite a young audience. Painting his face ensured he was talked about. For the first time since the Beatles' early years, young girls had something worth screaming for. "I didn't mind the screaming at all but I hated the way the papers compared the effect I had on fans with that of Dickie Valentine and Johnnie Ray in the 1950s. Tom Jones excited an older audience and I didn't mind being compared with him. He is an amazing singer."
Bolan was in every teenage magazine. T-shirts and carrier bags showed his features. You could buy his face on a pillow-case so that your face would be next to Bolan's as you slept. A new market of teenyboppers was established and Bolan found himself competing with Gary Glitter and Slade. "What's happened to Donny Osmond and David Cassidy now? They were younger and had more teeth than me, but it was my music that the kids went crazy for. I'd be insulted if I was written off with them. I never was a puppet. There is a difference between being a teenage idol and teenybopper idol. I deserve respect. 'Ride a White Swan' was six years ago and I'm still around."
But Bolan had difficulty in spreading T. Rextasy to the States. "'Ride a White Swan' was put out in the States by Blue Thumb and it climbed to No. 60. It would have gone higher but Blue Thumb didn't have the licence to release the record. Warners did so they put it out and their single went to No. 61. 'Hot Love' took me into the Top 50. There was an American group which already had a song out called 'Get It On in the Morning' and it had been banned for being too suggestive. We therefore changed the title of 'Get It On' to 'Bang a Gong'. We sold a million but it did take the record nine months to go gold."
An artist with a young following is bound to be criticised by critics who are older. Bolan's lyrics had been criticised for their obscurity. Now he was called shallow. Marc defended himself by pulling out the lyric sheet to 'The Slider'. "No-one should say my songs are shallow. Listen to this. 'As a child I laughed a lot... now it seems I cry a lot.' That's very true. Children do cry less than men. I may be happy now but I still worry a lot. At the moment I'm worried about my son and his health. Here's another line, 'Don't leave me, baby strange.' The worst thing you can do to a person is to cripple him. Look at 'Barry Lyndon' where he goes back and shoots him in the knee-cap. Maybe Stanley Kubrick stole that idea from my song." (Let's get things in perspective. Over a hundred years ago William Makepeace Thackeray wrote the novel on which the film is based.)
Marc also laughed at the cover of 'The Slider'. "Just look at that photograph. Ringo only took four shots and they were all out of focus."
Ringo Starr had more success when it came to directing the film 'Born To Boogie'. I've got a copy at home and I run it about once a week. It was alright for its time but musically it had its faults. It's like comparing what Bob Dylan is doing now with 'Bringing it all Back Home'. The film captured the T. Rex of 1973 when I knew we couldn't operate as a small band anymore. It's a piece of histrionics that was never intended as a serious film. I don't like to say it's a fun film because the word 'fun' doesn't fit me. Let's say that it's a flippant and enjoyable film and it's a statement of the Marc Bolan who had nine No. 1 hits in a row. After the film I stopped. I'd been putting out a single every three months and I didn't put out another one for a year."
Bolan's subsequent records had a different texture. He had a fuller sound for his album 'Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow'. On 'Whatever Happened to the Teenage Dream?' he reflected on his own predicament as seen through past phases of popular music. He moved away from chart-making riffs and the conflict in his styles was resolved in his 1976 album 'Futuristic Dragon'.
'Futuristic Dragon' was Bolan at his best but his records were no longer automatic hits. A single from the album 'New York City' struggled to make the charts. It was a baffling song about a lady with a frog in her hand. What was it all about? "I was walking with David Bowie in New York City and we saw this 90 year old lady who is part of Andy Warhol's Factory and who claims to be a witch. She was walking down Park Avenue with this enormous toad in her hand. It was like something from 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs'. The lyric came to me straight away and I used a melody that I'd written for something else. I don't think I'm being obscure. I'm just a journalist for that song."
One of the delights about 'New York City' is the uncredited singing of two former members of the Turtles, Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman. The Turtles were successful in the 1960s when they recorded 'She'd Rather be with Me' and 'Elenore' very much in the mould of the Beach Boys. The group split and Howard and Mark took to accompanying Frank Zappa and recording as Ho and Eddie. They had an anarchic sense of humour and on stage they were an extraordinary sight, akin to a musical Laurel and Hardy. "They've helped me out on a lot of my records, I make them sound like they used to sound in the Turtles. I love that high sound that they can get just like the Beach Boys. They record themselves differently and go for other sounds sounds. I'm sure that is a mistake. I know I'll be recording them one day and I'll get them a hit in five minutes."
Bolan didn't have Flo and Eddie with him on his tour to promote 'Futuristic Dragon'. He had a tight six-piece band which included his long-standing bassist Steve Curry and his girlfriend Gloria Jones on keyboards. There was a huge model dragon on stage with flashing eyes and belching smoke, but Bolan had decided to concentrate on the music. He wore no make-up although he had a blond streak in his hair. He talked about the decision to include Gloria in the band. "I'm divorced and I think that Gloria has sexually excited the kids. June was like a real wife but Gloria's up there shaking her arse and that's the reality. They all know about my baby and so I'm not the poof that some of them thought. They know I'm available and they like it because I've ditched my wife."
I asked Marc about the baby. "He's four months old and I delivered him myself. He's so like me at that age and we're all Libra. Bowie called his child Zowie Bowie and so I thought I'd call mine Rolan Bolan. We take him everywhere with us but he's not with us at the moment because he's got pneumonia."
It shouldn't be thought that Gloria Jones is a passenger in the group. She's been writing and singing soul music for several years. As LaVerne Ware, she wrote 'If I Were Your Woman' for Gladys Knight and the Pips and 'Just Seven Numbers' for the Four Tops. I was treated to Marc and Gloria singing snatches of her songs. "Gloria didn't have a solo spot in the show tonight but she'll continue to make records. She's just recorded a funky version of 'Get It On'. It's not on my label. It would be bad for her to make a record and have my face on the label."
As well as producing Gloria's records, Marc had projects of his own. "I had a book of poems published called 'The Warlock of Love' some years ago. It's sold 50,000 copies and it's still selling. I've now got a book of science fiction stories ready for publication. It's called 'Wilderness of My Mind' and Ray Bradbury has already shown an interest in filming one of the stories."
Marc was also working on a film script with David Bowie. "I work so fast and I'm such a pusher. I could make ten albums a year if I was forced to. It's hard for the band to contribute because I'm offering so much. I hope that they can see that I'm not a tyrant and that I'm encouraging them to be creative."
Were there any drawbacks to working so fast?
"Yes, I buy books but I don't read them. They're not quick enough for me now." But surely Marc found time to listen to other artists? "I tend to play stuff I already know. I love old rock'n'roll records like Jerry Lee Lewis's 'Down The Line' and my all-time favourite, Elvis Presley's 'My Baby Left Me'. I don't sing the old rock'n'roll songs myself. I prefer to change the words and make new songs out of them. That's all 'Jeepster' is."
I reminded Marc of the session with Elton John and Ringo Starr in 'Born to Boogie'. "I loved the way we did 'Tutti Frutti'. Elton added a whole new thing to that song. It's given me an idea for a rock'n'roll revival show. I'd avoid the overdone things like 'Blue Suede Shoes' and 'Johnny B. Goode'. Imagine 'A Teenager in Love' with Cat Stevens, David Bowie and myself doing the three-part harmonies. I'd have Gloria and Tina Turner in there too. Something like Jackie Wilson's 'Lonely Teardrops' is far more challenging than 'Johnny B. Goode'. That's why the Band's 'Moondog Matinee' is such a good record. They worked out new approaches to the songs. I love the way they do 'The Great Pretender' and I've thought of doing it like that myself."
When Marc met other musicians, he liked jamming with them. "I don't know many rock musicians really and most of them aren't very interesting. The best thing you can do together is make music. Paul Simon and I worked on a new version of 'Anji'. Roy Wood and I wrote some songs together. Sometimes you meet people when you don't expect to. I saw Andy William on a plane and we kept looking at each other. We were thinking 'is it, isn't it?'. Then I said 'are you him?'. He said he was and we got drunk as skunks. Hess a nice man. He's not Mr. America at all. He's fighting that image."
Finally I asked Marc how living in America has changed him. "I'm no longer a vegetarian. You can't be a vegetarian in the States or you'd starve. Everything has got meat in it. I didn't object to eating animals because, given the chance, I'm sure they'd eat us. It was just that I didn't like the thought of putting something of a lower intelligence inside myself. You are what you eat and all that. However, I may have been wrong. I'm more perceptive now than when I was in a macrobiotic state. I can't explain that at all."
TO CLOSE WINDOW