1977 – Marc Bolan of T. Rex dies in an auto accident in London.
Marc Bolan (born Mark Feld; 30 September 1947 – 16 September 1977), was an English singer, songwriter and guitarist whose hit singles, fashion sensibilities and stage presence with T.Rex in the early 1970s helped cultivate the glam rock era and made him one of the most recognisable stars in British music of the time.
Early life and career
The son of a lorry driver, Bolan grew up in post-war Hackney in East London and later lived in Wimbledon, southwest London. He fell in love with the rock and roll of Gene Vincent and Chuck Berry at an early age and became a Mod, hanging around coffee bars such as the 2 I’s in Soho. He appeared in an episode of the television show Orlando as a Mod extra.
At the age of nine, Bolan was given his first guitar and began a skiffle band shortly after. At 15, he left school ‘by mutual consent’.
Plaque marking Marc Bolan’s childhood home, 25 Stoke Newington Common, Hackney. (November 2005)
Plaque marking Marc Bolan’s childhood home, 25 Stoke Newington Common, Hackney. (November 2005)
He briefly joined a modelling agency and became a “John Temple Boy”, appearing in a clothing catalogue for the menswear store. He was used as a model for their suits in their catalogues as well as a model for cardboard cutouts to be displayed in shop windows.
Bolan then shifted his focus back towards music and, at age 17, made an attempt to kick-start a career in the business. Sporting a denim cap and playing an acoustic guitar, he decided to try his hand at the British folk circuit. The sound resembled a Dylan/Donovan mix and his songs consisted of some Dylan covers and a few other folksy tunes. To complete the new look and sound, Mark even gave himself the new stage name Toby Tyler.
In early 1967 (after changing his name again to Marc Bolan), he joined the protopunk band John’s Children, which achieved some success as a live band but sold few records. A John’s Children single written by Marc Bolan called “Desdemona” was banned by the BBC for its line “lift up your skirt and fly”. When the band dissolved, Bolan claimed to have spent time with a wizard in Paris who allegedly gave him secret knowledge and could levitate. The time spent with him was often alluded to but remained “mythical”; in reality the wizard was probably U.S. actor Riggs O’Hara with whom Bolan made a trip to Paris in 1965. His songwriting took off and he began writing many of the neo-romantic songs that would appear on his first albums with Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Besides Berry, Bolan’s influences included Bob Dylan, Cliff Richard and Elvis Presley. Later influences included the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles and the Beach Boys.
When John’s Children collapsed (among other problems, the band were stunned to discover their equipment stolen from a studio, according to a Bolan biographer), Bolan and Steve Peregrin Took created Tyrannosaurus Rex, a psychedelic-folk rock acoustic duo, playing Bolan’s songs, with Took playing assorted hand and kit percussion and occasional bass to Bolan’s acoustic guitars and voice.
This version of Tyrannosaurus Rex released three albums and four singles, flirting with the charts, getting as high as number fifteen and getting airplay and support from Radio 1 DJ John Peel. One of the highlights of this era was playing at the first free Hyde Park concert in 1968. Drug-taking and free spirited Took was fired from the group after their first American tour. A rock and roller at heart, Bolan began bringing amplified guitar lines into the duo’s music, buying a vintage Gibson Les Paul guitar (later featured on the cover of the album T. Rex in 1970). After replacing Took with Mickey Finn, he let the electric influences come forward even further on A Beard of Stars, the final album to be credited to Tyrannosaurus Rex. It closed with a song, Elemental Child, featuring a long electric guitar break influenced by Jimi Hendrix.
Then Bolan—by now married to his girlfriend June Child (a former secretary to the manager of another of his heroes, Syd Barrett)—shortened the group’s name to T. Rex and wrote and recorded Ride A White Swan, dominated by a rolling, hand clapping back-beat, Bolan’s electric guitar and Finn’s percussion.
T. Rex and glam rock
Bolan and his producer Tony Visconti sorted out the session for “Ride a White Swan” and the single changed Bolan’s career almost overnight. Recorded on 1 July 1970 and released later that year, making slow progress in the UK Top 40, it finally peaked in early 1971 at No.2. Bolan and Visconti largely (and, in many ways, unwittingly) invented the style that would become glam rock and helped restore a brash and exciting feel, when rock bands had grown increasingly self-important.
Bolan took to wearing top hats and feather boas on stage as well as putting drops of glitter on each of his cheekbones. Stories are conflicting about his inspiration for this—some say it was initially introduced by his PA, the late Chelita Secunda, although Bolan told John Pidgeon in a 1974 interview on Radio 1 that he noticed the glitter on his wife’s dressing table prior to a photo session and just casually daubed some on his face there and then. Other performers—and their fans—soon took up variations on the idea.
The glam era also saw the rise of Bolan’s friend David Bowie, whom Bolan had come to know in the underground days (Bolan had played guitar on Bowie’s 1970 single ‘Prettiest Star’). Before long, even Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart and Grand Funk Railroad dabbed on a little glitter.
Bolan followed “Ride a White Swan” and T. Rex by expanding the group to a quartet with bassist Steve Currie and drummer Bill Legend, and cutting a five-minute single, “Hot Love”, with a rollicking rhythm, string accents and an extended singalong chorus inspired somewhat by the Beatles’s “Hey Jude”. It was No.1 for six weeks and was quickly followed by “Get It On”, a grittier, more adult tune that spent four weeks in the top spot. The song was renamed “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” when released in the United States, to avoid confusion with another song of the same name by the American band Chase. The song reached No.10 in the States in early 1972, the only such American hit T. Rex would enjoy.
In November 1971, the band’s record label, Fly, released the Electric Warrior track “Jeepster” without Bolan’s permission. Outraged, Bolan took advantage of the timely lapsing of his Fly Records contract and left to EMI, who gave him his own record label, the T. Rex Wax Co. Its bag and label featured an iconic head-and-shoulders image of Bolan. Despite Bolan’s lack of endorsement, “Jeepster” still peaked at No.2.
In 1972, Bolan achieved two more British No.1s with “Telegram Sam” and “Metal Guru” — the latter of which stopped Elton John getting to the top with “Rocket Man” — and two more No.2s in “Children Of The Revolution” and “Solid Gold Easy Action”. The total of four No.2 singles particularly galled his fans as three were held off the top spot by ‘novelty’ singles recorded by Clive Dunn, Benny Hill and little Jimmy Osmond. In the same year he appeared in Ringo Starr’s film Born to Boogie, a documentary showing a concert at Wembley Empire Pool on 18 March 1972. Mixed in were surreal scenes shot at John Lennon’s mansion in Ascot and a super-session with T. Rex joined by Ringo Starr on second drum kit and Elton John on piano. At this time T. Rex record sales accounted for about 6 percent of total British domestic record sales. The band was reportedly selling 100,000 records a day; however, no T. Rex single ever became a million-seller in the UK, despite many gold discs and an average of four weeks at the top per No.1 hit. (Documentation of actual sales has been lost.)
In 1973, Bolan played twin lead guitar alongside his friend Jeff Lynne on the Electric Light Orchestra songs “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle” and “Dreaming of 4000” (originally uncredited) from On the Third Day, as well as on “Everyone’s Born To Die”, which was not released at the time but appears as a bonus track on the 2006 remaster.
By 1973, his star gradually began to wane, even though he achieved a Number 3 hit, “20th Century Boy”. “The Groover” followed it to No.4, to become arguably Bolan’s last hit of significance. However “Teenage Dream” from the 1974 album Zinc Alloy And The Hidden Riders of Tomorrow showed that Bolan was attempting to create richer, more involved music than he had previously attempted with T.Rex. He expanded the line up of the band to include a second guitarist, Jack Green, and other studio musicians and began to take more control over the sound and production of his records.
In 1974, Bolan played guitar for Ike and Tina Turner. He appeared on Nutbush City Limits, Sexy Ida (Part II), and Baby Get It On. Tina Turner confirmed this in a BBC radio one interview.
Eventually, the vintage T. Rex line-up disintegrated. Legend left in 1973 and Finn in 1975 and Bolan’s marriage came to an end. He began a relationship with backing singer Gloria Jones and spent a good deal of his time in the U.S. for much of the next three years, continuing to release singles and albums which, while less popular to the masses, were full of unusual lyrics and sometimes eccentric musical experiments. Although Bolan’s health began to fail as he put on weight and became addicted to cocaine, the former glam rock icon continued working, producing at least one UK chart hit every year until his death in 1977.
Gloria Jones gave birth to Bolan’s son in September 1975, whom they named Rolan Bolan (although his birth certificate lists him as ‘Rolan Seymour Feld’; compare David Bowie’s son Zowie Bowie). That same year, Bolan returned to the UK from tax exile in the U.S. and Monaco and to the public eye with a low-key tour. Bolan made regular appearances on the LWT pop show Supersonic, directed by his old friend Mike Mansfield and released a succession of singles, but he never regained the success of his glory days of the early 1970s. The last remaining member of Bolan’s halcyon era T. Rex, Currie, left the group in 1976.
In 1977, Granada Television commissioned Bolan to front a six-part series called Marc, where he introduced new and established bands and performed his own songs. Around this time Bolan lost weight, appearing nearly as trim as he had during T. Rex’s earlier heyday. The show was broadcast during the post-school half-hour on ITV earmarked for children and teenagers; it was a big success. The last episode featured a unique Bolan duet with David Bowie.
Bolan got a new band together and set out on a fresh UK tour, taking along punk band The Damned as support to entice a young audience who did not remember his heyday.
Bolan’s shrine, on what would have been his 60th birthday, 30 September 2007.
Bolan’s shrine, on what would have been his 60th birthday, 30 September 2007.
Bolan died on 16 September 1977, two weeks before his 30th birthday. He was a passenger in a purple Mini 1275GT (registration FOX 661L) driven by Gloria Jones as they headed home from Mortons drinking club and restaurant in Berkeley Square. Jones lost control of the speeding car and it struck a sycamore tree after failing to negotiate a small humpback bridge near Gipsy Lane on Queens Ride, Barnes, southwest London. Bolan died instantly, while Jones suffered a broken arm and broken jaw and spent a short time in hospital. Neither were wearing seat belts. Bolan’s home, which was less than a mile away at 142 Upper Richmond Road West in East Sheen, was immediately looted.
At Bolan’s funeral, attended by the likes of David Bowie and Rod Stewart, a swan-shaped floral tribute was displayed outside the service in recognition of his breakthrough hit single. His funeral service was at Golders Green Synagogue (reflecting his paternal Jewish heritage – Bolan himself stated that he was Jewish although his mother was Christian and therefore the marriage was considered Gentile); his ashes were buried at Golders Green Crematorium.
Bolan never learned to drive, fearing a premature death. Despite this fear, cars or automotive components are at least mentioned in, if not the subject of, many of his songs. He also owned a number of vehicles, including a famed white Rolls Royce, which had been loaned by his management to Hawkwind on the night of his death.
From the very day of the accident the site became a place of pilgrimage to Bolan fans and this was reported in newspapers from 1979 onwards. Since 1999 it has been cared for on a charity basis by TAG (T-Rex Action Group).
In December 1980, “Telegram Sam” was the fourth single released by British gothic rock band Bauhaus. The A side is a cover of T.Rex’s song of the same name. It was released in 7 and 12 inch format, the latter featuring “Rosegarden Funeral of Sores” as an extra track.The Bongos were the first American group to cover a T.Rex tune, “Mambo Sun” and enter the Billboard charts. Since then, Bongos frontman Richard Barone has recorded several other Bolan compositions, is working with producer Tony Visconti for his forthcoming solo album and has himself produced tracks for Bolan’s son Rolan Bolan.
In 1985, Duran Duran splinter band Power Station, with Robert Palmer as vocalist, took a version of “Get It On” into the UK Top 40, the first cover of a Bolan song to enter the charts since his death. They also performed the tune (with Michael Des Barres replacing Palmer) at the U.S. Live Aid concert.
In 1990, Baby Ford did a cover of “Children of the Revolution” that appeared on the album “Oooh, The World of Baby Ford”
“Children Of The Revolution” was similarly performed by Elton John and Pete Doherty at Live 8, 20 years later. Bono and Gavin Friday cover “Children of the Revolution” on the Moulin Rouge! soundtrack.
“20th Century Boy” introduced a new generation of devotees to Bolan’s work in 1991 when it was featured on a Levi’s jeans TV commercial featuring Brad Pitt, and was re-released, reaching the UK Top 20. The song was performed by the fictional band The Flaming Creatures in the 1998 film Velvet Goldmine. In every decade since his death, Bolan has placed a greatest hits compilation in the top 20 UK albums and periodic boosts in sales have come via cover versions from artists inspired by Bolan, including Morrissey and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Similarly, “I Love to Boogie” was briefly used on an advert for Robinson’s soft drink in 2001, bringing Bolan’s music to a new generation. Mitsubishi also featured “20th Century Boy” in a 2002 car commercial, prompting Hip-O Records to release a best-of collection CD titled 20th Century Boy: The Ultimate Collection.
His music is still widely used in films, recent notable cases being Death Proof, Lords of Dogtown, Billy Elliot, Jarhead, Moulin Rouge, Herbie: Fully Loaded, Breaking-Up, Hot Fuzz, Click, School of Rock & Meet the Fockers where “Get It On” is the loud soundtrack during the American football game between the characters played by Robert de Niro and Dustin Hoffmann. Bolan is still cited by many guitar-centric bands as a huge influence (Joy Division/New Order’s Bernard Sumner has said that the first single he owned was “Ride a White Swan”.) However, he always maintained he was a poet who put lyrics to music. The tunes were never as important as the words.
“Bolan used to hang around in our office and sit on the floor, strumming his guitar, flirting with our secretary, June, who, of course, he later married. He was a great Syd fan. I was quite fond of him. He was a big pain in the arse, of course, very full of himself. I always liked that thing where he called himself the Bolan child, this magical, mythical name. It was really from his doorbell in Ladbroke Grove. It had his name and our secretary’s surname, Child, so it read Bolan Child and fans used to think, wow, he is the Bolan Child!” – Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour.
An altogether less welcome legacy for his friends and family is the ongoing row about his fortune. Bolan had arranged a discretionary trust to safeguard his money. His death left the fortune beyond the reach of those closest to him and both his family and journalists have taken an active interest in investigating the situation, so far with little result other than bringing the story to wider attention. A small, separate Jersey-based trust fund has allowed his son to receive some income. However, the bulk of Bolan’s fortune, variously estimated at between £20 and £30 million pounds (approx $38 – $57 million), remains in trust. It is believed that Rolan Bolan is now benefitting directly from the main trust (as of 2007).
Bolan returned to the top of the UK charts in 2005 when the remastered, expanded Born to Boogie DVD hit No.1 in the Music DVD charts.
Steve Kilbey – a self-confessed Marc Bolan fan and singer for renowned Australian art-rock group The Church – performed Bolan’s “One Inch Rock” on the Steve Kilbey Live DVD, released in January 2008.
In 2006, it was revealed that English Heritage had refused to commission a blue plaque to commemorate Bolan, as they believed him to be of “insufficient stature or historical significance”. There is, however, an existing plaque dedicated to Bolan at his childhood home, put there by Hackney Council.
There are also two plaques dedicated to his memory at Golders Green Crematorium in North London. The second one to be displayed was placed there by the official Marc Bolan fan club and fellow fans in September 2002, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his passing. The inscription on the stone, which also bears his image, reads ’25 years on – his light of love still shines brightly’. Placed beneath the plaque there is an appropriate ceramic figure of a white swan.
In 2006 TV series Life on Mars, an actor portrays Marc Bolan, circa 1973, in a bar in Manchester. Time travelling Sam Tyler recognizes him, has a fan boy moment, and warns him to be careful of riding in Minis.
Bolan’s famous guitar, a Gibson Flying V, recently turned up on Antiques Roadshow in the hands of a private collector. The appraiser estimated the value of the guitar to be approximately £50,000-60,000.
* The Wizard/Beyond The Rising Sun. Decca F 12288 11/65.
* The Third Degree/San Francisco Poet. Decca F 12413 6/66.
* Hippy Gumbo/Misfit. Parlophone R 5539 12/66.
* May 1967. Desdemona/Remember Thomas A Beckett. Track 604 003.
* July ’67. Midsummer’s Night Scene/Sara Crazy Child.
* Aug.1967. Come And Play With Me In The Garden/Sara Crazy Child. Track 604 005.
* April’68. Debora/Child Star.(34). Regal Zono RZ 3008.
* Aug.1968. One Inch Rock/Salamada Palaganda.(28). Regal Zono RZ 3011.
* Jan.1969. Pewtor Suitor/Warlord Of The Royal Crocodiles. Regal Zono RZ 3016.
* July ’69. King Of The Rumbling Spires/Do You Remember.(44). Regal Zono RZ 3022.
* Jan.1970. By The Light Of A Magical Moon/Find A Little Wood. Regal Zono RZ 3025.
* March’70. Debora/One Inch Rock/Woodland Bop/Seal Of Seasons.(7). Magnifly ECHO 102.
Dib Cochran And The Earwigs:
* 1970. Oh Baby/Universal Love. Bell 1121.
* Oct.1970. Ride A White Swan/Is It Love/Summertime Blues. Fly BUG 1.
* Feb.1971. Hot Love/Woodland Rock/King Of The Mountain Cometh. Fly BUG 6.
* July ’71. Get It On/There Was A Time/Raw Ramp. Fly BUG 10.
* Nov.1971. Jeepster/Life’s A Gas. Fly BUG 16.
* Jan.1972. Telegram Sam/Cadillac/Baby Strange. T.Rex Wax 101.
* May 1972. Metal Guru/Thunderwing/Lady. EMI Marc 1.
* Sept.’72. Children Of The Revolution/Jitterbug Love/Sunken Rags. EMI Marc 2.
* Dec.1972. Solid Gold Easy Action/Born To Boogie. EMI Marc 3.
* March’73. 20th Century Boy/Free Angel. EMI Marc 4.
* June ’73. The Groover/Midnight. EMI Marc 5.
* Aug.1973. Blackjack/Squint Eye Mangle. EMI 2047.
* Nov.1973. Truck On (Tyke)/Sitting Here.(12). EMI Marc 6.
* Jan.1974. Teenage Dream/Satisfaction Pony.(13). EMI Marc 7.
* June ’74. Jasper C. Debussy/Hippy Gumbo/The Perfumed Garden Of Gulliver Smith. Track 2094 013.
* July ’74. Light Of Love/Explosive Mouth.(22). EMI Marc 8.
* Nov.1974. Zip Gun Boogie/Space Boogie.(41). EMI Marc 9.
* July ’75. New York City/Chrome Sitar.(15). EMI Marc 10.
* Sept.’75. Dreamy Lady/Do You Wanna Dance/Dock Of The Bay.(30). EMI Marc 11.
* Nov.1975. Christmas Bop/Telegram Sam/Metal Guru.(Scheduled for release but cancelled). EMI Marc 12.
* Feb.1976. London Boys/Soul Baby.(40). EMI Marc 13.
* April’76. Hot Love/Get It On. Cube BUG 66.
* June ’76. I Love To Boogie/Baby Boomerang.(13). EMI Marc 14.
* Sept.’76. Laser Love/Life’s An Elevator.(41). EMI Marc 15.
Marc Bolan and Gloria Jones:
* Jan.1977. To Know Him Is To Love Him/City Port. EMI 2572.
* March’77. The Soul Of My Suit/All Alone.(42). EMI Marc 16.
* May 1977. Dandy In The Underworld/Groove A Little/Tame My Tiger. EMI Marc 17.
* Aug.1977. Celebrate Summer/Ride My Wheels. EMI Marc 18.