The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: Marc Bolan in the Last Year of His Life

Barney Hoskyns

T. Rex's Marc Bolan was almost a busted flush when — in 1977, the last year of his short life — he returned with renewed punk vigor and a decent album called Dandy in the Underworld. Six months before his death, Paul Morley interviewed him for the March 19 issue of NME——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

THE SCENE: Offices somewhere in London... Marc Bolan, just returned from some tryout dates in France, professes to having a tummy bug — but in neat soft green suit he looks healthy enough... his right leg kicks out a lot, he seems more nervous than I am.

One of precious few genuine early '70s rock'n'roll stars (I can think of two others — one now a graciously indulgent semi-recluse, shades, corkscrew hair, rasp-twist; the other well into hurt-confuse manipulation). The one I mean is Bolan. If you don't think so, then you're being as bigoted as you probably think Bolan is. Ya-boo sucks to you if you agedly assumed that he was always earnestly serious.

He was a sculpted, not line-drawn, animated rock star; fluffy-cloud pretty, groovy-fun-cosmic, indulgent, arrogant, stylish, the ultimate poser, boaster, leader-onner, leader.

Almost single-handedly he filled a fairly huge gap in the blank redundant early '70s; he had assault, impact, appeal — how could any one resist him? Maybe my own continual, perhaps dramatically indiscriminate attraction has a lot to do with psychologically-meaningful-mid-sex-romance-happenings (The first rock'n'roll record I ever bought was 'Ride A White Swan'. I tripped along to see him (H-32, just 60p!) and with magical pouting punkoid panache, no doubt inherited from Bolan, picked up my first-ever girl.)

The first time I ever got laid was after a Bolan gig (she had corkscrew hair, glitter under her eyes, stars on her cheeks, satin jeans. Phewee! That was a period!).

Yeah, but there was more; his records were up-thrilling. The best derivative, unambitious, flavor-holding bubblegum rock'n'roll of all time. Plenty of fun, lotsa energy, short and sweet, crass, screaming, funny; vum, vum, vum — one after the other.

Bolan's blunt irreverence, his apparent rigid dogmaticism and occasional (people told me) paranoia didn't endear him to many. A lot were quietly — and not so quietly — glad when "circumstances" led to a fall from grace. But even when things were really down, Bolan was bubbling around, never totally out.

Right now he's crisper, cleaner more enthusiastic than he's been for a long time. He's bagged a cracking new band, he ain't drinking, he ain't drugging, he's heavily into the beaver year lark. Plus he's as upfront as ever, with better reason than in the last three of four years when things, he admits, were rough.

His heart is light, his grin permanent, and he's not even scared about putting stun-rock experts The Damned as support on his new tour.

"The Damned I like a lot. I was introduced to them because one of them had the good taste to wear a Marc Bolan T-shirt. Of those new bands who don't seem to be breaking out of their environment, I thought it'd be nice to have them on tour."

He's not scared they're gonna blast him off stage? "Naah! Not with this band."

"This Band" is the new T. Rex, consisting of Tony Newman, Herbie Flowers, (the infamous) Miller Anderson and Dino Dines. It's the only T. Rex that Bolan's been so obviously satisfied with since the basic Finn-Curry-Legend lineup.

"What happened was, I'd broken up the old band" (a ragged Cuny-Dines-Lutton-Anderson line-up that never really came together) "and I had to do a Super Sonic for 'Laser Love' and there was no group.

"So I said to Herbie and friends, 'Come along'. It was nine o'clock in the morning and we just did it, straight off, five minutes. To make the record with the old band it took a day, and though it was a great song it was a bad record. With this new lot it all went Crack! And I realized that I could record and be excited about it again.

"So I booked Air Studios that day and we cut four tracks. The new band is everything I've ever wanted.

"John's Children could have been a great group except for inexperience, and the '73 T. Rex was great on record but messy live, although it was what people wanted, what I wanted to do at the time — it was enough just to be out there...I couldn't believe it all.

"But now it's very important to get everything right. There's been a lot of preparation. I've even rehearsed this band, which I've never done before. I just played from record to record. So this new band is very solid. Everybody is proud to be in it. It's what should really have happened at the beginning...

"If I couldn't go on the road with these musicians I'd probably give up music. With this group I'd play with anyone...Stones, the Who, the Rubettes...maybe not Bruce Springsteen — I hear he's got a pretty shit-hot band. Apart from him anyone."

The making of the new album was fired wholly by the super-duper musicians who jumped to his call — he was reluctant to cut an album with the old band. It was recorded purposefully as an album, not a load of half-forgotten tracks selected from loads previously laid down and thrown together with little thought as the last few have seemed to be.

"The last two were, yeah, but there were reasons for that. American deals, things that had been left over. The last album was purely a contractual thing, plus I wasn't happy with the band.

"But the new album was cut very quickly with the new band — I wrote six tracks in the studio, and the rest had been around some time. It's a kind of cross between images and hard rock in a way that I've always wanted. It's got this amazing, very unique, odd sound. Like Electric Warrior, it sounds like a period."

Very indefinable.

"Right, the new one's like that. There's a little magic. Something was happening when we made it."

No album since The Slider (that and Warrior, two classics ignored with contemptuous snort as rock-pop-dance-fantasy albums) has been better than good. All have been patchy, with high spots sure, but some ghastly low spots.

"I just really didn't know where I wanted to go. It happens. I started out with such a definite idea of where I wanted to go; going from acoustic to electric. And then I'd done that by '73. After that I was going in certain directions but not all the way. I'd get into things that weren't particularly good for me to get into. Like Japanese Koto music — I'd hear that and want to play Japanese Koto music. I had to organize my head so that I didn't wander off, and it wasn't easy. I consider the new album the first since The Slider that I'm 100 per cent satisfied with."

The Slider was a warm, affectionate almost self-mocking album — the perfect follow-up to the crisp, precise and carefully crafted Electric Warrior. Electric Warrior was the full, urgent fruition of a gradual integration of the basic rock'n'roll sound into Bolan's work that had been gradually evolving since the coy, gloriously smothered, Spectorized Unicorn giggle, with the words as gratituously weird and soundworthy as anything before or since.

Years of confining his instinctive nature to make rock'n'roll exploded in the making of that one album — similar to the Patti Smith years that went into the making of Horses.

Warrior was hard to follow up — like Horses for Patti — but Bolan's compromise was warmth and mock and involvement, cutting continuity but not making any fresh stand. No claims to complexity, no claims to authenticity, almost a kind of conscious self-pollution that later dramatically degenerated into damagingly unconscious self-pollution.

The Slider was an understatement, a limited cultural scan but still a marvellous mix'n'match bubble rock album — like its predecessor, a masterpiece of inclusion/exclusion.

After The Slider, things got slightly eccentric. The shoddy throw-together art work of the Tanx album matched the lackadaisical low key performance. It was just product.

"Mmm, I think it was a mistake to do it in France. Very slick and tight but it lost something. Recording is what you put into it."

And not much was put into it. Tanx was the start of a decline both artistically and commercially. Bolan lost control. The next album — Zinc Alloy And The Hidden Rider Of Tomorrow (Or A Cream Cage In August) in fact started off heavily wow-don't-fret-it's-all-right, with a wrenched mover, 'Venus Loon', that should have been a single. But after that outburst there's little heart, and the one or two really excellent songs ('Loon', 'Interstellar Soul') get overwhelmed.

And while single-wise things were unflaggingly entertaining — with great send-up pulp-rock singles like 'The Groover', '20th Century Boy', 'Solid Gold Easy Action' — each one sold less than the last.

This was not important in effect, because Bolan had had his fun as superstar, but as his audience dropped away he got more and more messy head-wise.

The next album, Zip Gun, boasted some fine songs, but poor performance and bad finish. Bolan claims the split with Tony Visconti had nothing to do with its imposing claustrophobic production — "Tony hadn't worked heavily for quite a while before Zip Gun, I just really didn't know where I wanted to go" — but perhaps Bolan was relying too much on his own head when he was already a little unsure of himself, stepping out even further out onto the tightrope, and it shows.

"Musically that Zinc Alloy/Zip Gun period was really bad. I was getting really split up and things; looking back I was way off beam. I should've just retired for a couple of years. I didn't want to play. In my head I was very upset. I'd get into the studio with all the songs and I didn't want to play them. It was very strange.

"People had to put up with a lot of shit. I just didn't want to play. I'd book the studios and then just sit around."

Bolan's crack at America coincided with this dark period.

"Over here things were very organized. But in the States I didn't really play when I should have done. Electric Warrior and 'Get It On' were very big, but I waited two years. When we did play we did very well but it was all sort of two years too late.

"I guarantee" (tarumtarumtarum) "that we'll be very big this year. We got a new band, and two or three labels are interested in signing us. We're just gonna go out there like no one ever heard of me — we've had no product there for three years.

"We've still got a lot of cool over there, though. Very F.M. orientated. I never really wanted a string of American hits as I was, quite honestly, I was all booked up to be the B. C. Roller type things, and in all fairness I'd been through all that over here, enjoyed it, it'd been a groove. But I had no intention of going through it all again. Now I'm ready to go there, and do it like I always wanted to — it'll be hard, but we'll do it. We got a good sort of hardcore public over there."

Bolan's decision to release one of the all-time bad rock singles, 'Zip Gun Boogie', he regards as a calculated artistic cut-out — to end a bad patch both artistically and sales-wise with a horrendous single. Slam! Start again.

'New York City' was the comeback — a glorious single, one of my favorites of last year, a calm minimalism with cocky surety.

"Everybody said that after 'Zip Gun Boogie' it'd be really hard for me to get a hit single, but I proved them wrong. 'New York City' was a hit single."

Sadly, last year's album, Futuristic Dragon, was very limp. Bitty, uninspired, but like those other albums since The Slider, so promising, just needing some care.

"Yeah, that was bad. Bits of American and English tapes, I haven't played that for a long time."

Neither have I.

"I think from now on I'm not going to record for six months at a time. There's no point in going in the studios all the time. I've changed my whole approach...I'm gonna make sure I know exactly where I am."

He seems well in control again. The new band helped?


It's been a good thing for you?

"Oh, amazing. All my old enthusiasm's back."

Perhaps for the first time in Bolan's stage career, there's some discipline. The '72-'73 T. Rex had no fixed standards laid down; it was enough that he just walked out and did some songs (pure excitement). Later drugs and drink interfered, Wishy-washy bands and untogether repertoires spoiled the gigs — despite even the worst having that...something.

Right now he's really enjoying himself.

"We're all having great fun and wanna play together as long as possible. No Gloria; all men. New material, very little golden-oldie stuff, and those done tight, not sprawled. In fact I'm doing an electric 'Deborah', a punk 'Deborah'. It sounds like shooting a shark gun. I dunno why...sorta, 'Purk;' — Miller and I are doing a very precise guitar sound."

Your're going on stage sober?

"I don't drink at all now. Not for two months. I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't take drugs. I screw a lot."

The '72 spirit seems well returned, mixed with a studied maturity. Which has got to be a hellishly good thing. The tour with The Damned — 'Two and a half hours of Punk Funk' — has to be the tour of the year.

And he's still using the T. Rex name...

"Right, it's because I want to do a Marc Bolan album, but I don't know what it is yet. It's gonna be like nothing I've ever done before. Might be a spoken word album, it might just be me cracking eggs with loads of echo..."

© Paul Morley, 1977

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