Was this the greatest album ever made by a Jewish (or any) rock ‘n’ roll star?
Of the many memorable moments in Apple TV+’s eight-part documentary “1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything,” there’s a particular segment in Episode 3 (“Changes”) that may be my favorite.
On a drab-looking British TV chat show from 1971, adult pundits and teen guests argue over whether there should be sex education in UK schools — the kids are very much in favor of it, with one 15 year-old boy (who looks 12) specifically requesting information on various sexual positions — while their arguments are intercut with period footage of a milk pot suggestively boiling over on a stove. Through it all, T.Rex’s sultry “Mambo Sun” plays in the background like a conga-fueled call to hot hips-on-hips action.
The song is a wonderful choice for the segment, and not just because of its massively seductive groove. Fifty years ago this fall, those very same teens and many thousands of their peers would have first experienced “Mambo Sun” as the opening track of “Electric Warrior,” the album that turned T.Rex leader Marc Bolan into the biggest rock star in Britain since the Beatles, spearheaded the Glam Rock movement, and tossed a refinery’s worth of petrol on the fire of the sexually-charged teenage hysteria that Fleet Street dubbed “T.Rextasy.”
Like just about everything on “Electric Warrior” — which turns 50 this Sept. 24 — “Mambo Sun” is an intoxicating and irresistible mass of contradictions, the song’s lusty, slinky thump contrasting starkly with its lyrical flights of fancy. Bolan’s voice is a seductive whisper, but his come-ons are surreal and even cartoonish; “On a mountain range/I’m Doctor Strange/For you,” he offers at one point. And yet there’s nothing silly at all about the music, which is impeccably modulated, deeply funky and proudly redolent of the same winning bouquet of sensuality, liberation and playful menace that emanated from the best 1950s rock n’ roll.
Bolan himself was an irresistible mass of contradictions. Born Mark Feld in 1947 to a Russian-Polish Jewish father who drove a lorry and an English mother who ran a market stall, Bolan essentially willed himself to superstardom from the post-WWII rubble of London’s East End. Though he cloaked his public persona in fragrant rags of gentle Middle Earth mysticism from early on — Bolan often claimed to have lived and studied with an actual wizard for several months in 1965 — it was street-hardened resilience, total self-belief and plain old-fashioned charisma that allowed him to rebound and reverse course whenever his initial attempts at fame hit the wall.
Bolan’s unsuccessful incarnations were many, including male model, Cliff Richard-style pop idol, Dylan-esque folk singer, and a brief stint in the “Pete Townshend role” as songwriter and guitarist for destructo-mods John’s Children (he penned their freakbeat classic “Desdemona,” though his line “Lift up your skirt and fly” caused the song to be banned by the BBC), before finally finding his groove in 1967 as front-elf of psychedelic folk duo Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Tyrannosaurus Rex’s lyrical whimsy and acoustic-guitar-and-bongos presentation (topped by Bolan’s unearthly and often unintelligible warble) came on like a bonkers cross between Donovan, the Incredible String Band and a multi-speed blender, and struck a definite chord with London’s underground music scene in the immediate aftermath of the Summer of Love.
But even on their verbosely titled debut album, 1968’s “My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair… But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows,” it was clear that Bolan was drawing almost as much from Chuck Berry as he was from J.R.R. Tolkien; the titular heroine of the opening track, “Hot Rod Mama,” not only steals his cars but also swipes “my panpipes and my elixir of life pill” to boot. (Bolan wrote many songs alluding to his fascination with cars, though he would never actually learn to drive one.).
Though “fusion” meant something much different amid the musical landscape of the late 60s and early 70s, Marc Bolan’s music was all about fusing disparate and unlikely elements in a deeply personal fashion. The first four Tyrannosaurus Rex albums (all arranged and overseen by American producer Tony Visconti, Bolan’s main creative foil through 1973) saw him adding an increasing amount of doo-wop, rockabilly and Phil Spector influences to his hippy gumbo, while also cherry-picking some of the trippier elements of the Beatles and Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, and of course his favorite bits of fantasy literature. (Visconti recalled in 2007 that when they first met Bolan told him, “I want you to read ‘Lord of the Rings.’ Read this if you want to know what I’m about.”)
The fifth album, 1970s “T.Rex,” saw the duo’s newly-shortened name reflecting both a lineup change (percussionist Mickey Finn replacing talented-but-troubled multi-instrumentalist Steve Peregrine Took) and a shift to a minimalist, mutant form of electric rock n’ roll highlighted by Bolan’s chunky Les Paul rhythms, Visconti’s sweetly stabbing string arrangements, and (on one track) the cooing backing vocals of fellow Jewish rockers (and former Turtles frontmen) Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, aka “Flo & Eddie,” who Bolan had met while on tour in America.
T.Rex gave Bolan his first Top 10 success on the UK album charts, while the massive popularity of the non-LP singles that bookended its December ’70 release — “Ride a White Swan” and “Hot Love” (the latter of which topped the UK charts for six weeks in the spring of 1971) — officially heralded the end of his underground cult period and his arrival as a pop star.
Though Bolan’s musical evolution was a genuinely organic one — accusations of “selling out” from the underground crowd were wide of the mark, given that his latest, more commercially successful music really sounded like little else on the pop charts — his electric epiphany could not have been better timed. The British music charts in the months following the Beatles’ traumatic breakup seemed primarily dominated by “heavy” and “progressive” groups on one side (Black Sabbath, Free and Led Zeppelin in the former camp, Yes, Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake & Palmer in the latter) and novelty records and lightweight pop (Mungo Jerry, Rolf Harris, Edison Lighthouse, etc.) on the other.
For British kids too young to have been swept up in the heady days of Beatlemania, who wanted something more substantial than pop fluff but weren’t ready for prog-rock concept albums or heavy bummers about war, demons and clap-having jezebels, Bolan’s latest sonic incarnation (especially as manifested in his singles) was just the ticket. His music was catchy as hell, yet it also legitimately rocked; his songs were sexy without having to resort to any schoolgirl-frightening “Squeeze my lemons!” stud posturing; and his simple chording and playful, unpretentious attitude came as a welcome antidote to the beard-stroking seriousness of the prog bands.
And in March 1971, when Bolan mimed “Hot Love” on “Top of the Pops” while wearing shiny satins and a tasteful dab of glitter under each eye, it was like a bolt of Technicolor lightning exploding in a dull world of grimy denim and brown corduroy. David Bowie (a friend and rival of Bolan’s since the mid-60s), Slade, The Sweet and many others would soon ride the Glam Rock Express to Hitsville, but this was where the star-spangled train first left the station.
By this time, Bolan and Visconti were already laying the foundations for “Electric Warrior,” an album that would capitalize on T.Rex’s newfound success while also further streamlining and supercharging the sound of the band, which now officially included bassist Steve Currie and drummer Bill Legend (né Fifield) along with Finn and Bolan. Feeling that “Hot Love” had been too slick-sounding, Bolan envisioned the new album as “energy rock” — a melding of the raw, live-in-the-studio rock n’ roll excitement of Elvis Presley’s Sun sides with Bolan’s thumping guitar, Visconti’s cosmic strings and Flo & Eddie’s doo-wop harmonies. And though Bolan and Visconti had to fit the recording sessions around (and sometimes amid) T. Rex’s latest North American and UK tours, they completely and miraculously brought Bolan’s “energy rock” vision to electric life, with the band usually nailing the backing tracks in three takes or less. Though Bolan was never a top-tier guitarist like Jimmy Page or Jimi Hendrix, his terse lead licks and choogling rhythm patterns seamlessly fit the songs, while possessing an immediately identifiable sound all their own.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that Bolan was also writing some of the strongest songs of his career. “Get It On” (retitled “Bang a Gong” for the American market, so as not to confuse consumers who dug Chase’s horn-rock hit of the same name) and “Jeepster” were the album’s glorious singles, as tough and funky and endearing as anything T.Rex had previously released, but the whole album was (and remains) a total joy. “Monolith” and “The Motivator” are cut from the same slinky/sexy cloth as the aforementioned “Mambo Sun,” while “Planet Queen” offers a delicious marriage of Tyrannosaurus Rex-era whimsy and lusty T.Rex crunch. (Not only does Bolan, never one to stifle a flouncy impulse, rhyme “Planet Queen” with “perchance to dream,” but the song’s chorus of “Flying Saucer take me away/Give me your daughter” should get some kind of award for managing to be simultaneously interstellar and earthy to the nth degree.)
“Lean Woman Blues” is a pained love song with the loose feel and rootsy form of a “Blonde On Blonde” outtake, while the gorgeous and soulful “Cosmic Dancer” serves as both a Bolan origin story (“I danced myself out of the womb”) and, in light of his premature death six years later, an apt epitaph (“I danced myself into the tomb”).
The winsome tracks “Girl” and “Life’s a Gas” offer additional intriguing insight into Bolan’s state of mind in the early days of T.Rextasy; the former sounds like it’s addressed to a burned-out groupie but is most likely a warning to himself, while the latter lists the many achievements (romantic and otherwise) he could have accomplished if not for his dogged pursuit of fame, but shrugs them all off because, hey, life’s a gas. (“And I hope it’s going to last,” he adds, referring to the good times, though of course the line has taken on a chilling aspect in the wake of his unfortunate demise.)
The record finishes with “Rip Off,” a sax-fueled rant about the perils of fame and the music business, which might end things on a sour note if it didn’t also contain some of Bolan’s most knowing and hilarious couplets. (The line “I’m the King of the Highway/I’m the Queen of the Hop” is also the most succinct summation of Bolan’s bisexual image that anyone has ever written.)
Fifty years on, “Electric Warrior” still sounds fantastic. (If you’re into vinyl, I highly recommend scoring a pressing of Rhino/Reprise’s 2017 180 gram reissue, which makes you feel so present in the studio that you can practically smell Bolan’s perfumed ringlets.) It’s a testament to Visconti’s brilliance as a producer and Bolan’s vision as a bandleader that, despite the use of such “of the era” effects as flanging, backwards tapes and wah-wah pedals, the album doesn’t sound at all dated. In fact, “Electric Warrior” sounds just as fresh and vital today as the Sun Records 45s that inspired it.
Bolan would go on to make more brilliant singles and albums before dying in a car crash at the age of 29, and the case could certainly be made that “The Slider,” his 1972 follow-up to “Electric Warrior,” is an even better record. But “Warrior” remains T.Rex’s most iconic album, and not just because its Hipgnosis-designed cover — with Bolan all aglow in front of a monolithic amplifier — perfectly mirrors the music inside of it. It’s an album that has been namechecked as an influence by such disparate musicians as Johnny Thunders, Paul Weller, Bobby Gillespie, Siouxsie Sioux and Nikki Sixx, one whose influence has echoed everywhere from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” to the Sunset Strip. But no other musician has ever been able to fully recapture or replicate its remarkable mixture of rock n’ roll roots, glam rock flash, cartoonish whimsy, cosmic reach, sensuous slink and soulful introspection, and no one likely ever will. “Electric Warrior” is not just one of the greatest records ever made by a Jewish rocker; it’s one of the greatest rock albums ever made by anyone.
Dan Epstein is the Forward’s contributing music critic.