Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: Marc Bolan
Why it’s daunting: Before dying in a car crash in 1977 at the age of 29, Marc Bolan saw his band T. Rex become a one-hit wonder in America—and an iconic force in his native England. This imbalance happens often: An artist loses something in the transatlantic translation, but it does make Bolan’s proportionately large catalog intimidating to navigate. During his 12-year career as a recording artist, he released almost 20 albums in various projects and under various guises—and since his death, he’s been the subject of at least twice that many compilations, many of which scrape the bottom of Bolan’s barrel. Complicating matters further is the fact that he’s associated with a single, specific movement—glam rock—but dabbled in everything from ’60s mod to psychedelic folk to arty soul to proto-punk. Before his death, Bolan became one of the first major members of Britain’s rock royalty to openly embrace and promote punk rock. The sharp, primal riffs of T. Rex hits like “Get It On” cut through genres and eras, though, even if they help solidify an erroneous caricature of Bolan as no more than a boa-wreathed dandy who basically wrote the same song over and over, only with different dressing each time.
Possible gateway: T. Rex, The Slider
Why: The Slider came out in 1972, soon after T. Rex’s breakthrough album, 1971’s Electric Warrior. Both discs are essential, but The Slider benefits from not having an egregiously overplayed single—in Electric Warrior’s case, “Get It On” (or “Bang A Gong (Get It On),” as it was titled for the U.S. market). The album also has a cohesive atmosphere and an unhinged symbiosis—without being a concept album—that elevates its beyond a mere collection of great tracks. Snarling, seductively silly songs like “Buick Mackane” and “Metal Guru,” however, are more than able to prance and swagger on their own.
Like David Bowie’s 1972 masterpiece, the more solidly conceptual The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, The Slider features an artist becoming a mythic figure in his own meta-narrative. On The Slider, though, Bolan is flying by the seat of his glittery pants, which makes for an eye-popping, hip-grinding phantasmagoria that varies in tone from the sultry “Main Man” (in which the singer boasts in the third person, “Bolan likes to rock now / Yes he does, yes he does”) to the nursery-rhyme surrealism of “Telegram Sam”—songs that went on to influence everyone from Bauhaus to Guns N’ Roses to Devendra Banhart.
Next steps: Electric Warrior is every inch as good as The Slider, and no introduction to T. Rex—or Marc Bolan overall—would be complete without it. Besides putting T. Rex on the map in ’71, the album benefited greatly from the crisp, cleanly sculpted production of Bowie’s producer, Tony Visconti, who helped Bolan shear off the hippie trappings he’d accumulated when T. Rex was known as the folky, fantasy-steeped duo Tyrannosaurus Rex. Reborn for a new decade where sparkly majesty and fist-pumping hooks ruled, Electric Warrior classicslike the bouncy “Jeepster” and the heavier, lesser-known “Rip Off” set the tone for glam, punk, hard rock, and hair metal to follow. That said, the disc is a timeless exhibition of well-edited rock ’n’ roll excess.
Tyrannosaurus Rex was such an oddity in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the group made some of its more far-out contemporaries seem middle-of-the-road by comparison. Drawing from Donovan’s folky whimsy and Syd Barrett’s fractured free-association, the group’s best album, 1969’s Unicorn, was the last to feature ace percussionist Steve Peregrin Took, who added an organic pulse to Bolan’s unfussy acoustic guitar, trilling vibrato, and fanciful lyrics about wizards and warlords—teeming hallucinations that imagined misty Albion as a parallel, lysergic reality. It’s also a telling contrast: Bolan the cross-legged hippie busker in magician’s robes versus what he was about to become: Bolan the pouting, stack-heeled superstar.
After the triumph of Electric Warrior and The Slider, Bolan began to succumb to drugs and alcohol—an indulgence that augmented his own natural mental state, which had always leaned toward the otherworldly. But the expectations of fame, and the rapid artistic evolution of his nearest rival, Bowie, spurred Bolan to tinker with his sound beyond his creative means, leading to a slump in the mid-’70s. Amid those mediocre and compromised albums, though, are many great singles, bold experiments, and failures so epic they’re admirable. All that, and more, can be found on the 1974 T. Rex album Zinc Alloy And The Hidden Riders Of Tomorrow. Long criticized for its slickness, unevenness, and attempts to mimic Bowie’s soul-based Young Americans phase, Zinc Alloy is far better than its reputation indicates. It’s a forceful and recklessly confident album, with strong performances from Bolan’s lover and backup singer, American R&B singer Gloria Jones (of “Tainted Love” renown)—not to mention the most sprawling document of Bolan’s admittedly narrow range.
The tangle of T. Rex anthologies that have been released over the decades is staggering, and very few of the greatest-hits compilations that are available today (in physical or downloadable format) are any good—many of them being deceptively packaged collections of live tracks, alternate takes, and/or radio sessions. Two of Bolan’s greatest songs, though, weren’t originally included on any studio album: the slashing “20th Century Boy” and the dinosaur-sized “Children Of The Revolution.” Whether found on a decent best-of, as bonus tracks on an album reissue, or just as single downloads, the two songs are central to understanding the pomp, bombast, and anthemic fury of T. Rex at the height of its powers.
Where not to start: Musically, Bolan was a late bloomer. His 1974 solo album, The Beginning Of Doves, is a “lost album” of recordings from 1966 and ’67 that show the first blush of a quirky, self-mythologizing genius that had yet to develop, poised unsteadily between ’50s rock ’n’ roll and ’60s folk-rock. Chronologically, it’s his first studio album, but it’s not the best place to start with Bolan’s catalog. By the same token, his brief tenure in the ’60s mod band John’s Children—a contemporary of The Creation and The Pretty Things—trafficked in a thumping, hard-edged psychedelia that Bolan only marginally contributed to. The John’s Children single with the most striking Bolan presence is 1967’s “Desdemona,” a feral song that was banned for its suggestive lyrics (written by the future T. Rex star, though he didn’t sing the lead). His voice can be heard, distinctive and fully formed, in the background of the chorus, though, a premonition of things to come.
Bolan was experiencing a small comeback—or at least the first hint of one—when he died in ’77. Earlier that year T. Rex released Dandy In The Underworld, a chillingly prophetic title considering the tragedy that was about to occur. It’s a return to form, full of concise, punchy glam-pop gems, but it’s not the most inspired point of entry for budding Bolan fans. Nor are the albums that immediately precede it, particularly Bolan’s Zip Gun. Released in 1975 at the height of his substance-abuse troubles, it has all of the breadth of Zinc Alloy with none of the inspiration or quality control. Unlike Bowie, Bolan was not a chameleon at heart. He could only ever comfortably be his own idiosyncratic self, and his art suffered most when he pushed too hard toward contrivance. Sadly, he never had the chance to see where his muse might have taken him in the fertile periods of punk, new wave, and beyond.