So obscure, yet so influential

25 years later, T. Rex, Marc Bolan still turn up in films, ads, music

Pop Music

August 04, 2002|By Tom Moon | Tom Moon,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Forget about the Mitsubishi Montero ad and that preposterous Ragu spot. The fact that cable's TNT used "Bang a Gong" during the NBA playoffs. And all the movie soundtrack appearances: Moulin Rouge, The Truman Show, Velvet Goldmine and Billy Elliot, which featured five T. Rex tunes.

Even without all that, we're having a T. Rex moment.

The English band of the 1970s, led by singer and songwriter Marc Bolan, had exactly one U.S. Top 10 hit ("Bang a Gong" - or "Get It On" as it was known everywhere else) and one album considered by critics of the era to be truly memorable (1971's Electric Warrior).

But somehow T. Rex - whose retrospective 20th Century Boy: The Ultimate Collection (Hip-O/Universal) will be out on Aug. 23 to mark the 25th anniversary of Bolan's death on Sept. 16 - now looms as one of the most influential outfits ever to languish in obscurity.

This is the band that taught David Bowie how to be glam, helped hard-rock bands get in touch with their inner Druid, presaged the attitude of punk, found new ways to tap the emotional reservoirs of the blues and boogie, and used strings as more than just window dressing. T. Rex's irreverent smushing of the lewd and the high-minded, the staccato guitar riff and the transcendent melody, looked boldly forward to what would become entire rock subgenres.

All across the garage-rock universe, it's impossible to miss the influence of T. Rex. Close your eyes at a Strokes show and you can sense Bolan's ghost in hooks that are earthy, sexy and slightly psychedelic. Same thingwith scores of other bands, from the Vines to Marah to a hell-raising new Swedish band, Division of Laura Lee. That big choir and wall of sound - from producer Tony Visconti, who became Bowie's sound-shaper - remains an ideal. Bowie chases it again on his recent release Heathens, which reteams him with Visconti.

Bolan's lyrical approach, which used outlandish imagery and wordplay that didn't always make linear sense, is returning as well: The Red Hot Chili Peppers' new By the Way contains several songs that bear the imprint of the underground legend with the corkscrew hair and the netherworld whisper.

"It's weird to me," says Rolan Bolan, who was 2 when his father died, is now pursuing a career making soul-inflected rock in L.A., and in September will participate in a series of British events in memory of his father. "At the time he was making records, people in the U.S. didn't know him, really. ... But they're getting curious now. People are realizing there's a lot to discover on those records."

Rolan Bolan - whose mother, soul singer Gloria Jones, was at the wheel and injured in the car crash that killed his dad - says his father had very clear ideas about his music. "Sometimes it sounds like there's not much going on, the chords and harmonies are very simple. ... [But] they're really playing hard. There's a real tribal energy, with the congas and everything. A lot of these things were recorded live in the studio, and you can hear it."

Unlike other hitmakers, who would sequester themselves for years between records, his father wrote and recorded no matter where he was. He would come up with an idea, Rolan says, then grab his musicians and work out the details.

"I know with `Get It On,' he sat with the drummer in a hotel room when they were on the road. All they had was a snare drum. ... He would teach them the song one night and record it the next day. He wanted the moment. He wouldn't let anyone think too much about it. That's why I think the songs sound so fresh still."

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