You can hear the exact moment when Marc Bolan jumps the shark. It arrives in "Left Hand Luke and the Beggar Boys," the closing track of 1973's Tanx (the fourth T. Rex album and Bolan's eighth overall since founding Tyrannosaurus Rex in late 1967). Amid a syrupy piano and strings gospel arrangement and excruciatingly shrill female backing vocals, Bolan emits a white-soul bleat that'd make Michael Bolton cringe, effectively killing off the glam-rock monster he'd helped create. Coming on the sassy stacked heels of the three hit singles "Children of the Revolution," "Solid Gold Easy Action" and the monstrous "20th Century Boy" that immediately preceded Tanx, it's a depressing moment.
Before all that, however, was 1971's epochal, "Bang a Gong (Get It On)" spawning Electric Warrior and, in particular, 1972's flawless The Slider. On tracks such as the Phil Spector-in-glitter anthem "Metal Guru," the sinewy, thudding "Buick Mackane" and "Bang a Gong" rewrite "Telegram Sam," Bolan was as much the voice of bored, disaffected British youth as Kurt Cobain would be for another bored, disaffected generation two decades later.
Granted, the rot didn't set in immediately after Tanx (which itself was about 90 percent great how can you resist crunchers with titles like "Shock Rock" and "Born to Boogie"?). The cumbersomely-named 1974 release Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow was horridly overblown, drenched in Champagne,cocaine and yet more overwrought chick vocals, so, sensing his misstep, Bolan circled his creative wagons for both Bolan's Zip Gun (1975) and Futuristic Dragon (1976) to yield intermittently interesting platters. The former's "Light of Love" and "Solid Baby" are terminally catchy, while parts of the latter suggest Prince recast as a British glam rocker. But as Bolan died in a car crash in September of 1977, that year's Dandy in the Underworld, suffused in awkward dance-funk compositions and strewn with sappy synths, made for a sorry swan song.
Rhino's six double-disc reissues here add a wealth of bonus material, including non-LP singles and quasi-"alternate" versions (demos, outtakes, acoustic tracks) of the albums. Work in Progress, spanning 1972-77, collects 55 of Bolan's solo home and full-band demos, a must for Bolan completists. Singles A's and B's 1972-77 presents in chronological order across two CDs exactly what its title announces, and, though the aforementioned rot is subtly detectable, the wheat-to-chaff ratio remains impressive. Perhaps, then, Bolan's ultimate legacy is best judged through these three- and four-minute nuggets of pop glory.
Fred Mills writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].