Tuesday, 14 September 2010

T. REX: Electric Warrior



(#103: 18 December 1971, 6 weeks; 5 February 1972, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Mambo Sun/Cosmic Dancer/Jeepster/Monolith/Lean Woman Blues/Get It On/Planet Queen/Girl/The Motivator/Life’s A Gas/Rip Off

(Special thanks to the indefatigable David Belbin for kindly sending me a CD-R of this album’s second CD issue, and to the Camden branch of Music & Video Exchange for supplying me with an original vinyl edition, complete with the crucial inner sleeve and label designs)


The first question has to be: why the title? What are they – or, more accurately, he, or, even more accurately, s/he – fighting against? The cover, as with the record itself, is quite unlike any other number one album of this year, indeed seems diametrically opposed to all the rest of them, even though Hipgnosis designed it; the elf almost dwarfed by his amps, thrashing away at his guitar, bathed in a halo of deliberate gold. The future beckoning us with unplaceable lips and radical pixie boots. This is a new kind of electricity, and the war is being waged against certain things which have come before it, or were standing in its way.

Electric Warrior marks the point – more so than the soundalike compilations – where the British album chart caught up with pop. It provides a definitive and cocksure ending to a decidedly unsure year, while also unmasking the road shortly to be followed. However, it doesn’t quite shake its head at all of the past; in presumably purposeful contrast to the futuristic black and gold of the cover, the inner sleeve presents us with misty, pastoral, angels-in-their-hair sketches of Marc Bolan and Mickey Finn, as though it were still 1967 and the countryside; meanwhile, on one of the labels (the one not occupied by Fly Records’ sixties calligraphy), the duo appear in a field, ready to be snapped for Fabulous 208, or Look-In, or any of the teen magazines ready to take them, and Bolan in particular. Yet the record drips with words uncommon; “doth,” “perchance,” “whence” and “stars in my beard” (the latter a deliberate, door-closing reference to the Tyrannosaurus Rex days), as well as Bolan’s hair and hips, suggest a spirit whom Keats would have understood instantly. An old Romantic ready to embark on a true New Romanticism, a full decade before that term was to be traduced by some of the children and teenagers who listened to and devoured Electric Warrior (other wiser ones would subsequently remember him as the fulcrum of what would come to be known as New Pop) – but the cloudy pastoralism is balanced out, almost flattened, by the Jaguars and Cadillacs which rear and roar their carburettors throughout the record; look, Romantics, at how all the world has changed!

Of all the artists featured in TPL 1971, Bolan seemed to have the greatest urge to free himself from the sixties (although he was of course one of its most integral components); he didn’t possess autumnal regret or tints of rose for times spent and chances missed – on the contrary, he was the keenest to get on with “now,” to drag the rusty body of sixties rock and pop into something which would look like a future to those who didn’t need or want to remember the sixties (as with the teen audience who made up the broadest base of T. Rex’s fan demographic).

Certainly of all the albums featured in TPL 1971, Electric Warrior is the most sheerly playable; as with all great pop albums, one requires to play it repeatedly, in partially stunned disbelief that this is actually happening (or did happen almost forty years ago) – its swing is easy, its come-ons bursting with come. Bolan’s was a more youthful take on sex and rock than, say, Zeppelin – it is easy to forget that in fact Bolan was almost one year Plant’s senior – and one more acutely programmed to what the hips, the nascent stimuli, in his fans desired. His is a more aqueous seduction, slower, more persuasive, and ultimately far more comprehensive.

But where did that voice of his come from? “Mambo Sun” opens the record – and as a record, Warrior’s success is largely down to the studio ingenuity of producer Tony Visconti (together with his team of engineers, including future key figures such as Malcolm Cecil, Roy Thomas Baker and Martin Rushent) – with what is essentially a breakbeat; percussion, electric guitar, ‘cellos, violins and, finally, Bolan’s voice all enter separately and combine in connected universes. What is immediately remarkable is the use of space and patience – here, space is the pace. But that voice! Was there any real precedent for it? There are some clues in “Mambo Sun”; the song begins like a Kevin Ayers wet dream (“Beneath the bebop moon/I wanna croon with you”) but Bolan’s Received Pronunciation vowels conjure up the spirit of one of the original New Pop forebears, Noel Coward, even as his corn-stirring vibrato reminds us (and some in 1971 needed to be reminded) of Buddy Holly. But this is far from a straightforward seduction; he is trying to get to us (“My life’s a shadowless horse/If I can’t get across to you”), wanting to manufacture his own oceans, even referencing Marvel Comics (“On a mountain range/I’m Dr Strange for you,” with a rhetorical chord augmentation). The pining turns to panting (“Upon a savage lake,” “My wig’s all pooped for you”), and eventually Bolan breaks out of the poetry, draws a careless breath and cries “TAKE ME!” – and no one could resist or refuse as he turns on the tantric scat lantern, full of “ow!”s, “uh-uh!”s and “baby”s, Visconti’s strings rising up wistfully at the end in the manner of prototype synthesisers.

And there was also, lest we forget, Syd Barrett, who could so easily have dreamed up half the songs on the album, particularly the regenerating reincarnation cycle of “Cosmic Dancer,” wherein, ahead of acoustic guitar and lowering strings, Bolan patiently, but very unplainly, dances from womb to tomb and back again, apparently free of gravity and care (“I was dancing when I was AAAHH!”). Is twelve too late, is eight too early. There is a trace of disturbance in his “wrong to understand,” as he asks us to recognise “the fear that dwells inside a man…OHHH!” Visconti’s strings alternate between barbed wire swipes and Mantovani soothers. “Here I go again, once more…” he sings, preparing yet again to be reborn, and his “OW OWWW!” heralds a three-way dialogue between backwards guitar (that 1967 river again), backing vocals and drums, eventually resolving in trading of fours between Bolan and Bill Legend – the latter’s work is exemplary throughout the album. He can live forever if he so desires, but can he ever negate the past, least of all his own?

“Jeepster” solves that problem by joyfully lining up three decades of pop tactics and jumbling them all up into one of the greatest of all pop come-ons. Released as an unofficial single at the end of 1971, it was kept off the Christmas number one slot only by Benny Hill’s novelty hit “Ernie,” but the milkman’s strawberry yoghurts couldn’t hope to produce nearly as much cream as Bolan generates here. Immediately the stony (or Stones-y) backbeat is offset and lightened by Finn’s congas – the double-drum approach inevitably leading to thoughts of Glitterbeat and, eventually, Antmusic – and although the song is based on a mongrelisation of Howlin’ Wolf (“You’ll Be Mine”) and Roy Orbison (“You’re My Baby”), it sounds nothing like either. We are in the land of the blues but this is a different, if related, urge to that of the Wolf or Muddy, not the least because the song is repeatedly slung into a minor key by Visconti’s “I Am The Walrus” ‘cellos in each chorus. Meanwhile, Bolan merrily mixes psychedelic abstraction (“You’ve got the universe reclining in your hair”) with upfront fuck-me-nowisms (“I’ll call you Jaguar/If I may be so bold”), although he eventually hardly requires the words to spell out his intent. His gasp before the percussion/guitar break (complete with Slade-anticipating boot-stomping and sandpaper handclaps), his climactic “OWWW!,” his “Uh, uh, UHH!!”s – did Michael Jackson or Prince ever get to listen to his work at the time? Or maybe they all got the same notion from different perspectives of James Brown. Either way, note how Bolan’s guitar steadily ups the sexual ante – it’s hardly present in the early part of the song, but pours all over the latter half, and how “upon your frozen cheeks” eventually explodes into vampirism – “I’m gonna SSSSSSUCK YA!” Bolan grins, twisting the key consonant just enough to make it suggest an “F” rather than an “S” (although Greil Marcus may yet be alone in hearing “One-two-three-FUCK!” in the intro to “I Saw Her Standing There”), and abruptly one wonders why the rest of 1971 pop couldn’t harbour this kind of sensual good humour. The song thrashes orgiastically towards fadeout.

Darker clouds decorate the halls of “Monolith”; there’s a hi-hat hiss, then a guitar snarl, then – suddenly – a stately ballad, Bolan’s treated guitar striding in and out of its woods – and what is it about? Amidst all the “kingly”s and “whence”s Bolan delivers a warning that this cannot last forever: “And dressed as you are girl/In your fashions of fate/Baby it’s too late.” Part Dylan, part “Out Of Time,” part Zappa satire, even (“Lost like a lion/In the canyons of smoke – girl it’s no joke”). Flo and Eddie’s backing vocals and Visconti’s strings sound haunted; handclaps stutter out a messy ending. Don’t start creating new gods this early in the new age.

And then Bolan does Elvis, hilariously and splenetically (that “One an’ two an’ BUCKLE MAH SHOE!” intro); “Lean Woman Blues” is a great mash-up which imagines Presley kidnapped by Ken Kesey to participate in The Basement Tapes. The song is a trainee cobra bluesy crawl, slightly redolent of Zeppelin, although here Bolan is both gorged by a knife and compares himself to “a child in the sand on the beach of the land of you.” Multiple Marc guitars move out of tonality and rhythm towards the song’s end; shit, guys, when does this peyote wear off?

“Get It On” priaptically opens side two. It was their only American hit, and even there it had to be retitled, with quite magnificent meaninglessness (or anti-meaning) "Bang A Gong." But magnificent it is; the song is Bolan’s fullest realisation of a carnal pop-rock synthesis which demands (or requests) elegance rather than crude groin-thrusting. The groin does thrust and throb all the way through the song, but with so much righteous style; the 45-degree bend between the snare drum and the downward piano roll (played by an uncredited Rick Wakeman) which introduces each verse; the superb interaction between strings and baritone sax (at the record's end there's a lovely little unison line between violin and Ian McDonald’s alto and baritone saxes), the second set of drums which slink just a quarter of a beat behind the main set.

Unlike the hapless, hopeless likes of Mungo Jerry, Bolan makes sex sound sexy. I thought for several decades he was singing "cat in black, don't look back and I love you" but actually it's "clad in black." No matter; the entire song is full of these sublime hiccups of irrationality - "You got the teeth of the hydra upon you," "You've got a cloak full of eagles," "You gotta hubcap diamond star halo." Well, what words can frame deliriously wild love? "You've got the blues in your shoes and your stockings," could have come straight out of Gene Vincent, who died that year; in a not-at-all odd way, Bolan makes him live again. Not to mention the wonderful Brideshead Revisited "a"s of his pronunciations of "dance" and "chance,” or the fulsome, genuinely androgynous backing vocals of Flo and Eddie.

With this song one knew that Bolan owned 1971 and he knew it; no one else that year seems to have had the confidence to assert themselves kindly on the public by announcing "You're dirty sweet and you're my girl" other than in odious, previously noted macho ways (1971 was also the year of "She's A Lady," penned by Paul Anka and gruffed ignobly by our old friend Tom Jones; you can prod the padlocks of his zip and his distressed lady's mouth). And, at fadeout, he gives it all away; a slurred reference to Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie” and it all becomes clear; the staccato, spacious rhythms derive from Eddie Cochran, the nonchalant self-confidence from Berry himself (“Jeepster” is also a souped-up and slightly slowed-down “Maybelline”); this is rock ‘n’ roll reborn, retooled and flashing hydras of punctum everywhere it shone.

“Planet Queen,” meanwhile, could have strolled out of the Elysian fields of four summers past, particularly the sky-cracking ascending choruses (“Love is what you want/Flying saucer take me away”), although Flo and Eddie, late of the Turtles (with their own subtly undermining take on the pop song – “Elenore” for instance deconstructing itself as it goes on, and don’t underestimate the Chinese Opera strings of “You Showed Me” - still fresh in discerning minds) give their best performance on the record; as Charles Shaar Murray commented at the time, who else but members of the Mothers of Invention could deliver the line “Give me your daughter” straight-faced and mean it? In addition the “flying saucer” collides with the “Cadillac King”; the song moves up an octave for its final verse with yearning, practically starving strings, and finally Bolan cannot help but hiccup, breathe and sigh his immense sigh of cosmic relief at the song’s end.

“Girl” likewise could have come from the Tyrannosaurus songbook; a relatively straightforward acoustic ballad (at least until Bolan’s electric starts randomly cutting in) in which the singer surveys God, Boy and Girl and finds them all wanting, in different ways (“Mentally weak,” “You’re mentally dying,” “Come and be real for us” – indeed, Bolan’s electric hisses up towards fury at the climactic “OH GOD!”), although the lovely double-tracked fl├╝gelhorn improvisations of Burt Collins provide a Milesian cushion of comfort.

“The Motivator” proceeds much along the same lines as “Get It On,” albeit with a Syd Barrett remix; it bangs against currents of tambourine-driven stomp and perilous descending-string minor modulations, the orchestration highlighting the battle between the song’s two halves; on one hand, he loves fashion – no previous TPL entry has made such a fetish out of clothes – but is aware of its deadly limitations. “I love the velvet hat/You know, the one that caused a revolution” – in other words, the one Marie-Antoinette used to wear; and then there is the King’s broken crown, the golden cat in the bedroom – where does it all end (“I love the clothes you wear/They’re so mean, they’re so fine”)? The repeated descents of “Love the way you walk,” etc. appear to demand a question mark, but Bolan eventually settles for an appreciative “Walk on!” Steve Currie’s bass provides its own dubious, inventive commentary. Bolan’s guitar erupts like a coil spring (in the song’s climactic refrain), bookended by two different guitar solos, one minor and modal, the other engaged in a debate with Visconti’s pizzicato strings. Eventually a Moog and string unison take the song to its uncertain finish.

“Life’s A Gas” is the album’s simplest, shortest and most moving song, and as regretful but realistic a farewell to the sixties as Lennon’s “God.” Bolan muses about what could have been (“I could have chained your heart to a star,” “I could have built a house on the ocean,” “I could have turned you into a priestess”) but realises that dreams are just those, and what counts is the reality: “But it really doesn’t matter at all (cymbal hiss) – life’s a gas!” with that gulp which may signal either release or grief, the retrospective poignancy of Bolan’s “I hope it’s gonna last” notwithstanding. As was the message of Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia, celebrate what we are as human beings, and be happy with that…

…because if we’re not (and the agitated guitar and string figures at the end of “Life’s A Gas” give us fair warning) we get “Rip Off,” the album’s completely unexpected climax wherein Bolan upturns all our notions about T. Rex and throws them into a cauldron of shock. An autodestruct button of spleen? It starts with a breakbeat – and then Bolan raps, in an ugly, monstrous roar of a voice, over Ian McDonald’s greasy saxes. He grunts, he moans, tearing down every effigy of the past, as well as some of the present, including his own (“Terraplane Tommy wants to bang your gong it’s a RIP OFF!! Such a RIP OFF!!”). Again, more indebted to the Lennon of “Walrus” than it might wish to admit, this performance seems to subvert everything we have heard on the record, thrashing like a beaten turtle between keys C, F, G and A, between exultation and despair, nude dancing dudes or moon with a spoon – it’s all fake, you’ve been had. “Ooh my GOODNESS baby!!” Bolan squeals as the song boils over – and McDonald, formerly of King Crimson and then a member of Keith Tippett’s Centipede, breaks over a C major string drone for a free alto sax cadenza (compare with his work on the second half of side three of Centipede’s Septober Energy). Guitar feedback bubbles into the picture but both strings and McDonald then unexpectedly resolve into a troubled, extended E major – the “Day In The Life” chord, hanging there like a glittering sword; do you dare to touch it?

Yes, there was the precedent of Donovan and the singles Mickie Most and John Cameron produced for him in the folkie-discovers-sexy stakes, but as with The Queen Is Dead, Electric Warrior casts such a shadow over the peers of its time that one briefly wonders why anyone else wanted to make records. Like the Smiths’ masterpiece, it sums up its time, places pointers to a better future. On the cover Bolan looks as though he is radiating rock. His beats are slippery and deceptive, breathe along with him. The relationship of voice to string section was the best since Astral Weeks. And yes, Oscar Wilde, with that damned underworld dandyism, and the Sebastian Horsley to come – and everybody else who got turned on in 1971, at the right or sometimes the wrong age (he sings so much about clothes!), to whom Bolan was, more or less, the new Beatles, who wanted to create a future as glamorous as his promised to be – and never let the Mod factor be forgotten; Bolan was a very early heavy hit on the London Mod scene, even as a model – but think of that slow bubbling up and turnaround at the end of “Rip Off” (how many other futures did he invent with that one track? Roxy Music? Heavy metal? David Bowie – who was making similar, if subtler, moves with Hunky Dory at the time, although that record didn’t break big until post-Ziggy stardom; “The Bewley Brothers” plays like the saddest flipside “Rip Off” could ever have; but hell, doesn’t this invent Ziggy? Turning kids onto John Coltrane? Or, on a wider level, at least allowing Green Gartside or Neil Tennant to think about how they should sing, if at all?), and think of Jason Bourne rising out of that river at the end of The Bourne Ultimatum; he’s given birth to something that can’t be killed, and the glam steps to follow were built by his uniquely carnal baptism.

3 comments:

plague said...

Great review. For me, the thing that stands out about EW is its minimalism. With the exception of its final track,and perhaps a little of Cosmic Dancer (the best song on the album) all songs' arrangements leave an incredible amount of space both harmonically and rhythmically. Normally you'd only leave that amount of space for a *very* big voice, but Bolan's voice, even double-tracked, is genuinely thin, pleasant but thin. The upshot is minimalist, clean and direct - it reminds me of Kraftwerk and, even more, DAF and Robert Gorl, and also a little of the Pixies. I know that that sounds nuts, but at least for me, this aspect of EW is what makes it so precious and distinctive (I almost can't believe that EW had Visconti as producer because it *sounds* so different to me from the Bowie records of the period he did). I think you're getting at a similar point when you suggest that maybe Scritti and PSB vocals found inspiration here, but maybe I misunderstood. Anyhow, thanks again for the review. EW is a fascinating record, one that still feels fresh, notwithstanding all its influence: an amazing #1 album.

Steven Ball said...

re: packaging, the album originally also included this poster:
http://www.cameo-auctioneers.co.uk/2009-08-04/img/472-b.jpg

Marcello Carlin said...

Oh, that poster is priceless! Exact opposite of George Harrison and his darkness. Many thanks Steven!