Tuesday, 30 November 2010

TYRANNOSAURUS REX: Prophets, Seers & Sages The Angels Of The Ages/My People Were Fair And Had Sky In Their Hair...But Now They’re Content To Wear...

(#110: 6 May 1972, 1 week)

Track listings:

Prophets, Seers & Sages...: Deboraarobed/Stacey Grove/Wind Quartets/Conesuala/Trelawney Lawn/Aznageel The Mage/Salamanda Palaganda/Our Wonderful Brownskin Man/O Harley (The Saltimbaques)/Eastern Spell/The Travelling Tragition/Juniper Suction/Scenescof Dynasty

My People Were Fair And Had Sky In Their Hair...But Now They're Content To Wear Stars On Their Brows (to give the record's full title; the combined total must constitute the longest title of any number one album): Hot Rod Mama/Scenescof/Child Star/Strange Orchestras/Chateau In Virginia Waters/Dwarfish Trumpet Blues/Mustang Ford/Afghan Woman/Knight/Graceful Fat Sheba/Weilder Of Words/Frowning Atahuallpa (My Inca Love)

(Author’s Note: The estimable marketing people present at Fly Records in 1972 appear to have packaged this budget double reissue in such a rudimentary fashion that the two albums are listed and sleeved in reverse chronological order; for the sake of my and your sanity, I am addressing the records in the order in which they were conceived, recorded and released, even though only three months separate the two)

By 1972 Marc Bolan had decamped to EMI, complete with his own label, The T Rex Wax Co, and his former record company, Fly, were determined to milk his back catalogue as shamelessly as anyone did that side of Silvertone Records and the Stone Roses, and incidentally remind Bolan’s new, younger army of fans that he didn’t spring from nowhere. Thus the first two Tyrannosaurus Rex albums – originally released in July and October of 1968 respectively – reappeared in the spring of 1972 as a two-for-the-price-of-one package and sprang straight to the top. Even given that the proverbial telephone directory recitation would probably have got Bolan to number one at that stage, the reissue’s utilitarian packaging does lend a soupçon of nostalgia for a time when (as previously mentioned in this tale) reissued records were simply reissued records, without re-contextualising in the form of learned sleevenotes, retrospective hindsight-aided commentary from surviving parties involved and/or rare photographs (as per the admittedly excellent Universal 2004 CD repackagings). You were expected to take returning records at face value and make your own decision about them.

And what must Marc’s screaming fourteen-year-old female fans have made of this artefact from a past which, although only half a decade ago, already seemed to some as remote as Beowulf? Well, after listening to it, I can immediately think of one fourteen-year-old girl in Kent who would have absorbed the music and poetry, and understood (see, for starters, entry #237). But the questions which both records raise overrun any antique curiosity approach.

For instance, the blueprint for what Tyrannosaurus Rex would eventually become is loud and present on the opening track of each side of their debut; “Hot Rod Mama” and “Mustang Ford.” Both rockers, and rocking as feverishly as anyone or anything without ready resort to an electricity supply could have managed in early ’68, “Hot Rod Mama” in particular is a brain-boggling opener, beginning with guitar, bongos and Chinese gong hammered as though the junior Sonic Youth were busy warming up and moving straight into a frantic 12-bar blues-folk strum. Bolan’s wall of acoustic guitars, careering in and out of tonality, creates its own feedback, while Steve Peregrine Took’s Chinese gong effectively gives the go-ahead to the Jesus and Mary Chain. Through all of this Bolan is singing, screeching, hiccuping...what? It doesn’t particularly matter; at this early stage he was already talking about the sound (and the grain) of his voice exceeding whatever flung-together bits of Tolkien, Hindu, Inca and Aztec mythology, Lear, Ginsberg, Dylan, Anthony Burgess and Spike Milligan were emanating from it. John Peel, then his great friend and most fervent promoter, once (fondly) spoke of Bolan’s lyrical approach as “a ratatouille of notions” and that seems a fair enough summary to excuse any in-depth examination of the lyrics to these twenty-six songs; again and again, I was drawn to the entrancing power and mischief of Bolan’s voice above and beyond what vowels it was garbling up, although I note the return of the Old English good manners here and there – the purring “it was grand” which materialises in the middle of “Scenescof,” for example; this latter track being more considered than “Hot Rod” but still diverted into unexpected directions with the duo’s multitracked wordless frat backing vocals (sounding exactly like Flo and Eddie).

And so it proceeds. “Child Star” speaks wistfully of Mozart, Beethoven and waste as it slows down and speeds up pretty much at will, Bolan’s single-note Robert Johnson guitar quivers unresolving into drenching noise. The Eastern drift of the duo’s approach begins to become really apparent here – it makes perfect sense that the disillusioned Mod that was late sixties Bolan should be recharged by seeing Ravi Shankar perform. “Strange Orchestras” is more of the same, albeit more frantic, sounding like a hobbit jug band with Took’s mysterious “Pixiephone” belches and Bolan’s boozy roar of “Ya-HEY!” upending any notion of comforting tofu cushions.

Finally, on “Chateau,” we get the first real template for Bolan’s later ballad approach, although its chord changes are reassuringly unpredictable; but then the texture thickens and as the instruments (and remember, this is an essentially acoustic recording) multiply out of rational recognition and the tonalities waver like the mutinous Shannon, we are presented with nothing less than yet another signpost to My Bloody Valentine; words here are a mere sheer of ecstatic sighs, Ray Bradbury’s A Sound Of Thunder being caressed to glide.

Would a later musical reincarnation of William Blake have made music like this (George Underwood’s very Blakean cover design appears to agree)? “Dwarfish Trumpet Blues” potters along nicely enough until Took’s gong signals a toughening up of sonics, until the two men’s vocals end up stumbling over each other and degenerating (delightfully) into incoherent yelling. A Citizen Kane cockatoo screech from Bolan drives the song, and side one, towards an abrupt end.

With “Mustang Ford,” it’s all there, everything that was to become familiar two or three years hence; the Berry/Vincent/Cochran homages fed through a traceable beaker of Narnia/Rings/assorted otherworldly stuff, all scooched together by this remarkable twenty-year-old Jewish lad from Hackney (thanks, Lena) and a great personal friend of Syd Barrett (which Took was, well into the seventies). But Barrett’s approach to limericky nonsense or anti-sense is utterly opposed to Bolan’s; for a start, despite the admirably shambolic approach adopted throughout Children - imagine what a stir the record might have caused if it had appeared on SST or Homestead or K Records in the mid-eighties – Bolan never sounds like anyone less than someone who knows exactly what he’s doing; he was the Mod acting as a hippy, whereas Took was unquestionably the real deal. The combination was acidic enough to work (although inevitably contained within it the seeds of its own rapid destruction), and it would be disingenuous to ignore or underrate Took’s contributions to their work. “Mustang” certainly rocks like the cat which Bolan would eventually become, but what about those Looney Tunes/Goon Show voices in which Took indulges from midsong onwards? Once more the song veers into unintended atonality until it reaches a plateau of rhythm and riff which continues to chug upwards in intensity, like a hyped-up Flying Scotsman train deciding to take on the Lake District at its own game.

“Afghan Woman” is another Bolan ballad paradigm and drifts along agreeably, although Took is careful to maintain tension by unpredictably subdividing the tempo and his bongos’ accents from the beginning of verse three; Bolan brings the song to a natural end with a soothing Japanese koto-impersonating coda. “Got to get it together, yeah,” Bolan sings early on in “Knight” – and where does that voice come from, and will I ever cease to wonder where? The song scutters along as gladly as its natural masters, the Incredible String Band, but the chord changes are straight out of Chuck Berry, and Bolan does a good Muddy Waters anguished howl tribute in his brief but quite, quite gorgeous guitar solo before resorting to barking like Howlin’ Wolf on meths; the song nevertheless resumes its gentle canter before being kissed off to bed by two delicate curlicues of guitar and voice.

Ah yes, the voice, and the homing waltz “Graceful Fat Sheba,” with its repeated leitmotif of “meat cleaver,” Took’s bongos growling like Weybridge thunder. Donovan of course, and probably Buffy Sainte-Marie, and maybe even Bessie Smith...but who else? We’ll have to give this some thought. Again, “Weilder Of Words” gives fair warning of what will be coming in the long term, from its “na na na na” chorus upwards; the chorus then develops into a new riff before descending into a semi-singalong howling coda and thence (or is it ascending, like Ascension?) into lovely chaos.

“My Inca Love” sets off at a midtempo pace, and melodically points in part towards “Life’s A Gas” before speeding up slightly. The melody is a wandering slalom, or hall of mirrors, daring the listener to wish its resolution. Eventually the song settles for a hoarse “Hare Krishna!” mantra which continues to increase in intensity and distortion before breaking off to allow John Peel to narrate a children’s story (written by Bolan) which seems to take the lead from Wind In The Willows with its “mole-ish” protagonist and his “yellow Rupert trousers,” albeit on some decidedly strange medication; Peel also manages to sneak in a reference to “bluebeat rhythms” although musically this is much closer to David Peel and the Lower East Side than the Skatalites. The duo then return for a brief closing sprint through the unlisted title track, perhaps foreseeing the decline of their era – were the children of 1967 really prepared to settle for the morsels which 1968 was offering to them?

Producer Tony Visconti – Children was his first job in this capacity – has admitted that the chaos was the thing and that he was learning on the job. Hence, Prophets is ostensibly a much better “produced” record (although perhaps released too soon; the debut made a very respectable Top 20 showing in the UK but its follow-up failed to trouble the scorers) – if maybe not quite as fun – and giving us a clearer picture of where Bolan (if not necessarily Took) was going. “Deboraabored” was a purposely sloppy re-recording of their surprise hit single “Debora” (which preceded both albums, and duly returned to the Top 10 as a double-header with its follow-up “One Inch Rock” around the time of this reissue). Bolan shrieks and scats and halfway through the song reverses, plays backwards and Bolan and Took improvise atop; given the bongo attack in particular, this is a clear influence on Robert Wyatt’s “Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road” six years later. “Stacey Grove” takes us back to the jug band workout with Bolan’s grinning refrain of “He’s a nice cat!” “Wind Quartets” comes on like George Crumb’s Makrokosmos III for meditation fans with its atonal saucepan strokes and the Silver Surfer reference reminds us exactly what year we’re in (even if, in this context, it’s four years ago), not to mention the awestruck “aahh”s from both Bolan and Took (a recurrent feature through both records) – we are not too far away from Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake second childhood (because where did the first one go?) nirvana. “Conesuala” sounds exactly like “Debora” except that it’s about a woman who makes clothes for animals (remember how popular T Rex would prove with children in particular; Bolan always had that Jackanory thing about him, as well as everything – or anything - else). “Trelawney Lawn” is a pleasant acoustic stroll through the orchard rudely gravelled by Took’s freeform bongo irruptions, leading to a passage of tritonal whistling and an odd, Pauline Oliveros deep frequency coda. “Aznageel” sounds exactly like “Conesuala” except with higher pitches, more pastoral and more staccato. “The Friends” is a breathy fragment which passes almost under the listener’s door before escaping quickly through the window. “Salamanda Palaganda” introduces new textures in the form of Chinese temple bells and rudimentary flutes, not to mention Bolan’s stopping making sense refrain of “Zoo-zhoo-zhue-zu-zhoo” and the assorted “Tu whit tu WHOO!”s and climactic “MEOW!” “Brownskin” (you just wouldn’t get away with that title now) sees Bolan still experimenting with song forms, here constructing the song in a conversational manner, accompanied by Took’s chattering teeth.

Catching the Village Green Preservation Society strut which subtly walks through “O Harley,” I wonder how many managed to miss out the Ray Davies influence on Bolan’s voice. With its confident pace and vibrant finger-snapping, both of which eventually combine to resolve into a rather catchy hook, we are clearly moving towards the more familiar T Rex model, although Took’s oddly distant, off-mike backing vocal at song’s end reminds us that we’re not quite there yet.

And with “Eastern Spell,” from its handclaps inwards, we could almost be listening to a surviving 1968 Buddy Holly – again, how could anyone miss that influence on the voice? – and if that sounds unlikely, think of the slapped knee on “Everyday” or the packing case on “Peggy Sue” (which we will be doing in the fullness of time). “The Travelling Tragition” introduces yet more unfamiliar textures – in this case, what sounds like the distant cry of a celeste, although any maudlin tendency is ruthlessly stamped upon by Bolan’s “Rat-a-tat-tat”s and “de-boom, de-BOOOM”s; eventually the song turns into a hobbled country stroll out of a never-realised Ladbroke Grove equivalent to Harvest. “Juniper Suction,” a barely disguised sex-pant (Bolan being married to June at the time), takes the form of an ungainly, gnawing-on-itself waltz, with express tritonality and that MBV preview scenario again; guitar unstable, bongos rattling, megaphone whispers.

But, with its “one-two-free-FOAH!” intro, the closing track, “Scenescof Dynasty” (a reworking and upgrading of track two of Children) gives the most overt indication of Bolan’s soon-come future. Bolan carries the melody entirely in his vocal, his only accompaniment being handclaps and assorted comedy-cum-horror backing vocals. I note the uncommon emphasis given on the word “machétè” and the deep breathing gasps which go on behind, and around, Bolan. As if he’s already about to bring this manifestation to an end and move forward.

There would be one further album by the duo, Unicorn, following which Took was replaced by Mickey Finn; on a fourth record, A Beard Of Stars, Bolan plugged in his amplifier for the first time since his John’s Children days (were they really only two years ago?) and the stealthy move towards abbreviation and stardom continued. Took saw out the seventies at the helm of innumerable bands, principally various manifestations of the Pink Fairies, and remained a true Ladbroke Grove hippy until his premature death in the autumn of 1980; where Bolan went after the times and the moods changed, this tale will assess sooner than you might think. In the meantime, the renewed success of this work - as with other contemporaneous manifestations such as the delayed success of the Moody Blues' Days Of Future Passed in the States - serves to remind us that, even though we are treading fairly deeply into the seventies, we cannot yet leave the sixties behind; and also it should be noted the quintessentially British character of Tyrannosaurus Rex's work cannot be undervalued - apart from the possibility of an urban London equivalent to the kind of country-blues-rock brew people like Taj Mahal, and to a lesser extent Country Joe and The Fish, were cooking up, there really is no meaningful transatlantic comparison point, which may in part explain the otherwise baffling failure of Bolan to export his seventies success to the USA.