Sankofa Music Series – T. Rex
Written, Compiled and Edited by Myles Crawley
The concept of Sankofa is derived from King Adinkera of the Akan people of West Africa. “Sankofa” teaches us that we must go back to our roots in order to move forward. Whatever we have lost, forgotten, forgone or been stripped of, can be reclaimed, revived, preserved and perpetuated. Thus, Sankofa Music Series will examine our modern roots and the early influences of rock music, in the hope that we can carry it forward in the creation of something new.. Today’s subject is T. Rex.
Marc Bolan founded Tyrannosaurus Rex in August 1967. After only one performance as a four-piece at the Electric Garden in London’s Covent Garden, the band broke up. Bolan continued to work with percussionist Steve Peregrin Took and the duo began performing. The combination of Bolan’s acoustic guitar and distinctive vocal style with Took’s percussion earned them a devoted following in the thriving underground London music scene.
By 1968, Tyrannosaurus Rex had become a modest success on radio and on record, and had released three albums. While Bolan’s early material was rock ‘n’ roll influenced folk, by now he was creating dramatic and complex songs with lush melodies, string beds and surreal lyrics. Tyrannosaurus Rex’s albums began to include a richer production value, pop oriented songwriting from Bolan, and experimentation with electric guitars and a solid rock sound.
The game changer was “King of the Rumbling Spires“, which used a full rock band. The group’s next album, T. Rex, continued the process of simplification by shortening the name, and completed the move to electric guitars. Producer Tony Visconti supposedly got fed up with writing the name out in full and began to abbreviate it. When Bolan first noticed he was mad, but later claimed the idea himself.
By 1969 there was a clear rift between the two halves of Tyrannosaurus Rex. As soon Bolan returned to the UK, he replaced Took with percussionist Mickey Finn. The group’s new image and sound outraged some of Bolan’s older hippie fans, who branded him a “sell-out”. Some of the lyrical content of Tyrannosaurus Rex remained, but the fairy tales about wizards and magic were now interspersed with sensuous groove and sexually suggestive vocal sounds.
In September 1971, T. Rex released their second album Electric Warrior. Often considered to be their best album, the chart-topping Electric Warrior brought much commercial success to the group The album included T. Rex’s best-known song, “Get It On“, which hit number one in the UK. In January 1972 it became a top ten hit in the US, where the song was retitled “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” to distinguish it from a 1971 song by the group Chase. Along with David Bowie‘s early hits, “Get It On” was among the few British glam rock songs that was successful in the US. However, the album still recalled Bolan’s acoustic roots with ballads such as “Cosmic Dancer” and the stark “Girl“. Soon after, Bolan left Fly Records; when his contract had lapsed, the label released the album track “Jeepster” as a single without his permission. Bolan signed with EMI, snd was given his own record label in the UK—T. Rex Records, the “T. Rex Wax Co.”.
T. Rex’s third album The Slider was released in July 1972. The band’s most successful album in the US, The Slider was not as successful as its predecessor in the UK, where it peaked at the fourth spot. During spring/summer 1972, Bolan’s old label Fly released the chart-topping compilation album Bolan Boogie, a collection of singles, B-sides and LP tracks, which affected The Slider’s sales. Two singles from The Slider, “Telegram Sam” and “Metal Guru“, became number one hits in the UK.
Tanx (1973) would mark the end of the classic T. Rex line up. An album full of melancholy ballads and rich production, Tanx showcased the T. Rex sound with the addition of new instrumental embellishments like Mellotron and saxophone. During the recording of Tanx, several band members left, starting with Bill Legend in November 1973. Legend felt alienated by Bolan’s increasingly egotistical behavior.
T. Rex’s second last album, Futuristic Dragon (1976), featured a schizophrenic production style that veered from wall of sound-style songs to nostalgic nods to the old T. Rex boogie machine. It only managed to reach number 50, but the album was better received by the critics and featured the singles “New York City” and “Dreamy Lady“.
In the summer of 1976, T. Rex released two more singles, “I Love to Boogie” and “Laser Love“. In early 1977 Dandy in the Underworld was released to critical acclaim. Bolan had slimmed down and regained his elfin looks, and the songs too had a stripped-down, streamlined sound. A spring UK tour with The Damned on support garnered positive reviews. As Bolan was enjoying a new surge in popularity, he talked about performing again with Finn and Took, as well as reuniting with producer Tony Visconti.
Marc Bolan and his girlfriend Gloria Jones spent the evening of 15 September 1977 drinking at the Speakeasy, then had dinner at Morton’s on Berkeley Square, in Mayfair, Central London. While driving home early in the morning of September 16th, Jones crashed Bolan’s purple Mini 1275GT into a tree, less than a mile from his home. While Jones was severely injured, Bolan was killed in the crash, two weeks before his 30th birthday.
After Bolan, whose death ended the band, other T. Rex members met untimely ends: Steve Took choked on a cocktail cherry in 1980. Bass player Steve Currie also died in a car crash in 1981. Mickey Finn succumbed to a liver related illness in 2003.