When I drove to the Half Moon in Putney just after Christmas to watch Are You Experienced, John Campbell’s Jimi Hendrix tribute act, I passed over the bridge on the Heath where Marc Bolan came a cropper in 1977. I drew my son Sam’s attention to the shrine that fans had created by the tree that Bolan’s car smashed into, but Sam had never heard of Marc.
         As in the sixties, when the press tried to drum up a rivalry between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones (and in the nineties between Blur and Oasis), so it was that in the seventies there was a rivalry between T Rex and Slade. I was firmly in the Slade camp of course, and not just because I’d observed their rise from bar band to Earls Court and got to know them along the way. Both bands made great singles but the clincher was that T Rex was a lousy live act.
         Bolan was an indifferent lead guitarist, insufficiently skilled to carry the T Rex guitar load alone, and his back up men were run-of-the-mill sidemen, probably recruited because they settled for a wage. Formed hastily to take advantage of sudden success on the singles chart brought about by Bolan’s change of image and musical direction, they lacked experience performing live together and had no real power, none of the intuitive unity that comes with playing together for years, as Slade had done.
This didn’t matter so much during the T. Rextasy period in the UK, when the girls screamed so loud that the music was secondary, drowned out in the overall pandemonium, but it mattered a great deal when he ventured into unfamiliar territory, like the Weely Festival at Clacton in 1971 where I saw Bolan & T Rex face an uphill battle to get the crowd on side and was jeered for his trouble. It also mattered when they went to the States and were cruelly exposed playing to audiences that were actually there to listen. I saw them go down like a lead balloon in New York; thin and weedy, embarrassing really, with an increasingly desperate Bolan playing pat solos, shaking his feather boa and pulling those ‘look at me, aren’t I great’ poses than in the UK might have had the fans screaming but at the NY Palladium on 14th Street, before a more discriminating audience, just made him look like a prat. People were walking out mid-way, no doubt wondering what all the fuss was about. He desperately needed a lead guitarist to fill out the sound so he could concentrate on rhythm and vocals – everything needed beefing up really.
         His attitude didn’t help his US cause either. He gave interviews in which he boasted about his UK success, name-dropping acts like The Beatles and Stones as if to suggest he was their equal. He certainly set himself up for a fall. Having been around as long as he had he ought to have known better, but I suspect he was surrounded by sycophants and, between them and his coke habit, he developed an over-inflated opinion of himself. 
         I don’t mean to be uncharitable towards Marc Bolan. I’m just saying it like it is. Most of his hit singles were fantastic, real movers, great fun records. I met him once or twice and he was full of himself, very cocky, and there’s nothing wrong with this if you have the on-stage bottle to carry it off – like Rod Stewart, another for whom modesty was a foreign concept. It’s when you don’t that everything unravels. I think Marc desperately wanted to be up there with the greats and when it didn’t happen he was mortally wounded. The huge international success (critical and commercial) of his old friend and rival David Bowie must have been a blow, ditto Elton John. It was classic tortoise and hare really. All three arrived around the same time and Marc made the early running, but while Bowie and Elton graduated to big US arenas and were feted by the cognoscenti, Marc ended up playing to ever-decreasing crowds of screaming girls in UK seaside resorts, and that must have hurt. There’s nothing wrong with screaming girls – look at The Beatles – but somehow Marc couldn’t shake it off and acquire the respect of more mature audiences. I think that by the time of his death he was turning this corner, becoming more humble, and could have rebuilt a solid career in music, but unfortunately fate had other ideas.
         My daughter went to school at Sheen, not far from Putney Heath where I drove through with my son just after Christmas, so I’m pretty familiar with the tributes by that bridge. I love the way his fans have maintained that little shrine. Whatever his shortcomings, Marc was obviously much loved and what more can a rock star ask for? 


Unknown said...

Well, he wasnt killed when his car hit the tree, for starters. His car came to rest against the tree and that stopped it going down the embankment, which would surely have killed Gloria Jones. He was killed when his car hit a pylon on a steel guard fence, which was fairly immediately removed. That basic ignorance should have warned me to proceed with caution but like a fool, proceed I did.

Suffice to say, I found the article not merely uncharitable, but niggardly and out of step with history than and now. Bolan is one of the great, glowing rock gods with a barely diluted excellence of legacy - one that generation after generation rediscovers and re-reveres. Of his contemporary, only Bowie does not pale and Bolan never out out anything as awful as Bowie's mid-late 80's offerings.

Chris Charlesworth said...

Thanks for that. Always nice to get a dissenting view.