The first London home where Marc Bolan lived was a large, late Victorian terrace house on Stoke Newington Common. A distinctive feature of the row of houses that skirted the common were the stone columns at every entrance, each topped with ornamental Corinthian capitals, and among the Gothic moulds that adorned them was a bird of prey with wings outstretched, an Old Father Time figure, and a distinctive, long-necked swan – more cream than white.
This piece of invaluable information can be found in the early pages Marc Bolan: The Rise & Fall of a Twentieth Century Superstar by Mark Paytress, published by Omnibus in 2002. The extract below tells how that stone swan turned him into a superstar.
A new pop aesthetic gave a healthy glow to sessions for the putative fifth Tyrannosaurus Rex album in the summer of 1970. Marc’s voice was double-tracked and more prominent than ever, the percussion, including drums, had a new no-frills directness and several simple bass lines added muscle. The rock ‘n’ roll influence, for so long quietly understated in Bolan’s music, now ran riot through at least half a dozen of the songs taped at the sessions. Even Marc’s lyrics had a freshness and brio about them, with many allusions to the joys of instantaneous pop pleasure that virtually amounted to a clarion-call for his new-found bubblegum boogie: “I want to give every child the chance to dance”, “Boy, wouldn’t you like to rock”, “Light up the world with poems from within you” and, presciently, “One day we change from children into people”.
The new songs spoke loudly of transition and wish-fulfilment; one in particular managed to encapsulate everything Marc Bolan had been looking for. At one session in July 1970, he asked Tony Visconti to start rolling the tape. He wanted to put down a new song, ‘Ride A White Swan’; “Let’s call it ‘Swan’,” Visconti called back from the Trident Studios control booth, unaware that the next few seconds would reveal the key to Marc Bolan’s glorious future. With his cherished Gibson Les Paul around his neck (stained orange in homage to Eddie Cochran’s six-string), Marc formed an open E shape chord above the capo he’d strapped over the fourth fret, and kicked out a clipped rock ‘n’ roll chord just like James Burton on those old Ricky Nelson B-sides. Almost the instant Visconti flicked a switch, adding a small amount of reverb on the guitar track, Marc shouted back emphatically: “I want that sound!”
‘Ride A White Swan’ not only sounded simple; it was simple. The ingredients were few – that clipped, three-chord-trick guitar, Marc’s cautious vocal (sung from a sheet hastily typed by June), handclaps on the offbeat and a rudimentary Bolan bass line (played on Visconti’s Fender Precision bass), offset by a modest, Visconti-arranged string section and that trademark Tyrannosaurus Rex falsetto backing drone. The lyrics – just twelve short, sweet lines – were similarly economical, even by Marc’s recent standards. And the crucial parts that Dib Cochran and The Earwigs lacked – a genuine voice, and a rock ‘n’ roll backing – were here in abundance.
“When we heard what we got,” recalls [Marc’s music publisher] David Platz, “it was simply so exciting that we knew we had a potential Superstar on our hands. It had such a different sound, and was exactly right for that particular time.” Releasing ‘Ride A White Swan’ as the band’s next single seems in retrospect to have been an expertly judged calculation, but at the time its success took almost everyone by surprise – even Marc whose memory was already saturated with misplaced hopes. In fact, the route to number two in the British charts in November 1970 was tortuous and complicated, with several factors contributing to the success of ‘Ride A White Swan’.
Although Marc could will the musical changes, and instil a new sense of ambition in those around him, even he doesn’t take credit for the series of coincidences that enabled his ‘Swan’ to take flight. “People associated us with Flower Power, and that was a long gone era,” he said after the stardust had settled. “I wanted people to look at the thing in a new light, and the only way to do that was to have a label change, change the music and change the name but not lose any identity. I got put on Fly Records. That happened because the company I was with, signed with those people who formed Fly Records.”
The crucial month was September. With the launch of Fly Records imminent, Marc chose to drop the cumbersome Tyrannosaurus Rex name in favour of T. Rex, an abbreviation many had been using for convenience’s sake. Tony Visconti remembers Marc’s initial reaction: “He came to my little office at Essex Music one afternoon, looked at my recording calendar on the wall and took great offence at all those references to ‘T. Rex’. I told him it was for my eyes only and that it was too tedious writing Tyrannosaurus Rex 15 times on the same page.” In fact, Marc had used the same abridgment when he advertised for a replacement for Steve Took 12 months earlier. After the incremental advances of the previous three years, the name change marked a brutal, crucial break with the past – though the motivation was as much practical, giving DJs like Tony Blackburn and Dave Lee Travis the opportunity of playing the band’s records without screwing up their syllables.
Tony Visconti puts the success of ‘Ride A White Swan’ down to two things: “The image change, and the fact we had a string section in there.” He claims that he had to beg David Platz to pay for the four violins used on the single and on a couple of album tracks. “Fly had nothing to do with Marc’s success,” he declares. “We never had any support from them. T. Rex was a legacy from the old days. We were almost an embarrassment to the company.”
That may have been true, but the newly constituted Fly Records could not afford to back too many losers. There was a lot riding on Marc’s ‘White Swan’ when it appeared in the racks on Friday October 9, 1970. For all Visconti’s reservations, the company – set up by David Platz in partnership with Track Records’ Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp – had splashed out on a mass-produced picture sleeve that utilised a moody Pete Sanders portrait of Marc and Mickey Finn. And the decision had been taken to release it as a value-for-money maxi-single with two songs on the B-side. “You’d be surprised how many kids can’t afford an album,” said Marc, hot on the scent of a new audience.
There is no doubt that ‘Ride A White Swan’ was intended to invigorate Bolan’s career and provide a flagship for the new record company. The careers of Procol Harum, Joe Cocker and The Move, all brought over from New Breed’s previous Regal Zonophone outlet, were at stake; both the label and its first single were expected to succeed.
The Fly launch was beset by problems and last-minute changes. Label manager Malcolm Jones, who’d been poached from running EMI’s progressive Harvest imprint, had initially named the new operation Octopus. A small handful of (now priceless) acetates for the first 45 had been pressed bearing the (now legendary) catalogue number OCTO 1. Extant copies show that the guitar-heavy ‘Jewel’ was tipped for the flipside alongside a wobbly version of Eddie Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’ – though it was later replaced by another, less abrasive cut from the forthcoming LP, ‘Is It Love’.*
After a distribution deal with Chris Blackwell’s Island fell through, Lambert and Stamp got involved, and it was Kit Lambert who came up with the Fly name. With the Christmas rush imminent, Platz returned to EMI who agreed to distribute the label, a logo was hastily knocked up by Track’s in-house design team and by early October ‘Ride A White Swan’ was ready to go. Everyone involved expected the record to make some impact, though the scale of its success meant that Malcolm Jones quickly ran into difficulties. “I was so busy trying to get records pressed and sleeves printed,” he recalled, “that the disc appeared on brown or lilac labels. That was because I purchased Immediate Records’ lilac paper after they’d gone out of business – simply to get records pressed quickly at any cost.”
“The business was at a very low ebb at that point,” Marc admitted several months later. “There was nothing really going down. When we put (‘Ride A White Swan’) out, I was well prepared for it to bomb. I expected to get a lot of aggravation from people saying ‘It’s too electric’ or whatever, and it was a hit in three weeks.” Actually, it was only a minor hit at that early stage, but after strong support from the BBC – T. Rex recorded five separate Radio 1 sessions between October and December – and the music press (“their most commercial song yet”, raved New Musical Express) ‘Ride A White Swan’ took off.