Marc Bolan (born Mark Feld 30 September 1947 – 16 September 1977), was an English singer, songwriter, poet and guitarist, best known for his work with T. Rex. His music, as well as his highly original sense of style and extraordinary stage presence helped create the glam rock era, making him one of the most recognizable stars in British rock music.
Early life and career
The son of a lorry driver, Bolan grew up in post-war Hackney, East London, in a Jewish family, later moving to Wimbledon, Southwest London. He fell in love with the rock and roll of Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Arthur Crudup and Chuck Berry at an early age and became a Mod, hanging around coffee bars such as the 2 I’s in Soho. He appeared as an extra in an episode of the television show Orlando, dressed as a Mod.
At the age of nine, Bolan was given his first guitar and began a skiffle band shortly after. While at school, he played guitar in “Susie and the Hoops,” a trio whose vocalist was a 12-year old Helen Shapiro. At fifteen, he left school “by mutual consent.”
He briefly joined a modeling agency and became a “John Temple Boy,” appearing in a clothing catalogue for the menswear store. He was a model for the suits in their catalogues as well as for cardboard cut-outs to be displayed in shop windows. “TOWN” Magazine featured him as an early example of the Mod movement in a photo spread with a couple of other models.
Mark Feld had changed his name to Toby Tyler when he met and moved in with child actor Allan Warren, who was to become his first manager. This fortuitous encounter afforded Bolan a lifeline towards the heart of showbusiness, as Warren saw Toby Tyler’s potential whilst the latter spent hours sitting cross-legged on Warren’s floor playing his acoustic guitar. A series of photographs was to be commissioned with photographer Michael McGrath, who later recalls that Bolan “left no impression” on him. Warren also hired a recording studio and had Bolan’s first acetates cut. One track was the Bob Dylan song “Blowin’ in the Wind”. A version of Betty Everett’s “You’re No Good” was later submitted to EMI for a test screening but they turned down the then Toby Tyler. Warren later sold Marc’s contract and recordings for £200.00 to his landlord, property mogul David Kirch, in lieu of three months back rent. Kirch was far too busy with his property empire to do anything for him. A year or so later, Marc’s mother pushed into Kirch’s office and shouted at him that he had done nothing for her son. She demanded he tear up the contract and willingly he complied.
The tapes produced during the Toby Tyler recording session vanished from thought and mind for over twenty-five years before resurfacing in 1991 and selling for nearly eight thousand dollars. Their eventual release on CD in 1993 made available the earliest of Marc’s known recordings.
After changing his name again to Marc Bolan (via Mark Bowland) while with Decca Records he released his first single “The Wizard.” In early 1967, manager Simon Napier Bell added him to the Pop-Art/mod band John’s Children, which achieved some success as a live band but sold few records. A John’s Children single written by Marc Bolan called “Desdemona” was banned by the BBC for its line “lift up your skirt and fly.” His tenure with the band was brief. Bolan claimed to have spent time with a wizard in Paris who allegedly gave him secret knowledge and could levitate. The time spent with him was often alluded to but remained “mythical”; in reality the wizard was probably U.S. actor Riggs O’Hara with whom Bolan made a trip to Paris in 1965. His songwriting took off and he began writing many of the neo-romantic songs that would appear on his first albums with Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Besides Berry, Bolan’s influences included Bob Dylan, Syd Barrett, Cliff Richard and Elvis Presley.
When John’s Children collapsed (amongst other problems, the band were stunned to discover their equipment had been stolen from a studio, according to a Bolan biographer), Bolan and Steve Peregrine Took created Tyrannosaurus Rex, a psychedelic-folk rock acoustic group, playing Bolan’s songs, with Took playing assorted hand and kit percussion and occasional bass to Bolan’s acoustic guitars and voice.
This version of Tyrannosaurus Rex released four albums and four singles, flirting with the charts, getting as high as number fifteen and getting airplay and support from Radio 1 DJ John Peel. One of the highlights of this era was when the duo played at the first free Hyde Park concert in 1968. Although the free-spirited, drug-taking Took was fired from the group after their first American tour, they were a force to be reckoned with in the hippy underground scene while they lasted. Their music was filled with Marc’s otherworldly poetry, which lead to him publishing a book of his own poems in 1969, ‘The Warlock Of Love’. A rock and roller at heart, Bolan began bringing amplified guitar lines into the duo’s music, buying a vintage Gibson Les Paul guitar (later featured on the cover of the album T. Rex in 1970). After replacing Took with Mickey Finn, he let the electric influences come forward even further on A Beard of Stars, the final album to be credited to Tyrannosaurus Rex. It closed with the song “Elemental Child,” featuring a long electric guitar break influenced by Jimi Hendrix.
Bolan, by now married to his girlfriend June Child (a former secretary to the manager of another of his heroes, Syd Barrett), shortened the group’s name to T. Rex and wrote and recorded “Ride a White Swan”, dominated by a rolling, hand clapping back-beat, Bolan’s electric guitar and Finn’s percussion.
T. Rex and glam rock
Bolan and his producer Tony Visconti sorted out the session for “Ride a White Swan” and the single changed Bolan’s career almost overnight. Recorded on 1 July 1970 and released later that year, making slow progress in the UK Top 40, it finally peaked in early 1971 at No. 2. Bolan and Visconti largely (and, in many ways, unwittingly) invented the style that would become glam rock and helped restore a brash and exciting feel, when rock bands had grown increasingly self-important.
Bolan took to wearing top hats and feather boas on stage as well as putting drops of glitter on each of his cheekbones. Stories are conflicting about his inspiration for this—some say it was initially introduced by his personal assistant, the late Chelita Secunda, although Bolan told John Pidgeon in a 1974 interview on Radio 1 that he noticed the glitter on his wife’s dressing table prior to a photo session and just casually daubed some on his face there and then. Other performers—and their fans—soon took up variations on the idea.
The glam era also saw the rise of Bolan’s friend David Bowie, whom Bolan had come to know in the underground days (Bolan had played guitar on Bowie’s 1970 single “Prettiest Star”). Before long, even Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart and Grand Funk Railroad dabbed on a little glitter.
Bolan followed “Ride a White Swan” and T. Rex by expanding the group to a quartet with bassist Steve Currie and drummer Bill Legend, and cutting a five-minute single, “Hot Love”, with a rollicking rhythm, string accents and an extended sing-along chorus inspired somewhat by “Hey Jude”. It was No. 1 for six weeks and was quickly followed by “Get It On”, a grittier, more adult tune that spent four weeks in the top spot. The song was renamed “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” when released in the United States, to avoid confusion with another song of the same name by the American band Chase. The song reached #10 in the United States in early 1972, the only top 40 single the band ever had in America.
In November 1971, the band’s record label, Fly, released the Electric Warrior track “Jeepster” without Bolan’s permission. Outraged, Bolan took advantage of the timely lapsing of his Fly Records contract and left to EMI, who gave him his own record label, the T. Rex Wax Co. Its bag and label featured an iconic head-and-shoulders image of Bolan. Despite Bolan’s lack of endorsement, “Jeepster” still peaked at #2.
In 1972, Bolan achieved two more British No. 1s with “Telegram Sam” and “Metal Guru” (the latter of which stopped Elton John getting to the top with “Rocket Man”) and two more No. 2’s in “Children Of The Revolution” and “Solid Gold Easy Action”. Bolan told Gloria Jones the track “Metal Guru” would be “the smoothest song in history”.
The total of four No. 2 singles particularly galled his fans as three were held off the top spot by novelty singles recorded by Clive Dunn, Benny Hill and little Jimmy Osmond. In the same year he appeared in Ringo Starr’s film Born to Boogie, a documentary showing a concert at Wembley Empire Pool on 18 March 1972. Mixed in were surreal scenes shot at John Lennon’s mansion in Ascot and a super-session with T. Rex joined by Ringo Starr on second drum kit and Elton John on piano. At this time T. Rex record sales accounted for about 6 percent of total British domestic record sales. The band was reportedly selling 100,000 records a day; however, no T. Rex single ever became a million-seller in the UK, despite many gold discs and an average of four weeks at the top per No. 1 hit; documentation of actual sales has been lost.
In 1973, Bolan played twin lead guitar alongside his friend Jeff Lynne on the Electric Light Orchestra songs “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle” and “Dreaming of 4000” (originally uncredited) from On the Third Day, as well as on “Everyone’s Born To Die”, which was not released at the time but appears as a bonus track on the 2006 remaster. Bolan played guitar in Ringo Starr’s Ringo album on the track “Have you seen my baby [hold on]”.
By late 1973, his pop star fame gradually began to wane, even though he achieved a Number 3 hit, “20th Century Boy” in February and mid year “The Groover” followed it to No. 4. “Truck On (Tyke)” missed the UK Top 10 only reaching #12 in December. However, “Teenage Dream” from the 1974 album Zinc Alloy And The Hidden Riders of Tomorrow showed that Bolan was attempting to create richer, more involved music than he had previously attempted with T. Rex. He expanded the line up of the band to include a second guitarist, Jack Green, and other studio musicians and began to take more control over the sound and production of his records.
In 1974, Bolan played guitar for Ike & Tina Turner. He appeared on “Nutbush City Limits”, “Sexy Ida (Part II)”, and “Baby Get It On”. Tina Turner confirmed this in a BBC Radio One interview.
Eventually, the vintage T. Rex line-up disintegrated. Legend left in 1973 and Finn in 1975 and Bolan’s marriage came to an end because of his affair with backing singer Gloria Jones. He spent a good deal of his time in the U.S. for much of the next three years, continuing to release singles and albums which, while less popular to the masses, were full of unusual lyrics and sometimes eccentric musical experiments. Although Bolan’s health began to fail as he put on weight, the former glam rock icon cleaned up and continued working, producing at least one UK chart hit every year until his death in 1977.
Gloria Jones gave birth to Bolan’s son in September 1975, whom they named Rolan Bolan (although his birth certificate lists him as ‘Rolan Seymour Feld’; compare David Bowie’s son Zowie Bowie). That same year, Bolan returned to the UK from tax exile in the U.S. and Monaco and to the public eye with a low-key tour. Bolan made regular appearances on the LWT pop show Supersonic, directed by his old friend Mike Mansfield and released a succession of singles, but he never regained the success of his glory days of the early 1970s. The last remaining member of Bolan’s halcyon era T. Rex, Currie, left the group in late 1976.
In early 1977, Bolan got a new band together, released a new album, Dandy in the Underworld, and set out on a fresh UK tour, taking along punk band The Damned as support to entice a young audience who did not remember his heyday. Granada Television commissioned Bolan to front a six-part series called Marc, where he introduced new and established bands and performed his own songs. By this time Bolan had lost weight, appearing as trim as he had during T. Rex’s earlier heyday. The show was broadcast during the post-school half-hour on ITV earmarked for children and teenagers; it was a big success. The last episode featured a unique Bolan duet with David Bowie during which Bolan fell off the stage. With no time for a retake, this occurrence was aired and Bowie’s amusement was clearly visible.
Bolan died on 16 September 1977, two weeks before his 30th birthday. He was a passenger in a purple Mini 1275GT (registration FOX 661L) driven by Gloria Jones as they headed home from Mortons drinking club and restaurant in Berkeley Square. Jones lost control of the car and it struck a sycamore tree after failing to negotiate a small humpback bridge near Gipsy Lane on Queens Ride, Barnes, southwest London. Bolan died instantly, while Jones suffered a broken arm and broken jaw and spent time in hospital; she did not learn of Bolan’s death until the day of his funeral. Bolan’s home, which was less than a mile away at 142 Upper Richmond Road West in East Sheen, was quickly looted. Fans quickly turned the site of the crash into a shrine and in 2007 the site was officially recognised as Bolan’s Rock Shrine.At Bolan’s funeral, attended by David Bowie and Rod Stewart, a swan-shaped floral tribute was displayed outside the service in recognition of his breakthrough hit single. His funeral service was at the Golders Green Crematorium which is a secular provision in North London. Bolan himself stated that he was Jewish, the religion of his father. However, because his mother was not a Jew he would be considered a gentile under Orthodox Jewish law (Halakha). His ashes were buried at Golders Green Crematorium.
Bolan never learned to drive, fearing a premature death. Despite this fear, cars or automotive components are at least mentioned in, if not the subject of, many of his songs. He also owned a number of vehicles, including a famed white Rolls-Royce, which had been lent by his management to Hawkwind on the night of his death.
Fellow T. Rex member Steve Currie also died in a car crash less than four years later.
Electric: Marc Bolan was mostly seen playing Gibson Les Pauls. His main guitar, a Les Paul Custom was refinished in an translucent orange to resemble Gretsch guitars played by his hero Eddie Cochran. He was also seen playing a black Gibson Flying V with tremolo and a late 1960s model Olympic White Fender Stratocaster. One with both an eye and ear for the unusual, Bolan also played various models of visually striking guitars from smaller independent companies, among them a Veleno aluminum guitar, and the Burns Flyte.
Acoustic: Bolan favored the Epiphone and Gibson brands. Most notably the Gibson Hummingbird and Gibson J-160E models.
While Bolan was known to use makes as diverse as Vox, Orange, and Marshall, he is perhaps most associated with the short-lived Vampower line of British amplifiers. Used through 1970-1973, the model MK1A Vampower 100 watt stack was present and utilized on the groundbreaking T. Rex tours and recordings of that period.
Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face, Electro-Harmonix Screaming Tree, MXR Blue Box, Vox wah.
In 1979, Siouxsie and the Banshees released a cover of “20th Century Boy” as the b-side to the single “The Staircase (Mystery)”.
In December 1980, “Telegram Sam” was the fourth single released by British gothic rock band Bauhaus. The A side is a cover of T. Rex’s song of the same name. It was released in 7-and 12-inch format, the latter featuring “Rosegarden Funeral of Sores” as an extra track.
Also in 1980, The Bongos were the first American group, with “Mambo Sun,” to enter the Billboard charts with a T.Rex cover. Since then, Bongos frontman Richard Barone has recorded several other Bolan compositions (“The Visit,” “Ballrooms of Mars”), worked with producer Tony Visconti for his current solo album, Glow (2010, Bar/None Records) that includes a remake of Bolan’s “Girl” from Electric Warrior, and has himself produced tracks for Bolan’s son Rolan.
In 1981, Department S released a cover of “Solid Gold Easy Action” as the b-side to the single “Is Vic There?”.
In 1984, The Replacements released a cover of “20th Century Boy” as a B-side to the single “I Will Dare”; it is also included on the reissue version of their album Let It Be. In 1993, Adam Ant (born, Stuart Leslie Goddard) covered the track live on the Limed Edition live disc of his Antmusic: The Very Best of Adam Ant collection.
In 1985, Duran Duran splinter band Power Station, with Robert Palmer as vocalist, took a version of “Get It On” into the UK Top 40, the first cover of a Bolan song to enter the charts since his death. They also performed the tune (with Michael Des Barres replacing Palmer) at the U.S. Live Aid concert.
In 1986, the Violent Femmes performed “Children of the Revolution” on their third album The Blind Leading the Naked, for which they also recorded a music video.
In 1990, Baby Ford did a cover of “Children of the Revolution” that appeared on the album Oooh, The World of Baby Ford.
In 1993, Guns N’ Roses covered “Buick MacKane” on ‘The Spaghetti Incident?” but it was mislabelled on the album as “Buick Makane”.
In 1994, Billy Idol wore a t-shirt reproducing The Slider album cover in his popular video supporting the song “Speed”. That was a clear homage to Marc Bolan, who helped Generation X to rise at the very beginning of their career.
In 2006 Def Leppard released their album Yeah which contains covers of their favourite bands while growing up, the first song on this album is “20th Century Boy”. Joe Elliott wanted to sing “Metal Guru” while Vivian Campbell wanted “Telegram Sam” but end up agreeing to “20th Century Boy”. It’s not the first time that Def Leppard has sung a T.Rex song; there is a live version of Get It On.
“Children of the Revolution” was similarly performed by Elton John and Pete Doherty at Live 8, 20 years later. Bono and Gavin Friday cover “Children of the Revolution” on the Moulin Rouge! soundtrack.
In 2000, Naoki Urasawa created a manga entitled “20th Century Boys” that was inspired by Marc Bolan’s song, “20th Century Boy”. The book is a multiple award-winner, and has just been released in the United States through VIZ media.
“20th Century Boy” introduced a new generation of devotees to Bolan’s work in 1991 when it was featured on a Levi’s jeans TV commercial featuring Brad Pitt, and was re-released, reaching the UK Top 20. The song was performed by the fictional band The Flaming Creatures (performed by Placebo, reprised by Placebo and David Bowie at the 1999 BRIT Awards) in the 1998 film Velvet Goldmine.
In every decade since his death, a Bolan greatest hits compilation has placed in the top 20 UK albums and periodic boosts in sales have come via cover versions from artists inspired by Bolan, including Morrissey and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Similarly, “I Love to Boogie” was briefly used on an advert for Robinson’s soft drink in 2001, bringing Bolan’s music to a new generation. Mitsubishi also featured “20th Century Boy” in a 2002 car commercial, prompting Hip-O Records to release a best-of collection CD titled 20th Century Boy: The Ultimate Collection.
His music is still widely used in films, recent notable cases being Breakfast on Pluto, Death Proof, Lords of Dogtown, Billy Elliot, Jarhead, Moulin Rouge!, Herbie: Fully Loaded, Breaking-Up, Hot Fuzz, Click & School of Rock.
Bolan is still cited by many guitar-centric bands as a huge influence (Joy Division/New Order’s Bernard Sumner has said that the first single he owned was “Ride a White Swan”.) However, he always maintained he was a poet who put lyrics to music. The tunes were never as important as the words.
“ Bolan used to hang around in our office and sit on the floor, strumming his guitar, flirting with our secretary, June, who, of course, he later married. He was a great Syd [Barrett] fan. I was quite fond of him. He was a big pain in the arse, of course, very full of himself. I always liked that thing where he called himself the Bolan child, this magical, mythical name. It was really from his doorbell in Ladbroke Grove. It had his name and our secretary’s surname, Child, so it read Bolan Child and fans used to think, wow, he is the Bolan Child! ”
— Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour
An altogether less welcome legacy for his friends and family is the ongoing row about his fortune. Bolan had arranged a discretionary trust to safeguard his money. His death left the fortune beyond the reach of those closest to him and both his family and journalists have taken an active interest in investigating the situation, so far with little result other than bringing the story to wider attention. A small, separate Jersey-based trust fund has allowed his son to receive some income. However, the bulk of Bolan’s fortune, variously estimated at between £20 and £30 million pounds (approx $38 – $57 million), remains in trust. As of 2007, Bolan’s family is supposed to have a house paid for by the trust, and Rolan is supposed to receive an allowance.
Bolan returned to the top of the UK charts in 2005 when the remastered, expanded Born to Boogie DVD hit No. 1 in the Music DVD charts.
Steve Kilbey – a self-confessed Marc Bolan fan and singer for renowned Australian art-rock group The Church – performed Bolan’s “One Inch Rock” on the Steve Kilbey Live DVD, released in January 2008.
In 2006, it was revealed that English Heritage had refused to commission a blue plaque to commemorate Bolan, as they believed him to be of “insufficient stature or historical significance”. There is, however, an existing plaque dedicated to Bolan at his childhood home, put there by Hackney Council.
There are also two plaques dedicated to his memory at Golders Green Crematorium in North London. The second one to be displayed was placed there by the official Marc Bolan fan club and fellow fans in September 2002, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his passing. The inscription on the stone, which also bears his image, reads ’25 years on – his light of love still shines brightly’. Placed beneath the plaque there is an appropriate ceramic figure of a white swan.
In 2006, TV series Life on Mars, William Matheson portrays Marc Bolan, circa 1973, in a bar in Manchester. Time-travelling Sam Tyler recognises him, has a fan boy moment, and warns him to be careful of riding in Minis. In the American version of the series, the character is replaced by that of Jim Croce, who died later that year in a plane crash, and Sam warns him. However, the T. Rex version of “Get It On” is played in the New York dance club in that scene.
One of Bolan’s guitars, a Gibson Flying V, recently turned up on Antiques Roadshow in the hands of a private collector. The appraiser estimated the value of the guitar to be approximately £50,000-60,000.