April 25, 2006

The Long Review: Solid Gold - a big batch of T. Rex reissues

Mark Feld was a short, chubby, Jewish lad from the London ’burbs. After slimming down, growing his hair, playing in a few bands and changing his name to Marc Bolan, he morphed his very 1960s hippy-dippy folk duo Tyrannosaurus Rex into the very ’70s full-on electric psychedelic boogie band T. Rex, becoming a bona fide rock star (in England, at least) and inventing glam rock in the process. After a four-year streak where he could do no wrong, he suddenly fell out of favor with the fickle public. Gaining weight and losing focus, he seemed doomed to self-parody when he got his shit back together. A comeback seemed imminent when he was killed in a traffic accident on Sept. 16, 1977, two weeks shy of his 30th birthday.

But hear this, children of the revolution: There’s much more to the legend of T. Rex than a “Behind the Music”-style rise and fall — he put out some damn fine records in his day, and that’s what matters. At this writing, his sole American hit “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” is being used in a series of JC Penney TV ads. It doesn’t get better than that, right?

Well, maybe not, but the good folks at Rhino have undertaken a T. Rex extreme makeover program, unearthing demos, B-sides and other assorted rarities to compile deluxe editions of seven albums from the back catalog (and two compilations). These encyclopedic versions are more than a little excessive, but that’s what T. Rex was all about.

Where to begin? You can’t go wrong with ’71’s Electric Warrior, as it’s Bolan’s most focused and cohesive effort and features “Jeepster,” “Mambo Sun” and “Bang a Gong.” Its follow-up, The Slider, is another highlight, from its iconic cover image (photo by Ringo Starr) to the music it contains, including “Telegram Sam” and “Metal Guru” from which the Smiths boosted the riff for “Panic.”

If you’re just looking for the hits, Rhino’s got your back: The T. Rex Wax Co. is a two-disc comp that collects the singles (minus Electric Warrior cuts), but for adventurous sorts, 1973’s Tanx is the real satisfaction pony. The original album release featured no singles, but with its string-drenched ambiance and lean, mean boogie riffs, it’s nearly as good as Electric Warrior. Better still, the expanded version features essential non-LP singles “Children of the Revolution,” “Solid Gold Easy Action” and the transcendent “20th Century Boy.”

And speaking of imperfections, things got dicey for Bolan after Tanx. Futuristic Dragon has its moments, but the vaguely funky undercurrents of both Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow and Bolan’s Zip Gun are rather dire. Dandy in the Underworld recaptured some of the original spark. A tour with the Damned was in the works, but Bolan was dead weeks after Dandy’s release.

A thunderwing free angel. An explosive mouth who loved to boogie. An unrepentant hippy who served as one of the true godfathers of punk rock. Overlooked genius? Britrock also-ran? Bolan and T. Rex were all of these things and more. Truck on, tyke.

BY JAY DITZER
leobeat@leoweekly.com