Marc Bolan

A couple of weeks ago saw the 40th anniversary of the death of Marc Bolan but I held off writing a piece then: it felt so much more fitting to celebrate his birthday than to mourn his departure. He would have been 70 years old today.

It was July 1971 when I first experienced T-Rex. Mum, dad and I used to go on a week-long summer holiday in Clacton-on-Sea pretty much every year. We’d have lunch in a cafe on the seafront every day, and the cafe had a jukebox. Though I’m sure it was well stocked with records, the only three discs it ever played were Dawn’s Knock Three Times, Double Barrel by Dave & Ansel Collins – and Hot Love, with it’s splendid, elongated Hey Jude-style coda.

It was a thrilling time to be a T-Rex fan. Get It On was already number one (though hadn’t yet made it to that Clacton jukebox) and, due to Bolan being on two record labels at once, a slew of great singles followed in quick succession: Jeepster in November, Telegram Sam in January and Metal Guru in May. Thursday night was Boys Brigade night, so I rarely saw Top Of The Pops. But, despite missing most of his TV performances, I was hooked. My parents forbade me from spending all my pocket money on vinyl, but I managed to build up my collection of T-Rex singles by surreptitiously scouring the boxes of ex-jukebox discs (with centres missing) that used to be sold off cheap in newsagents.

I also managed to blag a copy of a “Greatest Hits”-style album — Bolan Boogie — for Christmas, simply to complete my singles collection, but it exposed me to the earlier Tyranosaurus Rex material: Dove, By the Light of a Magical Moon, She Was Born to Be My Unicorn. All spellbinding, bewitching tunes, Straight Outta Mordor.

It was a great time to be a Bowie fan too, of course. He had a similar hippy/folky back catalogue to Bolan, and they both caught/caused the same sweetly made-up, androgynous zeitgeist: underpinned by that crunchy, fuzzy, riff-heavy guitar sound that we largely have their common denominator, producer Tony Visconti, to thank for. Each of them constantly shifted, shifted back, shifted sideways, shifted again. And nothing captures Bolan’s own transition from psychedelic pixie to full blown, sexual, glam rock giant (or echoes Bowie’s) more than Raw Ramp:

By the mid-’70’s, Bowie was already on his fifth, sixth or seventh persona, while Bolan had seemed to lose his way after 20th Century Boy. We’ll never know if we’d have seen a Bowie-like reinvention on the back of the Marc TV show. Nor how he’d have reacted as punk — a genre he had inspired and respected — played out. Or if he’d have gone back to his ‘mod’ roots and successfully explored a more Motown/Soul sound that he’d started to experiment with after becoming involved with Gloria Jones. But we can say that we’d not have had Bowie were it not for Bolan, nor Marc if not for David, at least not in the spectacular forms we now remember. Their ‘rivalry’ accelerated Glam Rock, and ultimately popular music/culture, way beyond what had seemed possible or reasonable. Which is why there are at least a thousand reasons to celebrate the undying Bolan’s birth. And why we’re all children of his revolution.

All The Young Dudes: 45 Today.

I’ve wanted to do this for years.

A thousand times I’ve heard All The Young Dudes. A thousand times Mick Ralphs’ guitar at the start has made me smile. It always will: it’s utterly joyful, utterly sure of itself and burns way, way fiercer than 99.99999% of intros, than 99.99999% of anything. I love it: it’s life and laughter and hope and pretty much everything any of us ever needed. I want it played at my funeral: just that opening guitar riff. I’ll smile, I promise.

I’ve no idea what the real truth of the Bowie-saved-ailing-Mott-The-Hoople-by-generously-giving-them-and-producing-this-song story/myth/fairy tale is. And it doesn’t matter. ATYD tells us the quest for reality and neat narrative is dull, meaningless, avoidable; it tells us stories are always shifting, twisting, mostly wordless, chimeric. ATYD is, simply, one of the top four or five pop songs ever recorded. The organ is majestic, soulful, spiritual. The words and voices are mad and wry and thrilled. The guitars and drums and bass are the reason guitars and drums and the bass guitar were invented. The whole thing is glorious, silly, overreaching, sly, profound, shallow, poetic, plain, aristocratic, working-class, funny, serious, Seventies, timeless, Nietzschean, colourful, noiry. It’s as English as anything so American can be. It’s hopeful and regretful and celebratory. It’s lights and shades and disposable and forever. It’s wrapped itself around us and won’t ever let us go. It’s one of Bowie’s best songs and it’s utterly Ian Hunter’s.

All The Young Dudes is forty-five years old today and it’s ancient and wise and just-born and free. Happy birthday, old man.