As embarrassing as it is to admit, I somehow heard Devendra Banhart before I heard Tyrannosaurus Rex. Of course I’d heard T.Rex and their glam hits “Get It On” and “Metal Guru”, but I had no idea about Marc Bolan’s past as folk-pop crossover genius, I only knew him as the “Electric Warrior”.
Upon first hearing Banhart I thought he was amazing; such a grasp on melody and not afraid to do semi-hippy folk-pop, such a distinctive voice – I thought it was incredibly original. When I heard Tyrannosaurus Rex’s “Debora” I quickly dismissed Banhart as the flakey shameless Bolan-aper that I still believe him to be.
Perhaps most people were luckier than I and were somehow exposed to Bolan’s early period as the folk-pop duo of Tyrannosaurus Rex rather than his glam period as T.Rex, and were able to get their tastes in order accordingly – but for those who’ve led a Tyrannosaurus Rex-less life, get ready to get excited.
Though championed by John Peel and having a number of hit albums that charted in England, in North America Tyrannosaurus Rex has been largely overshadowed by Bolan’s glam incarnation: T.Rex. Full of Tolkien-imagery, beautiful and original vocal melodies, fast-paced bongos and madly strummed guitar, the first two Tyrannosaurus Rex albums are folk-pop gold – probably the best it’s ever been done.
After Bolan left his first band, John’s Children, he enlisted the help of percussionist Steve Peregrine Took (he took the latter part of his
name from a hobbit), and the two set out as a folk duo, playing concerts and busking around London. Thanks to a huge push from John Peel and his BBC show, they gained national attention with their 1968 debut, My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair… But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows. All of the mysticism and majesty that the title suggests is represented on the album. The album follows in typical Bolan fashion by swinging wildly from the otherworldly to American banalities – from “Dwarfish Trumpet Blues” to “Mustang Ford”, from “Frowning Atahuallpa (My Inca Love)” to opener “Hot Rod Mama”.
When the album starts you’re immediately introduced to the best aspects of the band: catchy and accessible vocal melodies with a high-pitched warbling delivery; fast paced bongo
thumping, bizarre percussion (yes, they bang a gong), and an otherworldly feel.
The album is excellent throughout and all songs show off Bolan’s masterly employment of melody. There are some very direct Tolkien references on this album, where John Peel does spoken word pieces that seems like passages from some fantastic piece of literature mixing The Wind in the Willows with Lord of the Rings.
The second album, Prophet, Seers and Sages The Angels of the Ages gets poppier and loses the mystical spoken word pieces, instead focusing on
short, punchy, catchy songs. Opener, “Deboraarobed”, is a fast-paced, incredibly infectious folk-pop banger with racing bongos and furiously strummed guitar. Midway through the song however, as the title suggests with its palindromic quality, the song gets run in reverse. When the song switches midway many of the melodic qualities are preserved but the song becomes disorienting and decidedly un-popular sounding.
This album also employs brevity to amazing success. Most songs are under 2 minutes with only one going over 3 (and that’s because it’s played backwards). This brevity mixed with the straight forward song structures and lack of weirder elements seems to point towards Bolan’s later success as a rock superstar. Having tasted success with his weirder debut, it’s like he cut out the stranger aspects to create something more popularly palatable.
The album that follows, Unicorn returns to weirder aspects but employs more drawn out rock structures, and though it’s worth listening to, it just doesn’t hold the excitement and unhinged energy of the first two Tyrannosaurus Rex albums.