Counterbalance No. 151: T. Rex's 'Electric Warrior'
The 151st most acclaimed album of all time is built like a car. It’s got a hubcap diamond star halo. It’s dirty and sweet. Oh yeah. A 1971 cornerstone of glam rock is this week’s Counterbalance.
Mendelsohn: Up next we have a glam rock star who cut his teeth in the underground folk scene. If that sounds familiar, and it should, one might assume we are talking about David Bowie again. They would be wrong, Klinger, dead wrong. On the docket this week is T. Rex's Electric Warrior. Marc Bolan's vehicle to explore to world of glam as seen through the eyes of an ex-folkie.
In the grand scheme of things, Bowie and Bolan are not all that different. Both of them got their start in the folk scene, where they met and became friends. They recorded in the same studios and shared the same producer—Tony Visconti—on many of their projects. They even played a show or two together. Bowie, though, looms large—an iconic figure with the discography to match. And even though Bolan and T. Rex came first, they seem to be viewed as glam rock also-rans. Why is that, Klinger? Bolan's story is the quintessential rock and roll tragedy; T. Rex, despite never having the big hit, sold incredibly well—albeit mostly in the UK; and the group as a whole has been fairly influential throughout the following decades. What gives?
Klinger: Well, part of the issue might be that T. Rex, Bolan in particular, became an absolute phenomenon in Britain in the early 1970s. They had an unbroken string of ten top five hits in the UK from 1970 to 1973. And Bolan was, for a time there, the biggest pop star they had going. Elton John sat in the back to play piano with him on television. Actual, honest-to-God Beatles were going out of their way to position themselves near him. (OK, it was Ringo, who directed a documentary about them, but still...) Here in the US, we might look at him as a cult artist, but over there he was pop royalty.
On the other hand, part of his success was due to his massive popularity with the young female set. Not only is that fame the ficklest of all the fames, but it also has a nasty habit of souring the critics, who, let's face it, are typically less successful with the ladies than Marc Bolan. Ultimately though, I think we're the ones who have missed out somehow, because Electric Warrior is an awesome album. Don't get me wrong—I love it here in 'Merica, but think how much better it would be if our oldies stations played a crap-ton of T. Rex.
Mendelsohn: I wouldn't mind if there was a little more T. Rex on the classic rock stations on this side of the pond. It would definitely break up the monotony of the same six songs they insist on playing. The only problem there is I would then get sick of hearing whatever T. Rex song they chose to play just like I'm sick of that one Cheap Trick song and that one Black Sabbath song and those two Led Zeppelin songs and that one song by Tom Petty that drives me bananas but I still sing along with it just because I know all the words. Oh, and that Aerosmith song. Thankfully it will be another couple of years before we get to Aerosmith.
Anyway, I would probably grow to despise whatever T. Rex song they chose to play (it would definitely be "Bang a Gong (Get It On)"). And that would be terrible because I too enjoy the awesomeness that is Electric Warrior. But now, just for the sake of argument, I'm going to tell you that this album could be better. This album could be better, Klinger, so much better.
Klinger: OK, A). I meant that I wish we could hear more from the T. Rex catalog of hits, but they weren't hits here in the US. Sorry if I didn't make that more clear. And B). I have absolutely no stinking idea what you're talking about when you say that Electric Warrior could be "so much better". It could, I suppose, be a little better. Maybe he could have moved "Get It On" and "Motivator" further apart from one another so you'd be less likely to notice that they're the same basic song, but that's about it. I'm finding it hard to find much fault with this album.
What we have here is an artist who is clearly quite connected to both rock's past (that's Chuck Berry's "Little Queenie" Bolan references when he sings "Meanwhile, I'm still thinkin'" at the the of "Get It On") and its present (if "Lean Woman Blues" had more confessional lyrics, it would be an early '70s John Lennon track). But ultimately, this is the work of someone whose love for rock 'n' roll is insanely infectious. The slippery grooves T. Rex delivers on songs like "Mambo Sun" and, yes, "Get It On" are so contagious that they somehow make my car run better.
Mendelsohn: The infectious grooves of Electric Warrior make everything better, it's true. Your car drives better, you kids are better behaved, your dog comes when its called anytime T. Rex is playing. But sometimes, just sometimes, whenever Bolan is laying down those sweet, sweet grooves, I find myself wishing he would ratchet it up just a notch or two. I always getting the feeling that this ex-folky is singing softly into the microphone while staring into my wife's eyes and that makes me uncomfortable. That kind of crooning is perfectly acceptable on "Cosmic Dancer" and "Girl", but whenever I drop the needle on this record, I just wanted a little screaming out of "Mambo Sun" and "The Motivator". I don't get a much more animated Bolan until we hit "The Rip Off" and then the album ends and I'm left wanting more.
The great thing about this album, though, is between the opening track and the closing track you get a great tour of the possibilities of rock 'n' roll. Electric Warrior is a like a guided bus ride with Bolan giving commentary. You get to drive through all these areas of rock without ever staying very long. There are the early years, with nods to Berry and Bo Diddley, there's a quick stop when rock is on the uptick thanks to the Beatles and the Velvet Underground, before moving through the re-imagined blues of the Rolling Stones and then nodding to what would be become Bowie's signature contribution to rock. And all the while, Bolan is upfront on the microphone, strumming his guitar providing the perfect rock music soundtrack for rock 'n' roll.
Klinger: See now, it seems that you like this album a lot. Was that so hard? Sometimes as we go back and forth about the albums that the Great List hands us, I get the sense that we occasionally start pining for the albums that we wish they were. This album is kind of a case in point. When you hear "glam rock masterpiece" you might expect to hear crunchy Mick Ronson guitars. But no, not really. Nor are there soaring Mott the Hoople choruses or Sladesque fist pumpers. This really is a whole different animal, and if we've set our expectations to far in one direction, we're only going to be disappointed. I'm sure I must be guilty of this myself, and maybe it's something that everyone who takes their marching orders from the critical hive mind has a tendency to do too.
Mendelsohn: To be frank, Klinger, I love this album. L.U.V. Love it. That doesn't change me wanting a little more action from time to time, but I normally just play T. Rex's non-album single "20th Century Boy" and that tends to satisfy the jonesing. I realize that it is Bolan's laid-back, stripped down and groove-infused approach to rock that makes this album so undeniably great. Take, for instance, "The Motivator", an excellent song that could be a step or two faster and a whole lot louder, but in doing so, it would probably lose that its salacious nature to the a vortex of feedback. And no one wants that.
Klinger: At the end of the day, though, we all need to eventually let go and the music be what it is—as difficult as that can be sometimes. Of course, sometimes is pretty stinkin' easy, especially when you're given a delectable bit of chunky rock confectionery as "Jeepster", a song so great that I have actually been known to hit the back button right toward the end of the song just so I can hear it again from the top. Songs like that don't come along very often, especially for those of us who are constantly trying to move on to the next thing, but "Jeepster" gets me to do that every time. Maybe it's that foot-stomping thing they do throughout the song, which could also be the most rudimentary tap-dance routine of all time, but it brings me way more joy than I could ever hope for. "Jeepster".
Mendelsohn: I think Bolan sums it up pretty neatly in "Life's a Gas" —"It really doesn't matter, life is a gas, I hope it's going to last"—I hope this albums lasts as well.