In the late 1970s, if one of my music-snob friends had walked into my college dorm room while I was listening to Electric Warrior. I would have been ridiculed endlessly. Any of them would have been aghast at the silly pop, but little did I know that lurking among the thousands of screaming British teenyboppers, there was a smattering of us guilty pleasurers who had some crazy love for the album.
Fifty years – and many furtive listening sessions – later, I’m at peace with my soft spot for the odd admixture of an album. I am now convinced of its quirky genius and think that every note is perfect, even if it is often perfect nonsense. For 44 minutes, T. Rex‘s lead sorcerer, Marc Bolan, walks, step after assured step, through a world of poetic gibberish with absolute commitment and somehow magically nails it. As Rose in the movie Titanic says of Picasso’s paintings, “There’s truth, but no logic.”
“Girl, I’m just a Jeepster for your love,” Bolan sings in his lascivious whisper. I thoroughly get the message, but I can’t explain it. And what the hell is a Jeepster, for God’s sake? It all sounds as if J.R.R. Tolkien had joined the ranks of Led Zeppelin, and some groupie slipped them a cocktail of mind-numbing, libido-stoking drugs that took hold just as they plugged into their towering Marshall amps like the one silhouetted in gold on the iconic black album cover.
A few years earlier, Bolan started the band as Tyrannosaurus Rex with the Lord of the Rings-sounding Steve Peregrin Took, playing dreamy, acoustic psychedelia. Then he went electric and scored a British hit with “Ride the White Swan”. Bolan perfected the formula with the 1971 release of his second T. Rex album, Electric Warrior, even scoring an international hit with the sui generis, sexed-up, spaced-out boogie of “Bang a Gong”.
The song begins with its inescapable, muddy bass riff, then is punctuated by the sharp-edged squawks of Bolan’s electric guitar. The lyrics start rock ‘n’ roll sexy enough: “You’re dirty and sweet, clad in black, don’t look back, and I love you.” But soon, without a trace of irony, Bolan follows that up with, “Well, you’re slim and your weak” Um, OK? “You got the teeth of the hydra upon you.” Uh, teeth of the what?
As this paean continues to sing the praises of his girl with the “hubcap diamond star halo”, you are either along for the phantasmagorical funk ride or off to find something that makes some damn sense.
But “Bang a Gong” kicks off the album’s second side. The first track is the fuzzier but harder choogling “Mambo Sun” with its thumping drums and splashes and squiggles of strangled guitar riffing. The wall of sound created by producer Tony Visconti pulsates as Bolan lays down ominous entreaties. “I got a powderkeg lip, and my wig’s all pooped—for you,” he sings, accompanied by the ethereal and slightly spooky voices of Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman aka Flo and Eddie aka The Turtles. With an earnest “Take me!”, the song powers into a sinuous jam, Bolan trading shouts with his own twisted lead guitar and ends with—wait, what?—the faint sound of strings.
The elegiac “Cosmic Dancer” has Bolan singing in a wavering, earnest voice with poignant-sounding strings. At one point, he sings, “Is it wrong to understand / The fear that dwells inside a man,” but then he slides into his flights of fancy with “What’s it like to be a loon / I liken it to a balloon.” The song ends with two dueling heavily processed guitars playing across strings, angelic chorus, and drums that slowly intensify.
Then it’s on to the jaunty “Jeepster”. Here one can see Bolan as the elvish ancestor to Tim Curry’s Dr. Frank N. Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show: campy but taking his silliness quite seriously, thank you. “You slide so good / With bones so fair / You’ve got the universe reclining in your hair,” he sings. Amid the impressive growls and fuzz-toned guitars, Bolan leaves with a final audible inhale and sneers, “Girl, I’m just a vampire for your love / I’m going to suck ya.”
The next tune, “Monolith”, has Bolan in full ballad mode with Flo and Eddie’s celestial woo-wooing behind him as he sings sadly that “The throne of time / Is a kingly thing / From whence you know / We all do begin / And dressed as you are girl / In your fashions of fate / Baby it’s too late.” A highlight is Bolan’s bluesy, meandering guitar and his most-emotional singing.
“Lean Woman Blues” starts with one of the few moments where Bolan seems to be poking a bit of fun at himself, counting in the band with “One and two and buckle my shoe.” The big-beat electric blues has him singing, “I’m like a beggar in the sand / With the sky in his hand / And I’m blue.” The song is home to one of my favorite moments with Bolan gathering himself for a wordless vocalization—something like “sna” but sounding as if he decided halfway through to inhale the syllable rather than exhale it.
Bolan and company go full sci-fi with “Planet Queen” with lyrics like “Dragon head / Machine of lead / Cadillac King / Dancer in the midnight.” The song ends with congas and acoustic guitars locked in a hypnotic groove and Bolan choking out vocalized beats, the former Turtles creepily singing over and over: “Give me your daughter!”
“Girl” is a quiet love song with a strummed acoustic guitar and a lonely flugelhorn. “Motivator” is another fuzz-guitar slow boogie that’s a paean to a “Mean motivator…I love the velvet hat / You know the one that caused a revolution.” The song takes off at the end, with the band getting a lift from the entrance of the string section.
“I could have loved you girl like a planet / I could have chained your heart to a star” is the sad if puzzling beginning to “Life Is a Gas”, with line after line of densely meaningful nonsense. The saddest moment, unintentionally, on the album is Bolan—who died before he reached 30—singing: “Life Is a Gas”, and adding “I hope it’s going to last.”
The closer, “Rip Off” is the album’s loosest sounding song, with Bolan finding his unfettered self, shouting out crazy line after crazy line and interrupting it all with great rock ‘n’ roll shrieks. During the bridge, as the music rises, he sings: “I’m the King of the highway / I’m the Queen of the hop / You should see me at the Governors ball / Doing the rip-off bop / I’m a social person / I’m the creature in disguise / There’s a man with a whip on his silver lip / Living inside my eyes.” The wild-ride of a song ends with Bolan wordless exhortations around a sax solo, then evolves to a long, sustained note reminiscent of the end of the Beatles’ “Abbey Road”.
Since 1971, Electric Warrior has found its way onto all sorts of best-of lists and soundtracks. Bolan said in interviews that the album—which was recorded in Los Angeles, New York, and London—was influenced by and directed at America; that it was more “direct”, which apparently meant lustful and less ethereal.
In England, he had been riding the crest of “T.Rextasy” fandom that echoed Beatlemania hysteria. After two hit singles, Bolan performed on “Top of the Pops”, and someone dabbed glitter on his face. So matched with a new shiny outfit instead of his usual hippy clothes, he is often credited with helping to launch glam rock. His friend and rival, David Bowie, likewise experimented with glam and science fiction on 1972’s Ziggy Stardust album, though Bowie successfully chameleoned on to other personas and ever-escalating successes.
Bolan followed in 1972 with The Slider, which feels like a little brother to the epic and lavish absurdity of Electric Warrior. On subsequent albums, T.Rex’s sound is thinner even as it reached for a broader palette, including gospel and R&B, and the band disintegrated as did Bolan’s health. Having been idolized by thousands, Bolan must have taken his diminished status hard, but he continued recording and making appearances.
When Bolan died in a car crash in southwest London in September 1977, he left behind crying fans and a stunted legacy. Still, he had planted the seeds of little Electric Warriors across the rock and roll landscape, from the New York Dolls to Pixies to Morrissey, all of whom acknowledged his influence and that of his most successful album.
With Electric Warrior, Bolan infected a number of us who sympathetically vibrated to the transcendence embedded in his abstract expressionism. In his way, he was carrying on the rebelliousness of rock ‘n’ roll. He bumped rock into some eddying pools of androgynous experimentation, pushed past the ordinary into the half-buried logic of dreams, and strutted past the expectations of earthbound storytellers. In 1971, the soft-spoken British-born Mark Feld leaped from playing rock to being a rock star, fully and wholly becoming an Electric Warrior.