T. Rex: Tanx / Bolan's Zip Gun / Futuristic Dragon / Work in Progress
The agony, the ecstasy, and the T. Rextasy are all on display in Rhino’s latest batch of glam reissues.
On the 1970s glam rock spectrum, T. Rex falls somewhere between Gary Glitter and David Bowie; more sophisticated, both musically and lyrically, than the former (and much less creepy when delivering lyrics such as "Come on little girl, won't you take my hand"), the band shared much with the latter but never reached his level of genius. T. Rex mastermind Marc Bolan and Bowie both evolved from folky guitar strummers to pansexual glam strumpets more or less simultaneously and enjoyed a sort of dialectical competition over the years, but whereas Bowie issued a steady stream of often impeccable albums, T. Rex was burdened by the tyranny of the LP format; it released great songs, but its albums often oscillated wildly between stunning bursts of glam grandeur and lengthy, barren stretches of plodding filler.
Hot on the heels of a recent set of reissues, Rhino expands its T. Rex output with four more albums—three proper LPs and one collection of loose ends. The last batch ran from The Slider, released in 1972 at the height of "T. Rextasy," the band's invincible period of British chart domination, through 1977's Dandy in the Underworld, which might have portended a comeback had it not been for Bolan's tragic automotive demise. To this, Rhino adds Tanx, released to diminished sales in 1973 but well-deserving of a critical revisit; Bolan's Zip Gun, a 1975 dud that merits its obscurity; Futuristic Dragon, an enjoyable 1976 return to glam form; and Work in Progress, a collection of Bolan material that never made it to T. Rex albums, some for good reason, others more inexplicably.
One reason for Tanx's commercial failure was its lack of the immediacy for which glam was known. A pastiche of overblown 1950s teen-pop drama, classic blues/boogie scales run through distortion pedals, and Warholian camp imagery, all embellished with symphonic pomp and circumstance, glam delivered a visceral set of thrills but required the catchy hooks that made "Get It On (Bang a Gong)" (off 1971's Electric Warrior) T.Rex's one full-fledged hit in the U.S. Tanx instead begins with the restrained "Tenement Lady," which switches gears in an even more relaxed direction around the 2/3 mark. But what doomed the album on the charts is precisely what earns it reinspection today: the songs, for the most part, flow cohesively from one fractured mini-narrative to the next, telling tales of "Electric Slim and the Hen Factory," "The Street and Babe Shadow," and closer "Left Hand Luke and the Beggar Boys," which practically reaches the barroom-pathos heights of Bowie's "Lady Stardust." Tanx has its share of filler ("Born to Boogie" chokes a lousy riff to death; "Life is Strange" has lyrics even less insightful than its title), but the general brevity of the songs keeps things jaunting along, and second track "Rapids" delivers the glam goods. "Broken-Hearted Blues" even sounds vaguely like pre-coke-demon Elton John at his best.
By 1975 T. Rextasy had given way to "T. Rexcess," as Bolan descended into a druggy haze that clouded his songwriting. Bolan's Zip Gun contains enough good moments to preclude classification as a disaster, but just barely. "Light of Love" opens things on a glam-funk note, and "Precious Star" offers irresistibly creamy doo-wop, but dreary tracks like "Space Boss" and "Think Zinc" repeat themselves into oblivion and must have left listeners wondering if the record was skipping. An example from the latter's lyrics:
All my faithful people child, you gotta think zinc
All my faithful people child, you gotta think zinc
**Repeat x 2
Oh hmmm hmmm
Think zinc, think zinc baby
Think zinc, think zinc baby
Believe me, there's nothing fascinating hiding behind those asterisks, either. Bolan biographer Mark Paytress makes a valiant effort to redeem Bolan's Zip Gun in his liner notes, crediting the album with "mak[ing] a virtue of trance-like repetition" that anticipated industrial and hip-hop, but it's highly unconvincing (Paytress extends his argument to comical lengths, saying of monotonous closing single "Zip Gun Boogie," "there is a perverse delight in the song, the sheer nerve of releasing a 45 so forced and flawed that it defies conventional critical judgment").
By the time Futuristic Dragon arrived, Bolan was considered a has-been. But the album defies expectation, presenting a surprisingly consistent set of tunes dovetailing with the burgeoning disco scene without entirely partaking of it. The salaciously leering "Dreamy Lady" and "Ride My Wheels" are full of lush orchestration and soul-style backing vocals (Bolan's long-term partner Gloria Jones contributed heavily to late-period T. Rex), "Jupiter Liar" bangs the old gong with glee (Bolan does seem a bit desperate to have his earlier hit remembered, also name-checking it on "Calling All Destroyers"), and "My Little Baby" indulges in refreshing 1950s-style retro-pop. Bolan's lyrics aren't quite as engaging as they were on Tanx's story-songs, but they outdistance Zip Gun considerably, even if friendly competitor Bowie beat Bolan to a Mickey Mouse reference by four years, and did it more cleverly.
The album's campy retro charm almost qualifies it (and not the film Shock Treatment) as the true sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and it even scored a fluke hit with "New York City," which takes Bolan's lyrical minimalism to new extremes, with only four repeated lines in a four-minute song. I'm not sure what the symbolic connotations of a woman with a frog in her hand are, but the song still works, coming off as more lively and playful than the repetitive drones of 1975. Indeed, for most of its history T. Rex was equivalent to Marc Bolan, and the backing musicians maintained a studied anonymity. But Steve Currie's bubbly bass, somewhat less distinct on earlier albums, carries the day on Dragon, while the instrumental "Theme for a Dragon" briefly redirects attention from Bolan to Dino Dines and his bombastic organ and keyboards.
Finally, Work in Progress gives us two sides of Bolan on two discs, to uneven effect. The second disc ("In the Studio") tortures the attention span of the most patient listener with tedious outtakes—the fact that these songs weren't good enough to replace something like "Think Zinc" already speaks volumes. "Bust My Ball," "Savage Beethoven": is it even possible these could have worked? Doubtful, though Bolan gets credit for recognizing the fact. Final track—after 21 grueling misfires—"Write Me a Song" is okay, but that's about the best that can be said. "20th Century Baby," the one other decent song, is better represented on the first disc ("In Private"), a 33-song collection of solo acoustic demos and the treasure of this entire set of reissues. Much of the disc sounds like some overlooked bedroom masterpiece from the heyday of lo-fi 1990s indie rock. "Auto Machine" raves on like a lost Buddy Holly tune, "Skateboard" brings Gloria Jones in for a stunningly effective duet, and "Rollin' Stone" takes its single lyric into unexpectedly haunting Nick Drake territory. The disc also contains a healthy dose of spartan blues. Nearly everything is kept under two minutes, which helps tremendously: extended in length and doused in ornate studio production, these songs might show their seams more flagrantly. But kept brief and skeletal, they shine. "In Private" might sound closer to Guided by Voices than the usual T. Rex album, but it loses nothing for the incongruity.
The other albums, too, are padded out with bonus material. Each gets its own "alternate version" on a separate disc made up of studio outtakes, which will be of interest mostly to musicologists or T. Rex fanatics. On Zip Gun, for instance, "Golden Belt" was uninteresting as itself, and it remains so in an earlier incarnation as "Dishing Fish Wop." Four versions of the decent ballad "Till Dawn" are overkill, and an interminable nine-minute live version of "Zip Gun Boogie" makes one grateful for missing the rest of that show. Dragon's bonus disc is the most engaging, with various takes of the album's demented, free-form introductory track, more metallic guitar sounds on "My Little Baby," and versions of "Dreamy Lady" that show it evolving from formless reggae vamp to discofied glam.
Better than the reconstructed albums are the "extended play" bonus tracks of non-album singles and outtakes. Dragon, for instance, gets the acoustic "Life's An Elevator," which overcomes a trite metaphor to exert a genuinely moving emotional pull. Tanx fares best, with three excellent pre-album glam singles that include "20th Century Boy." If guitar riffs were theorems, this would be one irrefutable little proof, as meaningless as a tautology but just as undeniable. Even the presumed b-sides here are great (if the reissues fall short on one front, it's providing info on these tracks; Rhino essentially licensed this whole set from Edsel, and it would have done well to clean up the confusion on that front). Fittingly, Zip Gun gets drivel for its extras: a mediocre cover of "Do You Wanna Dance?" and a downright atrocious cover unrigorously titled "Dock of the Bay."
Altogether, these reissues make a case not that T. Rex released a vast series of masterpiece albums, but that the group consisted of much more than the one hit single to which America cultural memory would reduce it. It's a more modest claim, but a legitimate one, backed up by audible evidence. As Bolan says at the end of the 11-second extra "Xmas Riff" with Austin-Powers-worthy charm, "yeah!"