In addition to being America’s only rock ’n’ roll magazine, CREEM happens to be the world’s best rock ’n’ roll magazine—and, it could be argued, the world’s most masturbatory. Because we like ourselves a little too much, every now and again, we’re going to review past CREEM pieces in a series called CREEMAINS. Expect the most deliciously spoiled CREEM, like our take on Lester Bangs’ 1972 review of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., or here, in our reevaluation of Marc Bolan’s legacy on what would’ve been his 75th birthday. Lap it up! And check out more from the CREEM archive, here.
In the July 1973 issue of CREEM, Cameron Crowe talked with T. Rex frontman Marc Bolan during a U.S. tour. There was a sense, at the time, that the bright star of T. Rex was growing dim. The glam rock band had failed to have a charting U.S. single in the 18 months since “Bang A Gong”, some dates on the tour had been canceled due to underselling tickets, and, in England, the kids were getting hooked on something else: Ziggy Stardust.
Yes, the T.Rextasy was wearing off, and Bowie was soon to break in America. Bolan was keenly aware of a looming shift of the spotlight, though he appeared relatively unfazed in the interview with Crowe. “I don’t consider David [Bowie] to be even remotely near big enough to give me any competition,” he told CREEM.
Throughout the interview, the frontman oscillates between a faux-modesty and an unfiltered cockiness that’s signature Bolan. (If you’ve read as many interviews with the guy as I have, you get it.) He makes things up, fudges some numbers, and says things like, “I don’t consider myself to be successful,” and, “I’m the biggest selling poet in England,” in the same thought. Then, at the very end, he gives a bone-chilling remark to conclude the interview—something totally piercing, if you read the article in the context of today. “When I’m 75,” he starts, “I’ll be able to tell you whether I’ve been truly successful or not.”
Bolan would’ve turned 75 on September 30, 2022, had he not tragically died in a car accident just two weeks shy of his 30th birthday, on September 16, 1977.
With the luxury and wisdom of time on our side, I think we can all answer with a resounding “yes,” that Bolan did become truly successful. Just maybe not in the conventional sense.
Hear me out: Does “Jeepster” come on your Spotify “radio” after listening to any 1970s rock ‘n’ roll? Does “Mambo Sun” play at every bar you walk into? Is an algorithm-derived playlist called “This Is T. Rex” something that is “suggested for you?” (Another good reason to get off Spotify.) If you’re like me, you might’ve found that the music you love is being overplayed. But that wasn’t really the case while Marc Bolan was alive, particularly in the U.S. That didn’t stop him from shit-talking Bowie’s rising fame.
“‘Starman’ only got to about 12 on the charts,” he told CREEM. “Which is not good. And the other single didn't happen at all—‘John I'm Only Dancing’—it was very bad, actually.” This is all pretty laughable, because we know how the story plays out: Bowie becomes a mega star, Bolan a faded light. But we know, too, that Bolan’s influence was still astronomical on the glitter movement, on artists like Suzi Quatro, Slade, the Sweet, Elton John, Hello, Kiss, the Ramones, Guns N Roses, Motley Crue, and definitely.
Manufacturing another T. Rex was something record companies and producers were doing with British glam bands throughout the ’70s.
“Essentially, what they tried to do with Bowie was create another Marc Bolan,” Bolan tells Crowe, using the third person. He’s not entirely wrong: manufacturing another T. Rex was something record companies and producers were doing with British glam bands throughout the ’70s. According to Tony Visconti, Bolan and Bowie’s long-time producer, “Marc and I innovated a lot of things, we had a T. Rex sound...It was an enviable formula…every group who wants me wants that T. Rex sound. Bowie wants that T. Rex sound, he’s constantly looking for it, too.”
As for the “T. Rex sound”? “It’s made up of a number of components,” said Visconti. “I’ll gladly tell you what they are—the main ingredient of course was Marc Bolan.”
My Marc Bolan obsession began around the time I was 10, in the very early 2000s. I remember hitting play again and again on my discman, a burned copy of 1971’s Electric Warrior kicking me in the chest every time. I’ve had internet access most of my life, and my mission from that moment on was to gather as much as I could about the subject. What the bloody hell was this “glam rock” he invented? And how did his music sound so good?
I identified with him. Actually, I took it a step further. I convinced myself we were the same person: both of us are short, Jewish (Bolan’s real last name was Feld), and our names have the same number of syllables. I believed that I’d grow up to be just like him. He was and remains my idol. No, we’re friends. I get him, and he gets me. I had a true freak as a role model who wore feathers, glitter, and make-up, who torpedoed through life on rock ‘n’ roll’s silver-backed wings, a bright orange Les Paul as his pilot. On stage, he was a bombastic, sexed-up animal; off, he was deathly self-conscious, albeit high on his own ego. The classic capital-S Star, he was my teacher.
And yet, despite his vast influence on my life, my Spotify account, and the careers of many others, Bolan is not exactly a household name. “You know, T. Rex?” you say to your own mother, across the dinner table, who is squinting, flipping through a mental Rolodex. Only when you explain further (“You knowwww…‘I was dancing when I was 12…’ No? Ok… ‘Get it on / Bang a gong…’”), will she nod with an, “Ohhhhh, sure.”
So what happened? During Bolan’s short time on earth, he experienced only a brief window of success in Great Britain, inspiring a mania-inducing “T.Rextasy” in his fans (the term coined by his friend and publicist, B.P. Fallon). It lasted a little over two years: stemming from T. Rex’s hit single “Ride a White Swan” from October 1970, and dwindling after the Tanx album, released March 1973.
He was and remains my idol. No, we’re friends. I get him, and he gets me.
Riding high (on his own White Swan), Bolan attempted to break into the U.S. music market. Somehow, though, his brand of glam didn't quite resonate there. Tanx tanked, reaching 102 on the American album charts. The same went for 1974’s Light of Love, which peaked at 205. He recorded three more albums, which weren’t even released in the U.S. until after his death. From ‘74 on, it appeared he was grasping at former fame, yearning for the stardom to come back. It never really did, and he careened into a years-long downward spiral involving drugs and alcohol abuse. Where he had once aroused a frenzied hysteria in the U.K. equal to the Beatles and his hero Elvis Presley, critics were quick to point out another comparison to his idol: that later in life, both musicians suffered darker, schlubbier days. Rather insensitively, his physical and mental health became a source for insult comedy.
But then he met Gloria Jones, the Motown artist, “Tainted Love” singer, and songwriter behind Gladys Knight’s hit, “If I Were Your Woman.” They had a son, Rolan, in September 1975. Boland began to pursue other creative outlets, hosting TV interviews, and writing a monthly column in Record Mirror. He was sobering up, allegedly; in her book, Rock Bottom: Dark Moments in Music Babylon, Pamela Des Barres explains, “He got excited again, cut out the lethal drinking, started an exercise program, began to eat healthy foods.” By 1977, Bolan had his own TV variety show called MARC. The series featured punk and new wave bands like the Jam, Eddie and the Hotrods, and Generation X, as well as performances of his own disco’d out tracks, old and new. He looked like his former delicate, elvish, androgynous self. Bowie even appeared on the show, singing the then-unreleased “Heroes,” on MARC’s sixth and last episode. It was recorded on September 7, 1977—10 days before Bolan would die in a car crash—and exactly one month to the day after Elvis Presely was found dead.
When the episode aired on September 28, 1977, 12 days after Bolan’s death, viewers were met with an eerie final shot. It’s a jam between Bolan and Bowie, later revealed to be the framework for a new song called “Sleeping Next To You”. As the credits roll, Bowie moves to sing into the mic, and as Bolan steps up, the T. Rex singer slips and slowly falls out of frame. The music stops, Bowie is left standing alone and laughing, looking down at him. The screen then cuts to the Granada TV logo and the episode ends. It’s a confusing moment with no resolve, and it’s the last public image of Marc Bolan.
I recently spoke to my friend, musical collaborator, fellow Bolan fan, and mononym, Josephine, about T. Rex’s particular greatness. Josephine is a trans woman, self-proclaimed shape-shifter of a songwriter, and she fronts the Josephine Network. She draws heavily on glam rock, but has weaved a complex web of styles. She says that someone like Bolan, who was “visibly queer, to hold so much power and space in rock ‘n’ roll, is super important… it gave me hope.”
For her, Bolan has an aura, an energy: “It’s super confident,” she says, which is, “an intoxicating thing to somebody who’s trying to find themselves… especially if you’re different in any way. Having so much self-belief is really cool, really positive.”
Siouxsie Sioux, to name a famous Bolanite, would also agree. In a 1997 Channel 4 documentary on Bolan, Dandy in the Underworld, she says the T. Rex frontman gave us “something that was going against this rigid form of…‘boys, girls’ and how they behave within society, what roles they play. It really made you consider that you weren’t a freak if you didn’t fit in.”
Bowie was known for this ethos, too. Cameron Crowe, in his CREEM interview with Bolan, couldn’t help veering into Bowie territory almost immediately—whether Bolan is feuding with him is the first question Crowe asks. There’s no question that T. Rex lives forever in Bowie’s shadow.
“Every artist wants Bowie’s career,” says Josephine. I would have to agree. Constant creative shifts from album to album, Bowie pushed every boundary; yet he acquired a unique position where the public was ready to accept him, at almost every step. Why couldn’t they accept Bolan?
It might literally have to do with fatphobia. It might also be homophobia. While both artists presented as queer, the Ziggy Stardust look—the more extreme, more alien—was perhaps somehow more digestible to the masses; queerness packaged as sci-fi entertainment. Bolan’s blunt androgyny, an expression of an allusion to bi-sexuality—people just weren’t ready to accept it. Bolan “stuck his neck out” as June Child, his first wife, said, taking the first leap against adversity. Bowie followed.
“It’s important that every queer artist gets their just due,” Josephine says. “They’re both beautiful. There’s a lightness to what [Bolan] does. Where Bowie is, like, more heavy.”
It's true. Bolan brewed a strange concoction of Tolkein fantasy and abstract lyricism, whispering and moaning over ’50s pastiche rock ‘n’ roll. T. Rex was undoubtedly unique, especially for its time, but the music is also uncomplicated: four chords at most, and usually a blues. It’s not challenging, it’s just cool. With Bowie, there’s a sophistication, at least musically: ie. chords, structure, lyrics that are literal and narrative. His songs contain operatic movements, like mini pop concertos. If Bowie is the intellectual brain, T. Rex is the animal.
If Bowie is the intellectual brain, T. Rex is the animal.
Bowie himself would agree. “I don’t feel like a rock and roll animal, even one iota,” he said in a 1996 interview for Dutch TV. This was almost 25 years after Ziggy Stardust, and he’s basically 50 years old. He reiterates: “I’m a pop singer—much more a pop singer.” Would Bolan have said something like that, had he lived to be the same age?
I doubt it. One of Bolan’s last singles, somewhat of a comeback hit in England, was a song called “I Love To Boogie”. Released in June, 1976, it’s another three-chord romper. Sometimes lightness is what we need. There’s a need for the carnal brain to kick in: don’t think, just feel. Marc Bolan—as I know him—had a cosmic power to feel and be felt, and I know I’m not alone.
Does that count as some semblance of success? Was the prophecy, foretold in 1973 to Cameron Crowe, fulfilled? No doubt, Bolanites everywhere would unite in a resounding “yes.”