Today a double album’s worth of material is being released to celebrate the U.K.’s legends of glam rock – Marc Bolan and his band, T.Rex. Coinciding with the group’s long-overdue induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in November, AngelHeaded Hipster (its name culled from Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem, “Howl”) features 26 covers of classic T-Rex songs by a diverse collection of artists ranging from Kesha to King Khan and U2 to Nick Cave.
AngelHeaded Hipster is produced by the late Hal Willner – who sadly passed away from complications from Covid-19 this past April. In the liner notes, Willner said, “As I was listening and getting familiar with all of Bolan’s work, I discovered that this guy was actually a great composer…I put him in the same pantheon as other composers that I’ve explored before (Kurt Weill, Thelonious Monk, Nino Rota, etc.). So, the concept for the album became to show Bolan as a composer…”
And he goes on to do exactly that.
The album kicks off with a surprising heartfelt version of “Children of the Revolution” by Kesha. The artist formerly known as Ke$ha, popular for her dance pop hits, rapping, and electronic jams, is accompanied by MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer (known for kicking out the jams), Elvis Costello/Cracker bassist Davey Faragher, Roland Bolan (Marc Bolan’s son) on backup vocals, and an orchestra. While at times her vocal sounds somewhat affected (in that way most pop singers do), at others it’s almost as natural to the song as Bolan’s. She perfectly nails all of the screams and shrieks that are integral to Bolan’s work, and is complimented by horns throughout. The saxophone on the outro is a genius addition to the song.
The first preview from the album was Nick Cave doing “Cosmic Dancer.” Giving it the baritone vocal/piano treatment, Cave delivers a delicate version of the song that sounds like it would fit in nicely in a Cave concert, right between “Watching Alice” and “Into My Arms.”
Joan Jett’s take on “Jeepster” is a strutting rockabilly rendition that remains fairly true to the original. But instead of Bolan’s smooth flowing vocals, Jett’s “Bad Reputation” I-may-have-smoked-one-cigarette-too-many rasp drives us through the song.
Peaches takes “Solid Gold, Easy Action” into electronic territory with programmed sounds, synthesizers, and an almost-rapped vocal in line with her breakthrough song, “Fuck the Pain Away.”
“I Love to Boogie,” is perfect in the hands of King Khan and his affinity for garage rock. The song kicks off with a sitar (compliments of Marc Ribot) and then blasts into a ’50s sock hop with King Khan seemingly possessed by Bolan as he delivers the lyrics in their full-on glam glory. Buster Poindexter is credited for a little commentating toward the end of the track, making it Hot Hot Hot (sorry, I had to).
U2 (featuring Elton John on the piano) does an underwhelming version of “Get it On (Bang a Gong),” with Bono’s breathy vocals loud in the mix and lacking the personality always so present in Bolan’s.
Father John Misty takes “Main Man” through a more adult contemporary run, complete with a string section and piano. Misty never attempts to mimic Bolan’s vocal approach, instead allowing his own strong voice to carry the song – which it does very very very well.
Jane’s Addiction/Porno for Pyros frontman Perry Ferrell channels Bolan for most of his cover of “Rock On.” But he alternates this with his very distinctive signature singing style, recognizable in any Jane’s Addiction song, that takes his voice to the highest registers of the music scale. While he takes a softer approach than what you’d hear in Jane’s Addiction, it’s this alternating style that makes for a great version of this composition. Ferrell’s singing and the programmed sounds, and occasional vocal effects, combined with horns breathe new life into “Rock On.”
As if listening to a collection of T.Rex covers isn’t already nostalgic enough, when Nena – the German synth pop star who took over the charts with “99 Luftballons,” and again with her English version, “99 Red Balloons” – tackles the first song from The Slider, “Metal Guru,” you can’t help but be transported back to 1983. Kicked off with some ’80s synth sounds, Nena takes you through a reimagined “Metal Guru,” that allows her powerful voice to shine all over the track.
New York Dolls frontman David Johansen steps in for “Bang a Gong (Get It On) (Reprise),” giving it a live sounding old swinging jazzy feel with horns, guitar solos, piano, and killer female backing vocals. His second appearance on the album (first as his alter ego, Buster Poindexter), he takes the song to a height U2 and Elton John just couldn’t manage.
AngelHeaded Hipster is a celebration of both Marc Bolan and T.Rex, and of the work of Hal Willner. The album’s varied approach – taking musicians from all walks of life – allows for a tour of T.Rex’s career through the songwriting chops of Bolan. His capabilities as a singer, performer and general rocker are already etched in the history of rock n’ roll – just ask David Bowie, who references Bolan in the lyrics to “All the Young Dudes” (written for Mott the Hoople). This is a tribute that does its job: it presents Bolan as a composer who created work that can stretch beyond the boundaries of any genre. And it’s great.
AngelHeaded Hipster: The Songs Of Marc Bolan and T. Rex Track List:
1. Children Of The Revolution – Kesha
2. Cosmic Dancer – Nick Cave
3. Jeepster – Joan Jett
4. Scenescof – Devendra Banhart
5. Life’s A Gas – Lucinda Williams
6. Solid Gold, Easy Action – Peaches
7. Dawn Storm – BØRNS
8. Hippy Gumbo – Beth Orton
9. I Love To Boogie – King Khan
10. Beltane Walk – Gaby Moreno
11. Bang A Gong (Get It On) – U2 feat. Elton John
12. Diamond Meadows – John Cameron Mitchell
13. Ballrooms Of Mars – Emily Haines
1. Main Man – Father John Misty
2. Rock On – Perry Farrell
3. The Street and Babe Shadow – Elysian Fields
4. The Leopards – Gavin Friday
5. Metal Guru – Nena
6. Teenage Dream – Marc Almond
7. Organ Blues – Helga Davis
8. Planet Queen – Todd Rundgren
9. Great Horse – Jessie Harris
10. Mambo Sun – Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl
11. Pilgrim’s Tale – Victoria Williams with Julian Lennon
12. Bang A Gong (Get It On) Reprise – David Johansen
13. She Was Born To Be My Unicorn / Ride A White Swan – Maria McKee
You can order AngelHeaded Hipster: The Songs Of Marc Bolan and T. Rex here.