In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!
Armed with a seemingly bottomless well of self-belief, in possession of both off-the-charts charisma and head-turning beauty, Marc Bolan was a pop star like no other. He was the very definition of “transcendent,” which is to say the combination of his lovably ludicrous lyrics and infectiously crunchy Chuck Berry riffs appealed not only to screaming teenage girls but to the cool outsider kids as well. By 1976 he was being openly acknowledged as an inspiration to many of the early prognosticators of punk, including The Damned and Siouxsie. He loved the association and latterly referred to himself as “the Godfather of Punk if you like.” He would no doubt have accepted his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with a humility befitting his persona (perhaps mentioning all of the above and then asking why it took them so long) and fully embraced the praise to be rightfully heaped upon him, all of which is ridiculously fun to imagine.
He is yet another artist whom despite inspiring a mountainous number of covers has been somewhat underserved. Alas, for every beauteous version of “Cosmic Dancer,” there are dozens of not-so-great takes of “Children of the Revolution.” To throw additional salt in the wound, there are loads of exquisitely fun and fine deep cuts that have yet to be tackled with the same eagerness as the hits (classic ballad “Broken-Hearted Blues” still hasn’t enjoyed a seminal reading, nor has the eternally groovy “The Wizard“). Thankfully, 2020 saw a superb effort to begin righting the ship, courtesy of the legendary Hal Willner, who organized the star studded tribute album AngelHeaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan and T.Rex (read our review here). It features all the hits, yes, but shines the brightest when it gets into the deep stuff (check out BØRNS’ version of 1976’s “Dawn Storm,” it’s gorgeous). Here’s hoping the album serves as a clarion call for future excavation of the solid gold deep cuts within the Bolan and T.Rex catalog (there are a ton!).
In honor of Marc’s HOF induction, we’re going to offer up a few of the straight up craziest, sexiest and coolest amongst the thousands of existing covers out there. Get it on…
Marsha Hunt- Desdemona (John’s Children cover)
“Desdemona” is a track dating back to Marc’s short stint with the band John’s Children in 1967. The band’s future manager, legendary impresario Simon Napier-Bell, described the pre-Marc version of the John’s as, wait for it, “the worst group I’d ever seen.” While Marc’s presence provided the group with a significant upgrade in terms of musical ability, the first song he delivered, “Desdemona,” didn’t turn out to be the breakthrough Napier-Bell and the band had hoped for. Once the BBC got wind of the song’s lyrical directive to “lift up your skirt and fly” they banned it, thereby denying the band desperately needed airplay and exposure. It wasn’t long (four months!) before creative differences started rearing their head and saw Marc departing the band for greener pastures, namely to start his own band, Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Marsha Hunt met Marc in 1969 while he was recording the Tyrannosaurus Rex album Unicorn. The two had a brief affair, and Hunt’s 1971 debut album Woman Child featured several Bolan-composed tracks, including a version of “Desdemona.” As great as listening to the freestanding song is, nothing can top the absolute insanity of this TV performance, which looks to be in front of an audience of hostages in a venue only the devil himself could have designed. Stare in open-mouthed awe as Marsha figuratively grows 100 feet tall, sets “Desdemona” on fire, and completely hijacks the song from poor old John’s Children. Every time I’ve watched this video, I’ve wished I could step into a time machine and be seated amongst that captive, confused audience, experiencing the amazingly sinister room vibe in person. Who are these people? What is happening? And can I please have a ticket?
Girlschool – 20th Century Boy (T.Rex cover)
For a brief period, from roughly 1977 to around the mid-eighties, a slate of anthemic, meat and potatoes hard rock bands who offered unashamed nods to melody in their crunchy riffs ruled the UK. These bands came to be categorized as “The New Wave of British Heavy Metal,” but more often than not were referred to by the brilliantly ridiculous acronym “NWOBHM.” One of the more beloved bands to emerge from the scene was Girlschool. They did what it said on the tin, namely rocking rebelliously whilst rivaling the boys in volume, attitude and glorious denim. The band’s 1983 version of T.Rex’s much-covered “20th Century Boy” comes with an “of its era” video and some slight lyrical adjustment on the chorus (video starts at 01:00 mark above) and features the classic Girlschool lineup with the late, great, ass-kicking Kelly Johnson in the front. Its only purpose is to rock for exactly 3 minutes and 28 seconds, which it does with genuinely dirty, embraceable NWOBHM charm.
Ella Grace – Get It On (Bang A Gong) (T.Rex cover)
Guess what–turns out that serving up a cool cover of “Get It On (Bang A Gong)” doesn’t require aggressive microphone humping, leather trousers, or an all-star band after all. Turns out the song is brilliant enough that can you can strip away all the riffage and rock artifice and end up completely dwarfing 99% of the existing covers. Or at least you can if you are Ella Grace. It feels good to hear this song executed in such a spare, laid-back way, one so removed from the traditional “I am a rock star” approach. Plus it offers a knowing, melodic wink to Bolan acolytes Def Leppard’s evergreen classic “Hysteria,” and you can’t get much more dirty-sweet than that.
Swervedriver – (Tyrannosaurus Rex cover)
Socrates. A silver car. A cedar colored pheasant. All are present and accounted for within the utterly embraceable psyche-folk shuffler “Chateau in Virginia Waters” (from the Tyrannosaurus Rex debut album My People Were Fair And Had Stars In Their Hair… in 1968). Beloved and ballsy shoegazers Swervedriver offered up their glorious cover of the song as a B-side to their 1998 single “Wrong Treats.” Grungy, sludgy, and downright Beatle-esque (think “I’m So Tired” on steroids), it’s a beauteous post-Britpop anthem that never was.
Father John Misty – Main Man (T.Rex cover)
“Got giraffes in my hair and I don’t care” is a line so intrinsically, ridiculously Marc Bolan that it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone being able to deliver it convincingly, let alone feel the need to embellish it even further. Anyone but Father John Misty (aka Josh Tillman), that is. FJM’s version of The Slider track, from the aforementioned Hal Willner produced 2020 Bolan tribute album, is bursting at the seams with glitter, panache, and love. The eerie, acoustic groove of the original is pumped full of helium and transformed into a ’70s variety show set piece, all glossy strings, white suits, grandiose stage sets, and over-the-top vocalizing (FJM’s giraffes are “all up” in his hair). It’s a garish and beautiful showstopper. Yes, FJM can be a bit of a polarizer, and his motivations are often questioned by critics as to whether he’s being serious or taking the piss, but leave your cynicism at the door; this “Main Man” is all love, for real.
There have been several great Marc Bolan tribute compilation albums released since 1988. A label in the UK called Barracuda Blue Records started the movement. This article relies too heavily on the most recent project which absolutely failed to deliver a good Bolan cover. I hope Marc’s fans will keep digging for the real treasures. I’m proud to have been at the forefront of the movement to keep the legacy alive with my 1986 cover of “The Third Degree.” My producer was Richard Barone, whose group The Bongos had the very first successful posthumous Bolan cover of “Mambo Sun.” It’s a shame that several of the artists who appeared on the Willner project had previously released much better T. Rex covers on their own. This was not the first Bolan rodeo for Sean Ono Lennon, Bono and Gavin Friday, for example. Same for Richard Barone and Marc’s own son Rolan Bolan, who were both relegated to backing vocalist status by the astonishingly inept production team who completed the Willner album after Hal passed away from coronavirus (Marianne Faithfull also contracted COVID-19 and wasn’t credited for her role in the project). Speaking as someone who actually worked for T. Rex in the mid 1970s, my personal opinion is the only thing which would have pleased Marc Bolan about the latest tribute project is that both of John Lennon’s sons covered his music. Marc spoke of that very thing while he was still alive and it would have been thrilling to him. Again, there are many heartfelt covers of Marc’s songs and even his published poetry set to music. Don’t fall into the newbie trap that the Willner project is the alpha and omega of Bolan covers. Seek and ye shall find!
Natalie, with all due respect to your Bolan knowledge, I get the sense you wrote this response about another piece. Three of the five songs discussed here were recorded in the 1900s, and a fourth released as a bedroom cover. One song and three sentences in one paragraph does not seem to rely too heavily on Willner’s project to me.
I think if you read this post, you’ll see that the author is no newbie, and in fact encourages seeking out the obscure material herself. Also, did you watch that Marsha Hunt video?? I never would have heard of it if it wasn’t for this post, let alone seen it.
I hope you’ll give this post another read and see it for what it is – another voice raised to bring attention to the greatness of the songs of Marc Bolan, no matter who sings them, no matter how known or unknown they may be. Who knows, Natalie – even you might come away with a new favorite.
That astounding Barracuda Blue ‘An Exalted Companions…’ LP is still available feat. Natalie alongside Morrisey’s guitarist Boz Boorer, Shockabilly, original Bolan co-band member of John’s Children, Andy Ellison and Door’s players The Acid Casualties. Search and you shall find.