wed 17/04/2024

Reissue CDs Weekly: Marc Bolan | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: Marc Bolan

Reissue CDs Weekly: Marc Bolan

Mammoth, warts-and-all compendium of what the Seventies superstar got up to behind closed doors

Don't touch that dial: Marc Bolan recording at home in 1974Courtesy Demon Records © Crollalanza/Rex Shutterstock

In 1973, alone and with an acoustic guitar, Marc Bolan recorded the revealing “This Is My Life”. Over its five minutes, a strummed elegy akin to the T Rex B-side “Baby Strange” evolves from a finger-picked blues. The lyrics name-check B.B. King, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B Goode” and mention a visit to New York State, playfully rhymed with steak.

“Everything I did when I was going to school was just an imitation of Carl Perkins singing ‘Don’t be Cruel’,” he sings, no doubt well aware the Elvis Presley hit did not figure in Perkins’ usual repertoire. Once Presley hit big, Perkins was firmly relegated to playing second fiddle. Bolan was subverting history’s hierarchy.

“This Is My Life” found Bolan reflecting on who he was and who he had become. A home-recording, it was caught on tape for the sake of it. Bolan had a new song, so he set his equipment up to capture it: what he had just written could have charted or become a future classic, so he hit the record button. But, its fascinating lyrical self-analysis aside, “This Is My Life” was no classic. Instead, it was a rambling musical sketch for filing away alongside the other demo tapes and was not meant to be heard, and certainly not intended for release.

MARC BOLAN & T. REX UNCHAINED: HOME RECORDINGS & STUDIO OUTTAKES 1972 – 1977One of the mammoth, eight-disc set Unchained: Home Recordings & Studio Outtakes 1972–1977’s 184 tracks, “This Is My Life” is not essential to an understanding or appreciation of Bolan and T Rex, but it is charming. Clever, too. Listening to it is the aural equivalent of eavesdropping on a private moment that was not meant to be public.

The author Mark Paytress notes in his astute liner notes to this smart, case-bound set that “the dozen albums that Bolan sanctioned during his lifetime are sacrosanct.” He then says this release “provides a wonderful, if inevitably unvarnished window on his work-in-progress, as well as revealing insights into his working methods… from notepad-style acoustic sketches, recorded at home on rudimentary equipment, to full-blown studio masters.“ Unchained though, he acknowledges, is “not for the glibly curious” and “stands as perhaps the most exhaustive feat of archaeology yet into the private world of a major rock artist.”

How much Bolan you need, then, depends on how much of a fan you are. And there is no shortage of supplementary, unreleased-at-the-time material on current release elsewhere. The albums of Tyrannosaurus Rex and T Rex have been reissued with dozens of bonus tracks with no crossovers to Unchained.

Unchained collects eight individual CDs first released between 1994 and 1996. All were deleted in 2001 but subsequently brought together as a limited-edition single package in 2010. Unchained repackages that release and is not issued in a limited run. Therefore, it’s likely that many Bolan fans already have everything on this new edition.

Are these Bolan releases grave-robbing or tributes to and elucidations of an artist’s muse? Possibly all three

Nonetheless, as Paytress implicitly asks: the question remains – how much Bolan do you need? Unchained raises knotty questions and, like the other archive releases, re-writes the musical narrative of Bolan, Tyrannosaurus Rex and T Rex. And then there is the other elephant-in-the-room-like question. Bolan did not mean this material to be heard and now has no say in the matter. He died in 1977. This is not an artist-approved release like the ongoing and seemingly endless Dylan Bootleg series or a BeatlesAnthology volume. Are these Bolan releases grave-robbing or tributes to and elucidations of an artist’s muse? Possibly all three. 

For Unchained, its alternative story of Bolan begins in 1972 with “Over the Flats” a solo, overdubbed demo where Bolan describes his nostalgia for the Hackney he was brought up in and his feelings about his family’s move to Wimbledon in the early Sixties. It ends, seven and three-quarter hours later, with “Classic Rap”, a 1977 electric guitar-assisted sketch for a song in the vein of “Metal Guru”. The period covered runs from the heady days of 1972's hits like “Telegram Sam” and “Metal Guru” to just before Bolan’s untimely death in September 1977.

In-progress versions of what would become familiar are heard. “Fast Blues (Easy Action)” is a precursor of “Solid Gold Easy Action”. There are also lyrically hilarious one-offs which could never have been released without being suitably re-written. On “Canyon”, Bolan sings “I’m awful beefy, babe, so let’s get meaty, babe.” Disc three’s “Dance in the Midnight”, recorded in 1973 (two versions are heard), is a tremendous early indicator of Bolan’s move towards a soul-influenced sound. In contrast, disc four’s “Jam” (1973) is a tedious, 10-minute guitar work-out which does not need to be heard. The tight and melodically precise “Funky London Childhood”, from disc seven, is great and surfaced as “Visions of Domino” on 1977’s Dandy in the Underworld album.

Fans who have not bought the previous configurations of this material will need the scattershot Unchained. Those who have the limited-edition version from five years ago will likely sigh about the reappearance of what they'd already bought. For anyone else, these disjointed, sprawling eight CDs will be more of a challenge.

Nonetheless, hearing these recordings disconnected from their contemporaneous releases and in chronological order presents a Bolan that anyone will recognise: frustrating, self-mythologizing and, above all, driven by an unpredictable muse that would not quit. He probably would have approved.

Comments

Fair enough!! However, there is still unheard material out there. That is what we really want!!!!

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