How T. Rex Saved ’70s Rock from Beige Masculinity
The soon-to-be Rock & Roll Hall of Famers launched a revolution.
They were so much more than “Bang a Gong (Get It On).”
If Americans know T. Rex at all, though, it’s probably through their one U.S. hit, the 1971 top 10 “Bang a Gong (Get It On).” And if they know that song, they probably know it because Power Station had an even bigger top 10 hit with it in 1985. The supergroup featuring Robert Palmer and members of Duran Duran and Chic took it to number nine, one notch higher than T. Rex’s peak 14 years earlier.
Sadly, the group that scored four top 10 albums and 10 consecutive top-five UK singles between 1970 and 1973 has spent nearly five decades being mainly a footnote on this side of the Atlantic. But now they’re moving up on the page. On May 2 in Cleveland, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will induct the architects of ’70s glam rock, alongside Depeche Mode, The Doobie Brothers, Nine Inch Nails, The Notorious B.I.G., and Whitney Houston.
The election of fellow glam-rock pioneers Roxy Music to the Class of 2019 last year may have opened up the Rock Hall doors to T. Rex in much the same way Houston’s induction will set a precedent for voters to consider pop and soul divas just as eligible as rock ones. Why should testosterone rock get all the glory?
But who exactly was the band named for the king of the dinosaurs, Tyrannosaurus Rex? If you love ’70s punk and ’80s new wave, you love them, in part, because T. Rex, led by gender-bending frontman Marc Bolan, inspired acts like Bauhaus, Joy Division, Kate Bush, Love and Rockets, New York Dolls, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Smiths, among so many others, to do their own thing.
In a world without T. Rex, rock & roll might have remained forever stuck in a rut where traditional masculinity ruled and set the rules. They doused the genre’s monochromatic palette with glitter and splashed it with primary colors. T. Rex brushed hetero rock with unprecedented shades of gay.
Although he was straight, Bolan was a new kind of rock star, one who wooed female fans by not playing the role of typical male. One could easily imagine him sharing hair and makeup tips before sleeping with groupies.
Lest the music be overshadowed by the look, T. Rex emphasized sound just as much as they accentuated vision. If the band hadn’t recorded their landmark 1971 second album, Electric Warrior, the ’70s would have sounded a lot different. Without it, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020 might be cut in half, for Warrior laid the groundwork that Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails rolled in on in the ’80s and ’90s, respectively.
Live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse — and a legacy of immortal, timeless tunes. Bolan did all of the above. His short and winding road ended in a car accident at age 29 on September 16, 1977, ironically, exactly one month after the premature passing of one of his idols, Elvis Presley, and two weeks before his own 30th birthday.
Had Bolan survived, he would be turning 73 this year. It’s hard to imagine him being the same age as Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Elton John and Iggy Pop, though they were all contemporaries. His early passing has rendered him forever young. Thankfully, his music, for the most part, has aged better than he might have. Here are five of his greatest moments that weren’t “Bang a Gong.”
“Ride a White Swan” (1970)
If an electric Kool-Aid acid trip had rhythm, it probably would be dancing to T. Rex’s breakthrough single, which went to number two in the UK.
“Hot Love” (1970)
When in doubt, throw in a “la la la la la la la” chorus. The lyrics of T. Rex’s first UK number one may have been shallow, but its influence ran deep.
“Mambo Sun” (1971)
From the first moments of Electric Warrior’s opening cut, I knew the album was going to change my life. It certainly altered the trajectory of the ’70s soundtrack. Some two decades after I heard it for the first time, it remains one of my three favorite albums of the disco decade, right up there with Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk and Joni Mitchell’s Blue, which was released almost exactly three months earlier.
“Planet Queen” (1971)
Like the previous three songs, it bridged between the atmospheric acoustic folk-pop of Tyrannosaurus Rex (as the band was known in the late ’60s) and the brash electric glam rock of T. Rex’s imperial early ’70s phase, and that’s exactly where I prefer my T. Rex. Even in death, Bolan still slays when his voice goes up an octave at 1:46.
“20th Century Boy” (1973)
Where would Love and Rocket’s “Kundalini Express” have gone without this, Bolan’s final top-three UK single? That it still sounds like the height of modernity in the next century says a lot about Bolan’s songwriting prowess, T. Rex’s performing chops, and Tony Visconti’s unparalleled-in-the-’70s production. What would T. Rex and Bowie, for whom Visconti produced such seminal ’70s records (including the aforementioned Electric Warrior), as well as ’70s rock & roll have been without him.