Electric Warrior marked a turning point in UK music. Released in 1971, it was Marc Bolan’s sixth studio record but only his second with the new and improved T. Rex. Not only did it act as the catalyst for the explosion of glam-rock that swept through Britain in the early ’70s, but it also gave Marc Bolan the critical success he’d been desperately seeking since the mid-1960s.
On release, it divided US and UK tastes almost immediately. In the UK, Bolan was lauded as the saviour of rock n’ roll. In America, however, he was viewed as little more than an extravagant ponce, or, as one reviewer at the time wrote: “The heaviest rocker under 5’4′ in the world today.” And yet, 50 years on, Electric Warrior can be seen to have made an even more significant impact on the American musical landscape than it did in the UK. Because, whereas UK punk put an end to all that lycra-clad crotch-thrusting, the influence of Electric Warrior remained startlingly present well into the 1980s, with bands like Mötley Crüe and Def Leppard embracing the camp cock-rock aesthetic Bolan had pioneered.
Without Electric Warrior, it’s quite possible T. Rex would have faded into obscurity. Bolan had spent the last few years attempting to make a name for himself with his boho-folk duo Tyrannosaurus Rex. But, beyond the support of John Peel and some decent airplay, there wasn’t much to be excited about. An unsuccessful American tour that was doomed before it even began would foreshadow the country’s ultimate rejection of Electric Warrior. At home, thing’s didn’t seem much better. It became painfully apparent to Bolan that his whimsical lyrics and hippy-chic leanings just could not compete with the sheer power of stadium-rock of bands like Led Zeppelin, The Who, and The Rolling Stones. This realisation would lead to a dramatic overhaul in the band’s style towards the end of the 1960s. By the time the band headlined the first Glastonbury festival in 1970, Bolan had ditched the elaborate song titles and expansive psychedelia of Tyrannosaurus Rex and replaced it with the rock-driven riffs and accessible songwriting that would come to define T. Rex’s next two albums.
When it was released on September 24th, 1971, Electric Warrior went straight to number one on the UK Albums Chart and remained there for eight weeks. It subsequently remained in the UK charts for a whopping 44 weeks, thanks to the enormous success of tracks like ‘Hot Love’ and ‘Get It On.’ In the US, however, the picture was slightly different. Although Electric Warrior earned T. Rex their only US number one with ‘Get It On’ and charted at number 32 in the Billboard 200, American audiences didn’t respond to Bolan’s embrace of camp in the same way as those in the UK did. As a result, it earned some scathing reviews. The overall sentiment seemed to be that Electric Warrior represented the dying breath of rock ‘n’ roll, a genre that was gradually becoming regarded as quaint and old-fashioned.
Today, however, Electric Warrior is an indisputable classic. With the help of producer Tony Visconti (who would later work with David Bowie), Bolan managed to create a record that is undoubtedly one of the most powerful and dazzlingly cool evocations of joy in the known universe. Although ‘Get It On’ is still the best-known song from the album, it is far from the only reason to listen to Electric Warrior.
Although they were skirted over at the time, tracks like ‘Cosmic Dancer’ and ‘Life’s A Gas’ provide some of the most poignant moments on the record. When Bolan sings. “Life’s a gas/ I hope it’s gonna last”, it’s as though he’s crooning his way through a comedown, surveying some long burnt-out party. It is in these moments that we see the real Bolan. There is such vulnerability in ‘Cosmic Dancer’, for example, that it sometimes feels as though he’s decided to unstitch himself thread by thread.
It is that tension between pretence and honesty that makes Electric Warrior such a rewarding listen. The album re-issue that came out in 2003 included a devastating interview with Bolan in which he explains that Electric Warrior was crafted deliberately to win the attention of America. With that in mind, there is certainly a sense of urgency in the record, one that is all the more tragic when you consider that Bolan never managed to conqueror the States. But, in the moment, Electric Warrior seemed to capture all the optimism and elation of a man on the cusp of world domination.