T. Rex are one of the most influential bands of the 1970s. Before becoming one of the most pioneering glam rock bands of the era, Tyranasourous Rex, as they were then known, initially performed a curious blend of psychedelic folk. With Marc Bolan on guitar and Steve ‘Peregrin Took’ on – of all things – the bongos, the group were the epitome of blissed-out hippiedom. Audiences would sit crosslegged on rugs as Bolan sang about elves and wizards, with Took hammering out the occasional bongo solo.
However, it was a far cry from the hot-blooded glam rock band they would become. Renowned radio broadcaster John Peel was a big fan of Tyranasouras Rex and gave them significant air-time on his BBC Radio 1 show, a pivotal moment in the development of their status.
Soon after, the band quickly picked up a devoted following, and their debut album was released in 1968 under the luxurious title: My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair… But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows. It remained in the UK charts for nine weeks and peaked at number 15. At this time, Bolan was writing traditionally psychedelic rock songs. But as the 1960s gave way to the ’70s, his writing took on a more baroque sensibility, the elaborate instrumentation of which would inform his work with T.Rex.
But the band’s pastoral folk-rock was quickly falling out of favour. The public wanted something more. People were talking about Iggy Pop and The Stooges, about something called ‘shock rock’. Everything was getting louder and more intense, and Tyranasourous Rex couldn’t keep up. At one notable gig of their disastrous US tour, Took remembered how the band has to battle for the attention of the audience: “I took my shirt off in the Sunset Strip where we were playing and whipped myself till everybody shut up,” he said. “With a belt, y’know, a bit of blood and the whole of Los Angeles shuts up. ‘What’s going on, man, there’s some nutter attacking himself on stage.’ I mean, Iggy Stooge had the same basic approach.”
On the band’s return to the UK, Bolan recognised that their act needed a shakeup to remain relevant. For Bolan, this meant simplifying things, playing rock guitar, and writing more accessible songs. Bolan began that process of simplification by cutting the band’s name to T. Rex. With that, the seminal glam rock band were away.
In this article, we’ll be looking at the six definitive T. Rex songs. So pay attention, they could well change your life. They certainly did for me.
The six definitive songs of T. Rex:
‘Ride A White Swan’ – T. Rex (1970)
There’s much debate surrounding which song gave birth to glam. For some, it’s David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World. For others, it’s T. Rex’s first single, ‘Ride A White Swan’. Bowie and Bolan were firm friends, having lived in a squat together throughout the ’60s. They certainly informed each other’s songwriting during that time, so it’s possible to argue that they both played their part.
This track showcases the band’s transition from perfumed psych-folk to a more rock-infused sound. Whilst it doesn’t contain Bolan’s signature howling vocals which would come to define the band’s later work, it’s got all the features of a great T. Rex song. With its energetic blues riff and sleek production style, ‘Ride A white Swan’ jettisoned all that flower-power stuff right out the airlock.
‘Bang A Gong (Get It On)’ – Electric Warrior (1971)
T. Rex’s best-known track comes from their 1971 album Electric Warrior. Complete with disco-era backing vocals and Bolan’s cock-rock lyrics, it oozes with 1970s sleaze. Yes, the idea of ringing a ceremonial gong after going at it might seem a little obtuse. But that’s what makes this song so irresistible. It’s a swaggering casanova of a song. It also features a saxophone solo so ecstatically raucous, you’ll want to jump over the nearest car. So, if you’re looking for a song to strut to, this is it. No wonder Oasis’ Noel Gallagher ripped the main riff for ‘Cigarettes and alcohol’.
‘Get It On’ also marked the high point of the band’s success. Electric Warrior bought the band so much notoriety that one publicist coined the term “T. Rextasy”, a parallel to Beatlemania, to describe the band’s popularity
‘Cosmic Dancer’ – Electric Warrior (1971)
Also from Electric Warrior, ‘Cosmic Dancer’ is a testament to T. Rex’s range. Unlike ‘Get It On’, it is a track that is almost spiritual in its subtlety. It features Bolan on an acoustic guitar, with string arrangements providing the song’s melodic backbone. This leaves room for Bolan’s lyrics to blossom with powerful connotations. He sings: “I danced myself out of the womb. I danced myself out of the womb. Is it strange to dance so soon? I danced myself into the tomb.”
The song takes on a poetic resonance when you learn that Bolan died in a car accident at the age of 29. Just two weeks before his 30th Birthday, Bolan was driving back from a speakeasy in the early hours of September 15th when he failed to negotiate a small humpback bridge and crashed his car into a tree. He died instantly. Bolan’s close friend David Bowie reportedly paid for Bolan’s son’s education in light of his father’s death.
‘Metal Guru’ – The Slider (1972)
It’s hard to listen to this next track without wanting to sing along. It’s got one of the catchiest choruses in rock and is full of the vitality that made T. Rex so great. What a metal guru is, I have no idea. Presumably, it’s some form of glam-rock diety, but the lyrics give us no clue. It seems that Bolan chose the words purely for the way they fall off the tongue. He sings: “Oh yeah, metal guru has it been. Just like a silver-studded sabre-tooth dream. I’ll be clean you know, pollution machine.”
In writing this article, I have only just discovered that the lyric is, in fact, not: “I’ll leave the cleaning on the washing machine”. I’m afraid my life has been a lie.
‘Children Of The Revolution’ – Tanx (The Visconti Master) (1972)
Some of you may recognise this song from Bah Lurhmann’s film Moulin Rouge, in which it is used to convey the rebel spirit of fin-de-siecle bohemia.
But in Bolan’s original, it seems to be a battle cry against a music industry which, by the 1970s, had absorbed the counter culture of the late ’60s and started monetising it no end. It is one of the most flagrantly operatic T. Rex numbers and the most worthy of a good old head-bang.
‘I Love To Boogie’ – Dandy In The Underworld (1976)
This song from the 1976 album Dandy in the Underworld is T. Rex’s most recognisable and popular hit. However, the song was released to controversy, primarily due to its resemblance to Webb Pierce’s ‘Teenage Boogie’, prompting rockabillies to burn copies of the single at an event held in a pub on the Old Kent Road, south east London.
Despite this, the song, along with the rest of the album, rescued T. Rex after their popularity started to wane from 1974 onwards. The track is the purest evocation of joy in the rock canon and was introduced to a whole new generation of young people when it was used in the 2000 drama, Billy Elliot.