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Music

50 years of T. Rex's groove-laden masterpiece 'Jeepster'

@SamWKemp

Released on November 5th, 1971, ‘Jeepster’ contains all the seeds of a great T. Rex song. It’s exuberant, it’s fantastically produced, and it’s downright horny, containing the line: “Girl, I’m just a vampire for your love – and I’m going to suck you”. It was a track that signalled a move away from boho-sophistry and towards something far more playful. So, how does this, the third track of Electric Warrior – an album that really is all killer, no filler – stand up 50 years on?

At the end of the 1970s, things had started to change for Marc Bolan. The lead singer 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, who gave Bolan’s band a fair amount of radio time, there wasn’t much to be excited about. It became painfully apparent to Bolan that his bongo-led meditations on the fantastical weren’t exactly winning over his audiences. He just couldn’t compete with the stadium-shaking oomph of bands Led Zeppelin, The Who, and The Rolling Stones. Something had to change.

Bolan quickly went about redefining the sound of Tyrannosaurus Rex. He began with the name, cutting it down to the shorter, snappier T. Rex. Then he did away with his acoustic guitar and plugged in a sunburnt Gibson Les Paul. By the time the band headlined the first Glastonbury Festival in 1970, Bolan had ditched the elaborate song titles and expansive psychedelia in favour of the rock-driven riffs and accessible songwriting that would come to define songs like ‘Jeepster’.

But not everyone was happy about Bolan’s rebrand, least of all John Peel, who described T. Rex’s sexually provocative new style as little more than “cock-rock”. In Peel’s eyes, glam-rock felt a little insincere, as though Bolan was attempting cash in. But, for Bolan himself, ‘Jeepster’, and indeed all of the songs on Electric Warrior, were examples of a more earnest songwriting style, one that celebrated joy above all else. “I’ve always been a wriggler,” Bolan said in a 1971 interview, “I just dig dancing. It was just a bit difficult to wriggle when I was with [Steve] Peregrine [Took] sitting cross-legged on the stage.”

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“I mean, I am my own fantasy. I am the ‘Cosmic Dancer’ who dances his way out of the womb and into the tomb on Electric Warrior,” he continued. “I’m not frightened to get up there and groove about in front of six million people on TV because it doesn’t look cool. That’s the way I would do it at home.”

‘Jeepster’, like all of T. Rex’s greatest songs, is made for the dancefloor. It drips with an exuberance; a raw vitality that seems to erupt from the stereo field as though Bolan himself was attempting to bust his out of the speaker set, kicking out with a pair of hobnail stompers. But as well as being almost punk-like in its innate raw nature, ‘Jeepster’ is also densely textured, having been expertly produced by Tony Visconti, who would later go on to work with Bolan’s close friend David Bowie.

Indeed, much of ‘Jeepster’s charm is the result of Visconti’s artful production style. As a producer, he was both meticulously organised and open to of-the-moment improvisations, as was the case with the stomping and rattling at the beginning of the song. According to Visconti, this feature of ‘Jeepster’ happened entirely organically and was not overdubbed. Marc Bolan, in the midst of a performance, jumped up and down as he played his guitar, shaking the microphone stands. Any other producer would have treated these sounds as mistakes, but Visconti saw them as important features of the overall mood of the track and chose to include them.

Visconti also recognised the influence of early blues artists like Howlin Wolf on Bolan’s songwriting.”When I heard ‘Jeepster’. I thought, ‘Wow, this is seriously different,” Visconti recalled in a 2016 interview. “I know there’s an old blues song he copied, but he threw in some dramatic melodic and chord changes. The song’s in A but the chorus jumps to the key of C – no one in the ’50s did that,” he added.

Bolan himself was open about the way he liked to recycle classic material: “I don’t sing the old rock ‘n’ roll songs myself,” he said. “I prefer to change the words and make new songs out of them. That’s all ‘Jeepster’ is.” Since it was recorded, Jeepster has gone on to inspire hundreds of artists and has been covered by almost as many. Long live T. Rex, that’s what I say.