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Credit: Ian Dickson

Music

The life of Marc Bolan through 10 of his best lyrics

@TomTaylorFO

As an artist, Marc Bolan is touted, by turns, as being the inventor of glam-rock, punk and even rap music. While these labels might be akin to pinning a sticker onto a river, the point remains that a hell of a lot of artistry flowed from the bountiful reservoir of creativity that Bolan harnessed throughout his life. That life, however, was fated to be tragically short. In 1977, at only 29-years-old, the pioneer behind so much pop culture was killed in a car crash. Rather than focus on that catastrophe, we will be concentrating on the trailblazing life that went before it.

Bolan burst into his prolific vein in 1965. He signed to Decca Records and within two short years, he had released three solo albums, each of which furthered his progressive approach. Soon after he joined John’s Children and thereafter a folk duo titled Tyrannosaurus Rex. Together, Bolan and Steve Peregrine Took embarked on an explosive artistic splurge, however, it always seemed that Bolan’s sui generis punches were just being pulled a little bit or else missing the mark as he tried to make headway in the mainstream. 

When the duo split, Mickey Finn replaced Took and Bolan abbreviated the name. With that, T.Rex was born and soon they released ‘Ride A White Swan’. Thereafter it wasn’t so much of a case of Bolan curtailing his creativity to slide in line with the mainstream, it was more a case of him grabbing it by the lapels and leading it to the next bar where the Bolan show was playing. 

The wild outfits, kaleidoscopic imagery and sonic experimentations, however, would never have seeded if they weren’t propped up by some superb songwriting. Below, we’re journeying through the creative gestalt of Bolan with ten of his finest lyrics in tow.

Ten of Marc Bolan’s best lyrics:

‘The Wizard’ 

“He knew why people laughed and cried,
Why they lived and why they died.”

From the very start of Marc Bolan’s career, his trippy stylings were already being touched upon. However, a second constant that equally ran throughout all of his forthcoming back catalogue was also present – he always kept a keen eye on some sort of fated meaning to his far-out creativity. 

The track from his debut album might not signpost him as a future master, but there’s enough of the zeitgeist at work that it’s clear to see Bolan knew what was going down. As his good friend, David Bowie would later say: “Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it.”

‘Hippy Gumbo’

“Met a man he was nice,
Said his name was paradise,
Didn’t realise at the time,
That his face and mind were mine.”

Fellow musician Nick Cave once said: “The great beauty of contemporary music, and what gives it its edge and vitality, is its devil-may-care attitude toward appropriation — everybody is grabbing stuff from everybody else, all the time. It’s a feeding frenzy of borrowed ideas that goes toward the advancement of rock music — the great artistic experiment of our era.”

At the time of Marc Bolan’s early solo outings, this caldron of modern music was just beginning to stir. With the blues riff and Robert Johnson-esque imagery in this song, Bolan’s liberal use of meddling genres was coming to the fore, and with it, he would ultimately change music. 

‘Debora’

“Oh Debora, always look like a zebra.”

With the above Bolan brilliantly crafted one of the worst lines ever written. Why then does it feature in a celebratory feature on his songwriting? Simply because choosing the first rhyme that pops into your head and sticking with it even if it is nonsensical, should be a condemnable act. 

However, in Bolan’s case, he somehow does it with such joy that it comes off like a joie de vivre celebration of language and music. If you can make bad wordplay catchy and transfigure it with bold exuberance, then suddenly it isn’t bad wordplay at all. This carefree style is a central tenet of Bolan’s work. 

‘Stacey Grove’

“And now that the gate of his evening is late,
He sits on a log picking ticks off the back of his dog.”

With the second Tyrannosaurus Rex record, it would seem that Bolan was getting more comfortable with his surroundings. The lyrics remained as colourful as ever, but they were more considered and had sweet melodies to suit the out in the wild vibe that he was lyrically crafting with his C.S. Lewis inspired campfire tales. 

The la di da stylings of the song see Bolan settling into his songwriting groove, which remained rhythmically humble throughout his career from this point on. On songs like ‘Stacey Grove’ he might be sticking a little close to his contemporaries like Syd Barrett, but it was this sort of songwriting that set him on his way to eventually sailing his own ship off into unchartered waters. 

‘Beltane Walk’ 

“Bopping down by the whirlpool,
I met a girl she was god’s tool,
I said girl wouldn’t you like to rock,
But could it give me love,
Give me little love from god’s heart.”

With the debut album under the abbreviated name, Bolan finally made his unfathomably queer obsession with the word Beltane clear. For those who don’t know, which is pretty much everybody outside of the scrabble world championships, Beltane is an ancient Gaelic May Day festival, and at an absolute push, it can perhaps be used to describe a sort of spiritual spring. 

The reason this enters the list is because it is undoubtedly a defining feature in the tapestry of his style. Throughout his back catalogue, little obsessions pop up time and time again. For fanatics, this only adds to the mystique of man himself and offers a deeply personalised touch to his art. In other words, Beltane was one of many melting clocks in his works and rarely was it as lyrically stirring as this example. 

‘Ride a White Swan’

“Ride it on out like a bird in the sky ways,
Ride it on out like you were a bird,
Fly it all out like an eagle in a sunbeam,
Ride it on out like you were a bird.”

Marc Bolan offered up many a belting anthem in his short time with us, so much so that it was a short time that brought to mind the notion that the light that shines brightest lasts half as long. ‘Ride A White Swan’ was released as a stand-alone single back in 1970 and it proved so gleaming that it spawned glam rock and truly announced the arrival of Bolan as an illuminating beacon.

The song is a blinding light of hope and exultation, almost too bright for lockdown, but tempered just enough not to come across as clashing. It is this poetical opening verse cut over a scintillatingly upbeat guitar riff that urges you to take dominion over your mood when and where you can. Of course, the symbolism is fantasy, but if you catch it at the right time then it sometimes doesn’t feel that far from the truth. Take it with a cup of coffee in the morning, and it’s bound to bounce your day off in the right direction.

‘Rip Off’

“Bleached on the beach,
I want to tickle your peach,
It’s a rip-off,
Such a rip-off.”

With 1971’s Electric Warrior, T. Rex landed their masterpiece that foretold the future of music in many ways, heralding punk and glam rock in a splurge. As producer Tony Visconti remarks regarding ‘Rip Off’, he said: “People say that’s the first rap record, I don’t say that but some people do.”

He’s right not to say that it isn’t the first rap record by a long shot, but the fact it gets close as he fires of an aggressive salvo is a mark of Bolan’s daring bravura as a songsmith. The humour and sultriness to this verse exhibits much the same.

‘Cosmic Dancer’

“I danced myself right out the womb,
Is it strange to dance so soon,
I danced myself right out the womb.”

Consider by many to be his masterpiece, ‘Cosmic Dancer’ is the sort of song that barely even seems to have been written in the traditional sense; like some berserk 1990s Nic Cage movie, the song seem like it had to be created to save the world from slipping into a doomed alternate reality. It is simply too deeply entwined with society to imagine the human race without it. From the first uttered line the song is immediately etched into the psyche of a listener, and the title is so ubiquitous that scientists ought to check that the lyrics aren’t programmed somewhere in our DNA if they ever get a spare five minutes.

As ever, his songwriting reflected his life, with ‘Cosmic Dancer’ sharing a darkly obfuscated mystique. The lyrics are as iconic as they are unknowable at least in the spiritual sense. Along with the bold atmosphere, this creates the sort of track that seems bigger than itself, if that makes even a tiny drop of sense. In other words, it seems to share the same wonder of creativity that Hoagy Carmichael remarked upon when he said: “Maybe I didn’t write you, but I found you.”

‘Metal Guru’

“Metal guru could it be,
You’re gonna bring my baby to me,
She’ll be wild you know,
A rock ‘n’ roll child.”

What both David Bowie and Bolan were brilliant at in this early seventies was delivering rock ‘n’ roll from stuffiness and reinvigorating the inherent fun that made it soar in the first place. Lou Reed might have used the following quote about The Stooges, but it could just as easily have been about Bolan and Bowie: “The honest sound of young guys trying to break the barrier of stilted moulded sterile rock.”

In ‘Metal Guru’ Bolan rattles through the old rock ‘n’ roll iconography with a sense of pride. He paints a picture of a wild party and it proves to be one that beguiles any listener in an instant. This might not be high-end poetry, but it is visceral, and it is very befitting of a knees-up. 

‘Children of the Revolution’

“No, you won’t fool the children of the revolution.”

Poetry and lyric writing aren’t worlds apart but there are all sorts of reasons why they don’t necessarily share a postcard. One of the differences between the disciplines that falls in favour of a sonic accompaniment is the ability to capture the zeitgeist. There is nothing particularly poetic, poignant or considered about “No, you won’t fool the children of the revolution,” but it is a defining anthem all the same that seemed to seize the spirit of the age with an alchemical conjuring and rattle it at the rafters.

This notion is also supported by the band he had gathered behind him for rocks subversive swansong. As well as Bolan on vocals and T. Rex filling the spots on the song admirably, it also contained Elton John playing the second piano and none other than The Beatles’ own Ring Starr on the drums. The children of the revolution chanted forth into the future and stayed true to Bolan’s lifelong glossy-eyed view of trying to change the world.