If news of the Arctic Monkeys’ recent British chart triumph reached Marc Bolan, chances are he was smiling. It was the fastest-selling British album of all time. And in Bolan’s world, that was the whole point. He was a proud champion of the hit single: if it debuted at #1, then it was the greatest song ever recorded. He often claimed many of his own were.
That T. Rex still sound great after 30 years may just confirm that Bolan was right. It’s worth remembering that T. Rex’s two peak albums, 1972’s Electric Warrior and 1973’s The Slider, were almost too hip in their day: even as they topped the British charts, Bolan was ridiculed for knowing too few chords, writing simplistic lyrics, and, above all, admitting how dearly he loved pop stardom. He never dreamt of trying to cultivate the detachment of David Bowie or Bryan Ferry.
And those singles have aged well. This is throwaway pop at its very best. Bolan is generous with the hooks and revealing in the willfully simplistic lyrics. During the Slider ballad “Spaceball Ricochet,” his voice trembles a bit as he sings “With my Les Paul, I know I’m small, but I enjoy living anyway.” Something about his delivery lays it all on the line, conveying how silly this thing we call rock and roll is and how deeply it matters all the same.
For most fans, Bolan’s T. Rex career (he died in a 1977 car crash) comes down to those two singles-loaded albums. Even their last major single, 1974’s “Children of the Revolution,” was an obscurity in the US before the Violent Femmes covered it in the ’80s. The next album, Tanx, was the last to get a full American release at the time. But a remarkable T. Rex revival has been under way: in recent years, live albums, outtakes collections, and even a 12-disc series of Bolan home demos (T. Rex Unchained on Polygram) have surfaced.
It’s Rhino’s new series of deluxe T. Rex reissues, however, that makes the most sense of his career. All seven albums have been remastered and reissued as double CDs, with the original album and related singles sides on disc one and an “alternate” album with the same songs heard as live versions, radio sessions, and home demos on the other. Two additional double CDs — T. Rex Wax. Co. and Works in Progress — collect the singles and the best of his home demos. Rhino wasn’t able to license Electric Warrior, so there’s no “Bang a Gong (Get It On”) on the singles collection. But an expanded Electric Warrior came out on Rhino several years ago. Also readily available on other labels are the earlier, folkie-Tolkien albums that Bolan recorded under the name Tyrannosaurus Rex — required listening for anyone who hasn’t already figured out where modern oddballs like Devendra Banhart and Scout Niblett found inspiration.