Category Archives: music

Music. Reviews. Reminiscences.

Leaving a Marc (1977)

Marc Bolan, on tour in 1977 with The Damned

In early 1977, Marc Bolan — enigmatic English singer, songwriter, and charismatic leader of one of glam rock’s seminal bands, T. Rex — was past his prime. The success that came with UK #1 hits like “Bang a Gong (Get it On),” from 1971’s Electric Warrior and “Telegram Sam” from 1972’s The Slider, was largely behind him. Tax problems found him in exile for a while in the early seventies, T. Rex’s lineup of musicians kept changing, and his marriage had fallen apart due to his infidelity. But with a new band and a new tour supported by popular young punks, The Damned, Bolan was making a comeback in 1977. He had gotten a new band together, and, later that year, Granada Television gave him his very own show — a daytime variety hour simply titled Marc.

Marc ran in the late summer / early autumn of 1977, and gave Bolan the opportunity to showcase his music for a new audience. Daytime television was primarily aimed at teens and tweens — an audience for whom glam rock meant little. But new music — punk and new wave — was starting to chart, and Bolan (or his producers) smartly took advantage of mixing up his hits (often oddly lip-synced with guitars rarely even plugged in) with exciting new acts like Generation X, Radio Stars, and The Jam.

Other than Bolan performing “Show Me a Song” to start things off, The Jam were the first band to perform on Marc. Call them punks or mods revivalist, The Jam were a far cry from glam rock — a band born of the early seventies, but unlike anything else from the pop scene of the period. Bolan seemed somewhat uncomfortable, or at least unorganized, as he sat against the stage in a leopard jump suit reading the band’s name from a tiny promotional badge. It is as if the past of pop music was confronting its future in a way only possible in the turbulent nineteen seventies. But, instead of conflict, there was confusion. Bolan seemed lost in front of the camera. Drugs and alcohol were reputedly not to blame (Bolan had kicked his addictions by 1977). No, this confusion seemed more like a man trying to find his place in a music landscape that had changed on him. Immediately after The Jam, out came a cadre of female dancers awkwardly choreographed to Bolan lip-syncing “I Love to Boogie.”

Many believed that Bolan truly embraced the new music. Captain Sensible, guitarist for The Damned, spoke highly of him. But others thought he was an opportunist.  “Marc would’ve embraced any movement as long as it reflected well among the gullible,” said Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel. “I say this with no criticism and no malice,” he added. “Marc was a fully paid-up member of the Fantasy Island Club.” (for more on this and more, read this great article by noted music journalist Geoff Barton).

In denial, or simply an opportunist, Bolan was still a full-fledged rock star — in every sense of the word. Bigger than life. Flashy. Always entertaining, and forever “other” — no matter how silly the costumes or the posturing became.

He would inspire countless musicians. Early on it was The New York Dolls and The Ramones. Then came the post-punks: Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Bauhaus (the latter whose cover of Telegram Sam is arguably better than the original). Later in the nineteen eighties came The Power Station. Their “Get It On (Bang a Gong)” would chart even higher in the US than the original. Oasis‘s guitarist, Noel Gallagher and Joey Santiago of The Pixies both cite Bolan as an influence on their style. Both Morrissey and Nick Cave have covered “Cosmic Dancer.” The list goes on and on.

But the artist whose work is most associated with Bolan is not one who covered him, but a contemporary. A friend. Even a competitor. It was David Bowie.

Faces on the Mt. Rushmore of Glam Rock, Bowie and Bolan met in 1964, when David was still David Jones. Their careers developed in parallel ways throughout the early seventies, and by the time of Bowie’s massive “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” album, there was conjecture that Bowie’s “Lady Stardust,” was even a tribute to Bolan. After retiring Ziggy, Bowie would abandon glam, and embrace first American R&B, then later, influences like Kraftwerk and Brian Eno. Bolan, however, remained the quintessential guitar-based glam rock star. It arguable hurt his career— with television’s Marc as his last hurrah.

David Bowie performed “Heroes” on the final episode of Marc Bolan’s show

Fitting then that David Bowie was the last performer on the show. Singing “Heroes,” Bowie seems somewhat cold and distant — both from his past, and from Bolan. Bowie reputedly directed and orchestrated his own performance, not involving Bolan’s input at all. This didn’t sit well with Bolan, whose sole and final interaction with Bowie would be a jam session at the end of the last Marc show — one than ended with a humorous, and almost prophetic fall from the stage. Bowie smiles, and that’s the end of the show (for more details, see Roger Griffin’s day by day Bowie biography).

Curiously, Bowie would go on the following month to record his now famous Christmas duet with Bing Crosby. Ever the chameleon, Bowie learned to adapt to changing times; and Bolan, unable to shed the leopard tights and feather boas, was the equivalent of a green peacock — flashy and nearly extinct.

A little over a week after filming the Marc show with Bowie, Bolan would be dead. With his girlfriend Gloria Jones at the wheel, driving the couple home early in the morning of 16 September, Bolan’s purple Mini Cooper slammed into a tree. Bolan died on impact. The final episode of Marc (with Bowie) ran posthumously. The show had ended after only six episodes.

Leaving a definitive mark on rock and roll, Bolan has become a rare thing in pop music: part iconoclast, and part icon. He left behind over a decade’s worth of material.  Songs like the infectious “20th Century Boy” continue to get used in all manner of movies and television commercials, and, this year, he will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as a member of T. Rex).

The recognition is long overdue.





Idolization of Generation X

Overshadowed by early MTV darling Billy Idol’s enormous success in the 1980s, his band from the mid to late seventies, Generation X, gets overlooked in the history of punk music. Many argue that the reason for this exclusion is simple: that Generation X was more of a rock and pop band than punk. Unconcerned for the most part with politics, not interested in being anti-establishment, and unwilling to reject the music that came before them, Generation X was a band forever in the process of becoming something, but breaking apart before they fully ever became anything.

Billy Idol and Siouxsie Sioux
Billy Idol and Siouxsie Sioux, part of the Bromley Contingent

Generation X began as many punk bands did: inspired by the Sex Pistols. William Broad, a 21-year-old guitar playing university drop-out  was part of the infamous Bromley Contigent. Along with drummer John Towe, he placed an ad in Melody Maker, and was fortunate to find Tony James, a bass player, and Gene October, a singer. They formed a band called Chelsea, but very soon thereafter encountered tensions when October thought the sound of the band too anemic and lightweight. October left, and Broad, now calling himself Billy Idol, dropped the guitar and stepped up to the mic. Guitarist Bob Andrews was hired, and the foursome began playing gigs late in ’76: first at London’s Central School of Art & Design and soon thereafter at the Roxy. Calling themselves Generation X, it was clearly Idol’s and James’ band, and they soon turned from playing cover songs to original material. Supporting bands like the Police and the Jam in the spring of ’77, it was only a matter of time before they gained the attention of the music press, and subsequently, record companies. The summer saw them record their first single, “Your Generation.” Some personnel changes later, they would soon find themselves that Fall on Marc Bolan’s television program, along with Granada TV and even (as the first punk band ever to perform on) Top of the Pops. It was a whirlwind of a year, as popular culture began to embrace the punk sound on both sides of the Atlantic.

But Generation X were distinctly different from their contemporaries. They had neither the raw energy of the Damned or the spirit of the Clash. Nothing so unique as The Ramones. No semblance of the derision of The Dead Boys. They didn’t inspire the worldwide love / hate of the Sex Pistols, and they were far from the “new wave” of music emerging from bands like the Police, the Cure, Talking Heads and Television.

Instead, they stood somewhat alone as a band of relatively popular pretty-boy press darlings with moderate sales success (their single Day by Day, for example, only charted at #36 in the UK).

Indeed, even their name showed a lack of identity and a distance from their contemporaries. Idol claims he took the name from a book in his mother’s house: a 1965 study of popular youth culture by British journalists Jane Deverson and Charles Hamblett that contained interviews with mods — disaffected anti-establishment youth that took inspiration from bands like Small Faces, The Who, and The Pretty Things. Generation X would cover John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth,” and reference a love for the Beatles and the Stones in “Ready Steady Go.” Later in life, in his autobiography, Idol would write that “Tony and I increasingly looked to the Who as a guide when attempting to suss out our development.” It would seem Generation X was a punk band mostly by association, playing a blend of melodic pop and rock while using punk rock’s speed and heavily distorted bar chords. In that same autobiography, Idol reveals how Tony James played him Bruce Springsteen. His “Jungleland” would inspire the narrative style of Generation X’s “Kiss Me Deadly.”

Generation X (self-titled), 1977
Generation X (self-titled), 1977

Unlike most punk bands, arguments and drugs (though they played a part) didn’t do Generation X in. It was the music. The decline in the quality of their music did not sit well with the record company. They followed up a brilliant and successful initial release (self-titled, in 1978) with an inferior sophomore effort: Valley of the Dolls in 1979. A further fizzle would be their swan song: Kiss Me Deadly, in 1981. Renamed to Gen X in order to reflect a change in sound influenced by both Goth and the New Romantics, the band experienced more personnel changes, and lost whatever pop-punk magic they had. Even the album’s name was a throw-back to former glory, as the track appears on their first release, but not this last. This final, forgettable LP, however, did contain a song that Idol would later use to build his solo career: “Dancing with Myself.”

Was Generation X just a springboard for the juggernaut of rock, glam, and MTV-friendly punk that was Billy Idol? Without Tony James, the success that the band did have in that golden year of 1977 would arguably never had happened. Billy Idol might have never been. But the lessons he learned about taking the best of rock, pop, glam, new wave, new romantics, and, yes, punk, served him well into the eighties and beyond.