Did all of glam rock spring from Marc Bolan's glittering fingernail? We can't imagine Bowie, the New York Dolls, Poison, Buckcherry, et al, without the invisible hand of Bolan's legacy curving those lesser bands' (fine, you can have Bowie) mindsets: If you must rock, then be a star. The boogie of Bolan's music with T.Rex was only outdone by his outlandish personality, his big hair, those shoes, those shiny pants -- a glam ebullience well before it was trendy.
For a while, T.Rex's Electric Warrior has been the most widely disseminated album of Bolan's inconsistent career. The album frequently pops up on "Best of the '70s" lists, with its memorable cover and the presence of the band's only popular American song, "Bang a Gong (Get It On)." But now, Fat Possum Records is slowly reissuing the Bolan oeuvre, starting with Electric Warrior follow-up The Slider, which arguably surpasses its predecessor with a jauntier, heavier sound. That's for you to decide. For now, here's a primer of T.Rex's best work and why Marc Bolan was one of the best rock stars who never made it.
01 Tyrannosaurus Rex: My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair... But Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows (A&M, 1968)
If only to see how far he came. At the start of his career, Bolan was a hippie dippie flower child more indebted to psych and folk than glam and funk; T.Rex's debut album (back when they were called Tyrannosaurus Rex) is astonishing to hear, not just because Bolan was working with a guy named Steven Peregrine Took, but also for the thematic and sonic distance from their later material. For one, the songs aren't all about fucking -- armed with an acoustic guitar and some bongos, Bolan and Took espoused about all things peaceful and loving. There's the first inkling of Bolan's fascination with motor vehicles on opening track "Hot Rod Mama" as he pines after a woman who rides a motorcycle and "Mustang Ford," about consolidating his sexual lust for a woman with the alligator leather in her car.
02T. Rex: Electric Warrior (A&M, 1971)
The totem looming over T.Rex's catalog, Electric Warrior was the first full realization of Bolan's newly conceived rock-god persona, which he'd found after deciding that hippies were full of it. As Bolan attempts to navigate the cosmos like a wayward star child, the album itches with a sinister sexuality. Check out that boot stomp brashness on "Jeepster," which revolutionized stripping forever, and the simple-as-it-gets groove of "Bang A Gong (Get It On)," which lives forever via Rock Band. The slink of "Mambo Sun," the album's opener, might be the atmospheric high point: As that guitar brims with tension and Bolan lowers his voice to a whisper, is there any doubt what his intentions are?
03 T. Rex: The Slider (Mercury, 1972)
The best, heaviest and breeziest Bolan ever got. It kicks off with "Metal Guru," a skull-crushing ode to false idolatry predating heavy metal by a good half-decade at least. The title track is Bolan at his most reflective -- the back-and-forth between being a lothario and a loner symbolized with the line, "When I'm sad, I slide" over a slow-burning funk riff. "Telegram Sam" is the silliest and funkiest cut on this record. It's a coked-out party in the studio as Bolan drops nonsense lines about characters like Purple Pie Pete, Golden Nose Slim and Bobby the natural poet (a reference to Dylan, natch). Most of all the album is fun. Life's a party, and Bolan's going to get you to dance your ass off, then cry, then start all over again.
04 Great Hits 1972-1977: The A-Sides (Mercury, 1994)
Bolan cut a lot of material after peaking with The Slider, and most of it isn't very good: bloated double albums, a moodier sound, weird stabs at what he thought should be mainstream. You can cut through a lot of that nonsense with this excellent collection of singles, which spans from The Slider until Bolan's death in 1977. It grabs cuts like the rip-roaring "20th Century Boy," the most defiant and cock sure anthem Bolan ever laid down and "Teenage Dream," a wistful, glistening ode to youthful indiscretion in the nighttime that's 30 percent better or worse than Katy Perry's song of the same name, depending on how your night is going.