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Marc Bolan, 40 years on

Today would have been Marc Bolan’s 70th birthday. As you probably know, he died 40 years ago this month, in the early hours of 16 September 1977. His girlfriend Gloria Jones was driving them back to East Sheen from central London, lost control of the car near Barnes Common and the subsequent crash killed him and left her hospitalized. All of this information was new to my children two weeks ago when we went to the memorial at the site of the crash to pay our respects on the 40th anniversary. They now know a whole lot more about Glam Rock in general, and Bolan and his band T Rex specifically, than they did a month ago.

They have heard plenty of T Rex songs over the years. I used to play “Telegram Sam” frequently when we were driving, and called my son Telegram Sam for a while (because he is, in the words of the song, my main man). I put together a 20-minute video when the children were much smaller, a slideshow accompanied by some favourite tunes, including “Life’s a gas”. There’s a link to the only BBC performance of the song further down in this piece, a duet with the late Cilla Black.

For our drive over the river to Barnes two Saturdays ago I took a couple of CDs that haven’t been in the car for a while: the T Rex album “Electric Warrior” and “The Best Glam Rock Album in the World … Ever!” (a 2-CD compilation). We played “Cosmic Dancer”, “Jeepster”, “Get it on” and “Life’s a Gas” from the former and “Children of the Revolution”, “20th Century Boy” and “Solid Gold Easy Action” from the latter. Before leaving home we had also seen part of “Cosmic Dancer”, the BBC4 documentary about Bolan that was shown the previous night, more for the performances than the interviews and biographical detail. The children are a bit young to hear that Bolan’s uncle Mark was killed by an anti-Semitic sergeant major while he was in the army, beaten to death with a truncheon. We heard “Ride a white swan” and “Hot Love” along with “Jeepster” and “Get it on”.

Much of my children’s musical education has been through the dance shows and musical theatre productions that they have appeared in (which, as this piece from July notes, have come to an end for a while). They have heard a number of classic albums (such as “Innervisions”, “Hunky Dory” and “Tapestry”) scores of times, at home and while in the car, plus countless compilation CDs. They have been exposed to BBC Radio 2 most days in their lives. These days my son usually refuses to listen to CDs when we’re in the car, in favour of Radio 2, but I insisted that we play T Rex on the way to Barnes. I wanted it to be a planned rather than accidental part of their musical education. When they saw white swans among the mementoes left at the memorial they could understand why.

Last weekend my daughter and I watched the compilation of performances from BBC4, “Glam Rock at the BBC”, that had also been shown the previous weekend. She knew what Marc Bolan looked like, and David Bowie too from the classic “Starman” appearance on “Top of the Pops”. I took her and her brother to the Bowie exhibition at the V&A in 2013 many times; that “Starman” footage was on a loop, played continuously near where the exhibition began. Now she can picture Alice Cooper, Roxy Music, Queen and Sparks as well (“That man with the moustache looks really scary”). The previous weekend, on our return from Barnes, she had taken the Glam Rock compilation CDs up to her room and played them for the rest of the afternoon. It includes many of the songs that feature in the BBC4 show, among them “School’s Out”, “Virginia Plain”, “Killer Queen” and “This town ain’t big enough for both of us”. Most of it will sink in, I think. Bowie, Bolan and Queen count as Universal Knowledge for anyone over 40 (or should that say “anyone over 50”?). Plenty of people under 20 will be familiar with them too. A few days ago, on a school visit in preparation for her planned move to senior school next September, she pointed out a painting by one of the students. It depicted some dude in shades, and written on the sunglasses was the following: “You won’t fool the children of the revolution”. She knew where the words came from. Knowledge of T Rex lyrics might not be one of the entrance criteria for high school but I was disproportionately pleased that she’d made the connection.

Finally, here’s that link to “Life’s a Gas”, a duet with a clearly star-struck Cilla Black (my favourite Bolan performance from the BBC archives) and another link to his final “Top of the Pops” appearance, “Soul of my suit”. In December 1980, the month that John Lennon was murdered, this was the song that I played more than any other, from a T Rex Greatest Hits album (on vinyl, of course). It takes me back to that sad, grey, uncertain time more vividly than any other song.




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