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“Assessing the Importance of T. Rex within Classic Rock Legend”

Following the death of David Bowie, in 2016, Rob Sheffield, who’s a sort of a senior staff writer at Rolling Stone, of sorts, put out this book On Bowie, about a 200-or-so-page biography/criticism which I have to admit had a snazzy cover and of which I perused about half or a little over, from what I remember. One of the anecdotes in the book involved (and I’m going purely on memory here, so please excuse any trivial errors) the exact way in which Bowie got his start in the industry, which was accepting a role as a mime on a T. Rex tour. T. Rex, a manifest permutation of the erstwhile soft-folk outfit Tyrannosaurus Rex, was a glam-rock collective out of London (Bowie’s hometown too) who seemed to, somewhat like David Essex, grasp the dead ends of rock and roll, if you will, and yearn to gear things in a new, fresh direction [1]. In their case, this new direction materialized successfully as a sort of bouncy, dirty funk rock that was as infectious as it was stylistically original. With David Bowie, in my personal opinion, it’s almost like he perceived the pitfalls of MUSIC itself, so he** bent as he was on making an impression with his appearance, hairstyle and garb [2] [3]. As was reported in Sheffield’s book, Bolan held an active, even vocal disdain for the artist, and only begrudgingly allowed him a paid position on tour at all, and, perhaps symbolically, one in which he wasn’t allowed to talk.

So just to run real quick through some hopelessly cursory nodes making baby steps toward the microversion of T. Rex lore, the classic albums are typically held as being Electric Warrior (1971) [4] and The Slider (1972). To me, though, it’s gotta be Warrior and T. Rex (1970), which essentially amounts to a self-titled debut in that it marks the first album since the group’s name change, or name truncation, if you will. T. Rex is probably the guilty arbiter of some pretty shi**y production (owing then in turn to the typically symptomatic low studio budget of a small-fry act) but I swear gushes forth with this rich, invigorating energy and originality. It sounds like Bolan is playing on a guitar he bought at Wal-Mart, truth be told, but the lyrics are distinct and clearly delivered, and again, the vibe and purpose are there, big time.

Still, none would probably deny Electric Warrior’s slot as the band’s classic, and the album that in my opinion singlehandedly propels them to catalogue superiority to Bowie. But I meet a lot of Bowie fans, so it’s possible that I’m wrong here [5], or that I’m going to pi** a lot of people off, or both.

Anyway, to shift gears from the venerable “Bang a Gong (Get it on),” I’d like to turn to another song off of that same album, Electric Warrior, and that is “Jeepster.” “Jeepster” saunters forth in about the median T. Rex style, just a little bit quicker and more aggressively stomping, but still congenial enough to play on radio. In this way, I think, T. Rex came up with something that was just as fun as heavy metal and way more approachable, for its funky stature as danceable, alluring and enthusing radio rock music.

Part of the significance of “Jeepster” is that it was picked up for covers material by a band from the other side of the pond, Memphis’ own occult, impeccably influenced Big Star, for the live album Complete Columbia [6]: Live at University of Missouri 4/25/93 (sic). To me, T. Rex and Big Star are sort of like a dirty/clean yin and yang of ’70s indie rock [7] [8]. One’s for day and the other’s for night, you might say, with Big Star proclaiming “At my side is god” in “The Ballad of El Goodo,” arguably their best song, and T. Rex declaring “You’re dirty sweet and you’re my girl” in what seems to be an almost endemic proclivity to the mischievous and emotionally dangerous, if you will.

And then… there’s “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress.” This, to be honest, is one of those songs I just shake my head at. One way to look at it is that if somebody plays a song on a jukebox by The Hollies, you can be about 125% sure it’ll be this awkward, appalling clunker. On the other hand, we have the Big Star cover of “Jeepster,” I’ve seen “Metal Guru” shared on Facebook by a rock page and I’ve heard “Mambo Sun,” the opener on Electric Warrior, on the radio. “Long Cool Woman” came out just a year after “Bang a Gong,” presumably a sort of sandbag for the stiff squares in the industry who are just scared of a dude who refers to a woman as “dirty/sweet” [9]. The thing is just a train wreck and not only does it rip off the seminal “Bang a Gong” opening guitar riff (a stunt also pulled by the Pixies in “Cactus,” I’m 99% sure), but they even keep saying “get it on” at the end of the chorus, too. It’s like, ok dude, you’re apparently getting it on with that chick. I heard you the first time. It’s like a song that T. Rex gave birth to out of its a** crack. It’s like “What’s Your Name?” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, a tune that owes the entirety of its popularity to the neurotic homophobia on the part of the certain industry denizens who are uncomfortable with any ebbing of the macho, womanizing zeitgeist in radio rock. But anyway, to me Electric Warrior is that classic album I’ve just listened to too much like Led Zeppelin IV or The Dark Side of the Moon and so I have T. Rex (1970), which is sort of like a whispering of cool autumn breeze — you can’t go to the beach in it and you maybe can’t even sit outside in it, but it’s still oddly comfortable and proviso of a certain refreshing levity, as well as true style and grace.

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[1] The idea was apparently that blues were getting old and also that no Earthly being could play them as well  as Eric Clapton and Cream, who by this point had broken up.

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[2] Howard Stern had Peter Frampton, another native Londoner who’d apparently grown up with Bowie, on his show, and true to form, they were both pretty much sucking up to Bowie. The topic came up about how Bowie would, like, shave his beard, or change his hair, over a weekend, and Stern emitted some gushing bit of puerile idolatry like “He didn’t give a fu**.” Um, wrong. He DID give a fu** and it’s real substantial rockers like Neil Young who will see through this vinyl craze as a materialistic hoax, who will go an entire rock career without ever changing their hairstyle (and with barely ever washing it), who TRULY “don’t give a fu**,” my friends.

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[3] In the studio, as a sound man, I think he had a predilection to “overproduce” and I prefer the organic, digestible sound of the first two Stooges albums to Bowie’s noxious, ham-handed mix on Raw Power.

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[4] This indeed is the LP that furnishes the band’s only mega-hit of their career, the ubiquitous and breezy “Bang a Gong (Get it on).”

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[5] Interestingly, though, I’ve found that every discussion of David Bowie that takes place anywhere, among anyone, invariably dissolves into a discussion of fashion, and not music, as that Howard Stern episode will not disprove.

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[6] Columbia is the college town that houses the U of MO.

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[7] Yes, believe it or not, it was DAVID BOWIE who habituated RCA around this time, with T. Rex content to lodge on Britain’s Fly Records for their livelihood and notoriety, Indeed, as well, commendably, Blur and Oasis also called independent imprints their homes throughout the ’90s, painting a pretty auspicious picture of the integrity and creative synergy of British rock music, as it should.

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[8] As far as I know Big Star was the only well-known act on Memphis’ own Ardent Records (and indeed, after a re-release that was lauded by Pitchfork in about ’09 or so, they’re far more well-known now than they were in the days of afros and eight-tracks).

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[9] There was a song out around this time about “having too much fun,” too, and getting in trouble thereafter with the authorities, wasn’t there?

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