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Defining T. Rex Album Came Out The Same Year NPR Debuted Original Programming

Sep 24, 2021
Originally published on September 28, 2021 7:43 am

This story originally aired on Sept. 24, 2021.

In 1971, Joe Elliott was 12 years old, and he was going to his first rock show. The band was T. Rex, touring their latest album, Electric Warrior. Pushing through the venue's swing doors with porthole windows, Elliott found himself in a rollicking, ecstatic crowd that screamed itself into his memory. Fifty years later, he recalls it with ease.

"They were already on stage when I got there. ... I just burst through the doors and just saw this sea of people going mental," he says. Fans flailed, screamed and danced while the band gave it their all on stage. "I'd seen plenty of black and white footage of the Beatles and the Stones and stuff like that on TV ... but I'd never seen it in the flesh."

Elliott's love of T. Rex stayed with him long after that night. Electric Warrior was the first album he owned. And eventually, he'd grow up to become the frontman of his own band: Def Leppard.

T. Rex had been around since the late 1960s, originally billed as an acoustic folk duo and called Tyrannosaurus Rex. Lead guitarist and frontman Marc Bolan crafted whimsical, fantasy-inspired lyrics and breathless album titles like, My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair...But Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows. But as the '60s came to a close, earnest folk lyrics and pared back acoustics were fading from favor. The '70s demanded something fresh.

Bolan met American record producer Tony Visconti in London in 1967. Visconti and Bolan became fast friends, and they began collaborating right away. "It wasn't too official," Visconti says, "we were just extending our friendship into the studio."

They cut four folk albums as Tyrannosaurus Rex, which achieved some success on the U.K charts. In late 1970, as the band's musical style began to morph, they scored their first major hit single, "Ride A White Swan." They quickly followed up with their first No. 1 hit, "Hot Love" in early 1971.

By this time, T. Rex was a sleeker package. They changed their name from Tyrannosaurus Rex to T. Rex. The acoustic duo became a four-piece band, filled out with a bassist and drummer. Visconti had been steadily building his production skills, closely studying the work of Beatles production colossus George Martin.

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In March 1971, T. Rex appeared on the BBC's Top of the Pops and performed what would become their most recognizable hit, "Bang A Gong (Get It On)." Chelita Secunda, the wife of the band's manager, came up with the idea to apply a little glue and glitter to Bolan's cheeks. With that splash of stardust, glam rock was born.

After the success of "Hot Love" and the Top of the Pops performance, Visconti went back to New York to visit his parents for the first time in three years. He coincidentally ran into Bolan. They'd both heard the news about "Hot Love."

"I had my boss phone up from England saying, 'Do you have a follow up?' " Visconti recalls. "That's when I knew we had a real hit record situation going on and that I had to make an album that would keep us in the charts and supply us with a third hit single. And I said to my boss, 'I'll have one when I return.' "

Over the next three months, Visconti would chase Bolan from New York to Los Angeles to London as he toured and recorded at the same time. The end result was an 11-song album packed with melodies, groove and beats that begged you to move. Electric Warrior rocketed to the top of the charts in the U.K., but Bolan had a different country in mind while working on the album.

"The only country left in the world is America, for us. And I'd like to get it over with, find out if people either want us, or don't, here," Bolan told jazz producer Michael Cuscuna in 1971. While the album charted at No. 1 in the UK, it peaked at 32 in the U.S. T. Rex's biggest single "Bang A Gong" reached No. 10 on the US Billboard Hot 100, but failed to climb any higher. "T. Rexstasty," as it was called in England, wasn't contagious in America.

Though the band met with limited success in the States, their influence remains. In 2020, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and musicians ranging from the late David Bowie to Ke$ha have cited Bolan as an inspiration. And in the words of the rocker himself, Electric Warrior is more than an album: "I think Electric Warrior, for me, is the first album which is a statement of 1971 for us in England. If anyone ever wanted to know why we were big in the other part of the world, that album says it, for me."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Maybe you've heard, NPR's 50 years old this year. So we've been looking back at the news, movies and albums that shaped the year 1971. One of those albums, T. Rex's "Electric Warrior," was released 50 years ago today. Here's NPR's Avery Keatley.

(SOUNDBITE OF T REX SONG, "BANG A GONG (GET IT ON)")

AVERY KEATLEY, BYLINE: On September 24, 1971, and British rock band T. Rex released "Electric Warrior."

(SOUNDBITE OF T REX SONG, "BANG A GONG (GET IT ON)")

KEATLEY: The 11-song album would be the biggest of their career, with singles like "Bang A Gong" and "Jeepster." Marc Bolan was the lead singer and guitarist.

MARC BOLAN: You know, I'm a rocker. Music's my initial inspiration.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANG A GONG (GET IT ON)")

T REX: (Singing) Well, you're dirty and sweet, clad in black, don't look back and I love you. You're dirty and sweet. Oh, yeah.

KEATLEY: T. Rex formed in the late '60s as an acoustic folk duo, then called Tyrannosaurus Rex. But the music scene was flowing in a different direction.

TONY VISCONTI: By the early '70s, we did as much as we could with electric guitars.

KEATLEY: That's acclaimed record producer Tony Visconti. He produced many of T. Rex's albums, including "Electric Warrior."

VISCONTI: We realized that we were the guys making the hits. And it was our responsibility, like the Beatles took it upon themselves, to do something better every time we put a record out.

KEATLEY: By 1971, the band had changed their name, their sound and scored major hit singles in the U.K. A few months before "Electric Warrior" was released, Bolan made another change. In a Top of the Pops performance, he came onstage with a little more flair than usual. Here's historian and writer Simon Reynolds.

SIMON REYNOLDS: He sort of glammed up his image. He put some glitter on his cheekbones and wore a scarf. And that was all it took, really, to get people to scream at him.

KEATLEY: That little bit of glitter had a great big impact. Glam rock was born.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANG A GONG (GET IT ON)")

T REX: (Singing) Get it on. Bang a gong. Get it on.

REYNOLDS: A strong sense of image and glitz, simple, anthemic songs, rock 'n' roll with this beat that just forced you to move.

KEATLEY: The slicked-up production, the makeup and high heels and the music that begged you to boogie inspired countless musicians. One of them was 12-year-old Joe Elliott, future lead singer of Def Leppard. His first concert was T. Rex on their "Electric Warrior" tour.

JOE ELLIOTT: I went through the swing doors and just saw this sea of people going mental, you know, hair everywhere, arms flailing, they're all over the place, screaming girls, shouting boys and Marc Bolan wailing away on stage with his guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF T REX SONG, "JEEPSTER")

KEATLEY: With "Electric Warrior," Bolan helped to break through to a new audience. Here he is speaking with jazz producer Michael Cuscuna in 1971.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOLAN: The album for me is about just explaining to America, really, that we're worth listening to.

KEATLEY: The album charted at No. 1 in the U.K. but peaked at just 32 in the U.S. Writer Simon Reynolds.

REYNOLDS: I think it really kind of messed with his head. The fame in the U.K. was too much, yet he didn't quite manage to extend it into America.

KEATLEY: Despite the band's inability to rise to stardom in the U.S., "Electric Warrior's" legacy endures. Musicians ranging from David Bowie to Kesha have cited Bolan as an inspiration. In 2020, T. Rex was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And in the words of Bolan himself, "Electric Warrior" is more than just an album.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOLAN: I think "Electric Warrior" for me is the first album which is a statement of 1971 for us in England.

MICHAEL CUSCUNA: Oh, really?

BOLAN: I mean, that's - if anyone ever wanted to know why we were big in the other part of the world, that album says it for me.

KEATLEY: So dust off those boogie shoes, put the needle down and step back into 1971.

Avery Keatley, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF T REX SONG, "MAMBO SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.