Like so many pop lives it ended sadly young. Yet for East End star Marc Bolan it wasn’t his own excesses that brought his death, but a tragic accident.
Mark Feld was born in Hackney in 1947, the son of lorry driver Simeon and Phyllis. He was tiny, standing just 5ft2in, but had no illusions – he knew that he was a star just waiting for his moment. That moment would be a long time coming though.
Mark would come up to Soho to see his mum on her fruit stall in Berwick Street Market, and he was soon spending as much time in the record shops that fringed the stalls. He soaked up the American rock and roll that was filling their racks and soon the charts – although you couldn’t hear it on the radio of course: Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Elvis Presley and dozens of others, though his first musical experiments were with that peculiar British hybrid of skiffle music, popular in the UK charts of the late 50s. Years later, Bolan would remember sneaking into the legendary 2i’s coffee bar in Old Compton Street, where British stars such as Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard and Wee Willie Harris were honing their acts.
Mark had always been destined for stardom. Helen Shapiro, who would reach number one in 1961 at 14, remembered him well. At the age of just 10, East Ender Helen and her brother Ron formed a band which “included Marc Bolan, who was nine and lived down the road. He was called Mark Feld then and was very chubby and very into Cliff.”
Cliff Richard, along with Billy Fury and Rory Storm ruled the charts. But Shapiro, appearing on a bill with an unknown band called The Beatles in 1963, could see the writing on the wall. “I thought: ‘Uh oh, something is changing,’” she remembers.
Pop music moved incredibly swiftly in the 60s. The pair were just a year apart in age, yet Helen topped the charts in the years before the Beat Boom and Marc in 1970. By then, Beat music, flower power and the hippies had come and gone and the pop stars were now rock musicians. Steve Marriot was no longer fronting cheeky Stepney popsters the Small Faces but the much heavier Humble Pie, while Steve Winwood had gone from the Spencer Davis Group to Traffic. They were interested in ‘progressive’ and experimental music, focusing on albums and very sniffy about singles. Some canny musicians spotted a gap for singles artists and Marc – a veteran yet still only 23 – was perfectly placed to exploit it.
He had served a long apprenticeship. After leaving school at 15 ‘by mutual consent’ he had scratched a living as a model. Pick up a catalogue for long-defunct clothing store John Temple from the early 60s and you will see a moody Feld smouldering out from the pages. He also appeared as an extra in TV show Orlando, dressed as a mod.
He cut a series of demos for EMI and others. It’s fascinating to hear the evolution of his voice today (you’ll find many of the recordings on youtube.com). A 1964 cut of Mark singing Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind reveals an American accent halfway between cut-glass and cabaret (think Adam Faith, Eden Kane and John Leyton). By the time he was demo’ing Hound Dog with the early Tyrannosaurus Rex a few years later, the voice is sliding into the trademark Bolan whining drawl.
Luckily for Mark, the A&R men weren’t interested, giving him crucial years in which to develop his own voice. It wasn’t the only change. Mark Feld became Toby Tyler (the name nabbed from a Disney film of 1960), Mark Bowland and finally Marc Bolan. As mod faded, Marc’s hair grew longer and the music more experimental. After a brief stint with the group John’s Children Bolan formed a new band, Tyrannosaurus Rex, with Steve Peregrine-Took providing percussion and bass to Marc’s vocals and acoustic guitar.
The band’s debut album, released in 1968, was very much of its time, ethereal and with an eclectic grab bag of cultural references. My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair… But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows had as its closing track a Bolan-penned poem, Frowning Atahuallpa (My Inca Love), read by DJ John Peel. Marc had probably never met an Inca, nor an ‘Afghan Woman’ (side 2, track 2), though he might have visited Virginia Water (side 1, track 5), but the important thing was that the band was on its way.
Peel was playing Tyrannosaurus Rex on his Radio 1 show, though they still weren’t bothering the charts. But beneath the corkscrew curls and hippy stylings, there was a laser focus on the success that had long eluded him. Bolan dispensed with Took, whose drug taking had reached career-derailing proportions, and drafted in Mickey Finn – a far less talented musician but he looked great on stage.
No record label would be so patient, but EMI imprint Regal Zonophone allowed the band to make four albums with producer Tony Visconti, each barely touching the charts. The fifth, T Rex, was the turning point.
After Ride a White Swan made number two in the chart in 1970, Marc boiled the sound down to a tighter version of the rock and roll he had loved as a child. Hot Love and Get It On, Telegram Sam and Metal Guru – the hits kept coming, eight singles in the top over the next two years.
John Peel was appalled by the blatant tilt at success, though he later admitted that his famous falling out with Bolan saw fault on both sides. But if a long time coming, success was fleeting. New stars were topping the charts – Slade, David Essex, the Bay City Rollers. A distraught Marc took solace in food and alcohol and his elfin good looks disappeared as the pounds piled on.
Salvation was to come from an unlikely direction. In 1976, a whole generation of musicians would be swept away by the rise of punk. Marc, with nothing to lose, embraced it, going on tour with The Damned and wowing audiences who had grown up on his singles. Ironic it may have been, but Bolan’s long years in music gifted him a musical virtuosity the punk acts could only dream of.
Better was to come. TV producer Muriel Young put him in his own TV show, Marc, which went out just as kids were arriving home from school, and brought the new bands such as The Jam to a young audience, as well as Marc’s famous duet with old pal David Bowie).
Marc was a success once again. But by the time that appearance with Bowie went out (20 September 1977) he was dead. Driving home from a West End drinking club, Bolan’s girlfriend Gloria Jones lost control of her car, and the Mini struck a tree. Marc was killed instantly.