Where Proto Punk Meets Pop, Folk and Glam: Bridging Genres with T Rex

How any particular group/artist blends their influences and different genres is a big part of what makes their own musical sound unique. In some cases it's a lot more obvious what different brands of music have gone into a particular sound than others. I always find it interesting though, especially when bands surprise me with their depth.

I was recently surprised by a band I wish I had been listening to a long time ago, but had actually dismissed them for whatever reason. The band is T-Rex and you might be surprised to hear that until just a few weeks ago, I only knew one song by them: "Bang a Gong (Get it On)". Now, I could blame this on the fact that I grew up in, and currently still live in, "the States", as that song was their only real hit here, but that feels like a bit of a cop out as I think I've judged a number of "glam" bands a little harshly over the years. On a recent whim though, I decided to check out an album from this group and have since become a T-Rex fan you could say. I was quite impressed at the way Marc Bolan and company seemed to straddle the boundary of proto punk, folk rock, pop and glam creating something all their own that is nothing at all like what I was expecting.

When starting with T-Rex and where to place them within certain genres, the first obvious hurdle to overcome is the fact that between the late 60s and early 70s they morphed their sound from cryptic imagery filled folk rock or Tyrannosaurus Rex into more of a gritty, rough edged rock of T. Rex. Both incarnations of the band/Marc Bolan (he was the only original member for a while before his death) are musically compelling, and comparing the two is quite interesting. The change really took hold starting with the 1970 A Beard of Stars album, which is quite a folksy work in spite of the increased use of the electric guitar. Some songs, like "Woodland Bop", "Elemental Child" and "By the Light of the Magical Moon" show more of where they would go in the next few years on subsequent albums with their more rock styled beats and slightly harder edge. "Elemental Child" especially sounds like their later works with it's gritty rock guitar riff, but still has a bit of the mystic, psychedelic folk, flavors in it as well.

In fact, the folksy side never really leaves the band entirely and it comes through in many of their later tracks. There are elements of the folk rock style in songs like "Mister Mister", "Mad Donna" and "Life is Strange" from 1973's Tanx , even if many of the complex images that were such a big part of the early Tyrannosaurus Rex sound have faded away in favor of the more direct lyrics of T. Rex. Still, Bolan's lyrics have a simplicity and direct feel to them that actually reminds me more of certain folk artists than some of his more psychedelic lyrical compositions. It's as if he actually progressed a little closer to a folk style with his lyrics in trying to make the songs as spontaneous and somewhat disposable as possible even though the lyrical content is more pop based and musically the band as a whole sounds more like rock band.

Folk and pop rock are not the only genres that are encompassed by the work of T. Rex though. The different stylistic shades that are exhibited in their rock and roll phase alone are a conglomerate of early rock and roll, boogie, R & B, soul, hard rock, and pop ballads all rolled up in sweeping arrangements and a decisively proto punk, rough edge. Songs from 1971's Electric Warrior like "Mambo Sun", the afore mentioned glam classic "Bang the Gong (Get it On)" and "The Motivator" are gritty rockers with great swagger and show the band embracing the seductive beat and pushed guitars of bands like the Rolling Stones. That album also contains the song "Rip Off" which is so incredibly gruff, brimming with energy and rebellious angst that I think proto punk might be the only way to describe it, and not just in terms of the punk bands that would emerge later that decade (the Sex Pistols, the Clash), but also bands that had come before like the Velvet Underground, and the Stooges. Although the band would also push more towards hard rock and other songs may hit harder, "Rip Off" seems like one of their most immediate and visceral works... a real punch to the gut.

Some of the harder rockers though are also pretty great, like the slow burning title track from 1972's The Slider, with it's distorted guitars and soaring choruses. "Cadillac" from that album also rocks pretty hard, although with an entirely different feel more akin to the rock swagger with touches of pop thrown in. "Children of the Revolution" from Tanx sounds borderline heavy metal with it's dark pounding riffs, although the floating airy chorus isn't necessarily something you'd expect from Black Sabbath, or even Led Zeppelin. When it comes to the hard rock side of T. Rex though, there's one song that must be discussed. "20th Century Boy", with it's fuzzed out, simple opening riff is without question a hard rock classic. The huge backing vocals serving as a great compliment to Bolan's rock and roll lyrics, put this song way out there in the arena rock realm... just great rock and roll, but quite a different song than the ones that originally put them on the British charts.

The tonal range doesn't stop there though. "Beltran Walk" from T. Rex, "Monolith" from Electric Warrior and the infamous "Metal Guru" from The Slider, each have a unique feel that I associate with some of the earliest days of rock and roll, pop, R & B and even doo wop. The band also tries out a really rough blues with "Lean Woman Blues" and a slightly country tinged, electrified folk stomp on "Jeepster", both from Electric Warrior. Then of course there are a number of sweeping pop rock ballads interspersed throughout band's entire catalog.

You add up all these different styles and you get a band that has far more to them than just "Bang the Gong (Get it On)". Throughout all the different styles though, there are a few things that are constant and keep the music rooted as T. Rex. The first thing is Marc Bolan, who is one of the more compelling songwriters. Whether he was actively trying to be poetic or just write killer rock songs and avoid overt artistic statements (ironically making a bit of a artistic statement at the same time by making that choice), he has a pretty unique style and voice. The second is a feeling of looseness and spontaneity that exists in these songs. Sometimes they are stripped down to the minimum instrumentation, but even elaborately layered pieces with harmonized backing vocals, sweeping string arrangements and multiple guitars etc. don't sound produced or even crafted to perfection. Instead, there is a very organic, rough edge (both lyrically and musically) to these songs that is pretty consistent throughout their different styles with some songs pushing it to the forefront more than others. This seems to seat the band more towards the proto punk end of the rock and roll spectrum in my mind, especially when looking at some of the bands the last albums, although it's not at all a cut and dry choice.

Overall, I think that T. Rex is actually one of the more overlooked rock and roll bands from the classic rock era, especially in the USA and countries other than Britain. Their musical depth and the way they bridge genres so well with pop, hard rock, proto punk, R & B and other elements all infused together, makes me think that a lot of people should take another look at this band. Classic rock fans, and probably anyone who might only think of "Bang the Gone (Get it On)" when they hear the name T. Rex like I used to, should take another listen as they might end up really like their music.

In terms of a place to start, when it comes to the music of T. Rex they do have a heyday around '70-'74 when they were quite big on the British music scene. The 5 albums I've discussed tracks from here are all from that period and are personal favorites. That doesn't mean that the albums after that time up until Bolan's death in '77, or the original folk incarnation of Tyrannosaurus Rex isn't worth checking out as well, but I think it might be beneficial to start in that middle era before exploring both the earlier and later. Albums can be found, now often with bonus tracks that are also pretty cool to hear, at all the major venues like Amazon etc. so check it out, you might just end up a fan of the genre bridging T. Rex too.


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