on 10 December 2007
We all know of Marc Bolan as the iconic lead singer of T. Rex; that grand, strutting peacock of rock, the eternal star-child of glam, peeling off those ferocious guitar-lines amidst nonsense verse spiked with blistering innuendo. But few casual listeners have ever bothered to delve further into the musical Mecca of records that Bolan released prior to the abbreviation of the unwieldy Tyrannosaurus Rex moniker, and indeed, before the addition of Micky Finn, Steve Currie and Bill Legend to create that archetypical T. Rex sound.
I suppose it's still easy to dismiss Bolan's early work as nothing more than trite, hippy-era, airy-fairy nonsense; with some critics still seeing the icon (at this stage in his career, at least) as a bargain bin Syd Barrett, and no doubt instead preferring to think of T. Rex as a brand name that began its life with the release of Ride a White Swan in 1970 and died, alongside our hero, on that fateful night in September, 1977. But really, there was so much more to the legacy of Bolan, pre-T. Rextacy, that it seems almost criminal to ignore it -- with a clutch of underrated albums, like the preposterously titled My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair... But Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows (1968) and the later A Beard of Stars (1970) in particular standing out as exemplary pieces of work that could easily be ranked alongside the better known albums like Electric Warrior (1971) and The Slider (1972). Central to this early legacy of forgotten works is the third and arguable best album from Tyrannosaurus Rex - Unicorn - which, like the first two albums, would pit Bolan's adolescent tales of woodland elves and high-road hotrods against a series of repetitively strummed and simplistic acoustic guitar melodies and the hypnotic bongo rhythms of original percussionist Steve "Peregrine" Took.
This combination of instruments would become the backbone of early Tyrannosaurus Rex until the magisterial Took was ousted for his rock n' roll attitudes and continual substance abuse; famously being replaced a few days later by Mickey Finn (who's unique style and good-looks appealed to Bolan's later desire to launch T. Rex as serious chat act). Personally, I always saw this is a bit of a tragedy, as the percussion here is the real salient factor of T. Rex Mk. 1, lending Bolan's songs an exotic authenticity that suggests both traditional Eastern and Asian folk influences and something more Medieval in design (perhaps suggesting the gypsy folk and remnants of chamber music that would come to inform much of Donovan's music - on albums like Sunshine Superman and The Hurdy Gurdy Man in particular - or similarly-themed albums by The Incredible String Band and Forrest). These influences are integrated alongside Bolan's fondness for early rock & roll rhythms, with the obvious ghost of Buddy Holly enthusing and enlivening some of the more up-tempo three chord strummers in a way that would set the template for all of those future T. Rex chart-topping hits.
Regardless of the later allusions and musical foreshadowing of Bolan's eventual shift towards blistering glam-rock, Unicorn fits firmly in the bracket of psychedelic-folk, with the combination of both strummed and finger-picked acoustic guitar melodies double tracked alongside the bongo-like percussive elements, really creating a rhythmic and hypnotic groove that is further augmented by unlikely instruments such as the kazoo, mellotron, Chinese gong and pixiephone to add background ambience and various surreal atmospherics. Added to this, we also have the interweaving vocal shrieks, screams and yelps of both Bolan and Took merging seamlessly, whilst simultaneously creating meaning from incompressible improvisations and almost mystical religion chants. All of this further combined alongside those surreal, fairy-tale-like lyrical vignettes to create an album that takes us on an enthralling, colourful and continually imaginative little journey over purple hills of rarn and beyond the kaleidoscopic sea of green, where Debora rides a galleon stallion through a psychedelic cloud of woolly, black-perm.
The overall sound of the album ties in nicely with the certain other acts previously mentioned throughout this review; with the Bolan of Unicorn seemingly inspired by the work of Robin Williamson and Mike Heron of The Incredibly String Band, the Donovan of A Gift from a Flower to a Garden and the Barrett of Bike and Gnome. It also foreshadows many of the current wave of highly acclaimed alternative folk singers gathered together under trendy catch-all banners like psyche-folk, nu-folk and anti-folk, with the sound of early Tyrannosaurus Rex apparent in the work of Animal Collective (in particular some of their solo projects, most notably Young Prayer (2002) by Panda Bear and Pullhair Rubeye (2007) by Avey Tare & Kría Brekkan), Angels of Light, Joanna Newsom (in particular her first album The Milk Eyed Mender (2002)), Vetiver (certain elements of their 2004 debut) and most prominently the work of "nu-folk" pioneer Devendra Banhart, who claims to have never heard anything by Tyrannosaurus Rex, which is fortunate, as the majority of his work, especially in comparison with albums like My People Were Fair... and Unicorn, seriously tows the line between homage and theft.
It's still very much a T. Rex album at it's core, with particular songs like The Seal of Seasons, She Was Born to Be My Unicorn, Evenings of Damask and Like a White Star, Tangled and Far, Tulip That's What You Are no doubt sounding just as great if they'd be performed with a fully switched-on, glam-rock arrangement (and slipped onto the track listing of later albums like Electric Warrior, The Slider and Tanx). In other words, they continue the legacy of Bolan perfectly; tying into the various themes and obsessions that would underline his much more iconic work of the 1970's, such as decadence, love, rock-star idolatry, and the various mystical musings around ancient history, poetry, literature and bonged-out hippy-bliss philosophy. There's no obvious stand-out track for me, with the twelve songs here all complimenting each other perfectly, while simultaneously adding to a continual mood wherein all tracks blur seamlessly into one riveting, rhythmic whole. A remarkable album then, not simply within the context of Bolan's career, but within the wider cannon of the psychedelic-folk movement, and the 1960's in general.