RNRG looks at the classic third album from the momentary tandem of a prefab Marc Bolan and Steve Peregrin Took
There are few artists other than Marc Bolan where such a large chasm exists between their success at home in England and here in America. Before the CD era, all but the most dedicated U.S. fans can be forgiven for thinking his discography consisted of exactly two songs, “Get It On” (here retitled “Bang A Gong” to avoid confusion with another hit single called “Get It On” by jazz-rockers Chase) and “Jeepster.”
He first came to the attention of many Brits when he joined John’s Children, lending additional Les Paul firepower to their already chaotic live show and first revealing his uniquely trilling vocals on “Desdemona,” which became a minor hit. Anyone who had caught John’s Children on tour and witnessed Bolan attacking his guitar with a chain might have been surprised at his next incarnation, which found him sitting cross-legged on the floor, strumming an acoustic guitar or working a wheezing harmonium, alongside Stephen Porter, a percussionist with a Breck-girl mane who called himself Steve Peregrine Took.
That was Tyrannosaurus Rex, who, thanks to relentless gigging, was already a fixture on the London underground scene by the time it released its first album, My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair… But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows on the Regal Zonophone label in early 1968. Influential DJ John Peel was a big fan, which probably helped this charming yet exceedingly odd freak-folk album hit the UK Top 20. It was also a passion project for Tony Visconti, still a fairly new transplant to London from Brooklyn and producing an album for the first time. It had no US release, however, and neither did the follow-up, Prophets, Seers and Sages: The Angels of the Ages, which came out later that year. Prophets also failed to chart, which did not bode well for what some publications were already calling “The last of the great underground bands.”
Partially driven by financial issues, 1969 brought with it a host of issues between Bolan and Took. Some were artistic, with Took wanting to include some of his songs on the next album, and Bolan wanting to introduce electric guitar to the sound, as well as more conventional drumming. Took’s drinking and drug use was also a problem, making him an unreliable partner for the driven Bolan, at that time a teetotaler. They parted ways not long after Unicorn was released 50 years ago this May. In this way, it’s the end of a trilogy even as it laid further groundwork for the T.Rextasy to come.
Despite all the tension, the sound of Unicorn was not so different than the first two albums. While the melodies are sometimes stronger, there are mostly the same strummed guitars, harmonium, and many odd bits of percussion surrounding Bolan’s abstract and fantastical lyrics (the first line we hear is “The toad road licked my wheels like a sabre”). The overall vibe is that of entering a blissed-out hippy enclave, where flowers have power, unicorns are real, and crocodiles can be royalty.
As on the debut, there’s a short story read by Peel, “The Pilgrim’s Tale,” which seems to concern the wanderings of two moles, although “albino hedgehogs” are also mentioned. While this no doubt displays the influence of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind In The Willows, Bolan displays some of his other literary avatars on the back cover photo. There we see Willam Blake’s Complete Writings, Kahlil Gibran’s Broken Wings, and a volume simply called Faeries. While searching the words of the story or any of the songs for direct meaning might seem fruitless, there is a rich and sensual use of language throughout, Bolan aiming more for the heart than the head.
But it’s in the moments when Bolan, Took and Visconti push the envelope that Unicorn exerts extra fascination. “Catblack (the wizard’s hat)” is one such occasion, with Visconti’s powerful piano playing and Took’s heavy drums propelling the song toward the glittery stomps of the future. Took plays electric bass on a few songs and “Warlord of the Royal Crocodiles” begins Side Two with the sounds of Bolan’s Les Paul, a tentative twang that is soon subsumed into the overall clatter. Finally, the last song, “Romany Soup,” is a mantric chant that seems to hearken to the way Bolan would find power in simplicity in future hits like “Metal Guru” and “New York City.”
Even the front cover points in new directions, with Pete Sanders’ photo harnessing the duo’s raw sex appeal in a way most uncommon among the underground scene. These efforts to focus their sound and style did pay off, putting Tyrannosaurus Rex back on the UK charts at #12 and securing a licensing deal with Blue Thumb, the eclectic label founded a year prior by legendary record-man Bob Krasnow. Even if it went straight into the cutout bins, it represented a toe-hold on the American scene.
Very shortly after Unicorn’s release, Took was out, immediately replaced by Mickey Finn, and Bolan felt free to unleash his electric guitar (and Wah Wah pedal!) on A Beard Of Stars. Then, just a year later, came “Ride A White Swan,” a shortened name, and superstardom. Took’s career stayed underground, as he bounced around the festival circuit, mostly in the orbit of bands like Hawkwind and the Pink Fairies. He died in 1980, just a few years after Bolan, with whom he never reconciled.
The music they recorded together has also had its ups and downs, for many years dismissed as a hippy joke. In the mid-80’s, I felt incredibly lucky to find a Blue Thumb copy of Unicorn at Saint Mark’s Sounds. I think it was $2.99! In 2004, an excellent reissue program led by A&M/Universal put out newly remastered and expanded versions of all four Tyrannosaurus Rex albums, making it easy to see how they fit not only into Bolan’s trajectory but into the sixties acid folk scene itself alongside artists like Donovan, Syd Barrett and the Incredible String Band. Those deluxe editions were also repackaged and issued again in 2015, some including complete mono versions of the albums, and it seemed as if due respect might finally be paid.
The three acoustic records have also had an expanding realm of influence. As Julian Cope noted of Unicorn on his Head Heritage site in 2007: “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…Angels of Light, Joanna Newsom…Vetiver…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.”
Unfortunately, while those brilliant reissues are still in print on CD and vinyl, in either the 2004 or 2015 versions, not one of them is available on any streaming service. The fact that not even the two Tyrannosaurus Rex tracks included on the wonderful Blue Thumb compilation, All Day Thumbsucker Blues Revisited, can be played on Spotify means that a significant segment of the legacy of Bolan (and Took) is once again absent from the American musical conversation. This seems a return to the time when Bolan’s aesthetic was seen as “too British” to make it here, widening that chasm again. If you make the effort, however, you will gain entry into a remarkable realm of uniquely transporting songs. Maybe things will change in 2020 when we celebrate the 50th anniversary the start of Bolan’s imperial phase and America will finally learn to get past “Get It On.”
VIDEO: Tyrannosaurus Rex – FULL ALBUM – Unicorn (+ Singles)