Friday, January 03, 2014

Electric Warrior, T.Rex

This is the next installment in a series of articles I am writing about the music of my life. Because I began listening to recordings in 1964, most of my experience is rooted in vinyl recordings (with occasional 8-tracks and cassettes thrown-in); and I am still surprised how the experience of digital media is so different from my memories of analog media.

I hope you enjoy these articles, and that they inspire you to remember the music of your life and celebrate the greatness that was the music industry.

* * *

When my family moved out of the projects and into a white working-class neighborhood, I began listening to more rock music and less soul music.  Soul music did not vanish from my rotation, but lots of rock and (white) pop music was added.

The people in my new neighborhood listened to white music.

We walked to the Zayre's on American Legion Highway to look at the 45s, we had our choice of one of the forty Top 40 songs of the week.  They were displayed in order from #1 to #40 and rarely could you purchase a record that had moved off the charts.  It was on one of these trips in 1970 that I purchased my copy of "Lola" by The Kinks.

My primary source for new music became WBCN-FM, which had an anti-Top-40 format (for lack of a better description) and was an early album-oriented rock station.  A popular musician might have a Top 40 hit being played on the AM dial, and 'BCN would play alternative tracks from the album.

I got my copy of the "Electric Warrior" LP sort of by accident.  I joined a record club and selected 12 free albums to start my subscription.  I remember being attracted to the most excellent cover art of Electric Warrior, so I selected it.  If I thought about it hard enough, I might actually remember the other 11 records that arrived in the thick cardboard mailer.  Another time, perhaps.

I opened Electric Warrior first and listened to Side 2 first because I noticed that "Get It On (Bang A Gong)" was one of the tracks.  I knew the song from Top 40 radio, but had not made the connection that it was a T.Rex song, until the record arrived.

It took quite a while for me to flip the record over and listen to Side 1.  Before the advent of the compact disc, an album was released on a disc of vinyl with music cut into both sides.  You had to WANT to listen to the other side of a record to be bothered to flip it over.  I rarely could be bothered!

Side 2 played repeatedly for days or weeks, until I knew the words to every song, and every song was a keeper for me:

"Get It On" was the hit, and although I didn't quite understand why, it was a controversial line for AM radio. "Planet Queen" was a fey-sounding tune with hard-edged lyrics that included oxymoronic references to revolvers and dragons, Cadillacs and flying saucers, and a gratuitous reference to somebody's daughter.  "Girl" had a verse about God, and a line that I thought was "limp in society's wrist" and has always been that for 40+ years and will always be that for me!  "The Motivator" was about the most straight-forward rock-sounding song on Side 2, and had just as many poetic references as the more sophisticated cuts:  Egypt, royalty, clothes, cats, revolution.  It all worked for me.  "Life's A Gas" had more references to outer space and girls along with a faux-religious mention of a priestess.  "Rip Off" was the shocker.  Where "Get It On" included a subtle reference to sex, "Rip Off" was loaded with sex, nudity, transsexuality, violence, politics, sadomasochism, and more.  I really liked it.  The previous Summer I had learned about drag queens by listening to "Lola" and now T.Rex was taking me to new depths (heights?)!

If I recall correctly, about the same time "Get It On" broke into the AM Top Ten, a T.Rex concert was announced for the Aquarius (nee Orpheum) Theater on Washington Street.  I had been to concerts, but had not been to this venue.

I assumed it would be impossible to get a seat for a top ten artist, but when I showed up at the box office one day after school, I was told there were plenty of seats available.  The ticket seller actually pushed his map of the theater half-way under the grate and pointed to various sections.

He started in the Balcony: "These seats are $2.50."

Then he moved to the back of the Orchestra, under the balcony and waved his finger across the entire width of the map:  "These are $3.50."

"Which of those are available for $3.50?" I asked.

He reached to the shelf of tickets, pulled out a massive stack and said:  "It looks like ALL of those seats are available for $3.50."

The show was in ten days, and all those seats were available?  Did I not know something?  This might not be a good idea.

He moved his finger to the Front Orchestra and said: "These seats are $4.50.  How many seats do you need?"

"Just one," I admitted, a tiny bit embarrassed.  Any fantasy of having a date for a rock concert was always trumped by the fantasy of getting drugs (any drugs) for a rock concert.

He pointed to the second row near the aisle on the left side:  "I have a single right here, if you want to sit close."  Then pointing to the fifth or sixth row, dead center, he said:  "And a single here in the middle."

"I'll take that seat," I blurted out, not believing my good fortune, and forgetting that my plan had been to purchase a cheap ticket and then sneak down to the good seats during the show.

I had a five dollar bill that quickly transformed into a concert ticket and two quarters.

Not to worry, I had a really amazing budgeting method:  If I had $5.00 for a night at a concert, I'd spend seven or eight dollars.  Not smart, but lots of fun!  I quickly did the math as I walked back to the subway:  $2.50 for a half-pint of whiskey and $1.00 for a tab of acid or a Seconal.  When accounting for the fifty cents in my pocket, I'd need another three dollars.  Yes, I could do this, but it would have been easier if I'd bought a balcony seat.

I think that this was the day I finally flipped the album on the record player to hear Side 1.

I am a music geek.  I play no instrument, I am as tone-deaf as they come, I can only carry a tune if I attempt to perfectly mimic the original vocalizations and still miss many of the notes, or I place it in a bucket.  I love songs.  I really love songs.  And I love data, facts, and information.  I am a guy who read Encyclopaedia Britannica, and studied maps all my life.  Rock albums were loaded with a lot more than songs and lyrics:  there were listings of musicians and producers and recording studios and publishers and time and addresses and I became a liner-note freak.

I became (and perhaps I still am) one of those irritating guys who would say:  "Yeah!  Rick Wakeman played piano on that cut and on Bowie's 'Hunky Dory' album while he was still a member of Yes."

Oddly, most people could not have cared less about these little facts; but those facts mean a lot to me.  They showed me connections I knew must exist in a world I found intriguing.  Just like reading an encyclopaedia or a map!

The following winter I heard "Changes" by David Bowie, and then "Space Oddity" was re-released to ride the wave of his new-found popularity.  I got both the "Hunky Dory" and "Space Oddity" albums and while studying the liner notes of the latter I saw the name 'Tony Visconti.'  I rushed to my modest library of albums and pulled out "Electric Warrior" and there was the same name:  "Produced by Tony Visconti"!

I knew all about Motown and the cross-pollination that made Berry Gordy's small stable of talent into a huge wealth of product by mixing and matching writers and singers and producers; but I had not discovered any of those connections or references in rock and roll.  Here was Tony Visconti.  He's the guy who produced both T.Rex and David Bowie.

Honestly, I didn't even know what it meant to be a "producer"!  I had no idea what a record producer would do, or if the producer even really mattered.  But, something did matter: I'd discovered a link between David Bowie and T. Rex.  This was my entrance into glam, a new world that would change my perception about so many things:  music, dance, fashion, gender, make-up, sex.  All brought to me, as far as I was now concerned, by some guy named Tony Visconti.

Thirty years later I was at CBGB (I know it sounds cliche, but it's true) seeing a Kristeen Young show, and a friend introduced me to Tony Visconti.  Here he was in the flesh, the guy who brought glam rock into my life.  He was (and is) charming and friendly and smart and chatty, and we had other mutual acquaintances and interests.  Soon thereafter I sent him a mash note via email, and I think it was the first and last mash note I'd ever sent.  In that email I told him the story you just read.  His reply was incredibly gracious.

"Electric Warrior" by T.Rex changed my life and opened my mind to David Bowie and Roxy Music and Iggy Pop and so many other artists I adore.

If you haven't heard "Electric Warrior" then you have missed an important record in the history of modern music.  Buy it and listen to it.

If you have heard it, but it was decades ago, buy it and listen to it again, and see what it evokes.

(It's OK to listen to Side 2 first!)

Track Listing

Side One:
Mambo Sun
Cosmic Dancer
Lean Woman Blues

Side Two:
Get It On
Planet Queen
The Motivator
Life's a Gas
Rip Off

Total Playing Time 39:02

Produced by Tony Visconti

Recorded at multiple studios, including Trident Studios, in London

Released September 24, 1971

Reprise Records

Marc Bolan – vocals, guitars
Mickey Finn – conga drums, bongos
Steve Currie – bass guitar
Bill Legend – drums
Howard Kaylan – backing vocals
Mark Volman – backing vocals
Rick Wakeman – keyboards on "Get It On"
Ian McDonald – saxophone
Burt Collins – flugelhorn

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