We really have been spoilt with reissues of these wondrous early musical escapades of Marc Bolan, and I’ve always suspected that were it not for his later celebrity status and premature demise these albums would have been destined to languish in obscurity and remain outwith the radar of any but the most musically tolerant of geeks and connoisseurs of acid-esoterica. Like the estimable John Peel, under the auspices of whose iconic radio shows this decidedly strange duo’s decidedly strange music was first introduced to me, I’ve always harboured a fondness for interesting and unusual sounds, and thus each successive exposure to their charmingly individual creations (and the lore that inspired them) was increasingly fruitful to my then-developing cultural consciousness. It’s a fact that much of the music of the 1967-70 era has dated and worn markedly less than well, but IMHO that of Tyrannosaurus Rex shares with the best of its contemporaries a quality of indie longevity born of its highly idiosyncratic utterances and intensely individual outpouring that combined the antique and curio, the mythical and the legendary both primitive and contemporary.
Quite literally, Tyrannosaurus Rex sounded like nobody else on the scene, and Marc’s unconventional vocal style was nothing if not an acquired taste (and even then, it could take much getting used to – and much the same could be said for that of Peter Bellamy, the folk icon whose music John Peel also championed at roughly the same time). As indeed was the genuinely exciting musical accompaniment: rattling, hectically strummed acoustic guitar figures and riffs and battering bongo percussion with occasional exotic touches like gongs and pixiephone (and ok, some acceptable era-defining production quirks). As indeed also were the song structures: often peculiar by any accepted standards, rock or folk or even underground – ahead of, and even apart from, their time. Quite a package, then – I loved it at the time, but I love it even more now. And so what if critics would regularly use pejorative adjectives like “unlistenable”, “pretentious” and “monotonous”… as they would tend to do with anything remotely unconventional.
For it’s all too easy to forget just how original the duo’s music was. The three albums that Marc made with hippie percussionist, the overshadowed Steve Peregrine-Took (or perhaps Peregrin Took, depending on which sleeve note you pick up), are positively dripping with confidence and self-belief, and chart the development of his musical vision, nothing less. Furthermore (and ain’t hindsight a wonderful thing?), it’s a fascinating exercise to spot elements such as the primitive, nascent traces of T-Rex boogie on Mustang Ford and the 12-bar rock’n’roll on Hot Rod Mama, and to hear obscure non-album gems like Pictures Of Purple People and Nickelodeon, a cheeky little jingle for Top Gear and a sprinkling of minor interview segments. And of course to re-evaluate the arcane wonders of such oddities as Dwarfish Trumpet Blues and Weilder Of Words.
After the frantic, uncompromising eccentricity of My People Were Fair…, Prophets was a more restrained affair, its songs far from indistinguishable (the most common charge) and now grouping themselves more into categories (full-tilt driven and more pastoral, slower-paced reflections), while despite a certain consolidation of the Tyrannosaurus Rex sound, Marc’s lyrics were definitely getting more obscure! The cosy, Peel-voiced children’s story of the finale of the duo’s debut LP was supplanted by the more violent, almost tribal clapped-rhythm mantra Scenescof Dynasty. There was more reliance on studio effects and vocal double-tracking (all of which was acceptable enough in context I guess), but the interpolated segue of a reverse-tape version of Debora took the wilfulness too far, proving both an unnecessary gimmick and a real irritation. Unicorn was a kind of apotheosis, from the lofty pedestal of which Steve Peregrine-Took was ejected summarily shortly after (thus ushering in the “elemental child” of electric experimentation beginning on A Beard Of Stars). Unicorn contained some of the duo’s most enduring and most-requested material, and Marc’s quest for both adventurous experiment and studio perfection generated an enormous number of alternate takes, comparison of which is instructive and often illuminating.
When these three LPs were last reissued, just over a decade ago, the generously stocked expanded single-CD editions were graced with a whole host of bonus cuts that included the non-album (single) sides and sundry outtakes and alternate versions – for all that their provenance wasn’t quite completely credited, these additions were nevertheless immensely valuable. The 2004 CD reissues provided a benchmark for definitive repackaging of the albums, with excellent remastering, copious essays, lyrics, photos and other background info. But their 2015 counterparts are even more gloriously comprehensive; each of the three reissues extends proudly to two full CDs’ worth of music, with not a duff or wasted minute. Each double-disc treasure-trove includes a host of BBC radio session tracks, which are supplemented by alternate takes, singles, rediscovered Joe Boyd session tracks and some Tony Visconti home demos. Together they provide considerable insights into the development of the material through the different environments of recording studio and hastily conducted radio session. The very healthy quotient of previously unissued material (in the case of both Prophets… and Unicorn, a staggering 80-90% of the content of each set’s second disc) proves of eminently worthwhile quality and much interest even to the previously uninitiated.
Nitpicking this may be, but I’m not entirely sure that Mark Paytress’s 2014 booklet essays are an improvement on the 2004 versions (I’d swear they’re shorter on content and word-count, though that may be just a deception, an illusion fostered by the plethora of photos accompanying the text). And I wonder whether the proverbial farthing-of-tar that perhaps slightly spoils the ship for hardcore fans lies in the omission of some key recording details and in the inevitable comparisons between individual takes compiled. On My People Were Fair…, there are just two discrepancies: the bonus cut of Chateau In Virginia Waters is a different take to that on the 2004 edition, while the new edition shifts take 2 of Debora (notable for its cleaner, non-fadeout ending) over to Prophets’ second disc. The 2014 edition of Prophets… omits the take of One Inch Rock that came with the 2004 edition, which sports a different ending. But it’s with Unicorn where the situation is at its most confounding, for the credits omit the detail regarding the provenance of no fewer than seven tracks on the first disc and only one out of the dozen alternate takes from the 2004 edition is common to the 2014 set, a circumstance which only careful scrutiny reveals. And while on the subject of completeness, well I’d like to’ve seen the lyrics reproduced for the handful of songs not on the original albums. But in every other respect, though, these new editions are both handsome and pretty much definitive, and likely the most desirable ones to have residing permanently in your collection. Indeed, the new editions are unquestionably worth buying even if you already bought the 2004 counterparts, although devotees will want to hang onto the 2004 incarnation of Unicorn especially for its bewildering plethora of variant alternate takes.
Review by: David Kidman
My People Were Fair And Had Sky In Their Hair (Not Deluxe Version)