Marc Bolan and his band T. Rex were one of the most influential British groups of their era, let alone the burgeoning ’70s glam rock craze. Though Bolan narrowly avoided membership into rock ’n’ roll’s infamous “27 club,” he only lived until age 29, but still released an extensive, influential discography with seminal T. Rex albums like 1971’s Electric Warrior and 1972’s The Slider. Originally formed as the psychedelic folk project Tyrannosaurus Rex, they released four albums under the name before switching to T. Rex and releasing eight studio albums. T. Rex continued to record up until the sudden death of frontman Marc Bolan in 1977.
Even though they regrettably influenced a lot of cheesy hair metal bands, the ballsy yet flamboyant glam rock of T. Rex has been cited as an influence by everyone from Paul Weller, Kate Bush and the Pixies to My Chemical Romance, Ty Segall and Sunflower Bean. Their stomping, glittery rock has been blatantly copied (Noel Gallagher plucked the “Bang a Gong” riff for “Cigarettes & Alcohol” and Morrissey swiped the “Metal Guru” riff for The Smiths’ “Panic”) and frequently referenced, even today. The legacy of T. Rex has long been cemented, whether it be their seductive, theatrical classic-rock sound or Bolan’s gender-bending fashion that fused hippie and glam with his long curls, glittered cheeks, feather boas and zany, brightly colored clothing. If you’re a fan of Amoeba Records’ popular video series “What’s In My Bag,” then you’ve seen musicians of all genres gush over T. Rex like they were The Beatles of the ’70s. Paste weighed in on the 10 best songs from the band’s distinguished career and you can indulge in these hits and deep cuts below, in all their playful, snarling glory.
Their best-known track “Bang a Gong” is undeniably catchy, even in the midst of a slightly corny disco-esque vocal chorus. The subject of the sleazy track is exactly what you think and frankly, the idea of ringing a ceremonial gong after doing the deed is so ridiculous and tacky that it works in a whimsical sort of way or as an ironic morsel of rock ’n’ roll mythology. The Chuck Berry-inspired tune features a prominent saxophone backing and rollicking guitars, and its showstopper is Bolan’s alluring vocal performance.
Marked by Bolan’s Elvis-like “Uh huh huh” at the end of each verse, “Hot Love” is the perfect mid-tempo tune for a lighthearted summertime evening or perhaps a tipsy-but-not-quite-drunk karaoke performance. Though the jovial outro probably goes on for longer than it should, Tony Visconti’s string arrangements are divine, and it’s hard to match Bolan when he’s courting a woman with his charming, sultry serenade and wild yelps. Backing vocals from Flo and Eddie (The Turtles) provide a distinct Bee Gees feel, but somehow it doesn’t clash with Bolan’s chic rock ’n’ roll front.
Many people would prefer other cuts from the The Slider over this one like the title track or “Telegram Sam,” but “Buick MacKane” plays to Bolan’s personality and strengths better than the other two. “Buick MacKane” has so much more “oomph,” which is a good one-word summation of Bolan’s musical style and fashion sense. Visconti’s strings add an elegance to the over-the-top, bluesy guitars and Bolan’s desire-packed yowl. The track embodies that frequently sought-after, stomping T. Rex sound, and the title gives a nod to one of Bolan’s recurring lyrical references—cars (also coincidentally the cause of his untimely death).
The lyrics to “Monolith” chronicle the corrupting force of power on the human race, but somehow Bolan manages to endearingly address the song to a woman. The down-tempo track is indicative of Electric Warrior’s cool, leisurely pace, but the song’s chorus gives us a taste of that frenzied, buoyant side of Bolan that made him such a treasure. As Bolan spits out “It’s too late” with a fire in his belly and a gravelly twinge, it’s one of those moments of pure rock ’n’ roll gratification and spiritual transcendence that reminds us of the power of music.
It’s just a fact that everyone loves a good, merry shout of “Hey, hey, hey” peppered throughout a hit single. On “Solid Gold Easy Action,” Bolan sings of a surreal, nonsensical meeting of “a woman from the east” and perhaps the most amusing part is his nod to his own luscious black, curled locks (“All my hair will keep her smiling”), and as a keen Bolan admirer, I can’t really argue with his logic. The song’s clamoring “hey”s, strange tempo shifts and Bolan’s more-conspicuous-than-usual snarl make this inclusion obligatory.
This entire non-album track is great, but those first 15 seconds or so are just glorious and slightly sinister—Visconti’s cinematic strings and Bolan’s fiery “Yeah.” The song also contains one of Bolan’s funniest lyrics, also about his spooky love of automobiles (“I drive a Rolls-Royce / ’Cause it’s good for my voice”). On the surface, its chorus lyrics are a reflection of the counterculture (“You won’t fool the children of the revolution”), but after a dissection of the verses, it’s obvious that Bolan doesn’t stray too far from his vehicle allusions and his penchant to “bump and grind.” One could even interpret the song as a cynical, slight-but-direct jab at John Lennon, the man who sang “Imagine no possessions” and owned a Rolls-Royce.
It’s hard to argue against “Metal Guru” as one of Marc Bolan’s finest choruses. Those perky melodies warrant a singalong whether you’ve consented to it or not. Bolan glides over the word “Guru,” allowing the chorus to flow right off the tongue, and his vocal performance sounds effortlessly cool. This enigmatic “Metal Guru” figure is presumably a godlike being, maybe not a traditional deity, after all, they do reside in an “armor plated chair,” but as the song progresses, it appears that he’s merely alluding to another love interest. Reading into T. Rex lyrics is a bit of a fool’s errand. T. Rex lyrics are meant to be camp and you have to be in on the joke to appreciate it, or else you’ll just think it’s pretentious rock ’n’ roll hogwash.
It’s safe to say that “Cosmic Dancer” wins the crown for the most affecting T. Rex lyrics, which is a relatively low bar, but it doesn’t.minimize the emotion of its lines. “I danced myself right out the womb,” an admittedly comical line, is met with a subsequent line of the sobering, inevitable reality of death (“I danced myself into the tomb”). Bolan’s lyrical combination of his usual surrealism (“What’s it like to be alone / I liken it to a balloon”), vulnerability and a moving, meaningful sentiment (“Is it wrong to understand / The fear that dwells inside a man”) is masterful and transfixing. Compared to the rest of the songs on this list, this one is an outlier with its acoustic guitar backdrop, sweeping strings and Bolan’s subtle, unique vocal flutters.
“Ride A White Swan” was the first release under the band’s newly shortened T. Rex name. It was released as a standalone single, though it does appear on the original U.S. pressing of their self-titled debut album. It may not show off the rough-and-tumble side of Bolan’s vocal range, but it’s one of his greatest vocal performances—distinctly glam with his voice fluctuation and it laid the groundwork for that sound. Though some people cite David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World as the moment glam was born, others claim it was Bolan’s glitter-faced performance of this track on Top of the Pops in 1970.
While “Jeepster” may not be the absolute pinnacle of Bolan’s songwriting skills, it’s unquestionably the definitive T. Rex track. Think of it as Radiohead’s “Creep”—it was likely the first song you heard from the band and one of their biggest hits, but many fans of the group wouldn’t necessarily christen it as their favorite. Having said that, if someone somehow had never heard rock ’n’ roll before and if you had to give them a small collection of singles, I wouldn’t hesitate to throw in “Jeepster.” Those ’50s blues guitar lines are so simple, but unforgettable, and I dare anyone to not tap their foot along to those rhythmic guitars. Yet again, Bolan showcases his love of cars as he sings with so much vivacity and enthralling inflection. Bolan’s swift vocal shift from flamboyant, seductive croon to riotous roar is truly unrivaled.