Though many American rock fans are familiar with T. Rex's "Bang A Gong (Get It On)," which made it to Number Ten in the winter of 1972, relatively few know that in Britain in the early '70s, the popularity of T. Rex was often compared to that of The Beatles in their heyday-they had the sold-out stadiums, the screaming/panting girls and the long string of chart-topping hits. T. Rex leader Marc Bolan was a bonafide rock idol in Britain for several years, yet the band never quite caught on in the U.S. in a big way; perhaps there was something too innately British in the group's sound to really capture the hearts of Americans, and Bolan was a bit precious and strange for American tastes.
The performing career of Marc Bolan (born Mark Feld in 1947) dates back to the mid-'60s, when as a teenager he worked as a male model and also cut three singles for three different labels, without much success. Bolan had a brief stint as a guitarist and singer in the psychedelic band John's Children, then in September 1967, formed a duo called Tyrannosaurus Rex, with percussionist Steve Peregrine Took. From the outset, the "group" was a vehicle for Bolan's slightly eccentric songwriting, which tended towards folkish fantasy stories, odd characters and cryptic word puzzles, all delivered in a wispy, breathy style that seemed to perfectly match his looks-with his cascading curls, slight frame and boyishly handsome face. In early '68 the duo was discovered by Tony Visconti, a young arranger/musician/engineer from Brooklyn who'd moved to England during 1967 and hooked up doing work with producer Denny Cordell. Visconti helped the group land a deal with EMI's Regal Zonophone label and then took them into the studio to produce the first Tyrannosaurus Rex LP-the fancifully titled My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair, But Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows. This was the beginning of an association that would eventually produce ten studio albums.
Took departed in the fall of 1969 and was replaced by Mickey Finn, and by mid-1970, Bolan was playing more electric guitar and had gone for a slightly harder sound. In the fall of 1970, other musicians were added to the lineup, the group's name was shortened to T. Rex (at Visconti's urging). In the studio, the partnership between Visconti and Bolan was maturing. The T. Rex album contained Bolan's first big hit, "Ride A White Swan," which contained certain elements that would become integral to the group's identity: ethereal backup vocals by former Turtles leaders (and occasional Frank Zappa bandmates) Flo & Eddie (Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman), inventive string arrangements by Visconti, and strong Bolan riffs. T. Rex was on the British charts for six months, while "Ride A White Swan" made it to Number Two. The follow-up, "Hot Love," recorded at the original Air Studios in London, topped the UK charts for seven weeks in early 1971. Both tunes cracked the lower regions of U.S. singles charts, priming the group for its conquest later that year.
According to Visconti, after the band cut "Hot Love" in January, they traveled to America for a short tour, and "I followed them there with the excuse to visit my parents in New York. When we met up in New York, Marc suggested we start recording the next album; this was late April. We booked Media Sound Studios on 57th Street and recorded 'Jeepster' and possibly 'The Motivator' for the Electric Warrior album. Bob Margouleff was the engineer.
"Then the group flew to Los Angeles for a gig at the Whisky-a-Go-Go," Visconti continues. "We hooked up with Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, and I remember us having a lovely jam up at Howard's house in Laurel Canyon. We made plans to book Wally Heider's studio to cut a few tracks, including 'Get It On.' [This was the original title of the song. It became known as "Bang A Gong" in America after a group called Chase had a huge hit with a song called "Get It On" the same year.] Marc was a prolific songwriter. He had a lined schoolbook chock-full of lyrics and chord symbols. He would open the book at the beginning of an album, and then when we had enough tracks recorded-say, about 17-he'd close the book. 'Get It On' was just one of about 50 or 60 he had in the book at the time. When I first heard it, only the day before we recorded it, it sounded like a hit to me. At Howard's house, we were singing it for hours and banging things for percussion. We were totally vibed to record it the next day. I can still remember driving in a van with the band to Wally Heider's through freeways and unbearable sunshine-we all had the complexions of maggots, coming directly from gray London.
"The session was like any other T. Rex session. We had an engineer called Rick [Pekkonen] who was a very nice guy. Flo & Eddie recommended him and the studio. The drums were quickly set up, and we got sounds immediately. I was impressed with the speed of American engineers at that time; it was a much slower process in England. The recording started sometime in the middle of the afternoon. We cut 'Get It On' and two other tracks in a few hours. The group already knew the songs, and we had rehearsed backing vocals with Mark and Howard the previous day at Howard's. By 10 p.m., we were cutting the backing vocals. Flo & Eddie were self-starters-they could harmonize the phone book! My job with them was mainly to have enough tracks for them and to make sure we covered all the harmonic possibilities before they left. But everything was always done fairly quickly on T. Rex albums, because Marc wanted to keep costs down, an old habit from the days when we hardly had a decent budget to record.
At the time, Heider's was equipped with a custom console, a 16-track recorder, and "they had all my favorite mics," Visconti recalls, "dynamics for the drums, but U87s for the toms; I used to insist on that. We recorded the drums over three tracks. In those days, it was such a dilemma-do we record the kick on a separate track and the rest of the kit in stereo? Or should we record the snare on a separate track and record the kick in with the stereo kit? Should we record the kick and snare on separate tracks? I tried everything for Electric Warrior. Since we needed tracks for backing vocals, strings, horns and percussion, the drum configuration was a very important decision. In the end, we went with keeping the kick separate with the snare and the rest of the kit in stereo on 'Get It On.'
"From memory I can say that the bass guitar was probably coming off just the amp stack to one track," Visconti continues. "Marc's live guitar was recorded to one track from a mic in front of his Marshall. This track was used and not replaced, so the live groove was preserved. He overdubbed a second guitar playing groove parts and the short solos. Mickey Finn's two conga mics were mixed to one track. There was an open vocal mic in the room during tracking. Marc sang on some takes but didn't on the master take. We used this vocal mic for the final mix as an ambience mic. We used about four or five tracks for Flo & Eddie, with Marc joining them. I always used a U87 on vocals and backing vocals."
After the Heider's sessions, the group returned to England, and work on the song (and album) continued at Trident Studios, with Roy Thomas Baker engineering. Blue Weaver played grand piano on the track, and King Crimson's Ian McDonald is responsible for the honking sax line. "He played all the saxes, one baritone and two altos," Visconti says. "I kept the baritone separate but bounced the altos to one track. I bounced the backup vocals to two tracks, making an interesting stereo image."
Though Visconti usually plotted out his always-creative string arrangements well in advance of orchestral sessions, the simple-but-effective string part for "Bang A Gong" was an afterthought: "We didn't intend to put strings on 'Get It On,' but when I was writing arrangements for 'Cosmic Dancer' and the other titles with strings, I felt maybe I should have something ready for 'Get It On,' just in case. At the session, I reminded Marc that our first two hits had strings on them and maybe we should continue the trend. Superstitiously, he agreed. All I had written out were the notes G-A-E, as whole notes over the chords of the chorus. We did those first and realized it was icing on the cake! There was no need to write any more for an already dense track. It took about ten minutes."
As for outboard effects on the record, Visconti notes that "Trident had the usual effects available in those days-basically a bank of compressors and two EMT plates. We did our tight slapbacks and phasing with three tape recorders at the mixing stage, with someone in the band or the tape assistant slowly sweeping the VCO. There will never be a digital box that phases and flanges as well as the original method, because that method would technically process before and after the signal, crossing the 'node,' whereas a modern phase program only processes after the signal. There are many instruments treated this way on Electric Warrior. Ambience was our only other 'effect.' I'd often record guitars and hand claps from a microphone about 10 feet from the source, aimed at the studio window, in cardioid mode. I was never a fan of hitting analog tape very hard-to me it always sounded better live; the playback was always a disappointment."
Electric Warrior was released in October 1971 and quickly shot to the top of the British album charts. In the U.S., it made it up to Number 32, thanks largely to the success of "Bang A Gong." In England, "T-Rextacy" was in full bloom by the spring of '72-the group sold out two 10,000-seat shows at the Empire Pool in Wembley and Ringo Starr (of all people!) made a documentary about the T. Rex phenomenon called Born to Boogie around those concerts. Actually, the band's next (and better) album, The Slider, turned out to be the group's biggest seller in the U.S., though it produced just a minor hit in "Telegram Sam."
From there, T. Rex begins to unravel a bit, the hits become more scarce, and by 1975, Bolan has essentially dissolved the group. He was killed in an automobile accident on September 16, 1977, two weeks shy of his 30th birthday. Not surprisingly, this touched off a flurry of interest in Bolan and T. Rex. In the UK, five posthumous singles and five albums charted in the early and mid-'80s, and to this day, previously unreleased session tapes are being issued to hungry collectors around the world.
For more information on Tony Visconti, visit his web site at www.tonyvisconti.com.