"Marc Bolan, armed with a beautiful ’56 Les Paul Goldtop, leads
T. Rex through the classic “Jeepster.”

The image of Marc Bolan—elfin-like, cheeks dotted with glitter, Les Paul Sunburst slung low—is one of the most iconic of the glam-rock era. Unlike his friend and fellow glitter star David Bowie, who relied heavily on sideman Mick Ronson, Bolan wielded the six-string all himself, forging a style based on crunchy power chords, boogie riffs, and leads that sounded like blues crafted in outer space. At his best—on songs such as “Get It On (Bang a Gong),” “20th Century Boy,” and “Jeepster”—Bolan used his Les Paul to put muscle into material redolent of ’60s bubblegum pop. And much as Chuck Berry had done before him, he saw endless permutations in what seemed, on the surface, like the simplest of approaches to guitar.

Born Mark Feld, on September 30, 1947, Bolan grew up in London in a nurturing family environment. He became smitten with rock ’n’ roll as a pre-teen, when his father brought home a copy of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.” His mother bought him his first guitar—an acoustic—when he was just nine years old. An early fascination with Elvis Presley (and Presley’s guitarist, James Burton) spread to include Hubert Sumlin, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and Eddie Cochran—all of whom Bolan cited as influences at the height of his fame. His friend Helen Shapiro, with whom he formed an early band in the late ’50s, remembers that Bolan “always had a strong personality, and was very into idols.”

In 1965 Bolan signed with Decca Records and released two singles: “The Wizard” and “The Third Degree.” Two years later, wielding a Gibson SG, he joined a Who-influenced band called John’s Children. His career got underway in earnest, however, in June 1967, when he teamed with percussionist Steve Peregrine Took to form the acoustic duo Tyrannosaurus Rex. Producer Tony Visconti, who helped shape Bolan’s work for the next several years, first encountered the future star in the fall of that same year.

“He gave off an air of being very precious, very charismatic,” Visconti later said. “He knew he was going to be big, and he had everything to back it up: talent, imagination, and great songs. His melodies were absolutely superb.”

In contrast to the blues-based guitar rock that prevailed in Britain at the time, Tyrannosaurus Rex specialized in folk-flavored fare that appealed to the hippie crowd. By 1969, however, Bolan had decided to go electric. To that end, after replacing Took with percussionist Mickey Finn, he recorded an album titled A Beard of Stars that featured aggressive acoustic strumming coupled with electric guitar textures. Concurrent with a change in bandname, the rechristened T. Rex reached No. 2 on the British charts with a single titled “Ride a White Swan.” “Hot Love,” the follow-up, hit No. 1.

From that point forward Bolan’s star ascended in Britain with a swiftness that hadn’t been seen since the Beatles. Playing his Les Paul with more confidence than ever—and fleshing out T. Rex with bassist Steve Currie and drummer Bill Legend—Bolan recorded what many consider the definitive glam-rock album. Titled Electric Warrior, the album spawned two massive U.K. hits in “Jeepster” and “Get It On.” Both songs featured subtly suggestive riffs—a Bolan trademark—that played to the pan-sexuality of the glam movement. Sporting the tamer title “Bang a Gong,” the latter song also reached the Top 10 in the U.S., but T. Rex was forever to be primarily a British phenomenon.

Pundits in the U.K. began using the term “T. Rextasy” to describe the fervor and adoration that surrounded Bolan.

“The music industry really needed Marc in 1971,” British disc jockey Bob Harris said, years later. “It had splintered and the area which had suffered most was the singles market. There just weren’t any good singles being made, and no one had screamed since the Beatles. Marc changed all that.”

Such frenzy proved impossible to sustain, but for the next two years Bolan held his own as Bowie, Slade, and others battled him for the glitter throne. Ringo Starr—no stranger to such mania—documented the T. Rex phenomenon in Born To Boogie, an art-film that later incorporated T. Rex shows staged on consecutive nights at Wembley Stadium in March 1972. Two superb albums—The Slider (1972) and Tanx (1973) saw Bolan sharpen his songwriting and guitar skills even further. Moreover, the non-album single “20th Century Boy”—a 1973 let-’er-rip anthem powered by ferocious riffs on Bolan’s trusty Les Paul—anticipated the punk movement by nearly half a decade.

Still, even at the time, Visconti felt T. Rextasy had run its course. “Now that Marc is a pop culture hero, people are saying he did the most meaningful things in the old days,” the producer said, shortly after Tanx was released. “He paved the way for people like Bowie, who wouldn’t have been possible without Marc coming along first. But I do think he’s done his T. Rex thing a little too long.”

Indeed, by 1974, the Bolan magic had begun to slip away. The next two years were characterized by personnel changes, divorce, substance abuse, and—most importantly, from a creative standpoint—a parting of ways between Bolan and Visconti. With a new baby—Rolan Bolan—and a new love in American singer Gloria Jones, Bolan was less driven and in danger of becoming a caricature of himself. Bolan continued to release albums, but none met with critical or commercial success. A final, failed attempt to conquer America, by undertaking a 1975 tour, intensified the downward spiral.

Against all odds, however, T. Rex began to take flight again in 1977. Thanks in part to the patronage of the punks, who embraced Bolan as part of their lineage, a revisionist view took hold—one that heralded Bolan not as an elfin teenybopper, but as the gifted songwriter and innovative guitarist he was. Early that year he toured with the punk band the Damned, who were impressed by the freshness of Bolan’s ideas and his newfound sobriety.

“He’d cleaned up his act,” the Damned’s guitarist Captain Sensible later said. “He would jog around the service station while we stuffed our faces with egg and chips. It was great to meet a pop star who was human.”

Bolan’s burgeoning comeback hit full stride in August 1977, when Granada Television signed him to produce a weekly TV show titled simply Marc. In addition to serving as a vehicle for Bolan to perform his own material (both old and new), the show featured up-and-coming bands such as the Boomtown Rats and Generation X. Bolan debuted what was to be his last single—the guitar-centric pop ditty “Celebrate Summer”—on one episode, and a new multi-album deal was purportedly in the works. On what was to be the sixth and final episode, Bolan’s longtime friend David Bowie joined him on-stage for a sloppy, good-time guitar romp.

Alas, however, the comeback met with a tragic end. On September 16, less than a week after the last Marc show, Gloria Jones was driving herself and Bolan home following a late-night dinner. Rounding a tight curve, Jones lost control and the vehicle slammed into a tree. Jones survived the accident, but Bolan was killed instantly. He was two weeks shy of his 30th birthday.

In the 30 years since, Bolan’s legacy has attained monumental proportions. Bands such as Power Station, the Replacements, and Big Star have covered his songs, and both “20th Century Boy” and “The Slider” have been featured in American TV commercials. His influence, both as songwriter and guitarist, looms large over such bands as Suede, Oasis, and even Def Leppard, who claim to have been impacted more by Bolan than by any other artist. And the transcendent impression of Bolan—cradling his Les Paul like a beloved infant—constitutes one of rock’s most enduring images.

“He was chock full of talent,” Visconti reflected, in a 2003 interview. “He had the good sense of the times he lived in, and he knew just what to do, sing, and say. He knew he was gorgeous and charming, and he worked it. Most pop stars are subdued by comparison. Marc is one of the few who woke up and smelled the coffee.”

Related Links

’56 Les Paul
Marc Bolan’s ’56 Les Paul Goldtop was featured on the cover of his album T. Rex in 1970. Bolan had another of his late-’50s Les Pauls refinished in a dark amber, reportedly in an attempt to recreate the look of guitars played by his idol Duane Eddy.

1956 Goldtop
1956 Goldtop

Epiphone: Les Paul 56 Goldtop
Epiphone: Les Paul 56 Goldtop

’70 Flying V
Bolan’s ’70 Gibson Flying V went for $36,000 at this year’s Christie’s Pop Memorabilia auction. The guitar was used extensively by Bolan in the ‘’70s, most notably during his Top of the Pops performance of “Get It On” in 1972.  

Flying V