Lost in the ’70s: T. Rex

Written by Lost in the '70s, Music

lit70s

Though history has been kind to Marc Bolan and T. Rex, during their early-’70s heyday American radio most definitely was not. Limited to just one solitary Top 40 single in the States, the band formerly known as Tyrannosaurus Rex was nigh unstoppable in the UK — at the height of their popularity they had racked up ten top-ten hits in just over two years. The first of those hits, the bouncy “Ride a White Swan” (download), peaked at #2 in late 1970.

As “T. Rextasy” gripped England, the time was ripe to see how it would play across the pond. Securing a stateside deal on minor label Blue Thumb, “Ride a White Swan” was shopped to American radio in ‘71 and immediately tanked, only reaching the bottom quarter of the Hot 100. Not the best start for T. Rex in the U.S.

Things only got better in England, as the band’s next single, “Hot Love” (download), destroyed the charts, holding down the #1 spot for six weeks and pretty much inventing glam rock in the process. T. Rex regrouped in the States on a bigger label, Reprise, and “Hot Love” was released as their second U.S. single, but once again, only the crickets were appreciative. American radio just wasn’t having it.

The third time was the charm — “Bang a Gong (Get It On),” from 1971’s Electric Warrior, hit the Billboard top ten in ‘72. (Its original title, “Get It On,” was modified in the States due to a band named Chase being on the charts with a song by that title at the same time.) You’d think that after having that big breakthrough, along with major-label backing and tons of buzz, T. Rex would be able to consolidate their success and quickly follow it up with more hits. You’d be wrong — “Telegram Sam,” one of my least favorite T. Rex tunes, stalled at #67 later that year. It sounded too much like “Bang a Gong,” and radio stations may have taken a pass because they figured they’d already given Bolan and his band a fair shot. Or maybe it was all the glitter, eyeliner, and fey posturing, which certainly didn’t mesh with Zep and Three Dog Night back then. Our loss.

The repetition of the T. Rex formula worked for a couple more years in the UK, then Bolan’s singles began charting lower and lower. Producer Tony Visconti got tired of all the musical recycling and split after 1974’s Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow. Bolan ended up hosting a variety show in the UK in 1977 before dying in a car crash that September. Many years later America finally gave T. Rex their due when “20th Century Boy,” “Children of the Revolution,” and “Jeepster” were used in adverts for everything from cars (oh, bitter irony!) to candy bars.

If you get a hankering to check out more T. Rex, I highly recommend Electric Warrior and … not much else. The Slider (1972) has a few good moments, but full T. Rex albums tend to be laborious affairs. Play it safe and pick up Hip-O’s 20th Century Boy: The Ultimate Collection (2002) — it pretty much hits all the high notes you need and it saves space on your shelves (or hard drive, if you prefer).

“Ride a White Swan” peaked at #76 on the Billboard pop singles chart in 1971. “Hot Love” peaked at #72 on the same chart later that year.

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