Issue #36: Bolan’s Zip Gun by T. Rex

October 3, 2016

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Bolan’s Zip Gun by T. Rex
Released On February 16, 1975
Released By EMI Records

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Jeremy Shatan

Most good rock’n’roll stories have what John Lennon called a “fat Elvis” chapter, a self-inflicted low point often brought on in reaction to too much fame — or its sudden departure. Bolan’s Zip Gun is a dispatch from the depths of Marc Bolan’s fat Elvis period, but I fell in love with it completely unaware that he was overweight, overindulged, and desperately seeking a return to the Top Of The Pops.

Taken purely on musical terms, Zip Gun is solidly in the middle of Bolan’s American adventure. Similarly to his old friend and rival, David Bowie, Bolan was quite taken with the sound of black radio as he crisscrossed the USA in 1971-72 in an attempt to break through as he had in England a year or two earlier, when “Ride A White Swan” and “Hot Love” had transfigured him from a cross-legged airy-fairy freak-folk hippie icon into a pop juggernaut as big as The Beatles. While “Jeepster” and “Bang A Gong (Get It On)” had gotten him on American radio, T-Rexstasy didn’t quite catch on here.

Bolan followed his muse in any case, incorporating funky soul vibrations into his glam formula, aided in part by his new life partner, Gloria Jones, a huge-voiced singer and songwriter best known for cutting the original “Tainted Love.” Jones was a polarizing figure to Bolan fans, partly because she “broke up” Bolan’s marriage to June Child, partly because her voice can be overwhelming, and partly because she was African-American. While the seams were definitely showing on the previous album, Jones’s vocals were toned down and her clavinet was well-integrated into the T. Rex sound on Zip Gun. Despite their efforts, the album took a critical drubbing and was a huge flop.

As I mentioned above, however, I was unaware of any backstory. Getting to Zip Gun was part of a long process of becoming a massive Bolan fan, kicked off by a CD I got from the BMG club called Singles A’s And B’s. I loved almost all the songs, including “Light Of Love,” which seemed to brighten the whole room. The crisp, proto-disco rhythm coupled with Bolan’s serrated guitar and his exuberant vocals made for an aural energy boost. When I finally got to hear the whole album, I quickly fell for nearly all of it, from the absurd bump’n’grind of “Token Of My Love” to the soda shoppe aria of “Till Dawn,” and from the charming lilt of “Precious Star” to the pure fun of “Girl In The Thunderbolt Suit.” Except for “Think Zinc,” which is admittedly slightly idiotic, Bolan’s songwriting on many of these tracks is so stripped down that it defies analysis, making for songs that are “stupid” in the way “Hi-Heel Sneakers” — one of my favorite songs ever — is stupid.

I also think Bolan was a little bit ahead of his time, employing a minimalist approach to the arrangements that prefigures looping and sampling. Take a song like “Golden Belt,” where the rhythm section of bass, drums and piano repeats the same phrase throughout, defying verse-chorus-verse conventions and providing a solid foundation for alternating vocals and lead guitar. Zip Gun was the first album Bolan produced mostly on his own and its bright, plasticky sheen was a distinct departure from Tony Visconti’s classic-rock warmth and lushness. Some of Visconti’s touch can be heard on “Till Dawn,” the last song on which they collaborated, but otherwise Bolan forges ahead on his own.

In many ways Zip Gun was a statement of independence for Marc Bolan, putting his name front and center and presenting a futuristic vision of musical unity between him and Gloria Jones and between English and American sonics. Knowing that he was battling demons while creating it lends some poignance to the whole affair. While some reviews questioned his commitment to the album, all you have to do his hear him giving his all to some of these songs on stage, as represented by an unhinged concert from Cleveland’s Agora in 1974. As I wrote in 2010: “The show really takes off during a grinding version of the slow jam “Token Of My Love,” which finds Bolan’s guitar spraying an exotic elixir of sweat, cocaine, and Cognac. The final cut is a deranged nine-minute take on “Zip Gun Boogie,” Bolan wielding the pile-driver riff like a whip, shouting ‘Again!’ before each repetition.” He was into it, 100% — give Bolan’s Zip Gun a chance and you might find yourself feeling the same way.

Though the guitar takes a backseat to handclaps and soul production, it’s still clear exactly what a zip gun is, and how legendary it makes Bolan.

For my very first out of town gig, we performed on a tiny stage inside of a Greensboro record store. Between songs, our singer encouraged the less than enthusiastic customers to purchase our brand new album or, as he pointed out, “one of the great, used T. Rex albums available directly in front of the stage.” We sold several used T. Rex CDs that day, and none of our own. Why don’t I listen to more T. Rex? I’ve been a fan for years, purchasing more records than just The Slider and Electric Warrior. I guess I find comfort in knowing I haven’t exhausted the catalog with endless plays. I’m sure I’ve spun this record before, but I just haven’t spent any quality time. Overall, Zip Gun is a more direct record in terms of the writing, but not in production. Simple songs leave lots of room to experiment with new influences, like soul and funk, and each track has its own take on the classic T. Rex sound mixed with a new sonic palette formula. A solid album all the way through, but my favorite song, “I Really Love You Babe,” which could have easily been a hit Bowie single, backed with the groove heavy “Golden Belt,” followed by title track “Zip Gun Boogie” make the back end of the record the strongest.

PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man

Do you remember that one kid in middle school that had “cool” parents? Maybe one of them still surfed or skated or had a cool job like they worked at the local bike shop? Their kids were kinda weird, but not in a way that made them nerds. They were weird in a way that made them cooler than everyone else. It’s as if they were totally oblivious to Weezer, STP, Green Day, or the Foo Fighters because their “normal” had always been Deep Purple, The Sex Pistols, Iggy Pop, and whatever other bands from the ’70s that influenced the bands of the mid-’90s. Well, Bolan’s Zip Gun is just the type of record those cool little fuckers were listening to. T. Rex is a band that definitely rocked live. You know how I can tell? The clapping. “Light Of Love,” “Solid Baby,” “Precious Star,” “Think Zinc,” and “Girl In The Thunderbolt Suit” all feature clapping as a prominent percussive element. This is deliberate. The only bands that do that are the ones that know how to rock… hard. You can’t tell me that T. Rex didn’t plan on getting busy at CBGB’s (or the UK equivalent) with those claps. I think my favorite track has got to be “Golden Belt,” if only for the masterful use of effects. Who puts reverb and delay on a harmonica like that?! Stunning.

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

I follow a fantastic Tumblr called Glam Idols, and Marc Bolan appears on it regularly. Not as often as David Bowie, but Bolan’s there every couple of days or so, in all his frizzy-haired glory. As a result, I’m pretty sure I see Bolan more often than I hear him, and it’s changed the way I listen to his music. Now I can’t hear him without seeing him. As a warm-up for this week’s OYR, I listened back to Ride A White Swan, an early-ish compilation I found at Goodwill a while back, and while those songs are more organic/acoustic, Bolan’s Zip Gun perfectly fits the dazzling T. Rex image my mind’s eye sees. The gravity-defying backing vocals (almost as gravity-defying as Bolan’s hair), the swaggy solos, the night-life lyrics… all the great glam hallmarks. What’s ironic, given the central role artifice plays in the genre, is how natural he makes it all sound. These are songs that sound like they were written in minutes — impulses followed to their rocking conclusions without a hint of creative friction. That thought kept popping up, especially during “Light Of Love,” “Precious Star,” and “Space Boss” — all songs that groove in their own tight little orbit. I don’t know how quickly Bolan worked, but he was clearly put on this Earth to make music, specifically this music. That may sound tautological, but few artists are fortunate enough to find that kind of harmony before the age of 30. What a shame that harmony fell silent when it did.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

My best friend purchased her first home outside of Washington, DC and I visited the weekend before her big move. I was struck how exciting it was to be in an empty white box, full of potential, with the ability fill it up exactly how you want it. Imbue it with who you are. Although PJ and I have been in our house for five years, I suddenly wanted to rip everything out of it, pile it all in our yard, and only put back what we love. What is absolutely necessary. This is how I think of T. Rex: songs are written and produced to have exactly the right amount of everything for maximum impact. Most songs on Zip Gun are just guitar, bass, drums, Marc Bolan’s perfectly imperfect voice, the amazing background vocals of Gloria Jones, and sometimes some piano, harmonica or handclaps (the speedy ones in “Girl In The Thunderbolt Suit” are my new favorite handclaps) — exactly enough to fill his home. The way I discovered T. Rex in my late teens was weird: all of a sudden everyone I knew bought the same greatest hits collection. It became mandatory in the same way the Pet Sounds reissue was a few years later. Unfortunately, I stopped there and moved on to the next thing because I was fickle and young. I am so glad Jeremy picked this record. Bolan’s R&B influence is as strong as ever, and so many of these songs — particularly the last four — are absolute classics that deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with his more well-known work.

Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ

Soul or glam rock, everything you need to know about T. Rex and Marc Bolan is in this picture.

I imagine I know as much about T. Rex as any music fan worth her salt — after all, in my late-high-school/early-college days I explored pioneering glam albums Electric Warrior and The Slider, which were collectively responsible for all of the best known T. Rex jams (“Bang A Gong (Get It On),” “Buick Mackane,” “Telegram Sam,” “Cosmic Dancer“). Later, in my psych-immersed early 30s, I found my way to the early Tyrannosaurus Rex albums — those four star-crossed records on which Marc Bolan strummed an acoustic guitar while backed by bongos and rhapsodizing astral travel of the physical and spiritual varieties. But I never dug into the later T. Rex material — during that initial high school foray, a friend dubbed me a copy of Slider followup Tanx, from 1973. I found it spotty and inconsistent, and never bothered to go any farther. Bolan’s Zip Gun comes two albums after Tanx in the T. Rex discography, and is therefore uncharted territory for me. As soon as I put it on, I thought, “Oh — I guess Bolan went disco in his later years.” Checking Wikipedia, I find plentiful references to soul music, but really, considering that disco emerged from the mid-’70s soul underground, and that many of the most famous disco-era hits (from the Bee Gees to Wild Cherry) were created by white artists projecting this new style onto their fundamentally rock-influenced background, it’s no surprise to see the same sort of soul-disco genre-meld happening here. None of which is a slam on this record! It always seemed to me that the best songs T. Rex were responsible for once Bolan picked up an electric axe and a full rhythm section were the funkiest ones — one of the only Tanx songs I remember fondly was the groove-drenched “Country Honey.” This even more groove-drenched album’s sticky funk is therefore not all that surprising. On songs like “Golden Belt” and “Solid Baby,” the band lets verse-chorus-verse song structure drift in order to lock into repeating grooves seemingly designed to keep booties shaking on the dance floor. It’s a ton of fun as a listen, and certainly makes me think that I’ve been missing out over the last couple of decades by skipping the last half-dozen or so T. Rex albums in favor of immersion solely into the psych and glam eras of their career. If you’ve made a similar oversight, you can’t go wrong by diving into Bolan’s Zip Gun. It’ll keep your body moving.

Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground

Half full glasses of vodka tonics and Cosmopolitans smeared with varying shades of pink and red lipstick line the windowsill. Upstairs in this crowded bar on Bank Street, a DJ I can only remember as Thomas would spin records for those of us bored enough and foolish enough to brave the lake effect snow in Utica, NY. There I would go with a girl I had met at an art show and her painter boyfriend to drink, throw those glasses from that window, and write curse words in the snow on the windshields of cars lining the street. Thomas played mostly stuff I don’t care about, pop songs and some rap stuff that all the beefy, necklace-wearing bros and their girlfriends with fake tans, pale lips, and pin-straight hair would squeal about and grind to, but was fortunately negotiable. Eventually we settled on a Michael Jackson or T. Rex compromise, the only two bands we both could handle. Always sexy, with Marc Bolan’s deceptively sweet warble and occasional moans punctuating throughout, Bolan’s Zip Gun delivers the same reckless hedonism the band is known for. Lazier than the band’s most popular songs, the soul influences on this album shine through best in the horns and tempo, with a classic rock’n’roll vibe never forgotten in bits like the piano part of “Precious Star.” Danceable the entire way through, the album just screams sex, hot nights in a room full of laughing people shaking hips in tandem to a cackling madman playing a piano in the corner. Nothing offends about this music, except maybe the consistent fadeouts; this is the kind of music that draws people out, that even the shyest, creakiest of your buds will find the rhythm to move to. This is the kind of music you request from a DJ you hardly know, the kind of music that plays while you dance with a girl you just met, who kisses you on the dance floor, that you end up making out with in the bathroom while her boyfriend pounds on the door and screams that he knows what y’all are doing in there.

Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite

Bolan and girlfriend Gloria Jones who undoubtedly shaped the tail end of his career for better or worse.

No doubt I love me some T. Rex. I even recorded a fuzzed out version of “Mambo Sun” as part of a series of covers by The Snowy Owls. They hold the distinguished mantle of “only band that gets away with the profuse use of bongos” as far as I’m concerned. By the time we get to Marc Bolan’s tenth album, we find that as much as things change, they remain the same. Well maybe except for the welcome addition of handclaps — lots of ’em — and also copious soulful harmonies provided by his lady, Gloria Jones. The songs are surely some solid rock pop, but not exquisite. I’d file this away in the deeper cuts drawer and recommend any new initiates would find it worth the time to first delve headlong into Electric Warrior and Slider first. By no means does that mean that Zip Gun isn’t an enjoyable album! From the first few seconds, there’s plenty of snappy kit and glammy charm oozing from the grooves. I’m all for a spaced out conceit, but here it’s hard to find it as “far out” as I’m sure they intended — solely due to encounters with much more intense offerings by groups like Man Or Astroman?, Stereolab, and The Flaming Lips. And yet, it’s always rewarding to reacquaint with one of rock’s great stylistic vanguards of yesteryear. T. Rex will always be one of my “can’t live without” groups of the 1970s alongside Bowie, ELO, and Thin Lizzy, and this album proves to be quite a charming addition to their catalog.

Matt Klimas (@nearcticfauna)
Surveyor Of All Things Fuzz

Bolan’s Zip Gun is all about transformation. Marc Bolan had become obsessed with soul music and he wanted nothing more than to create his own blend. On top of that, Bolan’s adoration of science fiction was also aN enormous component behind this release. With all these thoughts in mind, it left me wondering what was inspiring glam rock to venture into these sonic and creative corridors. The sixties were an era predicated on the civil rights movement and space exploration. Perhaps, the seventies acted as a reaction to this by hoping for a future that would enable our wildest fantasies and bring more balance to the universe. In three specific moments, Bolan sings about the idea of love. Whether that’s “Token Of My Love” or “I Really Love You Babe” or opener “Light Of Love,” Bolan expresses this sentiment as a mission statement. Let a decade of fear wash over us and let love dominate us. Bolan’s Zip Gun is a self-exploration that becomes extrapolated to evoke a universal sentiment that might not have been heard as loud and clear upon its release in 1975. More than forty years later, we live in a future that Bolan unfortunately never got to see with his own eyes, but his sentiments still hold true in a world that could take this piece of advice to heart. A hidden gem in a masterful career of records released under the moniker of T. Rex.

Shannon Cleary (@thatssocleary)
Musical Explorer Of All Angles

Full disclosure: I always confuse T. Rex with Dinosaur Jr. and so I hit play on this album expecting really loud, grungy, almost punky guitars and cynical, ’90s-era, sarcastic lyrics. So I was especially blown away by the sci-fi power-pop that came out of my speakers. There are still guitars, but they’re less like the guitars of J Mascis and far more like the guitars of B May. In fact, “Killer Queen” was out right around the same time as this album was recorded and, though not necessarily an influence, certainly existed as a contemporary. A standout track to me is “Token Of My Love,” with its echoes of “Sea Of Love,” and actually now that I think about it, I think I enjoy this album because it feels like one of the biggest albums of the ’70s, in some alternate universe. The songs are familiar and catchy and accessible, but I’ve never heard of any of them before listening to the album for this newsletter, which, of course, means that this album was a perfect selection to be featured in the newsletter. In the alternate universe, we might be talking about the soundtrack to this obscure movie called Saturday Night Fever which would offer a glimpse into the little known “Disco” movement that never made much of a pop culture impact due to the overwhelming international popularity of the glam rock movement, spearheaded by the seminal T-Rex album, Bolan’s Zip Gun.

James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts

If we were to seriously examine Bolan’s Zip Gun, chances are we’d talk little about the songs themselves, and more about the circumstances surrounding this record. The shelf life of glam rock, the pompous attitude of rock critics, the questionable impression Jones made on Bolan, the inability of fans to see a rock god as anything else. All are interesting conversations worth having about this record and why it was poorly received and quickly discarded, but none really talk about the album itself and the songs inside, probably because many arguments would crumble when doing so. Just look at the soul chant of “Space Boss” and compare it with one of Bolan’s more beloved creations, “Metal Guru.” Are these songs that different? At first glance, sure, but slow “Metal Guru” down a bit, replace the overbearing guitar with a persistent sax, and isn’t Bolan doing the exact same thing here? Is “Think Zinc” not a prototypical T. Rex jam, just with horn arrangements and backing singers? Musically, Bolan is approaching these songs in virtually the same way he was on Electric Warrior and The Slider, just augmenting guitars, distortion, and reverb for handclaps, backing vocals, and horns. Sure, the album does go to the handclap well a bit too often, but this is still top-notch Bolan songwriting as he approaches soul music with the same aplomb and imagination as he did glam rock only a few years earlier. There’s no reasons songs like “Solid Baby” and “Girl In The Thunderbolt Suit” should be deemed as missteps in the catalog of Bolan. If anything, Bolan’s mistake was thinking that the world was ready for a T. Rex that didn’t rely solely on glitter guitars, but the larger mistake was the music world overlooking a record this enjoyable. Don’t worry — we are not making that same mistake.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Next Week’s Selection:
Secret Swingers by Versus
Chosen By Melissa Koch

Off Your Radar Newsletter

Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: James Anderson, Josh Buck, Laura Burroughs, Shannon Cleary, Andrew Cothern, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Matt Green, Davy Jones, Matt Klimas, Melissa Koch, David Munro, Drew Necci, James Peart, Jeremy Shatan, & PJ Sykes

Logo By Matt Klimas


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