Marc Bolan: 20th Century Boy

Marc Bolan was a singer, songwriter, musician, record producer, and poet. He was the lead singer of the band T. Rex and was one of the pioneers of the glam rock movement of the 1970s.

Born Mark Feld, Bolan was given a guitar by his father at age 9. He formed a skiffle band, and during lunch breaks at school, he would play his guitar in the playground to a small audience of friends. At 15, he was expelled from school for bad behavior.

Bolan briefly joined a modelling agency and became a John Temple Boy, appearing in a clothing catalogue for the menswear store. He modeled suits for their catalogs and for the window displays. It was suggested that Bolan was in fact bisexual according to those in the music scene. When asked about his sexuality during an interview in 1975, Bolan confirmed that he was, indeed, bisexual.

The Who’s Pete Townshend stated in an interview, “I remember Marc Bolan with full make-up on, working as a rent boy to buy clothes, in and around the Scene Club. He was about 15.” Another major glam rock pioneer, David Bowie, stated, “What I saw in Marc Bolan had nothing to do with strings, or very high standards of artistry; what I saw in him was raw talent. I saw genius. I saw a potential rock star in Marc – right from the minute, the hour I met him.”

Bolan changed his name briefly to “Toby Tyler” during this period and went through a series of managers before signing with Decca Records in 1965 at age 17 as “Marc Bowland.” There are several accounts of why the name was changed to Bolan, including that it was derived from someone else’s name, it was alleged that it was a contraction of Bob Dylan, and – according to Bolan himself – that Decca Records chose the name.

In 1966, Bolan turned up at producer Simon Napier-Bell’s front door with his guitar and proclaimed that he was going to be a big star and he needed someone to make all of the arrangements. Napier-Bell invited Bolan in and listened to his songs. He first attempted his music career as a solo star, but soon after, formed Tyrannosaurus Rex, aka T-Rex. Napier-Bell recalled of Bolan: “He got a gig at the Electric Garden then put an ad in Melody Maker to get the musicians. The paper came out on Wednesday, the day of the gig. At three o’clock he was interviewing musicians, at five he was getting ready to go on stage…. It was a disaster. He just got booed off the stage.”

After a few missteps, the original version of Tyrannosaurus Rex released three albums and four singles, flirting with the charts, reaching as high as number fifteen. In keeping with his early rock and roll interests, Bolan began bringing amplified guitar lines into the duo’s music, buying a white Fender Stratocaster decorated with a paisley teardrop motif.

In 1970, he married his sweetheart, June Child. He performed Top of the Pops wearing a satin sailor suit with glitter teardrops, and the performance would later be recognized as the foundation of glam rock.  He was inspired by his muse Child, and had developed a fascination with women’s clothing, an unlikely characteristic for a British male rocker at the time.  He took to wearing top hats and feather boas on stage, as well as putting drops of glitter on each of his cheekbones. Other performers soon took up variations on the idea, followed by their fans.

Despite his UK success, Bolan only had one hit in the U.S. – Bang A Gong (Get It On). The song reached No. 10 in the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1972. He continued to record himself, and with other bands such as ELO, but his early fame continued to wane.

In his personal life, he had an affair with backup singer Gloria Jones, which ended his marriage to June Child. In September 1975, Gloria Jones gave birth to Bolan’s only son, whom they named Rolan Bolan.

On September 16, 1977, Bolan was riding in a car driven by Gloria Jones as they headed home from Mortons club and restaurant in Berkeley Square. After she crossed a small humpback bridge near Gipsy Lane on Queens Ride, Barnes, southwest London, the car struck a fence post,  and then a tree.  Jones suffered a broken arm and broken jaw. Sadly, Bolan was killed instantly, just short of his 30th birthday. The car crash site has since become a shrine to his memory, where fans leave tributes beside the tree.

Bolan was inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 2020. Presenter and good friend Ringo Starr said, “People knew him as a great musician, a songwriter, a guitarist, but he was also a poet, and he was really proud of that. He was always telling me that he was the Number One selling poet in Britain. In fact, his poetry was as important to him as his music. He had great style and was really unlike anyone else I have ever met.”