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T. Rex - The Slider Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit the peak of Marc Bolan’s career, the extravagant and near-perfect The Slider.

In 1969, Marc Bolan published a folio of poetry titled The Warlock of Love. By that point, the man born Mark Feld had already been the guitarist of mod-rock band John’s Children (for all of four months) before turning his attention to folk-rock duo Tyrannosaurus Rex. Together with bongo player Steve Peregrin Took, the group released albums with titles like My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair... But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows and Unicorn. Bolan mostly sat cross-legged style on stage, strumming an acoustic guitar, singing with such heavy affect that his future producer Tony Visconti was certain he was French, not English. None of these endeavors turned him into a star. But the last line of that folio portended what was to come: “And now where once stood solid water/Stood the reptile king, Tyrannosaurus Rex, reborn and bopping.”


The very next year, Tyrannosaurus Rex was reborn. Bolan stood up, plugged in a Les Gibson, replaced Took with Mickey Finn, and began to enunciate each syllable with lip-smacking aplomb on the band’s first single as T. Rex. Propelled by handclaps and a strutting gamecock of a guitar lick, “Ride a White Swan” climbed up the UK charts to No. 2. T. Rex was bopping. So much so that The Warlock of Love sold over 40,000 copies, making Bolan a best-selling poet.

When T. Rex’s second single “Hot Love” shot straight to #1, Bolan dabbed some glitter on his cheekbones before a “Top of the Pops” performance. As Simon Reynolds recalled in Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, that performance was “the spark that ignited the glam explosion,” confessing himself to “being shaken by the sight and sound of Marc Bolan...that electric frizz of hair, the glitter-speckled cheeks...Marc seemed like a warlord from outer space.” With 1971’s Electric Warrior, T. Rex topped the charts and was poised to break in the U.S., where “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” reached the top 10. For a glorious, nearly two-year reign, England was caught up in what the music mags would call “T. Rextasy.”

What magic ingredients led to this transformation? Theories range, but this band pic offers a clue. Bolan wears a Chuck Berry tee, while Finn’s shirt proudly proclaims: “Enjoy Cocaine.” Stripping their sound back to the giddy early days of rock’n’roll while indulging in coke’s nervy stimulation, T. Rex very suddenly manifested the biggest screamfest since Beatlemania. Visconti deemed Bolan’s genius be in skipping over the Beatles’ influence entirely, instead reaching back to the ’50s: “[He] emulated Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, that was his little trick. It was ingenious.”

Recorded in March and released in July of 1972, The Slider marked both the zenith and imminent approach of the cliff’s edge for T. Rextasy. Recorded in a dilapidated castle in France, it captured Marc Bolan as the King of Glam at the absolute height of his powers. Think Nadia Comăneci in 1976, Prince in the ’80s, or Ronnie O’Sullivan running the snooker table. T. Rex could do no wrong during that span.

As such, every wrist flick and downstroke on The Slider rings out like an act of god. Each cast-off line from Bolan’s notebook transforms into a profound edict from on high. And every cut—be it pop perfection or half-sketched—gets spun into cotton candy by Visconti and the backing vocals of Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (better known as Flo & Eddie), harmonizing their nasal voices towards new adenoidal highs. The Slider exudes confidence to the point of becoming delirious and drunk on Bolan’s own self-regard, careening between bawdy, brash Little Richard lop-bam-booms, weirdo machismo rock, and ethereal acoustic ballads, while line by line Bolan toggles between profundity and inanity, melancholia and nonsense.

“Metal Guru” opens the album with a gush of guitar and Bolan’s mawkish cry, “Mwah-ahah-yeeeah.” It’s a victory lap as introduction and celebratory whoop-along. At least until each verse detours into stranger terrain: surrealistic upholstery (“armour-plated chair”), rock’n’roll cliché (“you're gonna bring my baby to me”), tongue-twisting meter-buster (“just like a silver-studded sabre-tooth dream”). It’s a glorious amount of gobbledygook.

From his earliest days, Bolan knew his way with the juxtapose of strange, slippery words, drawing inspiration from the poetry of fellow countrymen like John Keats, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, as well as the fantastical realms of J.R.R. Tolkien and Lewis Carroll. As Bolan pivoted from hippie-folk underground obscurity to mainstream pop star, discarding elves for automobiles, he kept the mood of his words intact. At the start of a new decade, when the gap between rock and pop was beginning to widen, Bolan was content to blur the lines between genres. No longer happy with those weedy full-lengths and favoring instead the concision of a 45, T. Rex’s greatest songs hit like hard candy: crunchy, mouth-tingling sweet, and a little unreal.

He kept remnants of his folksy roots, though. “Mystic Lady” is a keenly sweet and fragile acoustic number, an ode to a sorceress in dungarees set adrift by strummed acoustic guitar and Visconti’s Romantic strings. In one couplet, cliché and stunning surrealism are wed: “Fills my heart with pain/Fills my toes with rain,” Bolan’s clenched-jaw jitter eliciting that visceral sensation.

Visconti would go on to produce iconic albums for the likes of Bowie and Thin Lizzy later in the decade, but you can hear his golden touch across the album. On the three-minute romp of “Rock On,” he weaves together boogie-woogie piano, overdriven guitar, a prancing snare drum, Flo & Eddie’s glorious and grotesque harmonies, and a sax phased and flanged until it’s a streak of stardust.

Even The Slider’s lesser songs—“Baby Boomerang” and “Baby Strange” are as puerile as their titles suggest—are elevated by Visconti’s touch. The string sections of “Rabbit Fighter” form a sweeping anthem from so much hot air. Just as impressive is how a throwaway like “Spaceball Ricochet” can become wholly evocative. “Ah ah ah/Do the spaceball” doesn’t do a damned thing when written out, but with the bowed cello and Flo & Eddie’s uncanny accompaniment of Bolan’s gasps, this trifle transforms into one of the album’s most ethereal moments.

“Chariot Choogle” (like “Buick Mackane” on the A side) is a polymer of heavy guitars and giddiness. Amid some footballer barks lies a sweetheart of a line: “Girl you are groove/You're like the planets when you move.” It reveals just how T. Rex took the onerousness weight of hypermasculine blues-based rock and replaced it with something featherlight and androgynous, the moment where Reynolds said, “cock rock became coquette rock.” On the 12-bar blues title track, Bolan’s admission that “and when I’m sad, I slide” induces a sense of vertigo with phased strings and voices, the shaker and fricative hiss close in the mix anticipating ASMR. Elsewhere, Bolan sings that the slider is “a sexual glider” while promo for the album asked: “To be or not to be, that is The Slider.” Thousands of spins later, I confess I’m no closer to understanding just what the titular proper noun or verb might mean.

In hindsight, it’s hard to imagine Bolan being that cocksure, but there was a moment in time in the UK when you could utter T. Rex in the same breath as the Beatles and the Stones and not be wrong. Who else would call Bob Dylan “Bobby” and mention him multiple times over the course of the album, even though they never met in real life? Who else was a big enough star to get a Beatle to shoot Born to Boogie, a vanity film about him? Who else but Marc Bolan could out-glam Elton John on the same stage? And when his frenemy David Bowie finally broke onto the charts with the release of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Bolan had three other albums in the Top 30 to keep him company.

Bowie, though, would have the last laugh. While wars were waged for or against Bolan in the letters section of Melody Maker and New Musical Express, The Slider topped out at #4 and marked the end of his reign. He’d have two more hits, but neither would reach the #1 slot. The year 1973 marked the last time Bolan placed a song in the top 10 during his lifetime, a precipitous plunge worthy of Icarus.
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“He had the biggest ego of any rock star,” his bandmate Volman said. “No one in his own mind was greater than Marc Bolan.” It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that when Flo & Eddie’s manic falsettos first harmonized with him on “Hot Love,” it gave Bolan the first taste of success. But Flo & Eddie were also the first to get fed up with Bolan’s narcissism and left before T. Rex’s next album Tanx. Drummer Bill Legend left after, and Visconti would be unceremoniously relieved of production duties after 1974’s Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow. Mickey Finn was gone by the end of that year. By the time Marc Bolan died in a car crash in 1977, he was already being eclipsed by Bowie.

But just a glance at The Slider’s cover reveals that Bolan’s legacy is still with us. One instantly sees the father of Slash’s own iconic look. Watch the diminutive Bolan stalk the stage like an androgynous elf in his shimmering high-heeled boots and you see where another diminutive yet larger-than-life rock star like Prince took his cues. In the 21st century, as rock bands peeled away excess, Bolan’s DNA readily sprung forth from the likes of the White Stripes and Black Keys. Even without a guitar, dance producers in the new millennium sought the same, with the likes of Superpitcher, Michael Mayer, and Matthew Dear stripping everything back and cranking up the glitter and glam.

While responsible for the birth of glam in the UK, Reynolds argues that T. Rex “was too quicksilver” for a rock legacy. So while Ziggy Stardust tells a fairly coherent story and ascended into “classic album” status, The Slider forever eludes our grasp. By keeping their mystery intact, Bolan’s songs emulate his forebears best, whether it’s wondering where the wang dang doodle is at or what a Jabberwocky is. In that riddling way, Bolan is always reborn to boogie.



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