Monday, April 14, 2014

T.Rex - 20th Century Boy

While many different people are considered pioneers of glam rock there is a unanimous consensus that the specific origin of glam rock should be credited to Marc Bolan and his band T.Rex. “T” “.” “Rex” because Tyrannosaurus Rex was already taken, as in Tyrannosaurus Rex was the original name for T.Rex. Thanks to Marc Bolan and T.Rex glam rock was born in the early 1970s (arguably 1968) in England and many British bands would follow suit in wearing spandex, makeup and glitter. While the ascetic of glam rock appealed very strongly with the psychedelic culture of the seventies and as well as the sexual liberated/confused (cross-dressing was common in glam rock, more on that next Music In Review) the sound was a out of this world, and in some cases that was exactly the theme, like T.Rex’s “Ballrooms of Mars” and “Cosmic Dander” or David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Ziggy Stardust character.

And glam rock was born.
The sounds of glam rock are very varied from band to band. There are bands like Roxy Music that were quasi folk rock and Velvet Underground is more like a far out art experiment more akin to progressive rock than anything else, and neither sound very much like T.Rex. So the uniting factor more than anything had to have been presentation and attitude. The pioneers of glam rock were colleagues, but also friends, and together they dressed strange and expressed some similar progressive ideas through outlandish lyrics and far out artistic flair. In the case of the founder, T.Rex had a very soothing sound, lots of mystical songs about cosmic love and dancing. The other day I listened to T.Rex’s “Electric Warrior” while I made black berry banana beard, it was one of the most relaxing moments of my entire life.

Marc Bolan was not just an innovator in music but also in partying. Years before Slash of Guns N Roses paid someone to follow him around while he got blitzed drunk to keep him out of trouble and drive him home, Marc let his girl friend Gloria Jones drive him around while he was drinking. The great irony is that Marc died when his sober girl friend crashed his car while driving his drunken self home. The stereotype of inept female drivers has persisted ever since. All joking aside the death of Marc Bolan was a tragedy, like so many other rock stars he died far too young at the age of twenty-nine.

Despite being removed from the rock and roll equation so quickly Marc Bolan managed to release thirteen albums between 1968 and 1977 which averages to more than one album per year. So while Bolan was only with us for a short while he made his time on earth count. The most memorable albums had to be “Electric Warrior” and “The Slide,” two of the most easy going feel good trips ever recorded to vinyl. If you had to pick a single song that T.Rex is known for it might be “Electric Warrior’s” “Bang the Gong,” but I have never been a very big fan of that track, I am more of a “20th Century Boy” kind of guy. Despite being one of T.Rex’s biggest songs “20th Century Boy” never appeared on any of the thirteen albums, rather it was a single released in 1973 that never made the final cut on any album. This is mildly problematic for people like me because it forces me to buy a greatest hit compilation or track down special addition version of 1973 “Tanx” which also includes “Children of the Revolution.”

Perhaps one of the reasons “20th Century Boy” is so loved and radio friendly is that it is a faster, catchier song then most of Bolan’s work. It does have a fantastic rift at the beginning which repeats after every verse. This rift in question is a series of E-majors that involves a drag on the A-string, which is seemingly very simple and easy but it needs both perfect timing and the exact right amount of distortion to sound right. This series of E-majors in “20th Century Boy” is so iconic, and makes up a reasonable amount of the song’s core, that it is easy to forget about the rest of the guitar work in the song. Such is the fate of all songs with a perfect identifying intro; still it makes for a very effective hook to capture listens, hence the radio play.

There is also a lot of uncertainty regarding the lyrics for “20th Century Boy.” People can’t agree on whether it is just like “Rock ‘n Roll” or just like “Robin Hood;” and whether Bolan “talks like a rat” or “charges like a ram,” I have to admit “Rock ‘n Roll” and “charge like a ram” makes more sense, but I would not be surprised to learn otherwise, Bolan had a habit of saying/singing silly things.

So yeah I really like “20th Century Boy” and that awesome rift, and I am not the only one. Next to “Bang the Gong” few T.Rex songs have gotten as much love and radio play as “20th Century Boy” but T.Rex has international fame, and we should not forget that Japan loves their glam rock.

Brilliant writer Naoki Urasawa named his magnum opus after the song “20th Century Boy” and sort of based the story after what the song meant to him in his youth and what the culture of that time symbolizes to him now, set to the back drop of the end of world brought about by the villain “Friend.” It’s basically the greatest thing every, read more about it here:

While no literal interpretations of the song’s lyrics are invoked in “20th Century Boys” the manga its significance within the story is pervasive. The symbolic significance of 70’s rock as well as other cultural elements from that time serve two purposes, it aids in developing our primary characters and it works in a metaphorical way. Bob Dylan, John Lennon and T.Rex affected all of us in a very deep way, they are monumental events of our past and foundations to our future, and perhaps not just artistically. The mindset of rock and roll was always revolutionary, and it was believed by many that rock and roll would change the world. The world has changed since the 1970’s, crime rates have dropped dramatically, advances in medicines have allowed people to live healthier and longer, advances in science have enormously improved the efficiency of our resource consumption and improved our ability to feed the world, communication technologies have catapulted every civilization into a global community causing the free market of ideas to reach new levels of shared growth, and more people live in peace now than ever. Life has never been so good for human beings, not even close. How much of this is fair to credit to rock and roll? The spirit of rock and roll was always revolution and the attitude it has invoked in us forever has been to seek positive change, maybe rock and roll was the difference maker, maybe we just needed a few anthems to motivate us to accomplish all these great things.

When I think like this it makes me reconsider two things about Mrac Bolan, T.Rex and the classic rock scene in general. First what do songs like “20th Century Boy” mean to culture at large and what does it mean to me metaphorically in my life? Second is there any depth and secret meaning to a song like “20th Century Boy” that I previously missed; I do not think so, this is a fun love/pop/glam/rock song with some silly yet clever lyrics but little more... at least I’m pretty sure that’s what’s going on, and I am content to let a great rock song stand on the merits of its own enjoyableness without any deep metaphorical messages.

We are now in the twenty-first century of modern human history. What did it mean to be a twentieth century boy? Are we the children of the children of the revolution? Maybe rock and roll did save the world and we just didn’t notice.

- King of Braves

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