Tony Visconti on Marc Bolan

Last month legendary producer Tony Visconti was in London for a screening of the T. Rex / Marc Bolan film Born To Boogie. He spoke at length to journalist and Bolan authority Mark Paytress about working with Marc. On the eve of the blu-ray and deluxe reissue of Born to Boogie, SDE brings you some highlights from Tony’s conversation with Paytress and some of responses to questions from the audience…

In the beginning…

“T Rex were the first group who rose to the height of The Beatles, in this country [the UK] for sure. I remember I saw Marc, sitting cross-legged with Steve Peregrin Took, at Middle Earth, in Tottenham Court Road – I knew he was a star and I knew it was going to happen.”

Visconti on Marc’s voice

“I looked at this film tonight… it was almost a Fellini film, that’s what Ringo was after with some of the shots, and Marc was too. When he was in the folk-duo phase, I know he loved the Incredible String Band. But whereas with The Incredible String Band, from Scotland, you could hear every word meticulously pronounced and spoken, Marc was surreal even in his folk period. I thought he was singing in French [laughter], or you know, Croatian or something. So when I approached them the first time, I went to Steve Peregrin Took who definitely spoke English… I didn’t know where Marc was from, or even if he was from the Earth, he was that surreal. Marc said he was influenced by blues singers from the fifties and playing their records at the wrong speed.  So he’d play a 45 at 78, or something like that and he actually sang along to the record at the wrong speed and garbled the English.”

Visconti on Marc’s dress sense

 “It was good timing for us, because all the groups went from dressing well to dressing really badly. Like Ringo in the film, the way he had to grow a beard. That’s what’s going on with these young men all over the world today, growing these fucking awful beards [laughter]. Then they made it worse by wearing lumberjack shirts, like flannel shirts and all that… And then Marc came along with the prettiest face on earth and even when he couldn’t afford to wear his glam gear, just before that period, he’d put together things from a thrift shop that looked absolutely beautiful. So it was a great period to come in with this song Ride A White Swan and have this beautiful man and he caught a period that was on its way out and we were the new guys in town.”

Visconti on the sound of T Rex

We had to do things very organically, and I used to do some things in my flat in Earl’s Court. We started experimenting with microphone placement and overdubs. Marc did double-tracking and treble tracking his voice very, very well. We were inspired by The Beach Boys and you can hear on a lot of his early records we were doing little homages to Pet Sounds, on Unicorn especially. We didn’t do too much in the studio because we’d record the band live and fresh. Often we’d get to take five, or something like that, and Marc would say ‘That’s it, we’ve got it”. And [drummer] Bill Legend would say “I’ve only just learnt the song, give us another chance!” but Marc would say “no, that’s it. I’ll throw a few guitars on it and cover up those mistakes”.. or something like that. So we didn’t overwork things or overdo things. When it was finished, it was finished. A lot of the magic took place in the overdub phase, with Marc and his guitar parts. And we’d bring in backing vocals, Flo and Eddie, Lesley Duncan, Vicki Brown… But it was Marc and myself, doing the high falsettos. Like on Telegram Sam, that’s Marc and myself.”

Visconti on Marc’s guitar playing

“I saw one [live performance] of Get It On in New York City, Fillmore East, where he did that guitar solo for 20 minutes. This [what’s in Born to Boogie] is the real abbreviated version! His Hendrix aspirations.. he never quite got there, although I don’t think anyone in the world ever emulated Hendrix. But Marc certainly idolised him.”

Visconti on Marc’s insecurity

“Certain things he did, I found very strange. At the height of Hot Love, we were selling up to 60,000 in one day. Record labels would die if they heard that today. They’d be lucky if they could sell 60,000 in three weeks. I used to ring EMI every day and say “what did we do today?”. “60,000”. The phone would ring five minutes later and it would be Marc. “Hey, Tone… we sold 80,000 today…” Why he had to bump it up, I have no idea. But he was insecure. He’d put out so much macho energy. He wasn’t very tall, but sometimes he’d walk towards you and you’d go “woah…” and step out of the way. Once he did actually kick me in the bollocks [laughter]. He said “hey, how’s your Karate coming along?” I said, “fine”, then ‘boom’. He always had to front up this insecurity, but it was so obvious that he was insecure. But when we had a moment together, when no one else was in the room, he was very loving and gentle.”

Visconti on Marc’s musical development

I think the only mistake made was that, that audience, those girls and the few guys that adored him, grew older. And that’s the way pop works. Just in a few short years, some of them were going over to the Bowie camp and other things and you know, kids do grow up. And it was crystallised in that film, Marc thought that this is the way it’s always going to be. After that we made some fantastic records, I love The Slider and Tanx and all that, but we clearly lost that audience… it’s ironic now that in later years, a lot of teenage kids look to that music now. But the truth is the core audience [at the time] dwindled and it did make him angry. He couldn’t figure it out and was frustrated.”

Visconti on personal hygiene

Marc and June used to come to my flat to work out arrangements, but also they didn’t have a bathtub, so they’d have their weekly bath at Earl’s Court. Actually it was bi-weekly because they went to Marc’s mum’s too!”

Visconti on his favourite T Rex music:

“I love Electric Warrior, Slider and Tanx. Like David Bowie has his trilogy, that’s Marc’s.”

Visconti on parting company with Marc:

Zinc Alloy was supposed to be “one more for the kids” – it wasn’t, it wasn’t really anything. There’s some great songs on it, but it’s not the best T. Rex album. I don’t like too… I mean he’s not with us… but Marc had started drinking heavily – not that I’m an angel – but in the studio it was getting ugly and even other members of the band would not be at the sessions. Bill Legend quit at the time. I had one last plea with him, and said why don’t you take some time off… we had this [unreleased] album, The Children of Rarn, on tape somewhere, so I said “why don’t you take a year off”. Pete Townshend did it when he wrote Tommy. But no, it was “one more for the kids” which wasn’t helping him with the kids, or anybody, that last album. It’s not the best album. But you know, to take a year off, he looked at me like, “are you crazy? I have to make another single” Even the the last single we made together, Truck On (Tyke), didn’t even make the top 30 [Visconti is told that it did – it actually peaked at number 12] ..well… it stayed there for a day! It’s sad. He couldn’t accept that. He had to make a better single. But you know, these things have a peak and a trough. Life’s like that. But he couldn’t accept that. So after that, and a couple of other issues I had with him, including payment – he tried to cut my out of my royalties all of a sudden – things just soured, it was not the best conditions to work under. One of my best friends was treating me like that, so we called it quits.”

Visconti on Marc’s legacy:

He is one of the all time greats. It’s partly Marc’s fault that he isn’t always recognised as such because he didn’t make it in America. He didn’t do well there for some reason. It overwhelmed him. I saw many of his live performances there and he did not make it with Americans for some reason. The guys with the beards and the flannel shirt were still in power over there, while Glam Rock was a totally British invention. And he was the king of Glam Rock, if you want to pick such a ridiculous title. But Bowie used that platform for a few hours, you know, dyed his hair orange and did some fantastic stuff, but he kept changing and evolving. And he matured. He lived a lot longer than Marc Bolan and had a chance to prove himself time and time again as a person who really recreates himself. Marc was not given that chance. I think if Marc had lived he would have been right up there in that pantheon.”

And in the end…

“We had a real relationship. We worked nose to nose every day in the studio and I’ll remember him as a dear friend. The last time I saw him? Well, we fell out after Zinc Alloy. We didn’t speak to each other for a few years. Then we met backstage at Top of the Pops. My ex-wife Mary Hopkin was singing a song in that show and Marc had a song in that show. We met backstage and Marc was with Gloria. We took one look at each other and we had a big hug and a big kiss and “let’s work together again” and all that stuff. Just in the moment, we couldn’t deny it. I could have walked away, Marc could have walked away, but we were attracted to each other like two magnets. And that was the last time I saw him.”

As told to Mark Paytress and an invited audience at the BFI in London on 20 May 2016. Born to Boogie is reissued on Friday 17 June 2016.

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Marc Bolan

Born To Boogie [Blu-ray] [NTSC]


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