Bolan grew up in post-war Hackney, northeast London, the son of Phyllis Winifred (née Atkins) and Simeon Feld, a lorry driver. His father was Jewish (of Russian and Polish origin) and his mother was from a Christian background. Later moving to Wimbledon, southwest London, he fell in love with the rock and roll of Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Arthur Crudup and Chuck Berry and was considered a mod because of dress, hanging around coffee bars such as the 2 I's in Soho. He appeared as an extra in an episode of the television show Orlando, dressed as a mod. At the age of nine, Bolan was given his first guitar and began a skiffle band. While at school, he played guitar in "Susie and the Hoops," a trio whose vocalist was a 12-year old Helen Shapiro. At 15, he left school "by mutual consent".
He briefly joined a modelling agency and became a "John Temple Boy", appearing in a clothing catalogue for the menswear store. He was a model for the suits in their catalogues as well as for cardboard cut-outs to be displayed in shop windows. "TOWN" magazine featured him as an early example of the mod movement in a photo spread with two other models. Mark Feld had changed his stage-name to Toby Tyler when he met and moved in with child actor Allan Warren, who was to become his first manager. This fortuitous encounter afforded Bolan a lifeline to the heart of show-business, as Warren saw Toby Tyler's potential whilst the latter spent hours sitting cross-legged on Warren's floor playing his acoustic guitar. A series of photographs was to be commissioned with photographer Michael McGrath, who later recalls that Bolan "left no impression" on him. Warren also hired a recording studio and had Bolan's first acetates cut. One track was the Bob Dylan song "Blowin' in the Wind". A version of Betty Everett's "You're No Good" was later submitted to EMI for a test screening but was turned down.
Warren later sold Bolan's contract and recordings for £200 to his landlord, property mogul David Kirch, in lieu of three months' back rent. Kirch was too busy with his property empire to do anything for him. A year or so later, Bolan's mother pushed into Kirch's office and shouted at him that he had done nothing for her son. She demanded he tear up the contract and willingly he complied. The tapes produced during the Toby Tyler recording session vanished for over 25 years before resurfacing in 1991 and selling for nearly $8,000. Their eventual release on CD in 1993 made available the earliest of Marc's known recordings.
After changing his name again to Marc Bolan (via Mark Bowland) while with Decca Records he released his first single "The Wizard". According to Danny Baker speaking on QI Series G, episode 15 on BBC television, Bolan is a contraction of Bob Dylan. In 1965 Bolan turned up at 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. A recording session was immediately booked and the songs were recorded but not released. One song, 'You scare me to death' was used in a toothpaste advertisement. The songs resurfaced in 1982 on the album 'You scare me to death' with other songs, Mustang Ford, Sally was an angel and Hippy Gumbo among others. Napier Bell managed The Yardbirds and John's Children and was going to slot Bolan into The Yardbirds but settled for John's Children instead because of Bolan's writing ability, in early 1967. The band achieved some success as a live act but sold few records. A John's Children single written by Marc Bolan called "Desdemona" was banned by the BBC for its line "lift up your skirt and fly." His tenure with the band was brief. Bolan claimed to have spent time with a wizard in Paris who gave him secret knowledge and could levitate. The time spent with him was often alluded to but remained "mythical"; in reality the wizard was probably U.S. actor Riggs O'Hara with whom Bolan made a trip to Paris in 1965. His song-writing took off and he began writing many of the neo-romantic songs that would appear on his first albums with Tyrannosaurus Rex.
When John's Children collapsed (amongst other problems, the band were stunned to discover their equipment had been stolen from a studio, according to a Bolan biographer), Bolan created Tyrannosaurus Rex, his own rock band together with guitarist Ben Cartland, drummer Steve Peregrin Took and an unknown bass player. 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 3 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.
Following this concert, Bolan pared the band down to just himself and Took, and they continued as a psychedelic-folk rock acoustic duo, playing Bolan's songs, with Took playing assorted hand and kit percussion and occasional bass to Bolan's acoustic guitars and voice. Napier-Bell said of Bolan that after the first disastrous electric gig, "He didn't have the courage to try it again; it really had been a blow to his ego.... Later he told everyone he'd been forced into going acoustic because Track had repossessed all his gear. In fact he'd been forced to go acoustic because he was scared to do anything else."
The original version of Tyrannosaurus Rex released three albums and four singles, flirting with the charts, reaching as high as number fifteen and supported with airplay by Radio 1 DJ John Peel. One of the highlights of this era was when the duo played at the first free Hyde Park concert in 1968. Although the free-spirited, drug-taking Took was fired from the group after their first American tour, they were a force to be reckoned with in the hippy underground scene while they lasted. Their music was filled with Marc's otherworldly poetry, a book of which he published in 1969, 'The Warlock Of Love'. 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. After replacing Took with Mickey Finn, he let the electric influences come forward even further on A Beard of Stars, the final album to be credited to Tyrannosaurus Rex. It closed with the song "Elemental Child," featuring a long electric guitar break influenced by Jimi Hendrix.
Bolan, by now married to his girlfriend June Child (a former secretary to the manager of another of his heroes, Syd Barrett), bought a vintage Gibson Les Paul guitar (featured on the cover of the album T. Rex), wrote and recorded "Ride a White Swan" which was dominated by a rolling hand-clapping back-beat, Bolan's electric guitar and Finn's percussion, and shortened the group's name to T. Rex.
T. Rex and glam rock
Bolan and his producer Tony Visconti oversaw the session for "Ride a White Swan", the single that changed Bolan's career was inspired in part by Mungo Jerry's success with 'In the summertime', moving Bolan away from predominantly acoustic numbers to a more electric sound. Recorded on 1 July 1970 and released later that year, it made slow progress in the UK Top 40, until it finally peaked in early 1971 at number two.
Bolan took to wearing top hats and feather boas on stage as well as putting drops of glitter on each of his cheekbones. Stories are conflicting about his inspiration for this—some say it was introduced by his personal assistant, Chelita Secunda, although Bolan told John Pidgeon in a 1974 interview on Radio 1 that he noticed the glitter on his wife's dressing table prior to a photo session and casually daubed some on his face there and then. Other performers—and their fans—soon took up variations on the idea.
The glam era also saw the rise of Bolan's friend David Bowie, whom Bolan had come to know in the underground days (Bolan had played guitar on Bowie's 1970 single "Prettiest Star").(Bolan and Bowie shared the same manager, Tony Howard and producer Tony Visconti)
Bolan followed "Ride a White Swan" and T. Rex by expanding the group to a quartet with bassist Steve Currie and drummer Bill Legend, and cutting a five-minute single, "Hot Love", with a rollicking rhythm, string accents and an extended sing-along chorus inspired somewhat by "Hey Jude". It was number one for six weeks and was quickly followed by "Get It On", a grittier, more adult tune that spent four weeks in the top spot. The song was renamed "Bang a Gong (Get It On)" when released in the United States, to avoid confusion with another song of the same name by the American band Chase. The song reached #10 in the United States in early 1972, the only Top 40 single the band had in America.
In November 1971, the band's record label, Fly, released the Electric Warrior track "Jeepster" without Bolan's permission. Outraged, Bolan took advantage of the timely lapsing of his Fly Records contract and left for EMI, who gave him his own record label, the T. Rex Wax Co. Its bag and label featured an iconic head-and-shoulders image of Bolan. Despite the lack of Bolan's endorsement, "Jeepster" peaked at number two.
In 1972, Bolan achieved two more British number ones with "Telegram Sam" and "Metal Guru" (the latter of which stopped Elton John getting to the top with "Rocket Man") and two more number twos in "Children Of The Revolution" and "Solid Gold Easy Action". Bolan told Gloria Jones the track "Metal Guru" would be "the smoothest song in history".
In the same year he appeared in Ringo Starr's film Born to Boogie, a documentary showing a concert at Wembley Empire Pool on 18 March 1972. Mixed in were surreal scenes shot at John Lennon's mansion in Ascot and a session with T. Rex joined by Ringo Starr on second drum kit and Elton John on piano. At this time T. Rex record sales accounted for about 6 percent of total British domestic record sales. The band was reportedly selling 100,000 records a day; however, no T. Rex single ever became a million-seller in the UK, despite many gold discs and an average of four weeks at the top per Number One hit.
In 1973, Bolan played twin lead guitar alongside his friend Jeff Lynne on the Electric Light Orchestra songs "Ma-Ma-Ma Belle" and "Dreaming of 4000" (originally uncredited) from On the Third Day, as well as on "Everyone's Born To Die", which was not released at the time but appears as a bonus track on the 2006 remaster.
Bolan played guitar on the track "Have You Seen My Baby (Hold On)" on Ringo Starr's album Ringo.
By late 1973, his pop star fame gradually began to wane, even though he achieved a number three hit, "20th Century Boy", in February and mid-year "The Groover" followed it to number four. "Truck On (Tyke)" missed the UK Top 10 reaching only #12 in December. However, "Teenage Dream" from the 1974 album Zinc Alloy And The Hidden Riders of Tomorrow showed that Bolan was attempting to create richer, more involved music than he had previously attempted with T. Rex. He expanded the line up of the band to include a second guitarist, Jack Green, and other studio musicians, and began to take more control over the sound and production of his records, including by then girlfriend Gloria Jones on keyboards as well as backing vocals.
In 1974, Bolan played guitar for Ike & Tina Turner. He appeared on "Nutbush City Limits", "Sexy Ida (Part II)", and "Baby Get It On". Tina Turner confirmed this in a BBC Radio 1 interview.
Eventually, the vintage T. Rex line-up disintegrated. Legend left in 1973 and Finn in 1975 and Bolan's marriage came to an end because of his affair with backing singer Gloria Jones who bore his son Rolan on 26 September 1976. He spent a good deal of his time in the U.S. during this period, continuing to release singles and albums which, while less popular to the masses, were full of unusual lyrics and sometimes eccentric musical experiments. Although Bolan's health began to fail as he put on weight, the former glam rock icon cleaned up and continued working, producing at least one album every year.
Gloria Jones gave birth to Bolan's son in September 1975, whom they named Rolan Bolan (although his birth certificate lists him as 'Rolan Seymour Feld'). That same year, Bolan returned to the UK from tax exile in the U.S. and Monaco and to the public eye with a low-key tour. Bolan made regular appearances on the LWT pop show Supersonic, directed by his old friend Mike Mansfield and released a succession of singles, but he never regained the success of his glory days of the early 1970s. The last remaining member of Bolan's halcyon era T. Rex, Currie, left the group in late 1976.
In early 1977, Bolan got a new band together, released a new album, Dandy in the Underworld, and set out on a fresh UK tour, taking along punk band The Damned as support to entice a young audience who did not remember his heyday. Granada Television commissioned Bolan to front a six-part series called Marc, where he introduced new and established bands and performed his own songs. By this time Bolan had lost weight, appearing as trim as he had during T. Rex's earlier heyday. The show was broadcast during the post-school half-hour on ITV earmarked for children and teenagers; it was a big success. One episode reunited Bolan with his former John's Children-bandmate Andy Ellison, then fronting the band Radio Stars. The last episode featured a unique Bolan "duet" with David Bowie during which Bolan fell off the stage just as the singing was commencing. With no time for a retake, this occurrence was aired and Bowie's amusement was clearly visible.
Bolan died on 16 September 1977, two weeks before his 30th birthday. He was a passenger in a purple Mini 1275GT (registration FOX 661L) driven by Gloria Jones as they headed home from Mortons drinking club and restaurant in Berkeley Square. Jones lost control of the car and it struck a sycamore maple tree after failing to negotiate a small humpback bridge near Gipsy Lane on Queens Ride, Barnes, southwest London. Richard Madeley of daytime TV fame informed fans that it was low tyre pressure that contributed to the fatal crash.
Bolan was killed instantly, while Jones suffered a broken arm and broken jaw and spent time in hospital; she did not learn of Bolan's death until the day of his funeral. Bolan's home, which was less than a mile away at 142 Upper Richmond Road West in East Sheen, was quickly looted. Fans quickly turned the site of the crash into a shrine and in 2007 the site was officially recognised as Bolan's Rock Shrine.
At Bolan's funeral, attended by James Stroud, David Bowie, Paul Davis and Rod Stewart, a swan-shaped floral tribute was displayed outside the service in recognition of his breakthrough hit single along with the single Ride A White Swan being played itself. His funeral service was at the Golders Green Crematorium which is a secular provision in North London. Bolan himself stated that he was Jewish, the religion of his father. However, because his mother was not Jewish he would be considered a gentile under Orthodox Jewish law (Halakha). His ashes were buried at Golders Green Crematorium.
Bolan never learned to drive, fearing a premature death. Despite this fear, cars or automotive components are at least mentioned in, if not the subject of, many of his songs. He also owned a number of vehicles, including a famed white Rolls-Royce, which had been lent by his management to Hawkwind on the night of his death.
Fellow T. Rex member Steve Currie also died in a car crash less than four years later. Percussionist Mickey Finn died in 2003 of alcohol-related liver problems, in Croydon, Surrey, on 11 January 2003, aged 55. Drummer Bill Legend (Fyfield) is the only surviving original member of T.Rex.
Electric: Marc Bolan was mostly seen playing Gibson Les Pauls. His main guitar, a Les Paul Standard (fitted with a Les Paul Custom replacement neck after the original neck was broken) was refinished in a translucent orange to resemble Gretsch guitars played by one of his heroes Eddie Cochran. He was also seen playing a black Gibson Flying V with tremolo and a late 1960s model Olympic White Fender Stratocaster. One with both an eye and ear for the unusual, Bolan also played various models of visually striking guitars from smaller independent companies, among them a Veleno aluminium guitar, and the Burns Flyte.
While Bolan was known to use makes as diverse as Vox, Orange, HH Electronics and Marshall, he is perhaps most associated with the short-lived Vampower line of British amplifiers. Used through 1970–1973, the model MK1A Vampower 100 watt stack was present and utilised on the T. Rex tours and recordings of that period.
In December 1980, "Telegram Sam" was the fourth single released by British gothic rock band Bauhaus.
Also in 1980, The Bongos were the first American group, with "Mambo Sun," to enter the Billboard charts with a T.Rex cover. Since then, Bongos frontman Richard Barone has recorded several other Bolan compositions ("The Visit," "Ballrooms of Mars"), worked with T.Rex producer Tony Visconti for his current solo album, Glow (2010, Bar/None Records) that includes a remake of Bolan's "Girl" from Electric Warrior, and has himself produced tracks for Bolan's son Rolan.
In 1984, The Replacements released a cover of "20th Century Boy" as a B-side to the single "I Will Dare"; it is also included on the reissue version of their album Let It Be. In 1993, Adam Ant covered the track live on the Limed Edition live disc of his Antmusic: The Very Best of Adam Ant collection.
In 1985, Duran Duran splinter band Power Station, with Robert Palmer as vocalist, took a version of "Get It On" into the UK Top 40 and to US #6, the first cover of a Bolan song to enter the charts since his death. They also performed the tune (with Michael Des Barres replacing Palmer) at the U.S. Live Aid concert.
In 1990, Baby Ford did a cover of "Children of the Revolution" that appeared on the album Oooh, The World of Baby Ford.
In 1991, T-Bolan a Japanese rock band debuted. The name of this band was inspired by T. Rex and its vocalist Marc Bolan.
In 1994, Billy Idol wore a t-shirt reproducing The Slider album cover in his popular video supporting the song "Speed". That was a clear homage to Marc Bolan, who helped Generation X to rise at the very beginning of their career.
Also in 1994, A House covered "Children of the Revolution" as a B-side on their "Here Come the Good Times" single alongside tracks originally by Bolan's erstwhile support band, The Damned, and by Donna Summer.
In 1995 Darryl Read released "Teenage Dream" as a single and Bill Legend of T. Rex drums on this version - for the second time round. This single was reissued in 2009 along with a promotional video filmed at the Roundhouse London - featuring Read and Legend with T. Rex fans.
In 2006 Def Leppard released their album Yeah which contains covers of their favourite bands while growing up, the first song on this album is "20th Century Boy". Joe Elliott wanted to sing "Metal Guru" while Vivian Campbell wanted "Telegram Sam" but end up agreeing to "20th Century Boy". It's not the first time that Def Leppard has sung a T.Rex song; there is a live version of Get It On.
"Children of the Revolution" was similarly performed by Elton John and Pete Doherty of The Libertines at Live 8, 20 years later. U2's Bono and Gavin Friday also covered "Children of the Revolution" on the Moulin Rouge! soundtrack.
In 2000, Naoki Urasawa created a Japanese manga entitled 20th Century Boys that was inspired by Marc Bolan's song, "20th Century Boy". The series is a multiple award-winner, and has also been released in North America. The story was adopted into three successful live-action movies from 2008 to 2009, which were also released in the US, Canada and the UK.
"20th Century Boy" introduced a new generation of devotees to Bolan's work in 1991 when it was featured on a Levi's jeans TV commercial featuring Brad Pitt, and was re-released, reaching the UK Top 20. The song was performed by the fictional band The Flaming Creatures (performed by Placebo, reprised by Placebo and David Bowie at the 1999 BRIT Awards) in the 1998 film Velvet Goldmine. In every decade since his death, a Bolan greatest hits compilation has placed in the top 20 UK albums and periodic boosts in sales have come via cover versions from artists inspired by Bolan, including Morrissey and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Similarly, "I Love to Boogie" was briefly used on an advert for Robinson's soft drink in 2001, bringing Bolan's music to a new generation. Mitsubishi also featured "20th Century Boy" in a 2002 car commercial, prompting Hip-O Records to release a best-of collection CD titled 20th Century Boy: The Ultimate Collection.
His music is still widely used in films, recent notable cases being Breakfast on Pluto, Death Proof, Lords of Dogtown, Billy Elliot, Jarhead, Moulin Rouge!, Herbie: Fully Loaded, Breaking-Up, Hot Fuzz, Click, School of Rock & Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Bolan is still cited by many guitar-centric bands as a huge influence (Joy Division/New Order's Bernard Sumner has said that the first single he owned was "Ride a White Swan".) However, he always maintained he was a poet who put lyrics to music. The tunes were never as important as the words.
An altogether less welcome legacy for his friends and family is the ongoing row about his fortune. Bolan had arranged a discretionary trust to safeguard his money. His death left the fortune beyond the reach of those closest to him and both his family and journalists have taken an active interest in investigating the situation, so far with little result other than bringing the story to wider attention. A small, separate Jersey-based trust fund has allowed his son to receive some income. However, the bulk of Bolan's fortune, variously estimated at between £20 and £30 million pounds (approx $38 – $57 million), remains in trust. As of 2007, Bolan's family is supposed to have a house paid for by the trust, and Rolan is supposed to receive an allowance.
Bolan returned to the top of the UK charts in 2005 when the remastered, expanded Born to Boogie DVD hit No. 1 in the Music DVD charts.
In 2006, it was revealed that English Heritage had refused to commission a blue plaque to commemorate Bolan, as they believed him to be of "insufficient stature or historical significance". There is, however, an existing plaque dedicated to Bolan at his childhood home, put there by Hackney Council.
There are also two plaques dedicated to his memory at Golders Green Crematorium in North London. The second one to be displayed was placed there by the official Marc Bolan fan club and fellow fans in September 2002, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his passing. The inscription on the stone, which also bears his image, reads '25 years on – his light of love still shines brightly'. Placed beneath the plaque there is an appropriate ceramic figure of a white swan.
In 2006, TV series Life on Mars, William Matheson portrays Marc Bolan, circa 1973, in a bar in Manchester. Time-travelling Sam Tyler recognises him, has a fan boy moment, and warns him to be careful of riding in Minis. In the American version of the series, the character is replaced by that of Jim Croce, who died later that year in a plane crash, and Sam warns him. However, the T. Rex version of "Get It On" is played in the New York dance club in that scene.
One of Bolan's guitars, a Gibson Flying V, recently turned up on Antiques Roadshow in the hands of a private collector. The appraiser estimated the value of the guitar to be approximately £50,000–60,000.
A school is planned in his honour, to be built in Sierra Leone: The Marc Bolan School of Music and Film.
The Cameron Crowe-created movie "Almost Famous" features a scene where a Black Sabbath groupie is telling aspiring journalist William Miller (said to be created in Crowe's own image) about how, "Marc Bolan broke her heart, man. It's famous," regarding the character of Penny Lane, played by Kate Hudson.
My Chemical Romance's song "Vampire Money" taken from their album Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys released on 22 November 2010 features the lyric 'glimmer like Bolan in the morning sun', referencing Marc Bolan.
Released April 16, 2011, in honor of Record Store Day, San Francisco garage rock artist Ty Segall performs six T. Rex songs on his EP "Ty Rex".
- My People Were Fair And Had Sky In Their Hair.....But Now They're Content To Wear Stars On Their Brows (1968)
- Prophets, Seers & Sages The Angel Of The Ages (1968)
- Unicorn (1969)
- A Beard Of Stars (1970)
- T Rex (1970)
- Electric Warrior (1971)
- The Slider (1972) (Most Popular Album)
- Tanx (1973)
- Zinc Alloy And The Hidden Riders Of Tomorrow (1974)
- Bolan's Zip Gun (1975)
- Futurisitc Dragon (1976)
- Dandy In The Underworld (1977)
- Dance In The Midnight
- T.Rex In Concert (1981)
- Rollin' Bolan (1981)
- Till Dawn (1985)
- 1965 The Wizard/Beyond The Rising Sun
- 1966 The Third Degree/San Francisco Poet
- 1967 Hippy Gumbo/Misfits
- 1967 Desdemona/Remember Thomas A Beckett
- May 1968 Debora/Child Star
- Sept 1968 One Inch Rock/ Salamanda Palaganda
- Jan 1969 Pewter Suitor/Warlord Of The Royal Crocodiles
- Aug 1969 King Of The Rumbling Spires/Do You Remember
- Jan 1970 By The Light Of A Magical Moon/Find A Little Wood
- Oct 1970 Ride A White Swan/Is It Love/Summertime Blues (The Guess Who)
- Aug 1972 Debora/Child Star (re-issue)
- Feb 1971 Hot Love/The King Of The Mountain Cometh/Woodland Rock
- July 1971 Get It On/There Was A Time/Raw Ramp
- Nov 1971 Jeepster/Life's A Gas
- Jan 1972 Telegram Sam/Cadillac/Baby Strange
- May 1972 Metal Guru/Thunderwing
- Sept 1972 The Children Of The Revolution/Jitterbug Love/Sunken Rags
- Dec 1972 Solid Gold Easy Action/Born To Boogie
- Mar 1973 20th Century Boy/Free Angel
- Jun 1973 The Groover/Midnight
- Nov 1973 Truck On (Tyke)/Sitting Here
- Feb 1974 Teenage Dram/Satisfaction Pony
- July 1974 Light Of Love/Explosive Mouth
- Nov 1974 Zip Gun Boogie/Space Boss
- July 1975 New York City/Charome Sitar
- Oct 1975 Dreamy Lady/Do You Wanna Dance/Dock Of The Bay
- Dec 1975 Christmas Bop/Telegram Sam/ Metal Guru
- Mar 1976 London Boys/Solid Baby
- Jun 1976 I Love To Boogie/Baby Boomerang
- Oct 1976 Laser Love/Life's Am Elevator
- Feb 1977 Get It On/Hot Love (re-issue)
- Apr 1977 The Soul Of My Suit/All Alone
- May 1977 Dandy In The Underworld/Groove A Little
- 1977 To Know You Is To Love You/City Port
- Aug 1977 Celebrate Summer/Ride My Wheels
- Aug 1977 Ride A White Swan/The Motivator/Jeepster/Demon Queen
- Mar 1978 Hot Love/Raw Ramp/Lean Woman Blues
- Mar 1978 Crimson Moon/Jason B. Sad
- Sept 1981 You Scare Me To Death/The Perfummed Garden Of Gulliver Smith