45 Years Ago: T. Rex Briefly Rebound on ‘Dandy in the Underworld’
Marc Bolan’s career had been in a slump before the 12th T. Rex album Dandy in the Underworld arrived on March 11, 1977 – or at least, that’s how the media presented it.
Bolan himself had a different explanation for what transpired after he became the god of glam rock in the early ‘70s. Even though he was well-known for spinning lines to suit the moment, it remains a convincing argument. “I was kind of becoming a hit machine,” Bolan told Thames Valley Radio, a few weeks before work began on the follow-up to 1976’s disappointing Futuristic Dragon. “Every three months I was putting a single out, and it was expected of me. I wanted to get out of there because I was being stuck alongside David Cassidy and Donnie Osmond and all of that. … My songs are nothing like ‘Puppy Love’ and I thought I was getting lumbered.”
Bolan admitted that he “enjoyed being a teenage idol, but I did feel that I was wrongly being segregated into being, as you say, the innovator of glam rock – which is cool, [but] I started out having respect and I could see myself losing the respect. … Fortunately for me, people like [John] Lennon and Bob Dylan and various other people like my music.”
Acknowledging that his writing had become “stale,” Bolan said he fell into making music via a formula. It was time, he said, to “reorganize” himself. So Bolan paid attention to everything in the Top 40 and began to think about how to take the best elements from each hit single and make them into something new. “I write songs when I’ve got nothing to listen to,” he said. “I write what I wanna hear.”
Listen to T. Rex's ‘I Love to Boogie’
The first hint that it was working came with the release of “I Love to Boogie” in June 1976. Completed during a one-day session, it spent nine weeks on the U.K. chart on the way to a No. 13 finish. (The single was also the subject of accusations of plagiarism, as it sounded similar to Webb Pierce’s “Teenage Boogie”; the claims were abandoned after it turned out Pierce had “borrowed” the riff himself.)
“It’s the music that I’ve always liked,” Bolan told Radio Clyde, which discussing the track. “I just wanted to get back to where I started.”
Recording engineer Jennifer Maidman later revealed that “I Love to Boogie” was only partially complete when it was issued, because Bolan was in a hurry to be somewhere else.
“The studio was very small and funky; Marc liked it because it reminded him of the old Sun Studio in Memphis where a lot of early rock ’n’ roll records were made,” she said. “It was mixed in about 15 minutes. … Marc liked the mix so much that it was released just as it was, much to my surprise, but it still sounds good 30 years later.”
Part of this reorganization included a change in the T. Rex lineup. Incoming bassist Herbie Flowers and drummer Tony Newman became what Bolan called the “best rhythm section in England,” while guitarist Miller Anderson played a brief role before the group became a four-piece once again, completed by established keyboardist Dino Dines.
“I enjoyed all of my time with T. Rex, but the happier times, without a doubt, were the Dandy sessions,” Dines said in 2003. “Tunes were never totally worked out. Marc would come into the studio with a basic idea for a song, more like a sketchbook to be finished in the studio. Sometimes I would go to Marc’s house, and we would work on tunes together.”
Listen to T. Rex's ‘The Soul of My Suit’
The 12-track LP Dandy in the Underworld arrived near the peak of England’s exploding punk era. T. Rex were in the middle of a tour with the Damned, which some Bolan associates remain convinced was a political move to capture the vibe of the moment.
Nevertheless, Damned bassist Captain Sensible said he was impressed with the headline act. “Marc was firing on all cylinders,” he said. “He’d got rid of his drug habit. He’d gone through his arrogant stage, he was almost humble. He was getting fit, the cheekbones were coming back, he was excited, he had a great band, and the songs were getting better.”
Later that month, Bolan hit the stage at London’s Rainbow Theatre to face the waiting music reviewers. Dines recalled it as a “great gig” that stuck in his mind for decades afterward. “All the press came to see the band fail. The band did not fail – quite the reverse, in fact,” he asserted.
Despite that, the album’s title track became the first single that failed to chart since the beginning of T. Rex’s rise to fame. (The earlier “The Soul of My Suit” – Dines’ favorite track, and said to be about the end of Bolan’s first marriage and his treatment by the music industry – stalled at No. 42.)
A signal that Bolan himself doubted “Dandy in the Underworld” lay in the fact he’d rerecorded it for the seven-inch release (replacing the line “Exalted companion of cocaine nights” with “Exalted companion of T. Rex nights.”) Bolan later said he’d been told that the influential BBC had declined to add it to their playlists because they’d been “too good” to him in the past.
Listen to T. Rex's ‘Dandy in the Underworld’
Dandy in the Underworld reached No. 26 in the U.K., the band’s best album chart placing since 1974. It boded well for Bolan’s future, especially as he announced then delivered a successful TV series, and continued to be hailed for his revitalized live performances.
“That’s what people forget about Marc,” publicist B.P. Fallon said in 2006. “To see him on stage playing his guitar, laughing and singing – now that was rock ’n’ roll, y’know? He had that tease. He had that sexuality, and he had a real sense of fun. T. Rex records worked so well because they were celebratory and a bit cheeky at the same time.”
Producer Tony Visconti bemoaned how Bolan “found a formula that he stuck with, which in the end didn’t serve him well. He started to evolve toward the end of his life, but it was too late. He was a little afraid. You can imagine he was so heady with the success of [the] T.Rextasy [fan phenomenon]. He was afraid to let go.”
Bolan died in a car crash that September, but not before hosting a six-part series called Marc, which featured a mix of music from his catalog and other bands. “What I do, I do with a slight edge of fun, and I really don’t take myself very seriously,” Bolan told Capitol Radio in the summer of 1977. “I actually end the show with, ‘Keep little Marc in your heart and remember to watch the same Marc time on the same Marc channel.’”
Accused of creating the “biggest plug out,” Bolan replied: “But it’s also the biggest send-up! Everyone says in the music papers, ‘That Bolan, man, he’s so full of himself.’ … I’m just not. I’m just a funster.”