|Tyrannosaurus Rex – 1969|
“The toad road licked my wheels like a sabre/Winds of the marsh lightly blew” those are the first two verses that greet you the first time you hear Unicorn. “Chariots of Silk” the opening track, serves as a salvo for what’s coming. Seemingly impenetrable on paper, or on computer display, the moment you hear them coming out of Marc’s mouth they sound special. Somehow, accompanied by Steve’s toy drum set and his own overdubbed cheapo $10 organ and acoustic they create unique musical poetry from thoroughly grafted on parts. The same could be said for the duo that got to this point.
I didn’t bring up Steve much in my previous post, but the short stint he spent with Marc informs a lot the creation of this album. Steve was a gifted musician in his own way. He possessed a variety of percussive toy instruments (whistles, flutes, pianos etc.), and an odd way of singing which vocalized the odd bird quality to his life. Initially, when they performed as a duo, Steve would be the theatrical of the two. While Marc was serious about his persona as a flower child, Steve would frequently try go beyond that. He would be the one who could actually create sounds that matched the mood Marc was trying to create. Marc himself, was always a limited performer, knowing at the most seven chords to play on the guitar. Without Steve finding a way to add some interesting sound or wondrous harmonizing vocal, check out “Evenings of Damask” or “The Pilgrim’s Tale” for a taste, the songs Marc could make easily fail by himself under the spell of ineptitude.
However, in spite of his limitations, Marc had this quest to be an icon even at that time. When Marc would perform in concerts with Steve, he’d disapprove of his rampant drug use and attempts to shock the audience. Marc was a musician who wanted to be the next Pink Floyd or the Incredible String Band but with acoustic instruments, and Steve’s insistence of hanging out with some “unsavory” members from bands like the Pretty Things and the Deviants, and partake in getting into public trouble ran counter with the image of fantasy innocence that Marc had in mind for the band. Marc didn’t want to have Tyrannosaurus Rex known as a drug band, with all the repercussions that come from it, or detract from his leadership.
On record though, Steve’s controlled chaos was a godsend to beautify Marc’s obvious gift for lyricism/singing but neutered melodicism. However, in real life Steve was a hard person to get along with and to stress the value of focus or aspiration. This kind of clash, even came to a head when in April 1969, Steve invited members of the Pretty Things and Deviants to come up and jam with them during a live concert to an early version of “The Wizard”, as those bands would normally do in their own concerts, only to end with Marc storming off the stage refusing to cede his spotlight to such uncouth ruffians. Marc forgot that hiring a known drug head, was bound to produce unsavory things that he might not want to get involved in. Somehow, though, they kept it together to record Unicorn.
|Unicorn album cover.|
Going into Unicorn, there were three influences at play. For Marc, it was an increased level of sophistication and awareness in terms of writing and arranging. He even published a book of fantasy poetry, The Warlock of Love to dispel the notion he didn’t care about what he wrote. Marc, was never classically taught poetry, something that came through clearly in his writings. His lyrics sound like someone searching for words that vocalize beautiful together rather than make sense together. It could be argued that Marc had dyslexia which made him think that such words made sense together, or he would combine words together because that’s how they sounded right to him.
Regardless, of all of this, during Unicorn he touched on a special nerve. For some reason, the wordplay salad that he used to work with, now started to vividly make sense because the music, this shining music, presented some kind of mood which could make you picture most of the fantasy world Marc was singing about. The search for beautiful words that read good together now became the search for musical phrasing that sounded beautiful together. Simply listen to “Stones for Avalon” below to see what I mean, or the “Throne of Winter” where he goes beyond what his idol Syd Barrett was trying to do, somehow Marc went from Surrealism into Expressionism, the words were askew but reality existed:
This is where the influences of Tony and Steve come in. Tony Visconti, their producer, was by now thoroughly taken by the sound of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson. Although he had the much smaller budget, studio, and less talented musicians, he would work diligently with Steve and Marc to add a robust sound that could fill out their musical world. They knew they wouldn’t be able to perform this music on stage as a duo, and now it mattered little to them. This, in essence, was their last attempt to make folk music and they fully knew this. In between some moving, uplifting fantastical songs “The Pilgrim’s Tale”, you get some truly deep adult emotional tracks like “Iscariot” barely cloaked in mysticism.
It’s hard to even describe the sound of the album itself, I say this clearly as a reviewer myself. Other than the Incredible String Band’s The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter or something from Captain Beefheart, I have yet to hear albums as thoroughly realized, in their own world, a world full of entry ways that are so easy to fall in, when you get your mind set on going there. Steve’s stature as a musician also presents itself thoroughly in helping fulfill this vision. When you hear his high-pitched harmonies and bird calls on “Pon a Hill”, you can’t help but smile…its just so perfectly innocent and captures Marc’s word/world far better than a 4-piece rock band would, far belying Steve’s own temperament/personality.
If there’s an album theme going on, is that we can tap into some childlike essence to get beyond certain places adult thoughts can’t get beyond. This stream of consciousness, ever present in this music, can sometimes take you places measured music can’t. This was Marc Bolan’s Ulysses, and for those of us who ride the rapids of this sonic river slowing for a bit by A Beard of Stars, before it gets to the delta of 1970’s T. Rex where Steve Took’s love for harder rock forces him to deboard with some Pink Fairies. I believe if you take this ride, much like very few future bands and listeners will, you get to experience so many more sights and hear so many more sounds than you get to feel once you find those immense open waters of Electric Warrior…
bonus track, a performance of “The Warlord of the Crocodiles” in Philly (you’ll be one of the lucky few who has ever seen this video!)…