The real pop idol

Twenty-five years ago today, Marc Bolan was killed in a car accident. Mark Paytress looks back at the life and legend of the man who embodied glam rock

· Win a copy of Marc Bolan and T. Rex: The Essential Collection

So you think you know what a Pop Idol is? As the 25th anniversary of his death comes round, the magnificent spectre of Marc Bolan returns to remind us that Pop Idols weren't always dreary mannequins whose every move, squeak and smile is more bland than a balance sheet.

Marc Bolan epitomised difference. Singlehandedly responsible for glam rock, he was a pop idol who manufactured himself; the weirdest street kid on the block with a wildly inflated sense of his own importance. A Hackney-born Herbert for whom life was a permanent revolution of the self. Today's marketing men wouldn't give this impish, tousled-headed, oddly-dressed minstrel a second glance, let alone tolerate his inimitable vocal warble.

Bolan yelled his way to the top utilising everything at his disposal - earnest endeavour and visual splendour, braggadocio sweetened with charmed vulnerability, and a remarkable ability to fashion perfectly idiosyncratic pop songs from the most basic materials.

His work is a pocket encyclopaedia of instant hooks and choruses, but it's the personality that oozes from the songs that gives his musical legacy its charm and enduring appeal. Over the past decade, Oasis and U2 have plundered Bolan's sound, Placebo his visual style, and Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker his charisma. So much so that Marc Bolan is now recognised as one of a handful of rock's most distinctive icons.

"He was out on a limb, destined to make weird records with weird lyrics, doing something that nobody else could understand," remembers the Damned's Captain Sensible, one of many punk musicians who recognised Bolan's outré appeal.

Born on 30 September 1947, there is no doubt that the young, working class Mark Feld enjoyed premonitions of grandeur from an early age. At nine, he was mimicking Elvis Presley; a year later he was in a children's skiffle group with a pre-fame Helen Shapiro. By the time he was 14, he was featured in the upmarket gentlemen's magazine Town as London's sharpest, most precocious Mod peacock. A year later, he was earning a packet as a male model.

Shunning conventional education, Bolan followed his own instincts, devouring books on the 19th century dandy Beau Brummell along with ancient mythology and contemporary fantasy. At 17, he was practising the black arts with a cannibalistic wizard in Paris - or so he claimed. In fact, he'd simply gone on a mid-'60s version of a citybreak with an actor friend. But that was how Mark Feld, or Marc Bolan as he'd now become, saw himself and the world around him: as one huge, action-packed canvas where invention and imagination reigned supreme.

Bolan's peculiar gifts found a welcome audience in the late 60s where the Summer of Love, LSD and a new underground movement had inspired a generation to dream. Bolan's Tyrannosaurus Rex provided the perfect soundtrack, and songs such as Debora and One Inch Rock even became minor hits. By 1970 though, dark clouds had gathered on the hippie horizon and Bolan's cultish appeal was in retreat. He hit back in spectacular fashion.

Although Marc had played electric guitar before, there was a new sense of determination about the clipped rock'n'roll chords that provided the basis for his 1970 single, Ride A White Swan. The record's success ushered in three glorious years of T. Rextasy, a period that saw Bolan and T. Rex - by now a four-piece - dominate the charts both at home and abroad. He effortlessly redefined the sound of vintage rock'n'roll on songs such as Hot Love, Get It On and Jeepster, while 1972's Telegram Sam, Metal Guru and Children Of The Revolution embodied all the joy and excess of glam rock, the style that Bolan embodied so spectacularly.

However, his creative urges compelled him to move on at the risk of alienating his teenage audience: 20th Century Boy was fearsome, Light Of Love and Dreamy Lady were both pioneering disco-funk hits. Playing musical chairs eventually cost Bolan his extraordinary run of chart success, but by 1977 he was back in London - fit, full of enthusiasm and feted by the new wave of punk iconoclasts.

Bolan barely had a chance to capitalise on his revival in fortunes. In the early hours of 16 September 1977, he was killed in a car crash in Barnes, south west London.

His reputation lives on. Twenty-five years later, Marc Bolan is still on the television, still happening. The man who once said "I always wanted to be a rock'n'roll star" is destined always to remain one.

· Mark Paytress is the author of Bolan: the Rise and Fall of a 20th Century Superstar (Omnibus Press).

Win a copy of Marc Bolan and T.Rex: The Essential Collection

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