Tony Visconti: 'What I saw in Marc Bolan was raw talent. I saw genius'

With the first three Tyrannosaurus Rex albums newly reissued, their producer Tony Visconti talks about his relationship with Marc Bolan – and how the group didn’t have the money to become T Rex

Considering all the success you’d have producing the glam version of T Rex in the 70s, how do you look back on those early, acoustic albums under the name Tyrannosaurus Rex?

To me the first album [My People Were Fair and had Sky in Their Hair … But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows] always sounded horrible. We were victims of a low budget and we didn’t know what we were doing. It was very thin sounding and didn’t represent the fullness of that amazing duo. It was literally recorded in two, maybe three days, and on the fourth day we mixed the entire album. That’s why, when this opportunity arose to remaster it I had to give it one last shot. It was tough, but we got it to sound very full.

At the time you’d been doing a lot of arranging for full bands and string sections, working with bands like Procol Harum. How did you approach recording such a stripped-back, acoustic record?

I didn’t want to put strings on or make it fancy because it was was challenging and full enough. These were very poor, working-class lads who had a Beethoven symphony in their heads. What I saw in Marc Bolan had nothing to do with strings, or very high standards of artistry; what I saw in him was raw talent. I saw genius. They were a folk duo, but I saw a potential rock star in Marc – right from the minute, the hour I met him.

Those first records are far less celebrated than the later, glam-era T Rex records. Why do you think that is?

They had a very limited audience, who were mostly John Peel fans. They wanted the most underground thing going and they wanted to preciously hang on to that. We know how many of those people there were: it was 20,000. We always hit the ceiling at 20,000 album sales. Marc fancied himself as a Bob Dylan or a Donovan. He wanted to be seen as a folk-rock poet, but once teenage girls started screaming at the shows he had to become a pop star. People like John Peel, who had adored him as a cute hippy boy, completely dropped him.

I’d always heard that the early albums were the “hippie records” or the “Tolkien records”, but then you listen and there’s stuff like Hot Rod Mama and One Inch Rock and it’s completely Bolan, completely T Rex.

It is that. We just didn’t have the money to be T Rex yet. The third album, Unicorn – that was by far the best Tyrannosaurus Rex album, it’s got magic in it, it’s got a lot of texture in the lyrics and the instrumentation. It was the first album that I played on- I played piano on Cat Black (The Wizard Hat) and that was another part of T Rex, the Phil Spector sound that we investigated later with Metal Guru, the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink sound.

A lot of people later accused Bolan of faking the hippy/mystical thing because he saw it as his quickest route to fame …

Marc wasn’t really a hippy. When I was recording him he was still living with his parents. He never did hallucinogenic drugs but he certainly dressed the part, he certainly got it, he understood. He was sensitive and poetic. All his songs were very, very sincere. The lyrics are just beautiful, there’s a splash of Tolkien but there’s also a lot of pop philosophy – he wasn’t faking that. But, you know, he was never the most truthful person, and felt he could manipulate the press. That’s when people got a little irritated with his bravado and his boasting. He got caught in so many lies, at the time he became quite unbelievable.

tyrannosaurus rex
Tyrannosaurus Rex … Steve ‘Peregrine’ Took and Marc Bolan. Photograph: Ray Stevenson/Rex

Steve “Peregrine” Took is often overlooked when people talk about T Rex, but he seems vital to this version of the band?

Steve was a very creative “other” voice. He was a great back-up singer, and his ideas were really his ideas. Took could play more instruments than Marc, he played the one-string fiddle, all the drums, he could play all the percussion and the xylophone, it was getting to the point where they were 50/50 partners. Steve could have lasted right into the T Rex days, but he was kind of a damaged person. He was from another planet. He lived on the street occasionally, he used drugs a lot, and he got busted. That was the turning point for Marc – Steve had to do two weeks or a month in remand, and that was it. Marc said: “My audience are teenagers, I can’t have a drug addict in my band anymore.” The last straw was when Steve said: “I’d like to do some of my own songs now.” His drug abuse and wanting to be a 50/50 creator was too much, Marc couldn’t take it, but I loved him. When he was homeless he would sleep at my place. I actually had a close relationship with him.

At the time, in the late 60s, your two main projects were David Bowie and Marc Bolan. Were they very different to work with?

David was more of a “good guy”. He felt he was part of a movement. He had the Arts Lab at the Three Tuns down in Beckenham, where he would give his contemporaries a break in front of the microphone, like Keith Christmas or Ralph McTell. Marc felt like he was in competition with everyone, and he felt in competition with David. David thought there was room for everybody. They’d be together at my place quite often, it was neutral ground and we all just got on great. We’d have maybe one bottle of wine between 10 people as it’s all we could afford, and copious amounts of tea. We’d just jam and listen to records. It was a great time. They were younger than me and still living with their mums, I was their big American cousin in Earls Court.

  • Deluxe remastered editions of Prophets, Seers & Sages: Angels of the Ages,Unicorn and My People Were Fair … are out now on Universal.


Marc Burrows

The GuardianTramp

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