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Producer Tony Visconti: Why Marc Bolan and T. Rex Are Deserving 2020 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees
Tony Visconti was closer than anyone to the flame that was Marc Bolan, the front man, songwriter and phenom that was the heart and soul of T.Rex, part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class of 2020. Watch the induction ceremony on Saturday, Nov. 7 on HBO and HBO Max.
In this comprehensive and intimate interview, conducted one afternoon in early 2020 at Visconti’s New York City recording studio, the fabled producer recalls his first encounters with Bolan, the psychedelic folk they made together in the late-1960s, and the mega-hit singles and albums they made during glam’s early-70s heyday, setting the template for countless bands, from U2 and the Cars, to Foo Fighters and Queens of the Stone Age and beyond.
Rock Cellar: So, is it okay for me to call you the guy who discovered Tyrannosaurus Rex? Because you did. [Laughter.]
Tony Visconti: Absolutely.
Rock Cellar: This is my understanding of the story: You saw an ad in Time Out, and you went to Denny Cordell, the legendary producer and your boss at the time, and said, “I’m going to go check these guys out.” Describe the scene you encountered. Because it sounds pretty amazing, with the audience on the floor, and them on the floor.
Tony Visconti: Well, I’d come to England and I’d accepted a job offer from Denny Cordell, who became my mentor. I’d gone to England to discover the next Beatles. Like immigrants who went to America thinking the streets were lined with gold, I kind of thought I’d find a four-piece group — two guitars, bass, and drums — on every street corner in London. And there actually were many.
And that actually was the form it had taken, because the Beatles had written a specific template of the way to make it, and everyone was imitating that. So when Denny Cordell said, “It’s time for you to find your own band,” I noticed (legendary BBC DJ) John Peel was a champion of Tyrannosaurus Rex. I hadn’t heard them yet. Because Marc Bolan was well known, Marc would have known John Peel. Marc had been in the group John’s Children, but in any event, I didn’t know about them. But I was attracted to the name in print.
I could see immediately it was very odd to have such a long name. It was a time of “The Who,” or “Sweet.” I’d gone to the corner pub, I had to eat something — I had a Scotch egg, which is vile, and a half a pint of lager — and then I walked around the corner to Tottenham Court Road, and up there to the club that they were playing in. And I walked down the stairs and saw a duo playing. I saw that the club was quiet, and that people were listening to them. There were maybe 80 kids, cross-legged on the floor listening in the dark. I was flabbergasted by that sight. This was something I wasn’t expecting. I expected people standing up, dancing, being noisy, clapping and screaming.
Rock Cellar: Because this was end of ’67, right?
Tony Visconti: Yeah. The autumn. So then I heard Marc’s unusual voice. I thought, “That’s fucking cool.” And his partner banging the bongos reminded me of Jack Kerouac and the Beatnik days. I loved everything about it. It just really, really struck a chord in my heart. So when I approached Marc after the show, I told him who I was and who I was working for. Marc knew who Denny Cordell was, and immediately he began dealing with me with a lot of chutzpah, which of course he was well-known for, for the rest of his life.
Rock Cellar: Self-promotion.
Tony Visconti: PR. Self-PR. He said, “You’re the seventh record producer who’s been in this week.” I didn’t even know he was playing a residency, but he said, “John Lennon was here last night, and he’s got a new label called Grapefruit” — as opposed to Apple — “and he’s going to sign us. But I’ll take your card.”
Rock Cellar: Was any of it true?
Tony Visconti: No. None of it was true. [Laughter.]
Rock Cellar: John Lennon wasn’t true.
Tony Visconti: Absolutely not. And I wasn’t the seventh producer. I was the only record producer. But he got the card and the next morning I told Denny Cordell, “Hey, I had a great night. My first night out talent scouting, I saw this group called Tyrannosaurus Rex. Really cool. Really unusual.” And just then the phone rings. This is 10 a.m. Marc is in the street in a call box. He says, “Steve and I were just passing your offices.”
Rock Cellar: Just happened to be passing by. [Laughter.]
Tony Visconti: “We just happened to be in the neighborhood and we decided we’d like to come up and audition for Denny Cordell.” I said, “Hold on a minute.” And I held the phone away from me and I said to Denny, “That group’s out in the street. Can I ask them to come up?” And Denny said, “Yeah, of course. Bring them up.” So they came in with a little carpet rolled up, that they’d been playing on the night before, because they used to sit on a carpet. And Steve had his clay drums, and Marc had a 6-string guitar with the G-string peg broken. So he carried a pair of pliers with him to tune up the G-string. He had to clamp the pliers where the peg used to be.
They sit down, make themselves comfortable, and they start doing their set. And Denny’s like … listening, listening, shaking his head. He’s bopping, you know? And he says, “Thank you, we’ll let you know. That was very nice. Thank you for coming up.” They pack up and leave.
Rock Cellar: How long were they there?
Tony Visconti: They were there for a good half hour. They went through most of their set for us.
Rock Cellar: Any songs that we would know?
Tony Visconti: Oh, yeah. “Chateau in Virginia Waters,” “Debora,” “Puckish Pan.” All the songs that made up the first album. All those crazy songs. It was great. Not all of it, of course, because I the first album was 12 songs. So they left and Denny said, “Well, they’re very good. They’re excellent. And I think it would be good for you to work with them. We will take them on as our token underground group.” Those were his exact words, “token.”
Rock Cellar: Marc was known for the way he presented himself. Did he look great?
Tony Visconti: Oh, he looked fabulous. I remember I even complimented him on the way he looked. He was dressed like a gypsy. He had a torn silk shirt, and he had a scarf that you would put around your neck, but he had it tied around his bicep. Maybe he was wearing beads. And he had that lovely, lovely hair. And Steve Peregrin Took looked even more like a gypsy and a hippie. He was the real deal. So they were scruffy as anything, but it was glamorous in its way. I was told that after I left the room, B.P. Fallon, the publicist, who was outside listening to them, walked in the room and said, “What was that?” And Denny Cordell says, “It’s a group that Tony really wants to produce, but I think they’re shit.” [Laughter.]
Rock Cellar: Really?
Tony Visconti: I only just found that out! B.P. told me, God bless his Irish soul. So anyway, that’s it. That’s how I found them. They came over to my house maybe a day or two later and we recorded demos for the first album, which I still have. They’re, for the most part, unreleased.
Rock Cellar: I’ve heard bits. There was a BBC show awhile back that had little snippets.
Tony Visconti: Two of them, we needed to release two of them for some re-release, I think, years ago. I was begged if I had any spare material. So I had to give two tracks. My agent has got a photo from the session, which I could use as a cover, if we ever released them. It’s a great photo of Marc and Steve Peregrin Took sitting on the floor, playing on my floor, with my little stereo mic is in front of them. So that’s it really. That’s how we began.
Rock Cellar: So there were a lot of songs on that first record, and it sounds like they only had half a dozen or so. Were you involved at all in helping them craft the songs, or the arrangements?
Tony Visconti: Well, no. First of all, I was given 400 pounds, which bought me four days in the studio. So I couldn’t really have great big production ideas. That came on the next album, however. But for the first album, I just recorded their live set.
Rock Cellar: It sounds like Please Please Me. “Just go in and play your set.”
Tony Visconti: And overdub a few things. And double track here and there. Steve had a few tricks up his sleeve, so we were able to, in 30 minutes, record a song and have Steve play all his little percussion. Marc might double track his vocal, or might play a second guitar. So there was some production value, so we would amplify their duo sound a little.
But here’s where I bring in John Peel, because this was only about three weeks after we had met in that club and they’d come and auditioned for Denny Cordell. There was a long story that Marc wrote at the end of that first album, where John Peel was the narrator. So he came in and narrated the song. He did it again on the second album, too, but the point is that they were friends, and Marc was able to use that relationship to really help get the album noticed.
Rock Cellar: Marc was a hustler.
Tony Visconti: Sure. He had gone around the block several times; was rejected many times. [David] Bowie had the same history. And no one would touch them anymore. And I was naïve. I had just come to the country, and I didn’t know their history. And because I vowed to be their champions, my bosses gave them a second look. Denny Cordell sanctioned the signing of Tyrannosaurus Rex, and David Platt sanctioned Bowie and I working together. He was giving him another chance because I was interested in producing him, which led to the Space Oddity album.
Rock Cellar: Because you basically didn’t know any better.
Tony Visconti: No! [Laughter.] And I loved those guys. I really genuinely loved them. They came over to my flat. Both of them. Marc did these recordings, while he was still living with his parents. This was a big deal to meet a slightly older American who had very long hair, and looked like them, and all that, and loved them and championed them and jammed with them. Marc never had an electric guitar of his own, so he was playing my Strat. I was jamming with him on bass. And David and I were doing the same thing. He’d come and play, though I never made demos with David, because we immediately started working. So it was really fun. We were friends as well as colleagues.
Rock Cellar: What was Denny’s response to the finished album before it was actually released? Or did he even really care?
Tony Visconti: He put some money into the promotion of it. We had a little hit with “Debora,” which to him was the important thing, that we could actually make a little money from the group. We definitely made his money back.
Rock Cellar: I’ve seen pictures of the little plastic dinosaurs that you created to send out to DJs to promote the record.
Tony Visconti: My girlfriend Sheila and I, and Steve Peregrin Took — he used to stay at my place a lot, because he was homeless — made them. One day, Sheila and I and him said, “Let’s go to Hamleys,” the toy store, “and buy up a lot of T. Rex dolls and T. Rex plastic snap-together models, and let’s paint them in DayGlo paint and send them to every BBC DJ and pirate radio DJ.” And it worked. A lot of the DJs were announcing it, “We’ve got this cute little statue.”
Rock Cellar: It was a cool record, too.
Tony Visconti: Yes, it was a cool record. And then this thing began. “And I can’t even pronounce it. The Tirino-zero-ex? The tyranna … I don’t even know what this means! Terra rex?” And it turned out to be a good gag, because DJs would keep talking about the band. I don’t know if they did any of it on purpose, but they did like the gesture of the toy dinosaurs being sent to them.
Rock Cellar: What was the response between the first and second record? Did the audience grow?
Tony Visconti: It doubled. The first record sold 20,000. Now, in those days, when records were selling at hundreds of thousands, that wasn’t like now, where 20,000 might get you in the Top 20. But in those days, it was respectable. We did not lose money, hence we were allowed to make the second album. And with the second album, we were given two weeks’ time, which I needed, and we really used to great effect. It was a much better album. It was just great in every way. But there was always a superstition that ran through with T. Rex. We had to repeat a few things, because we felt the things that worked must be something like a lucky charm, or magic, or fate. And as far as sales were concerned, we sold 40,000 of the second album. So we doubled our fans.
Rock Cellar: That’s — relative to what was going on in London — quite small. But in fact, for a duo that was doing something very far afield, relative to the Hit Parade, were they getting played beyond John Peel and pirate radio?
Tony Visconti: “Debora” was getting some play, from the first album. We had two singles that were getting played on the regular BBC. Not a whole lot. We weren’t on the A-list. But you’d hear it now and then.
On the second T. Rex album, “One Inch Rock” was the hit. Then we did another version of “Debora” on the second album, called “Deboraarobed,” which was a new recording. Arobed is Debora in reverse, of course.
When we got to the middle, I copied the tape backwards and we spliced it in the middle, like John Lennon loved to do. So that got more airplay. Like now, how remixes will get a bit more mileage out of one song by having 20 remixes out there. So this was clever. And because people were taking all kinds of psychedelic drugs in those days, to hear “Debora” go up to about the two-minute mark and then suddenly be backwards for the next two minutes, was pretty psychedelic. It was Marc’s idea. Because Marc always thought that a part of his audience consisted of “the heads,” as he called them.
Rock Cellar: What was he like at this point? Because he was a hustler. He did want the brass ring. Did it feel as though he had his sights set pretty high at that point?
Tony Visconti: Definitely.
Rock Cellar: That second record doesn’t feel like he’s going to break out and there’s going to be this T.Rextasy.
Tony Visconti: It happened in slow stages. This was in a great period, when there was artist development.
Rock Cellar: You could make four records before you broke big.
Tony Visconti: We were allowed to make a third record. And that was the one that got him far more fans and far more attention, and we had a couple of singles, but they were mainly played on the underground radio stations, as well as on John Peel and Bob Harris’s radio shows. So we were getting more airplay, thus more fans. The fanbase was building up.
Rock Cellar: So you had advocates, and the third record was the breakout.
Tony Visconti: Yeah, the third record was Unicorn. Oh, my gosh. That is my favorite. Unicorn had electric guitar. Unicorn was the last Tyrannosaurus Rex album. And it was a perfect trilogy. I really love those albums. I could listen to those three albums in a row anytime. They just turn me on. I think it’s Marc’s best writing period, as far as lyrics are concerned. Lyrically, he was just unhinged. He would write the most beautiful, whimsical, and often nonsensical, lyrics. It was poetry. It was really, really poetry.
But even when he got into “Get It On,” there were some surreal rhymes in that one.
Rock Cellar: Yeah, but it was much looser and freer on those early records.
Tony Visconti: Yes. So that kind of buried the Tyrannosaurus Rex label. Steve Peregrin Took exited and Mickey Finn came in for the next album, and it became T. Rex. So now, you’re going to find a hit has many uncles, and a flop is an orphan. The uncles here, well, there are about a dozen people who say they thought of the idea of the abbreviation T. Rex. Of course, it was very much Marc’s choice, but here’s my version of it: In my office, I had a calendar. And every day I was in the studio with Marc I would write Tyrannosaurus Rex, indicating I’m in the studio with him.
During Unicorn, I started writing T. Rex. Marc came in and he saw “T. Rex,” and he said, “It’s Tyrannosaurus Rex, man!” I go, “Listen, it’s too long to write, man!” I said, “I know it’s Tyrannosaurus Rex. I’ll never let you down. But I hope you don’t mind me writing T. Rex on my wall. No one’s going to see it except me.” We had this little row, you know. Then the next album was called T. Rex. [Laughter.] He had several managers during this time, and I think it’s a natural thing to abbreviate, like they do in museums. But that’s my memory.
Rock Cellar: There was a dramatic shift, too, in style.
Tony Visconti: Well, now the electric guitar was on every track, as well as the acoustic. We had a drum kit on T. Rex. It was pretty much a Tyrannosaurus Rex album, though, just slicker. Very slick. The songs were poppier. Out of those sessions was a single that didn’t make it onto the album, called “Ride a White Swan.” It was so cool and hip. He borrowed my bass — he wanted to do his own bass part — because Marc had a specific bass line in mind. He put a capo on the fourth fret of the guitar, and he put a capo on the fourth fret of my bass. I’d never seen a capo on a bass before.
So he plays the thumping bass. Then we wanted a backbeat, so Trident Studios had a men’s room right off the studio — literally, you could go off the mic and walk 10 feet and have a pee — so we put a microphone in there, and we did the hand claps like that.
Rock Cellar: And that guitar sound is killer.
Tony Visconti: The sound was great because he was into Rick Nelson’s guitarist, James Burton. He was a good student. He could pick things up off records. He could imitate Hendrix, he could imitate Clapton. And James Burton was his rockabilly idol. Unfortunately, there were no slap-back pedals yet. But he got a wah-wah immediately, and he got a Screaming Bird Electro Harmonix pedal. It’s a treble booster, but a needle-sharp treble booster. Something very Buddy Holly-sounding, because he used an abnormal amount of treble, though he had somebody down where he came from in Texas who was an electronics whiz who gave him some sort of box to play through.
So the guitar sound is a marrying. A hybridization, which Bowie and I used to call things all the time. “Let’s do a hybridization.” But he skipped a generation. People were emulating the Beatles. Marc jumped back one generation to the 50s and started emulating Elvis, Little Richard, Buddy Holly. We loved those people. We used to jam on Buddy Holly songs. I didn’t have that much recording tape back then, but I swear, Marc and David and I used to be at my place together, singing all those songs.
Rock Cellar: As the songs got tighter and poppier and shorter, do you think those early rock and roll songs were the model in his mind? He changed the way he wrote right around that period.
Tony Visconti: Yes. Somehow, it suited his style of writing.
Rock Cellar: Not many artists can do that, where they write one way and all of a sudden they make this left turn, like McCartney did with Wings. All of a sudden, he was writing in a completely different style. Marc did that right at that point.
Tony Visconti: Well, he took the 12-bar blues from Little Richard’s record “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and he took other songwriting cues from the 50s, which was the golden age of songwriters. So the songs were crystallizing into these patterns. Doo-wops like “Blue Moon,” too. Slightly modified, but still doo-wop. So he found those simple musical structures perfect foils for his imaginative lyrics. Buddy Holly didn’t have great lyrics. Neither did Elvis. Neither did Ricky Nelson.
But suddenly, these songs about wizards and such. Fucking hell! That’s powerful! The lyrics wouldn’t let you down. And what a perfect formula. Old forms of music with new psychedelic lyrics. Fantasy lyrics.
Rock Cellar: Super evocative. All of it.
Tony Visconti: “Jeepster.” I never heard that word. He coined that word. He invented that word.
Rock Cellar: So “Ride a White Swan” is — just to make an analogy — it’s sort of like his “Starman.” It is the jumping off point for the next phase of his career. The major phase of his career.
Tony Visconti: Yes. It wasn’t rock and roll yet, but it was getting close.
Rock Cellar: But it explodes at this point.
Tony Visconti: Yeah. Well this is it. Once the band was in place, and T. Rex were on Top of the Pops playing “Hot Love,” with Mark’s beautiful face and wiggles. Oh, my God. You know?
Rock Cellar: And he had become the Marc Bolan that we think of. He wasn’t the guy sitting on the floor with acoustic. He was a front man with the magic.
Tony Visconti: And to keep it in perspective, this took about two years.
Rock Cellar: Because this is ’70, ‘71.
Tony Visconti: Yeah. Now at this point, Denny Cordell had met Leon Russell. I just had my first two big hits, and Denny said to me, “I’m going to work with Leon Russell in America. Would you like to join us? I think you’d be valuable, because we’re forming a new label. Shelter Records.” And I’m looking at Denny, who gave me everything. I loved that man. But I’m thinking of Marc, you know, and it hits me that I discovered him. Maybe I could do this on my own. You know, it took a lot of soul searching. So Denny and I bade each other farewell.
Rock Cellar: Did you know what was coming next for Marc? Had you heard the songs that would become Electric Warrior?
Tony Visconti: Sure.
Rock Cellar: Okay. So you knew you had something to hang your hat on.
Tony Visconti: Yeah. But here’s how I heard it. We did “Hot Love,” and we released it, and the week it was released it went to Number One and we went, “Wow.” Cause “Ride a White Swan” went to Number Two. It was held from the Number One spot by some novelty record written by Herbie Flowers, ironically enough, called “Granddad, I Love You.” Now we had nothing stopping us. And I decided, I’d like to go back and see my mom and dad. So I took my girlfriend Liz with me, “Let’s go to America.”
So I’m in New York and T. Rex are in New York at the same time. I knew they would be there, and I thought it’d be fun to hang out with Marc. And he wanted to record there! So within a day or two of arrival, we were in Media Sound and he put down “Jeepster” and “Motivator” from the Electric Warrior. And he said, “We’re going to go to LA, do you want to come with us?” I thought, “I’ll go to LA with you with these two in the can. Sure.” So we flew to LA to Wally Heider’s studio, and we did “Get it On.”
Rock Cellar: It’s hard for a layperson to hear a song the first time and know it’s a hit record. Did you listen to it with your producer’s ear and think, “That’s going to explode?”
Tony Visconti: Of course. I did. This was everything I was hoping for. I mean, we wanted to make great, great pop records that were going to stand the test of time. And this was the beginning of that very fertile period. The next step, and the next two albums, were pretty damn good.
Rock Cellar: Heider’s studio, was it a huge leap from Trident and where you were working in the UK? Because it’s known to be a great studio, but was it good?
Tony Visconti: It had something different about it. You know, an LA vibe. So we did about three songs, and now we had five in the can. It was just the greatest feeling in the world.
Rock Cellar: Did he have this material in his back pocket, or was he writing literally in that moment?
Tony Visconti: Here’s what he did: He had a marble black schoolbook, and in it were his lyrics. Maybe he had the key, and maybe a few musical ideas. But as far as I remember, he would just open it up in the studio to a page of lyrics and start playing that. He would remember the music and he’d play them to us. We would hear these songs at the very last minute. No rehearsals were involved, because they were on tour.
Rock Cellar: Clearly, up to that point, it had been very much his vision and your vision combined. Did it feel more of a collaborative effort with the band at the time of Electric Warrior? Because the band were learning the songs right in that moment, like the Beatles did, in a way.
Tony Visconti: It was always collaborative. We always felt like a team, and he was really good in the studio in that way. Of course, while the other guys would wear jeans and tee shirts, Marc would be in full regalia in the studio. He’d be wearing his Granny Takes A Trip satin trousers and that little blazer that had musical symbols on it, and he’d be leaping around like he was on stage.
He would be doing windmill guitar chords, like Pete Townshend. And he’d get down, doing Jimi Hendrix poses and all that.
Rock Cellar: It sounds like Guy Stevens in the studio, or something.
Tony Visconti: It was a wonderful way to make records. People are so serious when they make records, you know? These were parties. So then we flew back to England. “Hot Love” was still Number One. It stayed in the charts at Number One for about six or seven weeks, depending on which chart. And whilst it was Number One, we went back into Trident, and Vision Sound. Because now we had carte blanche. We could spend hours and hours. We could get string sections in. So that’s when we recorded “Cosmic Dancer,” “Mambo Sun,” “Life’s A Gas,” and “Rip Off.” So that shows you what kind of pressure we were under, too. We were all over the place. Electric Warrior was recorded in four studios, and mixed at Trident.
Rock Cellar: You had to know what you had on your hands.
Tony Visconti: We did. We knew we were kings of the world.
Rock Cellar: So, the album comes out, it’s a monstrous record everywhere, not just in the UK. It had to change the game. It was what Marc had wanted his whole life. He’d worked awfully hard for it. He probably already had, I’m guessing, a lot of The Slider written at that point.
Tony Visconti: That’s hard to say.
Rock Cellar: Well, talk a little bit about that period from Electric Warrior to Slider, because it’s a rocket ship at that point.
Tony Visconti: Yeah. First of all, Slider came out pretty soon after Electric Warrior, and he was doing lots of gigs, too. He was playing to arenas, to very, very big audiences. America, he’s a little frightened to go back, because it wasn’t really a good experience at all, previously, but he’s conquering Germany, Italy, and Japan.
Now, he and June, his wife, who was his roadie and everything back in the Tyrannosaurus Rex days, were going through managers like we go through ham sandwiches. He couldn’t make a move without her. He had this crazy upside-down world. And it was crazy and upside down.
He became very distrustful of people. He always was in fear of being ripped off. I don’t know why, but maybe rightly so. Because he always used to talk about it. But until the time I met him, he was in such few situations where he had any money to rip off. But again, it’s him creating a legend. He’d explain the way he was because he’d gotten ripped off hundreds of times. He never had. But I think here’s what it is, and why he felt he was ripped off: When he signed to our production company and publishing company, they offered him the rock bottom deal that you offer any newcomer. You don’t give a guy who’s got no track record 10 percent on his records. He was probably offered two, and for the publishing, I don’t know, but I think probably he did better out of the publishing deal.
And I got two percent on a record in those days. So when he had to split his two percent with Steve Peregrine Took, he thought I was ripping him off. And I said, “Marc, I get two percent anyway. I didn’t negotiate your contract. That was between you and Denny Cordell.” Besides, Procol Harum had the same thing. Denny gave very low royalties. But it was because the band was unknown, and he signed Procol Harum before “Whiter Shade of Pale.” So they had to split that two percent five ways. It was the same with The Move. Denny was a hard ass businessman. He really was. But people conveniently forget that these bands were nobodies whom he gave a really big chance — and careers — to.
Rock Cellar: Electric Warrior was such a huge record, and I know it back to front, but I prefer Slider. It’s a cooler record, in some ways. It’s not at the same level as Electric Warrior in many ways, and wasn’t as big of a hit. Was the pressure on? Did you see cracks in the Marc Bolan veneer? As you said, he was distrustful.
Tony Visconti: We did change the sound a bit, and a few things are more progressive from Electric Warrior, but it did lack the classic sound that Marc established on Electric Warrior. That’s okay. But I don’t know if it was a move up or down. It was move kind of a sideways move. Nothing was new or old. It was kind of an extension. The T. Rex fans will crucify me, but it’s kind of like a poor cousin to Electric Warrior to me.
Rock Cellar: Put your producer’s hat on. I think it’s like the argument between London Calling and Sandinista! I love both. Sandinista! is three records and a lot of filler, maybe, but it has some glorious moments, as does Slider.
Tony Visconti: Well, the songs on Electric Warrior, each individual song was tailor made. We really saw them as individual tracks, whereas for Slider, because he was on tour and paying the bills, we did the backing tracks in just two days. He did not want to waste money.
Rock Cellar: Holy moly.
Tony Visconti: So that’s what I mean. It became like a sausage factory. I remember sitting there for 18 hours, because the first day we got eight songs down. And he had to play all his guitar parts out of the country, to avoid paying taxes. So this now became another exercise. It didn’t have the innocence. Now he’s shrewdly recording as economically as possible, just flooding these guitar parts.
We recorded the basic track for “The Slider,” and then right away he said, “Okay, now I’m going to throw seven guitars on it.” Bill Legend, the bass player, was saying, “Marc, I just learned this track. I can play much better.” And Marc would say, “Oh, don’t worry. I know what you’re talking about. I’m just going to throw guitars over it. No one will notice that you made a mistake.” I’m thinking, “Okay, this is not the way we recorded Electric Warrior. It doesn’t have the spirit. It’s got an undercurrent of something sinister.”
Rock Cellar: There were some things sonically that were really interesting. I assume that came mostly from you.
Tony Visconti: That was all done in the mix. I mean, these were raw tracks. And it wasn’t Pro Tools, where I could edit things. But the band were really hot. The band doesn’t get enough credit. They were like Nashville guys, where they could hear the song once and 15 minutes later have a master take. Though the songs weren’t difficult to learn. There weren’t many quirks in them.
Rock Cellar: So did it feel like there was a bit of a formula starting to take shape?
Tony Visconti: Oh yeah. I wasn’t saying that. But I was beginning to see that. The thing that inspired us about the Beatles is how they went through big, massive developments from album to album. When you thought it couldn’t get better than Rubber Soul, they came out with Revolver. Which was, “Oh, my God.” And then Sgt. Pepper. This wasn’t exactly Revolver we were making a with Marc. We were not progressing, as I had hoped it to be.
Rock Cellar: This is Pepper to Magical Mystery Tour.
Tony Visconti: Yeah, that’s right. This is his insecurity coming in. He figured, “I know I can bang this out fast. I don’t have to think. I don’t have to develop it any further.”
Rock Cellar: And as a producer, did you say, “Can we slow down here?”
Tony Visconti: Yes, I did. Back in London, I was afforded the privilege to do a lot of work on the tracks, and he would be sitting in the studio next to me. But he thought there were hidden cameras everywhere. He wouldn’t pick up a guitar, because all his work had to be done out of the country. So the band would come in and embellish a bit. We took a little time finishing The Slider in London, and for the mixes Marc would attend every session, but he wouldn’t even touch a fader. He was afraid that maybe I would rat on him. But I wouldn’t have, of course.
Rock Cellar: He was drinking, and there was lots of cocaine, too, right?
Tony Visconti: At this stage, during mixing, we weren’t drinking or doing cocaine. That’s a fool’s game. You get the shittiest mixes in the world when you do, that’s for sure. I’ve tried it. I know. So we got The Slider out. It wasn’t badly received. It was pretty great, actually. But the record didn’t sell as much. And sales are everything.
Rock Cellar: But how could it? Electric Warrior is such a perfect record in so many ways, and captured a moment.
Tony Visconti: Well, if it was a Revolver kind of record, it could have. That’s my point. And then comes Tanx. Very soon after. We took a month or two off and started Tanx. But for Tanx we did get the old Mellotron out. And I think we did some more adventurous stuff on that album. I particularly liked Tanx a lot. I think it’s charming. It’s got mystical qualities to it.
Rock Cellar: I started with a single, “Ride a White Swan.” And then I got Electric Warrior and Slider and fell in love with both, and then went back to the acoustic records. But I think by the time I came along Tanx might’ve been out of print. Some of those later records were probably out of print, or at least hard to get.
Tony Visconti: Maybe Europe only. Apart from Electric Warrior, which went to number 10, we never sold big albums in the States. Never again.
Rock Cellar: Anyway, it did feel when I came to that record later, like he was starting to make another artistic leap. Do you remember that?
Tony Visconti: They’re clever songs. This is another one that was done in France. There weren’t any big hits. But it was more experimental. “Children of the Revolution,” from that period, was huge, though. And “20th Century Boy,” that wasn’t on an album. There were a lot of singles that were pretty great, because he felt that if a kid bought his single and the album, he was going to give them their money’s worth. He didn’t want them to feel ripped off.
Rock Cellar: There were cracks in the relationship at this point.
Tony Visconti: Well, yeah. Marc was drinking heavily. He was being abusive. I remember during a car ride to the studio in France, he was blind drunk and just abusing the band.
Rock Cellar: On the way to a session?
Tony Visconti: Yeah. I look back and I give him a lot of slack. He was insecure. He wasn’t inherently a mean person. He was a very loving person. But he was seeing this steady decline from Electric Warrior. There were no sales in America anymore. And other markets, like Japan and Germany, Europe, were drying up. And this is where the formula theory comes in. The formula worked for a certain age group at a certain time. His early fans had grown up, and they’d started getting into Pink Floyd, 10cc, so he’d lost the fan base. And they’d grown up. But in his mind they were always 14 years old. But they’d moved on.
And he wasn’t giving them more, the way the Beatles always realized that their fan base was growing up. That’s why they said, “We’re growing up.” Their fans were obviously growing up, too. They’re getting older too. Marc did not realize that.
Rock Cellar: And Marc, from everything I can tell, was clearly afraid to be ahead of his audience.
Tony Visconti: He would dip his toe in the water. He would do a few experimental tracks. But the bulk of what he was doing would always be very familiar to the T. Rex formula sound. The same guitar sound, the same riffs, same kind of drumming.
Rock Cellar: Forget about whatever’s going on in the relationship or however he’s treating everyone, including you. At that point, I’m assuming it had to have become less interesting. And I don’t want to dwell on this part of it, but as a producer, that’s less interesting. You’ve made that record.
Tony Visconti: Yeah. As a producer and as a friend, I was concerned with his lack of progression, and his creativity progressing to another level. It was so apparent that, from when he picked up a guitar in his teens, and he learnt about seven chords, he’d never learnt a new chord. His sense of melody was excellent, but his harmonic sense lacked knowledge. Not to compare, but David [Bowie] somehow could play a jazz song on a guitar, or whatever he was into. David knew how chords worked, and he learned, and he always innately had something more going on.
Rock Cellar: And he was fearless with the way he used them.
Tony Visconti: He liked jazz, you know? Mark couldn’t stand jazz. But anyway, I told him, before Zinc Alloy and after Tanx, “Take a year off. You’ve got to learn new stuff.” And he agreed. And he said, “But I’ve got to make one more for the fans.”
Rock Cellar: There were no fans.
Tony Visconti: I didn’t have the heart to tell him that. I said, “No you don’t. They’ll be there for you. Learn new things. Go to Morocco. Do what other people do. Learn another culture’s music.” And he said, “No, one more for the fans.” And that one more for the fans was Zinc Alloy. And that’s when I realized I could have no effect on him. But I felt sorry for him. Everything was getting worse. All the self-abuse was getting worse. His wife June left him in the middle of Zinc Alloy. He was lost without her. He couldn’t make a move without a woman in his life.
Rock Cellar: Well, inevitably, if he’d lived, he would have had to have taken time off, whether he’d been forced or not. And in taking some time off, maybe he would have gotten recharged.
Tony Visconti: The positive thing I’d like to say is that what he did leave behind is basically the germ, the seed, that he planted that gave rise to 150 rock and roll bands, from U2 to the Cars to you name it. There’s a T. Rex lick in there in so many bands, and that feel. The things that he took from the 50s and turned into new things in the 70s spawned a whole new genre after Marc died.
Rock Cellar: Yeah. And that meat and potatoes glam, it’s not David and it’s not Elton. It’s very much Marc.
Tony Visconti: So because of those things, he deserves to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, at long last, because what he did is give people these matrices. Hundreds of bands took them on and developed their own styles from that. He’s the grandfather of a lot of groups out there. And if they’re honest, they’ll tell you they listened to T. Rex as kids.
Rock Cellar: Absolutely. Dave Grohl, Queens of the Stone Age and all these bands, even long after U2 and the Cars. And he would love that he’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was a guy who was, like we discussed, a hustler, and had his eye on that brass ring. So he would appreciate being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame more than most, I would think.
Tony Visconti: Yes. Absolutely. And he deserves it. And he was a good, good guy. And he made some amazing records, and wrote some amazing songs, and was a totally unique singer and fantastic performer and guitarist. For your information, once, my lawyer asked, “Could you tell me how many Marc Bolan tracks you produced?”
And to my shock, the number was 160. So just under my watch, we did 160 recordings!
Rock Cellar: Wow. In just about six years, right?
Tony Visconti: Yeah. I’m talking about Tyrannosaurus Rex, T. Rex, add them up, the B-sides, the singles that weren’t on albums. So I know better than anyone how much he deserves to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
January 19, 2021
January 15, 2021