T REX FOUND ALIVE IN CLASSIC POP
by Norman Warwick
Unless I´m dancing to the time warp, I was listening to groups with nice names like The Hollies, or The Seekers or The Searchers or The Troggs, although no music in the world could have torn me away from a a Sunday afternoon kick-around. Certainly I was even being last one picked than I would have been listening to a morbid dj with a Liverpool accent talking about weird groups who never got in the charts
Again if my chronology serves my memory, these were days, the late-mid sixties, when there was pop music, (the good stuff) and underground music (that to me at that age was really hard work). I´m pretty sure that whatever I was reading then in NME or Melody Maker was categorising the group as underground, and from what little I´d heard of their music, I thought that was the best place for them
Within twelve months, though I was riding a white swan down the local high street and behaving like a metal guru. The point other people in this following article make about how we have for so long overlooked Mark Bolan´s genius for composing a unique pop sound. We were distracted perhaps by his androgynous beauty.
T. Rex were an English rock band, formed in 1967 by singer-songwriter and guitarist Marc Bolan. The band was initially called Tyrannosaurus Rex, and released four psychedelic folk albums under this name. In 1969, Bolan began to change the band’s style towards electric rock, and shortened their name to T. Rex the following year. This development culminated in 1970’s Ride a White Swan, and the group soon became pioneers of the glam rock movement.
This month record company BMG have announced the release of AngelHeaded Hipster, an all-star tribute album to Marc Bolan and T.Rex. The album was put together by American producer Hal Willner, and could dramatically alter the way we look at, or listen to, Marc Bolan and the Tyranosaurus Rex that grew up into a T Rex (right) that consumed the world. The production of the album is superb but sadly Willner died of Covid 19 complications just as the album has released.
´I became immersed in this artist by listening to everything, talking to Bolan experts and fans, researching his reviews and interviews,´ Willner had told journalists whilst working on the album. ´And I found that Bolan was hardly ever talked about as a ‘composer’. It was all about what a great rocker he was, how innovative he was, how David Bowie took his essence and Bolan was in his shadow.
But I put him in the same pantheon as other composers that I’ve explored before. So, the concept for the album became to show Bolan as a composer with our typical cast of artists from different worlds that one rarely sees in the same place.´
Willner had previously compiled tribute albums dedicated to artists as diverse as Leonard Cohen, Kurt Weill, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk.´
´Hal had a unique vision of Marc Bolan’s music, and working on AngelHeaded Hipster brought him great joy,´ says Willner collaborator Rachel Fox. ´Speaking for those closest to him, we will forever be heartbroken at the untimely loss of our beloved friend and irreplaceable creative engine. Hal, who referred to AngelHeaded Hipster as his White Album, was eager for everyone to hear these beautiful songs and to start thinking about Bolan and T. Rex again. This album is a testament to Hal’s spirit.´
The first radio-single release from the album is Nick Cave‘s mournful take on T.Rex’s 1971 song Cosmic Dancer, while other artists contributing to the album include U2 with Elton John, Perry Farrell, David Johansen, Todd Rundgren, Joan Jett and Lucinda Williams.
see full track-list below.
ANGELHEADED HIPSTER tracklist
1. Children Of The Revolution Kesha
2. Cosmic Dancer Nick Cave
3. Jeepster Joan Jett
4. Scenescof Devendra Banhart
5. Life’s A Gas Lucinda Williams
6. Solid Gold, Easy Action Peaches
7. Dawn Storm Børns
8. Hippy Gumbo Beth Orton
9. I Love To Boogie King Khan
10. Beltane Walk Gaby Moreno
11. Bang A Gong (Get It On) U2 feat. Elton John
12. Diamond Meadows John Cameron Mitchell
13. Ballrooms Of Mars Emily Haines
14. Main Man Father John Misty
15. Rock On Perry Farrell
And that is just to whet the appetite , because there are plenty of other stellar tracks on the second disc in this double album as you can see listed below.
- Main Man Father John Misty
- Rock On Perry Farrell
- The Street & Babe Shadow Elysian Fields
- The Leopards Gavin Friday
- Metal Guru Nena
- Teenage Dream Marc Almond
- Organ Blues Helga Davis
- Planet Queen Todd Rundgren
- Great Horse Jesse Harris
- Mambo Sun Sean Lennon
- Pilgrim´s Tale Victorian Williams
- Get It On (Bang A Gong) David Johansen
- Born To be My Unicorn Maria Mckee
The late producer of the album, Hal Willner was known as “the man with the golden Rolodex,´ according to Allyson McCabe, a writer at the on-line site NPR music news. He was certainly a music producer who could call Lou Reed, Sting or Marianne Faithful and persuade them on a moment’s notice to participate in any number of offbeat projects: tribute albums and concerts of Kurt Weill songs, Disney music and sea shanties.
Willner’s wide-ranging musical tastes had their roots in his childhood, as he told NPR in 1988. ´I was born in 1956, so when I was growing up listening to music, my tastes changed all the time,´ Willner said. ´When I was a kid, it was rock and roll. Then it was jazz, then it was folk, then it was classical.´
This shy, quirky kid from Philadelphia was the son of a delicatessen owner who was also a Holocaust survivor. His father’s experience deeply affected Willner, and he turned to music and popular culture to take him to a happier place. The influences he absorbed were remarkable, says Chris Stein, co-founder of the new wave band Blondie.
´His knowledge was tremendous of the culture and of music and of art,´ Stein says. “Old TV commercials, and The Three Stooges, and just weird old stuff that he was fond of.´
Willner arrived in New York at 18 and fell in love with the city’s gritty glamour. By the time he met Stein around 1980, he was already cooking up his first dream project: a tribute to Nino Rota, who composed the music for Federico Fellini’s films.
The resulting album was called Amarcord Nino Rota, and it established Willner’s reputation right out of the gate in 1981. (It was welcomed back in a reissue in 2018.) It also set the template for his later work with its unlikely cast of collaborators: Muhal Richard Abrams, Carla Bley, Bill Frisell, in addition to Stein and his Blondie bandmate, vocalist Debbie Harry.
Seamlessly blending disparate musical styles and personalities became Willner’s trademark. He produced a tribute album to Disney music that paired the Sun Ra Arkestra with Harry Nilsson. Willner’s Thelonious Monk album put jazz saxophonist Gary Windo alongside rock musician Todd Rundgren, who says Willner’s approach was always about experimentation.
Todd can be found on You Tube saying, ´the idea was, just don’t do what you would normally do. Don’t ape the original. Think as revolutionary as you possibly can. Whatever you did, Hal was likely accept it, as long as it wasn’t conventional.´
Rundgren is on Willner’s final project, AngelHeaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan and T. Rex; the producer put Rundgren together with Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen. Willner’s long-time manager Rachel Fox, who supervised the completion of the album, says Willner approached each project almost as though he were casting a film or theaterre production.
´With the live shows, with the albums, he always talked about casting: ‘Who are we going to get to do this song, ’cause this song has to be on the show or on the album,’ Fox recalls. ´And of course the label is gonna say, we want this super-famous person and that super-famous person. And Hal would say, ‘Yeah, well, you know, we’ll get some famous ones.’ But he saw it as a story to tell, and the cast would always involve different characters.´
One of the artists Willner featured in the AngelHeaded Hipster project was Helga Davis, who has primarily worked in avant-garde theatre. She first met Willner ten years ago, when he called her out of the blue. Willner said he needed a choir, and he needed it in two days. Davis had never heard of him, but she nevertheless scrambled to put one together. Only later did she learn it was for a 30th anniversary show to commemorate the birth of the Solidarity movement.
´I’d never been to Poland before,” Davis ´recalls, “but I was just so excited to meet this person who was putting this thing together, and that we — six African-Americans — were going across the pond to celebrate this movement. When the concert finally came together, I understood that we were working with someone who was a completely magical beast.´
Virtually every artist who has worked with Willner has a story like this — a moment when he suddenly appeared and brought a sense of magic into their lives. Todd Rungren says he lost more than a long-time collaborator when Willner died.
´We would spend holidays together. He was at my wedding. I remember being in different parts of the world with him, you know, just hanging out,´ Rundgren says. ´It was, for me, the loss of a family member. It was worse than even losing a friend.´
Everyone wanted to talk about Willner: the way he always made artists feel like they were doing him a favour, and realizing after he died that it was the other way around. Beth Orton is on the new album and, like many musicians, worked with Willner for over two decades.
She, like Rundgren, has spoken on You Tube about this.
´He seemed to understand everyone he worked with better than they understood themselves,´ she says. ´He always pulled out the best in people. Or he allowed people to be who they were.´
AngelHeaded Hipsterwas first slated for release this past May, to coincide with Marc Bolan’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But the ceremony was postponed by the pandemic and by late March, Willner had already been diagnosed with COVID-19. He died on April 7, one day after his 64th birthday.
He may have become known as the man with the golden Rolodex, but everyone said he was also a mensch with a golden imagination, and a heart to match.
Listen to this album, (right) and you will hear evidence of that. With Victoria Williams and Maria McKee on the same album, this a fine legacy of the subject artist and the producer.
By the way the wonderful Paste magazine can be found on line at https://www.pastemagazine.com
and is a bi-monthly digital music and entertainment magazine published in the United States by Wolfgang’s Vault. Its motto is ´Symbols of the times in music, film and culture´. It was a printed publication from 2002 to 2010, when it became an exclusively digital publication.