A band in name but in practice a vehicle for Mark Bolan to bring his brand of glam to the world, T. Rex was formed in 1967 and disbanded a decade later following Bolan’s tragic death. In the brief time they were with us, they took glam to the mainstream, directly influenced David Bowie’s conversion from an unassuming, unsuccessful folk singer to the all-conquering Ziggy Stardust, and gave us a string of songs that, almost half a century later, are still as transcendently magical as ever. Here’s our pick of the 10 best T. Rex songs of all time.
10. Mambo Sun
Electric Warrior was a phenomenal album, and Mambo Sun was an outstanding way to open it. It wasn’t a hit (or even a single), but if summed up everything there is to know and love about Mark Bolan in just a few perfect minutes. The back-to-basics songwriting and pseudo-psychedelic imagery, the indomitable groove, the theatrical flair, the hypnotic guitar – it’s all here, and thanks to Tony Visconti’s superb production, it’s rarely sounded better.
9. Teenage Dream
Co-produced by Tony Visconti and Bolan, Teenage Dream was the first song credited to ‘Marc Bolan and T. Rex’ rather than simply ‘T. Rex’. Described by All Music as “a virtual mini-opera”, with “soaring strings, wailing guitars, towering chorales, and a genuinely foreboding sense of drama,” it’s a song that Bolan regarded as having the best lyrics of any song he’d ever written and that his former partner Gloria Jones (who also provides backing vocals for the song, along with the rest of the Cosmic Choir), has named as her favorite. Released in February 1974 from the album Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow, it reached number 13 on the UK Single Chart.
As Farout Magazine says, Jeepster has all the hallmarks of a classic T. Rex track, with a thumping bassline with old school R&B flourishes, poetic lyrics full of vivid imagery, charismatic delivery, and, of course, a whole lot of congos. Released as a single in November 1971, the song reached number 2 in the UK Singles Chart, number 28 in Australia, and number 73 in Canada. Despite its success, its release was laced in controversy. Bolan had recently left Fly Records for EMI, and hadn’t given permission for Fly to promote the song. Even so, it’s still fabulous.
7. Hot Love
Hot Love, T. Rex’s second single, sent the band stratospheric. Or rather, their performance of it on Top of the Pops did. Bolan took to the stage for the first time in glittery eye makeup and shiny satin, leading certain generations to throw up their hands in horror and others to run for the bathroom and dig out their sister’s make-up kit. It was a performance that took glam to the mainstream, glitter to the suburbs, and T.Rex to the top of the UK charts for the first time.
6. Telegram Sam
Described by Billboard as a “sturdily constructed groover where ’50s dancefloor rock n’ roll gets a glam ’70s makeover,” Telegram Sam has all the ingredients of a classic T. Rex song, with Bolan introducing us to a host of characters like Purple Pie Pete (whose lips are like lightning) and Golden Nose Slim (who knows where you been), casting spells with his vivid imagery, and generally behaving like the half poet, half glitterball he was. Released as a single off their 1972 album, The Slider, it gave the band their third UK number-one single. It didn’t fare quite so well in the US, peaking at number 67 on the Billboard Hot 100 – their last entry on the chart.
5. Children of the Revolution
Bolan decided not to bother himself too much with verses for Children of the Revolution, flying in the face of every preconceived idea about what a song should and shouldn’t be by making one that’s essentially one long chorus. Initially recorded for the film “Born to Boogie” with Elton John giving it his all on the piano and Ringo Starr doing the same on the drums, it later got turned into a 12-minute epic during the recording session for the album The Slider. Whether we’re talking the long version or the short, it’s a sensational piece of glam rock candy, with just enough of an edge to keep things interesting.
4. Bang a Gong (Get It On)
Bang a Gong (Get It On) may have been the song that rang the death bell for Bolan’s and legendary UK DJ John Peel’s friendship after Peel expressed his dislike for the song live on air, but even if Peel didn’t see the merit of its Chuck Berry-esque riff and electrifying sexuality, that didn’t stop the rest of the world buying into it. Released in July 1971, it became one of T. Rex biggest hits, holding onto the top spot on the UK Singles Chart for four weeks, and becoming the groups biggest hit in the US, where it peaked at number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 12 on the Cash Box Top 100.
3. Cosmic Dancer
On Cosmic Dancer, one of the group’s most poignant songs, Bolan rolled over and showed his softer side. From the transcendent grove to the lush orchestration, the slow-burning build to the melancholy lyrics, it’s a naked, vulnerable triumph. Bolan is the star of the show, naturally, delivering an understated, atmospheric performance that’s spine-tingling in its effectiveness. But he’s not let down by any of the other players either, with Toni’s Visconti’s strings, Bill Legend’s drumming, and Steve Currie’s bass all elevating the song into a half folk, half glam anthem that burns as brightly today as it ever did.
2. Metal Guru
If you wanted to be a rock star in the late 60s and early 70, having a guru was as essential as a guitar and a mic. Who Bolan chose as his metal guru isn’t clear (and made no more so by Bolan’s explanation: “I relate ‘Metal Guru’ to all gods around. I believe in a god, but I have no religion. With ‘Metal Guru’, it’s like someone special, it must be a godhead. I thought how god would be, he’d be all alone without a telephone. I don’t answer the phone anymore. I have codes where people ring me at certain times”), but on this life-affirming track from The Slider, he delivers a spiritual stunner that could give even The Who’s Baba O’Riley a run for its money. Released in May 1972, it topped the UK charts, becoming the band’s fourth (and final) UK number one.
1. 20th Century Boy
In at number one on our round-up of the ten best T. Rex songs of all time is 20th Century Boy, a barnstorming rocker built around lyrics inspired by quotes from famous figures (with a lot of steamy sexuality thrown in for good measure), statement hand claps, nasty guitar riffs, and, at the center of it all, a purring Mark Bolan telling the world “I’m 20th century boy, I wanna be your toy.” Released as a standalone single in 1973, the song reached number 3 in the UK charts. Almost 20 years later, it made a second entry into the UK top 20 after being used in a Levi’s commercial featuring Brad Pitt.