T. Rex: “20th Century Boy”
Taking a little break from the Christmas merriment, today’s featured song is “20th Century Boy,” a great glam rocker by T. Rex. It was released in 1973 as a single, only later showing up as a bonus track on a CD reissue of the 1973 album Tanx. Although there is strong competition from the other great singles released over Marc Bolan’s career — “Bang a Gong,” “Jeepster,” and so on — I consider “20th Century Boy” to be the quintessential T. Rex song, and in turn one of the quintessential songs of the early ’70s glam-rock era. It moves along on a down ‘n’ dirty groove that kicks in right from the start with a lone guitar riff that leaves no doubt that Bolan was one of Joan Jett’s primary influences. It shakes and shimmies its way along, never wavering in its tempo — but then again, that’s the definitive Bolan way: write a verse/chorus and a good riff and groove, and repeat. Bolan was master of minimal lyric-writing, which he could get away with because he used lyrics more to set the (usually otherworldly) mood than to tell stories. With just slight lyric variations in a line or two, he could sing the same verse over a few times and no one would really mind.
As captivating a singer as Bolan is on record — and I’ve been a T. Rex fan for many years — I was somewhat disappointed when seeing one of his live performances for the first time recently on an old Midnight Special episode. (I got the complete DVD set, and let me tell you, it contains many hours of entertainment — much of it great, some of it embarrassing and/or laughable, but all of it a real time capsule of ’70s pop and rock music that’ll make you look back fondly at the relative simplicity of the pre-music-video era.) Bolan came across like a poor Marc Bolan impersonator — a bit bloated and very probably high on something, and there was little of the sexy, cosmic flower-child charisma that comes across on T. Rex albums. It may have just been an off-night for him, but then again I don’t really recall a whole lot of talk about how great T. Rex concerts were. But hey, the studio recordings captured Bolan at his peak, so no worries — there are a ton of great T. Rex songs to go around, and “20th Century Boy” is one of the best.