ANGEL HEADED HIPSTER
The songs of Marc Bolan and T.Rex. A Hal Willner production.
It’s been a long time in the making. Angel Headed Hipster - The songs of Marc Bolan and T.Rex - was an album that seemed, at one stage, would never make the light of day. Producer Hal Willner was bought in by BMG around four years ago to save the project and as news struck of T.Rex’s inclusion in the Hall of Fame the near completion of the album seemed like perfect timing. Sadly Hal died in April due to Covid-19 complications and would never get to see the album released. Covid-19 would also put a stop to planned Hall of Fame celebrations in May so Marc’s ability to conquer America (albeit posthumously) was once again scuppered.
But BMG pressed on with completing the album for a September launch. Tracks were sneaked out on social media and were met with mixed feelings from Bolan fans over here in the UK. I consider myself a die-hard Bolan fan and the stuff I was hearing was, at best, pretty average. As launch date came closer the album started receiving rave reviews from the press… maybe I was missing something. Were these people listening to the same album I’d heard a few choice tracks from and quite frankly hated? I’d heard mainly the hit single stuff, Jeepster, Children of the Revolution, Get it On, Metal Guru etc. Word was getting out that the interpretations of the earlier, lesser heard material were actually pretty good so I decided to order myself a copy (on vinyl of course) and give the whole collection a proper listen on a proper hi-fi system rather than just YouTube clips on my phone.
The album arrived - it’s a beautifully presented piece. Two albums on heavy weight 200gsm white vinyl tastefully packaged in a gate-fold sleeve. A glance at the track listing threw up a whole bunch of artists that I wasn’t familiar with and the list of musicians (I’m guessing a carefully curated bunch of top American session players) were mostly unfamiliar too.
It was finally time to put the needle on the record, sit back and take it all in.
I’m now on my third listen. I thought it best to familiarise myself with the album a little more before critiquing it’s content – and here it is.
VINYL SIDE A
THE CHILDREN OF THE REVOLUTION – KESHA
For me this is perhaps the best interpretation of one of the better-known singles (see my earlier comment about how the more familiar tracks have fared). It’s a big production; there’s 25 musicians listed as performing on this song. It starts off big and impactive settling into a more relaxed groove of piano and bass for the first two verses. Strong guitar solo, great manic sax and nice string arrangements all support Kesha’s strong vocal performance. It’s a faithful rendition of the original and a good opener for the album.
COSMIC DANCER – NICK CAVE
For many Nick Cave falls into that marmite category, you love him or you hate him. I’m not what you’d call ‘a fan’ but I do enjoy some of his material – and this track is no exception. It’s a beautiful rendition with lush string arrangements and a quite beautiful bass clarinet solo. This is apparently one of Nick’s favourite songs of all time. It shows; it’s delivered with passion and respect.
JEEPSTER – JOAN JETT
Oh dear… I wanted so much for this song to be great. Joan Jett, the hard girl of rock delivering one of Marc’s greatest rock and roll tunes – the very idea was full of promise. I’m saddened to say that this is definitely NOT ‘pleasing to behold’ – lame, weak and a completely missed opportunity.
SCENESCOF – DEVENDRA BANHART
A slightly trippy excursion into one of Marc’s early Tyrannosaurus Rex classics from the ‘My People Were Fair…’ album. It’s unmistakably Scenescof yet a stark contrast to the original. It 100% achieves what Hal Willner set out to do in interpreting Marc as a composer, taking his beautiful poetic lyrics and setting them to a musical landscape. It’s chill-out listening and there’s a place for that in everyone’s lives.
LIFE’S A GAS – LUCINDA WILLIAMS
Are you a fan of Lucinda Williams vocal delivery? I’m not particularly, but to be honest, to me, it really doesn’t matter at all (pun intended) – it’s set to a beautiful, dreamy, laid back musical track with a great guitar solo – and there are hints of that beautiful bass clarinet again. It’s lovely.
SOLID GOLD EASY ACTION – PEACHES
Maybe I’m just not ‘down with the kids’ but please, make this stop. It’s awful. It’s everything I hate about modern music. SGEA was one of Marc’s punkiest tunes – a big favourite of Joey Ramone’s apparently. This…, this is just god awful dirge, sorry.
DAWN STORM – BORNS
Forgive me, I’m not familiar with Borns and perhaps I should be. His vocal delivery reminds me very much of Anthony and the Johnsons (latterly the transgendered Anohni). Dawn Storm is in itself a beautiful song – it lends itself to big musical arrangements. My only criticism of this is that the string arrangements could have been even bigger! That said, it’s a great composition which perfectly complements Borns voice. I like this a lot.
VINYL SIDE B
HIPPY GUMBO – BETH ORTON
The first of the English artists to feature on the album taking on the classic Hippy Gumbo. If folk-psychedelic-jazz was a genre then that’s where this would sit. To me this really understands where Marc was in the late 60’s. The elfin folk singer gone psychedelic with John’s Children – and it really works.
I LOVE TO BOOGIE – KING KHAN
King who? He’s not a name I’m familiar with and I had to Google him. He’s Canadian and apparently famous for being the frontman of King Khan and the Shrines and one half of King Khan and the BBQ Show. Hmmm, feels like he’s bought his ‘Show’ along to the recording session. This is musical theatre – classic 12 bar rock and roll churned out in a glitzy showtime style. Stick any lyrics to any well-known rock and roll song over the top and you have a piece to please the casual musical theatre audience. As a tribute to Marc? No, sorry, this really doesn’t cut it. The King has completely missed that this is Bolan RockaBoogie not just any old rock n’ roll song.
BELTANE WALK – GABY MORENO
So, let me explain. My vinyl hunting exploits of 2019 got me heavily into the wonderful Dory Previn and early Melanie. Maybe that’s why I like this interpretation so much. Great vocal from Gaby and a sophisticated yet quirky musical arrangement. A big thumbs up from me.
BANG A GONG (GET IT ON) – U2 feat ELTON JOHN
More British artists – extremely famous British artists in fact. This, like the aforementioned Joan Jett track, promised so much. Sadly, just like Jeepster, this has disappointed immensely. Several issues for me here. Ok, firstly, I hate when they call this song ‘Bang a Gong’ but that’s a Brit thing and I understand the reasons behind it so moving on... Bono, learn the bloody lyrics for god sake. Clad in back… and you do it twice! Unforgivable. And, the vocal delivery feels a bit ‘can’t be arsed’. Edge, did you fall out with the sound engineer? Because he’s turned your guitar so low in the mix it’s hardly there - this is a rock song that needs that chugging riff (ask Noel Gallagher – ahem Cigarettes and Alcohol!). Ok, so it features Elton on piano, which is nice, but nice simply isn’t good enough for this classic. Should have just stuck the Power Station version in its place – at least that rocked.
DIAMOND MEADOWS – JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL
John Cameron Mitchell is listed as an actor, playwright, screenwriter and director. Musically he’s perhaps most famous for his Broadway musical and later film Hedwig and the Angry Inch. So a strange choice of artist maybe for this album but quite honestly putting in a performance that puts many of the so called ‘big hitters’ to shame. This is a beautifully conceived musical interperation of this track from the eponymous T.Rex (brown) album.
BALLROOMS OF MARS – EMILY HAINES
Wake me up when this has finished. I’m just not keen on this dreary vocal delivery with ‘sleepy’ violin accompaniment. The ‘dreamscape’ (yawn) intro and the dramatic instrumental breaks just seem completely unnecessary. The only saviour for me on this is the lovely contrabass of Jess Heasley, but that’s it. A frankly disappointing close to side B.
VINYL SIDE C
MAIN MAN – FATHER JOHN MISTY
I had no idea who Father John Misty was. Ok, so he’s an American singer songwriter but not one that has ever crossed my musical radar. This, much like the side A opener, is a pretty faithful rendition of the original. It neither excites nor offends. It’s a nice version and a respectful tribute to Marc.
ROCK ON – PERRY FARRELL
Not an obvious choice of song to cover – but then again many on this album aren’t. Perhaps that’s why, like the previous track, it’s a nice version that neither excites nor offends. I’m kind of hoping that we haven’t got to just over half-way through the album and ended up with a bunch of ‘ok’ cover versions…
THE STREET AND BABE SHADOW – ELYSIAN FIELDS
Ah, ok, we’re back to ‘interpretations’ rather than just faithful copies. And, this may surprise some, I actually love this. Possibly my favourite so far… it’s got a lovely, sultry groove. It’s great! I may even be inclined to check out more music by Elysian Fields.
THE LEOPARDS – GAVIN FRIDAY
This is a real nice interpretation of the ‘Zinc Alloy’ era song – an album I struggled with at the time but have since re-visited and am deeply appreciating the sheer genius of it. Irish born Gavin Friday (who I’m not super familiar with) delivers what is, to my mind, a very classy ‘Tom Waitesesque’ version. I’m not convinced by the addition of the ‘Soul of my Suit’ top and tail but as a tribute it certainly earns it’s place on this album.
METAL GURU – NENA
Yes, it’s that Nena, of 99 Red Balloons fame. What has she done since then? Not a lot if this rather lack-lustre version of Metal Guru is anything to go by. There seems to be a pattern emerging here – just leave the classic hits alone please. This is truly awful.
TEENAGE DREAM – MARC ALMOND
Ok, so this is a bit different and I have no doubt it will appeal to the die-hard Marc Almond fans. It’s all a bit ‘kitsch’ for me. In parts it’s lovely, when the song is stripped back to just strings, piano and a wonderful sounding contrabass under Marc’s voice it really works. There’s just no need for all the added Vaudeville. I have huge respect for Mr Almond. He’s a true Bolan fan and I’ve had the pleasure of sharing a stage with him on a couple of occasions to perform a few T.Rex classics; in fact we’ve performed this song in particular with the added bonus of Tony Visconti conducting a string quartet! I much prefer that version to the version on this album.
And finally, VINYL SIDE D
ORGAN BLUES – HELGA DAVIS
This is an emotive take on the somewhat simple but wistful original from Beard of Stars. It’s kept the hypnotic conga vibe somehow but added intricate instrumental layers in place of Bolan’s oh-so simple organ track. It’s back to that thing of showcasing Marc as a composer and it’s done that… in spades.
PLANET QUEEN – TODD RUNDGREN
The track opens with a voice saying “What you are about to hear is a transcription of a psycho-analytic session, nothing has been changed” which is a shame, because I wish they’d changed the whole thing. I mean Todd is a real talent right but he’s not renowned for his forays into the jazz/swing scene is he? Had this been Michael Buble or Jamie Cullen then it might have made sense. But to me this makes no sense at all. All it has done is succeeded in murdering an absolute classic song. I just don’t get this, at all.
GREAT HORSE – JESSE HARRIS
Oh, thank you Jesse. After that god-awful Todd track this is a very welcome slice of class. Maybe I’m just harboring my new-found love for Dory Previn but this is a very fine interpretation indeed.
MAMBO SUN – SEAN LENNON & CHARLOTTE KEMP MAHL
It’s ok. It’s one of them ok, non-offensive covers. It’s retained that lovely Mambo Sun groove to an extent. The musical arrangement is fine. The vocals are ok. Yep, it’s ok.
PILGRIM’S TALE – VICTORIA WILLIAMS feat JULIAN LENNON
Had Kate Bush or Bjork ever covered this song it may have ended up something like this I’m sure. Once again the older more obscure tracks are translating or ‘interpreting’ much better than the better known classics. Lovely instrumental arrangements that serve as the perfect bed on which to lay down a vocal.
BANG A GONG (GET IT ON) REPRISE – DAVID JOHANSEN
Oh good, David Johanson of New York Dolls fame. I love the New York Dolls. Maybe this will make up for the earlier U2 version. Sadly, it doesn't. It’s better, in my opinion, because it’s intentionally trying to be different with it’s swing feel and it kind of works way better than Bono’s appalling attempt. But maybe they should have just left this track well alone.
SHE WAS BORN TO BE MY UNICORN/RIDE A WHITE SWAN – MARIA MCKEE & GAVIN FRIDAY
Gavin has already won me over with his interpretation of The Leopards so I’m hopeful that his collaboration with Maria McKee won’t disappoint. And in truth, it doesn’t, but the segue into Ride A White Swan at the end just feels a little strange and unnecessary. It doesn’t really add anything to the composition and feels to me like it’s been shoe-horned in to include Swan as the close for the album. Sometimes less is more and had this been left as just the one Unicorn track I believe it would have been a stronger composition. However, the last few bars of Swan on the fade out are actually quite nice with Gavin’s isolated vocal, it’s quite haunting – perhaps this, as a stand-alone outro, would have made for a more fitting end to the album.
So, there you have it, my review of this long-awaited and much talked about album. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that this is, in the most part, a fitting tribute to Marc Bolan. It succeeds in presenting Marc as a composer, especially on those older lesser known tracks. Sadly, the takes on the ‘hits’ just haven’t worked for me and as a compilation Angel Headed Hipster would have been better served as just one album instead of two. As a vinyl enthusiast skipping tracks isn’t all that easy and as a result I probably won’t play it as much as I should. Maybe I’ll have to compile a digital playlist for use in the car and trick myself into believing that Solid Gold Easy Action by Peaches never actually existed (along with a few other tracks).