On the September 1971 release of the T. Rex’s fifth album, Electric Warrior, just remastered and reissued in the U.S. by Rhino, frontman Marc Bolan achieved superstar status in Britain. The band’s previous four albums (three of them under the original, more unwieldy name Tyrannosaurus Rex) had been primarily acoustic, recorded by Bolan, who would die in a car accident in 1977, and a percussionist, eventually Mickey Finn. But they were gradually moving away from pastoral music, as illustrated by a discussion Bolan and Finn had well before the making of Electric Warrior.
“We went to a place in Wales, a country house, and we just started talking,” Finn told Rolling Stone shortly before his death in January. “I was into be-bop and all the early stuff of Wilbur Harrison, and it turned out that he was too. We had so much in common, but neither of us mentioned it, because we both thought it would go against the grain.”
The ultimate results of that discussion were the hit U.K. singles “Ride a White Swan” and “Hot Love.” The latter, one of the bonus tracks included on the reissue, was the first song recorded with bassist Steve Currie and drummer Bill Legend, who would make up the rest of the core of T. Rex, superstar glam band. To keep up with the new demand for live performances, the band recorded Warrior on the fly.
Producer Tony Visconti remembers Bolan’s writing technique for the album as understandably hand-to-mouth: “He was writing in hotel rooms and on gigs. He would have the guys come in and listen, and I would hear ’em in demo form. I remember when we did ‘Bang a Gong’ and ‘Jeepster’ and all that, we went to Howard Kaylan’s house — he was teaching them the backing vocals, and Bill Legend was figuring out his drum part on the back of a guitar. The whole album was done in that fashion.”
At the time, Visconti wasn’t too bothered by the fact that the album was worked on in four different studios and two countries, but he did have definite preferences. “In America,” he recalls, “studios were more confrontational and almost union run. I really couldn’t wait to get back to London to do the overdubs.”
In the States, the band worked at Wally Heider’s in Los Angeles and Media Sound in New York, and the London sessions were recorded at Advision and Trident (with all final mixing done at the latter). But despite Visconti’s reservations about American studios, the Heider sessions did yield the beginnings of “Bang a Gong (Get It On),” an incitement to abandon that would become T. Rex’s only American hit, as well as another U.K. Number One.
“We knew the song was hot,” Visconti remembers. However, the crucial element was added back in London. Even with saxes already overdubbed, Visconti felt there was still something missing and persuaded Bolan to let him devise a string arrangement, as he had with the previous two hits.
“We did that really in ten minutes,” Visconti continues. “I just wrote those three notes on a piece of paper and I handed it out to the string players. I said, ‘Just play G-A-B wherever I point to you.’ I didn’t give them how many bars to count. I really believe that that really helped it become a big hit. Just having that little bit of gloss on it in those areas.”
As well as that memorable track, the album featured the beautifully fey “Cosmic Dancer” and the interplanetary love song “Life’s a Gas,” both favorites of Bolan devotees. The odd man out in the generally blissful and mellow pack was the closing rocker “Rip Off.”
“That track was an afterthought,” Visconti admits. “We actually needed one more song for the album and that was the only song recorded at Advision. If you listen carefully, that does have a very different sound from the other tracks.”
Electric Warrior was — and remains — a unique album: whimsical, elegant and fantastical. Or, as Finn put it, “We had these strange sounds that weren’t predictable in a regular rock & roll band.”