T. Rex: Dandy in the Underworld
Just about everyone knows “Bang a Gong (Get it On)” from T. Rex’s classic album “Electric Warrior.” The shame is that in the U.S. that’s where it ends. What most Americans don’t know is that T. Rex, and more specifically Marc Bolan, was much more than a one hit wonder in Europe. More hits and six additional albums followed. Unfortunately because of Bolan’s untimely death, “Dandy in the Underworld” was the last.
The significance of this album is not limited to being the final statement of a unique talent. Ever since 1973’s “Tanx” Marc had been ramping up the excesses of glam with spacey plastic soul and psychedelic boogie. It came to a boiling point in 1976 on “Futuristic Dragon.” For “Dandy in the Underworld” the reins were pulled back and things were kept simpler. Even though the music bears closer kinship to earlier work, it wasn’t a step backward. There are still soul elements and boogie was in his blood. What stands out is something intangible. While it isn’t reflected directly, Bolan seemed to be in tune with the wave of the future.
Yes, this is still accessible glam pop, but the course has been altered. The most obvious clue is the stripping down. Musically that is what the punk movement was all about, and Marc was in tune with it. He also seems to have been aligned with the bleakness and ideas of revolt. The title track is a solid T. Rex style pleaser but we are given a different character with the “Gypsy explorer of the New Jersey heights, exalted companion of cocaine nights.” It clearly sends the message that something is different. “Jason B. Sad” sounds almost like a reworking of “Bang a Gong,” but with an entirely different message. Lyrics like, “…but his heart was a knife. Inscribed on it was rock and roll is cruel” and “He met Shaky Sue who wore only blue, and they shared in their teenage misery” do not shout party anthem. “Teen riot structure, ankle deep in fear…” is the first line of the final track. Not the usual T. Rex fare and could very well have influenced Sonic Youth’s “Teen Age Riot.”
Now before I give anyone the wrong idea, this is not a punk album nor is it the quintessential Marc Bolan statement. There is still playful stuff like “I Love to Boogie” and familiar cosmic love in “Universe.” However “Hang-Ups” adds roughness to the boogie and “Pain and Love” is downright bleak. So what I see is a turning point. He was coming out of his 70’s phase and just about to turn 30. It was time to change and he liked what was going on around him. It should also be noted that he was a big influence on many of the blossoming new talents anyway.
Here is the value of “Dandy in the Underworld.” It is not the best T. Rex album, but it is the most solid work after “Tanx.” From just a pure listening standpoint, that makes it enjoyable. Add to that the perspective of where Mark Bolan was creatively at the time. Then think of where he could have gone from there. He was poised to be a strong veteran voice in New Wave just like Bryan Ferry, Eno and his old pal David Bowie. That is what makes this the most interesting T. Rex album.
I would also recommend getting the expanded edition. In the CD age “Tame My Tiger” and “Celebrate Summer” definitely would have made the cut. The crime is that “City Port” didn’t end up on vinyl. It is one of Marc Bolan’s finest compositions and one of the best tracks T. Rex ever recorded. Not surprising really. The record execs probably thought it wasn’t easy enough to dance to.
Yes I could recommend other T. Rex albums to start with, but that would be too easy. “Dandy in the Underworld” has become one of my favorites, and a sad reminder of what could have been.
Marc Bolan – vocals, guitar, bass, percussion
Herbie flowers – bass
Tony Newman – drums
Dino Dines – keyboards, synthesizer
Scott Edwards – bass
Steve Currie – bass
Davey Lutton – drums
Paul Humphrey – drums
Paul Fenton – drums
Miller Anderson – guitar