Tribute albums are often, simply put, horrible. While I get excited to hear new and exciting versions of songs I already love, the bands covering these tunes frequently play them exactly the same as the originals, except worse. So, I approached Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T. Rex with some trepidation.
Now, you may not know who Marc Bolan and T. Rex were, but that would be your bad, as the kids say. Granted, the reign of T. Rex really occurred 50 years ago, but as the pioneers of glam rock these lads were HUGE in the UK, at one point as popular as the Beatles. The U.S. did not embrace them quite as warmly, but Bang a Gong (Get it On) still enjoyed heavy rotation AM radio airplay in 1971.
The group started out as Tyrannosaurs Rex in 1967, playing psychedelic folk music sporting titles such as Frowning Atahuallpa (My Inca Love). But in 1970 their sound began to change to something new. Songs were simple, repetitive and catchy. Vocals still had a bit of a sweet folk ambiance. And the mood in general was happy, happy, happy. I think of T. Rex as providing the perfect soundtrack for the flower children. After 1973 the band’s popularity began to fade, and in 1977 singer and songwriter Marc Bolan died in an automobile accident. And though people may not have known it at the time, the group’s influence was just beginning to be felt on the shoulders and elbows of the music world. Flash forward to 2021, Angelheaded Hipster showcases an impressive catalog of hits with 2 discs of T. Rex songs, generally interpreted with great respect and more than a modicum of originality.
While comparing the original songs to the covers, I realized that T. Rex frequently employed orchestral strings in their music, often using them more than guitar. One example of this is found in Cosmic Dancer, which is covered here by Nick Cave. Anyone familiar with Mr. Cave is aware that he can interpret a tune, and interpret he does with piano and voice dominating this poignant rendering. The original assaults all that is holy with monstrously rocking drums, but Cave’s version remains sedate. Well worth checking out.
Metal Guru is covered by Nena on this compilation. Where T. Rex had a happy tune with heavy and huge instrumentation, Nena takes the same feel but makes it into a sixties Motown event. A most excellent example of an artist taking someone else’s song and making it their own.
Speaking of making something one’s own, Todd Rundgren takes the simple and straightforward Planet Queen and creates a swingful lounge feel that I found amusing and superb. A kinetic surge of psychedelic big band assaults the ears and caresses this listener’s pleasure centers.
Finally, the band’s biggest American hit, Bang a Gong (Get It On) is tackled by David Johansen, a former glamster with the New York Dolls. This cover plays almost like a comedy routine with crowd sounds from a fictitious night club accompanying the lounge lizard delivery of Johansen. While the original is essentially a rock and roll anthem, this new version is strictly the cat’s pajamas.
Conclusion? Angelheaded Hipster is a well-done tribute album to a group that we could all benefit from hearing. Check it out, check out other T. Rex releases. But most of all, have a glamorous experience.