The Bolan Collaborations

Jam (Standing Next to You) (rehearsal).
Jam (Standing Next to You) (broadcast).

Bowie and Marc Bolan first met in July 1964. He was still David Jones then, while Mark Feld had gone through one pseudonym already and would soon acquire another. They were both prospects of the promoter Leslie Conn, who put them to work painting an office (when Conn returned after lunch he found them gone and only half the walls painted). Born within nine months of each other, Bolan and Bowie became fast friends, rummaging through discard bins on Carnaby Street for clothes, grabbing crumbs from the great banquet that was London in the Sixties. They wanted to be pop stars, but their various singles and albums didn’t sell; they spent the decade off-stage, in the wings.

Then, as the hippie summer was fading, they began to strike. Bowie first, with his “Space Oddity” novelty hit, then Bolan, who ditched his Tyrannosaurus Rex mummery and his 20-word album titles and, using Bowie’s producer Tony Visconti, became the new decade’s first pop idol. Bolan’s success inspired and nettled Bowie, who aped Bolan’s singing voice on “Black Country Rock” and got Bolan to play lead guitar on his flop single “The Prettiest Star.” Bowie’s song for Bolan (“Lady Stardust”) was both a tribute to a fellow traveler and an attempt to press Bolan into legend, making him a predecessor to Bowie’s own creation, Ziggy, the last rock star. For a brief moment in 1972-73, they were on top together—Bowie breaking through with “Starman” while T. Rex was in the midst of its streak of top-charting singles. Paupers in the Sixties, they had suddenly come into their inheritances.

When glam died, though, Bolan was left stranded, a drunken host desperately trying to keep a waning party going. His attempt at futuristic glam R&B, Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow—A Creamed Cage in August (not a good sign that the elephantine LP titles were back) was a dud, while some subsequent LPs didn’t even chart. He alienated Visconti, who stopped producing him; he lived on brandy and cocaine, got fat, seemed a spent force. All the while Bowie had moved on: breaking America, where Bolan had only been a minor presence, and recording his masterpieces.

So when Bolan and Bowie reunited in early 1977, the balance of power had shifted fully to Bowie’s side, to the point where Bowie could feel charitable. Staying at Bolan’s London flat during the Iggy Pop tour in March ’77, Bowie offered to co-write a song with Bolan, and the half-song (tentatively called “Madman”) that resulted had promise. With a raw, vicious opening riff that sounds like it’s inventing the Gang of Four, the best surviving version of “Madman” has Bolan’s shredding guitar fills and Bowie snarling lines like “when a man is a man, he’s destructive/when a man is a man he’s seductive.” Bolan would play the tape for friends: he was going to rework it, make it the center of his next record.

Bolan had cleaned up by the summer of 1977. Inspired by the new punk groups, who generally revered him, he was writing again, going out to shows. Landing a TV variety show with Granada, Bolan brought on The Jam, X-Ray Spex, the Boomtown Rats, Generation X. And for a finale, he would have Bowie, who had just completed “Heroes.”

The taping started off well, with Bowie catching up with Bolan’s backing band (who included his former drummer Tony Newman and Herbie Flowers, who played bass on some of Bowie’s early ’70s songs, as well as Lou Reed’s Transformer). Bowie and Bolan worked on a jam to close out the show. It wasn’t much (it didn’t even have a title, though bootleggers over the years have called it “Standing Next to You” or “Sleeping Next to You”) but they were having a good time. Then Bowie started running the band through “Heroes,” became consumed with getting the right feedback sound, and it soon was clear there was no place for Bolan, whose guitar would just clutter up the song. Bolan, irritated, went back to his dressing room, drank some wine. Bowie’s security men and assistants began taking over the show, preventing Bolan’s friends and staff from coming in the studio. Bowie, caught up in his new song, didn’t notice.

By the time they were to tape the jam sequence (which would run out the end credits), Bolan and Bowie were barely speaking. Mustering himself for the cameras, Bolan introduced the “new song,” and for a minute the two of them were equals again, scrubs playing a blues riff, making faces, calling each other out. Bolan went to strike a move and fell off stage, Bowie cracked up. The crew refused to do a retake, so the great reunion would end with a goof and a laugh.

The two made it up over dinner that night, set out plans. Bowie was going to tour, Bolan was going to make a record that would put him back in the center. A week later, Bolan and his girlfriend, Gloria Jones, went out for a night of drinking. At 5 in the morning, Jones crashed Bolan’s Mini GT into a sycamore tree on Barnes Common, striking the tree with enough force to crush Bolan into the back of the car. He was dead in a second, having not reached his 30th birthday.

Bowie went to Bolan’s funeral, set up a trust fund for Bolan’s son. The game had lost another player; Bowie had lost a friend, an influence, a rival, and one of the last who had known him when all he had was ambition.

“Madman” was recorded ca. 4-7 March 1977 at Bolan’s flat, where Bowie was staying during the Iggy Pop tour’s stop in London. The Cuddly Toys covered it in 1980. “Standing Next to You,” or whatever it’s called, was rehearsed and taped on 7 September 1977, a week before Bolan’s death. Neither’s been released officially. Paul Trynka’s Starman has the best synopsis of the muddle that was the Bowie/Bolan reunion.

There have been a number of other rumored Bowie and Bolan recordings from this period, though most seem spurious. The most credible-sounding, a track called “Walking Through That Door,” allegedly a supergroup recording of Bowie, Bolan, Gloria Jones and Tony Visconti from around the time of Bolan’s death, is most likely instead a demo of Jones’ brother, Richard, ca. 1975, with Bolan on guitar/vox.

Top: Jones and Feld, class reunion, September 1977.

15 Responses to The Bolan Collaborations

  1. Deacon Lowdown says:

    I was hoping you’d do something to recognize Bolan’s death, as the man played such a large role in Bowie’s life, as a rival and as a friend. Bolan’s death is the epilogue to a chapter of Bowie’s life that had closed long ago. It really was a tragedy – listen to Dandy In The Underworld and you can see he still had great music in him. Who knows? Maybe while Bowie went more and more pop, Bolan would have gone punk.

  2. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Glad you included this. Even more glad that I didn’t comment about its omission during the Iggy Pop entries! And that makes me even more wary of asking about the location of the earlier Ronson songs. (I stumbled across this site around the time of Pin Ups so maybe I missed them.)
    Marc Bolan’s falling off the stage is kind of sad, but also somehow fitting.The television show sounds good in retrospect but it really wasn’t.
    I remember hanging around outside the Post House hotel in Manchester when this was being recorded. I’d love to be able to say that I saw Bowie there, but I think my chronic short-sightedness had me looking and waving at the wrong person.

  3. gonemansland says:

    It is funny both ‘songs’ are real bits of fluff and yet you can hear that with a few hours work they each could have been hits. ‘What can I do — sleeping next to youooo.’ Bolan was no intellectual and did get kinda stuck but boy he could work a bog standard bar room boogie riff into something magical…

  4. diamond dog says:

    the low quality bootlegs of the jam session do nothing for the songs which in reality sound knocked up in few mins and hardly fit with Bowie’s then current output.
    Bolans show was great at the time he was so rediculously camp and way over the top , with a lot of then very punk guests such as the jam etc it was an odd juxtoposition.
    The show complete is available in Japan on dvd import , just the Bolan bits are available here in the uk .

  5. Jeremy Earl says:

    I’d forgotten about these tracks. I thought you’d go to Alabama Song from Stage. They are knocked up but yes, could’ve been contenders with a bit of work. When I first heard these in the mid eighties on a bootleg I thought they were lost treasure ( I love that about bootlegs) and in a way they still are. Ah, the romance of the past…

  6. Martin Barden says:

    Bolan didn’t “use Bowie’s producer” – it was the other way around. Tony Visconti had already produced two LPs for Tyrannosaurus Rex before he worked on the Space Oddity LP.
    In many ways, Bolan peaked before Bowie’s eventual breakthrough with Starman. By the time the Dame draped his arm around Mick Ronson, T.Rex had already done 20 Top of the Pops performances, had four number one singles (UK) and three chart-topping LPs. Never let it be said that Marc wasn’t the originator.

    • col1234 says:

      wasn’t meant to be an insult to Bolan! Visconti was as much “his” producer as DB’s…I’d only meant to note that Visconti was producing Bowie in ’67-’68 as well (only problem was DB’s records weren’t being released).

  7. abdul says:

    Also, it’s not fair to say Bolan’s records weren’t selling before glam. the first Tyrannosaurus Rex album went to no. 15, which meant a lot of copies in those days. The second was shit, but the third got to number 12, all before the T. Rex era.

  8. Andrew ruffy says:

    fantasic marc bolan and t rex never forgotten.

  9. DJB says:

    Your comment about the death of glam is facetious. Bolan pronounced glam dead in UK front page headlines as early as 1973 – just as Bowie was releasing yet another glam record. Bolan’s Zinc Alloy record saw him moving beyond glam, experimenting with vivid lyrics and characters and experimenting with soul influences (an idea Bowie stole from him). After that, the remaining three T. Rex albums were ahead of their time and under appreciated by an audience still clinging to the remnants of glam rock.

  10. BenJ says:

    Bolan looks like a mess on the cover of Zinc Alloy, but it is an underrated album. “The Avengers (Superbad)” always gets me charged up.

  11. Jane Bell says:

    Bolan could never look a mess. I saw him the night he had his hair cut, I was outside The block of flats at Bilton Towers in Great Cumberland Place on his birthday 30th september, my friend and I were chating waiting around to see him as usual. I suddenly noticed this guy bouncing up the road, Marc bounced when he walked. We ran after him and caught up and walked up to marble arch with him. we wished him Happy Birthday, I said Oh Marc you’ve had your hair cut and he said “Yeah I know Bowie did it” I have never read that anywhere since but that was his exact words. He then hailed a black cab said bye girls and was gone off too party. So if you think he looks a mess, it’s Davids fault, ha ha. I hope it’s true I always get this image now when I see that picture on Zinc Alloy of David
    cutting Marc’s hair, such a lovely site, I wish I could have got one of those cut off curls, and The Zinc Alloy cover is stunning. Bolan had something so special he looked like a dream, I have never seen a man more beautiful when you saw him in the flesh he took your breath away.

  12. In addition to Cuddly Toys (rather good) cover, Belgian minimal wave act Snowy Red did a version in 1982.

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