Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Here Comes Everybody: T. Rex: "20th Century Boy"

Lately I have been reading Rob Sheffield’s Talking To Girls About Duran Duran, and in it he discusses how girls respond differently than music in their fandom than boys; that girls, fickle as they can be, are hugely loyal to artists and bands they love – that love, even if slightly ironized by time, never really goes away.  (This kind of love can verge on the possessive; certainly in the 50s and 60s it did.)  Sheffield’s book concerns itself with the 80s, so I have no idea how loyal T. Rex’s female fans were, or even if they had many female fans – I am guessing they did, or how else would “Trextasy” happen?  If fandom is like an addiction - it needs new singles all the time to feed it and keep it going – then this was the last ecstatic song, one that was rock enough for the boys (more on them in a minute) and feline enough for the girls.  (Of course, many girls were caught up in this time in the David vs. Donny brouhaha, and I will be addressing the latter’s whole family in the next entry.) 

“I walk like a rat, crawl like a cat, sting like a bee*” he claims, and while I am not sure any girl would be interested in someone even remotely like a rat, but there is such swagger in the song that it doesn’t matter; the growling guitar announces itself immediately, and the band and backing singers (including a very audible Gloria Jones) make a wall of noise that could break down anyone’s resistance.  Is he trying too hard?  It can seem that way (to those who prefer the more laidback T.Rex of yore) but this is not a song that could be done with subtlety.  Who the friends are who are saying “it’s just like Robin Hood” are or just what is like Robin Hood is beyond me – and doesn’t it sound like he’s saying “rock ‘n’ roll” almost, instead?  This is about as pagan as Bolan gets here – after all, the song is about the 20th century, it’s about being a “toy”** - an object of fun and desire, created for mischief (maybe this is where Robin Hood fits in).  If he is screaming at the end, he ends it by drawling the lyrics, as if he is Elvis and for sure this time he’ll get to the top spot…only to be confounded by little girls who want a nice ballad on one hand, and boys who want to make noise on the other.  (This was an NME #2.)  But the older girls needed that pure adrenaline wave of a hit, and this song - which is like an essence of T. Rex - was more than enough, for now... 

But the boys who were his fans were loyal, perhaps more loyal than the girls; an amazing number of them went on to form bands, as if imprinted by Bolan at some important stage in their development.  What they went on to do varied from Goth (Peter Murphy) to Socialist Pop (Dr. Robert), from Stadium Rock (U2) to Indie Subversives (Mark E. Smith, Johnny Marr) to Punk itself (practically everyone).  Glam was a movement as such, but there always has to be a heart of a movement, someone who can appeal to girls and boys, who can epitomize what it’s all about – and this song for me is at the center of it all, of the whole Glam Slam. 

Serious, funny, sexy – this song has been covered all over the place, even by good ol’ 80s Canadian band Chalk Circle, a band who were usually quite serious but here they cut loose - well, as loose as they were ever going to get.  Even if you make fun of the whole rock ‘n’ roll concept (and Chalk Circle certainly know this is an Elvis song, through and through) it’s still an effortless song, with the kind of swagger that can be heard right down to Suede and Oasis. 
But for now this is one for the girls; even if they’re not screaming anymore, this song was theirs once too, and not just the dreamy boys who would go on to make a very different noise to come.

Next up:  just a normal family from Utah, that’s all.
*Or is it “Crawl like a rat, talk like a cat”?  That’s what I think he’s singing, but since he switches it around, I’m not sure. 
**I just realized what this song is leading to, but we won’t get to that song for some time.  That song was at the center of a whole other movement, which I will be discussing in a while over at Then Play Long.    

1 comment:

Mark G said...

Off the top of my head, I remember it as being "I move like a cat, talk like a rat, sting like a bee, babe I wanna be.. your man"

I should go check, really, shouldn't I?