FOLLOWING THE REISSUE of the first three albums by Tyrannosaurus Rex, Marc Bolan’s late ’60s group that morphed into T. Rex, producer Tony Visconti has spoken to MOJO about discovering the band, Marc Bolan’s legacy, and his belief that the singer’s archive was stripped bare when his London home was “ransacked” just hours after his death.
“His house was ransacked… his guitars were gone, his tapes were gone.”
In a wide-ranging interview that you can read in full below, Visconti explains how he’s finally rescued “unlistenable” debut album My People Were Fair And Had Sky In Their Hair… from mistakes he made as rookie producer, the changing nature of Bolan’s relationship with original bandmate Steve Peregrin Took, and his work on the new Tyrannosaurus Rex remasters, including second and third releases, Prophets, Seers & Sages: Angels Of The Ages and Unicorn.
Additionally, the producer remains perplexed that tapes of the music they were recording, together with some of the singer’s personal possessions, were taken from Bolan’s home within hours of his death in a car crash in Barnes on the night of September 16, 1977.
“When he died his house was ransacked… his guitars were gone, his tapes were gone, his clothes were gone out of the house,” he tells MOJO. “I wish somebody would really investigate this.”
Read the interview in full...
MOJO: Was it you who suggested changing the name of Tyrannosaurus Rex to T. Rex?
Tony Visconti: Marc saw it on my calendar and he objected to it. I was abbreviating because I wasn’t going to write it out for every day of the week we were making an album! So he saw ‘T. Rex’ and went, “It’s Tyrannosaurus Rex!” Then, of course, it was his idea (laughs)
How did you first get involved with the band?
It was late 1967 and my mentor, Denny Cordell, the great record producer, said it was time for me to go and find a group of my own. Honestly, it was my first day of talent scouting and I saw Tyrannosaurus Rex mentioned in the International Times. They were playing in Tottenham Court Road, which was right around the corner from me. I went downstairs to the club, saw the band and fell in love with Marc. He and Steve Peregrin Took were a duo at the time. I thought I was looking for a standard four-piece pop band. I wasn’t expecting such great music to come out of basically a modern folk duo. That’s what surprised me. And the audience loved Marc – there were about 200 people watching him that night.
“Marc should have lived... he would have put out some major albums and possibly been a director and actor too.”
Not bad for your first day of talent hunting.
Absolutely not! It was really good. I’d been working with Denny on Procol Harum, The Move and Joe Cocker, so I was used to great talent and I just saw something in Marc that was entirely unique. In those days if you wanted to get signed to a label you had to be as different as possible and Marc certainly fitted that bill. He was unlike anything I’d seen or heard before.
So you got your cheque book out?
I was given £400 to make my first album, which wasn’t a lot in those days! I thought, “On these economical terms what can I do with this money?”, and, of course, a folk duo was perfect. We had to do it in four days and I was just going to do the best I could do with what I had.
Presumably, the songs were already written for My People Were Fair And Had Sky In Their Hair…?
This was their live set which I’d seen a couple of times by then. I had them come to my apartment in Earls Court to perform it and recorded it on my tape recorder. I was very lucky I had a stereo tape recorder in those days. I still have those recordings. Steve and Marc played their whole set in my front room so I could learn it, we kept rehearsing it and fine-tuning it. Given we had four days in the studio everything was a take one or two. We had to get it right.
What did you learn from those home sessions?
I was very attached to Marc, I could see he was a star. It was very early days but I had enough sense that you had to catch people at this moment in life. It could have not panned out, too, that was a possibility, but after working with him and getting to know him I was deeply involved with him and Steve. In fact, right after the first record was released we immediately went into the studio and started recording the second album [Prophets, Seers & Sages: The Angels Of The Ages].
So there wasn’t even a year between releases…
We went right back in and made it against my boss’s wishes. He wanted to see how the first one would turn out, but Marc had written so many songs there was no holding him back. I went in the studio without permission for the second album and got into a lot of trouble for spending the money. This time we spent two weeks, so Prophets, Seers & Sages… was technically a lot better. I was really devoted to this band.
How much pressure did you put on yourself as a rookie producer?
Well, I was very pleased because I’d done a fair amount of time as an apprentice to Denny Cordell and I thought I was ready. I really wasn’t! (Laughs) That first album sounded appalling. The music on it was great but I was hands off and I didn’t know about engineering. I quickly learned for the second album, but the debut was engineered as a real rush-job. I wasn’t really ready and hearing that album made me realise that. It was a rude awakening. Over the years Marc and I would say it was unlistenable. We’d never go back that far and reference anything from that album because it wasn’t retrievable. We didn’t have the tools in those days to do anything about the sound. Once it was committed to tape it was locked into a cement box. Nowadays we have audio techniques that are beyond science fiction. We can pull out frequencies that might be deeply buried but if they’re there we can find them and that’s how we got the album to sound so rich for this reissue. It was originally a very tinny-sounding album, very harsh and over-compressed. Now we have the tools to undo most of those things. This [reissue] is the way the album should have sounded! The songs actually sounded better in my front room. In fact some of my front room takes are bonus tracks on the new release.
How do you feel about revisiting these records now?
It’s really a lot of fun. The source material had a lot of gems in it and so it was worth reissuing for that reason alone. I think the fans are going to be astounded by how good the first album sounds now. You can hear more detail. There was always a warm low end in Marc’s guitar, and now there’s a richness and detail of him picking the strings. There’s more clarity in the percussion. The album sounds now like it could have been made in the ’80s instead of the late ’60s. It’s a little bit more hi-tech.
By the third album, the dynamic between Marc Bolan and Steve Took was already changing for the worse. What was it like when the pair were at their peak?
When I first met them they were very much a 50:50 band. Marc had a lot of respect for Steve and it was mutual. Steve was a multi-instrumentalist, he played a one-string fiddle, all sorts of percussion, and was a really talented backing vocalist, which is an art. He added all kinds of colourations to Marc’s lead vocal and they blended very well together. But as the band grew you could see Steve starting to ask to do his own compositions, which Marc would have none of. There was a gentle battle going on, but it culminated when Steve got busted for possession of some sort of marijuana. Marc realised his fans were young and consisted of teenage girls. So that, and the fact Steve wanted to start doing some of his own music, sealed his fate. Marc got rid of him after that. It’s a shame, though, because the third album, Unicorn, is the quintessential Tyrannosaurus Rex album. They were imitating early rock. I don’t think the electric guitar had reared its ugly head yet, but we were doing big, Phil Spector-like productions, lots of reverb. It was turning into T. Rex at that point and it’s a shame that Steve Took didn’t make it into the next phase.
If the reissue of the first album required serious musical rescue work, what did the other two need?
They always sounded good to me. There was a young guy called Sean Magee who worked with me on the reissues. For the first record I really put him through hell. We might have spent four days making the album but we spent two months remastering it! Every now and then he’d send me a batch and I’d tell him, “It’s all wrong. You’ve got to do it this way.” Finally I did some mastering on my own and when he understood me we got on great. So after bashing heads together it became minor tweaking and I trusted him to do the second and third one by himself.
As a producer, when reissues come along do you ever think: “Actually, leave it alone – I did I good job first time round!”?
I don’t mind. We went through a horrible period of remastering at the end of the ’90s when people had these digital walls of sound, making everything as flat as possible, which made records sound really terrible and squawky. I have some reissues of my work from that period that I had no part of and I could cry when I hear them, they’re so awful! Nowadays, people are more sensitive, we’ve backed off from making records sound as loud as possible. It’s ludicrous to do that. I’m really fond of what’s going on now. They’re much better than the earlier attempts and I really approve of this one, that’s for sure.
So you’re happy to have your old work tinkered with?
We were hindered by technology in those days. I used to make records in the ’70s and sit in the control room listening back to records on 24-track tape, beautiful analogue tape played through big speakers. Then I’d go to the cutting room, make the vinyl and listen to the test pressing and it was only maybe 25 per cent of the impact of what we heard in the studio. Unless you’ve heard tape, you’ll accept vinyl as being the highest format. If you’ve heard the original tape you wouldn’t say that – there’s so much more. Now that digital is sampling at a high rate, and people like Neil Young are putting out things like Pono, it’s really worth remastering now because at last the public can hear what we heard. We’re not changing the mixes, we’re just tweaking it so you can hear what it was like originally on tape. That’s how I feel about it, but it has to be done well. You can’t put these tools in the hands of an amateur or someone who just does their job’s worth. When I worked with Sean Magee I felt I was working with a very dedicated audiophile. He really wanted these things to sound great. He felt the weight of responsibility on his shoulders, the public needed to hear this in its best possible form. I’m really glad the label gave me this last shot at doing this because My People Were Fair… used to depress me! All is well now!
Is there anything else you’ve discovered in the archives?
After the first album Marc had his own tape recorder, so from then on he had everything I had. Unfortunately, when he died his house was ransacked. This was really odd. He died in the night in a car crash and by 8am – before it was announced in the press – his guitars were gone, his tapes were gone, his clothes were gone – out of the house! I wish somebody would really investigate this. So all his rough mixes and demos have been released on labels that have done other Marc Bolan releases, so everything is out there. I don’t think there’s anything left to discover. I have plans to release my entire home demo tape [collection]. The time is right now. It’s not a question of money because it’s not really worth anything – it never was – but I want it to be in the hands of the right people.
Where do you think Marc would be, career-wise, if he’d lived?
Marc should have lived. He was definitely showing signs of recovery in the last year of his life. He went through a very bad patch in the mid-’70s, he got pretty heavy and he was drinking a lot. He’d acquired some new demons he didn’t have when I first met him. But it looked like he was straightening his life out. Musically it was getting better on his last album. I think he saw the light and I think he’d have been a major force. I don’t want to parallel him with anyone else but he would have put out some major albums. Possibly been a director and actor in films too. I could see him doing that. He certainly had the chutzpah, as they say in Yiddish, to push people around. He could have been a good director.
Finally, what next for you? What are you working on?
Just now I’m working on Esperanza Spalding’s new album. She’s a young girl from Portland, Oregon. She won a Grammy about five years ago as the newcomer [Best New Artist] of the year. She’s a jazz bass player and singer. She is a darling! She has a lot of fans and her live shows are amazing. She sings and plays very complicated bass lines at the same time. If she put the bass down she’d be considered a great singer too. It’s going to be very interesting album. It’s not really a jazz album – we don’t know what it is but it’s very refreshing and different. It will probably be out later this year.
Listen to the new version of My People Were Fair And Had Sky In Their Hair… now