This story originally aired on Sept. 24, 2021.
In 1971, Joe Elliott was 12 years old, and he was going to his first rock show. The band was T. Rex, touring their latest album, Electric Warrior. Pushing through the venue’s swing doors with porthole windows, Elliott found himself in a rollicking, ecstatic crowd that screamed itself into his memory. Fifty years later, he recalls it with ease.
“They were already on stage when I got there. … I just burst through the doors and just saw this sea of people going mental,” he says. Fans flailed, screamed and danced while the band gave it their all on stage. “I’d seen plenty of black and white footage of the Beatles and the Stones and stuff like that on TV … but I’d never seen it in the flesh.”
Elliott’s love of T. Rex stayed with him long after that night. Electric Warrior was the first album he owned. And eventually, he’d grow up to become the frontman of his own band: Def Leppard.
T. Rex had been around since the late 1960s, originally billed as an acoustic folk duo and called Tyrannosaurus Rex. Lead guitarist and frontman Marc Bolan crafted whimsical, fantasy-inspired lyrics and breathless album titles like, My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair…But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows. But as the ’60s came to a close, earnest folk lyrics and pared back acoustics were fading from favor. The ’70s demanded something fresh.
Bolan met American record producer Tony Visconti in London in 1967. Visconti and Bolan became fast friends, and they began collaborating right away. “It wasn’t too official,” Visconti says, “we were just extending our friendship into the studio.”
They cut four folk albums as Tyrannosaurus Rex, which achieved some success on the U.K charts. In late 1970, as the band’s musical style began to morph, they scored their first major hit single, “Ride A White Swan.” They quickly followed up with their first No. 1 hit, “Hot Love” in early 1971.
By this time, T. Rex was a sleeker package. They changed their name from Tyrannosaurus Rex to T. Rex. The acoustic duo became a four-piece band, filled out with a bassist and drummer. Visconti had been steadily building his production skills, closely studying the work of Beatles production colossus George Martin.
In March 1971, T. Rex appeared on the BBC’s Top of the Pops and performed what would become their most recognizable hit, “Bang A Gong (Get It On).” Chelita Secunda, the wife of the band’s manager, came up with the idea to apply a little glue and glitter to Bolan’s cheeks. With that splash of stardust, glam rock was born.
After the success of “Hot Love” and the Top of the Pops performance, Visconti went back to New York to visit his parents for the first time in three years. He coincidentally ran into Bolan. They’d both heard the news about “Hot Love.”
“I had my boss phone up from England saying, ‘Do you have a follow up?’ ” Visconti recalls. “That’s when I knew we had a real hit record situation going on and that I had to make an album that would keep us in the charts and supply us with a third hit single. And I said to my boss, ‘I’ll have one when I return.’ “
Over the next three months, Visconti would chase Bolan from New York to Los Angeles to London as he toured and recorded at the same time. The end result was an 11-song album packed with melodies, groove and beats that begged you to move. Electric Warrior rocketed to the top of the charts in the U.K., but Bolan had a different country in mind while working on the album.
“The only country left in the world is America, for us. And I’d like to get it over with, find out if people either want us, or don’t, here,” Bolan told jazz producer Michael Cuscuna in 1971. While the album charted at No. 1 in the UK, it peaked at 32 in the U.S. T. Rex’s biggest single “Bang A Gong” reached No. 10 on the US Billboard Hot 100, but failed to climb any higher. “T. Rexstasty,” as it was called in England, wasn’t contagious in America.
Though the band met with limited success in the States, their influence remains. In 2020, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and musicians ranging from the late David Bowie to Ke$ha have cited Bolan as an inspiration. And in the words of the rocker himself, Electric Warrior is more than an album: “I think Electric Warrior, for me, is the first album which is a statement of 1971 for us in England. If anyone ever wanted to know why we were big in the other part of the world, that album says it, for me.”