Rear cover of Unicorn, 1969
In a past post I discussed the faery influences detectable in the music of Led Zeppelin. Now, following my series of posts looking at fae themes in British classical music of the early twentieth century, in opera, musical theatre, songs and chamber works, I want to bring our discussions up to date.
Much of the British rock music of the late sixties and early seventies was suffused with faery. A very good example of this is the work of Marc Bolan, in the days when he performed as Tyrannosaurus Rex, and before he shortened the band name to T. Rex and became the glam star that we remember.
The fairy influence is especially strong in the four albums Bolan released between 1968 and 1970, but even as late as Ride a White Swan in 1972 there are traces of elvishness. The album titles themselves betray the tenor of the songs included on them: they are My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair… But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows (which is all one title) and Prophets, Seers and Sages from 1968; 1969’s Unicorn and A Beard of Stars, released in the following year.
A Crooning Moon Rune
Certain themes appear repeatedly on these four albums. There are, of course, repeated allusions to dwarves and fairies:
“Twelve years old, your elvish fingers toss your Beethoven hair” (‘Child Star,’ on My People);
“You’re a gift from the fair folk… A sprite in my house of sight” (‘Travelling Tragition,’ on Prophets)
“Fairy lights in her eyes/ Tame the water” (‘Pilgrim’s Tale,’ on Unicorn)
“She bathes in thunder/ The elves are under her” (‘Jewel,’ T. Rex, 1970)
“Tree wizard pure tongue … The swan king, the elf lord” (‘Suneye,’ T. Rex)
and, most especially for its mention of the sidhe folk:
“Fools have said the hills are dead/ But her nose is a rose of the Shee;/ A silver sword by an ancient ford,/ Was my gift from the child of the trees.” (‘Blessed Wild Apple Girl,’ Best of T.Rex, 1971).
There are, too, plentiful mentions of wizards, warlocks and magi, of myths and legends and of mysteries, such as unicorns. Bolan references Narnia (‘Wonderful Brown-Skin Man’ on Prophets), King Arthur and the Matter of Britain: “Holy Grail Head, deep forest fed/ Weaving deep beneath the moon” (‘Conesuala’ on Prophets) or “Let’s make a quest for Avalon” (‘Stones for Avalon,’ on Unicorn) and (repeatedly) Beltane, including these lines:
“Wear a tall hat like a druid in the old days,
Wear a tall hat and a tatooed gown,
Ride a white swan like the people of the Beltane…” (‘Ride a White Swan,’ on Ride a White Swan, 1972).
Bolan was, it seems, steeped in British folklore. He wrote of ‘The Misty Coast of Albany’ (with its echoes of William Blake’s lines “All things begin & end in Albion’s ancient Druid rocky shore”) and of the magical woods “Elder, elm and oak.” (‘Iscariot’ and ‘Misty Coast,’ both on Unicorn). Even so, the other major fascination and inspiration for Bolan seems to have been classical myth, most especially woodland creatures like satyrs and fauns. On a mantelpiece at his home he kept a small statute of the god Pan, which he called ‘Poon,’ to whom he addressed little messages and requests. Bolan’s biographer Mark Paytress has described the god as “Marc’s muse.” Of course, in this devotion he’s linked directly to Arnold Bax, John Ireland and Arthur Machen.
The pagan Greek world appears several times in Bolan’s lyrics, with allusions to satyrs, maenads and titans:
“The frowning moon, it tans the faun,/ Who holds the grapes for my love.” (‘Frowning Atahualpa,’ My People)
“a pagan temple to Zeus/ He drinks acorn juice” (‘Stacey Grove,’ Prophets)
“Alice eyes scan the mythical scene… We ran just like young fauns” (‘Scenescof Dynasty,’ Prophets)
As this jumble of citations possibly indicates, there were so many allusions packed into Bolan’s songs that the verses tended not to tell any coherent story but rather to sketch impressionistic imagery for the listener: aural painting, let’s say, creating a mood or feeling.
The back cover of the expanded version of Unicorn.
The jumble of influences and imagery extended to the band’s album covers, too. Bolan loved the art of William Blake, Dali and Arthur Rackham and for the cover of the first album, My People, asked the designer to provide something that looked ‘like Blake.’ On the back of the sleeve of Unicorn there’s a black and white photo of Bolan and co-member Steve Peregrine Took (note the name, Tolkien fans). The pair are posed with an array of meaningful objects, which include a book on the Cottingley fairies (supplied by photographer Peter Sanders) and several volumes from Bolan’s own collection- a child’s Shakespeare, Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet and William Blake’s collected verse. Collectively, these form a kind of key to Bolan’s writing.
John Peel and his gramophone, 1968: N.B. Fairport Convention album, folk fans.
Do you ken John Peel?
The Bolan story is made more intriguing for his association with radio DJ John Peel. Peel will be well known to many British readers, but very possibly much less familiar to those from outside the UK. Peel became an institution on BBC Radio One, with a weekly show late on Friday nights on which he played and promoted new music he had discovered. He performed a major role introducing listeners to punk rock from 1976, but before that had favoured folk and dub. Earlier still, he had been a good friend of Marc Bolan.
The pair met in late July or early August 1967 and quickly became close. They spent a great deal of time together, professionally and socially, and Bolan one night gave Peel a hamster called Biscuit (in a night club- the poor creature spent the evening riding round on one of the turntables).
Peel was taken with Bolan’s warbling voice and began to feature Tyrannosaurus Rex prominently on his radio shows. He had a regular column in the International Times in which he also promoted his new friend. As an established and respected DJ Peel played frequently around the country and so could offer more direct help to his friend’s career. He started to give Bolan live support sets to his DJ appearances: Peel had a regular slot at the club called Middle Earth in London’s Covent Garden and also took the band with him as part of his ‘John Peel Roadshow’ as it was grandly called- everyone crammed together in his car and heading up the motorway.
Not only did Peel promote Bolan’s music; he contributed to it. He narrated the track Wood Story on the album My People Were Fair and wrote the sleeve notes:
“They rose out of the sad and scattered leaves of an older summer… They blossomed with the coming spring, children rejoiced and the earth sang with them.”
Peel provided a further narration on the album Unicorn and also started to appear as a sort of support act for his friends. He read poetry to the crowd at the Royal Albert Hall, sitting cross-legged on the stage, and at the Tyrannosaurus Rex gig at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on January 13th 1969, Peel was billed to appear to “prove the existence of fairies,” as the flyers promised, by reading poetry to the audience. In the face of this proof, they remained, it is reported, “politely silent.” What could Peel have been reading? Based on what we learned just now, I wonder if the DJ may have read selected poems from Shakespeare and Blake- and maybe John Keats too?
Peel made out later that he never really understood or sympathised with Bolan’s mythic leanings. He claimed that he couldn’t understand the song lyrics because they were too ‘mystical’ and ‘hippie’ for him. Nonetheless, there’s the evidence of those sleeve notes and we know too that the pair travelled, with their respective partners, to visit Glastonbury, capital of hippiedom since the days of Rutland Boughton, where Bolan was pictured on top of the Tor.
In later years Peel was a gruff and slightly cynical personality, so these ‘airy-fairy’ indulgences all feel rather difficult to reconcile with the older, more rational enthusiast for the Sex Pistols and Extreme Noise Terror. Nevertheless, Peel’s overall verdict was that Tyrannosaurus Rex “were elfin to a degree beyond human understanding.”
Signs of the Times
Marc Bolan is now the best remembered fairy rock star of the period, but the fae influence was pervasive.
For example, Bob Johnson of folk-rockers Steeleye Span asked in an interview in 1976:
“Everything I do and think is based on England. If I lived on the West Coast [of the USA] how on earth could I think about elves and fairies and goblins and old English castles and churches?”
So strong, in fact, was this spirit of place that, along with another band member, Johnson produced an electric folk opera The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1977). This was based upon the book of the same title by Edward, Lord Dunsany (an author in the vein of Machen and a great influence upon H. P. Lovecraft) and the record featured contributions from, amongst others, Welsh folk singer and Eurovision entrant Mary Hopkin, blues musician Alexis Korner and Christopher Lee, star of (amongst so many films) The Wicker Man.
The King of Elfland’s Daughter album cover.
You can listen to all Tyrannosaurus Rex’s albums on YouTube, of course; check out too the work of Dunsany and (even) Steeleye Span. For more information on Marc Bolan, see these biographies: Paul Roland, Cosmic Dancer, 2012; Mark Paytress, Marc Bolan- The Rise and Fall of a Twentieth Century Superstar, 2003 and John Bramley, Marc Bolan- Beautiful Dreamer, 2017. For John Peel see his autobiography Margrave of the Marches and Michael Heatley, John Peel, 2004.
For more on all these topics, see my The Faery Faith in British Music which is available from Amazon, either as an e-book (£5.95) or a paperback (£7.95).