Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Cultural Explication with T. Rex and The Power Station

In 1970 Marc Bolan might have been the most astute musician in Britain. He saw the tide shifting away from mellow acoustic rock, so he transformed his folk group into an androgynous guitar powerhouse that rode the first waves into the glam rock era. The T. Rex formula was simple: raw electric guitars, men in mascara, and lyrics so vague that they transcended themselves.

Their best known song “Get it On (Bang a Gong)” speaks to nearly every decade, and listeners have foisted all sorts of meaning on the song--unrestrained sexual promiscuity (probably correct), Christian religious iconography (hmm, maybe), membership in the Aryan Brotherhood (not likely). It's difficult to find a rock group that hasn't been compelled to perform it at least once. Blondie stumbled through it on stage during their late 70's tours. Witch Queen managed to turn it into an extended (almost ten minutes!) disco mix replete with a string section and flanged rhythms. (If you need something cringe-worthy from the era of polyester pleasure pirates, look no further.) Ministry encased it with the concrete and black plastic of the industrial scene. Cinema Bizarre belatedly gave it a 21st-century-retro treatment that sounds like a lost track from Escape Club's first album. Most recently, Carlos Santana and Gavin Rossdale managed to rip every stitch of “untamed youth” from the song and released a version so bland it could be served for lunch in one of those Florida retirement mega-facilities.

Each remake says something about the culture that spawned it, but rather than write a book on the subject I'm going to stick with a side-by-side comparison of the two most popular versions: the original T. Rex release and the Power Station remake.

The two groups couldn't be farther apart: a rebellious 70s trail blazer and an 80s super group--Marc Bolan puts everything on display with his just-woke-up hair, glittered eyes and skin tight pants, while Robert Palmer calmly smolders in a perfectly tailored suit and tie. Of course, there's more to this analysis than the lead singers' fashion sense. T. Rex were pioneers of the early 1970s glam rock scene; Bolan abandoned mellow folk tracks in favor of more heavily produced numbers, and T. Rex were one of the few British glam acts apart from David Bowie to find success in the United States. In sharp contrast, The Power Station was an almost corporate merger between Robert Palmer and members of Duran Duran, all but guaranteed popular success. This is not to say that one group was better than the other, but it does speak volumes about the public that embraced each act.

The original “Get It On” struts to a hard-edged R&B beat. Almost every instrument--not just Bill Legend's drums and Steve Currie's bass--drives rhythm; even Boland's own electric guitar and Ian McDonald's baritone sax pile onto the groove. Bolan's vocals shoulder the melody, albeit conversationally, almost as an afterthought: “Oh this? Yeah, this is the song, baby.” A brief alto sax melody toward the end punctuates the song's almost hypnotic cadence. Even though the track is very clean, the song sounds like a stage recording. It's analog, dirty and sweet, and Bolan's gasps and moans would be right at home on a porn soundtrack.

No one would call T. Rex's original “Get It On” the anthem of a generation, but it is the opening salvo in a musical rebellion. From the first bass licks, it's clear that T. Rex is intent on beating a gaping hole in the aging hippy folksinger facade, revealing the androgynous new face of the glam era beneath.

In contrast, The Power Station put out a slick version of “Get It On” that cloaked itself in the trappings of the 80s. The song sets a scene, drags you into a carefully crafted musical microcosm. Tony Thompson's opening drums sound like someone kicking the starter on an old Buick over and over until it fires to life with Andy Taylor's squealing guitar spitting sparks and backfiring all the way to Wall Street. Every note on this track has been scrutinized and processed to sound like soul music on steroids. Amazingly, it works. Palmer snarls, Andy Taylor struts, Roger Taylor preens, and it all fits together as cleanly as the circuits in an Apple Macintosh.

What can these two groups teach us about the culture that spawned them?

T. Rex stood on the cusp of change, listeners were tired of Scarborough Faire and Mr. Tambourine Man, so Bolan hammered out a new rock paradigm that was refined by artists such as David Bowie and Slade. This was the era of Vietnam, violence in Northern Ireland, and college protests gone wrong like the Kent State shootings, but it was also the era of Mars exploration and lunar landings. There was a lot of bad stuff going on, and people were tired of singing about it. They wanted to change it.

The Power Station came online in the midst of 80s excess, cherry picking talent and turning out a phenomenal hit that embraced everything popular in 1985. Both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were in the middle of their terms of office, and both changed the political face of the 20th century. Rock bands put on massive charity concerts to raise money for a plethora of relief efforts. Coca Cola released New Coke, which was promptly dismissed by the public. There was a lot of good stuff going on, and people didn't want it to change.

Keep this in mind if you're in a band, and if you're looking for a failsafe cover song. Maybe you should take a crack at “Get It On”. Who knows, we might be talking about you in a couple of decades.

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