Born Mark Feld, he grew up in the east and southwest areas of London and developed an interest in music from a very early age. After falling in love with the early US rock stars such as Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran, Bolan was presented with his first guitar at the age of nine, and soon after had formed his first skiffle band.
After leaving school at the age of fifteen, Bolan joined a modelling agency and was paraded in catalogues and shop windows by ‘Town’ magazine presenting the Mod look that he had immersed himself in from an early age. Bolan never lost sight of his desire to forge a career in music however, and by the age of seventeen he was performing solo shows under the guise of ‘Toby Tyker‘ on the British 60s folk circuit, where he would perform some original compositions alongside covers from established folk acts such as Bob Dylan.
By 1967, Bolan had adopted the name he would become famous by and had signed to Decca Records, where he released his debut single ‘The Wizard’. Shortly after, he was assigned by his management to the band John’s Children, who’s Bolan-penned single ‘Desdemona’ was banned by the BBC for what were at the time considered to be provocative lyrics.
Bolan’s time with John’s Children was brief, and soon after the disintegration of the band he formed his own group, Tyrannosaurus Rex, with Steve Peregrine Took who had answered an ad placed in Melody Maker magazine by Bolan. After performing one ‘electric’ gig as a four-piece, the group quickly disbanded, after which Bolan and Took moved in a more folksy direction. The duo would perform Bolan-penned tracks, with Took on percussion and bass, accompanying Bolan on acoustic guitar. They were championed from an early stage by legendary DJ John Peel, who even acted as the duo’s driver at times while they were on tour. Fuelled by the exposure being given by Peel, the duo went on to release four albums and enjoyed modest success in the charts.
By 1969, Bolan and Took had begun to drift apart; the two men differed in both lifestyle and musical approaches, and as Bolan’s songwriting began to evolve to more elaborate compositions, he would refuse to perform the new material Took was now himself writing. After an ill-fated US tour following the release of ‘Unicorn’, Bolan replaced Took with Mickey Finn. Bolan’s move from the acoustic sound of the band’s early period into more electric influenced music became apparent on ‘A Beard Of Stars‘, the final album released under the name Tyrannosaurus Rex, which featured music heavily influenced by the likes of Jimi Hendrix.
In 1970, Bolan and Finn returned under the shortened name T.Rex, and confirmed the move into electric rock n roll with the release of ‘Ride a White Swan‘. Often called ‘the birth of glam rock’, the single was comfortably Bolan’s biggest commercial hit at the time, and eventually peaked at #2 in the UK charts 11 weeks after it’s initial release. Bolan embraced this new ‘glam rock’ movement and began dressing extravagantly on stage, and also started to wear make-up while performing.
After the success of ‘Ride a White Swan’, Bolan added bassist Steve Currie and drummer Bill Legend to the line up, before releasing the group’s first number one hit, ‘Hot Love‘, in February 1971, which was soon followed by arguably his seminal track ‘Get It On‘, which also hit the top spot in the UK. Renamed ‘Bang a Gong (Get It On) in the US, it reached the top 10 there, but was a rare success in America where the band struggled to replicate their achievements in their homeland. After a row with their record label Fly, T.Rex signed to EMI records and achieved a further two UK no.1 singles in 1972 with ‘Telegram Sam’ and ‘Metal Guru’.
After the peak of T.Rex’s success in 1972, Bolan’s fame had begun to wane by the end of 1973 and the ‘classic’ T.Rex line up fell apart after the departure of Bill Legend in the November of that year. Bolan responded by expanding the T.Rex line up, and attempted to evolve his songwriting further. However, the singles released through 1974 and 1975 from the albums ‘Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow‘ and ‘Bolan’s Zip Gun‘, all failed to trouble the UK top ten, while ‘Zip Gun’ itself failed to chart at all and recieved heavy criticism from the press.
In 1976, Bolan had begun suffering from ill-health, and he began to put on weight after giving up his vegetarianism. After a year of declining health and ridicule in the music press, Bolan emerged in 1977 in better shape, and released a new album called ‘Dandy In The Underworld’ and he also toured with punk band The Damned to positive reviews in the spring on that year. By the autumn of ’77 it is said Bolan was ready to perform again with Mickey Finn, and was enjoying a resurgance in popularity.
Bolan’s re-emergence was tragically cut short in the early hours of 16th September 1977 however, when he was killed in a car accident whilst travelling as a passenger in a car driven by his girlfriend Gloria Jones. They had spent the evening of the 15th eating out at the Morton club in London and on the way home, Jones lost control of the car at a bend and hit a tree after leaving the road. Neither Bolan nor Jones were wearing seat belts, and while Jones was severely injured but survived, Bolan was killed instantly. His funeral was attended by the likes of David Bowie and Rod Stewart, who gathered to mourn the passing of a man who is now remembered as one of the most glamorous and talented rock stars of all time.