Why The Slider Is Their Album That You Need To Hear
by Ryan Settee
In terms of musical history, T. Rex is best known for "Bang A Gong" and Electric Warrior, but for me, it's The Slider. There's something about it, where it seems to convey and encapsulate the optimism of summer. Even in wintertime, when the cold freezes the ground over, there's something about this record that manages to permanently evoke the sense of eternal summer. Even amongst its saddest songs and ballads ("Rabbit Fighter," "Ballrooms Of Mars"), there's still a sense of triumph and majesty there. I'm not sure if that carefree attitude was among one of the reasons why T. Rex still continued to be stonewalled in America in terms of popularity, but the endless optimism certainly could be misconstrued as being not serious about one's craft among certain audiences.
For me, the album's predecessor, Electric Warrior--despite being a great album in itself and a clear mission statement--is almost too simplistic in its execution. A classic album to be sure and the first true T. Rex album that had established the new T. Rex sound in its full glory; guitars/bass/drums/vocals instead of early Tyrannosaurus Rex's acoustic guitar/vocals/bongos Tolkien folk. But it's still not quite what I'm after with Bolan's creativity. The actual T. Rex eponymous debut is still too rooted in the band's earlier acoustic folk based elements in which to really be classified as a T. Rex album, yet there are electric/band based elements; rather it serves as a gateway album in which it's a bastard cross of neither true era. You can tell on that record that leader/singer/guitarist/writer Marc Bolan was still trying to purge the folk elements from his repertoire. But I think that it's The Slider's additional instrumentation--string sections, horns, etc--that give the three chord Chuck Berry styled rock n' rollers an additional dimension. The symphonic elements, in particular, really merge an element of grandeur that has been attempted on other "rock symphony" songs that have a much lesser effect. And it's not just for the beautiful sounding parts, it's also for the ugly sounding parts, too. On "Buick Mackane," for example, there's a low string part that plays along with the main riff, adding a dark percussive undercurrent to an already evil sounding riff.
Plus, everything from the ghostly Mad Hatter cover to its back cover shot had created a larger than life illusion of mystique that still intrigues to this day. Though history hasn't been as kind to Bolan, the early '70's certainly did indicate that he was of the lineage of Chuck Berry/Elvis/Beatles/Stones/The Who hierarchy at the time. But for some reason, the decades seem to be more and more unkind to his and T. Rex's legacy. Even at the time, he was very often derided as being "too bubblegum" oriented or manufactured to really have any lasting appeal. Such claims are interesting, considering that T. Rex was Bolan's vision, through and through--from the Chuck Berry ethic of the singer/guitarist/frontman writing their own songs and leading the charge and taking little outside direction even from band members. I think that maybe the trend of glam had perhaps dated the band and album as being from too much of a certain trend, and although the band is respected as a helping hand in the protopunk movement of simplistic, back to basics rock n' roll (New York Dolls, etc), T. Rex's scope was a little too epic and huge to really be completely accepted as protopunk. The mortally flawed Dolls seemed to fit that mold (outcasts and misfits), whereas Marc was living the high life and indulging in the excesses that popularity and money bring.
Regardless, even with the glam trend--which was more visual than maybe necessarily sonic based--the music was out of step with the overblown prog rock and Neil Young styled folk rockers of the moment. Surely, it would have been easier and more convienient to ride a horse with no name rather than a white swan, especially since Marc had credibility in the folk rock movement and could have just added some gently shuffling drums and steel guitars and could have been done with it.
Of course, fellow record nerds are well aware of the brilliance of The Slider, but you'd be amazed at how many people that I play this record for that have no idea who it is and that are pleasantly surprised. It is perplexing as to why "Ballrooms Of Mars" isn't one of the ultimate rock ballads on classic radio (as many more infinitely popular bands seem to have stolen its tender but tough grandeur for their own rock ballads) but I guess that's just the way that the chips fall. Not to mention that the smokestack hat has been adopted by some noteworthy rockers; or that the curly fringe of unruly hair has been the basis for many a 70's/80's rocker (both used by Slash for decades now), a slightly lesser used template than the more omnipresent Thunders circa New York Dolls hairdo.
The Slider also to me represents that vital period in one's career where they have enough experience under their belt to swing with the confidence that they need to make bold and different statements, yet aren't hardened enough by the public's reaction to their backcatalogue in which to become jaded in which decision to make next. In other words, The Slider seems to mark that point where Bolan and the band really felt that they could do anything, that they didn't have any restrictions and that the world was ripe for the taking. "Telegram Sam," even though it's the quintessential T. Rex choogle at its core, gets an added boost from the string sections, and the title track sets a slow boiling rocker against a similar majestic string section. There's no doubting how absolutely huge these songs sound. Marc had already gone through the complete career arc with Tyrannosaurus Rex and--most likely-- had seen the ceiling in popularity that the folk scene had, when Dylan became the genre's first and foremost star, no matter which year had passed (the "Bo" in Marc's name taken from "Bob" and "lan" taken from "Dylan" and note that fellow glam god Bowie worships the 60's folk rocker also). It was obvious that Bo-lan felt the need for a change in both his music and creative devices. But oddly enough, there is enough of the band's early acoustic direction that had made it through onto the album, in songs like "Mystic Lady," "Main Man" and "Spaceball Ricochet" in which it also doesn't sound out of place amidst the fired up rockers.
Also, much like when Dylan went electric and gave off the false perception to some of giving into prevailing trends in exchange for monetary compensation along the way, Bolan had seen the backlash that ensues when you make a drastic change in your sound and image. The Slider, unlike Electric Warrior, to me, is the point where Marc had really realized that there was no going back to the old fans and pleasing them, so he may as well go bigger. Some of the lyrical content would seem to prove that Bolan realized his predicament: "With my Les Paul, I know i'm small, but I enjoy living anyway" ("Spaceball Ricochet") or "Bolan likes to rock now, yes he does, yes he does" ("Main Man"); referring to himself in the third person like he's viewing himself through someone else's lens, or perhaps in a sarcastic light.
On the followup album Tanx, Bolan had changed the direction slightly, as he was after more critical and creative acclaim. It is with mixed results, then, that Tanx offers its wares. One on hand, he had expanded his palette a bit in which to not just be a boogie based band--"Electric Slim And The Factory Hen" seems to get more introspective, mood-wise, than even the fairly reflective "Rabbit Fighter." Compositionally and structurally, Tanx improved upon The Slider's good blend of "waist up versus waist down" approach. On the other hand, it does sound a bit like a gateway album for the ill-advised trip into Bolan's funk leanings on ensuing albums. In many ways, I wonder if the comparatively weaker later T. Rex doesn't lower the band's stock, in a historical capacity; that if T. Rex had stuck just with the debut, Electric Warrior, The Slider and Tanx, that the band wouldn't be held up in a much better light. At any rate, it could be argued by many T. Rex fans that Tanx had continued The Slider's forays into large, bombastic terrain, without necessarily bettering it, and that Bolan ditched that template pretty much altogether after that.
Another thing that really makes The Slider what it is- Tony Visconti's production. Take any stereo, put this record on, and it always manages to encapsulate the best of the early '70's rich analog tape sound before digital and overcorrection on records became commonplace. There's enough ties to the old style of production (slapback echo, etc), but enough nods to production and overall sounds that are looking ahead of their time as well. Everything sounds clear, and the production on certain songs like "Metal Guru," the drums have an additional bombast that give them a genuinely futuristic sound that practically creates and influences another generation of musicians and composers. On one hand, "Metal Guru" doesn't have an official chorus, although there is enough repetition in the chord changes and overall word structure in that the song actually feels like a gigantic chorus. Credit Visconti and the string arrangements, where it creates this massive crescendo, where rock bombast meets orchestral bombast. Flo and Eddie's vocals (Turtles) are on this record like they were on Electric Warrior, but on songs like "Metal Guru," the high falsetto vocalizing that competes with the string arrangements really create an additional elevation.
It's clear that on this record that Marc and the band were ready to take over the world. And to me, it still best represents the future that the band never perhaps had.
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