During our first lockdown last year, one of the saddest losses to Covid was the extraordinary American producer Hal Wilner.
Initially a producer with Saturday Night Live, Wilner produced albums for Marianne Faithfull, Lou Reed, William S. Burroughs, Lucinda Williams and Laurie Anderson among others. That’s an eclectic range.
But what he will be remembered for is a series of “tribute albums”, where he assembled combinations of singers and musicians across all spheres of music – from classical to jazz to rock – then turned them loose on particular songs he chose for them.
First there was the Thelonious Monk tribute, which featured the likes of Keith Richards, Dr John. Donald Fagan and more, then there was a Kurt Weill set, one of songs from Disney films, and another of the songs of jazz titan Charlie Mingus.
His latest and last collection was released posthumously and, like much else in the pandemic world, disappeared immediately. I have been discovering the many pleasures contained in the album’s 26 tracks.
It’s a collection of the songs of Mark Bolan and T. Rex, with offerings covering both the T. Rex and earlier Tyrannosaurus Rex eras. It’s called AngelHeaded Hipster and includes performances by Kesha, Nick Cave, Elysian Fields, Marc Almond, Todd Rundgren, Sean Lennon, Julian Lennon, and Maria McKee amongst others. It’s a remarkable line-up.
Listening to AngelHeaded Hipster reminds you just how many hits Mark Bolan and T. Rex had back in the 1970s, with song after song preserved in memory. It’s a reminder of all that was appealing about his music, and what a unique blend of sensibilities it was.
Mark Bolan, more than any of the other “glam acts”, was solidly rooted in blues. While Bowie and others co-opted the style for the occasional hit – Jean Genie for instance – it was Bolan’s main wheelhouse, delivering unthreatening poppy interpretations of riffs from Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters and many more.
In stripping the blues of its threatening heaviness, and any cultural weightiness, Bolan created “blues for teens”, taking an adult music and re-purposing it for young pop ears. And he coupled it with some of the most eccentric English lyric-writing since John Lennon’s books. He had few equals in his ability to turn out semi-nonsense poetry, rhyming couplets that often make very little literal sense but always – always – sound unassailably cool.
Try a few: ‘I drive a Rolls Royce / Cause it’s good for my voice’; ‘Ain’t no square in my corkscrew hair’; ‘Slide so sleek with skin so fair / you shine like a snare with a bear in your hair’; ‘Automatic shoes, automatic shoes / Give me 3-D vision and the California blues’.
It was great and often very silly stuff and ideally suited for the days of platform boots and glam, rocking alongside the similarly musically retro Suzi Quatro, the now unmentionable Gary Glitter, and Slade’s mis-spelt string of hits. The fact that he died in a car crash at 29 left the legacy untarnished, the bright-eyed child-like playful pop prince.
This double album is a true wonder, showing off a depth and range that the original songs only hinted at. Nick Cave is sensational on Cosmic Dance, an oh-so-simple-song that he raises to the level of profundity through sheer character. Similarly, Lucinda Williams re-imagines Life’s A Gas and Beth Orton unearths the true nastiness of Hippy Gumbo with an anguished performance.
In the rock arena Joan Jett does a classy Jeepster, Peaches makes a modern pop song out of Solid Gold, Easy Action, and there are two runs at Bang The Gong (Get It On) - the first a very slick hook-up of U2 and Elton John, Bono delivering an intimate sensual vocal, the other by David Johansen of the New York Dolls, who simply plunges magnificently over the top and rocks out. It’s hard to say which is best.
Elsewhere Marc Almond delivers the campest possible take on Children Of The Revolution and Father John Misty sings beautifully on Main Man. There’s so much to enjoy this will stand many many repeat listens. You can find it on Spotify and the usual digital platforms.