In June 2006 I paid a visit to Brian Berg, who at the time was Managing Director of Universal Music’s TV arm – responsible for their television-advertised releases and broadcast output. I wished to pitch various ideas to him for celebrating Marc Bolan’s 60th birthday and the 30th year since his death, both of which fell during September 2007. I wanted to be on the front foot, making a strategic approach to the management of his legacy – for the first time.
I had recently been a driving force in the teams that delivered the Born to Boogie DVD and its follow-up release, T.Rex on TV, and was confident that Brian would hear my ideas sympathetically. Moon on a stick was my approach – let’s do a whole festival! In amongst ideas for a live tribute concert, a cabaret show and an exhibition were two definite winners – a new Greatest Hits compilation, and a television documentary in which Marc would be granted the opportunity to speak for himself.
I was tired – who wasn’t? – of all the talking heads telling people’s stories on their behalves, usually with a huge lump of revisionism and score settling thrown in. There were enough television and radio interviews with the man, I argued, to give him back his voice. As one of the most visual performers, from the most televisual era of music, Marc is a natural for the screen, and always excelled in front of a camera.
Brian reached for his copy of the Book of Hit Albums to check on the chart position of the previous T.Rex compilation CD – one he’d overseen in 1995 and re-issued in 2002. Ah, he said, number 18. I assured him we could do better and he agreed that enough time had elapsed to warrant a fresh approach. I was most insistent that we should call it Greatest Hits – it’s the proper title for a hits compilation, better than Ultimate and Essential and Best Of and all the other mucking around. Greatest Hits is Greatest Hits in my book.
The agreement to release the CD was pretty much done there and then in his office in West Kensington. As for the television programme, Universal had an in-house production arm, and a follow-up meeting was arranged to discuss the idea.
The planning for the CD went very smoothly. I upped the ante and proposed a 2-CD set of hits, LP tracks and rarities, which was readily accepted. I also suggested that the first three T.Rex singles should be re-released on vinyl to support the marketing campaign; yup, let’s do that. I brought Kieron (‘Spud’) Murphy to the table to provide photographs for the CD sleeve and booklet. UMTV’s excellent marketing and production teams worked tirelessly to ensure that the CD looked fabulous and the singles were packaged and promoted as well as they could be. The only element to fall by the wayside was a digi-pack of the CDs which proved too costly to produce, although it did get to the final design stage.
As for the television programme, it got kicked around, various angles were developed, but in the end, Universal’s TV people passed on it. This left a bit of a hole, one which no-one particularly wanted to leave empty as the idea still had legs. I can’t remember how Double Jab Productions (RIP) got involved, but after another pitch from me, they readily accepted the challenge to make the programme, potentially for BBC4. Marc on the BBC at last! All previous documentaries had aired on ITV or C4. As often is the case, Double Jab’s top brass had a great love of Bolan and could see the potential in the programme.
The only problem was in raising the money for the budget. After various negotiations, funding was found from NBC in the US to match the money raised in the UK, and the project got the green light. In walked the fabulous Mark Tinkler as Director, which is when it really got started.
Up until this point it was a bit like speed dating, meeting people and presenting ideas, getting a nod or a no, moving to the next stage or sideways a bit. With Tinkles on board, we went into overdrive but had a very short time indeed to deliver – only about nine weeks, which in telly world is the blink of a small mouse’s eye.
Mark has oodles of experience and oodles of contacts and we shared a love of tracing impossibly lost footage. I knew where to find pretty much everything we wanted, and everyone on my list was known to one or other of us, so between us we worked our contacts and began scheduling interviews. Yes, this was going to be Marc’s show, in which he talked about Marc, but of course we also needed contemporary interviews and to find someone to hold the narrative together.
I was insistent that certain people should be found who had not been on record before, and that we should try to keep the interviewees to a reasonably small number. I also wanted Marc to be considered as an albums artist just as much if not more than man who made a unique series of spectacular singles.
Lots of people helped out, some unwittingly. My mate Clive had provided me with a load of lost radio interviews, which proved essential in building the story. Marc’s brother Harry was, as ever, generous in lending his time and – for the first time – revealing some of his private collection of Marc’s clothes, photographs and personal effects. I was really chuffed that we landed Lorna Luft (sister of Liza Minnelli, the other daughter of Judy Garland, big chum of Marc’s), his school-friend Richard Young – the internationally renowned photographer, Zandra Rhodes, and Marc Almond, with whom we spent a most pleasurable couple of hours when we filmed his interview at the Café de Paris. Zandra made me an excellent cup of tea at her exotic studio in Bermondsey and happily showed us Duggie Fields’ portrait of her with the equally exotic Chelita Secunda.
So far, so good – but we’d not yet found the spark elevate the programme to the show we knew it could be. Mark had, however, traced a fragment of footage of John’s Children performing in April 1967 at the 14-hour Technicolor Dream at Alexander Palace – the earliest-known footage of Bolan yet to emerge.
In June we hopped onto flights – separately – to New York, and the project really took off. Tony Visconti had agreed to an interview, scheduled to take place at the downtown studio facility he shared with David Bowie and Philip Glass. I’d convinced Essex Music to grant access to the multi-tracks of Jeepster and Ride A White Swan, which were transferred to Pro Tools and mailed over to Tony. This – again, for the first time – gave the opportunity to film the maestro, re-united with the master tapes and able to explain the techniques with which he and Marc had created the unique T.Rex sound. By the time we reached him he’d already spent several happy hours with the music and had isolated various elements to highlight on camera. He’d also brought along a number of his previously unseen photographs. Tony’s generosity of spirit was such that the interview stretched to something like five hours, providing ample material for Tony, in effect, to become the programme’s backbone.
We also got the money shots – Tony, mixing desk, multi-tracks. Marc was very much in the room as Tony revealed each element of these timeless, classic recordings. Bassoon on Jeepster? Yup, there it is. Marc’s double-tracked vocals on White Swan, sealed forever together on 8-track tape? Oh listen again, said Tony, I can hear a third vocal track! It was a magical afternoon.
We interviewed BP Fallon in a subterranean private hairdressing salon, as you do. Beep could not have spoken more graciously and movingly about a man he loved dearly, a man who still does little favours for him, who watches over him. It was important to me that BP should feel comfortable, that he should be included, that he should have his say and not be snipped down to just two sound-bites – or overlooked – as had happened before. He described how he’d coined the phrase T.Rextasy and, when the programme was completed and he’d seen a preview tape, how pleased he was that the word had been enlivened to illustrate his vision of it being “like typeset on fire”. (Regrettably, this effect had to be removed from the broadcast version due to its potential to trigger distress – really! – but survives in the longer DVD edit.) There was a big cat in the salon which caused anxiety to the crew as it moped around and made more noise than is ideal on a shoot.
The drama of the trip, however, centred on the arrival of Gloria Jones. She was driving up to Manhattan from Philadelphia. We’d booked her and husband Chris a suite at our mid-town hotel, while we made do with more modest accommodation. GloJo was due in on our first evening and we were planning to take the two of them to dinner. The big hand on the clock went round, the little hand on the clock followed it. No Gloria. I called her, to discover that she’d yet to begin the journey but was about to embark. She’d arrive late in the night but we’d meet for breakfast before going down to Christopher Street, where we were due to interview her in a piano bar famed for its transvestite chorus girls. Gloria liked that idea…
Mark and I found a diner nearby and drank a few beers, retiring early so as to be fresh for the morning – and to overcome the inevitable tiredness of an East-West Atlantic crossing.
Two English boys met for breakfast in the hotel. Still no Gloria. Still no Gloria?? The hotel manager confirmed that Gloria had not yet checked in, and that he’d let her reservation go. Great. Another phone call revealed that Gloria and Chris were just emerging from the Lincoln Tunnel, and would be arriving in the next 10 minutes. One very unhappy Director and I made emergency plans. He’d go ahead to the venue, get set up, keep the crew under control, I’d nab Gloria, bundle her into a yellow cab, and we’d just about make it for our two-hour slot.
Gloria arrived. Not unreasonably, she wanted to freshen up. Of course this took longer than the time we had available – and then things got a bit more nerve-wracking when she wanted to visit a salon to get her hair fixed. No, we don’t have time! OK. Gloria came down to the lobby and whispered into my ear, “I had a whore bath! That’s what we used to call it when you freshen up quickly after being up all night!” Into a cab we leapt. Next request: could we stop at a toy store and try to buy a frog, to reference Marc’s hit New York City? No darling, we’re already 12 hours late…
We reached the venue. Gloria sat at the piano and, as the crew warmed up, she looked into my eyes and played and sang the opening bars to her hit “If I Were Your Woman”. Goose-pimples… We started to film, but were troubled by a low rumbling noise. What was it? Oh, it’s the star’s stomach, not having eaten yet. I nipped out to a deli to procure some provisions.
We got underway again. Another intervention – a crew started digging up the road outside. Were we actually making a Carry On film? Some hastily-donated dollars shut them up long enough to allow filming to be completed.
Stresses now behind us, we spent a late night as guests of BP Fallon at a club where he was staging a special glam night, featuring his new protégées Semi-Precious Weapons. For two songs that night their guest on bass was none other than Tony Visconti. On another night out we were guests at a Gibson Guitars party to mark the 92nd birthday of Les Paul – and the legend himself was there. Also there was my old friend May Pang, as always great fun and full of stories.
Inevitably we had enough material for a Beatles Anthology-length programme, but the budget wouldn’t withstand any such thing and we had only an hour’s broadcast slot. We did, though, have an agreement for a DVD release, which gave the opportunity to make a Director’s cut and include bonus features.
The edit was completed in record time and, aided by expert insight from my dear friend Marquita Palaganda, by early August, it was done. We couldn’t settle on a title: I suggested Words and Music: Marc Bolan, we tried In His Own Words and in the end struck on “The Final Word” which, so far, it has proved to be.
A couple of additions were made specifically to appeal to the American market – commentary by Suzi Quatro, and a brief interview with Roger Taylor of Queen. Did we stay true to my original vision? By and large, we did. Marc got to speak, we featured the breadth of his career as well as the more obvious linear journey, and presented him a serious writer and performer. The programme aired during the anniversary weekend. Some critics focused on Marc’s darker side, finding fault not in the programme but in his music and persona, but on the whole it was well received and the ratings were good.
Tinkles had kept an ace up his sleeve until the very end – to ask interviewee to describe Marc Bolan in three words. This made for a most unusual, moving end to the programme; the final word indeed.
Greatest Hits – with a television advertising campaign, exclusive website and media onslaught, entered the charts at 15. It was the highest chart position for T.Rex for over 15 years. Get It On even cracked the top 75 for a week. And then… it all went into reverse gear. The CD slipped to 19 and never recovered. I was disappointed – I’d been sure we could reach the Top 10, but we failed. Could we have done more? I don’t know. What I do know is that years and years of multiple releases of budget CDs had probably exhausted a market which was already in considerable decline.
At the same time as all this activity, I was working on a tribute show at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire and a cabaret show at the Café de Paris – stories for another day.
See The Final Word (BBC edit) here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LgtuUMOKJFA