Proper albums would follow: Aladdin Sane, Psychomodo, For Your Pleasure, The Slider etc. This was the first record though. The first long playing record that I had bought on my own terms, using my own money to furnish my own, budding, and quite contrary, taste. Ride A White Swan, on the dreaded and much derided Music For Pleasure label. It cost 72 of the new pence and was bought from a Woolworth’s in Nottingham whilst on a family holiday. I was 11 years of age. It was 1972.
It wasn’t remotely proper in the proper sense of what a proper album constituted, it’s impropriety stemming from the fact of it being a tacky cash-in compilation of old material between the cool label Fly and general industry chancer MFP to cash in on Marc Bolan’s newly found superstar success. No matter, I was instantly smitten by the maven weave of magic and dream that flowed out of the grooves.
I loved this first record to death, lost it and found it and then lost it again, and I had quite forgotten about it I must say, until a week or so ago when doing a Marsha Hunt inspired you-tube surf I was confronted by an image of the lurid and hyped Ride A White Swan cover.
It was a bit of a shock to say the least, and I clicked on the link with a bit of trepidation, wondering how it would sound after all these years. No worries though. It was the same raw beautiful sound of youthful memory that bellowed out. Better in fact: it lit up a drab autumnal week and put some proper fire into the leaves falling onto the pavements outside. I posted an Instagram of the cover on Facebook and quite a few other bods said the same thing – it was their first record and much loved after all these years. Way to go MFP!
Things got better still when Ant Cook of the quite superb Church of Elvis emailed to say he had a spare vinyl copy and would trade. Within two days I had the record in my possession and I’ve played it every free moment since. I’m not even going to try to be objective here. In fact, indulge me please as I head into the direction of gush overdrive. I just have out and out love for this record, and for the fourth or fifth time in my life, it’s hit me like a new infatuation. Here are a few thoughts…
Let’s start with that sleeve. The fabulous purple cover with ultra pink pumped lettering promises a kind of tacky magic. It says T.REX on the sleeve; this is of course a bit of a misnomer, as most songs here should be credited to the earlier Tyrannosaurus Rex incarnation. Made no difference to me at the time and indeed only served as a portal to discovering Bolan’s earlier work. I’m not going to quibble now either: the sleeve still looks magnificent and trashy and casts a weird spell upon the room. How about the music, the sound, the songs, the word, the voice?
The album itself begins with two absolutely monumental pop big hitters in Ride A White Swan and Deborah. This is Bolan at his seductive best, harnessing rock and pop and great surreal poetic couplets to ride out a flight of mad fancy. It’s a ride of cosmic insanity that carries you along all the way as Marc exhorts us to ‘wear a tall hat like a Druid in the old days, say a few spells and baby there you go’ Both songs still sound strong today and serve to put a spring in the step and a cheeky notion in mind.
Two reverb drenched mythical ballads Child Star and Cat Black follow. Child Star seems to be about some kind of Tibetan Wunderkid waiting in exile to return to his country. I’m probably wrong on the Tibetan Wunderkid front. Bolan sets out such a fantastic terrain it’s easy to populate it with mythical beings of your own imagination.
Cat Black is simply beautiful, it employs a classic rock and roll / doo wop chord structure to sing a hymn of lovelorneliness to a supremely distant hippy chick who I’d guess might be Marsha Hunt. I’m probably wrong again, but I don’t think that matters at all with these songs, they are all wide open to interpretation. Maybe bringing Marsha Hunt to mind is just an excuse to recommend you go on You Tube and search out her sublime cover of Walk on Gilded Splinters, or indeed her take on Stacey Grove.
Conesuela is next, followed by Strange Orchestra, and such a strange orchestra it is too. I have never thought of these songs as overtly psychedelic or psyche despite their cosmic allusions and punk drive, rather it’s kind of a weird ecstatic pop the act forges, never quite druggy but always mystic with one eye firmly on the important teenage things of the day like fast women, smart cars and streamlined clothes. Bolan’s singing often seems both rushed and slurred with a kind of drugged excitement though, and I like that. I like that I can’t always understand the words: again, it allows my own interpretations to flourish. Peregrine Took’s percussion is frantic and intense and propels the sound on in great skittering surges. Mickey Finn was a bit more laid back in the later incarnation. All of them beyond good looking: style-saturated Ladbroke Grove cats, which adds extra pop dust to the starry mix.
Lofty Skies is one of the greatest songs ever, a visionary heroic love song that always inspired a kind of Northern Mysticism on cold winter mornings when I was 19, looking for another world through Magic Mushrooms and Liebfraumilch, and then later in London, in the early hours of coming down off a speed fuelled night, the song always pointed to some other wilful and more Wyrd world beyond this stupid one. I was always prone to a bit of astral flight and imbued with cosmic yearning. Never quite managed the corkscrew hair mind…
Mucho silliness yes, Narnia Glam Racket indeed and pure wilful cosmic escapism without a shadow of a doubt and, all the better for it. Lofty Skies is blessed with one of the greatest wah wah guitar solos ever and I’m happy to report that all these decades later it stands. The whole record in fact sounds better to me now than it did then, makes more sense, fires the spirits, sends new shivers, in a purely different older way of course. The crushed velvet has faded but the fist heart mighty dawn dart remains strong and true and hey…
King Of The Rumbling Spires is magnificent and tribal, tremulously so, with a chorus that makes you feel ten foot tall and ready to be like the true ruler of Narnia, or the outside bet in Game of Thrones and yeah, this monster song, really takes off when the mellotron kicks in. The album ends with the deranged rural boogie of Elemental Child with dance, dancers a dancing as a truly rocking Bolan lays bare the torch girl of the marshes. The songs as a whole have me bopping around the room and Bolan’s voice transports me and even now as a grown man I swoon to a croon that is rare velvet, and as precious and as fragile. Gorgeous!
What I love most about this album listening to it now, are all the clicks and trills and whoops and bangs that flicker through Tony Visconti’s production. These sounds are probably not things that I would have picked up on at the time. The sonic blast has enlightened some blank days of late and transported me to other spaces awhile. He lords it over this record in a manner similar to the way Martin Hannet did with Unknown Pleasures. His use of strings, effects and organs turns every song into a mini pop odyssey. Fuck it, it’s 7 30am and I’m going to play it again, right now, loud.
I lost track of my copy after leaving home but weirdly enough came across it again around 1990 when Band Of Holy Joy played the legendary Surfers club in Tynemouth and I took a pre gig browse in a car boot sale, and found it, with my name written on the insert, and along the balloon typography, much like ‘Andy’s’ on the You Tube post.
The cost that time was 50p and 20p admission fee, so 2p cheaper than the first time around. With all the moving about I’ve done in London I soon lost it again mind and along with my lost copy of Prince Far I’s Under Heavy Manners, the early Pistols and Banshees and some Bowie bootlegs, it was always the slab of cardboard and vinyl I wish I still owned. All of them have the same depth of wonder and perpetrate similar crude sonic magic. Which is always what I look for and want in any piece of music. This time around it cost me a copy of Land Of Holy Joy and I’m determined to hold on to it for a few more years yet. I know one thing, it’s came into my life again at a good time. It is a record that has magic in spades, and stars in buckets, a shiny truth in every glam grain of sand, it’s an exotic treasure of the popular past washed up on the drab shoreline of my present, and for that I’m grateful. Major thanks to both Ant Cook and Marsha Hunt for bringing it back into my life. (Johny Brown)
Click here for our review of The Band Of Holy Joy’s brilliant debut ‘More Tales From The City’: