#160: T. Rex, "Electric Warrior" (1971)

160 Electric Warrior.jpg

There’s a certain contrarianism to liking Ringo Starr, isn’t there? Composer of the fewest Beatles songs, and contributor to the smallest piece of pie in a pie chart labeled “Things That Made The Beatles Both Distinctive and Consistently Forward-Thinking,” Ringo has always just sort of been around. No one outright denies his place in music history because of course how could you, but at the same time when the Best Beatle debate pops up, sometimes Sir Starkey isn’t even mentioned. This isn’t necessarily not fair, but it definitely isn’t not interesting. YouTube comments sections—the bastion of anti-critic positioning, real swamps of unfiltered observation for better and for worse—of Ringo or Ringo-centric Beatles videos (very few of the latter) seem to come primarily from drummers both pro and amateur. They praise Ringo’s metronomic superpowers, and are willing to literally come to blows if you hesitate in your adulation. Some people—depending on the era—even note how cute he is; Ringo, it can sometimes seem, is the poster child for conventionally unattractive men who get called cute thanks to an overwhelming sheen of goofy kindness.

And there’s exactly why I’m on Team Ri: no one seemed to have more personally invested in keeping the lads together when it all fell apart, and no one seemed to have been as, well, sad about the end of it. Wherever possible, Ringo always felt like he was trying to get the band back together, in fact (and he spoke about it openly). While recording his self-titled third solo record in 1972, there were even rumors circulating that the Beatles were getting back together, since John, George, and Ringo were all doing studio time together with a new bassist, Klaus Voormann (Grammy-winner for designing the cover of Revolver, which is only one blip near the start of a staggering lifelong CV). The song they collaborated on, “I’m the Greatest,” was written by John for Ringo to record—on it, Ringo refers to himself as his old Sgt. Peppers moniker Billy Shears, while an overdubbed cheering crowd goes wild in the background, much as it did on the opening track of that indomitable record. Two songs later sits “Photograph,” a song Ringo co-wrote with George while they were out sailing one day, and further down is “Six O’Clock,” made at Apple Studios in London with Paul and Linda. It wasn’t the first time Ringo collaborated with his old friends, and it definitely wouldn’t be the last; even his 1981 record, the not-good Stop and Smell the Roses, is chock full of compositions by George, Paul, and John (one of his last), and was co-produced mostly by George and Paul in tandem. Everywhere you turn, in fact, at some stage or another in his adult life, Ringo Starr is trying as hard as he can to recapture lightning in a bottle. And his more talented, more famous friends are always there to help him do just that! There’s nothing else to assume but that Ringo is a very kind, very good, very pure (and very hard-to-turn-down) person. Frankly, what’s not to cheer for?

Pureness and light attract pureness and light on the best of days, and something particularly magical happened in the early 1970s when a certain former Beatle met a certain twenty-something rising star who seemed to have come from outer space and wore glitter on his face to mirror the galaxies that birthed him. Marc Bolan was 24 years old when he first got to know Ringo Starr, and 25 when Ringo directed a documentary about his “band,” the basically-a-solo-project T. Rex. Bolan is one of those bursts of light from modern history who knew from a very early age that he was going to be famous, and then did everything in his power to make it so. Plastic-faced comedic actor Jim Carrey famously wrote himself a 10 million dollar check in 1985, post-dated it 10 years in the future, and in 1994 became the most famous man in the world (Ace Ventura, The Mask, and Dumb and Dumber all came out in 1994. Can you imagine being Jim Carrey in 1994?). It’s not the same but it’s not dissimilar to point out that when Marc Bolan was 19 years old, he knocked on producer Simon Napier-Bell’s front door and introduced himself as a big star who needed someone to help him with his arrangements. Napier-Bell, despite having no reason to, let the twitchy songwriter in. Another story goes that sometime around 1968, just as T. Rex was beginning to take shape, most of Marc Bolan’s equipment was stolen. He still had a gig scheduled for the following night, however, so he put an ad in the paper for backing musicians. The ad ran on a Wednesday afternoon, and Bolan started sound check with a bunch of newspaper randos by five that evening. It was a disaster of a performance by all accounts, but can you imagine? It’s the thrilling audacity of someone so sure of their own future, so determined not to let anything get in their way.

I don’t know how similar Marc and Ringo were in this regard, but they sure hit it off real easy. There are a good amount of videos on the internet of the two buds messing around, many of which are taken from Ringo’s T. Rex movie, Born to Boogie. The shiniest diamond among many shiny shiny gems, though, might be a 90-second clip of their attempts at advertising...something. I originally thought it was car they’re shilling in the video, since they’re both framed in a medium shot posing hands-on-hip in front of a new one, but I’m not so sure anymore. Ringo Starr is 32 years old, Marc Bolan 25 or so, and the difference in those seven years is immediate and stunning and very funny. The older, stately ex-global-superstar is trying to do his job: he speaks into the camera without pause or error, a consummate professional. “Some people like to roll.” And then his young friend, so in love with life and probably high as fuck, just can’t keep himself together. Can’t look into the lens for five words of his own: “Some people like to rock.” Ringo is first a good sport, then a tad annoyed, then eventually simply overwhelmed by laughter and unguarded joy of his own. This is the power of Marc Bolan’s infectiousness. At one point, he bends at the waist laughing, then lunges for Ringo’s knees, looking to tackle him to the ground, a twelve-year-old boy in the spidery casings of a full-grown chart-topper.

And obviously this comes out in the music of T. Rex at its best. No one in the early ‘70s except perhaps Elton John (present, too, in Born to Boogie, playing piano for an absolutely magnetic in-studio performance of “Children of the Revolution”) channeled a belief in their own imminent superstardom into actual and immediate superstardom. Electric Warrior buzzes with it, end to end, this grinning lit within by a burning confidence. Not that it’s a bombastic record by any means—quite the opposite, in fact, full as it is of whispered vocals and drum-guitar simplicity. But sometimes the quieter voices make the biggest stir.

Off-record, Ringo Starr never had the quietest voice (that’d be Buddha George), and neither did Marc Bolan. Both men lived loudly, cracking jokes easily and by all accounts drawing the center of any gathering back to their energies. But how each of them captured the essence of their love for life, their happiness at simply having the opportunity each day to see their friends, drink a pint, play music, write bad poetry in the woods, pose for magazine spreads...there’s something lovely there. Something undiluted and unnoticeable at times. That sort of intentional glee seems essential for now, and in short supply. Holding on to the deathless music and memory of Marc Bolan has always been cool, and rightfully so. Liking Ringo has always been the least cool, though, even when we might know it’s the most good. But then again, when has love—and not simply the image of love, the idea of it—taken hold of us so easily and fully as its opposite?

—Brad Efford