Back in the early '80s, EMI's Australian wing pulled off a remarkable coup, a three-LP Marc Bolan/T. Rex compilation which drew material from the length and breadth of his career, to serve up the most well-rounded portrait of the Bopping Elf that has ever been mustered. It disappeared from the racks pretty quickly, and fans have been praying for a similar gesture ever since. Well, it hasn't arrived yet, but the three discs here at least go halfway, covering the years during which Bolan operated his own record label, Hot Wax, and doing so with such precision that "perfect" is not too superlative a description for it. Quite simply, A Wizard offers the yardstick by which all box sets should be measured. Few of them will make the grade. The breakdown is breathtakingly straightforward, divided equally between the expected hits, the necessary album cuts, and the demanded rarities. Disc one follows Bolan through his period of greatest success, the 1972-early 1973 era during which U.K. hits like "Telegram Sam" and "Metal Guru" trailed one of the most astonishing albums of the decade, The Slider. Disc two tracks the downhill-quickly years of 1973-1974; disc three catches the rebirth which was so cruelly curtailed by Bolan's September 1977 death. Each is superlative. The year 1972, in particular, passes in a blur of excitement; Bolan was at his vivacious best, and it matters not what he's doing, whether it's laying down the next monster hit single ("Children of the Revolution," "Solid Gold Easy Action") or strumming rudely through a demo that might never see the light of day ("Over the Flats," "Is It True?" -- since covered by St. Etienne). At his best, even Bolan's B-sides ("Cadillac," "Thunderwing") were worth a dozen A-sides from anyone else, but the 27 tracks (plus eight more snippets) that comprise disc one are more than a simple portrait of pop at its purest. They offer an in-depth examination of how the portrait came to be painted in the first place. Then what happened? Clearly Bolan did not lose his magic overnight, but he did forget what made it magical. The most remarkable thing about disc two is the sheer quality of the songs he left on the shelf, a fact which the relevant volumes of the Unchained outtakes series have already made abundantly clear, but which is only reinforced here by its proximity to what was being released. The hit "Teenage Dream" notwithstanding, Bolan's best work through 1974, the material which proved he was still the most individual talent of his age, either lay unreleased and largely unheard until the last couple of years, or was buried away in a substandard version at the end of an album somewhere. Maybe he was right and the world wasn't yet ready for the miasmic electric gospel of "Sky Church Music." But &"Everyday") is the kind of song Bolan's rivals would have killed for. He simply killed it. Other highlights include the glimpse into the power of the live T. Rex-perience provided by a shattering "Token of My Love," recorded in Cleveland during the band's last ever American tour, again in 1974, while Bolan's long-cherished dream of creating a stable of acts around his own star is represented by a cut from his work with vocalist Sister Pat Hall; he produced an entire album with her, since released by Edsel (of course, and represented here by "Jitterbug Love," a minor Bolan classic that never got the due it deserved. Until now. Like the period it documents, disc two is somewhat unfocused. Disc three, however, finds Bolan utterly regaining his equilibrium, first via excerpts (released and outtakes) from the still-underrated Futuristic Dragon and Dandy in the Underworld albums, then with the clutch of songs that, had he lived long enough to progress them beyond demo stage, would have comprised his next album. The sheer quality of "Hot George," "21st Century Stance," and "Celebrate Summer," his final 45, would have done the rest. A Wizard does have its weak spots, of course. The promise of 92 tracks is undermined by the fact that at least a score of them are merely radio jingles, interview snippets, and abandoned-after-two-notes demos. Yet they work within the overall concept, lending the box a documentary feel -- and one which sets out its intentions from the opening interview snippet: "On that stage I'm in a realm of fantasy," Bolan laughs. "I can do whatever I want to do -- and get away with it." Then it kicks into "Telegram Sam" and you know he was right. He could. Of the set's other deficiencies, Bolan's much-vaunted collaboration with Roy Wood is disappointing from a musical standpoint, although if the pair of them had ever got sick of the pop lark there would certainly have been a career for them in stand-up. Similarly, the excerpts included from 1974's uncompleted "Children of Rarn" suite are little more than tantalizing fragments that would have been better employed on the relevant volume of the Unchained series. Overall, however, there is little about the set over which even compulsive collectors could reasonably quibble. Indeed, amid the myriad Bolan collections currently available, it's nice to finally receive one that lets you appreciate every facet of his career and abilities, as opposed to the simple-minded hit machine that history most vividly portrays. Yes, he was a human jukebox and a purveyor of mighty fine records. But he was also a fabulous guitarist, a visionary poet, an astonishing live performer, and the most charismatic songwriter of his generation. And not even Todd Rundgren would argue with the title of the box.
A Wizard, A True Star: Marc Bolan & T. Rex 1972-1977 Review
by Dave Thompson