Close encounters with Marc Bolan - Britain’s first pop megastar

Alan talks to Marc, top, with a music journalist, right, and the popstar’s parents, bottom ( )
Alan talks to Marc, top, with a music journalist, right, and the popstar’s parents, bottom ( )

There is a new wave of interest in Marc Bolan, and not before time. Marc was, as Sir Elton John rightly observed, “the perfect pop star”.

Decked out in velvet and satin, with dashing good looks, dark curls and a natural sense of drama, he had the perfect image for pop. Add smash hits like Metal Guru and Telegram Sam, and you have Britain’s first megastar. He was the king of the New Romantics before the term had been invented.

In 1975, I was a junior PR learning the ropes when my then boss Keith Altham asked me to take over Marc’s day-to-day PR duties. I quickly learned that everything around Marc was dramatic and larger than life.

At that time, his career had taken a bit of a dip. He was drinking too much and overspending. So early on I was surprised when he turned up for a day of interviews in a Rolls Royce. It turned out a chauffeur friend had agreed to drive him around the block in the Roller, so he arrived at the office looking every inch the superstar. It set the right tone for the assembled journalists. And that was just the start of an eventful day.

I had been given strict instructions to keep Marc away from the booze, so was on the lookout for sneaky bottles stashed away. Marc complained that he had a cold and started swigging cough medicine. As the day progressed, his normally outrageous claims went into overdrive and by about 4pm, he was claiming more hit singles than Elvis Presley.

The scribes couldn’t get enough, it was great copy, but I couldn’t understand why Marc seemed to be getting ever more lairy. At one point he stood up and, to support himself, he grabbed the curtain and unfortunately his weight was too much and it brought the entire pelmet down on him.

At that moment (sod’s law) Mr Altham walked in to see how the interviews were going and there was Marc lying on the floor, with a dislodged curtain draped over him, quite obviously the worse for wear. He immediately turned on me, “I told you not to let him have any alcohol”. I replied of course I hadn’t let him have any drink and had followed the instructions very carefully. Turned out that Marc’s cough medicine bottles were full of vodka!

In those days, PR companies were very small and unsophisticated operations. Although we represented most of the Woodstock generation, from The Who to the Moody Blues, there was only two of us and three telephones in one room!

Marc was a very warm and generous man, as illustrated when Keith Altham was suddenly taken ill. One day, he suffered what we thought was a heart attack and was rushed to hospital. I was left to man the office on my own. A guitarist called me up from a well-known moody group and asked if he could speak to the boss. I explained he’d been rushed to hospital with a suspected heart attack to which the guitarist asked, “What about my album? It’s coming out next week.”

The next person to call was Marc. On hearing the news, he said, “Oh man, that’s a drag, I’ll come over and help out.” I didn’t think too much more about it but 20 minutes later, there was a knock on the door and in walked Marc, silk flares, platform shoes and looking a trillion dollars. He sat down and answered the phones with me all afternoon.

It turned out Keith hadn’t had a heart attack but had smoked a joint laden with extra strong grass. He’d missed a day in the office, but learned a lot about his clients and I had had an insight into what a real star looks like.

Marc was close friends with David Bowie and at the time of Marc’s death, David was trying to help him get his career back on track, appearing with him on the show Marc, a new ITV pop series built around the king of glam.

Marc had got his break first and at one point he was being described as the successor to the Beatles. He had moved on from his Tolkienesque Tyrannosaurus Rex folk to become a fully-fledged electric rock god and  the world went mad.

At the height of “T Rextasy” as it was known, he made a film called Born to Boogie, produced and directed by Ringo Starr. It played nearly 1,000 cinemas in the US grossing over $15m, which was a lot of money then. David said of the relationship that they were “two kids with big ambitions”.

Bizarrely their friendship had developed when they were up a ladder with paint brushes. They had come in for a meeting with their manager Les Conn hoping for a booking at the Talk of the Town. Instead of painting the town red they ended up painting the walls of his office white.

Conscious of the fact that neither were selling records, Conn suggested they earn their keep by decorating the office. He handed them a few tins of paint and a couple of brushes and left them to it. David and Marc went on to become lifelong friends.

The film documentary, Angel Headed Hipster and the album of the same name, featuring big names like U2, Elton, Ringo, Bowie and Nick Cave among others, are a timely reminder of what it really means to be a global superstar. Marc would have loved it.

AngelHeaded Hipster is in cinemas from September 22