What do you do when you’re at the top of your game and hoping to crack the United States? In Marc Bolan’s case, you replace the vast majority of your line-up, go on tour as “Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow,” and release an incredibly strange album of the same name. No wonder, then, that Tony Visconti recently commented that “Marc was changing dramatically as a person and his life was, frankly, a mess during the making of Zinc Alloy,” and that critics constantly rate this as the absolute nadir of the Bolan catalogue.
And there’s no denying that, when compared to a masterpiece like Slider – or even to those rubbish demos you made as a kid – some of the songs are a little embarrassing. And yet, a handful of songs are so good I could listen to them on repeat all day. So why the massive difference? Well, Gloria Jones’ backing vocals, frequently derided, go one of two ways: exhilarating and bombastic, or screechy and nauseating. They’re so prominent that this album could be billed as “Gloria Jones & T. Rex.” With both Bolan and Jones, producer Tony Visconti had no choice but to vamp up the orchestra and effects.
If all this sounds like some garish nightmare, that’s because it is. But hold on a minute. For every weird (and terrible) song like the self-explanatory The Avengers (Superbad) and Liquid Gang, you have fabulous oddities like Carsmile Smith and The Old One, where the booming orchestra really comes into its own, and the wonderfully over-the-top lead off track, Venus Loon, which makes Metal Guru sound acoustic.
Bolan also seems to miss a trick by clumsily bundling together the tracks You’ve Got To Jive To Stay Alive and Spanish Midnight as one package, given that they would make great tracks of their own with a little fleshing out. It would be better than dross like Change and Galaxy, which buckle under the weight of Gloria Jones and lack of muscle. That’s not to belittle Jones though: it takes guts to wail through half of Sound Pit and still somehow pull it off.
Zinc Alloy is such an inconsistent album that it’s difficult to listen to all the way through without grimacing a few times. That said, if you take 8 of the best tracks and combine them with half-decent singles like The Groover, Truck On (Tyke) and Satisfaction Pony, it’s perfectly possible to take in Bolan’s excesses and maybe even enjoy them.