It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
Marc Bolan's musical career began as Tyrannosaurus Rex, a moniker under which he created a handful of whimsical folk records in the late 1960s, attracting influential fans and collaborators such as Tony Visconti and John Peel. With a new decade came a new sound and a shortened band name: 1970's T. Rex introduced Bolan's glam side via a batch of electrified Tyrannosaurus songs placed alongside new material. While 1971's Electric Warrior, and its monster hit, "Bang a Gong (Get it On)," would eventually define Bolan's career, it was 1972's The Slider that presented T. Rex at its most fully realized an artistic peak that Bolan would, unfortunately, never reach again. In many ways, The Slider is Electric Warrior's sister album, a fact that has evolved into the critical shorthand "more of the same." But a close listen reveals The Slider is the party to Electric Warrior's hangover remedy (despite the fact that they were released in the opposite order). Every one of The Slider's songs, even the acoustic-driven tracks, are slaves to the groove, with lush production including strings! and a huge sound throughout. If you don't keep up your guard, they will get you in bed. Bolan is a riff machine, and the only thing catchier than his guitar licks are the earworm melodies that spill out across the room like an upturned bowl of marbles. But perhaps most notable of all is the record's shitfaced sense of exuberance. From Bolan's myriad ejaculations before musical breakdowns to the fantastical song titles ("Metal Guru," "Spaceball Ricochet," "Chariot Choogle"), The Slider is the Prozac of glam rock: an aural smile pressed upon wax in the early '70s that's still grinning nearly 40 years later.
"During 1971, he draped words of poetic wonderment over a Chuck Berry lick and enjoyed several hits," writes Mark Paytress in Bolan: The Rise and Fall of a 20th Century Superstar. But more than just copping Berry riffage, Bolan is a direct descendent of the pioneering rock 'n' roller's rhythm and blues stylings. From the driving, simplistic drumbeats of his songs, to their hip-swinging atmospherics, Berry's party jams practically birthed T. Rex. When the St. Louis native's voice first sang the phrase "reel and rock with one another" on 1956's "Roll Over Beethoven," you can be sure there was an eight-year-old Bolan, somewhere in London, hearing those words and internalizing them. They'd find their way back out 15 or so years later, reconfigured and sexed up as The Slider's modus operandi.
The Groove Merchant
Predating The Slider by three years, Stand! lays out the former's marching orders via song titles alone: "Sing a Simple Song" for "Everyday People," but never forget that, at the end of the day, you're a "Sex Machine." While Sly wasn't afraid to touch on sensitive topics ("Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey") and Bolan wouldn't so much as utter the word revolution in a song for a few more months ("Children of the Revolution"), the two share an understanding of the primordial groove and an optimistic outlook that somehow, despite all the nastiness of the late '60s and early '70s, everything is going to be all right. And if not, well, we can always listen to this music and pretend it will be. After all, it's awfully convincing.
As the story goes, Elton John and Marc Bolan were first acquainted during the Tyrannosaurus days, when John was but a young, relatively unknown opening act. The pair experienced some tumultuous times, but would eventually become very good friends, John ultimately suggesting that Bolan record The Slider in a castle outside of Paris called Chteau d'Hrouville the same castle where this album found its name a couple months earlier, and where classics like David Bowie's Low and Iggy Pop's The Idiot would be made just a few years after that. Stylistically, Honky Chteau is more dramatic than The Slider ("I Think I'm Going to Kill Myself," "Rocket Man"), but shares some of the album's more rollicking ("Honky Cat") and epic ("Salvation") moments, nonetheless. Moreover, it pointed to more upbeat, rock 'n' roll in John's future, including some of the most successful albums on his career.
The Young Admirers
"The biggest knock against Smith Westerns isn't so much a knock as a bitter pill," writes Sean Fennessey in his eMusic review of Dye it Blonde. "They're young." Indeed, whereas Bolan recorded his masterpiece at age 24, Smith Westerns created theirs before a single member of the band escaped his teenage years. This is both refreshing (Dye it Blonde is wise beyond this Windy City crew's years) and exciting (there could be more masterpieces down the road). Fennessey also argues that the band has evolved stylistically, "turning their Nuggets and T. Rex-inspired experiments in full-blown sing-alongs," but it's worth noting that they sometimes combine the two, nabbing one of The Slider's riffs here ("Still New") and biting its boogie there ("End of the Night"). Although they're quickly outgrowing the requisite T. Rex mention, Smith Westerns wouldn't have arrived at this, their triumphant breakout record, without a little bit of Bolanization early on.
The Three-Minute Pop Purveyor
Although more obvious reference points for Jesse Smith's tour-de-power-pop debut can be found in acts like the Nerves, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and early Beatles, he traffics in the time-honored tradition of the three-minute pop song. Like Bolan before him, Smith's finest moments often fall within that 2:30-3:30 sweet spot, from the fuck-all sneer of "Highland Crawler" to the hand-holding giddiness of "All I Need Tonight (Is You)" to quintessential show-closer "Put Your Hands Together." There's an essay to be written on the efficacy and ultimate satisfaction found in three minutes of pop, and Smith has given us our modern-day thesis.