Today (September 16) in London History – death of a pop star

Pop star Marc Bolan was killed in a car crash in southwest London on September 16,1 977. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

A Travail of Two Cities. Can I get away with that? If so, that’s what September 16th, 1977 was. And yes, it was the same two cities Dickens wrote about. Paris and London. 

In Paris, 53-year-old Maria Callas, the American-born Greek soprano, one of the greatest opera singers of her time, died, at home, of heart failure.

In London, 29-year-old pop star Marc Bolan was killed in a car accident. 

So a day the music stopped. This side of the Atlantic this time.

The crash scene in Barnes in southwest London is now a shrine to the pop star. For many years it was believed the glam-rock star died from injuries suffered when the car he was in came off Gypsy Lane in Barnes and hit a tree.

The to this day oft-beribboned tree is a Sycamore, a tree associated with love, protection and fertility. 

The vehicle was Bolan’s purple Mini. He was the front-seat passenger. The car was driven by his girlfriend, the African-American singer Gloria Jones. She suffered a fractured jaw and facial injuries. The couple had a two-year-old son. 

They been to Morton’s restaurant in Berkeley Square, which they left at about 4 am to drive to Bolan’s parents’ house in East Sheen.

At the inquest, a police motor vehicle examiner testified that the vehicle had two loose wheel nuts and under-inflated tyres. 

We’ll come back to that fatal Sycamore tree, that symbol of protection.

But before we go any further, just a few brushstrokes about our live fast, die young – how familiar that refrain is – pop star. The tinselled, lead singer of T-Rex – whose hits included Ride a White Swan and Get It On – was born in Hackney in 1947. September 30th would have been his 75th birthday. He was born Mark Feld, the son of a Jewish cosmetics salesman. T-Rex, the group he formed with three other musicians, launched Bolan’s career. But it was the one-eyed monster, television, that put him into orbit. In the words of biographer Rikki Rooksby, that one glimpse of “Bolan’s androgynous beauty, wild corkscrew hair, lurex jackets and glitter make-up seized the imagination of a generation of post-1960s teenagers looking for a figurehead. Along with David Bowie, Bolan was the epitome of the ‘glam rock’ phenomenon.” At the height of his fame Bolan and T-Rex outsold Jimi Hendrix and The Whol.

But, as was so often the case, pop star success meant having a tiger by the tail. In his own words, Bolan said, he was living in a twilight world of drugs, booze and kinky sex. He was downing a bottle of spirits a day. Plus wine. “I was sniffing coke and taking all sorts of pills,” he said. 

Now back to that much-maligned sycamore tree – symbol of protection – ten years ago the story moved on. Vicky Aram, an eye-witness, finally told all. She was a pianist and night-club singer at Morton’s. She met Bolan that night and he invited her to come back with them to discuss musical projects. The car she was in was driven by Gloria Jones’ brother and was not far behind Bolan’s purple mini. They were at the scene just seconds after the crash. She said the first impact was with a steel-reinforced fence post. That Bolan had suffered a horrific head injury from an eye bolt in the fence. And that the accident would have been worse – would perhaps have claimed two lives – had the sycamore tree not prevented the car from sliding down an embankment.

The protective Sycamore may have saved Gloria Jones’s life. The tree wasn’t a killer. There’s some comfort in that, I think. But for poor Marc Bolan you have to look the other. He lived fast. He died young. He did not leave a good-looking corpse. He was cremated at Golders Green on September 20, 1977.

And a Today in London recommendation: make a trip to the Barnes Wetland Centre. It’ll do you a power of good. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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