Hawkwind 1970-1975

Hawkwind - Warrior on the Edge of Time2013 is a bit of a year for long-awaited reissues. First off, in March (in the UK, anyway — the US got it earlier), there was the Blue Öyster Cult’s Columbia Albums Collection, a box set that polished off the band’s back catalogue, digitally remastered and extra’d up with rarities and archive live material, meaning I could finally replace my vinyl rip of Imaginos. (Ditto for 1975’s double live album, On Your Feet Or On Your Knees, whose opening riff to its second track made me take up the guitar.) And this September will hopefully see the last classic-era Doctor Who finally make it to DVD: Terror of the Zygons, also from 1975. (It feels I’ve been waiting for that one since 1975.) And last month Atomhenge brought out a hard-fought-for deluxe remaster of Hawkwind’s Warrior On The Edge Of Time… Also from 1975. It’s the kind of thing to make me want to look back at the massive output of one of my favourite bands and try to make sense of it. And, at over forty years of mostly continuous studio albums, live albums and touring, it’s not going to be done in one Mewsings post. So, for now, Hawkwind’s first major musical era: from their self-titled debut in 1970 to 1975’s Warrior on the Edge of Time.

Hawkwind on Stage

A note on the sleeve of their first album outlined the band’s initial intentions:

“We started out trying to freak people (trippers), now we are trying to levitate their minds, in a nice way, without acid, with ultimately a complete audio-visual thing. Using a complex of electronics, lights and environmental experiences.”

Hawkwind - HawkwindI like that “in a nice way”. Because there’s nothing nice about Hawkwind’s debut. Aside from two songs that are basically Dave Brock busking numbers Hawkwinded up (both of them about breaking out of a complacent worldview to see life for the potentially miserable thing — “it may bring war”, “the tears you’ve shed” — it is), the rest of the album is a series of frankly terrifying instrumentals, full of moans, groans, echoes and disorientatingly weird sounds. Two of them are called “Paranoia (Part 1)” and “Paranoia (Part 2)”, for Heaven’s sake. (And the theme of mental illness keeps popping up in songs of this era, from the robotised weirdness of the next album’s “Adjust Me”, to its successor’s “Brainstorm”, a B-side called “Brainbox Pollution”, and Warrior‘s “The Demented Man”. If Hawkwind really were trying to sell the psychedelic experience, they weren’t putting the best face on it.)

Hawkwind - X In Search of SpaceThe band needed something better than paranoia and despair if they wanted to present their audience with a truly immersive experience. Fortunately, “oral space-age poet” Robert Calvert had the answer. He decided the band needed a mythology, or at least a viable stash of imagery and story that could take the place of their bleak inward mental journeys of doubt, disintegration and “a world of emptiness”. The answer was science fiction. Michael Moorcock was already associated with the band. (His first impression: “They seemed like barbarians who’d got hold of a load of electrical gear.”) He provided some poetry, as did Calvert. Calvert also penned the “Hawklog”, a booklet included with the band’s second album, X In Search of Space, which told of how the technicians of Spaceship Hawkwind arrived on Earth only to be transformed into a two dimensional black platter, indistinguishable in size, shape and function from what you Earth people call a vinyl LP. Hawkwind were now a — if not the — Space Rock band, and suddenly they had a universe of dystopian nightmares to take the place of their previously merely psychotic ones.

Hawkwind - Doremi Fasol LatidoThe message remained bleak: “We Took The Wrong Step Years Ago” and “Time We Left This World Today” are just two SF-tinged tales of pessimistic environmentalism. “The Watcher” was looking in on us, had found us wanting, and promised that “The last thing you will feel is fear” before avarice destroys our sphere. The tales of psychic disintegration took on a science fictional tone — “Space is Deep” taking its cue from the opening passages to Moorcock’s 1969 novel The Black Corridor, about a man getting cabin fever in the utter nullity of deep space (and which was itself read out to freaky-spacey trip-music at concerts); meanwhile “Master of the Universe” hints at how hitting the borders of madness might at least help you break out of the complacent worldview attacked in the first album (“If you call this living I must be blind”). There were bursts of optimism: in the sheer vitality of Bob Calvert’s lyrics (and their delivery) in his paean to the spaceward urge, “Born to Go”; in the defiantly solipsistic hedonism of his “Orgone Accumulator”; or in the gleeful destructiveness of his “Urban Guerrilla”; also in the rather more gentle optimism of Nik Turner’s SF-tinged flower-power dreams like “Children of the Sun” and “D-Rider”. Even Dave Brock’s shamanic “Assault & Battery/The Golden Void”, though it may make him “Lose my body, lose my mind”, at least has a message of hope:

Lives of great men all remind us
we may make our lives sublime
And departing leave behind us
footprints in the sands of time

(Even if it is nicked from Longfellow’s “Psalm Of Life“.)

Hawkwind enlightenment, it seems, is enlightenment through psychosis. As Brock says in “You’d Better Believe It”:

The gentle madness touched my hand
Now I’m just a cosmic man

Hawkwind - Hall of the Mountain GrillOne thing that’s notable about Hawkwind’s output in these five years — particularly when compared to the next five, which is dominated by the fierce Icarus-like individualism of Robert Calvert’s manic side — is how much the lyrics are about “we” and “us”: “Deep in our minds”, “we shall be as one”, “So that we might learn to see/The foolishness that lives in us”. Consciously tribal, Hawkwind were seeking to create a communal experience. Their trance-inducing guitar grunge and join-in chanted choruses were trying to lift everyone to the same plane — if not through the previously promised levitation, maybe through a blast of sci-fi rocket power.

Hawkwind - Space RitualThey achieved their goal of presenting the “complete audio-visual thing” in their Space Ritual tour, whose double live album (1973) is the quintessence of this era’s recorded output. By this point they weren’t just a band of musicians. They had their poets (Moorcock and Calvert), their artists (Barney Bubbles), their light show (Liquid Len), their dancers (Miss Stacia). They had their tribe. They were the Technicians of Spaceship Hawkwind, and had achieved lift-off.

At the end of their confusingly-titled 1999 Party album (recorded live in 1974, released in 1997), someone says: “You have been experiencing the imagination of Hawkwind.” A shared imaginative experience. As it says in their first recorded song, “Hurry on Sundown”:

Look into your mind’s eye, see what you can see
There’s hundreds of people like you and me

Or in the later “Brainbox Pollution”:

Take my hand, I’ll lead you on
To learn so far, my dream’s your own

Hawkwind had shared their dream. Oh, and they also released a silly one-hit wonder single called “Silver Machine”.

Skallagrigg by William Horwood

Skallagrigg (hardback), cover by David Kearney

Skallagrigg (hardback), cover by David Kearney

I first read William Horwood’s Skallagrigg twelve years ago, on a word-of-mouth recommendation — actually, less than that, an overheard snippet of a recommendation to someone else — which is a particularly appropriate way to come to a novel that’s about a quest to find the source of a cycle of stories spread among the disabled residents of Britain’s hospitals, institutions and places of care, always by word of mouth, never written down. I’ve mentioned before on this blog, writing about Theodore Roszak’s Flicker, how much I like this sort of quest-for-the-artist kind of tale (I also included Ramsey Campbell’s The Grin of the Dark in the same category; his Ancient Images would be another, as would Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions). Skallagrigg follows a similar labyrinthine path, and although it does so without straying into the supernatural or conspiracy territories of Campbell’s or Roszak’s, it provides a very satisfying and moving conclusion to the quest on all levels, and is, I’d say, one of the most powerful novels I’ve read — and a damned good read, too.

The “Skallagrigg” stories centre around Arthur, brought as a boy at the beginning of the 20th century to a “towering place of dirty yellow brick and sunless, barred windows”, because his cerebral palsy has branded him, in the all too ready-to-label eye of the era’s establishment, an idiot. Arthur is, in fact, highly intelligent, and through a fellow patient who can understand his difficult speech tells stories of a figure he calls “the Skallagrigg”, who will one day come and take him from the hell that is the ward ruled over by a violent, or at best indifferent, staff of supposed carers, and one particular demon with a hooked window-stick known as Dilke. Arthur’s stories spread among the disabled, never the able-bodied, and become a sort of myth, hinting at a promise of hope, of escape, of freedom, perhaps even of cure, until it’s difficult to tell if this “Skallagrigg” is an actual person or a saviour figure — for how else could he or she or it possibly live up to all that Arthur, and the others that hear the stories, hope for?

Skallagrigg (paperback)The novel’s main story follows Esther Marquand, who is, like Arthur, born with cerebral palsy, though into a far more enlightened age. This does not, however, make her journey through life at all easy. On the way there are difficulties to face, both physical and emotional — Esther’s condition, and the circumstances of her birth (born via Caesarian after her mother was killed in a car accident), have torn apart her family. But just as the “quest” strand of Skallagrigg is about bringing together disparate clues to find a lost truth, so Esther’s story is about reconciliation, about facing difficult emotional truths and overcoming them to heal what does not seem can be healed. Skallagrigg is a long book (572 pages in hardback, 736 in paperback), but necessarily long, to properly convey the considerable struggle Esther faces at every stage of both her life and her quest for the source of the “Skallagrigg” stories. As someone who generally doesn’t like long books, I have to say this is one that thoroughly justifies its length. (Which is why the 1994 TV adaptation of the novel by the BBC, though a good film in its own right, can only ever be a whistle-stop tour of the novel’s highlights, a compression of its very full story, and probably best watched after you’ve read the book, otherwise it might wrongfoot you on a few plot-strands. Still, highly recommended as a sort of dessert to the novel itself. Richard Briers never fails to surprise!)

One of the things I love about this book is that it’s also about the early days of home computers (it was published in 1987). Esther’s quest for the Skallagrigg informs her growing ability as a creator of computer games, leading her to make a game that takes the player through as much of an analogue of her own difficult journey as it can — both through life, and in search of the Skallagrigg:

“She must already have made the key decision for ‘Skallagrigg’ [the game she creates] that the journeyer — the player — would have to become successively more severely handicapped if he or she was to reach the end of the quest. The game was becoming a journey into nightmare, of terrible self-acceptance, and the options the successful player would have to make would be ones towards self-abasement, humiliation, weakness and physical destruction in order to gain a spiritual victory.”

Horwood tells of how he came to write Skallagrigg in a lecture given in the 1990s, “The novel and the safe journey of healing”, (later published in The Novel, Spirituality and Modern Culture):

“I picked up a pocket tape-recorder one day and posed myself a challenge. Was there anything, I asked myself, that I could not speak into it. Some secret perhaps. Some unadmitted truth, something, anything…”

By taking up such a challenging and essentially unanswerable subject as the blind injustice of being born so physically powerless as Esther or Arthur, Horwood plunges his reader into a confrontation with the limits we all face. Ultimately the Skallagrigg stories, like the truest stories and mythologies, are about finding a way to deal with the dark areas, the difficult and impossible areas, of life — not by “solving” them, not by having the difficulties magically taken away or made “normal”, but by finding meaning in the face of them, by accepting and then transcending them.

I recently re-read Skallagrigg and found it just as compelling as my first read. (I had in fact forgotten what the ultimate solution to Esther’s quest was, and when it came round again, found it just as spot-on, just as fulfilling of all its hints and puzzles, right down to origin of the word “Skallagrigg” itself.)

A wonderful book.

Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Sylvia Townsend Warner's Kingdoms of ElfinThe Little People, it seems, have no middle class. They are either the earthy, woodland-living folk of Alan Lee and Brian Froud’s Faeries, or the distant, beautiful, highly-cultured nobles of Tolkien. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s elves are firmly in the Beautiful People category, with something of a Bohemian, perhaps Bloomsbury tinge to them. The Bloomsbury tint is understandable — Warner began writing fiction in the 1920s, having been encouraged to do so by Bloomsbury-ite David Garnett. Cultured, with nevertheless a humanising irony, a slightly disapproving-but-forgiving distance of tone, these stories of the Kingdoms of Elfin were in fact published in the 1970s, in The New Yorker (though two are original to this collection), but you can feel their roots in those earlier days of advanced thinking, self-improvement, and the intellectual rebellion against the remnants of an aristocratic, paternalistic Victorian culture. Not too much of a rebellion, though — Warner’s fairies play golf and cards, they obey the dictates of courtly fashions, they gossip and have that aristocratic mix of disapproval of, and tolerance for, those who are different. Warner’s stories focus on those who are different, but her rebels are rarely different enough to leave off being aristocratic. They dip their toes in rebellion with the air of assuming a new fashion:

“It is widely known that a group of dissident fairies seceded from the Court of Elfhame in order to have more time for self-improvement. The Elfhame Dissidents had sickened of the frivolity of court life: pleasure was a burden to them; so was politeness. Beset with banquetings, love affairs, sonnets, whist drives, masquerades, and lotteries, they had no time to take themselves seriously.”

Leaving the Court of Elfhame, these dissident fairies of “The Occupation” nevertheless fail to truly take themselves seriously: “Conversation persisted, since in the main they talked about themselves, but was repetitive.” They puzzle over the mortals they encounter, taking a quaint interest in church worship and the birth of a mortal baby, before passing on, hardly noticing the tragedy they leave in their wake.

Some of the stories make brief, passing reference to folklore: “The Five Black Swans” contains a glimpse of the story of Thomas the Rhymer from the fairy lady’s point of view, and “Elphenor and Weasel” ends with an allusion to the Green Children of Woolpit. There are references to fairy literature, too: James Hogg appears, as a shepherd (which he was, prior to writing The Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner) in “The Occupation”, which also has a minister refer to Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth in an effort to learn about the fairy visitors he suspects are living in his house.

Kingdoms of ElfinThe last story in the book, “Foxcastle”, tells of a mortal scholar who, trying to find evidence that fairies exist, is taken in and studied by them. Here at last we get to see the fairies from a mortal’s point of view rather than, as in the rest of the book, from their own. Which perhaps goes best towards describing the overall tone of the stories in Kingdoms of Elfin: Warner’s fairies, although they have wings and can fly (though the aristocratic ones scorn flight, thinking it only suitable for servants), and although they are long-lived and capable of invisibility, don’t come across as magical in the way of Tolkien’s elves, nor dangerously unpredictable in the way of Froud and Lee’s, because we’re seeing them as they would see themselves: as objects of a wit and irony so light in touch it can seem to fade like fairy gold in mortal hands. But nevertheless these stories are told with a bite, the classic storyteller’s indifference of true fairy tales, that makes these little comic tragedies, and tragic comedies, both subtly knowing and subtly forgiving, but never merely delicate or fey.