The Whispering Swarm by Michael Moorcock

michael-moorcockI’ve never really got Michael Moorcock, not in the same way I feel I ‘get’ my favourite authors, like Ballard, Lovecraft, Ramsey Campbell, David Lindsay or Clark Ashton Smith. I feel I know where, for instance, Ballard is coming from, what drives his writing, even though Ballard’s upbringing in pre-World War II China, and his adolescence in a Japanese POW camp, is utterly unlike my own — perhaps even because of this difference, as then the story is so much more easily presented as a ‘myth of writerly origin’, and so therefore more understandable. Perhaps it’s because I don’t know Moorcock’s ‘myth of writerly origin’ that, though I’ve read a fair smattering of his books — Wizardry and Wild Romance, the early Elric books, the Corum books, the Hawkmoon books, the Kane of Old Mars books, The Black Corridor, Gloriana, The Golden Barge, The War Hound and the World’s Pain, The Brothel in Rosenstrasse, The Deep Fix, The Coming of the Terraphiles, and the interview book Death Is No Obstacle — I still don’t have a sense of where he’s coming from, as a writer, what he means as a writer. (This is perhaps just a peculiarity of mine, but I do respond better to authors who seem to be writing as a means of dealing with the aftermath of some originating crisis, however vague. Moorcock has always seemed free of this, leaving me feeling I’ve got nothing to grab hold of.)

The Weird of the White Wolf, Michael Whelan cover

The Weird of the White Wolf, Michael Whelan cover

Nevertheless, Moorcock’s been a constant presence. When I began to venture away from the Doctor Who books in our local WH Smiths to the adult SF & Fantasy section, I found it fully stocked with Moorcock. Moorcock introduced me to Hawkwind — he mentioned them in an interview in Imagine, the D&D magazine, so I checked them out. (An interview in which he also seemed to be rather dismissive of role-playing games, just as he seemed, on a first read, to be dismissive of fantasy in Wizardry and Wild Romance. I was beginning to feel Moorcock wasn’t entirely on my side.) Hawkwind got me into Ballard, though I could have got into Ballad just as easily from Moorcock himself; and Moorcock was also the reason I read Fritz Leiber and Robert Holdstock and Mervyn Peake. Plus, how could I resist those Elric books, with their Michael Whelan covers — and titles like The Weird of the White Wolf or Sailor on the Seas of Fate?

Nevertheless, he remained a mystery. Which is why, when I heard he was writing a mix of autobiography and fantasy trilogy beginning with The Whispering Swarm, I knew I had to read it. Perhaps the answer to Michael Moorcock was to be found in there.

And… some answers were. (But it is only the first in a trilogy, after all.)

Let’s start with the obvious one. Perhaps one of the reasons Moorcock never quite snapped into focus for me like the more monomaniacal Ballard is that he’s always been switching between states. He bashes out sword and sorcery novels in three days, then spends years on long literary series, like the Colonel Pyat books (which I gave up on). Which is he, then, the fantasy pulpster or the literary novelist? Why, both of course:

“I was already conscious of two different kinds of author in me. One was practical, able to make money commercially. The other was predominantly analytical, experimental and not at all commercial!”

(He also says, “Balzac was one of my heroes because he did reams of hackwork before doing reams of ambitious, innovative fiction.”)

It should be obvious, really, that Moorcock is all about swinging between two opposites — just think of the eternal battle between Law and Chaos in the Eternal Champion books. Is this the image of Moorcock’s own inner world? It quickly becomes clear that Moorcock, in The Whispering Swarm, is also struggling with a need to achieve a balance of sorts. He even achieves it at one point in the novel:

“By 1969 I had everything in some sort of balance. Two lives, two wives, two children, two careers…”

michael_moorcock_whispering_swarm_gollancz_coverOf course, this isn’t necessarily Michael Moorcock the writer speaking; it’s the narrator of The Whispering Swarm. Who is also called Michael Moorcock, and who shares a lot of biography with his author. Both grew up in post-WWII London, both begin editing Tarzan Adventures at the age of 17, both go on to write SF and sword & sorcery, and to edit New Worlds. Precisely where the real and the fictional Michael Moorcock part ways it’s difficult to tell. Mostly, Moorcock is free with his use of real people’s names — and there are plenty he rubs shoulders with in 50s and 60s London, from Colin Wilson (“People had brought Colin and me together because they saw us as enfants terribles but we didn’t have a lot in common. I got on better with Colin’s friend Bill Hopkins”), Barrington Bayley, actor Jon Finch — which is perhaps why it took me a moment to work out who Jack Allard was. Jack Allard, who in the book is a close ally in Moorcock’s vision for the revamped New Worlds, Jack Allard who’d spend his childhood in German-occupied Guernsey… And then there’s Rex Fisch, and Jake Slade… JG Ballard, Thomas M Disch, and John Sladek, of course! Why this slip into such obvious pseudonyms? Perhaps so Moorcock is a bit more free to talk about them, though why a judgement such as this, of Allard:

“I eventually realised that the only fiction he liked was his own. Meanwhile, he wrote brilliant, lyrical, existentialist stories which were a bit like Ray Bradbury, a bit like Graham Greene and were as original as anything the genre had ever seen…”

— shouldn’t be made quite freely of the real J G Ballard, I don’t know. It doesn’t surprise me that Ballard would only really be interested in his own fiction, monomaniac of the imagination that he was. Moorcock does provide an interesting insight into my own ability to ‘get’ Ballard but not Moorcock, though, when he says of Allard:

“He had read very little, preferring to get his culture via the screen or from the radio…”

It’s obvious, from reading the early chapters about Moorcock’s youth, that I’ve more experience of Ballard’s cultural background than I do of Moorcock’s, even though Moorcock was raised in London (where “It seemed as if I could live my entire life in a bubble less than half a mile across and find everyone I wanted to meet, everything I wanted to do!”). In an odd way, Moorcock’s culture, so thoroughly rooted in the ephemeral indigenous literature of the day, is more distant, because of the Hollywood-isation of culture generally. Moorcock grew up reading about all sorts of dashing heroes, from highwaymen to schoolboys to cowboys, I’ve never heard of, whereas I’ve seen many of the films Ballard grew up on.

But there’s something more fundamentally different in the type of artist — or imagination — that Moorcock has. As opposed to those monomaniacs of the imagination, like Ballard, who I find it easier to ‘get’, Moorcock is deliberately diffuse:

“I was already fascinated by the way modern mythology took characters from different eras and put them together.”

After all, the fundamental symbol of Moorcock’s imagination is the Multiverse — or, as it’s presented here, ‘Radiant Time’:

“Most philosophers see time as a line disappearing into infinity, past, present, future… Others have it as a circle, which is much the same thing, except theoretically you return to the beginning and start all over again. All representations of time are some variation on this simple idea. But the truth is time radiates, just as light does. Let the physical world be thought a dimension of time!”

Whereas the likes of Ballard or Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith are constantly honing a single idea, a single obsession, Moorcock seems to be going the opposite way. As someone says in The Whispering Swarm of the forces opposed to Alsacia:

‘They see their salvation in simplicity and purification, but the world is not simple. Nor is it easily purified. God made it complex and mysterious. They want to obey man’s rules, not God’s.’

WhisperingSwarm_USAh, yes, Alsacia. All this rambling, and I haven’t got started on what the book’s about. Woven in amongst the autobiography in The Whispering Swarm is a fantasy. In this fantasy, young Michael Moorcock finds an area of London untouched by the blitz, peopled by a ragtag group of ‘Actors, vagabonds, cheapjacks, rum pads and balladeers’, most of whom dress like figures from English history, including highwaymen and cavaliers, not to mention a certain well-known trio of French Musketeers. There’s also a bunch of monks, the White Friars, who have a number of interesting treasures in their possession, including a chalice which, when lit by sunlight, seems to contain a sort of dancing hologram fish, and a vast cosmolabe which fills a room. Alsacia is also known as Sanctuary, which is what it offers to people of all beliefs and persuasions — not to mention time zones — but it is not always there. Once he’s visited it, Moorcock finds that, when he’s not in it, his hearing is bothered by a sort of tinnitus, a constant muttering of voices he comes to term ‘the whispering swarm’. Alsacia becomes a second home — literally, as he sets up a ménage there with the highway-robber Moll Midnight, when he needs to escape from his ‘real’ home life. It is, like Tanelorn in the Eternal Champion books, a neutral ground, a longed-for place of balance.

But it is not a place of escape. Throughout the book, Moorcock is constantly questioning the nature of Alsacia, and whether he should be going there. Is it a delusion? Is it immoral? It gives him almost as much domestic trouble as he’s escaping from in his real family — a family he longs for when he’s away from them as much as he longs for Alsacia when he’s not there. It’s difficult to decide, in fact, what Alsacia represents, as it isn’t a fantasy refuge from reality (he quite often spends his time there hacking out fantasy books, just as he does in the real world).

Wizardry & Wild Romance cover

Wizardry and Wild Romance, Gollancz (1987), cover by Les Edwards

But, this is only book one. After rather too much (in my opinion) questioning the nature of Alsacia, then going there, then vowing to give it up, then giving in and going back only to start questioning again, Moorcock gets involved in a trans-temporal adventure to rescue King Charles from execution in Oliver Cromwell’s day — something Moorcock enters into despite his own political beliefs (‘the day a tyrant was made answerable to his people, the world was set on a very different course. The idea of the modern democratic republic was born’), but more from a feeling of fellowship with the various highwaymen and exiled cavaliers he falls in with. They need Moorcock for his ability to travel the ‘Moonbeam Roads’ that connect Alsacia with various bits of our history — as well as histories not ours (as evinced by an early adventure where Moorcock aids Moll Midnight in highway-robbing an armoured tram).

My favourite parts of The Whispering Swarm were the obviously autobiographical elements I could recognise: Moorcock’s time taking over the reins of New Worlds and gathering a stable of like-minded writers around him, while participating gleefully in swinging-sixties London. The fantasy novel part took longer to fire, for me, and it was only really at the adventurous conclusion that it really hit upon a story, rather than an endless questioning of the nature of Alsacia, and Moorcock’s own moral doubts about his relationship with it. I look forward to the second volume, though, in the hope it will illuminate, if not the mystery of Alsacia, then at least the mystery of Michael Moorcock.

High-Rise by J G Ballard

Cover to 1985 release of Ballard's High-Rise, by James Marsh

Cover to 1985 release of Ballard’s High-Rise, by James Marsh

As with 1966’s The Crystal World, there’s a feeling that High-Rise (published in 1975) grew from a single image that could have been a surrealist painting — in this case, that of a well-to-do middle-class man crouching on his apartment balcony, roasting a dog over a fire made of telephone directories — and that the rest of the novel is merely a Ballardian extrapolation of that one image.

High-Rise is J G Ballard’s insistence that the utter breakdown of society to be found in Lord of the Flies needs neither an isolated island, nor children without adult supervision to take hold. We can have it here and now, in modern England, in a fully-populated high-rise tower block, tenanted entirely by the most educated, professionally responsible classes. In fact, Ballard seems to be saying, we can not only have it, but we secretly long for it.

tarot_towerThe novel kicks off at the moment the newly-built tower block reaches ‘critical mass’, as the last of its residents move in. From that point, a slow but steady escalation of petty social tensions, technical teething troubles and Ballardian psychopathology takes its grip, as the residents of the building — ‘a virtually homogeneous collection of well-to-do professional people — lawyers, doctors, tax consultants, senior academics and advertising executives, along with a smaller group of airline pilots, film-industry technicians, and trios of air hostesses sharing apartments’ — become increasingly violent, territorial, and tribal. At first maintaining a flawless facade towards the world outside, going to work each day in immaculately pressed suits, the residents return each night to spend more and more time engaging in vandalism and violence, finally forgetting the world outside altogether, to concentrate on their new, almost entirely primitive existence enclosed within the self-contained forty-storey apartment block, whose corridors, garbage chutes, elevator shafts and swimming pools are clogged at first with rubbish sacks, then, towards the end, human bodies.

High-Rise follows not one but three protagonists, chosen from the three social tiers into which the forty-storey apartment block divides itself — a division that can’t help seeming arbitrary, homogeneous as the residents are. We start with medical lecturer Robert Laing, who lives on the 25th floor (throughout the book, as well as the usual Ballardian habit of identification-by-profession, minor characters are labelled by their floor of residence — so we get ‘a 28th floor account executive’, ‘a radiologist from the 7th floor’, ‘a newspaper columnist on the 37th floor’ — thus emphasising the social surface, in contrast to the violent or irrational behaviour they’re engaging in). We then switch to Anthony Royal, the high-rise’s architect, living in its penthouse apartment, who, like some sort of Bond villain, wears a white safari jacket while being accompanied by an arctic-coated Alsatian dog. He also has a walking stick, thanks to a recent car crash, which makes him seem, as well as a Bond villain, like an image of the author himself: jg_ballardBallard, who wears a white suit in his author photograph, had also recently been through a car crash of sorts — the writing and publication of his 1973 novel Crash. Third in this trio of protagonists is Richard Wilder, a pugnacious TV documentary maker from the lower floors. Of the three, Wilder is the only one who has a real story, as such — a determination to climb the high-rise and inveigle himself into the top floors, under pretence of making a documentary. Laing, is, generally, too languorous to do much other than forage for food and join in with the occasional sortie against other floors, while Royal soon loses any sense of being a Bond villain, and retreats into a mix of traumatised detachment and a feeble longing to see the high-rise in terms of some sort of transformation:

‘…the present breakdown of the high-rise might well mark its success rather than its failure. Without realising it, he had given these people a means of escaping into a new life, and a pattern of social organisation that would become the paradigm of all future high-rise blocks.’

But you don’t read Ballard for the story. It’s the ideas, the images and the writing that ensure High-Rise is never static. Throughout Ballard’s works, there’s a longing for the outer world to match the trauma, chaos and perversity of his characters’ inner worlds, as though he were egging us on to become the people he knows we really are beneath the civilised surface — or at last the people he’s seen us becoming, in his prison-camp childhood in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. But also, there’s a sense of striving for a new sort of freedom, even if it takes violence to reach it.

HighRiseBut is that what the residents of this high-rise achieve? Towards the end, as tribal divisions break down and the residents retreat individually into their barricaded apartments, there’s a sense of stagnation — ‘sometimes [Laing] found it difficult not to believe that they were living in a future that had already taken place, and was now exhausted’ — or reversion, as the social breakdown, at first presented as a sort of inner fulfilment of what these over-conventionalised professionals really need to live fuller lives — ‘All this brought them together, and ended the frigid isolation of the previous months’ — starts to feel more like a regression, a retreat. Laing reforms his childhood ménage with his sister, and settles into petty power games with her and another bedridden woman he rescues from a nearby apartment; while Wilder, finally reaching the roof, sees children playing in the sculpture garden and doffs his clothes to join them. (Royal’s ending is the most disappointing of all — I was really expecting him, Ballard fashion, to be eaten by his beloved gulls, or perhaps to think he was one of them and attempt to fly off the tower-block roof.)

High-Rise was the first of Ballard’s novels that I read — thanks, of course, to Hawkwind’s song of the same name (whose lyrics paint a more science-fictional and socially rebellious picture of the same theme), released a bare four years later (but recorded in 1977, only two years after the novel came out). It is, I think, the perfect Ballardian novel. The story may at times feel static, but the writing never flags, with Ballard still pulling new images, ideas, and angles out of this situation right up to the final chapters. It also represents something of a change in Ballard’s writing. Before it, despite the careening handbrake-turn from his early disaster novels (The Drowned World, The Drought, The Crystal World) into the transitional, highly experimental work of the late 60s and early 70s (The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash) his writing focused on the individual’s response to a disaster, however worldwide or (in the case of The Crystal World) universe-wide, that disaster was. Here, though, we get to see more of the response of a whole section of society, which is more the style of Ballard’s latter novels (Cocaine Nights, Super Cannes, and I haven’t yet read Kingdom Come, but I’m assuming that’s similar).

Apparently, before starting the novel, Ballard penned a 25,000 word summary, ‘in the form of a social worker’s report on the strange events that had taken place in this apartment block…’ — which I’d love to read, though in the same quote, Ballard says: ‘I wish I’d kept it; I think it was better than the novel.’ !

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

steppenwolf_penguinHermann Hesse says in his 1961 Author’s Note to Steppenwolf (the book itself was first published in 1927), that this is the book of his that is ‘more often and more violently misunderstood than any other’, whose readers ‘perceived only half of what I intended’. And it’s easy to see why. A novel about the passage through the extremes of personal darkness to a renewed interest in life, it does the darkness so well, you can be inclined to think that’s all it’s about.

On a first reading, the thing that lingers most in the memory is the opening sections, where we’re introduced to Harry Haller, the middle-aged ‘Steppenwolf’ dragging himself through a weary, self-conflicted and exhausted life. A highly-cultured writer of independent means, he lives a transient existence, settling in boarding houses for a few months at a time, reading, walking, drinking, and wallowing in a constantly alternating self-disgust and a disgust with the modern world he lives in. Harry, we’re told, is ‘a genius of suffering’, seeing himself at times as a refined, poetic, cultured man, at others, a wild, dark-souled ‘wolf of the Steppes that had lost its way and strayed into the towns…’, constantly tearing at himself with his own too-sharp teeth:

‘For example, if Harry, as man, had a beautiful thought, felt a fine and noble emotion, or performed a so-called good act, then the wolf bared his teeth at him and laughed and showed him with bitter scorn how laughable this whole noble show was in the eyes of a beast…’

But then a little magic starts to seep into Harry’s life. Walking down a darkened street one night, he sees a door where there had not been one before, and above it a flickering neon sign:

MAGIC THEATRE
ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY
FOR MADMEN ONLY!

Something in his weary soul stirs, but the door is locked, and when he returns to try it again, it has disappeared entirely. He finds a man with a sign-board apparently advertising the event (now an ‘ANARCHIST EVENING ENTERTAINMENT’), but in response to his queries, all he gets is a pamphlet. Entitled ‘TREATISE ON THE STEPPENWOLF’, this pamphlet lays bare Harry’s deepest recesses, itemising his beliefs, his poses and psychological defences, while lightly mocking them as the self-delusions of a man who only thinks he’s drunk life to the dregs.

Bantam books edition, 1969

Bantam books edition, 1969

Up to this point, Harry seems the archetypal Outsider (as Colin Wilson defined the type): a sort of unfulfilled genius unable to accept bourgeois life, or perhaps any human life, growling behind the bars of some societal cage he’s seeking to escape or destroy, whatever the cost. This is the version of Steppenwolf that appears in the song that brought me to the book in the first place, Robert Calvert’s brooding incantation on Hawkwind’s 1976 album, Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music: ‘a wolf-man who despises the strivings of common men’, ‘half in love with dark and despair’. (Hawkwind’s “Steppenwolf” is, along with Queen’s “Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit“, one of the few works inspired by a novel that equal it in power, in my opinion.)

But after this evocation of a dark, self-devouring and suicidal soul at utter odds with the world he lives in, there comes salvation, though it’s not an easy one. After deciding to end his life, but unwilling to actually go back to his lodgings and face the task, Harry lingers in a late-night tavern, where he’s taken in hand by someone who seems his exact opposite, Hermine, a young woman of the hedonistic flapper generation. She gets Harry to eat a little, and drink a little, then makes him promise to do whatever she tells him to do, as a cure for his desperation. And what is her key commandment? Harry Haller, the ageing set-in-his-ways Steppenwolf, has to learn to dance — and not just dance, but dance to a form of music he despises, the jazz-dances of the age: the fox-trot, the Boston, and the Tango.

steppenwolf_penguin2Of course, this is just a symbol for the real process Harry and his Steppenwolf alter-ego must undergo. Harry and the Steppenwolf fight because they despise each other, but they are one person. The only way to find peace is for Harry to overcome his disgust at the Steppenwolf’s more earthy appetites for drink, for women, for anger, for destruction, for life. He has to learn to be whole, however ‘uncultured’ or ‘unrefined’ that whole is. For Harry is a man with ‘a profusion of gifts and powers which had not achieved harmony’, ‘always recognising and affirming with one half of himself, in thought and act, what, with the other half he fought against and denied’, suffering ‘the unendurable tension between inability to live and inability to die’. But, as Hermine says:

‘You have always done the difficult and complicated things and the simple ones you haven’t even learned.’

(Or, as he’s later told: ‘You are willing to die, you coward, but not to live.’)

Steppenwolf is based on Hesse’s own spiritual crisis of the 1920s. Just like his hero, Hesse spoke out against the growing fascistic elements in his post-war homeland, and was both reviled and exiled by the German elite of the day. Hesse applied to C G Jung for help, and some of what happens to Harry can be read in Jungian terms. Hermine is his anima, an imaginative embodiment of all he aspires to, all he needs in order to grow and live. As she herself says:

‘Doesn’t your learning reveal to you that the reason why I please you and mean so much to you is because I am a kind of looking-glass for you, because there’s something in me that answers you and understands you.’

But also she’s his Jungian shadow, the symbol for all he has repressed, despised or disowned: ‘Why, you’re my opposite,’ he tells her. ‘You have all that I lack.’

Hermann Hesse, image from The Dutch National Archives, via Wikipedia.

Hermann Hesse, image from The Dutch National Archives, via Wikipedia.

If this is so, then the final section of the book, when Harry finally gains entrance to the Magic Theatre, could be Jung’s idea of ‘Active Imagination’, a sort of self-healing through indulging in vivid waking daydreams and fantasies. For Harry, the Magic Theatre is a corridor with an infinite number of doors, each of which leads to a whole new world, a whole new existence, but always one that seeks to explore some unfulfilled aspect of himself. In one, his loathing for modernity is allowed free range in a war between men and machines, where he perches in a tree and takes potshots at passing automobiles; in another, he’s taught to break his personality into a thousand fragments and play with them like chess pieces; in another, he sees, acted out, the utter degradation of his inner wolf by his civilised man-self — then its equally degrading reversal… Only through living every aspect of himself to its fullest potential, through giving every despised and belittled and forgotten and dismissed part its full value, can Harry achieve unity and new life. As Pablo, dance-band saxophonist and proprietor of this Magic Theatre, tells him:

‘You have often been sorely weary of your life. You were striving, were you not, for escape? You have a longing to forsake this world and its reality and to penetrate to a reality more native to you, to a world beyond time. Now I invite you to do so. You know, of course, where this other world lies hidden. It is the world of your own soul that you seek. Only within yourself exists that other reality for which you long. I can give you nothing that has not already its being within yourself. I can throw open to you no picture-gallery but your own soul…’

Steppenwolf is about a man breaking free of a lifetime self-locked in inner conflict. Harry Haller achieves this by stepping out of reality itself — or, at least, reality as he has come, through disenchanted, weary and cynical eyes, to see it — to something that is magical, dangerous, but also healing and re-humanising. And behind it he glimpses another reality — a world of the Immortals, those greats such as Mozart and Goethe whom Harry venerates, but a world which, he’s at first distressed to learn, is infused not with seriousness and poetry and lofty ideals, but with an all-encompassing, all-accepting laughter. Laughter and fantasy, then, are the cure for Hesse’s Steppenwolf:

‘…the laughter of the immortals. It was a laughter without an object. It was simply light and lucidity. It was that which is left over when a true man has passed through all the sufferings, vices, mistakes, passions and misunderstandings of men and got through to eternity…’

Max von Sydow in Steppenwolf

Steppenwolf was filmed in 1974, with Max von Sydow in the lead — a perfect piece of casting. It remains faithful to the book, though perhaps too faithful for anyone who hasn’t read it to understand what’s going on at the end, I can’t help feeling. But it has some inspired moments — visualising the ‘Treatise on the Steppenwolf’ as a sort of Terry Gilliam-esque animation, for instance, really works. But the then-cutting edge video effects that dominate the Magic Theatre sequences now seem so dated as to make the whole thing feel like a bad 80s pop video wed to a 70s euro-arthouse film, all driven by a 60s sensibility. (Plus some truly awful dubbing.) For madmen only, perhaps.

Hawkwind 1976-1979: The Calvert Years

Astounding Sounds, Amazing MusicAfter Warrior on the Edge of Time, Hawkwind shed its psychedelically-scaled skin. Lemmy, the Doom Lord of Bass, was jettisoned; Stacia, the Dream Lady of Dance — shock! — got married; the band changed management and switched record company (to the Charisma label — an appropriate name, considering this era was so much about Robert Calvert’s highly theatrical presence). After their next album, the wonderfully-titled Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music (so wonderfully titled, the band members sometimes have trouble remembering it), Nik Turner was ejected like a roller-skated shooting star honking saxophonic free jazz (he went on to play flute in the Great Pyramids of Egypt), and this beast of a band morphed — or perhaps burst from its previous incarnation’s chest to slide squealing through the blood-spattered remains of the sixties love-feast — into a very different entity. A community-binding collective of tribal shamans no more, Hawkwind became, for the next three studio albums, something like a normal band.

Back cover to Astounding SoundsAt its core were the Morecambe & Wise of Space Rock, Dave Brock and Robert Calvert. (They didn’t so much bring you sunshine as send you hurtling towards the heart of the nearest star, Nova Drive blazing.) But it’s Calvert who really defines this era of Hawkwind’s output. He’d been in the band before, as poet and sometimes singer during the Space Ritual tour, but had left to produce some quirky concept albums (consisting of Hawkwind-ish rock, musical pastiches, and mostly unfunny comedy routines). Now he became what Hawkwind hadn’t till this point had — a front man. I mean, you need a manic depressive in charge of your spaceship, don’t you?

Quark, Strangeness and CharmI can’t speak for Calvert’s attitude towards, or involvement with, the sort of community-oriented feel of Hawkwind’s early years, but his artistic attitude is very much about the individual — the blazing individual, reaching for the heights and gleefully crashing into the wreckage of its own manic drive. Calvert’s lyrics are all about freedom, flight, falling and flame. Icarus gets name-checked in “The Only Ones”, along with the other “daredevil angels” of the sky, but Calvert’s songs are full of people achieving freedom only through a death-risking plummet (“Free Fall”: “You’ve cut the puppet’s strings/In free fall”; or the more coercive need for freedom from the “human zoo” in “High Rise”: “Well somebody said that he jumped/But we know he was pushed”) or the earth-bound alternative in the vehicular crash-and-burn of “Death Trap”‘s “fiery crucifixion”, and “Damnation Alley”‘s “Diving through the burning hoop of doom”. There are more subtle means of gleeful self-destruction bubbling inside the misanthropic, self-consuming “Steppenwolf” (Calvert’s finest moment, for me), the Cold-War Kid (“In a town by the wall the machine gunners wait/To type out the orders that seal his fate”), or the anonymous sky-diver in “Free Fall” (“While destiny is on your case/the gods look up your file”). So much fate, doom and destiny, too.

Robert CalvertCalvert didn’t just sing about these heroes, he became them. In this era, Hawkwind, still trying to create the full experience for its listeners, switched from its earlier attempts at a sort of trance-and-psychosis-led initiation, to something more theatrical, more something to be watched than actively participated in. Calvert dressed up like a WWII pilot or Lawrence of Arabia. He wielded a starter pistol and a sword. (At one point, he tried to attack one of his fellow band members with that sword, on stage. At another, he chased his frightened band-mates through a Paris traffic jam, wearing jodhpurs and a pistol belt; they were so scared they ordered their driver to mount the pavement to escape.)

Calvert could do vitriolic satire (in “Uncle Sam’s On Mars”, which takes its form and feel from Gil-Scott Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon”), and silly humour (“Quark, Strangeness and Charm”, with its frankly inaccurate portrayal of Einstein’s love-life), but his most mordant diatribes were reserved for that monotone set of non-individuals who least embodied his ideal — the mediocrities, the button-pushers, the “tiny creeps”, the clones, drones and “insect men”, from the “good morning machine” of “Robot”, to the archetypal “Micro-Man” “who sees the detail but never the plan”.

PXR5Despite this being, to my ears, the most musically successful era of the band’s output, Hawkwind itself seemed to be suffering some sort of psychosis, unsure of its identity (masquerading at times as its split-personalities the Sonic Assassins and the Hawklords), releasing albums in the wrong order (PXR5, recorded after Quark, Strangeness and Charm, was released after the Hawklords album, 25 Years On) before the band made a suicide attempt when, after a US tour, Dave Brock sold his guitar to a fan and decided to give up on Hawkwind altogether. (And Dave Brock giving up on Hawkwind means no Hawkwind.)

Of course, this wasn’t the end. But, for the rest of its life, Hawkwind would continue to switch freely between two identities — the straight-ahead rock band, and the community-binding musical shamans, in an almost polarised division in the next era’s alternations between straight-ahead guitar riffery (thanks to the fabulous Huw Lloyd-Langton) and electronic trippyness.