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.

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”.

In which I track down intelligent life

Hawkwind’s 1999 album In Your Area is a bit of a hodgepodge, being half live, half studio, and with most of the original material consisting of instrumentals rather than original songs. As a result it never really creates that unique identity, that particular atmosphere an album needs to bring you back to it again and again. But after buying it I had it on pretty much constant play for a couple of weeks, largely because of a 44-second track halfway through, called “The Nazca”. A typical Hawkwind weirdie, it consists of the usual electronic synth wooshiness and what I thought, at first, must be a sample from some classic sci-fi film:

“Intelligent life is so very rare. The rarest thing in creation, but the most precious. It is the only thing that gives meaning to the universe. Without it, nothing begins, nothing ends…”

Something about that quote grabbed me. It seemed cosmic, tragic, and hopeful all at once. I really wanted to know where it came from, but for once a Google search turned up absolutely no results, and despite having seen a good many classic SF films (and having read about a good few more) I couldn’t imagine which one it might come from. (The title was no help. It refers to the Nazca lines in Peru — those large-scale ground-doodles made, about one and a half thousand years ago, for the amusement of the gods, or any other sky-flying entity that happens to be passing.)

Things got even more intriguing when the same voice (and therefore, I assumed, an extract from the same quote) appeared in a few more Hawkwind tracks, speaking some different lines. One version of Tim Blake’s solo piece, “Lighthouse”, for instance, has:

“We are a very old people, from a very old planet compared to yours. If we are to survive we must colonise…”

Finally, a couple of months ago, I got the answer. The quote wasn’t from an old SF film, it’s from John Wyndham’s 1968 novel Chocky.

Assuming it was from the 1984 TV adaptation (which I missed at the time it was first shown, probably because it was on ITV, and I tended to watch BBC), I put it on my LoveFILM rental list. But that turned out only to feature a very shortened version of the “Intelligent Life” speech, and in a totally different voice. (It had good theme music, though. A little reminiscent of Brian Eno’s “Sparrowfall (2)” from Music For Films (1978), but excusably so, because I suspect the melody was designed to echo the word “Chocky”, and it’s the melody that makes it sound similar to the Eno track.) There’s also a 1967 BBC radio adaptation (which can be found at Archive.org), but there the “Intelligent Life” speech is equally short.

I’m going to keep searching, but I suspect it must have been recorded by Mr Brock and co. themselves. Either way, here’s some more of the quote from the novel (all the dot-dot-dots are present in the original):

“But intelligent life is rare… very rare indeed… the rarest thing in creation…

“But the most precious…

“For intelligent life is the only thing that gives meaning to the universe. It is a holy thing, to be fostered and treasured.

“Without it nothing begins, nothings ends, there can be nothing through all eternity but the mindless babbling of chaos…

“Therefore, the nurture of all intelligent forms is a sacred duty. Even the merest spark of reason must be fanned in the hope of a flame.”

Which I absolutely agree with.

It’s a nice little novel, mildly satirical of the comfortable middle-classes it is also so obviously addressed to. Although ostensibly about a little boy who is contacted telepathically by a far advanced alien being, Chocky could equally be taken as a tale about the emergence of a creative talent, and about the way the conventionalities, and even the kindnesses, of a civilised society do their best to stifle, embarrass, disapprove of, and generally shut it up.