The history of Hawkwind is a long and storied one. Bitter infighting, psychotic illness, and drug busts have all cast a shadow over their 44 year (and counting) career. Yet despite such turbulence, with the venerable Captain Dave Brock at the helm, the band continued to produce innovative and highly influential music throughout the 1970’s, their halcyon decade.
Formed by Brock, a professional busker, in 1969, the band began life as the shambolic psych improvisers Group X but soon settled on a permanent name allegedly inspired by sax-player Nik Turner’s farting and throat-clearing habits (!). From the acid-drenched freak-out of Hawkwind (1970) to the slick space-metal of 1980’s Levitation, Brock and an ever-changing line-up explored a wide span of sounds, styles, and sci-fi concepts (though always generally grounded in universal human issues). The success of their 1972 single Silver Machine was both a blessing and a curse; giving them vital exposure and swelling the bank balance but also leaving them with a ‘novelty band’ tag in the eyes of mainstream audience. As catchy as the tune undoubtedly was, Silver Machine was a plodding, conservative effort by Hawkwind standards and certainly unrepresentative of the thrillingly inventive, diverse work ahead. The five albums reviewed here give a rounded view of music created by a band who are cited as an influence by artists as varied as John Lydon, Genesis P Orridge, and Orbital. No apologies are made for restricting this overview largely to the first ten years of Hawkwind’s existence. While still regularly touring with an impressive live show, since 1985 their recorded output has been disappointingly patchy, perhaps due to Brock’s inability to find writing partners of a similar calibre to the late Robert Calvert and Nik Turner.
So, buckle-up, place a hallucinogen of choice under your tongue, and steel yourself for a plutonium-fuelled excursion back through the corridors of time; a whistle-stop tour of selected landmarks in the cosmos created by true mavericks of the classic rock era.
SPACE RITUAL – ALIVE IN LONDON & LIVERPOOL (1973)
After the experimental avant-garde of their 1970 debut, and the slightly more cohesive In Search Of Space (1971), Hawkwind finally achieved space rock lift-off on Doremi Fasol Latido (1972). With bassist Lemmy Kilmister now onboard and a more focussed, riff centric attack, their third album is a key work in the Hawkwind oeuvre. In truth though, there’s not a single track on Doremi… that isn’t performed with more flat-out cosmic gusto on Space Ritual, the live double-set that followed. Financially-bolstered by the success of Silver Machine, by late 1972, the band had the means to stage a theatrical extravaganza complete with lysergic light show and a trio of dancers, including the pneumatic Stacia in varying states of undress. Combined with thunderous, hypnotic riffs, a plethora of unearthly electronic noises, and the lunatic poetry of Bob Calvert, the Space Ritual experience must have been a sanity-devouring assault on the senses for 1972 audiences, chemically-enhanced or not.
The resulting live album documents a performance ablaze with aggressive conviction. Orgone Accumulator blasts Booker T’s Green Onions riff into orbit, while Calvert eulogises over the titular “cerebral vibrator” and Dave Brock’s wah-wah lead wails beautifully over the bluesy dirge. In their Space Ritual guises, perennial Hawk classics such as Master Of The Universe and Brainstorm emphatically announce an evolution in psychedelic music. Faster than intergalactic flight, with all the impact of a meteorite to the gut, both accumulate an ecstatic trance quality, shorn of the comparatively effete meanderings of what had gone before.
Throughout, Lemmy’s speedfreak bass and Simon King’s kinetic drums form the backbone as eerie disembodied vocals, squawking sax, and grungy rhythm guitar reverberate in a uniquely cavernous ambience. Space Ritual sounds like nothing recorded before or since (and that includes Hawkwind’s other numerous official live albums). When the punkoid intensity subsides, there’s the shimmering folk-tinged meditation of Space Is Deep and Down Through The Night, and Calvert’s intimidating stentorian delivery of the spoken-word piece Sonic Attack. The latter – a public service broadcast instructing citizens on how to react in the event of aural terrorism – is a matchless example of rock theatre at its most compelling. A chilling, evocative work of great imagination and demented humour.
Space Ritual was originally advertised with the slogan “88 minutes of brain damage”. In delivering a potent hit of brutally primal rock, transcendental beauty, and hallucinatory sci-fi surrealism, it remains as capable of reducing grey matter to a fine slurry as it did 40 years ago.
HALL OF THE MOUNTAIN GRILL (1974)
A transitional album, Hall Of The Mountain Grill sees Hawkwind employing a much more ambitious, sophisticated sound palette than previously. Here, the oppressive mugginess of Doremi… is replaced by a brighter, more airy atmosphere, greater diversity, and wing-stretching innovation. That’s not to say that Hawkwind entirely abandon their trademark space-rock ferocity. The live recording You Better Believe It has the Kilmister/King partnership locked together in pounding unison and Brock delivering a forceful vocal telling of a “cosmic man” voyaging through “lands unknown”. While the guitar may be oddly repressed in the mix – a characteristic of much Hawkwind material up to the early 80’s – this is incendiary stuff that would’ve sat comfortably alongside the amphetamine thrills of Space Ritual.
Psychedelic Warlords, a social commentary on the plight of the urban-dwelling underclass, rocks in a more restrained manner, revealing a band now more willing to experiment. It’s ominous Sabbath-like riff and stoner-friendly pace eventually draw us to a place where alien voices stutter in robotic rhythm and strident funk chords succumb to grandiose mellotron. Faux-symphonics feature more heavily on Nik Turner’s D-Rider, a turbo-charged epic of dynamic percussion, extreme phasing effects, and angelic, delicately enunciated vocals.
Alongside tasteful, cinematic instrumental passages (Wind Of Change, Goat Willow), Hall Of The Mountain Grill also found Hawkwind embracing a slightly more commercial sound. Featuring Lemmy’s distinctive vocal tones, Lost Johnny (ahem) is one of the album’s most instantly accessible tracks. A succinct hard rock tune laced with snaking blues guitar and classic pop sensibility, it could have led to another chart hit if it wasn’t for the sleazy narcotic preoccupations of the lyrics. The line “sticking thumbtacks in her flesh” may also have given Tony Blackburn palpitations. Closing track Paradox, which was issued as a single in edited form, is a hidden gem in the Hawkwind catalogue. Initially melancholic and contemplative, with heartfelt vocals by Brock, it gradually gathers momentum and mutates into a staggeringly muscular beast, its grinding keyboard riff hammered home by King’s thunderous drums.
Hall Of The Mountain Grill (the title, incidentally, a nod to favourite band haunt The Mountain Grill café) was a strong indication that Brock would not be prepared to rest on the Space Ritual laurels. With its more polished production values and moments of tranquillity, there was always the chance it may have alienated a proportion of the hardcore audience but the Captain was made of stern stuff and such artistic risk-taking would define Hawkwind’s career for years to come.
QUARK STRANGENESS & CHARM (1977)
“I would’ve liked you to have been deep frozen too” states Robert Calvert dispassionately on Spirit Of The Age, the opening track on 77’s Quark Strangeness & Charm. As a mesmerising bassline throbs and Morse code signals bleep unobtrusively in the background, an astronaut pines for his lover of many light years away. “Long dead by the time I return to Earth” he coldly concludes. Even her android replica is no consolation, crying-out the name of another as she reaches orgasm. Calvert’s icily mechanical delivery of his sci-fi love poetry initially seems ironic until the astronaut’s genetic origins are revealed during a gripping climax. And so the scene is set for an album which sees Brock taking several further steps away from the organic grunginess of Hawkwind’s origins, favouring a more clinical feel and honed approach that seems to reflect the influence of the burgeoning new wave movement.
Quark… is very much a showcase for Calvert; his literate, witty, sometimes downright absurd lyrics and manic vocals complimented by some particularly strong music. On the darkly humorous Damnation Alley, he’s touring across a post-apocalyptic USA in an “eight wheel anti-radiation tomb”, surveying the devastated landscape with childlike enthusiasm. It’s a Boy’s Own Adventure inspired by a CND pamphlet! The song rides atop a classic Brock chord sequence; jaunty and bristling with energy, the upbeat music accentuates the black comedy of the scenario to great effect.
Less sophisticated irreverence comes in the form of the title track which concerns itself with the mysteries of attraction and the sexual failings of Einstein and Galileo. A quirky, twitchy pop song with a deliberately old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll feel (right down to it’s muffled production), Quark… would remain a live favourite for years to come. As would album highlight Hassan I Sabbah, a hefty Arabic-flavoured rocker where, after a no doubt crowd-pleasing cry of “Hashish, hashish, hashish”, Calvert makes scattershot references to the 1973 oil crisis amid other middle-eastern imagery. It’s a formidable piece of music. Heavier and more intense than anything else here and yet graced with elegant, sweeping violins and a palpable heady exoticism.
On release, Quark… garnered mostly positive reviews from the music press and spent six weeks in the UK album charts. However, later in the year, cracks would begin to form in the Calvert/Brock partnership when the former’s manic depression led to increasingly erratic behaviour – chasing cars whilst wielding a sword, for example – when on tour in France. More collaborations were to come – notably, the remarkable Hawklords project – but not without considerable turmoil along the way.
Drawing together live performances from 1977 and studio work recorded in the first half of 1978, PXR5 has been demeaned as a “contract-fulfilling stylistic ragbag”. True, taken as a whole, it has a certain lack of cohesion but from an alternative perspective, the variety of styles and moods straddle the full scale of the Hawkwind version, making for a stimulating, eclectic experience from start to end. Most importantly, the songs included are some of very strongest in the band’s back catalogue.
If Quark Strangeness & Charm contains traces of new wave spikiness, Death Trap is fully-fledged punk rock HW-style. Over a terse, merciless riff and space rock synths, an angst-ridden Calvert rants about “feeling like Jesus Christ heading for the stations of the cross” and “a monkey on elastic…going up and down”. With the lyricist’s history of mental ill-health, this frantic portrait of emotional agony gains great poignancy. A complete change in tone follows with the effervescent pop of Jack Of Shadows. Akin to some long-lost mid 60’s chart hit (“sha-la-la-la” backing vocals!), it nevertheless exudes a velvet darkness and otherworldly mystery.
Superficially, the towering, urgent Robot and the album’s title track seem to hark back to the more obvious sci-fi imagery of the Space Ritual era. However, the former is actually more centred on the deadening routines of contemporary life than any fanciful futuristic scenario. Musically, Robot represents an artistic update on the space rock template; trance-inducing yet nervy and vital. On the surface, the turbulent PXR5 seems to describe inter-personal tensions in a space craft, but, given the complexity of Hawkwind’s internal politics, its real theme is obviously more autobiographical.
But PXR5’s piece de la resistance is undoubtedly the chillingly sombre High Rise. Inspired by J G Ballard’s classic novel, Calvert paints a bleak picture of utter despair as suffered by the tenants of a tower block; a “suicide machine”. The lyrics are unforgettably vivid; the music pulses with sinister ambience, dominated by eerie fretless bass and delicate pristine keyboards.
Released in June 1979, PXR5 was to be the last Hawkwind album to feature the talents of Robert Calvert. While he went on to record a number of solo albums, Brock set about constructing a revised line-up with an ear to the resurgent heavy metal scene in the UK.
Benefitting from newly introduced digital recording technology, Levitation represents a significant shift towards a cleaner, more detailed production. Stylistically, the album also saw a much greater emphasis on guitar. Brock’s rhythm sound is much more assertive than before while the newly rehired Huw Lloyd Langton contributes prominent, fluid lead. And with Cream’s Ginger Baker on drums, Hawkwind acquired a newfound dynamism. The overall effect is of a metallic brand of space rock although synthesizer and sound effects remain in the foreground, courtesy of Gong’s Tim Blake.
Calvert’s lyrical bite, however, is sorely missed. When Dave Brock sings “As I sit upon this chair, I rise and float up in the air” on opening track Levitation, his renowned lack of patience for crafting song words is all too apparent. Thankfully, as we’re swept away by the momentum of crunching riffs, searing guitars solos, and stampeding rhythms, all attention is diverted from the drab, minimal lyrics. Even the chorus– “I have this fascination, no cause for a deviation…” – transcends its inherent corniness with the sheer bombastic might.
Behind the strident powerchords, Motorway City and Who’s Gonna Win The War, are laden with a touching, fatalistic melancholy and are compelling evidence of Brock’s ability to write affecting, memorable tunes. Despite an overall weakness in the album’s lyrical department, the latter perfectly articulates the nuclear paranoia of its era and the sorrow that many still feel when they turn on the evening news. The song’s aching sadness is beautifully expressed by Langton’s emotive lead as distant explosions rumble in the background.
Much of Levitation is instrumental and with musicians of this calibre involved (Baker, Blake, and Langton), the results are bound to be spectacular. World Of Tiers and Space Race surge with enthralling kinetic energy powered by Baker’s adventurous drumming. The former features an exquisite acoustic interlude that ranks as one of the most spellbinding pieces of music Hawkwind have ever created. Elsewhere, Blake contributes mood-enhancing soundscapes with his magic box of trippy electronic effects.
Shortly after the Levitation tour of 1980, Ginger Baker would be ejected from the line-up after demanding the firing of bass-player Harvey Bainbridge and suggesting that he, Jack Bruce (Cream) and the remainder of Hawkwind join together as a supergroup. He was replaced by the far more pedestrian Martin Griffin and the band continued as a prolific recording and touring unit. Sadly, Levitation would prove to be the last consistently impressive Hawkwind album, as recycled ideas, uninspired songwriting, and an over-reliance on electronic ambience came to dominate their subsequent output.
Recommended Further Listening
In Search Of Space (1971)
Doremi Farsol Latido (1972)
Warrior On The Edge Of Time (1975)
Sonic Attack (1981)
Choose Your Masques (1982)
Live Chronicles (1985)