Remembering the legendary Hawkwind frontman and the unexpected battle to attend one of his live shows against the wishes of pompous student union heads.
Nik Turner, who has died at the age of 82, is one of the great unsung heroes of British music. Well, ‘unsung’ might be an exaggeration, but Turner was always somewhat on the outside of the rock establishment, from his days in Hawkwind through to various other bands that were all part of the increasingly wide and varied Hawkwind family as it spread far and wide across the British underground. Turner was a founding member of Hawkwind and indirectly gave the band its name – contrary to any mystical connotations, the name came from his habit of hawking up phlegm and breaking wind. He would be in and out of the band at various times, leaving either through choice or at the demand of the band’s increasingly autocratic leader Dave Brock – his final stint, from 1982 to 1984 saw him briefly shift the band into a more anarcho-punk direction, one that was doomed not to last. But it came in between his stints with Inner City Unit, an act now almost forgotten but which was one of the most oddly brilliant and eccentric acts of the early 1980s.
After Turner had originally left Hawkwind, he’d travelled to Egypt and spent three hours inside the Great Pyramid of Gaza recording flute music, which was then released under the name Sphynx. This was 1977 and the music times were a-changing, with Turner ever alert to new directions. You’d never know this from the official history of punk, but from the very early days of 1977, the more eccentric hippy bands and the more adventurous punks formed a curious parallel underground of free festivals and social commentary, blasting eccentricity and alternative lifestyles. Gong gave birth to Planet Gong and Here and Now – the festival darlings who combined space ritualistic free-flowing with tight, ska-based rock tunes, Hawkwind became harder and faster and Turner played around with various projects – the Nuclear Waste single that features Sting on vocals among them – before forming Inner City Unit, a band that would continue on and off until 1986.
Inner City Unit, as the name might suggest, were not some spaced-out hippy drippy combo. Just what they were is a bit hard to say. Not quite punk, not quite goth, not quite anything to be honest. The band took snippets of influence from The Cramps and vintage rockabilly, bits of Ladbroke Grove alternativism and lots of wild eccentricities to create something quite odd and unique. Turner, by this point sporting a bright red unicorn horn of hair sticking out of an otherwise bald head, his face painted with red or white stripes, was an arresting presence who seemed to cross musical boundaries and as a result, ICU gigs were an extraordinary tribal free-for-all – hippies, punks, skinheads and proto-goths all mixed together, ceasing hostilities for the evening. The band recorded a couple of albums at the start of the 1980s – Pass Out and Maximum Effect – before being put on hold by Turner’s brief reconnection with Hawkwind. By the start of 1985, they were back together and had already recorded their third studio album, New Anatomy – an album notable for including a 48k Spectrum programme as one track, which translated into primitive computer graphics when recorded o tape and fed into a ZX Spectrum computer.
It was at this point – somewhere between January and February of 1985 – that this particular story begins. Inner City Unit was touring the UK and this included a night a Manchester University. Along with like-minded chum, I decided to go along. We arrived at the venue in plenty of time, only to discover – as had the sizeable crowd of people already waiting outside – that there was a problem. For reasons unknown, Manchester University – or more accurately the students union – had declared that gigs on the campus were for students only. They didn’t seem to have actually passed this information onto anyone else – including the bands performing – and so advertising for the gigs had suggested that the events were open to all. Quite why a band like Inner City Unit was deemed to be a big enough pull for the sort of people who were students in 1985 is anyone’s guess, but there we had it. We weren’t the only people unaware of this – a crowd that was probably a good third (at least) of the venue capacity was gathered outside, remonstrating with the jobsworth door security and then refusing to move.
This impasse went on for a long time. We were blocking the doors and were, by any definition, a nuisance but as long as we stayed outside, no one seemed to care (apart from various fashion victim students who visibly shuddered as they pushed their way past us to enter the building – they, presumably, were not on their way to see Turner and co.). One stocky little punk eventually became a sort of spokesman for the disgruntled group and was eventually let inside as some sort of negotiator. He managed to bring Nik Turner to the door – his hair yet to be fluffed into action – to explain to the fans that he had no control over door policy but discussions were underway. It all felt like a weird hostage situation except that we were all locked on the outside. Time dragged on. It was clear that the gig hard started and more than one person began to mutter that our little punk representative had sold us out and was no doubt pogoing away inside while we froze on the pavement. And then, suddenly, the gates were opened. We were allowed in. We still had to pay admission and sign in, which seemed to take forever, but the gig was mere corridors away. We eventually arrived midway through a performance of Ejection, a track from the extraordinary Robert Calvert album Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters. Calvert was supposed to have been playing the tour with ICU but became ‘indisposed’ – the mercurial genius’ mental illness again getting the better of him, it turned out.
Was it worth the wait? Hell, yes. This was a sweaty, bouncy, chaotic and glorious show, a musical collision that was absolutely infectious. No one was ever going to call Inner City Unit a tight musical combo but they were glorious nevertheless. It also felt, instinctively, like something that was going to be a short-lived affair – the chances of catching this band again in a year or two seemed very slim, and so it was.
At the gig, I picked up the live cassette Live Out – a recording available only through mail order or at live shows. It’s great and as far as I know, it remains unavailable except on those hand-crafted tapes. I signed myself up to the ICU newsletter, which was a wonderfully ramshackle combination of fanzine and mail-order catalogue that covered all aspects of the Hawkwind friends and relations as well as the wider free festival favourites. 1985 was the year that the police violently crushed the Stonehenge free festival and forever destroyed that movement so these newsletters were inadvertently documenting the end of an era.
I also bought the Inner City Unit live video, filmed at Manchester, Salford and Liverpool. This was as DIY as things came – a limited edition of 250, all numbered and signed and produced on commercial E-180 VHS tapes from footage captured by single domestic cameras at the three gigs. The two-hour recording was as rough as you could imagine and fascinatingly, each copy seemed to have been individually put together. My friend bought one as well and his tape had a completely different set of tracks than mine. An investment in video copying leads and hauling our VCRs to the other’s house for a couple of all-night bootlegging sessions ensured that we had a full version each and it turned out that there was something like an hour’s worth of different content between the two tapes. How fantastically random. You can watch a version of the tape below but I’m not sure after all this time if it is the same as either of the ones I saw. One day, I’ll dig out the VHS tape – which I still own – and do a comparison.
Inner City Unit fell apart – again – by the end of the year and Turner moved on. It would not be until the early 2010s that I saw him play live again, this time with his band Space Ritual, a rather more traditional Hawkwind offshoot that recreated the space rock of those early Seventies albums. They were great and Turner – then in his early 70s – was still on top form. We’ll probably never see the like of him again.
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Oh this is sad news … A wonderful man, who was a truly unique gentleman and the creator of some great music and some tremendous experiences in my youth … Shine Bright Mr Turner … You will always be with us
I saw Nik in various permutations. Hawkwind, ICU, Fantastic All Stars and Hawklords (the 2009 version) and he was always a fantastic entertainer. I had the pleasure of interviewing him and Trev Thoms once back in 1980 or 81 for a fanzine I did and he was a very lovely chap. RIP Nik.
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