Tuesday, 9 September 2008

SFX, Drugs & Rollerskates

Taking Off With Hawkwind

Last night I did something I've been meaning to do for some weeks. I watched a BBC documentary about 70s space-rockers Hawkwind I recorded last month. Until yesterday I knew nothing about the band other than they had a rubbish name and Lemmy had been among their number before he formed Motorhead. If you're equally ignorant, the All Music Guide nicely sums up their marijuana-scented essence:

Any sci-fi fan with long memories probably remembers those 1970s DAW paperback editions of Michael Moorcock's sword-and-sorcery novels, with their images of heavily armored, very muscular warriors, carrying large swords and standing against eerie land- and starscapes. Take that imagery, throw in some terminology and names seemingly lifted from the Marvel Comics of the era (The Watcher, etc.) and particle physics articles of the period, translate it into loud but articulate hard rock music, and that's more or less what Hawkwind is about.

Psychedelic guitar wig-outs would be banished to my Room 101 and I watched the programme more because a colleague described it as a real-life This is Spinal Tap rather than to learn more about Hawkwind's music. On that score I was not disappointed.

Hawkwind were obsessed with space-fantasy. Their allegiance with Michael Moorcock was more than inspirational; he wrote some of their lyrics. (The writer tells a lovely anecdote about introducing Arthur C Clarke to William Burroughs at a party. The scientist and Beat prophet got on famously). To hear the band recall their 1972 Space Ritual tour makes it sound like an audio-visual display to rival the final scenes of Close Encounters. Sadly no video exists, but Lemmy suggests that you can approximate the experience by dropping five tabs of acid, spinning the double live LP, getting out some oil and projecting it on the wall.

Lemmy was involved in many of Hawkwind's most Tap-esque incidents. While touring the American mid-west he wandered off, out of his mind, later to find himself abandoned by the rest of the band. He then hitchhiked across Michigan to meet his band mates. The next day he was busted for drugs going into Canada and fired. Lemmy and Hawkwind's Dave Brock tell the story most animatedly in this clip from another programme.

My favourite piece of nutty behaviour recounted in the programme involves sax player and Egyptoligist Nik Turner. He was fired from the band in 1976 for playing over other people's solos but re-joined in the early 80s. He memorably describes one of Hawkwind's appearances at the Stonehenge Festival where he wore a skin-tight bodystocking and careened around the stage on rollerskates. Turner thought this was the height of performance art. His band mates disagreed and he was soon fired again.

The documentary is full of these tragic drug-fuelled anecdotes. It's also fascinating about the Ladbroke Grove hippy scene of the 60s and 70s and makes some bold claims about Hawkwind's music: they were electronica pioneers and pre-empted punk and acid house.

I've got nothing against old music, I just prefer it played on a mandolin rather than a Mellotron. There weren't enough songs in the programme for me to make an educated assessment of Hawkwind's music but I still suspect it's not my cup of tea. Though that would probably change if, like most of the band's beverages seemed to be, it was spiked with PCP.


My friend Wayne, who DJs the brilliant Uptight night at the Albany on the last Saturday of every month, emailed me after reading this. He said they've played Hawkwind's cover of Gimme Shelter on more than one occasion. I looked it up and it turns I actually have a copy on a 2002 freebie compilation from Uncut magazine. Wayne suggested it sounds a bit like early Spiritualized. See what you think.

MP3: Hawkwind - Gimme Shelter (Rolling Stones cover)

Related Links

Hawkwind: Do Not Panic - the BBC doc

YouTube: Hawkwind Doc - of course it's here to watch

Hawkwind - they're still at it; this is the official site

Space Ritual - Nik Turner and other former Hawkwind members' band


Tessa said...

Yes, they were ridiculous, but for some reason they were wonderful too. Like some bizarre balancing act they trod a line between avant garde and cartoon. The trouble was that they should have split in 1978. Post-Calvert they went all metal, and despite the ridiculous inclusion of Ginger baker in their ranks for one album and a tour they became a parody of themselves. The documentary did play up the sword and sorcery stuff, but Moorcock's input before 74 was more of the Ballardian, new wave of Brit Sci Fi style than the women in bronze bras type. And as for the electronic pioneer tag? Well, they had direct connections to the krautrock axis in the early days (bassist dave Anderson played with Amon Duul) and the wiggier bits of Space Ritual still tweak the synapses nicely.
Turner was true maverick - his album of recitations of the Book Of The Dead in the Great Pyramid (and produced by Steve Hillage) remains a lost classic (no, really)...and their last gasp with Robert Calvert on Quark Strangeness And Charm and Hawklords albums saw them approaching subject matter as wide ranging as drug taking Australian Outback doctors to the nature of imperialism as encapsulated by NASA's space programme.
But maybe I protest to much? In the end, they were about as far out as you could get in those far off days. Age has not been too kind, but for those of us...hem hem...old enough...they were the real deal.
Oh...and Brock's guitar solos were always pretty minimal. It was only in the post 79 days that they started to go on

and on...

Peter said...

tessa has pretty much summed up my feelings about (ahem) the hawks. if you want to big up their, er, 'cultural significance' i think you could point them out as an influence on punk (lydon was a fan, and the pistols have been performing 'silver machine' on their recent tours). at their best (on the early albums where the guitar solos are at the pete shelley level) they certainly equal the motorik intensity of neu! whatever, in 1968 they were one of the few bands in the UK whose music displayed not a shred of anything remotely connected to the blues or indeed anything from america . which is one of the reasons i suspect nige might not be too keen on them!

Nigel Smith said...

Thanks for the comments Pete and 'Tessa'. If Hawkwind had a steel player I'd no doubt be a massive fan.

I'm still willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. This documentary really was my first proper exposure to their music and as I said it didn't really have enough to give me a sufficient overview I'm sure.

As you'll see from the note I've just added to the post, it turns out I do have one Hawkwind track already in my collection.

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