ALBUMS: Hawkwind, The Rock ‘n’ Roll Machine

51 years into their voyage, they release their best album in decades

Hawkwind Light Orchestra Carnivorous, Cherry Red 2020

When I was 14, a radio station concert promo offered me a glimpse of the future. It dangled a promise, which began a search. The search led me to Hawkwind. 

Sometime in 1977, the year in which I began caring more about punk rock than I did about baseball, an ad popped up on WLIR. It barked something about The Godz Rock ‘n’ Roll Machine!, with some suitable monster-truck echo accompanying the oath. I think the Godz were playing at the Calderone Concert Hall, or My Father’s Place, or maybe even Speaks. 

Now, there are a lot of things to say about the Godz, a tragic, Ohio-based biker boogie band who made Steppenwolf look like Steely Dan, and sounded like Black Flag would have sounded if they had grown up in a trailer that had Confederate battle flags for curtains. Or maybe I would describe the Godz like this: Foghat if they had their fingers broken before they recorded, and were played a lot of Slade and Kiss. Mostly, the Godz sound like the Dictators pretending to be Budgie. Which is all to say the Godz are kind of effing terrific. They deserve a serious re-appraisal – they are so much dumber and purer than most ‘70s boogie metal acts that they are almost folk art – but this is not that re-appraisal. No. Instead, we are here to discuss the enormous impact that phrase “Rock ‘n’ Roll Machine” had on me. 


Artist: Hawkwind Light Orchestra

Album: Carnivorous 

Label: Cherry Red 

★★★★ (4/5 stars)


Even when I was a child, I was able to fairly quickly assess that The Godz did not sound like a Rock ‘n’ Roll Machine. But my mind immediately began searching for the band that would sound like that magical idiom. In my wee head, the words conjured something that sounded like a great hissing, churning, belching dynamo, the WPA-era cranks, shafts and levers that would power a city, stirring it to life: chukka-chunka-WOKKA-WHAKKA- chukka-chunka-WOKKA-WHAKKA, followed, by guitars that sounded like the blur and hiss of a steam-driven thing. And then, the whole apparatus would gather momentum; the yellow, blue and red lights of a low, old city full of leaning wooden houses, crumbling brick buildings and silent smokestacks  (maybe Bridgeport, maybe Utica, maybe Rochester, maybe Trenton) would begin to flicker on and engage, until, after some great, straining effort full of rhythm, smoke, diesel fumes and noise, the whole great starry dynamo achieved full power! And the dying city would light up with great gasps of low life and high-legged women and higher-legged men dressed like women.The Rock ‘n’ Roll Machine would create a fractal of a thousand Grosse Freiheits and eight hundred 14th Streets, and the earth would literally shake from the churn of the dynamo of the Great Rock ‘n’ Roll  Machine. The blue-black night sky would be alit with the imperfect blue-flame arcs of eighty-eight thousand exploding transformers, and the chukka-chunka-WOKKA-WHAKKA would shake the earth and rattle the windows as the neon blinked and the cheap cocktails spilled until, at some indeterminate point, when the very foundations of the old, brick tenements and vaudeville houses threatened to collapse, the dynamo would begin to wind down, like hell’s music box. 

And that, I imagined, was the great Rock ‘n’ Roll Machine that this silly commercial on WLIR promised me. I searched for it and searched for it. Where are you hiding it?, I asked Rolling Stone, WPIX, WLIR and Trouser Press. Where can I find you?, I asked Scrooges Records on Northern Boulevard in Little Neck, holy Sounds on St. Marks Place and JR Music at Broadway’s birthplace, in the shadow of parallel stele. 

 

VIDEO: WLIR goes off the air 12/7/87

And the search never stopped. I would find bands that touched the hot, sparking dynamo for a few moments, for a bar here and there, but no one was the pure Rock ‘n’ Roll Machine. 

But then I found Hawkwind. 

Late to the game, yes I was, perhaps it was 1980, but there it was. And I instantly recognized that I had found The Rock ‘n’ Roll Machine. This was the band that fulfilled the promise of that simple, enchanted phrase, this was the band I had been searching for, ever since some echo-ing, basso fool on a Long Island radio promo had barked those words. 

I can only guess on the creative origin of Hawkwind’s sound – like the work of Neu!, Kraftwerk, the Velvets, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and LaMonte Young,  it seems to come from a place that merged the ancient martial rhythms of labor, prayer, and lullaby with the drone promised by Buddha and Bo Diddley – so I will not comment on the origin, only on the effect, so profound and permanent as to forever change your relationship with and expectations of Rock ‘n’ Roll: 

Imagine a band who took the best and most impactful parts of your favorite songs, and built an entire sound on that foundation: the steeple chase quadruple time of the first minute of “Highway Star,” the dit-dit-dit-moonrise metronome Morse of “Astronomy Domine,” the psycho-slash border-blaster radio wave call to arms of “Wooly Bully,” the foggy future twang of Delia Derbyshire’s radiophonic Doctor Who theme and Meek’s “Telstar,” the traffic-dodging speed-blur of Blue Cheer’s “Summertime Blues,” the put-yer-pants-on-quick-laddie whack-an’-dash of Eddie’s “Something Else,” the hoarse, hammering repetition and distortion of  the VU’s “White Light White Heat,” the sneering, bad trip drool and razor burn of the Mac’s “Green Manalishi,” the out of control knuckle drag beat-defiance of the Pretty Things “Rosalyn”…Hawkwind morphed all of it, ALL OF IT, into a quadruple-time blur of acid speed jamming inside a planetarium.

Then you command said band to compose the soundtrack for a historical nexus with these specific instructions: The unwashed, angry working class neo-serfs of England’s 19th century Satanic Mills will take up arms to fight the grinding, proto-radioactive gasworkpunk robots  of H.G. Wells, with the goal of creating a human eternal motion machine to join hands in a people-made Mobius strip to dance around Stonehenge for a Kalpa of eternal solstice sunrises (note: Kalpa is a Buddhist division of time, roughly the time that it would take to grind down an entire mountain if you only brushed that mountain with a soft cloth every one hundred years). 

Got it? Because that’s what Hawkwind sound like.

You always wanted some of your favorite druggie bands to sound like this, but never had the courage to admit they failed you. Hawkwind do not fail you: they start the engine, quickly slip into a 16-beats to the measure tachycardia flurry, and mercilessly beat the thing like Dave Davies locked into an acid loop where he attempts to meet God by playing the riff to “I Need You” over and over and over again while druids dance around him. 

This is another way to contextualize Hawkwind: It’s been said  that Punk Rock happened because  in every town in the UK, there were a bunch of people who loved Hawkwind. And yes, more than anything, Hawkwind are the missing link between Pink Floyd and the Sex Pistols, though I might say it would be more accurate to label them as the connective tissue between the Velvet Underground, Neu!, and Sunn O)))). 

Listen, Hawkwind’s catalog is extraordinarily complicated. The band are over fifty years old; their discography lists 33 (!) studio albums since 1970, along with eleven authorized live albums and fifteen compilations (and there are a nearly endless amount of quasi-legal repackagings and near-bootleg/sorta not bootleg live recordings, many of which contain crumbs of gems amidst piles of dust). The key thing for the the novice to know is that EVERYTHING the band released between 1971’s In Search of Space and 1975’s Warrior on the Edge of Time  (four studio albums and one live album) are as utterly essential as any five albums ever released by any band in rock history (although there is music of enormous quality and invention and power all throughout their catalog). Oh, and Hawkwind’s 1973 live album, Space Ritual, is the second greatest live album of ALL TIME (not hyperbole) and THE most essential live album of all time. Perfuckingiod Full Fucking Stop. There are a handful of albums everyone must own to have some basic understanding of the power, meaning, animal beauty, and history of Rock ‘n’ Roll; Space Ritual is one of these.  

 

AUDIO: Hawkwind Space Ritual 

Which brings us to the enormously strange year of 2020, which defies any adjectives we could attempt to apply to it; only I feel fortunate enough to experience 2020 from the foggy rise of medium/late middle age, and not from the dash of full youth. But of all the totally weird effing things I have come to expect in this age of the utterly unexpected, one that I could not have seen coming was the release of a really, really good NEW Hawkwind album. In fact, Carnivorous isn’t just a good Hawkwind album, it’s a great one, the best they’ve released in over a quarter of a century. 

Hawkwind (we note they have one consistent member for their entire 51 year lifespan, guitarist/multi-instrumentalist/bandleader/frequent lead vocalist Dave Brock) have continued to release records fairly frequently over the years, and these tend to be pretty good. Their last studio album, 2019’s All Aboard the Skylark, typified this. Like many of Hawkwind’s 21st century releases, it was a reasonably high quality exercise in burbling electronics, studio-bound sky-skating metal, and thrumming, thumping soundtracky chillout. Skylark was a good album with some very good moments, but not a great one; and like many of their albums over the past twenty years, it felt like the soundtrack to a Doctor Who spinoff that I never saw, and/or what would happen if Vangelis and James Hetfield were locked in a room and told to compose a real-time accompaniment to a screening of Metropolis. By the way, if that description actually sounds pretty good, that’s intentional: Almost every Hawkwind album over the years (even the less distinguished ones they have released since 1995), is worth spending some time with. 

But Hawkwind are back in a major way, with a humming, thrumping, thumping, sonic cyclonic vengeance. Carnivorous is a thrilling, headphonic ride down astral ski slopes and up fiery, star-lit funiculars. Carnivorous (yes, it’s a near-anagram of coronavirus, and this is most definitely a concept album) is Hawkwind’s first “essential” album since 1992’s Electric Tepee and ‘93’s remarkable proto-primitive/techno It is the Business of the Future to Be Dangerous (though we note that 1997’s Distant Horizons and 2000’s Spacebrock are also pretty damn good). 

 

AUDIO: Hawkwind Electric Tepee (full album)

(Note: Carnivorous is released under the name Hawkwind Light Orchestra, though this album is neither orchestral nor light; the name alludes to the fact that the album began life as a Dave Brock solo project, and not a full band adventure, and it seems to have greatly benefited from the minimalism and power of an adventure conceived in isolation.) 

Carnivorous is a strange, enthralling circus of organic and inorganic sounds, fantasies, fears, and night sweats, like that feeling you get in a dream when you are running through a strange town yet you know all the streets. Like much of Hawkwind’s best stuff, it concerns itself not with direction or dynamic, but with effect. Songs unfold, unwind, reveal and collapse like a photo developing under the red lights of a darkroom, a darkroom tucked beneath streets and alongside subway tunnels, and subject to persistent roars, thumps, rhythms, alarms, and random city and space noise. Sometimes Carnivorous sounds like Steve Miller jamming with Tangerine Dream, other times like Sunn O))) and William Orbit having a conversation inside a museum of Van Gogh Black Light Paintings. Guitars (reminding us that Brock was clearly one of Steve Jones’ biggest influences) slice and sluice against the bubbling, Tubular Bells dot-dash-railway-thwacka-thwacka common to Hawkwind’s sound, with Brock’s soaring melodies injecting psych-pop in the proceedings. The album moves from highlight to highlight: the pyscho-Pistolian “Repel Attract” is the band’s first “classic” song in many years – maybe even their best since 1992’s “Right to Decide.” “Human Behavior” is a thumping, riffing piece that sounds like the Robyn Hitchcock/Deep Purple collaboration you never allowed yourself to imagine, and “Windy Day” resembles Steely Dan produced by Syd Barrett and Scratch Perry (wrap yer head around that one). “Lockdown” and “The Virus” are both effective, hive-scratching modern takes on classic ‘70s Hawkwind vamping, accomplished with more ummph, more spacey darkness, more spatial power, than similar efforts over the last twenty years. And all of these are linked by wondrous interstitials, chugging, wraparound moments of northern light gravy, like what would happen if some punks got a hold of the playlist of Hearts of Space. 

It is always worth noting when a legacy act doesn’t just meet expectations, but exceeds them, mightily. I listen pretty closely to all of Hawkwind’s new releases, and generally nod my head with relief that they haven’t embarrassed themselves (though last year’s Acoustic Daze had me worried; it’s always a dangerous signs when bands begin releasing inferior versions of classic material). But what a wonder it is to find Hawkwind, one of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s greatest-ever bands, releasing a phenomenal album, one that you can tumble in to and wander around, each visit allowing new discoveries. The whole thing, this Carnivorous, makes me feel like I am drifting inside the pre-CGI space-scape of some Terry Gilliam film, only in Hawkwind’s case, you are riding in a spacebuggy painted and driven by punk rockers. 

Fifty-one years on, Dave Brock is still piloting Hawkwind’s Rock ‘n’ Roll machine to amazing new places. 

 

 

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Tim Sommer

Tim Sommer is a musician, record producer, former Atlantic Records A&R representative, WNYO DJ, MTV News correspondent, VH1 VJ, and founding member of the band Hugo Largo. He has written for publications such as Trouser Press, the Observer and The Village Voice. Follow him on Twitter @Timmysommer.

One thought on “ALBUMS: Hawkwind, The Rock ‘n’ Roll Machine

  • November 4, 2020 at 12:32 am
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    Beautifully articulated review. It really is a great album. Surprising and stunning all at once.

    Reply

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