Are Hawkwind The World’s Greatest Rock ’n’ Roll Band?

A new collection affirms the brilliance of post-Lemmy Hawkwind

Hawkwind Dreamworkers of Time: The BBC Recordings 1985-1995, Cherry Red 2022

Part I. Jam Band Music: W T Actual F? 

Why do we call a particular type of music “Jam Band Music”?

This has never made much sense to me. 

There is absolutely nothing wrong with Ornette Coleman, mandolins, getting stoned, or paid audiences, but I ferociously believe that no one who has ever listened to Ornette Coleman should be allowed to play a mandolin in front of a paying audience while stoned. Yet apparently this is the main qualification for performing what is generally called “Jam Band Music.” 

I don’t get it. Shortly before he walked across the Glienicke Bridge and vanished into the gray, brutalist mist that was Cold War-era East Berlin, my father told me that the ability to integrate rapidly descending diatonic thirds into a Doc Watson song is just picking your nose and showing it to the teacher, it’s not actually something that comes from the heart. 

He was right, of course (though history has shown that his judgement regarding Erich Honecker may have been askew). To my mind, most of what we have labeled “Jam Band music” is the exact opposite of jamming; it’s controlled, precise, almost viciously deliberate, pretentious, and requires an extraordinary amount of musical expertise and rehearsal. It has zero to do with the visceral experience of losing control, of getting lost in a riff, of making a connection with the songs of Stonehenge builders, the chants of slaves in Memphis, Egypt and Memphis, Tennessee, and the howls of loss and hope heard in the peat bogs, coal mines, and Pale of Settlement peopled by our ancestors. 

In other words, no one ever clapped in a 15/8 rhythm on a Union picket line. 

 

Part II. In Praise of “I Want You” by the Troggs, which is both the Echt Jam Band Song and the Ur Hawkwind Song

To my mind, playing the three chords that comprise “I Want You” by the Troggs over and over for a really long time and connecting with the eternal godhead of stomping simplicity, well, that’s jamming. “I Want You,” y’see, is one of the greatest recordings of all time. It is 2:13 of mesmermagic, making a pure connection with the most feral aspects of rock and mantra. “I Want You” is a far meaner, purer take on “Wild Thing.” It takes all the unnecessary bits in “Wild Thing” – those stops an’ starts and the vague whiff of subtlety to the message and performance — and wraps them in a soiled laundry bag and throws them off the Thames embankment.  “I Want You” takes a darker variation of the three-chord riff of “Wild Thing” and just whacks it into hypnotic, repetitive ecstasy/obliteration. It is the ultimate and greatest ideation of what “Farmer John” or “Louie Louie” were after, only “I Want You” takes it all a step further, and not just because it is almost literally as dumb, direct, and basic as a song can be; it’s also because the drums just pound, accurately but without finesses, like King Kong’s heart (or the drums thumped to summon Kong!), making the whole thing deeply more savage and effective than “Louie Louie” and any of its’ brethren. 

 

AUDIO: The Troggs “I Want You”

“I Want You” is especially relevant to our Hawkwind story, and here’s why: First, I consider “I Want You” and the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” the first true Jam Band songs. Jamming is ecstatic, orgasmic, cosmic, volcanically anti-cosmic, ridiculous, leaping and falling. Jamming should connect the nameless eternal thump-thumpety-thump bumpety-bump jump for joy that’s deep in our ancestral DNA with an instrument in our hands, the floor under our boots, and our fists against the wall. It’s not a bloody math problem, it’s your first erection in class while considering the math problem. Consider “I Want You” and “Sister Ray,” will you? “We will play two or three chords until we foam at the mouth, until all sense is absorbed by sensation.” This is the goal of jamming: Sense is to be absorbed by sensation. Our mission is to levitate with dumb angelics. Our goal is absorption into a land of Now. 

“I Want You” is also, to some degree, the prototype for the entire Hawkwind sound, except Hawkwind stuck it in a planetarium, and then brought in Tom Baker, Q from Star Trek NG, and Robert Wyatt to have a cage match while the Pretty Things and Dalia Derbyshire refereed. 

 

Part III. Hawkwind Are The World’s Greatest Rock ’n’ Roll Band

Hawkwind are the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band. This is not hyperbole. They get it. They dwell in the same fertile and orgiastic lands as Bo Diddley, Dr. Feelgood, Jerry Lee Lewis Live at the Star Club, the Collins Kids, the Delmonas, Neu!, the Velvets when speed overwhelmed sense…except they do this all while locked in IMAX theater watching the weird freak-out bit at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey over and over (honestly, “Jerry Lee Lewis Live at the Star Club + the weird freak-out bit at the end of 2001” is as good a description of Hawkwind as you’re gonna get). 

 

 

Hawkwind are also the world’s greatest Jam Band if we accept the actual definition of what a Jam Band should be, and don’t allow this idea to be corrupted by Men with Mandolins and Berklee Degrees (though to be perfectly honest, both Stereolab and the Feelies also vie for that title, and both bands spiritually and sonically resemble Hawkwind).  See, if you examine the Jam Band phenomenon, you generally encounter this: The listener/fan is required to close a loop. That is, the music in and of itself is not truly transcendent but requires the belief of the acolyte to seal the Tupperware. But Hawkwind – as well as the Feelies, Stereolab, Glenn Branca Ensemble, sometimes Sonic Youth, very possibly a fair pile of the kind of stuff they play at Berlin’s Berghain club – is mesmeric without requiring faith. It is transcendent for both listener and stranger. 

 

Part IV: Hawkwind Were Still Great After Lemmy Left in 1975

When discussing Hawkwind, many restrict themselves to citing what is called “The UA era” (that is, the period of time between 1971 and 1975; this also happens to be when Lemmy Kilmister was Hawkwind’s bassist, though we establish that from their inception in 1969 through today, the band’s leader has always been Dave Brock, Hawkwind’s guitarist and primary vocalist). And it is true, what Hawkwind did extremely well, they did in this era to the extreme. They would grab onto a riff, and pummel it into a mesmeric, meditative chant. Following up on the model of “Sister Ray,” they used the rock band as a machine; but unlike “Sister Ray,” they wove great and strange astral/acidtral melodies in and out of the riffing and threw in a vast, nearly gamelan-like variety of other sounds: synthesizers, violins, flutes, war whoops, science fiction text, Dr. Who sound effects, etcetera. Sometimes this gasping, riveting, pounding tumult would dissolve into moments of exotic beauty. To describe UA-era Hawkwind in another way, they were likely the most direct influence on two of history’s most powerful rock bands, the Sex Pistols and Motörhead, while at the same time being the missing link between Pink Floyd and Stereolab. I say this definitively: All five albums Hawkwind did between ’71 and ’75 belong in your record collection, but if you had to start somewhere, get the double live album Space Ritual (1973), which is, without any doubt, one of the five best live albums ever recorded;1974’s Hall of the Mountain Grill; and 1975’s (only slightly) more airy and Krautrock-y Warrior on the Edge of Time. 

But there’s another myth we need to destroy, and that’s the idea that Hawkwind after Lemmy split in 1975 isn’t worth attending to. This is utter fucking nonsense. That’s a lot like saying that the Stones were done after 1967’s Between the Buttons, or the Beach Boys’ story ends after Pet Sounds. If Hawkwind pre-1976 is the missing link between Motörhead and Pink Floyd, Hawkwind after 1980 are what would have happened if Tom Scholz and William Orbit had produced the Sex Pistols (honestly, a lot of their post-1980 stuff sounds exactly like that). Now, doesn’t that sound interesting? (Perhaps you are wondering, “Hey, what happened to the years between 1976 and 1980?” Well, friend, this was a strange time for Hawkwind. During this era, they dabbled with a form of Music Hall psych pop that comes across as a somewhat delayed reaction to Pub Rock, while also echoing the kind of riffy, melodic alt-pop you hear from Roxy Music, solo Lou Reed, or Doctors of Madness – in fact, weirdly, Hawkwind in the second half of the 1970s sound a lot like Doctors of Madness. Comprising three albums – one released under the name Hawklords – ’76 – ’80 has always been my least favorite era of Hawkwind by far, though they did achieve some commercial success during this time.) 

 

 

From 1980 on, Hawkwind released some massively good albums – notably Levitation (1980), Space Bandits (1990), the incredible Electric Teepee (1992), Onward (2012), right through 2020’s Carnivorous (released under the name Hawkwind Light Orchestra, Carnivorous was startling evidence that a fifty-year-old act could still deliver the goods). Each of those albums will utterly cut to shreds the myth that Hawkwind post-Lemmy isn’t first fucking rate. And thanks to Cherry Red Records, we now have a document that definitively proves that after Lemmy split to form Motörhead, Hawkwind remained one of the best bands on the planet. 

Dreamworkers Of Time – The BBC Recordings 1985-1995 is a 26-song, two hour and forty-minute collection assembling all the live concert recordings and studio sessions Hawkwind broadcast exclusively over the BBC between 1985 and 1995. Let me put it this way: Dreamworkers of Time is to 1980 – ’95 Hawkwind what Space Ritual was to 1970’s Hawkwind. Made up virtually entirely of post-1980 material, it shows a Hawkwind that had learned to balance grace, melody, and trance with their extant foundation of Blue Cheer proto-punk roar and Maureen Tucker/Troggs stomp. A song like “Moonglum” (from the Hammersmith Odeon in 1988) sounds like what would have happened if Siouxsie and Steve Severin had replaced Rotten and Vicious in the Pistols, while “Death Trap”/“Wastelands of Sleep”/“Are You Losing Your Mind” (from a 1995 radio session) resembles Fu Manchu and Massive Attack fighting over who owns the VHS of Tarkovsky’s Solaris (yes, that is truly what it sounds like). You also have two amazing versions of one of Hawkwind’s very best songs, “Assassins of Allah,” and two roaring, soaring, chunky and space-reaching takes on “Utopia” (one from the Reading Festival in 1986, the other from Hammersmith Odeon in 1988), making it clear that this is one of Hawkwind’s all-time A-list compositions. Oh, and Dreamworkers of Time is not exclusively post-1980: The ’88 Hammersmith Odeon disc contains both “Sonic Attack” and “Brainstorm,” and the ’86 Reading disc features “Masters of the Universe,” “Brainstorm,” and a roaring “Silver Machine” featuring prodigal son Lemmy. 

 

VIDEO: Tarkovsky’s Solaris film trailer

Listen, Hawkwind are one of the very few bands to have officially released multiple fantastic live albums: Space Ritual and 1994’s The Business Trip (documenting an extremely unusual and almost atomically powerful three-piece Hawkwind who toured in the early ‘90s) are both utterly essential; BBC Radio One Live in Concert (recorded in 1972, released in 1991) presents a slightly more flat and raw alternate take on the Space Ritual era, and shows that the band really did sound different on every night; and The 1999 Party, taken from a radio broadcast in 1974 at the Chicago Auditorium, shows Hawkwind fresh off of Hall of the Mountain Grill, a little more subdued and reflective than on Ritual or the ’72 BBC concerts, and in front of a less rabid audience. Slightly less essential than these, but still fascinating, are At the Roundhouse (2017) and 50 Live (recorded on the band’s 50th anniversary tour in 2019); both display that nearly half a century after Space Ritual, Hawkwind could still conjure a truly fearsome blend of smoke, psych, and drifting wisps of almost folk-ish, psych/ic melody. 

(Buyer beware: There are a plethora of less-than stellar official/semi-official Hawkwind live collections out there, so best to limit yourselves to the ones I list above.)

All these albums display that, almost uniquely, you can get a damn good grasp of the Hawkwind miracle just from their live recordings (I wonder: is this something they genuinely have in common with the “traditional” Jam Bands?). But Dreamworkers of Time fills a very important gap in the live archive: singlehandedly, it incontrovertibly proves the legitimacy, power, genius, and variety of post-Lemmy Hawkwind. In addition, in one unexpected swoop, it takes its place as the second best-ever Hawkwind live album.

And denoting something as the second best Hawkwind live album is making a BIG statement; I mean, after all, we are talking about the World’s Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band here.

 

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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 is the author of Only Wanna Be with You: The Inside Story of Hootie & the Blowfish and has written for publications such as Trouser Press, the Observer and The Village Voice. Learn more at Tim Sommer Writing.

2 thoughts on “Are Hawkwind The World’s Greatest Rock ’n’ Roll Band?

  • April 11, 2022 at 7:49 pm
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    as if to underscore your basic argument, one thing you did not mention was the link between the band an sci-fi master michael moorcock. the visionary creator of jerry cornelius, the universal (literally: MM gave away the rights to anyone who wanted to write a story about him) character of anarchy (the good kind). that he wrote a novel about this band, “Time of the Hawklords”, is significant in that the band was capable of lifting soul-crushing depression on the human race only at the absolute peak of their jamming during their guerilla concerts. in that, much like the grateful dead’s collab with robert hunter, hawkwind not only jammed in studio and on stage but also with a resident poet, robert calvert. they jammed so hard they broke into other media. (and if you count stacia on stage, which we must, other arts.)

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  • April 11, 2022 at 8:15 pm
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    Wow Tim, what an interesting start to your article – btw I played mandolin with Ornette Coleman many times over at his mid-town loft! He played usually violin – we played a sort of astral/appalachian uh jamband music (then we’d switch around on various instruments, – his sax with my /flute/sitar and yes… even banjo!) thought you ought to know… now back to your article…

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