Even as a geezer, the enigmatic Hawkwind frontman is still fearlessly in search of rock’s final frontier
I discovered Status Quo in my local record store’s cutout bins while in high school. Piledriver, that was the album: British boogie band, hugely popular in the UK, virtually unknown in the States, rocked my bedroom world around 1972 and 1973.
Shortly thereafter, freshman year of college, I discovered Hawkwind in a similar bin. The album was the double live Space Ritual: British band, hugely popular in UK, virtually unknown in the States, great headphone/pot music in my dorm. I must say, I had few friends or dorm-mates who shared my passion. (Hence, headphones, not loudspeakers.) I recall only an acquaintance, a jumpy little speed freak named Ernie, who made me nervous. Rocked my room in 1974 and 1975 (and also on air as a college radio DJ. I’m sure I made a few listeners turn that dial.)
VIDEO: Status Quo “Paper Plane”
But I made this quick connection: Hawkwind was Status Quo gone to space. That is, with their guitar/synth mix, repetitive riffing and scary sci-fi scenarios, they’d taken boogie rock into the next dimension. It wasn’t exactly like Status Quo’s good-time boogie, but there was a Venn Diagram in play. They gave us a churning and chugging trip through the stratosphere.
A few years later, having entered the hallowed halls of rock criticism I came up with Comparative Part 2: Hawkwind was a poor man’s Pink Floyd, which was not meant derisively at all. Simply to say they both liked to probe the space-rock realm but Hawkwind was faster, wittier, grungier and certainly more low-tech. (Roger Waters was more cynical, but the main Hawkwind guys of the ‘70s, Robert Calvert, Michael Moorcock and Dave Brock – the longtime captain of this ship – could weave some dark tales.).
I also realized this: That even as Hawkwind could play sold-out English festivals, rock critics of the time were not particularly kind. Prog fans seemed mixed as Hawkwind wasn’t a Yes/ELP/King Crimson “chops” band and, in fact, when punk came in, I’d wager a lot more of the punkers sensed the connection. (Brock certainly did when he formed the punk-ish offshoot Hawklords and you will find the term “proto-punk” attached to the band these days, hindsight being what it is.)
As to chops, well … “Guitarist Dave Brock is not loath to admit that most of the band’s musicians are at best mediocre,” James Johnson wrote in the NME in 1972. “When they first came together Hawkwind was just a means of having a good time — ‘a pleasurable side-line,’ as Brock puts it. Only when people actually seemed to like their music did they begin to take it seriously. And even now the main motive of the band is to provide fun both for the audience and themselves.”
Dozens have passed through the Hawkwind portals – most notably Motorhead’s Lemmy –and they’re kinda like Mark E. Smith and the Fall that way. Lemmy was booted from the band after being caught smuggling amphetamines across the US-Canada border in the mid-’70s. (The joke/reality is not that he smuggled drugs, but the wrong drugs.) Lemmy, as everyone knows, went on to found Motörhead — and a whole new movement of full-tilt punk-metal.
About three decades back, I was on the phone with Brock, who turns 80 today.
“We’ve never been that serious,” he told me from his isolated farm in Devon. “I think the humor’s always been there. I mean, we have different people in the band, but I think basically the spirit exists, as it were. It’s obviously always going off in different tangents and directions, but I regard it as sailing a ship through the sea and you have to sort of try to get a course.”
My favorite lyrics come from the title track of the Quark, Strangeness and Charm, which was a rebirthing period for the band: “Copernicus had those Renaissance ladies/Crazy about his telescope/ And Galileo had a name that/Made his reputation higher than his hope/But did none of those astronomers discover/While they were staring out into the dark/That what a lady looks for in her lover/ Is charm, strangeness and quark.” (I didn’t know this immediately but quark, strangeness and charm are all astronomical terms, too.)
Brock was starting to sniff out the fact that his band was no longer getting Rodney Dangerfield-ed, either slagged or ignored. “You see, the funny thing is we can actually play festivals over here where we play to maybe 50,000 people at the top of the bill,” Brock said, “and there is never a review in the paper. And I’d think, ‘Why have they got this campaign against us?’ “
Back then, the tide was starting to turn, which Brock noted with some bemusement. “We’re regarded recently as having assumed a legendary state. It’s nice to be a legend, I suppose.”
And that’s grown over time. In November of 2019, they were the band on the cover of PROG magazine, fer Chrissakes.
There are people far more expert than I. (Say hello to fellow Rock and Roll Globe contributor Tim Sommer!) I must own over two dozen albums, but I’ve skipped some (both or purpose or just couldn’t keep up) and I’m not going to be able to lay out a point-by-point trajectory of Hawkwind and spinoffs.
My Hawkwind/Hawklords sweet spot was and remains Space Ritual, Warrior on the Edge of Time, Quark, Strangeness and Charm and 25 Years On, but I’m hep to Onward, The Machine Stops, Into the Woods and Carnivorous (the latter four 21st century efforts and the final one billed to Hawkwind Light Orchestra.) In fact, “Right to Decide,” from Onward became my go-to track for the summer of 2012. Hooky as hell with the chorus perfectly in keeping with my world view: “You can’t do this, you can’t do that/You can’t go forward and you can’t go back.”
“It’s always been treated as a vehicle that you enjoy doing things on,” said Brock, about all the bands, offshoots and projects. He sings, writes, plays guitar and synthesizers. “There have been times in all those years when you’re fed up with it, but then you carry on and see what turns up next. It’s never been regarded as a career or job.”
Hawkwind’s milieu is, generally, science fiction rock — the band off-and-on collaborated with acclaimed sci-fi writer Moorcock — and, as a writer, Brock likes to point out environmental crimes, to warn of society’s increasing mechanization, compartmentalization and dehumanization. The best science fiction, Brock said, “really has to have visionary context. That’s the object, really: to put a across a vision of the future that could well happen.” In “Damnation Alley,” for instance, Hawkwind takes its listeners on a frantic journey through a nuclear firestorm, trying to outrun the destruction. I love it that the desperate journey takes them through my hometown of Boston.
Asked if there’s a central theme in Hawkwind’s music, Brock said, “I think there are lots of little men battling the system. I think you have to do that unless you become very corrupt.”
I’ve seen the Hawkwind three times. A memory of one in 1990 at the long defunct Channel club. Where, I thought, do these musical genres meet, mix and mingle: Spacey, early-’70s-rooted psychedelia; late-’70s punk rock, and contemporary sci-fi visions of an overly mechanized, possibly post-nuclear, future world?
Only at a Hawkwind gig. “It’s about five o’clock in the morning, well past our bedtime,” sighed one of Britain’s Hawkwinders (fans) at the onset, just before the synthesizer-based pulse began to churn, metal-on-metal-like, setting the stage for nearly two hours of sci-fi rock ‘n’ roll mayhem.
They rose to the occasion.
It was all played out before a mid-size, attentive, wildly diverse, crowd — punks, aging hippies, metal-heads, bikers and techno-nerds — and it was a sprawling, oft-wondrous display of space-rock boogie, low-budget theatrics and creative interpretations of modern-world paranoia. Escapism with a kick.
Hawkwind’s Channel show — sometimes fronted by multi-masked and costumed singer Bridgett Wishart — relied heavily on songs from their latest LP, Space Bandits. This was fine because that music rocks and soars on disc, and did so live: fast, futuristic and hard. But Hawkwind did omit most of their greatest cult non-hits — no “Quark, Strangeness and Charm,” “PSI Power,” or “Kings of Speed.” Grrr.
But Hawkwind roared on, even after key member Calvert’s heart-attack death in 1988. Pro-environmentalist, anti-conformist and anti-TV-culture thoughts sprouted up throughout the low-tech, oft-linear, psychedelic squall of the show. Hawkwind occasionally drifted and droned, but, more often than not, catapulted you into hyper-space with just a couple of tough, muscle-bound, bass-heavy chords, a long-term power-jam spinoff spiel, and a foreboding, yet fun-loving, presence.
The surging refrain to “Realms,” the slam-bam psychedelic rocker that started the show, went “Surrender the life/Surrender to death,” and it was both chillingly real and rockingly goofy — a suggestion of the shape of things to come, and a spoof on the same. Hawkwind rode that axis throughout, lurching between hope and despair, blurring the lines, and, yet, tellingly railing at various “crazy fools.” More power to ’em. Hawkwind is not part of anyone’s system. Not then. Not now.
AUDIO: Hawkwind Live 1990