As we mourn the loss of an archival Hawk, we revel in the brilliance of their new album
The Hawkwind miracle continues with the release of We Are Looking In On You, their best album in decades.
This 19-track live collection, recorded in 2021, could convince some whelpling totally unfamiliar with one of the greatest and most original rock bands of all time that Hawkwind are amazing, stupendous, non-pareil, beyond compare, worthy of your time and your deepest wells of affection.
Friends, we are all Unfrozen Caveman Lawyers stumbling around in a world we barely understand, burping obligatory praise for Cheap Trick because this is the sorry and pale birthright of our generation. We do our best not to stir up death’s dust on the windowsills of life, though I assault you with this truth: Cheap Trick is not inevitable, impermanence is. Today, on a morning that cracked open with the slow chill of fog transparent and slid softly to rest under the dimming of an ice-milk-colored sky over a carpet of half-damp leaves turning from red to yellow to mossy taupe, I am compelled to direct you to this miracle (already alluded to):
Imagine an act – any act – who, 53 (!) years into their career release an album that is so good that if someone had NEVER heard that act before they could become an avid fan of the act JUST based on that one new album. Imagine that improbability! To put it a different way, consider the recent releases by any archival act –McCartney, Springsteen, Costello, Van Morrison, Deep Purple, whoever; and imagine playing, say, Only the Strong Survive to someone who had NEVER heard Springsteen before. Could Only the Strong Survive make someone a Springsteen fan for life? Apply these same criteria to, ohhhh, 2020’s McCartney III or Costello’s recent The Boy Named If, and so on. That is to say: Imagine your favorite archival artist without history, legacy or discography, except for their most recent release. Could you, would you, become a fan solely based on that record? If there was no other album available, could you play that album for someone and have them see what you see, get what you get? “Pal o’ mine, my young friend, I want you to GET why I have screamed the praises of The Boss for nigh on 50 years, so I’m gonna play you Only the Strong Survive!” Would that make any sense? No, of course it wouldn’t. Maybe if you cracked open a bottle of Rye and talked and talked for about 180 minutes, they might think the album was okay — not something they would ever listen to again, but okay — but they wouldn’t get why Bruce was so important to you, would they? Man, shouldn’t someone be no better than their most recent release, or not bother at all?
I can think of a truly meager handful of legacy artists (which I am defining as artists who have been releasing albums for forty years or more) whose last/most recent albums could be played without ANY preface to a novice listener, yet the new listener could become a fan for life. I mean, freaking think of it. How many of those cats you grew up on can release a new album, and you think, “Huh, this record is soooo good, I could play this album for someone who has never even heard of this artist, and they would totally GET it.” True, I can think of a few: Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways. Scott Walker’s final album, Soused. Wire’s MindHive. These are all albums that could make NEW fans of newbie listeners. And now Hawkwind’s We Are Looking In On You, a stunning new live album that stands as a manifesto of everything utterly brilliant about Hawkwind.
Now, I want to discuss Hawkwind and their ongoing, amazing, LIVING story, without discussing death; but the very recent passing of Nik Turner, an important (if confounding) archival member of Hawkwind, has made that impossible. But then again, death, like birth, is in every word we write, speak, think; when we are blessed with a human incarnation, there are only two things guaranteed us by this gifted birthright: birth and death. So we must love and make friends with death and reach out to it as a dear if mysterious friend; it is more a part of our life than the things we accept as the weaker bricks of our guaranteed experience, things like our first memory of being picked up by a beaming parent after nursery school, our first scream of joy at the triumph of a favorite sports team, our first kiss, the first splash of music that was essential to us, our first realization that Cheap Trick had said absolutely everything they had to say by their second album and everything since and including Heaven Tonight was a diminishing, fading retread, and so on; these things, these things that form our character, our nostalgia, the book of our tears, the broken and faded Legos of our wit and wisdom, are far less important to embrace, to love, than death.
After all, a human incarnation owes us nothing but birth and death; what we do to in-between, these small and large acts of grace and avarice, are just pebbles that turn to dust that turn to sand that washes out to a sea that will one day shrink and vanish. So I honor death, and I honor Nik Turner’s life, but for a small moment I am going to set Nik Turner’s passing, at age 82, aside; I am going to let death, so ever-present even the stars and the sun are not eternal, step into the wings for a moment, and instead focus some of life’s fading yet awesome golden NOW light on Hawkwind’s triumph: The fact that a band formed the same year as awful Woodstock has released an essential album.
All polluted phenomena are unsatisfactory, said the Buddha. Which is to say, when we approach something, anything, under the veil of ignorance – ignorance being defined, largely, by the inability to recognize impermanence – we will, ultimately, be unsatisfied with the result. The handful of Baked Lays in your palm now will never satisfy you, will they? You will always want more, and then be shattered when even more cannot satisfy you. No salty treat, no candy, is eternal, ever replenishing. The past can never be recalled, lived in, or reproduced to anything remotely resembling your satisfaction. No matter how desperately hard you try, you can’t pretend that the brand-new Springsteen record, full of covers howled in a way best described as suppurating, could actually convince any newbie fan to love him as much as you did in 1979. All we have is the rapidly vanishing now. And NOW I fucking love the new Hawkwind record.
What you need to know about Hawkwind, past and present: Did you ever dream Stereolab and Voivod had a baby and instead of sending it to pre-school, they just stuck it in a planetarium where they were playing “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Astronomy Domine” on a loop, over and over? This is the sound Hawkwind have been producing and distilling roughly since 1971. (Considering Hawkwind, especially in the considerable wake of a triumph like We Are Looking In On You, leaves old Tim a wee bit breathless, so please forgive some of the gasping that follows.) The Hawkwind sound itself, that strange morphing of jambandism and Velvet Underground jackhammer that predicted both krautrock and punk (and seemed to be the best possible distillation of Terry Riley/Steve Reich repetition to hard rock), had no apparent antecedents, accept if you imagine what would have happened if one based an entire genre on the idea of the Stooges and Neu! banding together to do only the best and most hypnotic parts of Deep Purple’s Machine Head album while screening the incredible time-meltdown sequence at the end of 2001 over and over.
There’s never, ever been a band like Hawkwind – they are a genre onto themselves — though everyone from the Sex Pistols to PiL to White Hills to William Orbit to Killing Joke to Sleep and on and on have attempted to distill their essence — and no one does Hawkwind better than Hawkwind, which is why We Are Looking in on You, a 19-track collection recorded live in 2021, is so bloody remarkable: see, Hawkwind STILL do Hawkwind better than anyone else. This album stuns, glides, hypnotizes, mesmerizes, churns, burns, and generally provides a master class in spacerock. And I state this again, because it is a freaking miracle: Even if We Are Looking in on You was the first and only Hawkwind album you ever heard, you would get it, get it, get it, get why Hawkwind are one of the greatest and most unique rock bands of all time, get why they need to be part of your life.
And the funny thing is, of course, We Are Looking in on You is all that, and it’s not even Hawkwind’s best live album. 1973’s Space Ritual is likely one of the three greatest live albums ever released (only the Who’s Live at Leeds and Jerry Lee Lewis’s Live at the Star Club rank higher, in my opinion); and Hawkwind, who have officially released 13 (!) live albums, already have two other utterly essential live collections in their catalog (in addition to We Are Looking in on You and Space Ritual), 1994’s The Business Trip and Dreamworkers of Time, the rather stunning collection of BBC sessions between 1985 and 1995 that was released only last year. Amazingly, We Are Looking in on You actually adds to the Hawkwind picture. In 2021/22, the band seem to have perfected a kind of creamy, dreamy drone punk (as opposed to the more churny, thorny, squonky, muffler-draggy mechanical thumpity thump they have espoused on earlier live albums); if mid-1970s Lemmy/Turner-era Hawkwind seemed to have one foot in Blue Cheer/proto-Motorhead, another foot in Krautrock, one hand in proto punk, and another hand in Tubular Bells, the stunning – there’s that word again – 2021/22 Hawkwind on We Are Looking in on You sounds like Fly Like An Eagle-era Steve Miller and the Sex Pistols joining together to record versions of “Sister Ray” and “What’s Go On.” Which is all to say, We Are Looking in on You is the best goddamn creamy dream punk you’ve ever heard, period/full stop, and amazingly, 53 goddamn years into their career Hawkwind have made one of their truly essential albums. This is a band that sounds like it’s in its’ golden age, not like a band that was formed the year Richard Nixon became president.
Here’s another way to look at it: Although this collection contains a fair handful of Lemmy-era material, 2021/22 Hawkwind play this stuff as if it was truly written for this ideation of the band. The transition of “Born to Go” (first recorded in 1971) into “Peter Gunn” is transcendent and thrilling, as is the extension of 1972’s “Brainstorm” into a spiraling, winding jam (on a separate track called “Neurons”). Although album opener “Magnu” first saw the light of day in 1975 (and at least half a dozen versions have been released since), the rendering on We Are Looking In On You is the best one yet (point of comparison: on any of the manifold Who live albums released in the last thirty years, is their one track even remotely better than it’s studio version?). 1979’s “Uncle Sam’s on Mars” emerges as an honest-to-god Hawkwind classic – I had never considered it in that light before — and it’s extension into an 8-minute hypno-punk jam on “USB1” makes this pairing (the fourth and fifth tracks on the new collection) an absolutely adamant statement that Hawkwind 2021/2022 can release music that is as good as anything they’ve ever released. Are there weak moments here? Of course: “Right to Decide,” Hawkwind’s best studio track of the entire post-Lemmy era, is weaker and less focused here than it is on other live releases (the versions on Dreamworkers of Time are notably superior); and I’m not sure why they’ve included a pub-singalong acoustic version of “It’s Not Unusual” (yes, THAT “It’s Not Unusual”). But this is all made up for by honestly stunning versions of “Spirit of the Age,” “Levitation,” “Space is Deep,” and an amazing, enthralling eight-minute jam that platforms off of “Born to Go” titled “Star Explorer.” “Star Explorer,” like “Uncle Sam’s On Mars”/”USB1,” does what virtually no new track from a 53 year old band could do: make you fall in love with the group all over again.
Now, on to Nik Turner, whom, to be perfectly, frank, I have always had conflicted feelings about. Turner was in Hawkwind for the entirety of their crucial first era, that is, from 1969 through 1976 (and he did a second brief stint in the band, from 1982 – ’84). Although Turner was not necessarily the architect of Hawkwind’s remarkable space-punk/star-drone/metal machine sound, he was an avatar, symbol, and wizard of their weirdness. And I honor that. His saxophone squawks, odd and declarative vocal interjections, face painting, stage wanderings and mumbles helped assert Hawkwind as a definitive British hippie phenomenon of the 1970s and beyond. In addition, he wrote or co-wrote some of their definitive tracks, like “You Shouldn’t Do That,” “Master of the Universe,” and “Brainstorm.” I also honor that Turner wedded Hawkwind to a very important musical tradition, a kind of free jazz tribalism within the framework of space rock/artrock, which is a form of expression I admire more and more every day. Turner is the link between Hawkwind’s sluicing, droning, deeply mesmeric proto-punk and the sparkling, earthy squawks of Gong, Fred Frith, Zorn, the honkier sides of Can and Soft Machine, and the amazing and vastly undervalued Here & Now (perhaps, after Hawkwind, the very best example of punk and jamband happily and noisly marrying – why aren’t more people turned on to Here & Now?). And although I have always had, shall we say, limited patience with this kind of music – honestly, for the most part Gong have always been better on paper than they were on record – I deeply admire the idea: free your fingers and Sun Ra will follow. Which is all to say that if Turner did not necessarily personify what I love about Hawkwind – and I love the MACHINE, the churning, chiming, waterfall/windmachine, pile-driving, punk rock / krautrock / electrioclash / trance / Deep Purple in Berlin at 4 AM / Sex Pistols in a K-Hole loop side of Hawkwind, and that is ALL terRIFFically on display on We Are Looking In On You – Turner did paint the Hawkwind mesmeranimal with an essential kind of British Tribal Weirdness, and they essentially abandoned that kind of Gong-iness when he left. And if Turner is not the side of Hawkwind that placed a jackhammer in the planetarium and set it on stun, he is the side of Hawkwind that painted its’ face green and put on a hooded robe and wandered around Stonehenge carrying a censer blowing out unholy/holy shamanic snuff while humming incantations through a saxophone reed. Got it? So respect.
Now, it’s true that guitarist/vocalist/head Hawk Dave Brock (the only consistent member of Hawkwind since 1969) blamed Turner for the fact that Hawkwind haven’t toured America in decades (and have no intention of doing so). Brock believes that Turner’s sundry bands of the last twenty/thirty years, some of which were inaccurately billed by American promoters as Hawkwind, polluted the American touring market for the authentic Hawkwind (when push comes to shove I agree with Brock, and it breaks my heart that we will likely never see the mighty Hawkwind on this side of the Atlantic). But when I view Turner’s American touring strategy within the framework of other jammy/squonky acts that have toured under variations of a “parent” name – Gong, Soft Machine, even Yes – I suppose I slightly admire Turner’s desire to get out their and make weird noise, even if it peed in the larger Hawkwind gene pool.
So: Here’s to the artful weirdness and British Tribal Dreams of Nik Turner! And long live the mighty Hawkwind, who have defied all logic and precedent and released an utterly essential, convincing and thrilling album, 53 years into their lifespan. Set those synth and guitar phasers on stun and go Om Mane Padme Drone!
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