Sunday, 21 June 2009

Hawklords - Live '78

There’s something of a cliché around live Hawkwind albums that a lot of people, myself included, have been in danger of slipping into when discussing them, and that’s the notion that Hawkwind as a live band is a greater concept than Hawkwind in the studio. So you have the argument, and it’s not one that I’d subscribe to, that Live Chronicles is a superior release over Chronicles of the Black Sword, to use an example where there is a direct comparison. I think this concept of Hawkwind live albums being something special really stems from Space Ritual, which is a great delineation of why some Hawkwind material worked so much better live than it got laid down in the studio, and it has gone on to apply to some other tour captures. The Love in Space representation of the Alien 4 concept is vastly superior to a studio album which at the time suggested it might be elevated to ‘classic’ status in due course but which has actually become rather overlooked in the passage of time and not without some justice. And, though I’ve never heard it, there’s a common belief that the ‘Passport Holders’ Live 97 compilation rocks the socks off Distant Horizons.

But I think it is a simplistic cliché to suggest that Hawkwind per se are better assessed as a live act than as a studio band, and the lie is given to this in a sense by the quality of the back catalogue reissue programme, which so far has been absolutely cracking in its releases and has done a huge service to the legacy of Hawkwind in the studio by creating the situation where these albums are being looked at again and reassessed. Sometimes it’s good to have a little time pass. I’d not listened to Hawklords since giving up the ghost of vinyl in the mid-1990s, so listening to it again recently (and having the opportunity to delve deeper into the recording of that album via Esoteric Recordings’s magnificent assemblage of out-takes included on their reissue) reinforced what a massive milestone that LP was in taking Hawkwind into a highly literate and intelligent, practically art-school, place. That’s a valuable rehabilitation or restatement of this album, dependent on your original point-of-view. In this respect I remember noting in Sonic Assassins the moment during a Hawkwind 1979 tour bootleg (Ipswich, I think), where someone close to the recorder says quite openly of that tour’s proto-grunge, “It’s much better than the fucking Hawklords, isn’t it?” The whole Hawklords concept clearly wasn’t every long-time fan’s cup of tea.

Of the ensuing tour, we’ve had precious little of real listening quality from which to assess and evaluate its success in delivering the Hawklords concept in the live arena even though it’s a tour that has a sense of notoriety about it in Hawkwind mythology. People talk of the way in which the original plans were hacked-around and Barney Bubbles’ concepts diluted, with particular reference to the dancers dismissed from the tour in its early days. “They cost too much, and didn’t add to the thing,” Steve Swindells once told me, deflating one Hawk-myth and stressing how, “the show was much better stripped down and with the focus on Calvert.” There is some existing live footage of the band in Hawklords mode; we’ve had a very small taster of it and one would hope that more extensive film will eventually see the light of day, though I’ve no insight into the practicalities of that whatsoever. But aside from a collection of not especially high-grade bootlegs, and the tracks from Plymouth Polytechnic included on The Weird Tapes, the Hawklords tour has until now only been represented by the distinctly average at best Dojo album Hawklords Live, principally recorded at Uxbridge University on 24th November, 1978.

This release from Esoteric somewhat steps out from the back catalogue in the sense that it isn’t a reissue of an ‘old’ album, it’s not Hawklords Live with a couple of bonus tracks, but is actually a ‘new’ album formed from the original concert recordings. When I spoke to label boss Mark Powell for Record Collector, he told me that, “from the point of view of Hawklords Live, the recordings made at Uxbridge are there in their entirety with four tracks that haven’t been released before. I’ve seen lists on the Internet where people have posted what was played that night – I don’t know where they’ve got it from but they are wrong. The recording quality of the gig is excellent, though the show itself was troubled by several power failures; apparently the lighting rig was causing the power to trip on stage. I know various members of the band that night have described the performance as a bit lack lustre but coming in with fresh ears, it sounds fantastic.”

The recording quality of the show is very good, and I’m both impressed and delighted that Esoteric have taken their passion for this reissue programme through to the extent of making what is effectively a new album from the original tapes rather than simply doing a dutiful reissue of what was already available. That the reissue programme was nominated recently for a Mojo award (it lost out, but the sentiment is fantastic) is so special and is an absolutely marvellous commendation for Mark and Vicky Powell and others are working so hard to make these releases such a critical success.

But, in the case of Hawklords Live ’78, does the reissue add anything to our appreciation of the original studio album? Well, to be honest, only in so far as it demonstrates what a good album the original studio LP was.

The original studio LP is an intricate and clever recording, the rather bombastic and clumsy ’25 Years’ aside, which has maintained relevance both in its lyrical and musical content. The live album doesn’t really live up to that legend. For once, the clean lines of the studio recordings stack-up as the superior renditions to those included here, whilst the show as represented here doesn’t play to the album’s strengths but instead mixes some of its lesser content, the somewhat pointless ‘Automoton’ and the afore mentioned ’25 Years’, with only a couple of its major successes (the exquisite ‘Age of the Micro Man’ and the masterful ‘Psi Power’) and elsewhere joins-in established standards (‘Urban Guerilla’, ‘Sonic Attack’, ‘Brainstorm’) with more recent non-Hawklords material (‘Spirit of the Age’, ‘High Rise’). What comes out the other side, Calvert’s ingenious ranting and Swindell’s very underrated keyboards aside, is a little bit too much like the last generation trying to out-do the new wave kids on the block and it’s hard not to listen and think that here is Hawkwind slightly off-kilter and trying, and largely failing, to be relevant in the punk/post-punk environment.

Dave Brock perhaps spotted that dichotomy when, sans-Calvert, he took the band off in a totally different direction as the MKII assemblage of Hawkwind and captured that as Live 1979. Perhaps he spotted that by trying to hang-on to the coat tails of a different generation he was letting something that should have stood outside of the music business, get caught up in trying to follow a trend. Who knows? I can see much of Hawkwind’s fan-base being absolutely thrilled with this retrospective look at Hawklords in live-mode, and fair play to them, but I’m going to look upon this one as a reminder of how great a studio concept Hawklords was.

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