Twenty-one years after his untimely death, the act of remembering Robert Calvert seems to be turning into something of a cottage industry. We had the memorial gig down in Herne Bay last year, the excellent reissues of Captain Lockheed and Lucky Leif & The Longships a couple of years ago from Eclectic Discs (and I understand that label’s successor, Esoteric Records will be soon be reissuing the Lockheed package again), and their Hawkwind reissue label Atomhenge kicking off with a reissue of Freq (which I was privileged to be asked to provide liner notes for). Voiceprint Records have been making a lot of archive recordings available (though it has to be noted, not all to the standard of their double-disc release of Robert Calvert & The Maximum Effect Live At Carlisle which I reviewed in Record Collector recently) and Chris Purdon tells me he’s still planning and working on his massive volume of Robert’s collected writings. And, of course, the reissues of the classic Hawkwind albums Astounding Sounds Amazing Music, Quark, Strangeness & Charm, Hawklords and PXR5, along with the ‘new’ live album Hawklords Live 1978, have meant that Calvert’s legacy has been picked over, dissected and re-evaluated across large swathes of the glossy music press in recent months – even if that’s meant a lot of trotting out of familiar ‘Mad Bob’ stories in place of a more justified, if perhaps less commercially appealing for the music magazines, serious look at a highly mercurial but none-the-less extremely intelligent body of work.
I’m not sure if this then means that Robert Calvert’s work is becoming noticed again outside of the die-hard Hawkwind community, in fact I suspect that it simply means that the already converted are being given the opportunity to gather more examples of his output and see the development of his ideas and preoccupations as a wider picture than previously, particularly with the amount of previously unheard Charisma-era Hawkwind archive recordings now being included with the Atomhenge reissues. And, honestly, though we’d all like to see Bob’s work gaining a wider recognition, you still have to arrive at the conclusion that this particular cottage industry is simply working to feed the appetites of a small band of the dedicated, rather than informing those whose own musical education has been built from the output of those who themselves were in some way informed by Calvert’s work.
What’s really impressive about Bob’s legacy is the devotion that he inspired in the musicians he met along the way of his all too brief career. That shines through in a couple of releases that have come from Dead Fred and Steve Pond, whose set at Herne Bay I regretfully only caught a part of, and who I believe will be performing at the forthcoming Hawklords all-dayer at the 229 Club in London (29th November, tickets on sale now) as part of a reformed Inner City Unit line-up. I’d already had sense of the level of respect and admiration, and exasperation, for Calvert that Steve retains, having worked with Bob as part of Inner City Unit and The Maximum Effect, when I gained his insights for Sonic Assassins a few years back.
Steve and Fred have already released their own version of the same 1986 Carlisle gig that Voiceprint have released (indeed, it was previously available as a free download), and I planned to give that a full write-up on this blog, as it’s a release that has been widely welcomed and appreciated and is the best version of the show available. I’ll still endeavour to get to that in the near future, but I wanted to write about their latest CD which they very kindly sent over this week because for them, this release is the fulfilment of a long held dream to play on Robert’s songs in a studio context. Having worked with them on the road in 1986, at the legendary Queen Elizabeth Hall show and the subsequent tour, Calvert had actually contacted them to enquire whether they’d consider working with him on his next studio album. As they note on their website, ‘Sadly, Bob died before this could happen, and we’ve spent 20 years wondering what it would have sounded like.’ But whilst they rightly feel that this album goes someway to answering their own question, they’ve eschewed the route of using Bob’s spoken-word recitals – a method of posthumous collaboration that’s been used by Dave Brock both for Hawkwind and his Brock/Calvert Project, and by Don Falcone in Spirits Burning – instead turning to his 1980s solo albums for songs to cover and reinterpret. This actually turns out to be a far superior way of honouring Robert Calvert’s memory since they’ve delivered a highly impressive album both from the content of the CD and the surrounding package.
To make comment on the package itself, it comes with a roughly A2-sized poster with an extension of the album cover image on one side, and notes on the track selection on the other – and poignantly also contains a reproduction of the relevant parts of the letter that Robert wrote to Fred enquiring the possibility of them working together on his next album whilst regretfully noting that he’d never record another album without an advance – and suggesting that meant that most likely he’d never record another album.
Of the 13 songs that they’ve chosen to work with, we know that some have not previously been really fleshed out in a studio context, having derived from the minimalist Freq album. Perhaps that’s why they’ve opted to practically cover this mini-album in full (omitting ‘The Cool Courage of the Bomb Squad Officers’), building-up the songs to a degree, but still keeping their fundamental sparseness as well so that they deliver what could well be a good representation of how Robert himself might have realised these songs had Freq been created with more resource. ‘Acid Rain’, for instance, is still a slow and downbeat number with a vocal delivery that’s close to how Bob presented it, though punctuated with a rather more accentuated tones, whilst Steve’s guitar lines are quietly embellishing in the background to unobtrusively bring something new to the song.
Moving away from Freq, the absolute highlight of this selection actually doesn’t follow the pattern of the original version even though it holds tight to, and even develops, the song’s melancholy wistfulness. ‘The Greenfly and the Rose’ is a delicate piano-piece that’s thoughtful and moving – and just simply beautiful. Impressed as I was with the album as a whole, I can’t think of any better reason for buying this CD than to hear this gorgeous piece. Turns out that this is a first take, almost a busk on the theme of the song – its fractured brittleness most certainly doesn’t sound that way.
But they’ve done a sterling job right throughout this record, taking their cue from Robert’s own versions, or the way that they’ve previously worked out some of these songs in a live environment, but really taking them a step on. That’s a completely valid approach – we know from archive interviews with Robert that all his work post-Hawkwind was done on a shoestring with minimal finance and therefore highly constricting resources. Ironically, that’s somewhat less of an issue today so that Steve and Fred have been able to get more from less, as it were, and have therefore been able to expand the range of the material whilst still remaining faithful to the original vision. If you’ve even the most passing of interest in Robert Calvert’s work, this honourable and enjoyable album is a must have.
Krankschaft Official Website