Friday, 16 December 2011

Four Hawkwind Releases...

Soooooooo... 'one great album that's in no way spacerock', 'two stonking space rock bands', 'three, well two but one's a double, psych-pop records', how about four Hawkwind releases from 2011?

In fact, Choose Your Masques was the November 2010 Atomhenge Hawkwind reissue but I didn't get hold of a copy until into 2011 when I was able to review it standalone for R2 and alongside Alan Davey and Bridget Wishart's Djinn album for Record Collector, and as I've not kept up with the Atomhenge series this year I'm going to take this one as the starting point since actually it's a really smart example of the reissue programme rehabilitating and illuminating LPs that were perhaps not premier league in their reputation in their contemporary context.

Here's what I noted in R2 about this one or my four-star review: "For the casual listener picking up previously out of print albums and for the dedicated Hawkwind enthusiast exploring the side roads and alternative pathways that the vast range of bonus material has illuminated, the acquisition and reissue of Hawkwind's 1976 – 1997 catalogue under curator Mark Powell has been a delight. We note this to show how Choose Your Masques, a solid enough early-80s album which has a lot of good things going on but doesn't scale the heights of its provocative RCA stable mate Sonic Attack or indeed match their key 1970s recordings, can really flourish in a programme like this. Embellished by the inclusion of so many unheard songs and alternate mixes of its electronica fused heavy rock, it's possible to enjoy it in a whole new context. Discover here, for example, how '90s return to form 'Right To Decide' lyrically started out as the unknown 'Radio Telepathy', putting a fresh slant on the development of a genuine Hawkwind classic. Therein resides the historian's quibble, however. What's lacking is the perspective of the main protagonists on these 'rejected' tracks... the whys and wherefores of their omissions or burials that would have awarded an already impressive package the final rating star."

I think the crux of what's valuable about these releases, aside from being able to hear them afresh and re-evaluate where they stand within the catalogue as a whole, is that thrilling shock of hearing something familiar coming out of the bonus tracks in different form, such as with 'Radio Telepathy' on Choose Your Masques. When I was writing Sonic Assassins I was able to drop in a few titbits of tantalising information about songs that had been recorded but never released, or about original renditions that resided in the archives that would, if heard, reveal the origins of much-loved songs that would inform on their gestation period. Some of these have since been released for us all to enjoy, others have arrived on the expanded editions with no prior fanfare. For the dedicated fan or historian it's a wonderful journey.

Of course, if we're talking about unearthing the origins of Hawkwind classics, the must-have release of 2011 was EMI's Parallel Universe3-CD set which I covered for Record Collector over the summer and which brought a huge upswing in traffic to this blog when I had the pleasure of interviewing Nigel Reeve of EMI, who has done so much to keep EMI's share of the back-catalogue alive and expanding over recent years, a really shining example of how a steady selling catalogue should be managed and added to and just simply kept available. My admiration is huge.

I was a little surprised at some of the more 'meh' reactions to this release that were scattered among the music press – one particular review suggesting that what the release principally revealed was why the cuts from this album that were 'new' tracks had been left on the cutting-room floor in the first place, as I recall – but then perhaps the digesting of proto-versions of much-loved numbers actually is one for the dedicated rather than the casual. Of course the really casual were well served with a judicious cross-section of EMI's catalogue (Hawkwind through to Hall of the Mountain Grill) but perhaps this one dropped through the middle for those who had the original LPs and weren't sexed-up by the thought of hearing 'work-in-progress' as it were.

Me? I found it a revelation and one that's going to be of significant assistance, just like the Atomhenge series, when I start cutting and revising Sonic Assassins for a potential second edition in 2012 (yes, you heard it here first. It's very much initial stages of thinking how a budget version of the book would work – but I'm confident that in one form or another there will be a revised version progressed). But aside from that, the thrill of hearing a very different, guitar-led, 'Wind of Change' (in no way better than the HotMG violin classic to be honest, but a great juxtaposition from dense and dirty to smooth and emotional when you compare the composition's development) and the insight into the way 'You Know You're Only Dreaming' developed out of its early form were particular highlights in a compilation that must have been played and played and played across Hawkwind fandom this year.

I was delighted this year, by sheer luck of being in the right place at the right time which in this case meant e-mailing Easy Action Records about their recent Nikki Sudden out-takes compilation Playing With Fire
at the same time as they were planning the release of their Cambridge 1972 Hawkwind album Leave No Star Unturned. It's great to be dealing with a label where you're not trying to work your way through whole strata of departments to try and get to the decision-maker in his pin stripes and braces and instead deal with one guy who makes the decisions and runs a label because of his love for the music. So this was my sole foray in liner notes this year, which made it even more exciting when they were well-received in general – I'd certainly tried to make them resonate with love and enthusiasm and judging by the responses it seems I got the tone about right.

You can understand the advance reticence of Hawkfans faced with another early 70s live recording; fingers have been burned on several occasions but the reality is that Leave No Star Unturned is a very sympathetic restoring from the original tapes. Steve Pittis explained it best in my interview with him back in July but it's a restoration that brings out the best in the performance without trying to transcend or deviate from the original 'front-of-house' experience and as such it has its quirks and flaws but it also has power and energy and again is another very valuable addition to our understanding of how the band developed and how particular tracks evolved during the formative years of the band. And, positioned as it is at the start of Hawkwind's break-though year, it's such a key 'legacy' release – every fan should own this one.

And finally, not a Hawkwind album de facto, but Dave Brock's Earthed to the Groundsaw a reissue on Atomhenge as part of their additional schedule of bringing his collection of solo albums back into print. This one again I reviewed for Record Collector back in the autumn, as I indeed have written-up the subsequent reissue of Strange Trips and Pipe Dreams which is in the Christmas edition (still around until 29th December I believe, so a perfect pick-up for your Christmas reading schedule!).

To place Earthed to the Ground in a wider context of Hawkwind catalogue I gave the reissue three stars. I know some people loathe reviews that include a star-rating; I'm ambivalent about them myself since the review should place the record in proper context and explain what you need to know about any particular release. I actually really like this record; I like the fact that it is still a song-based venture – where later solo albums became more experimental and soundscape focused if that makes sense – and I like the way it has a lighter touch to it than the Hawkwind LPs that sandwich it (Choose Your Masques and Chronicle of the Black Sword). I assessed it as "Brock veering slightly from the tried and trusted format and stretching his creative legs, experimenting a bit and giving the boundaries a gentle nudge. It's like Hawkwind, but a tad different."

Contextualising it on a star rating system was a little tricky however; I know a lot of people really love this album and it retains an affection also because of what Dave stands for in many minds but to rationalise it as three stars I went thus: Space Ritual, Quark Strangeness & Charm, Hall of the Mountain Grill ... these are five star albums with little chance of contradiction. Electric Tepee, Chronicle of the Black Sword ... you have to give these LPs four stars. Live '79, though I love it to bits, is a three star release and so, and here's the clincher, is PXR5. Earthed to the Ground – three stars.

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