Wednesday, 21 December 2011
In Search of Hawkwind
Not every feature that gets written lives to see the light of day, that's part of the nature of freelance journalism. For the ninth in the sequence of consecutive blog postings, here's a feature examining what Hawkwind means; it was written back in 2009 and eventually fell-through, one of those things, and though some of it may well get re-cycled eventually as part of a new version of Sonic Assassins, it's presented here in its un-copy-edited form.
Is there any other band whose name represents so many different facets as the word 'Hawkwind' has come to represent? Spacerock exponents, Free Festival survivors, Ladbroke Grove alternative culture veterans, wherever you look in the development of British rock music, Dave Brock and his revolving cast of band members appear to have had an influence. They took the hippie ethic, fuelled it with biker attitude and delivered it with a Do It Yourself approach that made them proto-punks and neo-crusties. Their elongated improvised riffing signposted trance and rave, they had a finger in every musical pie from new wave to heavy metal. All this achieved by a band that didn't play by traditional rules, which appeared to stand outside of the music business whilst delivering a multi-media sensory experience.
Of course there have been bands with even greater longevity than Hawkwind's fast approaching forty years (their first documented performance took place at All Saints Hall in Ladbroke Grove, August 1969), but The Rolling Stones, just for instance, are The Rolling Stones through thick and thin. Hawkwind has meant something different to successive generations, whether their name is invoked to mean something musically, socially or politically.
What has it been about this shoestring operation, a venerable cottage industry, which has made so many disparate types identify with them and hold them in such esteem? As a starting point, I asked Richard Chadwick, Hawkwind's current drummer and second longest serving member. "I'd liked Hawkwind when they started. As a teenager, I thought their whole thing was remarkable, embracing or putting forward the idea that there was more to it than just the music, it was a lifestyle. People in the audience took their children, they all dressed differently to my parents, they looked like they knew what they were doing and there was a sense of purpose, a great tolerance within the audience that was another aspect to the hippie culture of the time. All of that attracted me."
Even within themselves the word 'Hawkwind' means different things to the multitude of different members. Freewheeling saxophonist Nik Turner thought them an inveterate 'peace and love' band; the inestimable Lemmy considered them a speed freak's black nightmare of a band. "Everyone has their own perspective," Turner concedes. "LSD broke down people's barriers and made them more open to peace and love. I was never into speed or downers and the whole ethos of peace and love seemed to me to be a much more worthwhile thing than the other things people were doing, giving each other a horrible time and taking horrible substances that gave a very warped sense of reality."
Much of the early philosophy of Hawkwind, playing outside of the Isle of Wight festival in 1970 for free in protest at ticket prices, being available and willing to perform for numerous charitable causes, and aligning themselves with the underground vibe of Frendz and International Times has been credited to Nik Turner: "I think [originally] people saw it as the focal point for something that was of the alternative culture. That was what it was to me. I wasn't anti-establishment as such, just going in the direction that I thought was cool, doing free gigs and using being in a band as means of benefiting others. Supporting people who were trying to get things together was a convenient and very apt purpose to put Hawkwind to. We were embraced by the alternative culture; all these creative people were very helpful towards us. I think they saw us as a focal point for what they were doing and we were able to all work together, which was one of the wonderful things about it."
Turner wishes they were a Gong –style collective with the name being shared around collaborators past and present to be explored, developed and sent off on the multiple tangents of musical imagination that has graced the membership over the years. Dave Brock, ever-present Hawklord-in-chief saw it entirely differently, trademarking the name for his own use during the mid-1990s and vigorously defending it ever since. They are far from the only band in rock music history to have been subjected to mutiny, in-fighting and long-running feuds. You'd have to say, however, they've certainly nailed the art of being the most public about it. In that respect (as I discovered), they are a biographer's dream. Individually they are as charming a group of individuals as you could wish to meet. Collectively, however, there is a sense of bitterness that runs through their memories of being involved with Hawkwind.
Tim Cummings, who produced an excellent BBC4 documentary on them a few years back that was first supported and then disowned by Dave Brock, considered in The Independent that Brock himself was the most bitter of them all. I think it's a huge shame if true, since Brock's contribution to British rock music is immense and highly valued.
Turner: "Hawkwind has always been a sort of very murky, very messy situation really. The band itself has become the complete antithesis of what it was about in the early days of Robert Calvert, [artist and designer] Barney Bubbles, John [Liquid Len] Smeeton and myself."
Some of what they believed in was articulated through their use of science fiction imagery, be it space operatic fantasy or the back-to-Earth social commentary of science fiction's 'new wave' of the 1960s. That meshing of rock music with sci-fi wasn't unique when they set out on that path with In Search of Space. Sun Ra had encapsulated such concepts in his jazz-rock, The Pink Floyd were most definitely using SF themes in their earliest performances. Bowie used sci-fi as one of the building blocks of his personae, contemporary to 70s Hawkwind. But Hawkwind took that a stage further, linking up with noted author and editor Michael Moorcock and using science fiction concepts as metaphors for modern ills in the same way that Moorcock's stewardship of New Worlds SF magazine did.
"What I felt about Hawkwind," Turner continues, "was that we tried to live by what we believed in; I lived in a squat or in the back of a truck or some scuzzy sort of place… slept on a different person's floor every night. I think we tried to be idealistic without being self-conscious about it or trying to make it into a pose." Hawkwind were always prepared to poke at society in the same way that Moorcock did in the stories he selected for New Worlds; Moorcock published Norman Spinrad's controversial, but prophetic, reality TV novel Bug Jack Barron and so doing got the magazine removed from W H Smiths, Hawkwind released 'Urban Guerilla' and were banned by the BBC. These were interlinked agendas with a common purpose, talking about what was wrong with social structures and modern media.
Find it evident in the lyrics of Dave Brock on the inner-city angst of 'Psychedelic Warlords (Disappear in Smoke)', 'live in concrete jungles / that just block up the view', or on his 'Eve of Destruction' styled acoustic pleading 'We Took The Wrong Step Years Ago'. It's on display through Robert Calvert's J G Ballard inspired 'High Rise', the social alienation and dehumanisation of contemporary living, 'someone said he jumped / but we know he was pushed…' and his declamation of the politics of the petrol-dollar, 'Assassins of Allah', which references the Palestinian terrorist cell Black September.
In the early 1970s they were the house band of the Freak scene, playing Bickershaw, Windsor, Watchfield. Adrian Shaw, originally involved with Hawkwind as bassist for their regular support act Magic Muscle and subsequently recruited to the ranks in time for their Quark, Strangeness & Charm LP considers them "the mainstay of all the Free Festivals, I'd say, alongside in the early days, the Edgar Broughton Band. Hawkwind were booked to play Bickershaw, so we [Magic Muscle] arrived with them, which was very handy because I got to see The Grateful Dead from the side of the stage. But you also had a counter-culture festival going on outside of the perimeter with Hawkwind, so they played officially and unofficially."
When Punk arrived, the concept might have been 'never trust a hippie' (despite the real background of most movers and shakers being directly from the Free Festivals) but Rotten was spotted backstage at Hawkwind's gig at the Camden Music Machine or caught by Julie Burchill hanging-out with Brock and the mercurial Calvert. "How I see Hawkwind is a bit like the Sex Pistols, really… but earlier," notes Nik Turner, whose own Inner City Unit straddled the hippie and punk ethics whilst maintaining its own wicked sense of the absurd. "I think there are other bands like that, there were other bands like that, and there always will be bands that have something to say. It was made out that there was a division between the punks and the hippies, but all the punks were hippies – Jimmy Pursey was a great fan of Steve Hillage, it wasn't another completely new dimension of people, a new generation, it was the same people [as the Free Festivals]."
"The thing about punk rock was that part of its energy came from the fuel of the burning rock icons that had gone before," notes Richard Chadwick. "What upheld Hawkwind during that era was that they went and played the Free Festivals, which were really quite important to me because they cemented all those ideas. It was a lifestyle; you could actually live like this, an alternative way of surviving. By playing the festivals Hawkwind remained relevant in an era where they might have been forgotten."
Marc Swordfish, of festival regulars Magic Mushroom Band, recalls how "Hawkwind were revered because of what they'd laid down. The way they wrapped the whole thing up really, the culture and everything." And Simon Williams, then of Mandragora and now with Earthdance, concurs: "There was a lot of respect for Hawkwind because they had been doing for years that great thing of being at the festivals. Everyone knew that Nik Turner was supplying the stage, or they'd be supplying the PA. I mean, some bands were seen as 'old duffers', bands like The Enid, but Hawkwind were seen as the chiefs of the scene. A lot of bands would do versions of their songs, punk them up a bit or whatever and I thought that was a great thing."
It's certainly possible to argue that Hawkwind lost their musical direction during the early 1980s but ethically they never compromised their willingness to turn up at the Stonehenge Free Festival or at a travellers' park-up – the smallest free gig was as important as the most high profile. They were the People's Band before Joe Strummer ever heard of such a concept. "People loved them because they were [at the festivals] and doing it," The Levellers' Jeremy Cunningham says. "People were just glad they were there, and Hawkwind, when they're doing 'hashish, hashish'… people love it, 'Hurry On Sundown' and that stuff, people love those tunes. Most bands that came out of the Festival scene, even the Punk bands, were indebted to Hawkwind with that kind of grinding, almost Heavy Metal, thing. Many of the travellers' bands, like 2000DS, you can trace back to Hawkwind."
That influence permeated throughout the Free Festival scene of the 1980s, as Claire Grainger, bassist with all-girl punk band The Hippy Slags confirms. "Hawkwind always seemed to appeal to the young boys, I think. They'd go off on their two-hour jams… though with the punk thing, people wanted a bit more lively stuff. But we're surprised, listening to our music, how much we were influenced by Hawkwind whether we like it or not!"
Hawkwind's sound in the early 80s changed from the psychedelic Spacerock of their early years and the clean new-wave sounds of Quark, Strangeness & Charm, to a heavy grunge that put them incongruously into the Metal genre with contrasting results. Bottled and heckled at the Donnington Monsters of Rock festival in 1982, revered as living legends for their headlining appearance at Reading in 1986. Jerry Richards at the time a member of Free Festival co-operative Tubilah Dog and later to play with both Brock, as guitarist in Hawkwind, and with Turner (as bassist in Turner's assemblage of former Hawks, Space Ritual), recalls seeing the band play at commercial events. "We'd seen Hawkwind at massive festivals, like Reading, and they'd got [lead guitarist] Huw Lloyd-Langton in the band and their direction at that time was along Metal lines, which had helped the band connect with the Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath audience; Huw's playing was always very English so in amongst that Metal they never tried to Americanise their sound. I admired that, because that would have been an easy route, to turn into Alice Cooper's band or something, which wouldn't have been Hawkwind."
Some believed that Hawkwind's foray into Metal had distanced them from their roots, but the latter days of the Free Festivals, from the collapse of the Stonehenge festival in 1985 through the remainder of the 1980s, saw them make a vital reconnection to their original ethos. Jerry Richards saw this at close quarters. During the summers of 1987 and 1988, Tubilah Dog members combined with Hawkwind's Brock and Harvey Bainbridge in an off-shoot variously billed as HawkDog, Dave Brock & The Agents of Chaos, or sometimes simply as Hawkwind.
Jerry Richards: "We found Hawkwind to be this monolithic beast that had become, I hesitate to use the word 'corporate', but they'd become this behemoth and a lot of us were simply wondering, 'Where are the Hawks at these festivals we're playing at? The Ozrics are here, the Levellers are here…' When I started getting involved with Free Festivals, what was important was going out playing, meeting people, having a really nice time… some of the gigs we went to, we were content to make a festival happen by taking our sound system and our lightshow, putting that up, we didn't even play."
This would totally switch itself around in the latter part of the 1980s when new band members would emerge out of the festivals environment with Dave Brock once noting of his newer recruits that, "I act like a teacher, a bit. They are like apprentices." In that case, what a fabulous apprenticeship to have for people like Richard Chadwick, like Bridget Wishart who came to Hawkwind having sung with festival favourites The Hippy Slags, or Ron Tree who been in and around any number of festival bands. Another facet emerges, Hawkwind as a vehicle for musicians to take a step up the later and experience life with a well-known outfit.
When Tubilah Dog's members staged the Rollright Stones Festival in about 1987, Brock and Bainbridge were there. Jerry Richards recalls how "Steve Mills, Tubilah Dog's singer, had bumped into Dave, who'd said, 'Liked what you were doing, I'm in a blue van over there, come and give us a shout in the morning.' So we went and had a chat with them and I hit it off with Dave, there was a mutual respect. I think I reminded Dave of himself when he was my age, really going for it, having loads of energy and wanting to get about and do things. I suspect it reminded him of how his band used to be when he was going out and trying to get it all together."
This 'new generation' of festival goers seem to have intrigued Dave and Harvey to the point where they decided, as Jerry puts it, to get involved. "Of course, we were quite happy to have Dave Brock and Harvey Bainbridge come and play with us! Getting immersed in all of this Hawk-lore and finding out about it from the grassroots up, was quite a thrill. All of this turned itself into Hawkdog or the Agents of Chaos, whatever we wanted to call ourselves on any particular occasion. In doing all of that, it really did draw people back to the band because it almost seemed to those travellers and festivalgoers we knew, that Hawkwind had… not abandoned the scene… but maybe a dereliction of duty, if I can call it that [laughs]. In their minds, in the travellers' minds, the people who were going to Free Festivals back then, Hawkwind had become another entity and moved into a stratospheric world with their big tours and their sort of semi-detachedness from the festival scene. Hooking up with us wide-eyed, amphetamine-fuelled, eager kids, I think, reinvigorated them."
"You see," Jerry ponders, "If you're doing something that people really like, then people will find you, and a scene develops. That's what Hawkwind did back then; the scene came to find them, which is fantastic. I think Dave wanted to reconnect with a grassroots audience and not have the pressure of having to do the massive rock shows. I'd revisit those days in an instant, because they were challenging and interesting and never boring."
There is no better place to look for Hawkwind than in the spirit with which they supported the festival scene in its heyday and in its dying embers. Hawkwind were effectively the 'house band' of the festivals, Nik Turner (whether with Hawkwind or in Inner City Unit) the archetypal festival musician playing with everybody and anybody… and Turner also had his legendary Pyramid Stage. "That would be my contribution to the Stonehenge Festival; putting up my Pyramid Stage and letting people perform in it. Then I gave it to the people that were going around the Free Festivals, to erect at their festivals. So what became the Convoy would take my stage around the festivals in the summer and bring it back in the winter to keep it dry and make sure it was maintained in serviceable condition. Then they'd come and pick it up from me the following spring; it was a useful piece of equipment."
That unstinting festival support ran from their legendary protest at the Isle of Wight in 1970 right through until the dreadful day in 1990 at a scruffy, down-at-heel and unappealing festival in Brighton when the band was physically attacked on stage and had to be smuggled off site, Dave Brock's vehicle trashed and the dream turned completely sour by those they'd worked so hard to support. The incident has entered the history books as the turning point in the festival movement that told people that it was all over, though the motivation behind the incident remains unexplained and contested.
Claire Grainger: "Once you'd had that incident in Brighton where Hawkwind got attacked you thought, 'Why waste time playing for these people when they don't even really want us to?'" And Club Dog organiser Michael Dog told me, "When I heard about it, for me that was the end. I don't remember going to a festival after that for many years. It wasn't so much 'Oh My God! These people attacked Hawkwind … have they no respect?' It was the fact that they'd attack anyone… that they'd attacked a band playing on the stage who had to be smuggled off the site in fear of their lives. But it was hugely disrespectful."
When the Free Festival scene parked itself up on the M25 and turned into the Rave and Free Party scene, Hawkwind's extended riffs informed trance and acid. Playing in individual tepees, so as to best reflect their trademark lightshow, they even contributed the use of Native America imagery to the British music environment. The connection was well articulated by Salt Tank's David Gates when I talked to him in 2004. "We hit this wave around 1988 when everything changed in music and acid house happened. I read an article, which reviewed In Search of Space which suggested this was the original trance record. Dance music has got to be that single repetitive beat. Look back at Hawkwind and it was pretty much what they did."
Alongside informing the acid house scene, Hawkwind's other legacy of the late 80s and early 90s was in encouraging and inspiring a whole new generation of Spacerock bands, particularly in the USA where tours by both Brock's Hawkwind and Nik Turner's alternative version (initially billed as Nik Turners' Hawkwind but re-titled as Space Ritual following legal proceedings) created a whole new Spacerock fraternity. This scene has continued to develop as an interconnect web of bands that has even incorporated many former Hawkwind musicians, check out Don Falcone's 'Spirits Burning' projects. Falcone, a States-based musician and composer has been skilful in assembling a revolving team of genre luminaries, most notably Gong's Daevid Allen, the most creatively successful release from which has arguably been his 2008 work with Hawkwind's former singer/poet Bridget Wishart (Earth Born by Spirits Burning with Bridget Wishart, Voiceprint Records). This release brought together a real festivals sensibility and included appearances by Hawkwind's Richard Chadwick, Alan Davey, Steve Swindells, Simon House and Jerry Richards.
Hawkwind themselves, with Brock and Chadwick as the long-time mainstays, still continue to receive well deserved respect and enthusiasm from their dedicated fan base. At the same time, it's pleasing to see the wide range of projects that spiritually link back to the eclectic and diverse Hawkwind catalogue, itself now undergoing a much needed and well put together reissue programme by Cherry Red. Though Nik Turner's wish to see the Hawkwind name available to all Hawk contributors as an all encompassing label is not going to happen, the true ethos of the band can be found in a myriad of projects, spreading the band's legacy far and wide and delivering to its fan-base the widest possible interpretation of its original meaning.
Turner's Space Ritual is the free-jazz influenced Spacerock legacy, Alan Davey's Gunslinger the heavier rock 'n' roll link. Bridget Wishart's work with Spirits Burning represents the lyricism inherent in Hawkwind, Jerry Richards's Earthlab project has the mix of world music with driving rhythms and visual stimulation. There are many others; Simon House with Dark Chemistry, Steve Swindells studio and occasional live band Dan Mingo, Adrian Shaw's new project with former Magic Muscle colleague Rod Goodway... the offshoots, and the approaches, are endless.
So, having gone 'In Search of Hawkwind', what's the ultimate conclusion on what Hawkwind means? Partly it's in their support for a myriad of causes and their willingness to play for free; Jimmy Savile, playing 'Silver Machine' on his Old Record Club radio show years ago ("a point for the band, another point for the name of the single") name checked them as, "A great bunch of lads, who did a lot for charity." Moorcock famously saw them as techno-barbarians and lent his name to a couple of novels that fictionalised the band 'rocking in the ruins'. Others, fans and band members alike, have seen their agitprop outlook as being a key influence on their own sense of living 'outside of the system', that attitude of independence and free thinking.
The first time I met Dave Brock, he told me that he gives "huge amounts of money and time to keep the whole thing going, because it's more than just a band to people." That's absolutely correct, but Hawkwind means many things to many different members, followers and scenes. That's its great value over the last forty years, adaptability through the vision of one and the input of many.