Monday, 21 April 2014

Sonic Assassins (2nd Edition) – Work In Progress

I’ve been asked a few times recently how work is progressing on the new edition of Sonic Assassins which I’m hopeful will be coming out in print and eBook format some time over the summer, though first up will be an updated and slightly revised edition of my biography of The Waterboys. In terms of the Hawkwind book, it really will be a top to bottom re-write – of which the work on the original text has gone through its first significant re-work already. I’ll probably post another extract closer to publication, but given that people seemed interested in how it’s going so far, I’ve picked a part of one chapter, on one of my favourite line-ups… the ‘Dave Brock Trio’… and posted here as a work in progress. So this certainly isn’t the finished text… but as we join the story Harvey Bainbridge and Bridget Wishart have departed the band, and Dave Brock, Alan Davey and Richard Chadwick have released the first of their trio albums. Read on…

The slim-line Hawkwind’s first album, Electric Tepee, saw the band fully embracing the possibilities of computer technology. This was partly for aesthetics, but also on financial and logistical grounds. Electric Tepee was the first Hawkwind album fully recorded at Brock’s home studio, a converted milking-shed on his Devonian farm that is a wonderful Aladdin’s Cave of Hawkwind memorabilia, which gave the band the double-edged sword of unlimited recording time. “It didn’t make any difference in terms of discipline, because we tend to work quite quickly,” contests Chadwick. “We recorded Space Bandits at Rockfield Studios and that took days and days, so actually we were working faster by the time we did Electric Tepee.”

Chadwick: “Electric Tepee was the album where I said, ‘everyone else is using drum machines, look at all this dance music everyone is into. Nobody minds, let’s just go for it’. With programming, a lot of people end up with generic sounding music; you could say that the last decade of dance music has been the easiest kind to make.” His take on this was to turn the concept of computer-enhanced music on its head. “If I was going to take on drum programming I had to get it to sound like me, so instead of fitting around the confines of the machine, I needed it to sound like a real drummer performing, starting from bar one and going through the human sweat and endeavour of the song. I play on an electronic drum pad, with kick pedals and hi-hat pedals. I press ‘Go’ on the computer which starts it going into record mode and generates a click track which is the timing of the song, and everybody plays together. Their performance goes onto the tape, mine goes into the computer as notes played, in a long strip. Then I have to go in and edit this, because playing on a set of rubber pads is not the same as playing on a proper drum kit. When I’ve edited it all I get an exact reproduction of what I’ve actually played, with the added bonus that any part that has drifted slightly out of time can be pushed back into time as midi notes.” This method of playing ‘as live’ compared to generating the drum parts directly from the computer gave Hawkwind a satisfying mixture of live drumming and drum machine.

By the time Electric Tepee was recorded, the three core members of Hawkwind had got to grips with redefining their approach in a way that made any possible alternative line-ups redundant. “Alan was getting really good at playing Wave Stations,” says Chadwick. “Stacking up his synthesisers and getting huge soundscapes from them just by setting off these algorithms to produce constantly evolving sound patterns. On the other side you had Dave, who was getting really good at sampling and multi-track sequencing, with a big selection of instruments in a massive rack that could all be fired off by a sequencer, and also using his guitar as a synthesiser, which trigged all these sound modules using midi.” This gave Hawkwind a new-found synergy with contemporary musical trends and led them to being referenced in the same breath as ambient aural sculptors the Orb and electro-house duo the Chemical Brothers. Once again it was that thing of pushing the boundaries of what made Hawkwind work, twisting the concept in another direction and making it relevant to what was being done in a wider context. “I was fascinated with dance music and stopped listening to rock altogether,” says Chadwick. “Working in an electronic domain just seemed futuristic and different from everything we’d done before.”

After the relatively truncated Space Bandits, the new album showed that Hawkwind still had a lot of inspiration for new material, although the end result sounded in need of some judicious pruning. “We wanted to make a double album, to give the impression that there was so much of it, it couldn’t be shelved aside, a positive outpouring,” explains Chadwick. And it was an outpouring; at times it reminds the listener just why the single vinyl LP’s limitations was a positive thing, constraining the musician and demanding that each track justified its existence in a way that the more expansive possibilities of running time that the CD format was now offering, and in that respect it set the scene for some other excesses in future Hawkwind studio albums. But when was it good, it was bloody good.7158

Some of the material had already received a public airing the previous winter, including an instrumental that, married up to the lyrics written so many years before as ‘Mirror Of Illusion’, became ‘Mask Of The Morning’ and a really dense and dirty Chadwick/Davey song, ‘LSD’. “I had the bass riff, but it needed a slightly unusual drumbeat to roll it along,” recalls Davey. “Richard came up with the beat, and wrote the second-part. I came up with the lyrics, on acid. It’s life, sex and death, the whole existence.”

And ‘LSD’, as the album’s account opener, did a lot musically to explain where this new phase was going. “It’s like a live number which has various subtle cues that each member plays to take the music into the next section of the song,” says Chadwick. “It was difficult to recreate that in a studio environment. But with just the three of us playing, we were able to work out how to make this deep sound, which was based on listening to each other, playing along with each other… we got really good at doing that.”

There was a hope that Electric Tepee would produce a successful single, the radio-friendly ‘Right To Decide’, much later revealed as partly drawn from a Brock song demoed around the time of Choose Your Masques and titled ‘Radio Telepath’, partly because of renewed interest in Hawkwind’s music on the part of Radio One. The opportunity, as with ‘Urban Guerrilla’ all those years before, was lost in controversial circumstances. The two-verse song of the album was a revised version of the original cut, in which a third references a tragedy in 1991, when a Durham householder, Albert Dryden, became the first person to commit murder live on British television. Dryden had built a bungalow on land designated for agricultural use only. When confronted with council planning officer, Harry Collinson, serving a demolition order, Dryden produced an antique pistol and shot Collinson dead. Brock’s additional lyrics had been a rage against the powers of local councils, despite this particular case being largely down to Dryden’s intransigence over a prolonged period. The national press picked-up on Hawkwind’s intended reference to this story, with the result that Brock “received a telephone call from Dryden’s sister suggesting that we were ‘just cashing in to make money’. I said, ‘No! What we’re trying to do is prove a point. You have the right to decide if you want to do these things, the council can’t just say what they want to say and that’s the end of it all’. After I’d had a talk with her, I took that offending verse out, but the song didn’t make that much sense any more. It was withdrawn before release, but it could have changed everything for us.” Brock has more than enough perspective on the machinations of the music business to be philosophical about this. “It would have earned us a lot of money, got us a record deal, but at the end of the day, it didn’t. A little niche appears, a window, and if you don’t jump through that window and take your chances, it’s gone.” Was he right in this assumption? Quite possibly; even shorn of its third verse, it’s a smart, sharp radio-appealing number that is not only the highlight of the album, but is really a ‘proper’ Hawkwind song; provocative in lyric and dynamic in delivery and is an acute demonstration of why the three-piece Hawkwind, with Davey’s driving bass and Chadwick’s swinging drums to the fore, worked so well.

Unnoticed by the media ‘Death Of War’, a poem set to a strident military march, had potential for controversy as well. The track, credited to Brock\Rowntree, was an angry rumination on the disconnection between soldiers and leaders in a conflict. The co-writing credit for ‘Rowntree’ was for Mark Rowntree, a serial killer imprisoned for life in June 1976 after a week in which he murdered four people in an attempt to imitate his ‘hero’, the notorious ‘Black Panther’, Denis Neilson. Rowntree had been sending a number of his poems to Brock, and also to fellow musician Edgar Broughton, and Dave had selected this particular one to set to music, though later reflecting on Rowntree’s victims he’d distanced himself from the correspondence.

“I think Electric Tepee was the most daring album that Hawkwind have ever done,” suggests Davey. “To go down to a three piece and put out a record as Hawkwind… because a three-piece Hawkwind doesn’t sound right on paper, but we made as much noise as a six-piece band.” Davey saw the reduction in the band’s line-up as beneficial for the remaining musicians. “There was so much more space, we could experiment, do things we hadn’t been able to do before. It gelled straight away; people seemed to like it, full gigs, Electric Tepee number one for a month in the Kerrang! charts.”

From the drum ‘n’ bass crash of ‘LSD’, through its distillation of psychedelic wash ‘Blue Shift’ to the full-on ‘Right to Decide’, Electric Tepee was the freshest, most vibrant, statement of musical intent Hawkwind had produced for many years, even when we consider that sharper editing would have produced a more definitive album. The more traditionalists among the band’s fandom considered the trio’s follow-up, It Is The Business Of The Future To Be Dangerous, the name taken from a quote from mathematician Alfred North Whitehead [“It is the business of the future to be dangerous, and it is among the merits of science that it equips the future for its duties”], to be less successful.

cover_21371815102008 For many years, there had been a yearning for an instrumental Hawkwind album. By 1993 when this was almost realised by Brock, Davey and Chadwick’s more experimental offering, their ground had been captured from within the free festival circuit, notably by Ozric Tentacles. When the Ozrics found themselves described in Guitar Magazine as producing a “bucolic blend of progressive rock, English rural psychedelia meshed with strands of world music,” it might have easily been a critique of the expansive and forward looking nature of the Hawkwind trio’s sound. As it was, Ozric Tentacles’ Jurassic Shift album moved them temporarily from being a crustie fringe band to Top 40 album chart status in the same year that It Is The Business Of The Future To Be Dangerous alienated Hawkwind’s more conservative followers and pushed them further outside the mainstream.

“I remember reading one review that said ‘track one, no guitar… track two, still no guitar… track three, still no lyrics’, muses Davey. Brock described it to the Glasgow Herald as “trance music… the sort of thing Can, Neu! and Kraftwerk started.”

Reflecting on the more negative responses the album received, Chadwick still finds the CD “interesting to listen to because it’s very psychedelic, very washy. Songs surface through this psychedelic noise and I like that; it’s very interesting on that level.” In fact the songs that emerge just feel somewhat misplaced on the album and, texturally, they interrupt the flow, another Hawkwind album that left the whole sounding less than its magnificent parts. It creates a sensation of attempting to deconstruct the Hawkwind sound into its base thematic elements, and then rebuild them in an ‘Ozrics’ style, but doesn’t quite have the balls to abandon traditional song-structure. So, as the record develops and gets under the skin of the listener, the spell woven into the fabric of the early tracks is broken by the return to Earth of the quasi-reggae reworking of ‘Letting In The Past’ (based on ‘Living in the Future’, from Church of Hawkwind) and ‘The Camera that Could Lie’ (‘Living on a Knife-edge’ from Sonic Attack).

The first half of the record is a genius move from the trio, an instrumental suite of complexity and innovation that never really strays from sounding like a Hawkwind record, but coming across as totally fresh and ambitious and pushing at the boundaries of what a Hawkwind album could be. It’s sometimes abstract while still being carefully constructed, but it’s always an exploration of both ambient and hard-driven spacerock. But in the days where expressions such as ‘missed opportunity’ are banded around Internet forums without due thought, this one does seem a genuine missed opportunity, as the three musicians balanced themselves on the brink of doing something totally radical but pulled each other back from the edge. It’s a huge shame; the early tracks on the record are vibrant and dynamic and distilled into a standard LP would have created a classic album that was both relevant to what had been done before and a brave leap out of the box. But it’s again that curse of the expanded run-time that affected the trio’s previous offering, with things such as ‘Letting In The Past’ and a cover of ‘Gimme Shelter’, for example, requiring somewhere different in the Hawkwind canon to live, rather than being lodged out of place and out of context on what could have been a terrific instrumental suite.

Some track titles reflected the political tensions of its time: ‘Space is their (Palestine)’, which developed in the live set as a new bridge for ‘Assassins of Allah’, and the evocative two-part ‘Tibet is Not China’, a world music chant that leads into a classic explosion of Hawk-rhythms. “Where that one came from,” says Chadwick, “was that Dave had got this sequence going with a kind of back-to-front click track and I was trying to play around it. Dave and Paul Cobbold were trying to help: ‘can’t you get this Richard – it’s easy!’ and I just lost my rag. ‘I can play the fucking drums: look at this!’ and went really wild, all that mad toms working and stop/start, then just went into the end coda bit which was the actual part I was supposed to be playing. Unknown to me, Paul captured everything I’d got and just overdubbed on top of it. It’s the thing with electronic music, something entirely irrelevant, when put in a certain context becomes a useful bit of music.” Davey: “Can would do that, play all-day and pick-out ten minutes of it, a bit here and there would fit together.”

When they appeared on the VH-1 satellite channel, Brock was asked by the show’s presenter about the “Free Tibet” emblem on the CD’s cover. This led to Brock inciting the audience to “throw red paint over the Chinese Embassy.” The unexpected off-shoot, notes Chadwick, was that “they were really taken with Dave as a character and did tentatively approach him with the idea of being one of their presenters because of his demeanour; he was really good on TV.”

There are those who argue, just as it was mooted years before that Church Of Hawkwind was a Dave Brock album, that the best way to interpret It Is The Business… is to see it as a Richard Chadwick solo album because of the electronica dovetailing into trance elements that he must certainly have had a major hand in creating, and there’s some merit to that outlook, even though Richard himself considers such a notion as “Bizarre! It’s not the case at all!” But it’s much more arguable that it’s a Hawkwind album made two years too late. “I felt that Hawkwind weren’t leading the way anymore,” notes Davey, despite believing it to be a very strong record. “Hawkwind were always the innovators, Electric Tepee was like that, but on this one, other people had done it first.”

Jurassic Shift took Ozric Tentacles and the crustie festival scene mainstream by reaching number eleven in the UK charts in May 1993. The Orb had already achieved number one status with U.F.Orb the previous June, whilst the Chemical Brothers enjoyed a string of albums that topped the charts through the second half of the 1990s. “We’ve done things and been noticed for them five years later,” commented Brock in the Glasgow Herald. “We get sampled by other bands, big ones. I don’t like name dropping, I don’t have to.” Despite the success of bands so obviously influenced by the legacy of Hawkwind and even though the Independent on Sunday newspaper noted that the rave audience had embraced “hoary old Hawkwind” such respect didn’t translate into chart success. It Is The Business Of The Future… grazed the lower reaches of the charts. Electric Tepee achieved the heady heights of fifty-three.

Apart from their two substantial studio releases, the trio also contributed to a collection of CD singles, all comprising covers of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ in aid of charities supporting the homeless. The various artists who provided music for the CDs were broken down into generalised categories, leading Hawkwind to share a release with heavy metal bands Thunder and Little Angels. The Hawkwind version featured guest vocals by Page 3 icon Samantha Fox, providing a surprising duet with Richard Chadwick who claims to have been “tricked into singing on this.” He explains: “We transposed [the song], dropped it a key or something. There was an initial sample from the original record and then in came our new arrangement. Normally Dave would do his vocals when we’re not around, but this time he said, ‘Ah, I’m having trouble getting the vocals on this’. So I said, ‘Well, you can sing it like this…’ and just sang the song, and Dave said ‘Right! That’s it then!’” The cause was another close to the band’s heart. Interviewed on a promotional film for the EP, Chadwick noted how “the reason we’re involved in this, is because it’s vitally important that something is done… there shouldn’t be people homeless in this country, there’s no reason for it.”

“We asked [Chadwick] to put it down on tape, as a guide... and of course he did it really well… and we had the vocals for that song without him realising,” adds Davey.

Attempting to retain creative and financial control over the new material, Brock, Davey and Chadwick, along with manager Doug Smith and his partner Eve Carr, established a record label, the Emergency Broadcast System. Though the three members of Hawkwind were shareholders of the company, the day-to-day running was in the hands of Smith and Carr as the sole directors. “We returned to Douglas [on occasions] and he would take charge and sort things out; not as a manager, as a consultant,” explains Brock. “Douglas thought it would be a good idea if we formed our own record label and put it out through a major, it worked quite well for a while.”

The first release was an album from the UK tour that promoted It Is The Business Of The Future…, the double-entendre Business Trip, recorded at Hastings Pier Pavilion on 27th November, 1993. “I’d rung-up my friend Simon Tepee,” recalls Davey, “and somebody said ‘he’s away on a business trip’, and I just thought what a brilliant title it would be for a live album. It’s so obvious but it needed that phone call to get it.” The recording demonstrated that however abstract and inventive the band had become in the studio, live they were still a power-house rock band with all the trimmings. The only clue to their reduced line-up was Brock’s give-away ‘Stop that tape – I heard it!’ on the introduction to ‘Right To Decide’.

Most telling, the 1993 dates revealed a band already moving away from the direction of their latest album and rediscovering a denser approach, as shown by the addition to the live set of Davey’s ‘Sputnik Stan’. This number, the first time Davey had written a character-driven song (an orbital scrap dealer: Albert Steptoe marooned in an episode of Red Dwarf) had the pace and drive of the trio’s first album rather than the Middle Eastern flavour of their second. “I saw this programme on the Discovery channel, about the problem of space junk: there is a phenomenal amount. Apparently within twenty years the odds of an astronaut on a space-walk being hit by this stuff will be very high. I figured at some point they’d have to send a scrap-merchant up there! It triggered this idea.”

Other surprise inclusions were a reinvented version of ‘Quark Strangeness & Charm’ and the first appearance of ‘Green Finned Demon’ since it was scratched from the playlist in 1984. “Sometimes when we dug-up old songs, they didn’t work if we did them as they were on the original album, because the chemistry just wasn’t right,” explains Davey. “We were trying to work-out how to do ‘Quark’ and we thought of halving the tempo, slowing down the verses but speeding up the chorus, and getting that piano sound. Sometimes you have to reinvent songs.”

EBS also released what was effectively a third Brock/Davey/Chadwick Hawkwind album, White Zone, credited to the ‘Psychedelic Warriors’, a further extension of the ambient mood of It Is The Business Of The Future... “We had so much stuff left over, a lot of it really good, though no rock stuff. Douglas suggested we put it out under another name,” Davey notes. “I think we were trying to slip it into a different market, but it didn’t get pushed or advertised.” In truth, it’s a pretty inconsequential record, not much noticed at the time, not much cared for when it re-emerged as part of Cherry Red’s catalogue reissues in more recent times. If we think of it as a Hawkwind album, then it vies for the title of most forgotten, if we pass on it as part of the main catalogue, then it holds scant interest as a side-project. When I interviewed him for Record Collector, Brock reflected it on it as “really an offshoot, doing a sort of dance music and playing with loops and things. We’ve always tried to experiment and learn the latest technology but it’s good to try lots of things. It’s like painting, you might do loads and throw them away, but at least you’re doing something. We did have some bits and pieces for a second Psychedelic Warriors album but they’ve never seen the light of day and technology has moved on.” Chadwick’s interest in dance music influenced much of the trio’s studio output. However, to take the view expressed in The Encycolopedia of Popular Music that Hawkwind became “totally dance music-orientated” and “started to copy rave ideas” ungenerously misreads this cross-fertilisation of pop-culture trends. hawkwind-white_zone-front

This synergy with the techno generation was recognised by Marc Swordfish of ambient trance band Astralasia. Interviewed by Toby White for the website Phase 9, Swordfish noted the influence of “psychedelic rock bass and early synthesisers… when the acid house thing kicked-off there was this technological breakthrough. It enabled the people making spaced-out music to move into a different genre using more electronics.” David Gates, a member of “intelligent techno” DJ outfit Salt Tank, recognised his musical education as spanning “New Order, Steve Hillage, Fripp and Eno, Gong, Hawkwind, disco, reggae, punk…”

Gates: “We hit this wave around 1988 when everything changed in music and acid house happened, which was what it must have been like in the sixties and seventies. Astralasia had invited us to play at an all-night rave in Bracknell and it was absolutely great. So when we did a second one, we wanted a whole new set of songs and decided to play around with some tracks by Hawkwind. I recently read an article which reviewed In Search Of Space and it suggested this was the original trance record. It took us ages to learn not to put chords into our dance music. It’s got to be that single repetitive beat. You look back at Hawkwind and it was pretty much what they did.”

Having sent a tape of remixes to Brock, Gates received a call suggesting that Salt Tank play with Hawkwind at a gig at the Brixton Academy (15th August, 1992). “We did a day’s rehearsal in Devon, and before we knew it we were on stage.” At this show, the trio played inside three individual tepees, Gates recalling that “The cables for their instruments weren’t long enough for them to move outside… almost comical. But I could see really clearly that they knew something interesting was going on.” Gates sees a synergy between “the whole counterculture of the original rave scene… and the free festivals, the same kind of people” and a cross-over between “psychedelic rock and trance.”

“I think, to this day, Hawkwind kind of stuck where they were and didn’t move on into that next phase,” Marc Swordfish told me a few years back. “They embraced it a bit, maybe for commercial reasons or perhaps spiritual reasons but perhaps it was a bit alien because it involved dance beats and they had a different kind of mantra.”

Astralasia arranged four versions of ‘Spirit of the Age’, released as Solstice Remixes in July 1993. Their ‘dance’ re-mix of ‘Uncle Sams On Mars’ was included on the ‘Quark Strangeness & Charm’ CD single. Gates compiled an ambient Hawkwind remix CD, Future Reconstruction – Ritual of the Solstice, for which Salt Tank provided ‘Master Of The Universe’. “For the purists, the unthinkable has happened,” wrote Phil Brook on the Farfield Records website. “Modern ‘electronic’ bands have been allowed to unleash computers and sequencers to reconstruct ten of Hawkwind’s songs.”

In essence Brook had described the chasm between rock fans and dance culture, the former with their stuck-in-the-past ‘‘it doesn’t sound like Hawkwind” view, and the latter happy to position their remixes far away from the source material to create a more modern vibe. Richard Chadwick summed up it when describing the concept behind Electric Tepee: “You can sum [it] up idea as a kind of tribal enclosure within which a lot of modern things are going on. It’s that paradox, looking like something really old but containing something very new. Barbarians with technology, basically.”

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