Hawkwind

Tagged: Music

Premier British spacerock band, founded in 1968 as "Hawkwind Zoo" by amongst others David Brock (1941-    ) and Nik Turner (1940-    ), and destined to go through very many changes in personnel over the years. The band's first release, Hawkwind (1970) is an agreeably atmospheric, mostly instrumental album that is science-fictional in its mood rather than its specifics. In Search of Space (1971) is better: still musically loose and largely improvised, its galactic blues and psychedelic rock coalesce into a narrative about humanity expanding into outer space. The following year Hawkwind recorded their most famous single: "Silver Machine" (with vocals by Lemmy Kilmister (1945-    ) who would become more famous as the lead singer of heavy-rock band Motörhead). The song, built around an ascending chord sequence played on multitracked, whooshing guitars, appears to be a hymn to a futuristic and perhaps rocket-powered motorcycle, although it was in fact written about a bicycle, via an interpretation of Alfred Jarry's "How to Construct a Time Machine". The heavier-metal Doremi Fasol Latido (1972) includes "Lord of Light", an oblique adaptation of Roger Zelazny's novel, and the insistent, jangly-echoey "Space is Deep", a song which reiterates its title sentiment a number of times. Indeed, and speaking more generally, Hawkwind's repetitive and sometimes clumsy lyrics function better in performance than as printed texts, where their cumulative and near-incantatory effectiveness can be missed. Space Ritual (1973) captures this aspect of the band well, and may accordingly be their best work: a live album recorded on tour in 1972, its incoherent yet insistent music builds powerfully, ripe with riffs, electronic swirls and beeps. The album contains versions of earlier songs, as well as new material, amongst the latter a brief spoken-voice version of Michael Moorcock's novel The Black Corridor (1969). It was this album that marked the beginning of the fruitful collaboration between Moorcock and Hawkwind.

The Hall of the Mountain Grill (1974) is a slightly more structured work, whose songs circle science-fictional themes, epitomized by the album's cover-art of a huge derelict Spaceship sticking out of the ocean. Warrior on the Edge of Time (1975) is more freeform and psychedelic, notably on the expansively rococo instrumental "Spiral Galaxy 28948". Moorcock provided vocals for two tracks, and co-wrote a number of others. Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music (1976), in its title and cover-art, invoked the two most famous genre Magazines, and its songs were all designed as musical "short stories", treated either playfully ("The Aubergine That Ate Rangoon") or straightfaced (the atmospheric "Chronoglide Skyway", or the fine version of Hermann Hesse's "Steppenwolf"). Many of the lyrics were written by the new lead singer, sf poet Robert Calvert. As if to reinforce, or perhaps slyly mock, these quasi-literary pretensions, this year also saw the publication of a novel. The Time of the Hawklords (1976) by Michael Butterworth (Moorcock is credited as "Producer/Director" for the book) fictionalizes a fantasy version of the band, who have access to a musical instrument that can end suffering. A sequel Queens of Deliria (1977) appeared, also credited to Butterworth and Moorcock, although the latter had, this time, nothing to do with it.

The band's next album, Quark, Strangeness And Charm (1977) represented a change of direction, a tighter, more electro-poppy and rather unHawkwind release, although Calvert's lyrics and delivery are often (on the story of Galactically separated lovers, "Spirit of the Age", or the thrumming version of Zelazny's "Damnation Alley") crisp and evocative. The album ends with "The Iron Dream", an instrumental treatment of Norman Spinrad's novel via Gustav Holst's "Mars the Bringer of War". Internal tensions now briefly consumed the band; key members left and legal difficulties over ownership of the name "Hawkwind" meant that the next album, 25 Years On (1978) was released as by "Hawklords". The near-future of this release was not especially evocatively handled. Better was PXR5 (1979, as, one more, by "Hawkwind"), which included yet another adaptation of a Roger Zelazny novel ("Jack of Shadows"), as well as deft treatments of Isaac Asimov and J G Ballard ("Robot", "High Rise"). Calvert had left the band by the time of the uneven Levitation (1980), whose sf songs (an underpowered musical adaptation of Philip José Farmer's "World of Tiers" for instance) are the least interesting elements in the set. Moorcock returned as vocalist and lyricist for the rather heavy-footed Sonic Attack (1981).

The truth is that by the 1980s Hawkwind was in decline; what had once been groundbreaking and – to appropriate the 1960s cliché – mind-expanding was now over-familiar and unchallenging. Albums continued to be released more or less annually, and Brock, now the only remaining founder member, continued to give voice to his science-fictional fascinations, but the earlier shambolic power was gone. Church of Hawkwind (1982) sounds like run-of-the-mill heavy metal, as does Choose Your Masques (1983), although the latter does include the mildly interesting track "Fahrenheit 451", based on Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel. The album-long adaptation of Moorcock's Elric stories, Chronicles of the Black Sword (1985) ought to have been better than it was. Otherwise the quality of releases diminished through the 1990s. Space Bandits (1990), despite its title, has a more eco-activist and Native-American than sf feel to it; It is the Business of the Future to be Dangerous (1993) does not live up to its splendid title (a quotation from philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World [1925]); Alien 4 (1995) has nothing to do with the Alien cinema franchise, and concerns instead UFO abduction.

All these releases were interspersed with live albums. Hawkwind continue to release material (the 2006 Take Me to Your Future includes reworked classic tracks, some new songs and videos); but will almost certainly be unable to capture their glory days, when in their best work they created a wholly distinctive, science-fictional aural space, sometimes unfocused but always powerful, atmospheric, and capable of drawing the listener into strange new worlds. For that they will always have a unique place in the history of postwar sf. [AR]

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