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Hawkwind: Lords of sword and sorcery

Of all the British festival circuit bands of the acid-drenched end of the ’60s, Group X — aka Hawkwind Zoo, aka Hawkwind as they finally christened themselves — seemed the least likely contenders for chart fame and a lifespan longer than a forgotten weekend. And yet Hawkwind would become synonymous with the progressive-rock subgenre of space-rock and influence multitudes of future fellow travelers. This is their story.
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By Jo-Ann Greene

Of all the British festival circuit bands of the acid-drenched end of the ’60s, Group X — aka Hawkwind Zoo, aka Hawkwind as they finally christened themselves — seemed the least likely contenders for chart fame and a lifespan longer than a forgotten weekend.

And yet Hawkwind would become synonymous with the progressive-rock subgenre of space-rock and influence multitudes of future fellow travelers. This is their story.

They were the jokers in the psychedelic pack, a motley crew of mismatched musicians itching to shock and awe their fellow travelers and audiences alike.

Neither Hawkwind’s 1970 debut 45 “Hurry On Sundown” nor their eponymous 33 did that, but the band played on and on regardless. Founding members departed and new ones arrived, notably frontman Bob Calvert and future Motörhead-er Lemmy Kilmister, so a notably different lineup recorded the band’s sophomore set, In Search Of Space, which rocketed into the U.K. Top 20 in October 1971.

Over the next five years, Hawkwind annually batted a new album straight into the British chart, even as their lineup shifted, but it was arguably 1973’s Space Ritual extravaganza cum tour that not only cemented the band’s phenomenal live reputation, but in many ways defined their sound for all time, almost regardless of all that followed. Released as a double album that May, it gave the group their biggest full-length hit to date.

Yet, even by Hawkwind standards, 1975 proved a momentous year. Heading for North America, Lemmy was arrested on the Canadian/U.S. border for possession of amphetamine sulphate, seriously jeopardizing the band’s plan to conquer the U.S.; he was fired and Pink Fairies’ Paul Rudolph was enlisted as replacement. Dancer Stacia’s departure was saddening, but not nearly as disruptive, while Calvert’s return to the mother ship after a solo stint was exuberantly celebrated by fans.

So there were dark clouds and silver linings, but the stormy weather brewing in Britain was to have a much greater impact. Strikes, intolerable heat and soaring unemployment all soured the nation’s mood, feeding the growing despair and desperation among the young, poor, disenchanted and disenfranchised. No band better created a mood than Hawkwind; what distressed many the fans was that 1976’s Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music so accurately reflected the darkening of the times.

“Reefer Madness” and “Steppenwolf” were the epic tracks designed to impress. The former was a sardonic homage to the ’30s anti-marijuana movie of the same name, a compulsive rocker with burbling synth and crazed saxophone wailing over head; the latter a tribute to Herman Hesse’s classic novel of the same title, all unforgettable riff, propulsive beats and splashes of psych guitar and keyboards on top.

However, it’s Astounding’s shorter pieces that, Cassandra-like, foretold much of what was to musically come. The bubbly synthesizer of “The Aubergine That Ate Rangoon” signposted the way to synth-pop, even as Nik Turner’s jazzed-up sax solo opened the door to a flash dance of funksters and art rockers. “Kadu Flyer” initially tied early ’70s synth-rock to late ’70s synth-pop, but once an Eastern breeze blows in, the piece paved the way from the Velvet Underground’s drone to the forthcoming post-punk Gothic gloom.

In contrast, the sweeping, swooshing soundscapes of “Chronoglide Skywalk” laid the foundation for every future club chill room, while inviting in the likes of both legendary Jamaican producer Lee Perry and British dub-club masters Massive Attack. And then there was “Kerb Crawler,” a good-time space-boogie, where R&B swings ’round rock, its soulful backing vocals and Stax-y sax dousing the song in the ’60s, but with a sparkle of glitter that adds a glam tinge to a timeless preceding. Hey, Marc Bolan began life as a mod face, and The Jam et al, couldn’t have done better than to start their retro movement here.

Many Hawkwind fans stormed off in a huff, but the follow-up Quark Strangeness and Charm still squeaked into the Top 30, even with Turner having been shown the door. If Astounding astonished listeners with its kaleidoscope of styles and darker moods, the new set awed with its dystopian themes and futuristic touches. Far more cohesive than its predecessor, it was nearly as prophetic, with the opening “Spirit Of The Age” a blueprint for the entire sweep of the New Romantics. This is the song Ultravox strove to write, but never quite could, with its nostalgia-for-an-age-yet-to-come mood and a fearful future theme wrapped in lush synthesizer, dangerous rhythms and edgy effects.

“Hassan I Sah Ba” was just as ground-breaking, a roiling, hypnotic number that whirls like a dervish but carries all the threat of the veiled assassin, the lyrics neatly tying the hashish-smoking fanatics of Crusader times to Black September, their equally deadly contemporary political equivalents, whose ruthless actions inspired the song. This was hard rock meets trance in its most lethal form, and a song that remains in Hawkwind’s repetoire to this day. “The Forge of Vulcan,” all bubbing synth and metal-striking-metal beats, laid the groundwork for Depeche Mode, while the title track barrels R&B straight into the future. And then there was “Damnation Alley,” a rocker ready made for the heavy-metal kids, albeit with prominent keyboards.

That autumn, not long into Hawkwind’s latest European tour, Calvert suffered a mental breakdown backstage, his fascination with terrorists tipping over into psychosis, no longer celebrating the “Urban Guerrilla” (a 1973 single torpedoed by an IRA bombing) but convinced he was now surrounded by them. Perhaps he viewed his bandmates as counterrevolutionaries, for inexplicably he chased them down a Parisian street waving a samurai sword. Hawkwind was put on ice, while the singer, with guitarist Dave Brock in tow, went home to Devon, where they decided to return to their roots.

Sonic assassins

Bringing in members of Ark, with whom they had performed the previous year at Stonehenge, the pair now put together a new set. They took the stage at Queen Elizabeth Hall in Devon that December under the moniker The Sonic Assassins to perform a rigorously un-Hawkwind-like set that, thankfully, was recorded for posterity. Both “Free Fall” and “Death Trap” would soon make it onto record; a fierce version of the Warrior On The Edge Of Time-era “Magnu” incorporates snippets of “Hassan” before spilling over into “Angels of Life,” and “Over The Top” did precisely that, with extemporized lyrics that captured Calvert’s genius at its headiest heights.

Buoyed by the show, Hawkwind entered the studio early in the new year, readying new material and rehearsing for their spring U.S. tour. It was at this point David Bowie swooped in and carried off keyboardist/violinist Simon House, who performed his final gig with the group that March. Ark-er Paul Hayles was hurriedly enlisted for the rest of the shows, but so discouraged was Brock that in San Francisco he sold his guitar to a fan, determined to lay Hawkwind to rest for good. Even so, once back in England, Brock and Calvert decided to soldier on, but with new management, new members, and a new name — The Hawklords. Or at least some new members, for both House and drummer Simon King contributed to the new numbers, alongside Hayles and fellow Ark-er bassist Harvey Bainbridge.

Scrapping the earlier sessions, the new-ish-look ’Lords returned to the studio in June, 1978, soon joined by keyboardist Steve Swindells. He recalls, “I wasn’t aware of the band’s recent material, but knew that Simon was known more as a virtuoso violinist. I was driven down to the farm in Devon to audition for the band, who were in the middle of writing and recording. I just played with them on a couple of tracks, we jelled, and I was offered the job on the spot.”

The result was 25 Years On, a set far removed from the Hawks’ past, but still recognizably theirs, regardless. Gone were the jazzy flourishes, many of the spacey effects and soundscape-style instrumentals of yore. Swindells’ ambition of giving the band “a mixture of sophistication and style, along with a rhythmic energy and a great big wall of sound” was readily achieved as the arrangements and structure of the songs were stripped back, as if the band were unconsciously readying themselves to become the quintet they would soon, if only briefly, end up. This is the closest the group had yet gotten to a straight rock album, kicked off by the glorious “Psi Power.”

“Freefall” was transformed from a dubby improv into a funky futuristic piece with punk-rock undertones and ties neatly into the weirdness and tension that is “Automotion,” and the explosion of staccato rhythms and jagged edges of the autobiographical celebratory title track, which shoves back and forth between punk and barrelling R&B.

The spoofing “Flying Doctor” jets between punk and hard rock, boasting the first and probably only use of a didgeridoo in either genre. Turning down the heat, the album ends in a blaze of glory, a trio of superb tracks beginning with the glorious western rocker “The Only Ones,” its lush feel counterpointed by Brock’s aggressive acoustic guitar and House’s haunting violin. “(Only) The Dreams Of The Cold War Kid” is an equal revelation, a non-acoustic acoustic ballad with a cinematic flair, leaving “The Age Of The Micro Man” to bring the band full-circle back to their space-rock past, albeit in a notably glammy style. Take that, “Major Tom.”