Thursday, December 7, 2023

Hawkwind: Days Of The Underground

Hawkwind: Days Of The Underground, by Joe Banks
No month stated, 2020  Strange Attractor Press

I try to refrain from making sweeping statements, but it seems to me that Hawkwind didn’t make much of an impact here in America. I mean, I’m 49 and have spent pretty much my entire life listening to rock music from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and even I only heard of Hawkwind probably around 1999 or so, in an off-hand mention in a review of Primal Scream’s album XTRMNTR (and there’s another group that didn’t make much of an impact in America – at least, no one I knew at the time had ever heard of them). 

Even then, it wasn’t until I discovered the Hawkwind reviews by The Seth Man (my favorite music reviewer ever, btw) at Julian Cope’s Unsung site, some years later, that I even bothered looking into the group. Seth Man focuses on Hawkwind’s early ‘70s output, and later I’d learn that this era is for the most part considered the Hawkwind, even though the band continued on (even to today), with multiple lineup changes. But about the only member I knew in the band was bassist Lemmy, who of course would go on to form Motorhead; indeed, if anyone in the US is aware of Hawkwind, it’s probably due to Lemmy’s connection with the band in the early ‘70s. 

But even that isn’t very well known; I know a guy at work who is big into the music scene, as is his wife, and he mentioned the other week that his wife had just read Lemmy’s autobiography (!!!. Now that my friends is a woman you marry!!). “So she probably knows who Hawkwind is,” I said. The guy gave me a blank look and was like, “Who?” He wasn’t even familiar with the term “space rock.” Presumably his wife would indeed know who Hawkwind is, given that she’s the one who read the book – and now that I’ve read this book, concerning Hawkwind’s rocky ride through the 1970s, I think one day I too might check out Lemmy’s autobio. He proves himself the most colorful character in a group solely comprised of colorful characters. 

Over the years I’ve heard all the Hawkwind albums from the classic era, but have failed to become interested in any of the post-Lemmy albums (which is to say, 1976 onwards). But still even then I didn’t know anything about the group, or the revolving lineups, or who anyone was. Wait, I also knew of Stacia, the statuesque, 6’ 2” beauty with the staggering bust who danced in the nude at Hawkwind concerts during the Lemmy era. Recently I got on another Hawkind kick and decided to finally learn a little more about the group. Joe Banks’s Hawkwind: Days Of The Underground served as the perfect overview of Hawkind, and by focsing solely on 1970 to 1980 Banks here gives us the glory days of the band over the book’s 400+ pages. 

Banks handles his subject in an interesting way: this isn’t a bland study of the group, but one that is broken up into different formats. There’s “Chronology,” which offers persent-tense detail on what Hawkwind is up to throughout the decade, and “Album,” in which Banks reviews each record released during the decade – and Banks proves himself a great reviewer in that he actually describes the music, a failing of many so-called “music reviewers.” In fact his style reminds me a bit of Seth Man’s. Then there are “Interviews,” in which Banks throws some questions at a few (surviving) Hawkwind members. Finally there is the periodic “Essay,” in which Banks will focus on a subject for a few pages, like how Hawkwind related to the political climate of Britain at the time, or Hawkwind’s relationship with the sci-fi New Wave (collaborator Michael Moorcock being another of those interviewed here). 

One thing I quickly learned was that Hawkwind honcho Dave Brock (vocals and guitar) doesn’t seem to have much time for these things: he’s not one of the people interviewed here, and all his comments in the book are taken from contemporary interviews. Brock also failed to appear in a BBC documentary that was produced several years ago (which Banks links to on his informative and comprehensive website for the book), due to his falling out with another founding member: Nik Turner (sax, flute, vocals). Banks doesn’t get into the details of this falling out in his book, but then again Hawkwind: Days Of The Underground ends in 1980. At any rate Turner died in 2022, so his falling out with Brock was permanent. It just seems strange that Brock does not appear in any of these band retrospectives, given that he started Hawkwind and is still running it. 

Regardless of Brock’s lack of involvement, Joe Banks carries the narrative along smoothly, as mentioned relying on contemporary articles and interviews. One thing I learned from this book was that Hawkwind were heroes of the British underground, often performing at free concerts and operating out of the Portobello Road area, where they presented themselves as one of the people. So I guess sort of like The Jefferson Airplane, at least insofar as their political/radical inclinations went, but Hawkwind certainly never became as wealthy or successful as the Airplane did. In fact you wonder how these guys even made a living: eventually their shows were known for elaborate light shows (not just the naked dancing girl), and they used all sorts of audio generators and other electronic gizmos that were outsie the realm of your typical rock group. This entailed a large touring company, which of course had to be paid for. 

Compounding the issue was that none of the members wanted to get on the “star trip,” and indeed most of them would shun the spotlight, content to let the slideshows and light shows and Stacia take the brunt of the audience’s attention at concerts. No doubt this is another reason Lemmy is probably the only member of Hawkwind an American fan might know off-hand, as Lemmy certainly had the star trip down pat, becoming a legend in his post-Hawkwind days. Otherwise even I, who had listened to the albums and collected some of them on vinyl over the years, couldn’t name a single other member of Hawkwind until I read this book. They were an eccentric group of characters to be sure, but we aren’t talking a John-Paul-George-Ringo group of different and memorable personalities. 

But then, Hawkwind’s music outweighs any personalities – it’s a heavy, spacey kind of rock that’s heavy on the effects and the overall trance-inducing vibe. The only problem I have with it is that I’ll hear a Hawkwind song and think, “This is great!” Then the next song will come on, and I’m like, “Didn’t I just hear this song?” What I’m trying to say is, variety is not key with Hawkwind, at least for the classic era of the early to mid ‘70s. To this day I still confuse “Born To Go” with “Brainstorm,” or etc – and not just them! Entire LP sides almost blend into one long track, but as Joe Banks successfully argues here, that’s the entire point! Hawkwind’s music was designed to take the listener into another realm (even without drugs), inducing a trance through repetition of its heavy psychedelic rock vibe. 

Another thing that sets Hawkwind apart from groups of the era was that Hawkwind was indeed psychedelic – and not “progressive,” as they are often categorized. As Banks also notes, in this regard Hawkwind had more in common with the krautrock bands out of Germany, in that they continued with the heavy psychedelic rock of the ‘60s but brought it into the ‘70s with all the production tricks of that decade. But they had little in common with true prog groups like ELP or Yes, and more in common with such German acts as Amon Duul II (which also had a revolving lineup, including a bassist who played in both ADII and Hawkwind in the early ‘70s). 

It's in the description of this music that Banks’s narrative style really shines. As mentioned, he describes the music, treading the line between insightful commentary and the colorful word painting David Henderson employed in Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child Of The Aquarian Age. In fact it had me going back to the albums to listen to them again, though I have to admit that, despite his enthusiasm, Banks did not succeed in making me appreciate the post-Lemmy era of Hawkwind. I found myself skimming a lot of this material, as I’ve never been interested in the group’s attempts at capturing the punk or New Wave scenes, nor do I like the streamlined act in which Bob Calvert became their main singer. I mean, I like the dude as the crazed circus ringmaster who links tracks on Nektar’s Down To Earth, but not as the main singer in a New Wave-styled Hawkwind. 

Speaking of which, Banks makes much of Hawkwind’s impact on the emerging punk scene, which is another line of divergence for American readers. Punk just never had that impact here…despite Johnny Rotten’s infamous T-shirt, Americans today are a helluva lot more likely to listen to Pink Floyd than the Sex Pistols. In England though it seems that “punk” is still held in high regard, for giving a new boost of energy to the dying rock scene or whatever. Hawkwind, while never punk, is often cited as an influence on the scene, to the extent that even Johnny Rotten said there never would’ve been a Sex Pistols without Hawkwind. To which I say, “Who cares?” 

Joe Banks relates Hawkwind’s trip through the ‘70s in an amiable tone that is never too critical or apologetic. His enthusiasm for the band is clear, but also he can’t help but relate some of their poor choices – like, of course, canning Lemmy and Stacia. Also Dave Brock’s increasing control of the group is cast in a questioning light, especially given that everything was going fine previous to his changes in the lineup. Also the group had a rather strange habit of abandoning band members on tour – Banks relates in the later ‘70s portion of the book how Robert Calvert was abandoned during some tour, and caught Brock et al as they were leaving in a taxi, Calvert chasing after them while brandishing a sword. This is the closest the book gets to Spinal Tap territory, by the way. But also, in that BBC documentary I linked to above, there’s a part where Lemmy relates that he too was abandoned while the group was on tour in the US, just assuming he had wandered off somewhere to get some speed and taking off without him. 

What I find curious about this is that there’s also a scene where a Hawkwind member (“Liquid Len”) is ditched by the other members of the group in the 1976 novel Time Of The Hawklords, by Michael Moorcock and Michael Butterworth (though as Banks notes in the book it was entirely written by Butterworth); I’ll have a review of that one up once I’m finally able to finish it, as to tell the truth the novel’s a bit of a slog. The tidbit of a Hawkwind member being ditched by the others is entirely too coincidental and makes me suspect Butterworth was spoofing how Lemmy was ditched in the US, though it doesn’t happen to Lemmy’s character in the novel. 

Speaking of Lemmy and his amphetimines, Hawkwind was of course synonymous with drugs, and Banks treats this topic with candor – there is no apology or regret or any other stuff. About the only issue is that Lemmy was a speed and heroin user, and this didn’t jibe with the preferred drugs of the others. Hawkwind was a pot and acid band, which itself was notable for the ‘70s. This could be why their mid-‘70s output does not sound sterile and lifeless, like so many other groups of that era. The same, again, holds drue for the krautrock bands of the day. Another thing I learned from Banks is that British critics of the day also saw this similarity with contemporary German bands (krautrock was also never a “thing” in the US), but today hardly anyone mentions Hawkwind in the same breath as Can or the like. 

Joe Banks’s Hawkwind: Days Of The Underground goes a long way in fixing this; the story told here is memorable and entertaining, and makes one wish for a time machine – what it must have been like to see the group’s “Space Ritual” production in person. (And I share Banks’s incredulity that none of these shows were ever filmed for posterity!) Banks also does a good job of defining the various lineups and how they differed from one another, while still maintaining a “Hawkwind” vibe. Overall I definitely enjoyed the book, with the caveat that my interest waned as the ‘70s progressed (but then that’s pretty much true about everything ‘70s for me), and it had me listening to my Hawkwind albums with a renewed appreciation. I also appreciated the thoroughness Banks brought to the book, down to detailing every promo film made of the group in the ‘70s, as well as notable outtakes that were not released in the day – and speaking of which, the 2018 Record Store Day double-vinyl compilation release Dark Matter: The Alternative Liberty/U.A. Years 1970 – 1974 is highly recommended, collecting as it does some of the very outtakes Banks mentions in this book.


russell1200 said...

The problem with American "Punk" as a concept is that a lot of bands that were in the early CBGB Punk scene later became labelled as mainstream. Two prime examples being The Talking Heads and Blondie. In a sense, if you became too successful, you were no longer punk, and American Punk morphed into something different.

Teutonic Terror said...

You might want to check out the Lemmy documentary, as there is about ten minutes devoted to his former bandmates, and lots of hilarious footage with that chick dancing around on an acid trip.
Were you ever a fan of Blue Oyster Cult? I always thought that the contributions from outside writers like Moorcock led to some of their best work.