It is a tricky business using words to describe music. Trying to describe our reactions to and feelings about what we hear sometimes seems inexact, clumsy, and indirect, as if we are adding several steps to the process of perception. Music, by contrast, is a very effective and direct medium of transmitting feeling, at least in the hands of skilled artists. Think of the visceral connections between love and George Harrison’s “Something,” elation and the work of Earth, Wind, and Fire, or rage and the work of Minor Threat. Sometimes we are tuned to different wavelengths, but I don’t think anyone visiting the Impound will deny that music has this sort of immediate effect on them.
I had these thoughts as I was trying to get to grips with Hawkwind’s Space Ritual double live album from 1973. Recorded during an ambitious 1972 tour financed by the success of their single “Silver Machine,” Space Ritual should be filed with such seminal live albums as Live at Leeds and Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, as it is surely the document of a band at the absolute height of their powers. The difference between The Who or The Rolling Stones and Hawkwind is that Hawkwind are madder than twice their weight in hatters (even accounting for Keith Moon). Their off-center and sometimes disturbing vibe resonates in their music. The feeling that everything is about to fall off the rails, that someone’s mind is humming just below the frequency that will cause it to snap, is omnipresent throughout Space Ritual.
This is the same band that played in the parking lot of the Isle of Wight festival in 1970. That is not, by the way, saying that they showed up, played a set, and wandered off, but rather that they played throughout the night, every night, for the entire duration of the festival, negotiating along the way to provide free food for the punters who turned up to see them. As you might guess the band were strangers to neither controversy nor various and sundry chemical substances. The Space Ritual tour was conceived as a happening, a multimedia event presented and overseen by the band (Dave Brock on vocals and guitar, Nik Turner on vocals, sax and flute, Simon King on drums, Dik Mik and Del Dettmaron electronics, Ian “Lemmy” Kilminster [yes, that Lemmy] on bass and vocals, Robert Calvert on vocals) and attendant crew (graphic designer Barney Bubbles who would later head up the design department for Stiff Records, lighting designer Jonathan “Liquid Len” Smeeton, and a trio of dancers led by the improbable Miss Stacia).
The subject matter for most Hawkwind songs is drawn unabashedly from pulp science fiction. Their musical underpinnings are a genre-defying mix of aggressive but simple rhythms, deep psychadelia, electronic experimentation, proto-punk and acid jazz. Simon King’s drumming is strong, primitive and tribal. Dave Brock’s guitar is often running through a flanger or wah-wah pedal, and he shares an almost telepathic bond with bassist Lemmy, who had already developed the hybrid rhythm guitar/lead bass style he would deploy to monstrous effect in Motorhead. Nik Turner’s woodwinds, also often played with effects, weave strange and ethereal melodies and rhythms through the organized chaos churned up by the rest of the band. Dettmar and Dik Mik’s electronics on this record can hardly be classified as keyboards; their “audio generator” was allegedly bashed together out of vacuum cleaner parts, and there is a lot of white noise wind, Theremin-like swirls and sequenced passages that sound like the bastard children of Einzurstende Nuebauten and Brian Eno.
For all the reputation of both the band and their audience’s propensity for chemical indulgence, there is something in the music itself that is psychotropic. Even with no outside assistance, the listener is going to be put into a different state of mind. Some tracks like “Orgone Accumulator,” “Down Through the Night,” and “Space is Deep” are trippy, mid-tempo groove fests, while others like “Master of the Universe” and “Brainstorm” sound as if The Stooges had been possessed by the disembodied spirits of the Allman Brothers. As you listen there is no way of knowing what will come next, and you may be moved to bob your head, dance, riot or curl into the fetal position. Topping off this heady cocktail is poet, mime, playwright and genuine manic-depressive Robert Calvert. Throughout the performance are Calvert’s spoken word pieces, penned by himself and science fiction author Michael Moorcock (a friend of all things underground, frequent auxiliary member of the band, and fellow resident of London’s Ladbroke Grove). These pieces are bridges and mood setters, and often the mood is one of intense unease. Calvert is at his best when taking the audience from the trance-inducing “7 by 7” into the nightmarish world of “Sonic Attack.” Without warning or mercy the listener is transported in devastating fashion from contemplating their life on the astral plane to ground zero of a futuristic apocalypse.
Therein lies the magic of Space Ritual and all the mad output of Hawkwind. You won’t find an idyllic, utopian future in the fantasies of their songs. Instead, you find dying empires and moldering tower blocks whose benighted occupants make the best of things, i.e. the same things the band would have seen outside the windows of their decaying London squats. In the same way that the blues is alternately the sound of heartbreak and joy in America, Hawkwind’s music is the sound of a distinct part of the United Kingdom slouching forward in time, hope and horror equally as likely to turn up with the dawn. The futures the band invokes are infinitely more Blade Runner than Star Trek. The background fear of the Cold War and urban unrest seeps into their art as much as the triumph of man reaching the moon.
Hawkwind were already unfashionable among the critics and scenesters of the day, who saw the band as some sort of hippy stain that refused to be washed away with the turning of the decade. What no one recognized at the time was the line that would run out of the late 1960s through Hawkwind and indirectly to every plain-spoken, DIY punk of the late 1970s. Like baroque and unhinged explorers, Hawkwind staggered their way into an uncertain future. They didn’t catalog the pastoral eccentricities seen by their contemporaries like Genesis or Caravan, but rather the often unpleasant yet sometimes oddly beautiful underbelly of the urban space age.
Space Ritual is a trip in almost every sense of the word, a voyage through heavy misgivings and bright hopes, past musical vistas that would be unnoticed by a more well-adjusted and comfortable observer. It’s a journey well worth taking even if your guides may sometimes need to be fitted for very long sleeved jackets. (John Jordan)