25th January 2013
The space rock veterans are on tour again, but are they relevant in 2013? More so than you might have expected, it seemsâ¦
One of the stupider things I’ve read about music this past year – aside, obviously, from all that “guitar music is back!” bollocks (gosh, yes, it was terrible in 2012 wasn’t it when there were no guitar bands at all anywhere, well apart from the maybe 400-ish I personally saw and another few hundred thousand worldwide) – is a quote whose origin I can’t even be arsed looking up, but apparently someone wrote or said of brilliant new-ish Leeds kosmische-psyche band Hookworms “they’re like a Hawkwind it’s OK to like”. Sorry, what? I wasn’t meant to like Hawkwind? Damn.
Yeah, OK, maybe as a young teen who still believed in all that 1976-as-year-zero nonsense I might have scoffed at the suggestion of listening to hairy blokes from Before Punk, but it wasn’t long before the twin influences of Spacemen 3 and recreational herbalism pointed my young mind in a more psychedelic direction. In which Hawkwind were very much a band it WAS OK to like, not least because they were clearly as “punk” as they were “hippy”. More so, to be honest, with offshoots such as Hawklords and Inner City Unit embracing the musical shifts of the mid to late seventies and feeding this back into the mothership band. Quarter of a century further down my life – and in the 44th year of their career – Hawkwind’s place in the Grand Scheme Of Things is generally better recognised – hell, even their Wikipedia entry calls them “a noted precursor to punk rock, and now considered a link between the hippie and punk cultures”.
Meanwhile a new wave of space rock or whatever you want to call it – not that that ever went away, either – appears to be hitting all the radars of cool right now. Liverpool held its first International Festival Of Psychedelia in September, with Hookworms appearing alongside fellow 21st century space travellers such as Mugstar and Dead Skeletons in front of a teens-to-pensioners crowd. Bunnyman Will Sergeant was on DJ duties sometime after midnight when suddenly this massive sound emerged from the speakers, the rush of a jet engine and the dancefloor filled instantly. Will had nailed it with “Silver Machine” – obvious, but only because of its enduring brilliance. Nobody stopped to wonder if it was OK to like this. And I realised it’s been fifteen years at least since I actually (if you’re being pedantic and don’t count Hawklords, that is) went to see the band that opened my young ears to a world before punk. Time to rectify that. It nearly didn’t happen – three days ago the band were snowed in somewhere down in Devon – but they’re here, we’re here, fasten your seat belts…
A nine foot creature with glowing green eyes is on the Ritz stage, intoning over bubbling drones. Well, they were never going to just walk on, plug in, go “hello Manchester” and start playing, were they? This is Hawkwind and you’re always going to get a Show. The drones coalesce into a driving rhythm, that most timeless of space grooves that is “Master Of The Universe” and they’re away. The sound fills the packed floor – sure, there’s more long grey hair here than you’ll see in most crowds and a handful of faces straight out of “Don’t Do Drugs, Kids” posters but that’s far from the whole story. Punks, metalheads, people from pretty much every subculture of the past few decades. There’s not so much a moshpit as a vibe-pit, a lot of raised arms and wild dancing.
On the stage there’s Tim Blake, also of fellow cosmic voyagers Gong, wielding a massive keytar; the monster now de-stilted and dancing; the sturdy, bearded and oddly-named Mr Dibs in hat and shades and de-sleeved “Unknown Pleasures” T-shirt; sinewy veteran and sole constant member Dave Brock; someone behind who looks like a spaceship pilot; a woman twisting and turning dressed all in gold. It makes a glorious tableau – the first of many. Later projections will splatter words – Madmen, Devastation, Christian, Muslim, Jew, War, Hellfire – across images of anti-war demonstrations; the dancers will return in black bodysuits covered in bright white lights in front of a backdrop of asteroids. If that sounds, on paper, like a string of counterculture psychedelia cliches then so be it, Hawkwind invented most of them. Soon we are absorbed into a proggy, trippy sprawl where Mr Dibs tells of a young man who dreams of space, and when he’s older he’s still dreaming. An allegory for the band itself maybe… “The fuckin’ Ritz” he says at the end, “I’ve had some times in this place…”
Not everyone survived the journey, of course: longtime guitarist Huw Lloyd-Langton, who died just before Christmas, is remembered with a lovely understated almost folky song and a collection of pictures. This could have been really cheesy or mawkish, but somehow it’s not. The good ship travels on with a new song – and yes, it’s still Hawkwind. Watching tonight you’d be hard pushed to put a date on any of it, really. The mid-set delve into 1975’sÂ “Warrior on the Edge of Time” for instance, with the proto-punk garage psyche of “Assault and Battery (Part 1)” evolving into the slower, proggier “The Golden Void (Part 2)” is simultaneously of its time and timeless.
There have, of course, been changes not just in the line-up (too many for anyone to keep track of) but in the presentation: a brief section where the women are dressed as sort of Star Trek alien carnival belly-dancers thankfully the closest things get to those dodgy old days of a naked Stacia gyrating around the men. It was a long time ago but it’s easy to see how this – like The Stranglers‘ Battersea Park strippers – still puts some people off, and over the years has provided an easy stick with which the cooler-than-thou could beat the band. Sometimes I guess you have to just grit your teeth and accept that the past was a different country, and those women were all consenting adults which is more than can be said for certain other fields of light entertainment at the time. And probably less exploited than the grimly compliant looking women-as-objects you still see in some present-day mainstream hip hop videos. Before long, 2013’s dancers are back – one reprising the LED-eyed monster with a face full of foliage and oddly sausage-like antlers, the other high on stilts as a woodland sprite queen.
The Ritz’s ridiculously early weekend curfew means it’s barely half nine when a blistering “Damnation Alley” closes the main set. Hawkwind 1977 style and I’d defy anyone to tell me this isn’t a punk rock masterpiece. Possibly conscious of the time constraints or indeed the sham that is the scripted encore they’re back within seconds for the songs “you can all have a sing along to” (as Brock puts it): the late Robert Calvert’s brilliant sci-fi poem “Spirit Of The Age” actually the only common ground between this and the Hawklords’ Band On The Wall set a couple of months ago, then, of course, that rush of a jet engine and “Silver Machine”. We all know of bands who are too up their own arse to play “the big hit” at all, or who toss it into the first fifteen minutes as if to say “there you go, suckers”, but this isn’t one of them. And too right. I mean if I’d written “Silver Machine” I’d end every gig with it – you would, wouldn’t you?
So yeah, it’s 2013 and everyone’s talking about the new psychedelia, or space rock, or whatever. And indeed the old psychedelia. Woozy projections are adorning the walls of venues which a couple of years back were more accustomed to the strobes and stark spotlights of the post-punk revival, and way too many copies of Can’s recently excavated “Lost Tapes” have been sold for it to just have been niche completists buying it.Â And you know what? Love new music as we do, actually Hawkwind are still the Hawkwind it’s OK to like.