Warrior On The Edge Of Time


"If marijuana doesn't cause extensive brain damage, how come so many people listen to Hawkwind?". So spoke Peter Frame, in his "Rock Family Tree" of the group, quoting "a characteristic jibe from the music press, who tended to regard Hawkwind as a novelty item".

This is not a joke that was first coined about Hawkwind, of course, this joke already being in circulation at the end of the 60s, on both sides of the Atlantic, a propos of more than a few groups. But it's true that - though for about a couple of decades they enjoyed a degree of popularity that, though it could not definitely be called "on a mass scale", it was indeed quite larger than what we usually refer to as "niche" - Hawkwind do not get the proper amount of respect, the group having never really been regarded as an entity that's part of the "history of rock". Hawkwind as the proverbial underdog, if you like.

But if one has a look at the Hawkwind Family Tree page designed by Peter Frame in 1979 - a date that's quite close to the moment when the most interesting phase in the life of the group actually ends - one is presented with the history of a group that, through various line-ups, financial problems, various confrontations with the law, more than a few record companies, and an "internal temperature" that more than once was quite close to reaching the boiling point, managed to formulate an archetype in sound that's easy to recognize after a few notes.

Here archetype does not equal monotony: with just a few modifications, the group managed to inhabit with a fair degree of confidence such diverse "genres" as "space jam", "rigid groove", "proto-ambient", "almost-techno", "rock song", "cosmic ballad", with the help of saxophones, guitars, drums, and synthesizers, and a whole series of "topical preoccupations" - from social issues concerning the use of power, to premonitions about ecology (check the ballad We Took The Wrong Step Years Ago, off X In Search Of Space), to dark sci-fi tales (who else could have imagined a giant factory where workers unknowingly make angels' wings?).

It's an archetype that sees guitar player, singer, and main composer Dave Brock as the only constant member through decades, Brock being to Hawkwind what Robert Fripp was to King Crimson - though the gap in technical ability between the two musicians, and the two groups, could not be larger.

And so, due to their limited technical skills, one could reasonably expect that Punk embraced Hawkwind with open arms - it has to be said that if there was a group from the "old wave" that had nothing to fear from Punk, it was Hawkwind - but no, for a simple reason: Hawkwind was "a group of old hippies". That includes the "leather and amphetamines" mutation going under the name Lemmy, by the way, who learned to play bass guitar while a member of Hawkwind, and who later found fame and fortune with Motörhead, the group he founded after he was sacked from Hawkwind. Lemmy being nowadays a "celebrity" on a world scale, of course.

Does an explanation that holds water actually exist? Well, it seems to me that the UK press never had any love for Hawkwind, who for various reasons were always regarded as being "out of step" compared to what was "in fashion", and so given just the slightest amount of attention only when a good placement in the charts made it impossible for the music press to ignore them, members of Hawkwind being embarrassingly similar to your typical "freak" who's always an object of ridicule. This is both true of Hawkwind, of course, and of those who - due to their appearance, clothes, and haircuts, also their life philosophy - are regarded as specimens who are unfit to incorporate and symbolize any of those "modern" trends about which music magazines love to write at great length: the changes in sexual roles of Glam Rock; the "social unrest" of Punk Rock; the "modern attitude" of New Wave. And when those fans of the "French Nuveau Philosophers" of the structuralist kind got their proper megaphone thanks to colourful monthlies such as The Face, the battle was over. Today the "English Disease" has infected the whole Earth, as today's attitude when it comes to those people whose art is said to "transform" and "subvert" - from Madonna, to Lady GaGa, to Ke$ha - easily demonstrates.

Though nobody knew it at the time, Hawkwind were born "old", a p.s. to the dream of a "counterculture alternative" which just a few years earlier was in full bloom with such groups as Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, and The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown (the guy who wore a hat that emitted fire). Venues had names like Roundhouse and Middle Earth. "Alternative society" needed money, and so benefit concerts, to cover those legal expenses. Hawkwind played a lot of them, with the help of people like Liquid Len (Jonathan Smeeton) - who with his Lensmen curated the group's light-show in the 70s - and Barney Bubbles (Colin Fulcher), who designed many colourful record covers and posters for the group. (Here readers could trace a parallel with the panorama of such US venues as The Fillmore.)

Readers are invited to imagine - with a certain degree of caution, of course - the show Hawkwind brought on tour thanks to the money they got from sales of their fluke hit - #3 - Silver Machine: lights, dancers, a "poet in residence" (Bob Calvert, who'll later become the group's singer), and Stacia, "the naked dancer". (Somewhere there's also Nik Turner, wearing a frog costume, sliding towards the edge of the stage.) A song like Silver Machine (it's... a bicycle, of course) could be filed under "Chuck Berry with synths", like many singles the group released as its follow-ups: Urban Guerrilla; Kings of Speed; Kerb Crawler; Quark, Strangeness and Charm; 25 Years.

Featuring song titles such as Paranoia and Mirror Of Illusion, the group's first album (1970) of same name got labeled as "Space Rock". Willie Dixon's Bring It On Home and Pink Floyd's Cymbaline, featured as bonus tracks on CD editions, show some of the group's influences lurking in the shadows.

The group's style appears to be fully formed by the time of their second album, X In Search of Space (1971), again featuring "space explorations", Terry Ollis's light-sounding drums, and Nik Turner's "uncertain" saxophones. (Truth or legend, it was told at the time that roadies had to stand behind certain players being too incapacitated to perform.) The album features the group's two distinctive voices: Dave Brock's barely controlled hysteria; and Nik Turner's opium-scented torpor. Both are quite versatile, by the way, against all expectations.

Doremi Fasol Latido (1972) has a new rhythm section, which would become a model of sorts: the aforementioned Lemmy on bass guitar, and Simon King on drums. The double live album titled Space Ritual (1973) presents the audio portion of the tour financed with the royalties from the hit Silver Machine. Hall Of The Mountain Grill (1974) has a wider instrumental palette, thanks to former High Tide and Third Ear Band Simon House's keyboards and violin.

I have to confess that I had never thought of Hawkwind as being a "Progressive" group. So, a few years ago, I was quite surprised to see the group featured in a Mojo Special Edition issue about Prog (the one with with Pink Floyd on its cover). And it's for its being considered as part of the "Prog" movement that this new re-release of Warrior On The Edge Of Time (1975), the album that for many years was "the missing chapter" in the group's discography, was announced with such great fanfare. (The album features vocals and lyrics by Michael Moorcock, the famous sci-fi writer who often contributed to Hawkwind's work.)

It has to be said that the album had already been re-released in CD format, twice, but never before "from the original master tapes". It appears that the European edition was dubbed from a vinyl copy. While the US edition was said to be from a 1:1 analogue transfer of the master. Today's re-release comes in various formats, with bonus tracks, new stereo mixes by Steven Wilson, Dolby and DTS 5.1 surround sound mix by Steven Wilson, DVD-A Lossless new stereo mix by Steven Wilson, DVD-A 96kHz 24-Bit Flat transfer of the original 1975 stereo master tapes, a vinyl LP, a big box which comes with a book, and so on.

Faithful to the original "hippy" spirit, I listened to the new digital remaster of the original mix, which I compared to my original vinyl LP (a UK pressing from 1975, "A Porky Prime Cut"), and to the CD by Dojo. I have no problem calling the new remaster quite good, with a lot of level, but no compression to strangle the sound. The dark, claustrophobic dimension of the original LP is for me the perfect match for this material. While the added highs and the more "open" soundstage of the new CD offer a different listening experience.

The arrival of new member Simon House had not been greeted with universal acclaim, given the great gap in performing skills that made Hawkwind so different from High Tide, the prodigious quartet playing "intellectual metal" of which House was a past member. Also, due to what some regarded as a meagre contribution by Simon House to the first Hawkwind album on which he appeared, Hall Of The Mountain Grill. But it appears that the only thing House needed was more time. A large part for the success of Warrior On The Edge Of Time, House will contribute a great deal, both with his instrumental and compositional side, to those later albums which saw the voice, personality, and narrative of Bob Calvert coming to the fore, which in a way could be considered as being Hawkwind's answer to "new wave": Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music (1976), where Turner's vocals are featured on House's piano ballad Kadu Flyer. Quark, Strangeness and Charm (1977), which widens the synth palette in a "modern" way. On both live and studio tracks on PXR5 (1979). While his contribution to the album titled 25 Years On, released under the name Hawklords (1978), was by comparison quite muted: In fact, by then House had become a member of David Bowie's new group - check the double live album titled Stage, and those videos widely spread online.

Three brief spoken interludes with synths, percussion, and lotsa echoes, are the freakiest part of Warrior On The Edge Of Time. Here readers will have to judge for themselves . Compared to their previous studio efforts, this album shows the group acting with more care and clarity, both in execution and intention. An agile, "percussive", drummer, Alan Powell, plays alongside Simon King, the palette now more complete. On tenor and soprano, also on flute, Nik Turner plays with more discipline than in the past, with fine results - a flute solo on the first track is bound to remind one of Chris Wood of Traffic.

The medley of Assault And Battery/The Golden Void which opens the album is very good, with wide keyboards appearing under the bass guitar's tense opening phrase. Vocals, percussion, and keyboards - the Mellotron to the fore - feed the flute the chords during the solo. A filter modulation (I seem to remember that at the time House made ample use of Korg instruments) acts as dramatic transition, the second track featuring a soprano sax solo which moves through the left-right axis, also back-to-front, at times engulfed by keyboards.

Opa-Loka features both drummers, and Brock on bass, with moves that in a way could be said to remind one of Neu! - let's not forget that Brock penned the liner notes to the UK edition of the German duo's first album - but here flute and keyboards are bound to remind one of UK psychedelia.

The Demented Man is the classic Brock ballad with acoustic guitar. The main instrumental part is played by House on overdubbed Mellotrons, all featuring vocal timbres. A perfect close to Side One.

The sound of flames and the wind start Magnu, featuring the tenor, an electric guitar filtered through a wha-wha pedal, "Turkish" percussion, and a violin performance by House that reminds one of High Tide.

Spiral Galaxy 28948 features a Moog synthesizer, percussion, flute, and "whistles", and is the only moment on the album that could really be defined as "Prog". Dying Seas is the classic opium-scented ballad by Turner, which makes a fine contrast with the previous track.

The album closing track, Kings Of Speed, already released as a single, features echoes, a violin that's almost country & western (!), and easy-to-get lyrics.

As on previous CD editions, Motorhead - nowadays a very famous track, at the time of its original release it was just a single B-side - appears as a bonus track. (I get the stick of gum, I get the fourth day of a five-day marathon, what I don't get is "we're moving like a parallelogram".)

I've already talked about what came later. Here I'll just add Levitation (1980), where the group's style easily accommodates (surprise!) Ginger Baker's meticulous rhythmic subdivisions (for those who are interested, there are also legal live recordings out there), and Sonic Attack's techno-metal (1981). This period sees the return of the group's former lead guitar player, Huw Lloyd-Langton, who had disappeared from view after album #1 due to an incredibly traumatic LSD trip (he died a few months ago; interested readers will have no problem investigating what happened next when it comes to the group's former members, starting with bipolar Bob Calvert, who's no longer with us).

I'll stop here, quoting Michael Moorcock who on Sonic Attack invites us to "question the nature of our orders", Dave Brock adding that "future generations are relying on us/it's a world we made incubus". Just like old hippies.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2013

CloudsandClocks.net June 9, 2013