They created 'space rock', are probably the most influential British
group ever and prefer picking raspberries to stardom. Hawkwind
explain their 40-year survival
27 August 2009
The approach to intergalactic headquarters runs along a narrow lane
in Devon, under the bridge of a railway closed decades ago and
through a number of gates with signs warning that "Our Dogs Bite".
There is a carved totem pole in the garden, and a studio like the
Tardis, banked up with electronic equipment and posters for concerts
spanning the four decades since Hawkwind formed. This is the home
world of the band that became a project, the project that became a
tribal gathering, of the tribe that became a great British
institution and probably the most influential group ever in British
music, bar the Beatles only those under the influence often don't
know it. Hawkwind: the band that has impacted on every "genre", hence
the need for a genre all of their own: space rock.
Forty years ago, Hawkwind played their ever first gig, in Notting
Hill in west London. As a local adolescent, it was my first gig, too
and as everyone knows, the branding iron of a first love leaves a
mark like no other. As a result, I own more Hawkwind music than any
other band's; I've seen them play more than any other band. And
tonight and tomorrow, Hawkwind will return to their old neighbourhood
to Porchester Hall, just up the road from Notting Hill to
celebrate that anniversary and their own endurance. "I suppose we
always kept that down-to-earthness," says singer-guitarist Dave
Brock, "which kept us sane and kept us in touch with our people.
Eating our tea in cafes, kind of thing, so we never got too big-headed."
At the kernel of Hawkwind is Brock, the band's founder, driving
engine and sole remaining original member. If some 50 musicians have
passed through Hawkwind some loyal forever, some dead, others
leaving acrimoniously then "all the more reason for the captain of
the ship to keep it afloat", Brock says. "Because according to the
rules, the crew get to bugger off in lifeboats if it sinks, while the
captain stays aboard." He prefers a different analogy: "I love
football, and don't want to compare myself to Arsène Wenger, but it
is like managing a team. And as a team, we are top of our league,
even if it's not the Premiership."
In the mid-60s, like many of his British rock contemporaries, Brock
was hanging around the blues and jazz clubs of west London. But while
they concentrated on getting their Sonny Boy Williamson licks
perfect, Brock was at work with other forces. He worked at a design
studio and visited Holland with his band Famous Cure, and then the
embryonic Hawkwind investigated psychedelic visual effects and
electronic experiments in German music. By the time of their debut
gig (billed as Group X) in August 1969, Hawkwind had fused blues,
folk, British symphonic rock and a driving electronic pulse into
something of epic proportions.
"Well, it was basically freak-out music, wasn't it?" Brock says. "We
were using plenty of LSD, tape loops, repetitive riffs, colours and
lights. But I was still making more money busking. After Don
Partridge made that bloody song called Rosie, everyone wanted a try,
and there'd be punch-ups for the cinema queue pitches in Leicester
Square. But at some point Doug Smith [the band's promoter] had to
tell me: 'Dave, either you turn up and play in this group or you go
busking.' So I turned up to play, and that became Hawkwind."
The band became the local fixture in turbulently psychedelic Notting
Hill. They were our local band, carving their own furrow, with
politics driving the music and vice-versa. They became the beacon of
the benefit circuit, playing for the White Panthers, Friends of the
Earth, Release and striking coal miners in 1985 so much so that
Brock would tire with band members forever promising his and everyone
else's time: "We had to do something for money, dammit."
Crucially, though, Hawkwind remained the emblematic band of early
Glastonbury and the free festival movement, of the peace convoys and
solstice gatherings at Stonehenge, cut down brutally and bloodily by
the police and Thatcher government at the Battle of the Beanfield in
1985. "I am serious about people's right to make music and dance
where they have made music and danced for centuries," Brock says. "We
are tribal, and want our music to be accessible to all ages. That has
been important to me ever since I saw the West Indian bands in
Notting Hill, grandparents and kids, all together. That is what I
understand by a music festival."
"We never supported a cause which encouraged violence," says the
effervescent Kris Tait, who joined Hawkwind in the 1980s as one of
the famous dancers that became integral to the shows, and is now
Brock's wife and the band's manager. "Well, we did sometimes," chides
Brock. Every attempt to tour America is still dogged not only by
spent marijuana convictions but by the song Urban Guerrilla: "Let's
not talk about love and flowers/ And things that don't explode/ We've
used up all our magic powers / Trying to do it in the road."
But among all this, between the gigs among pagan stones and the
bloody-mindedness and the drugs stories, the music sometimes gets
forgotten. So what is space rock? "Actually," Brock concedes,
"although it was simple to play, it has always been as complicated as
you want it to be, and musically there is rather more there than
meets the eye." Space rock, apparently, has energy and eschatalogical
"Ultimately, it is optimistic," says Brock, in comparison to, say,
Pink Floyd, whose music is, "Well, a bit doom-laden, isn't it?" Space
rock aligned itself to the writing of and performances by the
poet Robert Calvert and novelist Michael Moorcock. "We were all
reading science fiction and after the first moon landing, exploring
the idea that everything could change," says Brock. "We were taking
LSD, and the journey outward was also an inner journey, I suppose."
Crucial to Hawkwind's endurance has been the group's ability to
connect with successive generations "The audiences are now younger
than ever," says Tait. Rather than try to keep up with the
underground music of the time, Hawkwind have tended to prefigure it.
Punk and grunge listened attentively (John Lydon was a dedicated fan;
Mudhoney have covered Urban Guerrilla). Hawkwind were gurus to the
trance generation, both musically and philosophically pioneers in
both electronic exploration and the connection between ancient ley
lines and psychotropic technology, so much so that the Orb recorded a
tribute called Orbwind. From 2002, as the raves subsided (just as the
free festivals had years earlier), Hawkwind began their annual
Hawkfests, "which was a way," says Brock, "of carrying on free
festivals as a membership occasion, just as you might hold a
gathering of custom car enthusiasts. They are membership occasions,
though the idea is to stay accessible there's no backstage at a Hawkfest."
The band emerges from the studio to join us. "I'm one of those people
who loved Hawkwind before I knew who they were," says the bassist, Mr
Dibs. "I was into the Buzzcocks and Joy Division, but was given a
tape of Hawklords [a pseudonym Hawkwind adopted briefly for legal
reasons in the late 1970s] without knowing what it was, and thought
'This is me.' So I was a fan, then a roadie for 12 years and now I'm
in the band a dream come true."
"We create a sound which is our own, whatever music it is," says
drummer Richard Chadwick at 21 years, the band's longest-serving
member apart from Brock. "The model is the Beatles, in as much as
whatever they did be it the first heavy metal in Helter Skelter or
the first world music on a sitar the sound was the Beatles. That's
our intention: what you hear is Hawkwind and could only be Hawkwind,
whatever we are playing. I came to Hawkwind through the anarcho-punk
scene of the 1980s, so for me the music is the politics and the
politics is the music, which means not becoming a 'star', but playing
what could only be Hawkwind. If you take this sound to the audience
in a stadium or at Glastonbury as it is now, it will inevitably
change. So we survive, with a sense of decency. I've seen Dave
[Brock] turn down those opportunities time and time again his own
show on MTV, this supergroup or that. And that is how this band has
lasted 40 years in the way it has."
"Yes, there have been plenty of chances to become a star," Brock
says. "Just the other day, they wanted me to get together with Lemmy
and that bloke from Jefferson Starship Paul Kantner but I
thought, 'Oh Christ, please no.' If I get pushed into that, they'll
push me into something else, then something else. I've seen people do
it, doing it the way someone else wants it, away from their families,
away from home. Some people like it Lemmy's got his place in Los
Angeles with a pool and that, lives on the road and will die on the
road. But I've got raspberries to pick as well as Hawkwind music to
work on. I mean, we can't play the same old stuff the same every time."
Brock smiles, more to himself than to anyone around the table, and
tells the story about how he found Hawkwind's old red lighting-gear
van for sale in Auto Trader. He bought it and there it is in the
farmyard. "Lots of my friends have got yachts," he says, "but how
many yachts does a person need?"
Then Brock explains what he needs. "First, we bought that field, but
we were still visible, and audible. So we bought that meadow there
and Kris and I raised horses for a while. Now, we have that piece of
woodland, and from the top of it, there's a sea view, right as far as
where my parents retired." The idea is, clearly, that intergalactic
headquarters be as close to sealed off as it possible to be on this
crowded island, and thereby as close as possible to to what? Space?
Or something Hawkwind are still looking for.