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Cool? Well, maybe not. BBC4, Hawkwind and the counterculture…. March 31, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Music.


Caught BBC4’s Hawkwind and counterculture programmes last night.

Sort of interesting. I’ve fifteen or twenty of their albums all told in various formats. Thing with Hawkwind is that quality control was generally so predictable that it wouldn’t really matter which fifteen or twenty albums one had out of the numerous releases they’ve had over the years. Generally one finds three or four good tracks on a Hawkwind album, any album, and moves on cutting ones losses (or as US rock critic Robert Christgau once wrote In the old days, this likable British band played more benefits than Joan Baez and helped give psychedelic rock its bad name–when you repeat three chords in 4/4 for forty-five minutes, it’s politic to change riffs once in a while).

Still, there was some quality to them that sort of transcended their hippy roots and made them attractive to those of us who found punk a more congenial musical touchstone (Simon Reynolds in his likeable Rip it Up and Start Again, Postpunk 1978-1984 notes that Throbbing Gristle in an earlier incarnation as COUM Transmissions were part of the psychedelic underground and supported Hawkwind). In part that might have been the way in which they touched on Neu and Can like rythyms and textures, in part the fact Lemmy – who managed the difficult trick of achieving a crossover audience between metal and punk – had been a member and had sung on their best known tracks – such as Silver Machine. Perhaps too it was the gravelly quality of the voices (particularly of Dave Brock), which rather like Ian Curtis in Joy Division, sounded older and therefore for some reason more authoritative. Jon Savage’s “Englands Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock” in it’s discography of influences on Punk namechecks two Hawkwind albums. And perhaps slightly depressingly the Sex Pistols played “Silver Machine” in their late 1990s reunion performances, perhaps ironically, perhaps not. Peter Hook is said according to wiki to have found them a significant influence. And in a way what wasn’t to like?

Their song Urban Guerilla released in 1973 just at the point of a PIRA bombing campaign (and subsequently withdrawn) was effectively proto-punk with lyrics like:

I’m an urban guerrilla
I make bombs in my cellar
I’m a derelict dweller
I’m a potential killer
I’m a street fighting dancer
I’m a revolutionary romancer
My rising sign is Cancer
I’m a two-tone panther

So let’s not talk of love and flowers
And things that don’t explode
We’ve used up all of our magic powers
Trying to do it in the road

So watch out Mr. Business Man
Your empire’s about to blow
I think you’d better listen, man
In case you did not know

Of course, the ‘man’ bit still kept it firmly in the more gonzoid space rock, former hippy territory.

I saw them in 2001 in Dublin and they were more or less as expected – bar, I think, Simon House on violin wearing silk hot pants (fashion tip, men in their fifties really should think long and hard about such sartorial choices). Right down the David Hardy images of aliens and spaceships projected behind them on the wall of the Ambassador. And no doubt the gig was identical to ones they played in the 1970s, or indeed ones they’re playing now. Although to move onto a certain unpleasantness, despite reforming in 2000 with the entirety of their original and subsequent line ups they split up again in acrimony with one faction around Nik Turner creating the Ex-Hawkwind and then being sued by Brock. Turner and his compadres now front Space Ritual, singing – why Hawkwind songs of course.

But while that was a welcome surprise for a Friday nights viewing, the program that came after was in some respects more intriguing. This was entitled New Horizons and was clearly made in the year of zonk (somewhere in the late 1960s and early 1970s). Various luminaries were interviewed including those involved in support organisations for those in the ‘underground’ and editor of Oz Richard Neville.

And it was curious, perhaps I’m being a tad unfair, but wow, what a middle class project hippy and the underground were. In some respects, and again it’s not entirely right to judge such things on a single program, there seemed to be a sort of implicit contempt not merely for ‘straight’ society, but for the working class. Neville, for example, particularly singled out people ‘banging out parts on a Ford motor car’ for his ire.

As an aside, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood loathed hippies and called them ‘hippo’s’.

Perhaps Hawkwind singer Robert Calvert, who was in himself a casualty of the underground, managed to put it best on his own song on the “Quark, Strangeness and Charm” album (notable for the lead track and it’s propositions about the connections between Einstein’s love life and relativity):

Days of the Underground (Brock / Calvert)

In visions of acid
we saw through delusion
and brainbox pollution
we knew we were right
the streets were our oyster
we smoked urban poison
and turned all this noise on
we knew how to fight
we dropped out and tuned in
spoke secret jargon
and we did not bargain
for what we had found
in the days of the underground

we believed in guevera
we saw that head held up
and our anger welled up
but we kept it cool
no need for machine guns
the system was crumbling
our leaders were fumbling
while we broke every rule
we saw them on t.v.
they’d blown their cover
and we tried to smother
their voices with sound
in the days of the underground

what ever happened
to those chromium heroes
are there none of them
still left around
since the days (daze)
of the underground?

The mix of drug fuelled indivualism, revolutionary (Guevera) but suitably distant and nebulous socialism and antagonism to the crumbling welfare state was so replete with contradiction that the ‘daze’ were indeed numbered. Poor old Marcuse, whipping boy of left and right, was dragged up in the program as a major influence, and perhaps he was, but in footage of “progressive” bands like Quintessence (meh) who blended “eastern philosophy” (but “not too heavy” eastern philosophy as one contributor helpfully pointed out) with rock in a fairly indigestable mix. Jon Savage in “Englands Dreaming” points out the oddities of how many within the underground ‘went into the various authoritarian, Eastern religious movements that oddly paralleled the rise in Christian fundamentalism” (and strange that this dynamic replicated itself in ‘straight edge’ and elements of crusty in subsequent decades, a dynamic that makes me permanently wary of certain elements of direct democracy).

It was fairly easy to see how punk and post punk went throught them for the proverbial short cut.


1. at Irish Election - April 3, 2007

[…] it rarely bothers with the exciting stuff we deal with here (you know: the usual diet of leftism, Hawkwind, HP Lovecraft, Cradle of Filth), usually confining itself to eating and drinking, music, […]


2. muscarine - October 12, 2010

Hawkwind have always been ahead of their time,and continue to be.Drenched in Acid and all it’s glory,every album always has a strong basis,though admittedly their early 70’s albums seem more powerfull over their later output,but each to their own.Saw them at Brixton Academy 1990 on Acid & Shrooms,never really come back down since.There must be about 150 albums out there by Hawkwind,but a lot of them are comilations and renewed merchandise.However they are well worth checking out if you get a bit spaced out at times!


WorldbyStorm - October 12, 2010

1990? NOw that must have been a good gig. I think say above I saw them in the early 2000s. Still great though.


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