Sometimes the strongest proof that there might be higher beings watching over our earthly deeds comes when the universe displays such glee in shitting on us. We’ve all heard tales of the athlete celebrating his* accomplishments too early, the famous person throwing away a promising career by losing their human decency, that no smoking sign on your cigarette break – these are the signs that we are but pawns in a celestial sitcom, a way for the gods to pass the time between inventing new religions, hiding fossils to fuck with paleoanthropologists, and constantly re- writing the rules of English grammar.
The latest attempt by the Masters of the Universe to screw with us mere mortals occurred last weekend when they cancelled the 2013 US tour by Hawkwind.
Hawkwind are the pioneers of Space Rock. They formed in London in 1969 and quickly became fixtures on the rock scene. Their music grew from long studio jams where drone-y bass riffs and pounding drum beats cycled the same pattern for hours while the guitarist and synth player took turns crafting waves of bizarre sounds and skyscraping solos, before the singer would chime in with some unintelligible lyrics about cars, space, drugs and… well, mostly those three. They cycled through band members faster than Lance Armstrong being chased by a drug tester. They gave Lemmy from Motörhead his first taste of stardom.
They did phenomenal amounts of drugs. They dabbled with punk, new wave, post punk, spoken word – in fact if you listen through their back catalog you’ll hear hints of many modern faves from Ariel Pink through The Swans to the Arctic Monkeys, although some of this could be a function of the sheer amount of music they’ve released over the past 44 years…
They released 25 (or 27, depending on how you count them…) studio albums, roughly one per year from 1970 through 1982 before slowing down to an album every 3 or 4 years through the present day. On top of this they release a poppier non-LP single most cycles and a world of live material, bootleg material and out-take material, fueled by a rabid fanbase, a culture of taping, sharing, free shows and drugs. Did I mention the drugs already? Lemmy was fired for doing the wrong kind of drugs. Several members were fired for doing too many drugs. A few left because they didn’t do enough drugs, or got sober and realized that travelling the world with a bunch of pilled-out weirdos was not the key to unlocking the astral plane after all.
The music stands the test of time pretty well. The first 5 albums are fairly classic, depicting a band finding it’s feet, rounding into form, inventing a new genre and crushing it. The next 5 begin to broaden the sonic palette, absorbing the sounds of punk and new wave as they wafted in from the mainstream. Lyrically they continue to explore fantasy worlds with the help of Michael Moorcock, and predict a dystopian future where pervasive video surveillance from our overlords tracks our every thought. Or 2013 as it’s otherwise known.
The next 5 branch out even more into electronic beats, middle eastern drones and endless guitar solos and synth textures. The next 10 are pretty forgettable, branching out into reggae (i shit you not), Stones covers and ambient soundscapes, before settling back into their early space rock grooves and recycling lyrics, passages and eventually whole songs from their glory days. The key turning point appears to have been in 1992 when the band began recording in their own studio. Gone are the days of worrying about paying for studio time. Gone are the engineers and middlemen who are paid to say “Does this guitar solo really need to be 8 minutes long?”. Instead the album lengths mushroom from sub-45 mins to >60 mins, the synth drones begin to sound more like someone has fallen asleep on the keyboard, the song “Let Barking Dogs Lie” includes five minutes of…dog barking noises, and it all gets overly Spın̈al Tap by 1995 where the song “Space Sex” represents a bit of a nadir, in an age when everyone involved really should have known better.
The final two albums actually show signs of improvement. Reduced to a power trio (and friends) the music becomes more focused, while remaining as rhythmically relentless as ever, with hints of Primal Scream and the Sex Pistols. Not bad for a bunch of septuagenarians – Christ, Moist Graffiti is only a month old and we’re already facing accusations of phoning it in and trading on past glories…
So I’ve been a casual Hawkwind fan for a long time. I think my first time hearing them was during my teenage years, where I’d spend long Sunday evenings in the bathtub listening to John Peel on the radio. Peel was a longtime Hawkwind fan, apparently responsible for their first record deal, and he would frequently drop deep Hawkwind cuts into those late night experimental music sessions. My earliest memory of a Hawkwind song was during one of these nights when he played Sonic Attack. I was simultaneously terrified, entranced and intrigued – it was not often you came across sternly intoned warnings about orgasms on BBC Radio 1.
I continued to follow the band casually through college, picking up more than my fair share of greatest hits, live albums, vinyl records and beatings at the hands of people who just didn’t understand how punk, prog and post rock could simultaneously co-exist.
So you can imagine how excited I was when the band announced that they were undertaking their first American tour since 1990, and would be playing down the street from my house! On a Saturday night!! With a full complement of dancers, smoke machines, lasers and visuals???!!! This teenage dream would be incredibly hard to beat! I’d waited all my life for this moment!! I bought tickets (using the MG expense account natch…), I coerced and cajoled friends into going with, I assured everyone I knew that this would be the apex of their existence, the highest high they would ever know (even without going through the pockets of Doctor Socktopus’ lab coat)…
Almost inevitably you can guess what happened next.
Not only the Houston gig, but the entire American tour was cancelled. Thank you gods. Thank you for once again demonstrating your utter contempt for us worker bees down below. Why was the tour cancelled? Unspecified health problems with the lead Hawklord, Dave Brock. What caused these health problems? Well, it turns out that another defining feature of the 44 years of Hawklife has been the numerous related acts and side projects the multitudinous band members have been involved in. One of those side projects is now touring as “Nic Turner’s Hawkwind”, which has opened a world of trademark-infringement hurt on everyone’s asses. So Dave Brock, the sole curator of Hawkwind might lose the right to operate in America under his own band’s name. Again, thank you our ethereal overlords and the 9 circles of lawyers that surround you.
Dave Brock is 72. Lou Reed was 71. Ray Manzarek was 74. What are the chances this legal impasse gets resolved, Dave gets better and we get an American Hawkwind tour in my lifetime? I wouldn’t bet my Orgone accumulator on it…
So where does this leave the average Hawkwind fan? Well, I decided to go down to Fitzgerald’s on the 26th just to make sure that the universe wasn’t screwing with us again. I pressed my greasy little nose against the dark windows and steamed up the glass of the empty venue inside. Nothing. And so I rooted through the deep pockets of Doctor Socktopus’s lab coat until I found something with a warning label, fired up the complete works of Hawkwind on Spotify, lay down in a drainage ditch and experienced the best Hawkwind concert ever…
*It’s always a he, isn’t it?**
**Ok, thanks google….
- Tuesday November 5th Tremont Music Hall; 7pm (winthropfineartsmindset.wordpress.com)
- Hawkwind postponing tour (brooklynvegan.com)
- Nik Turner prepares for epic US tour and responds to Hawkwind controversy (jonb52.wordpress.com)