America Sees the Light

Melody Maker – 23 March 1974

The cowboy pilot’s easy drawl crackled over the 707’s intercom: “…and I also hear that up back of the plane we have two British groups on board called Hawkwind and Man who are gonna be playin’ a concert in St Louis tonight. Hope to be there m’self.” And then he whacked the plane down on the runway of St Louis International Airport like a fishmonger slapping down a lump of haddock on a gutting slab.

St. Louis, Missouri, was the second stop in the swing through the Mid-West on Hawkwind’s second U.S. tour. It was Man’s first tour there.  They’d opened in California. Played in Los Angeles, San Diego, and did a benefit for Timothy Leary in Berkeley. Then the party headed East, first stop Kansas City.  A rock tour of the States, as you’ll have heard before, is as much a tour of Holiday Inns as of gigs. Only way to tell what city you’re in, is to look at the tag on your door key. The one I’m holding at present reads: “Kansas City Gardens, Minnesota Ave”. This city straddles the Kansas and Missouri State border.

Touring life centres around the gig, the hotel end the plane. Deep conversation is rare consciously but in-flight, bar and dressing room chatter is, I think, often more revealing, because the real and imaginary
pressures of life in America throw attitudes into perspective, heighten contrasts, consolidate beliefs, destroy pre-conceptions and create new prejudices…  America, or more specifically the West Coast, has, for
instance, stimulated Deke Leonard, burly Man guitarist, like a whiff of something potent.  The gigs out on the West Coast had been fine, he says. As well as the few with Hawkwind, the seventh edition of Man played two nights at The Whiskey in Los Angeles.

The guy who runs the Whiskey liked Man, and asked them back for a week’s session later in the year. In fact most places they’ve played have asked them back as headliners in the autumn. They can thank Hawkwind and manager Doug Smith for that. Here’s why.  When most bands go over they support a top act and get to play with a few other groups on a bill.  Bottom billing means 20 or 30 minutes playing to a slowly filling hall. Time for one Man number then off. A total waste of time…

Hawkwind’s first tour last year caught America’s imagination. With the scantiest promotion -United Artists took only four page ads, says Smith, and radio spots weren’t much better- they started selling inexplicably large numbers of tickets for a debut tour.  They got the crappiest reviews since Grand Funk and Uriah Heep and became, I guess, anti-heroes.

Their U.S. management said come back real soon. The U.S. branch of United Artists said stay at home till you get some new product.  Now, Doug Smith is no fool: frankly Hawkwind sell records in the States like a butcher sells pork in Tel Aviv, but they can fill halls.  So over they went.

Now love ’em or hate ’em, you’ll have to admit that Hawkwind are pretty much a group unto themselves. They need a support hand who’ll get the stoned freaks they attract well and truly off.  Man are a lot like U.S.
West Coast tokin’ bands, they needed an American tour (one scheduled for last November fell through) so when Hawkwind offered them playing time of one hour (at least) as Barry Marshall [Man’s manager] says “we’ve been very lucky.” He ain’t kidding.

United Artists in America seem to be virtually ignoring Hawkwind’s presence.  One U.S. music paper had an ad for Man (using a Stateside journalist’s quote: “They’re comfy-cozy San Francisco Buffalo Springfield
Youngbloods Byrds et cetera like most limeys never have the patience to be…they’re better than Pink Floyd.   They’re better than the Grateful Dead. They’re as good as Stevie Wonder
“. For the tour toppers there was
nothing. Conspicuous by their absence, as it were.  So Hawkwind are financing the tour themselves. But the response in ticket sales and concert reception indicates that Smith’s decision to strike while the Hawkwind’s
hot was correct.

Unlike Man, however, several of Hawkwind clearly do not care to be in America at this time. “When we got to Los Angeles airport” says Smith, “they all went straight for the London departures gate.”  Later he says there’ll most likely be other times on the tour when one or two of the band will make a break for freedom. “There’ll be some crises yet.”

Doug Smith and Barry Marshall are managers of the new breed. Both can hustle when it’s required but in their company there is no oppressive “my boys is de greatest ain’t dey?”  Smith used to work in design and
architecture and from those roots has come his concern with Hawkwind’s concept as total entertainment.  “I’m an ideas man as much as anything. I like to think we are capable of putting on a good show.” He admits that the actual music mayn’t be the veries but says “it’s an area that will improve in time.”

He also keenly explores ways in which money earned by the band can be ploughed either back into the act or to its audience.  No surprise then, that he agreed to play a benefit for Timothy Leary who’s currently in jail.
Smith calls Leary “a political prisoner.”  They got a hall on campus in Berkeley. Once again United Artists wouldn’t help because, says Doug, Leary has rather obvious drug connections.  But other things hurt the
concert more. A bus strike crippled transport and the Doobie Brothers playing down the road didn’t help.  The hall was half full but, says Smith, there was a good atmosphere. They even laid on a phone call from
Leary in jail.

Mickey Jones: “Yeah it came through, half way through our set. Couldn’t understand a word.”  Doug Smith: “It did Man a lot of good. They were very, very cool. They just walked off stage until the call finished. Then
came back on, played one number and floored everyone. Great feeling. They’ve been getting good receptions everywhere, you know. It’s not often you see a support band getting a standing ovation here.”

It was 7.30 pm last Friday night when the Taffia filed on stage at Kansas City’s Soldiers & Sailors Memorial  Hall (“Christ, it’s just like Barry Memorial Hall” – Philip Foster, Man’s tour manager).  The vibe both bands were getting from Kansas City was not a healthy one. The previous night – a free one spent in the motel – had seen the door of Stacia’s room all but kicked in by four U.S. servicemen who had the idea there was some kinda house party going on there.

The hall was almost full. The sweet smell of U.S. concert air commenced to waft.  After 30 minutes of records -he’s dee-jay on the whole tour, a lucky man- come Hawkwind and their “1999 Party.”  I’d expected new material. There was none.

Drummer Simon King: “Ah well, we always have this problem with songs. Before the tour we’d rehearsed about 40 minutes of new material but we never seem to get the newest stuff on stage until about a month or two later.”

Judged on purely musical terms it’s very easy to dismiss how and what Hawkwind play. At present they can be the crassest of players but the Hawkwind experience is far from being a solely musical one. In Kansas
City, where the band didn’t play well, the stars of the show were the optics of Liquid Len and the Lensmen.  The music, even Stacia’s dancing, became mere soundtrack and decoration – the simplest tonal illustration of what was happening on the screen.

Though lyrically several fathoms distant from Lou Reed their music has some connection with early Velvet Underground, guitarist Dave Brock and bassist Lemmy especially have that frantic simplicity, that basic earthy drone and tumble.  Play as few chords as possible, play them loud and play them with as much excitement as can be mustered.  As a total show it can be impressive; it shatters the more impressionable senses. In Kansas City only the eyes had it. The light show still looks to the planets – Saturn, Jupiter and Mars, I think – even though Doug Smith had earlier said he’d be glad to see the back of all the “Space Ritual” stuff.

There’s a recurring visual preoccupation with flight be it plain seagull or the mythically exotic Pegasus winged-horse image.  And there are, of course those lyrics.  Trite and laughably banal at their nadir. Recited like speeding Daleks – “we are on the edge of time” and so on.

At one point, when the light was being thrown from the front of the stage, the heads of the front rows of the audience looked frighteningly familiar – just like those Triffids in the film of John Wyndham’s book. Lined up
outside the villa. Waiting, wavering, watching.  Hawkwind’s set ends as it began. With the eyes.  The darkened stage is suddenly ablaze with revolving lights -amber and cop-car blue- while at the back, draped across the band’s equipment a string of brilliant white bulbs flicker on and off like a hoarding on Broadway giving that effect of continual undulating motion. White light, white heat, huh?

Two hundred and ninety miles east of Kansas City on the opposite side of Missouri State lies St. Louis, nestling about ten miles north of the Mississippi – Missouri confluence.  Though there are just as many
depressed areas in St. Louis, the city has an easier, happier, freer feel. It’s 1,150 miles upstream from New Orleans, halfway house for musicians on their way to Chicago.

St. Louis’ Henry Kiel Auditorium holds about 9,000. Like the Empire Pool in Wembley, the promoter closes down part of the hall’s seating capacity. For Hawkwind the hall’s down to 6,000 – still pretty big.  Both sound checks during the Saturday afternoon sounded like music in a tin can but once the kids, the spirit of St. Louis, start shuffling in you can feel something in the air.

Even so this was Hawkwind’s crowd. There’s firecrackers going off everywhere. Rockets swish up to the auditorium’s ceiling, hover and then explode like a whipcrack. It’s like November 5 and I’m beginning to
wonder who’s gonna be Guy Fawkes.  Some intangible excitement sizzles through this crowd like an electric current. Is it menace?

Hawkwind, like Man, play a set far superior to the previous night. It’s better because it captures the crowd’s mood and throws it back in their faces.  Nik Turner, in green body-stocking and froggish, ape man mask, gyrates jerkily like a puppet operated by someone prone to violent epileptic fits. Looks like something from Planet of the Apes. It’s a bit scary tonight.

Then it happened.

Halfway through Stacia’s second stage dance – when she’s put on her bubbly blonde wig and is just about to sink to the floor in simulated stupor – a curly haired guy jumps across the footlights and puts his arms around her. He could be hugging her or he could be…

Just then a roadie reaches him and lobs him back into the stalls.  Five seconds, maybe ten, the guy is back again and now, Jesus Christ, it’s clear what he’s doing. Two hands closed round her neck, this nutter is out to strangle Miss Stacia and that is The Truth.

This time three roadies get to the guy and when he gets chucked off-stage for the second time there’s no return.  Stacia carries on for a few seconds, then tears her wig off and rushes from the stage. She returns later but is never very happy.  Hawkwind turn defiant, that indefinable air of menace has turned to one of power and vengeance.  The Pegasus creature becomes a Horse (minus man) of the Apocalypse; the seagull becomes a Hawk.

At the end we have the lighted matches show, looking like a birthday cake for some 3,000-year-old freak.  Half the hall is putting its hands together, the other is striking the sulphur.  “Silver Machine,” the encore for the tour it seems, takes off, flies for a bit, lands and there’s no more.

Sunday morning, almost noon.  The bands have two days rest. Man are sleeping off the effects of what made Milwaukee (the next gig) famous – de booze. Hawkwind sit and ponder in the umpteenth Holiday Inn restaurant, planning an afternoon’s horse-riding.

Dave Brock walks over. “Going back home today?”


“Don’t wanna swap places do ya?”

A Plastic Fragment Hawkwind Press Cutting

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