New Musical Express – 6 July 1974
“What’s it all about?” asked our reporter.
“You tell me,” replied Hawkwind’s Nik Turner.
Chris Salewicz, brain cells collapsing under gales of sci-fi horror, reports from the Concertgebouw Amsterdam on the world’s least viable band.
JUST OVER a year ago I went up to the Cambridge Corn Exchange to get my first ever taste of Hawkwind live.
Taking a peek into the dressing room I hit a scene that resembled something that Peckinpah would have left on the cutting room floor. In a mushrooming cloud of dope smoke various members of the Hawkwind entourage sprawled somnambulisticaly, like some worn out Charlie Manson wolf pack plagued by inner doubts about their status of despots of evil.
It flashed across me for a second that despite the big city chemical madness on open display – socked home by the presence of the local Angel’s chapter – there was one undercurrent that insisted that when it really came down to it, most of them had a soft white underbelly that would have insisted that they hadn’t really known that the gun had been loaded.
However notwithstanding the contradiction in terms of the neo-Glastonbury urban warrior insanity, it was time to attempt communication.
“I’ve never seen Hawkwind live before,” I told two or three pairs of eyes that had spotted my entrance.
“Haven’t you ever seen us chemically?” slurred one of the sets of eyes before crunching back into heavy speech withdrawal symptoms.
I made my excuses and snuck on out into the audience.
To be quite truthful the bands set had all the appeal of a barbed wire sandwich.
The first five minutes were vaguely interesting – nice light show and all that – but by the end of their two hours on stage my impressions of the crew of supposed cosmic demons were hardly flattering, and I had it figured that Hawkwind, were in reality, some kind of down market member of the Floyd school.
Summer 1974 comes along though, and I get invited to se the band (or variations on the band – I’ll come to that in a minute) at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Well, I’ll try anything twice, and besides a short trip to the land of tulips and Johann Cryuff does have a certain appeal.
The gig is due to start at 8.15.
Some thirty minutes or so before that, for the second time in my life I’m soaking in the dressing room vibes with Hawkwind. This time round my relations with Timmy Leary’s “most highly evolved band in the universe” are a great deal more amicable. A few words over a late lunch had shown me there’s a great deal more of the human being about the various individuals than my experience at Cambridge could have possibly suggested. Now we’re sprawled around and, with the assistance of a few artificialities, cranking the energy level down to some zero level zoneless nether region in a conscious time lag.
Psychic empathy with the band having been reached, it’s time to float on down to my seat in the auditorium. Now the Concertgebouw really is a most impressive palace of culture; just a glance about at the names of a few of the musical hot-shot’s who’ve appeared here – Berlioz, Bartok, Ravel. But right now things are beginning to get underway up on stage with the arrival of Hawkwind’s support act, Al Matthews, who plays a solo acoustic set with the occasional support from Nik Turner on flute.
Al sure is having a hell of a good time up there, due, as he announces to the audience, “to the many million nice things that have been passed to me.” His music is pretty enjoyable and active, too as he presents a refined distillation of the wig-brained wiped-out cool of Richie Havens. (I later find out that Matthews used to play with Richie Havens some seven years back).
Interval time, however and out in the foyer for refuelling on the omnipresent mental consumables and then back to a more centrally placed seat to await the final curdling of any sludge that is still drifting around my thought plains.
The light show begins to flicker amid moonscapes in the almost darkened hall – being less than a week from the longest day of the year meant that the lighting’s power over the audience increased by the minute – and glimpses of dark figures are caught in the changes of its patterns. Unlike other bands, Hawkwind’s tuning processes gradually close the instruments up and blend them together, and taking a tip from a stoned taut audience buzz, the band put their sound into an extended bedspring whirl that’s held and pushed forward to be expanded the frame flicking and freezing on the screen behind them.
Putting the brakes on the volume and restricting it to their laser beams, the strobes pointing out from the stage rapidly heighten the intensity pressure as the images throb, and voices cackle, and Stacia, as virtually indistinguishable visibly as the rest of the band, ,makes shadowy dance movements.
An intensity of shrieking swirls grip and munch at the fibres of your ear drums, punching and honing in as the lights clatter and turn their pattern in front of you, whilst medieval monastic choruses leap from the synthesiser and the tingling and thrashing twin sets of drums join the bass and guitar in some private terror crusade through space.
Somewhere an hour goes past and saturated with the gales of swooshing SCI-if horror, I make a guilty dash for the relatively aural comfort of the foyer. An alto sax solo follows me to the door and I step out to find clusters of Dutch freaks huddled on the floor and swaying, with three or four standing and playing the most comatose Frisbee game I’d ever come across.
Stop, breath the laced oxygen for a few minutes and think.
What’s it all about?
For over an hour some kind of new jam from old riff has thrust itself at me non-stop in an initially pleasant and placid and ultimately tortuous manner.
There were vocals, true, but not a single word was distinguishable. Instrumentally, so much and yet so little happened that the musical basis of Hawkwind seemed completely remote from any scope of critical assessment. Stacia had pranced (fully clothed these days, it should be noted) around stage right in a fashion that was hardly sylph-like and was also hardly visible. In fact, hardly anything or anybody had been visible on the stage apart from the relatively impressive light show. It was only during the later foray to the front of the stage – from which I ran in actual pain from the volume, despite having stuffed paper tissues in my ears – that I was able to discover that Al Matthews had been playing bongos throughout the set.
The audience appeared to be in a similar state of partially pleased and partly puzzled bewilderment – there was also a sizeable proportion who appeared to have left the realms of thought long before the gig had started, and there was obviously a direct link between the length of time spent listening to Hawkwind and the number of tokes taken before they came on stage – the discomfort the band had caused me at the Cambridge gig had obviously closesly connected with any body containing nothing more stimulating than a couple of Scotches.
Still, maybe they bring out the masochist in you, but after due consideration over my salami breakfast the next mooring I was able to realise that I had in some curious way rather enjoyed the 60 or 70 per cent of Hawkwind’s gig that I had seen.
SO, A chat with one of the band perhaps?
Well, why not?
“I don’t know, you tell me,” is Nik Turners response when I enquire of the unofficial condotieve of keepers of interplanetary law and order just what their music is all about.
He’s sitting, his eyes bloodshot and vaguely glazed from a post gig party, under the glass canopied frontage of the Hotel de Roode Leeuw, drinking endless cups of coffee in an attempt to propel his mind along the lines of my questioning.
Outside ladies wearing the best nostalgie de la boie, a pleasant dress that North European fashion houses can provide, amble on by, attempting to appear unconcerned by the drizzle that is beginning to clog together their Maria Schneider frizzes, whilst over inn the just visible Dam tourist sit around the pavement steps, playing at being members of their own vision of an alternative society.
Nik Turner is, at first, seemingly very conscious that this is an interview, an accordingly there is an initial reserve about his replies, although a couple more cups of coffee help dissolve the formality of the situation. Even so, after that first response I place my questions carefully for a minute or two.
What about the words, Nik, I couldn’t make them out at all last night – can anyone ever hear them?
A half-smile drifts across his face. “Yeah, sometimes. I can sometimes.”
OK, but lets stick with what it’s all about. Hawkwind were into a big ecological thing a couple of years back. Is that still present?
“Not really, we don’t use it as a central theme. We haven’t got anything as a central theme. What we’re producing now is just music. What comes through might not be us . . . “
No idea of a central theme at all?
“Vaguely yeah,. But nothing very specific, you know. We use some stuff of Michael Moorcock’s which is sort of working towards a theme.”
“The sonic attack thing is this and there are a couple of poems at the beginning which I think are his, about soldiers and the age of time. It’s like nobody’s getting old and anybody can do anything they want to just by a conjuration.”
However, I find it interesting how you present yourselves on stage. The bands pounds out virtually non-stop with the occasional lapse or lag into a different mood. Perhaps what I’m really wondering is how you see your audience, because they just sit there and dig it and get into it and occasionally they’ll get up and go out and have wander round and then they’ll return and get straight back into it. I find all of this very curious . . .
“What do you find curious?”
Well I find it curious because there’s virtually no other band I can think of – except perhaps the Dead – who get that kind audience reaction. Obviously your audiences are pretty zonked . .
“I think generally the music and what we’ve been involved in tends to appeal to a certain type of people, which is likely mostly stoned freaks, y’know. I mean it’s probably people people like us.
“As far as I’m concerned I hope we project the kind of show that I would like to go and see. That’s all, y’know, and the sort of music I would like to hear if I went to a concert.”
The interview is beginning to become much more of a conversation, and any pauses or halts in Turner’s hushed, almost lethargic voice no longer carry a suggestion of possible caution or of awkward embarrassment.
By now the rain is splattering in puddles across the pavement and the road, and the sound of car tyres and trams splashing it often obscure what is being said.
We carry on though, with me pointing out how I can’t see the presence of anyone else’s music in what Hawkwind put out. I just see it as being presented as Hawkwind music, and if I was looking for any sources I wouldn’t know quite where to start, apart from the very basics of rock ‘n’ roll, and I wouldn’t even be totally convinced about that point of reference.
Nik pops his head up on the table with one arm and twists his beard around in his fingers: “I wouldn’t like to make any definite sort of . . . I don’t know what sources we have . . . just like everything really. Nothing specific. Nobody like the Pink Floyd or Grateful Dead. It’s just like an amalgam of all the influences that all of the people in the band have been subjected to, that’s all.”
You mention the Pink Floyd, yet in America you were being tagged as some sort of psychedelic revival show. Do you accept that people can sat that about you?
“Oh yeah, people can say anything they like really,” (he slips me out a wacked out half-grin) “I don’t really read the papers much. I try not to read the music press very avidly because if one does, one becomes very influenced and I don’t really want to know what’s happening y’know.”
“I don’t really want to know what other people are thinking as long as we’re satisfied with what we’re producing.”
But now the music of Hawkwind has always somehow had lifestyle dangled in front of it – a freak lifestyle, – even a political lifestyle – and, in fact, the extra-musical side of the band is probably just as important in terms of Hawkwind’s appeal as anything that has appeared on record or gone down on stage.
Yet that gig you did last night was very different to playing at, for example the alternative Isle Of Wight, wasn’t it? when you were doing things like that you would never have envisaged doing American tours and selling them out?
“Not at all. I hadn’t envisaged the band becoming successful at all. No-one thought it could happen – it just hadn’t come into my horizon of possibilities.”
But you do obviously regard it as music rather than just getting up on stage and having a stoned loon . .
“Oh yeah, It’s getting musical now because . . . well, it can’t help but become musical, you see.”
You’re presumably saying you don’t think it was too musical early on?
“Well I think it wasn’t specifically . . . it didn’t really matter, you know. I suppose being successful – and wondering why we are successful – we figure we ought to do the thing properly.”
“If we’re supposed to be playing music we should make it musical.”
Err, yeah. I can’t really disagree with that.
“But really we’re more than a band of musicians, y’know. We’re the product of all the people involved in us as well . . the community sort of thing.”
Yeah, I tend to feel that anybody could be Hawkwind. There’s Del who’s leaving after this tour, sitting over there having a beer or two with Simon House, who’s replacing him. And last night Al Matthews was playing with you. An Oboe player might appear one day and just become part of the band. Is it very exaggerated of me to think something like that could happen?
“No, I think it’s true.”
After all, with any other band you don’t really think to ask who’s going to be playing tonight. This is just taken as a totally matter of fact aspect of the band: “I must admit in that respect it’s not as bad as it used to be because it used to really happen a lot.”
“Our drummer couldn’t make it so one of our roadies would play drums or our bass player would collapse and another roadie would play bass. We had a roadie who used to play really well on lead guitar, bass and drums y’know.”
I get what could be described as the Jerry Garcia Cosmic Grin – the sort of smile that seems to gestate for about half an hour. At that moment Nik’s mail arrives, amongst which is an electricity bill in the region of sixty quid. I free-associate and remark that I find it difficult to conceive Hawkwind not having any financial or legal problems. The old struggle against adversity seems a vital ingredient in keeping the band together.
“Which came first – the problems or the band?”
Not the most garrulous of fellows is Nik Turner.
Hawkwind have to keep such a fantastic amount of people on the road, though. There’s Stacia, for example. How does she really fit in, because you can’t really see her dancing on stage yet in many ways she’s vitally important. Is she actually part of Hawkwind?
“See, I think she’s probably a frustrated musician really. She wants to make an album. She’s written some songs for it and wants to record them.” (weird version of some Ladbroke Grove Bette Middler)
“She doesn’t take her cloths off anymore. She wants to be taken seriously as art.”
Ahh, is Hawkwind art?
A reflective gaze into the congealed remains in the bottom of a coffee cup.
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Yeah . . Yeah, yeah. I mean you can’t define art actually? I wouldn’t like to but I think art is anything which is produced by people in a creative way.”
Nik if you keep on doing American tours there’s quite a strong possibility that Hawkwind could become a very big act indeed and you might become very rich. Yet I can’t see you going off and buying your country mansion. What would you do if that kind of success came to the band?
A look of thoughtful sincerity cracks the crinkled up smile. “I don’t know, I might start a commune.”
And Nik Turner nods thoughtfully to himself. “Yeah, might start a commune.”
As my case was going over to Amsterdam airport I got a sudden flash.
You know I really attempted to wonder if the success of a Hawkwind record or tour is not directly dependant on a lack of vigilance on the part of the Customs Officers of the country in question.
A Plastic Fragment Hawkwind Press Cutting