Hawkwind: Winning or Waning?

Sounds – 6 July 1974

“WE’RE ALL riding the American Express . . ” The hippie s visiting Amsterdam stayed away in droves from Hawkwind’s appearance at the Concertgebouw, but it still does not explain why Hawkwind, after successful British and American tours, are broke again. But who are the true hippies? MARTIN HAYMAN tries to find out.

INSIDE THE hall the crowd are stamping and whistling and shouting for more. The occasional hippy dressed in regulation Levis and tee shirt stumbled out into the brightly lit, airy corridors of the Concertgebouw, adjusting his eyes and ears after the total assault on the senses of “Master Of the Universe”.

From the corridor the band had a curiously submarine sound, as though that irresistible roaring, rushing sound came from twenty thousand fathoms, on the sea bed, but when the doors swung open it was more like a blast furnace door opening: the full force of the inferno made you involuntarily wince and move one hand to fold down your ears.

Outside Amsterdam’s cool elegant concert hall which has hosted many of the magnificent classical recordings made. It was a fine summer evening in a quiet, posh residential suburb. The foreign hippies had cleared away from Dam square, where they sit and talk all day and “take in the atmosphere” and the cleaning department  has hose away all trace of them until the next day.

Young people dressed as casually as for the beach or the road to Katmandu were strolling up and down Amsterdam’s leafy canalside walks and the iconoclastic individuals determined to take advantage of the only city in Europe where you can smoke dope in the streets were doubtless lying on their sleeping bags in the park rolling up joints.

A mere eight hundred of the had turned up to see Hawkwind in the Concertgebouw. In the middle of the stalls they were falling over each other in the darkness and disorientation, but from the balcony the gaping empty ranks of seats were all to plain to see. The average age of Hawkfans: round about sixteen or seventeen.

The average age of Hawkwind is about thirty. They have been going for some four or five years, about two of them as one of the biggest drawing acts  in Britain ( total aggregate of gig attendance’s during the course of a year ). During that time they have had one hit single, three steadily selling albums, have played two tours of America.

Hawkwind are also broke, again: broke in the sense that their is no liquid cash available to continue running a band that costs some thousand pounds a week, gigging or not. How does it happen? And why is the bands manager Douglas Smith even now, as the crowd are cheering the encore, having a barney with a Dutch promoter? why are they still struggling to bridge the gap between now and a proposed return tour of America on which they stand – if they can keep it together until then – to make good money and, as we say in da bizniz, break in a big way?

Of all the group Britain has spawned since 1967, none has suffered from such a huge credibility gap as the Hawkwinds. Sometimes it seems, nobody really believes tem at all. Punters who congratulate themselves on their good taste groan when they are mentioned. Music journalists devise a thousand and one excuses, each more ingenious than the last, to avoid going to their gigs.

Rock critics, never at a loss for a quick conclusion, spring question marks from the top of their heads and reckon that it proves that punters still do acid. Music business stalwarts, for whom record sales are usually the final criterion of approval, fail to notice that the bands albums have sold steadily and are all kept pressed up. Record companies throw up their hands in horror at the idea of trying to market a cult.

But, when all’s said and done, enough people show up at enough gigs to keep this expensive show turning over.

The organisation runs through the set too, now take the tuning ritual for example. I’ve seen bands lose huge reserves of sympathy merely by blowing their entry, by twanging and banging and shouting one, two for a quarter of an hour after their appearance on stage. Not so Hawkwind: the twangs and bleeps and whistles come together over the course of five minutes in darkness, with space views whirling behind tem on a backdrop. They thicken, twine and mat into a dense texture and suddenly without you noticing, they are into the set.

And if the rhythm section is simple, simple to the point of utter banality, it certainly never misses. It keeps going and going. Their secret is  never to stop and let up and let the head clear out for a moment, the reeling senses, the ears that won’t hear, the eyes that won’t focus properly. At the end of every piece, swooping synthesiser slides across the gap, and the restless cosmic  images change again.

Bouncers

There are some lighter moments, like Nick Turners absurd Frog like dance with Stacia at the opening. Stacia herself does not take all her clothes off anymore. She says there was a certain amount of embarrassment with middle aged blokes like bouncer and hall porters who are unaccountably fascinated by her formidable charms and would shout advice and encouragement from the back of the hall, which detracted from the serious psychedelics in hand.

Then there is the opening act. Al Matthews. He’s a real curiosity. A genuine black American with a slightly expanding waistline and a good line in jive . . . he’s a friend of Doug Smiths ( Lives opposite in Acton ) and gradually, well, he’s just become part of the Hawk ensemble. He’s good but it’s doubtful if the Amsterdam with the appetite for cosmic comics had much idea of what they were hearing.

Al has lived in Britain and Europe for five years and even played a stint with Richie Havens, from whom he’s obviously learnt a thing or two, but tricks like the backwards exit from the stage, still strumming furiously are delivered more tongue in cheek than in the style of serious folk artist.

But really I feel he would prefer to be playing sophistisoul with a tight little band than doing this ethnic folkie pitch, and anyone who asks a Hawkwind audience 2 Are you in showbiz too?” I must congratulate.

Talking later to Nick Turner at the groups hotel, an unpretentious but stiff little establishment near Dam square, I get the impression that he is confused about Hawkwind’s real role today.

Disclaiming at first that the band is about anything other than music, he later says that he still thinks the band represents a real and tangible way of life for many people. Not so much directly, in the sense that they endorse particular ecological, social or political views, just that their way of life is one which can still exist.

For it is still true that the group live a very open, shifting life. It is true that they save money against the rainy day that will surely come. But Dave Brock, despite buying a farm in Devon, lives with his freak friends in Portobello road when in town: Nick is of no fixed address: Stacia to, always seems to be looking for somewhere to stay. But they are authentic hippies. I guess they do give what they can: they make a point of not being aggressive or unpleasantly egocentric. They feel responsible for their fans, and write letters back if at all possible. The volume of fan mail is remarkable, most of it sincere, some of it very  attractive: some Dutch people gave the group several interesting posters of their own,

Marketing

For though Hawkwind have become token hippies, the irony is that for the most part they are real hippies – Nick certainly admitted feeling distressed that “hippy” was now used as a term of abuse. But how many hippies are there left, really? For in Amsterdam, that supposed citadel of the type, the cold fact is that they pulled only one third capacity at the Concertgebouw.

Perhaps the hippies were to busy posing in the parks and lounging around the red light district. ” We’re all riding on the American Express . . .”. Maybe it’s a small question of business, after all: that the promoter was not contracted to a guarantee: that the town was pitifully short of Hawkwind posters ( Barney Bubbles latest, and very striking effort ): that not enough had been gone into “marketing” them. Cults can look after themselves maybe.

Hawkwind have become an ideological board for some of the people who still believe that something can be salvaged from 1967: the fan mail, the graphics, the lighting expertise which is now being hired out to fast breaking acts like Sparks: the Michael Moorcock scenarios and words. At the middle of all this are Hawkwind and the constant necessity of running the band and selling the records to make all the rest possible.

So: for reasons to complex and too trivial to be detailed here, they find themselves once again needing to borrow vast sums of money to make the album possible to get the product to the American record company to get the promotional back up to attract the American promoters to give good guarantees to make it worthwhile to make people notice that . . .  well that Hawkwind are still around. But is anybody listening?

A Plastic Fragment Hawkwind Press Cutting

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