Album Tracking – July 1977
“Rock is the literature of this generation”. Thus spake Robert Calvert, occasional playwright, self-styled poet, songwriter and lead singer with Hawkwind, the weirdest, most abrasive acid-rock band of them all.
“It’s much more so than books, for instance, or plays. It’s not the total literature of the age, obviously, but it makes up a solid core. Rock appeals to almost every level of intellectual development in a single generation.
University students take it as seriously as kids who just want to ride motorbikes. And they find the same level of enjoyment in it too. I find that very interesting.”
Interesting indeed, but not exactly the words you might expect from the mouth of Hawklord Calvert. His rock’n’roll notoriety stems not from his intellectual or academic prowesses but from the stylized posturing
and crazed ranting with which he accompanies Heavy Metal Hawkwind’s pulsating, ear-splitting drone and their Sturm und Drang jamming. Live on stage, in front of a movie screen that screams with colour and cosmic design, framed by fierce strobe lights that strip his body of its three dimensions and leave it in stark red and green silhouettes, Robert Calvert prowls in a leather aviator’s suit and a pair of huge black bat’s wings, the goggles and the jodhpurs transforming Stan Lee heroics into Boy’s Own Paper adventure. Sometimes he carries a machine gun, at others a loud hailer, but always his eyes flash steel as he strikes one more Hamlet posture to temper the sights and sounds of Hawkwind and hone them into one keen blade of rock sensation.
Hawkwind were the proud progenitors of quite possibly The Worst Single Of All Time, that huge hit ‘Silver Machine’. It had a long run in the charts back in 1972, remember? And the famous film clip of the band’s live circus dominated Top Of The Pops for weeks and weeks – Calvert in his Arthur Brown High Priest’s helmet, Lemmy’s fingers trembling and twitching on five bass notes, and, of course, the gyrating Wonder Woman herself, young Stacia, twisting and turning and never quite taking her clothes off.
Hawkwind are streets and line-up changes away from that now, but their appeal is still based upon the blitzkrieg of light and colour, the roaring undulating sound and the big beat that pounds at your temple. In fact, you don’t hum the choruses when you go to see Hawkwind. Rather, you hold on to your hat and hope that the wind that blows you into another space time continuum will carry you back again afterwards.
Psychedelic it sure is. But there is a little more to it than that, which is why Robert Calvert was dressed in neat brown tweed, leather riding boots laced up to his knee, looking more like a young version of the poet Robert Graves rather than a rock’n’roll luminary giving an interview.
We were talking about his literary aspirations. An anthology of rock poets will include some of Calvert’s work when it is published in the autumn. A play about Jimi Hendrix, The Stars That Play With Laughing Sam’s Dice had a short but successful run in London last summer. Another play is in its final stages, about Rolling Stone Brian Jones and the lone yachtsman Donald Crowhurst. And a third is already in the pipeline based this time around poet Ezra Pound’s incarceration in an American camp for alleged pro-fascist opinions during the last war.
Calvert spoke lucidly and eruditely about Hawkwind’s literary pretensions. “It’s all very tied to fantasy and science fiction, obviously. What I’m doing with the band is a very literary thing really, in that it’s about words and images. In many respects it’s more to do with the theatre than it is with music. Mine’s an acting job really, I have to embody what the music’s about, which is, I suppose, heroic fantasy really. Roger Zelazny type science fiction heroics. Comics don’t really come into it. I never really liked comics. No, I
think the influence stems more from a paperback novel of not the highest cerebral level. Not like JG Ballard. More Pulp science fiction, like Michael Moorcock or Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley” (around which Calvert has written one of Hawkwind’s more compelling stage songs.)
“There’s a whole culture that’s acceptable in pulp novel terms. Jules Verne rather than H.G.Wells. We even get letters from University people, in the States in particular, who have found parallels between science fiction and the literature of the past and who can fit Hawkwind into that scheme. I still think we’re closely aligned with that, but when it comes down to something like ‘Uncle Sam’s On Mars’, it’s a little more serious.”
Inspired by a story in Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, Robert Calvert sees ‘Uncle Sam’s On Mars’ as a morality play. On stage it is played out in front of a huge Martian landscape. As the song accelerates to its climax Calvert is joined by a roadie dressed as a Martian, resembling nothing as much as Frank Zappa’s Gypsy Mutant Vacuum Cleaner. The alien is killed for his sins by an astronaut in an American uniform. As the murderer raises Old Glory on high Robert Calvert declaims “Life’s Unsafe On Mars!” and the band plays a litany of electric terror.
In more than a hamfisted way, it works. But the music isn’t exactly complex.
“That’s where we hit the old Hawkwind legend as a three chord band. You know what our entry in the NME Book Of Rock says? It says that we’ve still got to find a fourth chord to go with the other three. Which is by no means true. A lot of our songs, like ‘Steppenwolf’ and ‘Hurry On Sundown’ have quite elaborate chord sequences. But a 12-chord rock song would be most cumbersome. It’s all to do with the lights and the music, isn’t it? Everything you do on a rock stage has to be as bold as a crash chord. As soon as you have too many chord changes you’re throwing the momentum of the song off. I think Dave Brock writes with a very strong sense of simplicity that is perhaps more ‘artistic’ and disciplined than others who fill their songs with flourishes and ornamentation.”
Simplicity and discipline and awareness of their technical limitations are the keys to Hawkwind’s continuing success in the smouldering 70’s. “We only do things that excite us. We do all sorts of things to keep it going when we’re on stage. It’s spontaneous lunacy really. One night on the last tour Dave Brock and I both had guns that fired blanks and we had a shoot-out on stage. Everything stopped and we started firing at one another. The audience must have thought we were insane but it’s things like that that keep it all alive for us. If we get bored with anything then we invariably drop it. We’ve just changed from United Artists to Charisma and as they’re looking for hits from us they keep suggesting that we do ‘Silver Machine’ in the live set. But we would like an audience to have the same reaction seeing what we’re doing as we would if we were to go and see ourselves. ‘Silver Machine’ we just can’t stand any more.”
“A polished and astonishing act. That’s how I see it all developing. With more props and theatricals used not as gimmicks and effects but with a degree of artistry and skill to mean something of some sort of value,
as well as making good entertainment.”
-Chas de Whalley
A Plastic Fragment Hawkwind Press Cutting