Monday, 21 November 2016

Science Fiction-Music Interconnections: The Adventures of Spaceship Hawkwind, starring Robert Calvert and Michael Moorcock

Formed in late-1960s London, Hawkwind were the pioneers of a strand of Progressive Rock known as ‘Space Rock,’ incorporating cosmic themes and musical experimentation in a style which assimilated “repetitive hypnotic beats and electronic/ambient soundscapes.” Their shifting line-up was augmented by the addition of South African-born poet and writer Robert Calvert, who had been involved with street theatre and underground magazines, and occasionally by the English author and editor Michael Moorcock; both shared the same counter-cultural aspirations and background in the Ladbroke Grove/Notting Hill area as the band, and brought literary and particularly science-fictional inspiration to Hawkwind’s sound.

From their first (and only) hit, 1971’s ‘Silver machine’, with lyrics by Calvert, and on the subsequent album In Search of Space, Hawkwind produced otherworldly music and explored science fiction themes, creating the template for a series of ground-breaking albums during the 1970s. In Search of Space and the follow-up album, Doremi Fasol Latido, introduced the ‘Starfarer’ concept, “a loose story line involving the adventures of Spaceship Hawkwind and its eventual crash-landing on Earth.” Calvert functioned as the band’s ‘resident poet,’ giving spoken-word recitals during concerts, composing lyrics and appearing as lead vocalist on record. Favourites on the UK’s then-flourishing free festival circuit, Hawkwind presented an on-stage spectacular with dancers and lightshow to accompany their live performances – captured on 1973’s Space Ritual, regarded as “the ultimate space rock album.” Lavishly packaged, the artwork was by regular associate, graphic artist Barney Bubbles, who also wrote a short sci-fi story of Spaceship Hawkwind for the performance programme, building on their existing overall Starfarer concept of the band travelling through time and space. Calvert’s manic-depressive condition and the demands of touring took their toll, and he drifted in and out of the line-up, his role on stage and as lyricist intermittently filled by his friend Michael Moorcock as a self-confessed “understudy,” who contributed ‘The Black Corridor’ (adapted from his own 1969 novel) and ‘Sonic Attack’ to Space Ritual.

Hawkwind - Space RitualHawkwind - In Search of Space

A prolific author and, from 1964, editor of the magazine New Worlds – where he had published some of Calvert’s poetry – Moorcock found acclaim with the Cornelius Quartet of novels, following the weird and wonderful adventures of central character, Jerry Cornelius, a psychedelic harlequin-secret agent, an anti-hero of the times, picking his way through the debris of ‘swinging London’ and all points beyond. The first of the novels, 1968’s The Final Programme, was filmed in 1973 (though the result was much to the author’s disapproval); Mick Jagger was reputedly approached to play the lead, only to decline the Cornelius role as ‘too freaky.’ The Jagger connection was not coincidental – amongst other endeavours, Cornelius fronts a pop group known as the Deep Fix, a name Moorcock used in turn for his own musical project when he came to record the 1975 Concept Album The New Worlds Fair. In the same year he contributed lyrics to, and was credited as the originator of, Hawkwind’s album Warrior on the Edge of Time – based on his concept of the Eternal Champion, a recurring character found in different guises throughout his work, including Jerry Cornelius. The connection between author and group was further cemented by a series of dubious genre novels attributed to Moorcock and Michael Butterworth (though primarily the work of the latter, Moorcock’s name guaranteed respectable sales), beginning with Time of the Hawklords in 1976, featuring the band as protagonists in a series of sci-fi-inspired adventures.

Michael Moorcock - the Cornelius ChroniclesMichael Moorcock & The Deep Fix - The New Worlds Fair

Hawkwind - Warrior on the Edge of TimeMichael Moorcock & Michael Butterworth - Time of the Hawklords

Once Robert Calvert took the helm on a more permanent basis as lead singer and songwriter in 1976, he oversaw a shift in Hawkwind’s conceptual concerns. Their later-70s output focused more on dystopian and futuristic themes, closer in spirit to the contemporary work of J. G. Ballard than the fantasy territory they had previously explored, in keeping with Calvert’s experimental solo albums. This phase began with Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music (referencing the classic magazines of early science fiction), continued with 1977’s acclaimed Quark Strangeness and Charm and culminated in their final album of the decade, PXR-5, the last to feature Calvert, and released after his departure from the band. Calvert and Moorcock (whose versatility saw him expertly turn his hand to any style within – and occasionally outside – the sci-fi genre) had similar preoccupations, and while Calvert was a captivating, at times eccentric and flamboyant front-man, the pair’s work is complementary. After Calvert left to pursue his own projects, Moorcock continued to perform with Hawkwind on a regular basis and worked with them throughout the 1980s, notably on the albums Sonic Attack and Chronicle of the Black Sword, “all but one of whose songs are based on his Elric saga (the other, ‘Needle Gun’ is about Jerry Cornelius).”

Hawkwind - Astounding Sounds, Amazing MusicHawkwind - Quark Strangeness and Charm

Whilst Robert Calvert sadly died in 1988, Michael Moorcock remains a celebrated and successful author; a variety of splinter groups featuring original or one-time members of Hawkwind (including founders Dave Brock and Nik Turner) continue to tour the UK and world-wide, under a number of related band names. In their various incarnations they are recognised as innovators and prime exponents of a distinctive and enduring style, an influential and widely-respected group whose admirers include such diverse musical figures as Jello Biafra, Julian Cope, John Lydon and Henry Rollins.

Hawklords Tour November 2016

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