Hawkwind, depending on who it is you ask, and where exactly they first encountered the group, are either responsible for creating one of the first robust underground scenes in rock, or were a bunch of misguided acid victims. To some, they were salt-of-the-earth musicians, embracing revolutionary politics and creating a complex Sci-Fi musical universe. To others they were hacks, endlessly preaching about the merits of psychedelics. Either way, Hawkwind has accrued one of the most colorful histories in the whole of rock music. Let’s take a brief look into their history and see if they are due a reassessment.
The early days of Hawkwind
Hawkwind, more than any other band, perhaps, best survives in myth rather than reality. Yes, their music, as well as their antics, seemed to foreshadow many of the major trends that would dominate the 1970s: psychedelic rock, glam, punk, revolutionary politics in music, etc.
The group was formed in 1969, a long whisker away from the summer of love. Charmingly enough, they were a clear product of the psychedelic ’60s. The group embraced idealism and artistic ideas, above actual musicianship. According to most sources, the group members could hardly play when they booked their first shows and opted to call themselves Group X in absence of a real name.
Hawkwind, early on, were something of a loose art’s collective. However, from the outset, Dave Brock, a former busker, was their ringleader. The early line-up of the band also featured Huw Lloyd Langton and Dik Mik, Terry Ollis.
Hawkwind and post-hippie Britain
Nostalgia-affected music critics might talk at length about the great musicianship on display during the late 1960s. Sure, Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck were about. However, the experimentation that groups like Beatles had nurtured, created a new niche. Now, psychedelic, sonic experiments could be taken as seriously as a Bob Dylan composition.
Hawkwind may have not quite had their sound yet, but they had ideas. And, as you would suspect, the music press loved that. Brock’s band of misfits became favorites of the London underground, the epicenter of the Psychedelic 60s.
Rock critic Nick Kent recalls how Hawkwind became near-permanent residents at the base of Frendz, a London music magazine. Here, the group members would partake in various recreational chemicals and wax poetically about the role of music in society. Rock critics loved to mingle with them, viewing them as some sort of rock paramilitary.
In Apathy for the devil, his 1970s memoir, Kent recalls how Hawkwind may have just been one of the most exciting live bands of their day. However, a lot of this owed to their unpredictable behavior, in some ways foreshadowing 70s punk concerts. Some shows included as few as three members. Others were organized on the fly. Other times the audience might be treated to a psychedelic-jazz improvisation lasting for much of the duration of the concert.
Another aspect of Hawkwind’s existence that endears them to critics is the informal selection process of members. By the end of the 1960s, most rock bands had gone pro. Groups looked to hire experienced musicians. The Rolling Stones, for example, had chosen Mick Taylor, a blues-rock prodigy, as a replacement for the mercurial, but inconstant Brian Jones.
Hawkwind though operated by a different tactic. Nearly every one of the band’s members had met through some sort of common drug connection. These included singer Robert Calvert, a man blessed with talent and vision, but one who also claimed to have occasional religious epiphanies. There were also Dik Mik Davies and Del Dettmar, former pot dealers, noodling with the electronics long before Brian Eno.
Hired on bass was a young man by the name of Lemmy Kilmister, whose playing helped round of the band’s sound. After being fired from the group, Lemmy would form the metal legends Motorhead, a band named after his penchant for taking impressive quantities of speed.
Unlikely as this entire recipe may seem, it seemed to work. Starting with 1970, the group was constantly booked to play live shows. Word of mouth spread and these events would gather massive amounts of people, as shows would end up resembling a sort of British Woodstock. The hippie-ravers would be delighted to songs with Sci-Fi inspired works such as Warrior on the edge of time, In search of space, or Space is deep. (The documentary Do not panic shares some loving light on the group’s early days).
Furthermore, for all their bizarre shenanigans, Dave Brock and the group seemed to practice what they preached. They were known to play at any opportunity that was given to them, most often not being paid for their effort. Simply put, Hawkwin was living up to the hippie ideal.
Silver Machine and major mainstream success
Hawkwind may have won the heart of the British freedom-loving, chemical-devouring devotees, but very few would have placed any kind of money on the group achieving mainstream success. Brock and co. often found themselves sharing a bill with groups like Can. Like Hawkwind, these groups loved the jazz-rock experiments of Miles Davies and the sonic exploration of the Doors. Unlike Hawkwind, many of these musicians could play really well.
By the early 1970s, Hawkwind’s live success had caught the attention of record label execs. This was to be the era of glam and of metal. It didn’t hurt that Brock and his cohorts also changed their sound and image, much like counterculture itself. The peace and love routine had faded into the background. Now, the group sought liberation through mind-expansion, sang about space travel, and created a noisy, chaotic mesh of space-rock.
In 1972 Hawkwind scored a genuine hit, their most famous song, with Silver Machine. The single reached number 3 in the U.K. charts. Sung by Lemmy Kilmister and written by Robert Calvert, Silver Machine dealt with space travel, the nature of time, and, naturally, was recorded with the entire group under influence of LSD. This, perhaps, accounted for the fact that Calvert, who had sung on the original take of the song, much later found out that his vocals had been unceremoniously erased and replaced.
Legendary live shows
The quality of the music notwithstanding, Hawkwind were a true underground cultural phenomenon in Britain. Many punk and new-wave artists brag about seeing the Sex Pistols live. It is worth noting then that many of the musicians of the original punk wave, John Lydon, Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, regularly attended these pre-raves.
Hawkwind’s light show was also a noteworthy attraction, rivaling even Pink Floyd for the affection of acid-heads around the country. The presentation had been planned carefully and designed by Jonathan Smeeton aka Liquid Len and could be witnessed in all its glitzy glory on the Space Ritual tour.
Quite famously, also, the show included dancers Stacia and Miss Renee. Often covered in body paint, they would perform either topless, or nude. All of these elements further helped spread the word about Hawkwind as visionary, rabble-rousers. With a huge base of fans and a hit under their belt, where could the group go to next?
Urban Guerilla and commercial slide
Hawkwind may have never intended to become commercially succesful. But, now that they had, with all the planets strange in alignment, expectations were that the group would go on to build on their breakthrough. After all, groups like Pink Floyd and Yes were building pretty careers for themselves on the back of their space-rock operas. Besides, Kilmister, Calvert, and Stacia all possessed significant charisma.
With expectations higher than a gang of Hawkwind fans awaiting their idols, the group released their follow-up single Urban Guerrilla. The timing was comically inappropriate. The IRA had begun a bombing campaign across Britain. This, quite naturally, made the BBC hesitant to play a single that featured lyrics like “I’m an urban guerilla/I make bombs in my cellar.”
Still, the mystique that the group had earned, and the fact that Urban Guerilla was genuinely a pretty good song, made the single scrap the Top 40. It would be the last time the group would catch a whiff of the charts though.
Hawkwind released more singles, each one featuring a more Hawkwindy title than the previous one. Psychedelic Warlords, Kings of Speed, Kerb Crawler, and Back on the Streets delighted their fanbase, which was beginning to shrink and each failed to reach the commercial heights of Silver Machine.
Lemmy gets sacked and starts a little band called Motorhead
Now, I might have mentioned that Hawkwind had formed over a fondness for various chemical pick-me-ups. With this in mind, the idea of sacking one the band members for drug use, sounds ludicrous, but on par with much of the band’s history.
Lemmy Kilmister was doing drugs. This was practically a requirement to be in Hawkwind. However, according to Brock, he was doing the wrong ones. A notorious speed-freak, Lemmy had worn on the nerves of the old hippies. Following an arrest in Canada, Hawkwind abruptly fired him.
It took Kilmister only a few months to bounce back, creating Motorhead, a group named after his love of speed. Also, fittingly, Lemmy’s new band aligned him with the sound that would soon dominate Britain, punk. Hawkwind may have helped inspire the young punks, but their hippie ideals meant that they would not be allowed into this party.
Aftermath and Hawkwind’s legacy
Did Hawkwind make any more music afterward? Oh, boy did they. In fact, if you show a tendency towards obsessive behavior and have a knack for collecting music, then this is the group for you. Hawkwind have made a dizzying amount of albums, the latest of which came out in 2020.
The band is, also, almost always remembered when several important stories musical stories are told. Space-rock, psychedelic, krautrock, glam, and punk all bloomed around the time of the group’s prime. And, to their credit, they did help influence many of the artists that created these styles.
Dave Brock, the man who started Hawkwind, ended up securing the legal rights to the name. Eventually, he fired most of the original line-up, but the additional musical competence of the newer recruits doesn’t seem to have affected the sound of the group very much. But, it certainly helped them turn in good performances when they played Glastonbury.
Sadly, Robert Newton Calvert passed away in 1988. More recently, in 2015 Lemmy Kilmister also died.
Hawkwind continues to have their fans. Henry Rollins, John Lydon, or Al Jourgensen all share an affection for the band, although I would wager good money none of them have been persuaded to delve deep into the group’s catalog.
Many rock bands are formed by would-be musicians looking to create sounds to get stoned to. The vast, vast majority of them, barely end up recording anything. Hawkwind have managed to add a gazillion records to their discography and have existed as a band for more than 50 years while influencing many other artists along the way.