Photography by Brid O’ Donovan
It’s 2012. What the fuck are Hawkwind doing here?
Well, there’s a few ways this can go: forty-five years on, Hawkwind may be surprisingly relevant, having single-handedly invented space rock, and continuing to release new material with an ever-evolving lineup. How about all the heirs to the genre, will they have made an impact? For example, will we hear the swirl of shoegaze in their sound, or the drug pulse of Spacemen 3? Have Comets on Fire’s sonic assault rendered the band obsolete? Maybe we won’t hear a single old track. Or, they may come on stage and play like it’s 1974, keeping true to the original spirit of the old music. Perhaps they will play a very carefully sculpted set to please the die-hard fans who are no doubt turning up on a Monday to pay 30 bucks to see a band in its 5th decade. Or maybe this will be a fucking joke. I can’t wait to find out.
When I get there, for a Monday night it’s heaving. There’s also a healthy musk in the air, the kind brought on by wearing leather or denim in the hot summer and drinking. Not that there’s no women here – in fact there’s plenty – but The Men are out in force tonight, men of all beard lengths, hairlines and waist lines. Metal heads, bikers, classic punks. University lecturers. Wiggle.
It’s clear from the start, Hawkwind are not messing around with their sound. The bass is heavy, the drums are pounding; and for the visuals, all the stops have been pulled out, the projection mixing older psychedelic lightshow tropes – liquid slides and kaleidoscopes – with new, luminous computer generated fractals. Two dancers turn up at various times throughout the set with suitably trippy costumes.
At times tonight, they edge close to self-parody, but I must admit they pull it back each time. What helps is the lack of cheesiness in their music – they steer clear of the pitfalls most bands this long on the road stumble into (like long drawn out band run-throughs, everyone gets their little solo, that kind of thing). Aside from the odd flourish from ex-Gong keyboardist Tim Blake, or from permanent mainstay Dave Brock, it’s all for the greater good of the song, and the performance.
For one of the calmer numbers, ‘The Southern Cross’, the stage is almost dark, and the dancers wear suits with lightbulbs attached. With the backdrop showing a starfield, it gives the impression of dancing constellations. They disappear at the start of the next song, a heavy number which proves popular amongst the faithful, ‘Assassins of Allah’, with its refrain of “Hashish-hashin, hashish-hashin, hashish…”. Current bassist ‘Mr Dibs’ seems to do a good job of being the Lemmy, with plenty stage presence, taking vocal duties along with the other main members and driving the hard rock agenda with his chunk bass lines. Anyway, sometime after the Horned Green Skull with light up eyes and the snake lady take the stage (you start to expect this kind of thing), the beat revs up, goes all electronic and a full on mini-rave kicks off. A bizarre turn but the crowd lap it up, and the band catch their breath. When they return, it is actually thrilling when the drummer picks up the beat again. Again, they wander to the precipice, and just as you start to wonder if it’s all a joke, they pull it all back together.
And so it continues: moments of absurdity are undercut by drums, bass, a riff, and just when you think they are bringing it home somehow straight, they veer off again. Sure enough, Brock gives us the space ballad ‘Love in Space’ with its lines “Love in space I cry for you. Love in space I fly to you. Drifting in our capsules of icy mist. The ship of dreams sails...” As an oversized dream catcher is brought on stage and dangled before the audience.
Now, much as it’s tempting to perceive this through the lens of say Bill Bailey, or Spinal Tap, it has to be said that Hawkwind got in here first, at a time when even latter day punk, hardcore and grime champion John Peel would spend time “watching clouds write poems in the sky”.. and later noodling excesses of the 70s were made by other musicians, who were at best bad copies of this group. These guys have been around the block, ingested more mind altering substances than a student doing clinical trials, and at 70, Dave Brock still stands tall when many others have lost their marbles.
They do ‘Sonic Attack’, about using language as a tool of social control – one of the songs co-written with sci-fi author Michael Moorecock in the 80’s, and pretty relevant still in fairness. You can see they’re enjoying this, especially when they play ‘Prometheus’ with its eastern theme, sitar (not sure where it’s coming from but it’s in the mix), and the dancers return dressed to the nines as Kali. This track is only from a few years ago, and it sounds like something off The Second Coming or by The Charlatans, all groovy beat. Reminds you how long they’ve been around, and what’s come and gone in the meantime.
After this they return to their classic period with the openers from the 1975 LP Warriors At The End Of Time; a great slice of classic psych. A golden clad, be-wreathed stilt walker appears on stage, looking like one of their more extravagant album covers come alive… very elegant. They finished by moving back into their hard rock side with a heavy version of ‘Damnation Alley’ – more driving, more Lemmy-ish. They come back for a one-song encore and play their most famous track – ‘Silver Machine’ – with drummer Richard Chadwick singing. Dancers reappear after one final costume change – now appearing like little versions of the robot from The Day The Earth Stood Still. The fans are pleased, if miffed that it’s all over – but it’s the right decision, hard to top ‘Silver Machine’ as a closer.
Psychedelic music has come a long way in the last half a century, and Hawkwind have evolved too but not as you’d expect them to – they continue on their own path, crossing between the sublime and the absurd – at times tonight they did that from one minute to the next. But theirs is a fine balance, and I’m relieved they’ve not yet collapsed in on themselves: instead they continue to chart their own singular journey through the constellations.