According to the critical consensus, Hawkwind's most artistically successful period was the 'Space Ritual' era, spanning the release of third studio album 'Doremi Fasol Latido', the celebrated Space Ritual tour and its attendant live album 'Space Ritual Alive'. This WAS all deathless stuff of course - a brilliant studio set, one of the finest live albums ever (the interplay between Brock's guitar and Lemmy's bass on 'Orgone Accumulator' alone is worth the price of admission) - but Hawkwind really hit their stride once they broadened their sonic pallette for new tonal territories. Yes Cybernauts, we're talking about what came next : 'Hall of the Mountain Grill' and 'Warrior on the edge of Time'.
The success of the 'Silver Machine' single (#3 in the charts)provided the bread that allowed the 'wind to mount 'Space Ritual', but hopes of further 7" glory foundered when 'Urban Guerilla' was withdrawn for political reasons (look it up elsewhere). None of this mattered artistically of course, as Hawkwind made the most important step of their mid-seventies career by taking on Simon House on violin/synthesizer/keyboards after the departure of Dikmik (audio generator). House had previously played in High Tide and the Third Ear Band. He had seen Hawkwind's first gig (under the name Group X, which is what the Vorticists originally called themselves when they first started up their own brand of British cubism/futurism) because High Tide played that night too. Both bands then shared the same management team -Clearwater. Clearwater were almost the official rock promoters of the Ladbroke Grove scene and as others have noted here, the Mountain Grill was a 'greasy spoon' cafe were people like Bowie and Bolan hung out. House's bandmate in High Tide, Tony Hill, had previously played with Bowie. What with Moorcock antihero Jerry Cornelius wandering around the Grove, playing with The Deep Fix, this was a pretty spacey part of London to be in....(some of this last paragraph is fiction, supposedly).
Back to the point. What happenned to Hawkwind with the arrival of House into the ranks of Hawkwind was a movement from Spacerock to Romanticism (note the large R, I'm NOT talking Mills & Boon here, but about the school of thought/artistic endeavour that favoured the exploration/expression of the beauty, terror and awe of the natural world that came about as a reaction against the classical calm of enlightement thought). Rock has always had a strong Romantic bias, but in the 1970s, several important rock artists approached the music in the spirit of Byron and Shelley and the German Romantics - notably Bowie, Roxy Music and Hawkwind. While the studied, often overly portentious strains of pure Prog flirted with Romanticism (Genesis did a great job of this on 'Selling England By The Pound'), they often sounded a tad fey and busy and lacking in guts. There was plenty of Shelley's delicate sensibility, but little of Byron's fierce beauty. What Hawkwind added was Coleridge's drug visions a la has famous psychedelic poem 'Kubla Kahn'.
The album opens with a statement of urban intent."The Psychedelic Warlords (Disappear in Smoke)" might sound very sword and sorcery, but its a studied anti-straight authority rant, with great buzzing synth, Brock's excellent chucka-chucka 'Shaft' guitar, Turner's acid-drenched sax solo and House's mellotron. It's Spacerock, but not as we know it, Jim. While there is at least one moment of almost pure Spacerock on the album (the excellent singalong that is "You'd Better Believe It"), the old formula is enlivened by House's violin, a sound we came to know and love. 'Hall of the Mountain Grill' is a transitional album, the brilliant scree of Del Dettmar's untutored synth cluttering things up nicely while House brings in his classical training to the broadening soundscapes the band were now creating : Del was, of course, the Hippy Eno. No wonder Stacia was soft on him! But Del had his melodic, classical moments too - witness "One Change" from 'Doremi', which is so like Satie that it could be Japan in 1980 (David Sylvian's mob of New Romantics, not the country), while "Goat Willow' on the album being reviewed here is an image of Arcadian ancient Greece that Genesis were probably really jealous of. Those pan pipes man, totally Hellenistic....where's me copy of Homer?
"Wind of Change" sees Hawkwind really tackling the sublime - the awe and terror of nature - in a big way. A mournful elegy, this is like a Caspar Friedrich painting, but in sound, just marvellous. Brock's wordless harmonies are perfectly imperfect, the organ and strings gorgeously rough-edged. Nik Turner's "D-Rider", despite the hugely welcome galactic/lysergic phasing on the choruses, reminds me of nothing less than the first Roxy Music album. At this stage, Roxy and Hawkwind are very similar sonically - both have acoustic wind and string instruments in the line up, both are punky and raw rather than poised and perfect like progsters such as King Crimson and Genesis -and both units are arty as hell. Roxy may have worn their Modernist credentials emblazoned boldly, but Hawkwind was full of knowledgeable aesthetic types too -and not just on the edges in the guises of designer Barney Bubbles and (absent here) Poet/Vocalists Bob Calvert. But Hawkwind were old-fashioned Romantics, not Postmodernists like Roxy. But "D-Riders" opening lyrics always make me think of the nostalgia of Roxy tracks like "If There Is Something". Both bands played together once, at The Locarno Ballroom in Bristol. Imagine what that must have been like!!!!
Side one of the album (if you're playing a vinyl orginal) ends with the lovely folky acoustic "Web Weaver", a super little sylvan ditty from Mr Brock, who always had a great facility with these very pastoral numbers. Get the acoustic guitar out again Dave, there hasn't been one in your hand on record or on stage for about thirty years.
Of course, being a transitional album as I've claimed, it wasn't all lovely violin, piano and synth (though try playing the title track to your mates and they'd be hard pressed to recognise this slice of classical gorgeousness as those hairy spacecadets who recorded 'X- in Search of Space'. The utterly heroic Lemmy is in heroic form here, especially on showcase number "Lost Johnny", with its brilliant Harlan Ellison style lyrics courtesy of Mick Farren ('the time has come for you to choose/you'd better get it right/ Berlin girls with sharp white teeth/are waiting in the night'). Lem plays bass, geetar and sings as well - and what a cracking little amphetamine rock/dystopian SF masterwork this is. Why are so few songs this well written? By the way, lemmy always loved House too, so he's not just my hero on this album...
So a wonderful record closes with the doleful, weary and very moving "Paradox", a song that both gives solace when the world lets you down and (unfortunately) depresses you with its truth. The hippy sentiment 'people, people always bring you down' isn't just a Neil Pie moment, it's an echo of what the original Romantic Poets discovered - that behind the ravishing awe and beauty of the sublime lay the abyss of human unknowing. This is one of the great, defining moments of existentialism in rock, utterly devastating in its impact.
'Hall of the Mountain Grill' is a masterpiece, one of the three or four best Hawkwind albums and the start of their most musically creative period - original muscianship, amazing tone colours, genre-hoping disregard for cliche and the perfect blend of brains and viscera that makes for the finest rock and roll. You can philosophise to it, hallucinate to it, boogie and sing along to it. A brilliant album that no serious rock and roller should be without.
-Stephen E. Andrews, author of '100 Must Read Science Fiction Novels'