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Hawkwind join the New Wave SF Revolution,
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This review is from: Quark, Strangeness And Charm (Audio CD)
The stature of "Quark, Strangeness and Charm" amongst fans of Hawkwind has risen in recent years and continues to do so. It is now accepted by most as one of their finest albums, whereas once upon a time the critical consensus came down on the side of the 'Space Ritual Alive' era of 73 and tended to eschew most else. While I've always liked "Quark", I must admit that for many years, I felt it was lightweight instrumentally compared to the far more colourful trilogy of albums that preceded it ('Hall of the Mountain Grill', 'Warrior on the Edge of Time' and 'Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music' - see my reviews of these). These days, I regard it as a classic almost comparable to these albums and, in terms of its context (the emergence of Punk Rock and New Wave as important commercial/aesthetic developments in British Rock), almost certainly the right move for the band at the time.
Coming shortly after the sacking of Nik Turner (Vocals/wind instruments), Paul Rudolph (Bass) and Alan Powell (drums), "Quark" was heralded a few months earlier by the appearance of a dreadfully dull single ('Back on the Streets', arguably the worst thing Calvert ever wrote for the band), which seemed to confirm that Hawkwind had lost it. But the slimming down of the band from a seven to a five-piece meant that although the intense acrylic colours and broad compositional canvas of 'Astounding' was lost, a new, sleek, fresh silver machine could emerge, one arguably more fitting for a stripped-down, apocalyptic age. Yeah, I love 'Astounding', but it's one thing revelling in the psychedelics when speed freaks with short hair who all own up to being inspired by you (Lydon, Shelley and Burnel all rave about Hawkwind)are knocking at the door...
So Hawkwind are coming under the tighter control of Brock and Calvert, Simon King is as reliable as ever, Simon House is now remaining muso genius (Rudolph and Powell were no slouches, especially the former) and Adrian Shaw (ex- Magic Muscle, an old support band for Hawkwind from Bristol) has slotted cleanly into place. The new lineup gleams like chrome, their metal is scalding hot to the touch and..well, it's shame about the lack of sax/flute/ranting that Turner always brought to the arena. Calvert finally has total dominantion of the vinyl and stage as frontman, at last able to bring his consumate skills as a lyricist to the fore.
..and consumate he was, for on this album, he took on the task of adapting Hawkwind's standard literary inspiration -SF (that's 'Science Fiction' to most and 'Sci-Fi' to journos and know-nothings) - away from hoary, lumpy spacerock and updating it for a more dystopian age. The hippy dream was long over (remember 'Psychedelic Warlords' pointing this out on "Hall of the Mountain Grill"- sick of politicians, harrassment and so on ...?) but Hawkwind needed to retreat from the Romanticism and Sword & Sorcery of "Warrior" and bring more Modernity to bear upon their material to remain relevant in the age of Punk Rock. Calvert's urban imagery in the middle eight of 'Kerb Crawler' (from "Astounding") had already promised this and the band were long-established as pioneers of electronics. All that was needed was Calvert's familiarity with the literary heritage of written SF. Consquently, "Quark" is both consistent with Hawkwind's perennial concerns and traditions, but shows true progression too, making it a triumph.
So Hawkwind left the 'Golden Age'-style spacerock behind and delivered something more incisive this time. Calvert drew this time upon the tradition of mid-1960s to early 1970s 'New Wave' SF, curated in the UK by Hawkwind's oftime collaborator Michael Moorcock (who edited seminal SF magazine 'New Worlds', bringing the advanced literary techniques of J.G Ballard, Brian Aldiss, himself and a host of the better, younger SF writers into play against the dull old guard of Arthur C Clarke et al). In America, 'New Wave' SF had been promoted by Harlan Ellison, screenwriter, multiple award winning short story master and rabble-rouser in his anthology 'Dangerous Visions', inspiring none other than David Bowie's song 'Diamond Dogs' as it zoomed into the heads of young SF readers and rock and rollers (never mind what the established critics tell you about Orwell, this song is pure Ellison, derived from 'A Boy and His Dog' with a bit of William S. Burroughs thrown in for seasoning). In the US, New Wave was Ellison, Delany, Zelazny, Spinrad, Disch and Philip K Dick (amongst others). Calvert himself had been published in 'New Worlds' magazine, so he was 'officially' a New Wave SF writer, albeit for stunning SF poetry.
I'm not going to spend too much time describing the music here, as others have done that and you can listen to samples - instead I'm going to focus more on the lyrics of the songs and their sources/meanings. 'Spirit of the Age' is a downbeat, linear lament about relativistic time-dilation affects while space travelling and the alienation of cloning - in fact, there has been no better work of art about cloning EVER produced (not the film 'Moon', not Kate Wilhelm or Kazuo Ishiguro's novels on the subject, not even Alice Cooper's 'Clones (We're All)' - though the latter is a must-listen for fans of Calvert (it's on the generally disappointing "Alice Cooper 80: Flush the Fashion", folks). Calvert's wordplay is masterful, punning, echoing other works of art...it's the start of a side-long (get a vinyl copy if you can) suite of three numbers that mesh together beautifully.
'Damnation Alley' retells Roger Zelazny's eponymous novel (currently out of print but easy to find secondhand online) about a Hell's Angel who rides across a post-nuclear America in a quest to deliver a plague cure. There's a film of the same name you should probably avoid, but Zelazny's crisp, poetic and yet streetwise style is perfectly mirrored by Calvert's insouciant chorus lyrics. Never has a post-apocalyptic scenario been so elegantly tossed-off, horrific in its offhand casualness. House really shines here, his violin and silvery keyboards propelling Calvert's narrator across an irradiated wasteland - it's SF heaven. Finally, the suite ends with an all-too-brief piece of Brock-driven lyricism, 'Fable of a Failed Race', which conjures up the imagery and tone of Delany and Zelazny and - above all- Ballard (in his "Vermillion Sands" stories) in a wistful tale whose lyrics read like the climax of a generation starship story. It's gorgeous, swoony stuff, Calvert's vocal keening and heartrending, Brock's guitar blissful and eloquent - and it's over in no time (luckily, the new CD version boasts and extended alternate cut).
The second side of the album opens with the amusing title track, which addresses the perennial problem of the boffin - how to pick up girls....solving the mysteries of physics is one thing, but copping off...well, it all depends on the length of your telescope. It's Calvert at his wittiest and can't be faulted. 'Hassan I Sabbah' appears to step aside from SF for a moment into the headlines of the time (but then New Wave SF was always a thinly-veiled comment on the contemporary world), referencing as it does the Terrorist-heat of ther Black September group, the 'petro-dollar' of the oil crisis and the greed for the infidel West for fuel. An early warning of Islamic fundamentalist musecle-flexing? Or a paen to hashish in its invocation of Sabbah, the infamous man in the mountain, master of assassins. Both, obviously. To the uninitiated, it first seems like a celebration of dope-smoking, with House's spiralling arabesque of violin and Brock's disciplined, jihadi guitar riffing...which it is, of course, but not without a healthy dose of 6 O'Clock News relevance.
'The Forge of Vulcan' is a minimal sequencer instrumental that must have taken House all of five seconds to write, but is all ambient atmosphere, as meditative as one of Ash Ra's longer pieces such as "new Age of Earth". As on the first track, there's an enlivening burst of synthetic steam to heat things up, while the clinking of a hammer on an anvil reminds us of the classical source of the title - a retreat into the Fantasy of mythology for a moment to relieve the tension of the dystopian SF, perhaps, but a fun one. 'Days of the Underground' is the weakest track on the album, a preening back-slap of self-congratulation that recalls Hawkwind's status as kings of Ladbroke Grove at the turn of the decade - a sentiment applicable to the New Wave SF writers who put the fear into Asimov, Heinlein and the old fogeys from the 1930s.
The album closes aggressively, but with controlled tension, via 'The Iron Dream' - credited to Simon King who deserved some writing royalties too. It's really just a riff that mirrors Holsts' 'Mars' from "The Planets Suite", a track beloved of the first lineup of King Crimson and early Bowie (both of whom played it live years before, fans as they were of "Quatermass", the TV SF series that used the Holst piece as a them and that has never been equalled by any of the kiddie rubbish we've had to put up with on telly since). The title of the piece refers to Norman Spinrad's novel set in an alternate world where Hitler retired from radical politics and moved to America, where he became a pulp SF writer, putting his fascist fantasies into Heinleinesque form - the majority of the book is one of Hitler's 'novels', a rabid antisemitic parable that satirises old-school manifest destiny sci-fi). Fittingly, 'The Iron Dream' thus echoes the Weimar Eagle and 'Steppenwolf' of "Astounding" and ties in with the Germanic obsession common in British rock at the time - Bowie, Roxy Music and many of the coming new Romantics were obsessed with the Weimar period, one of the reasons why Krautrock was so popular in Britain (remember, most of the rock fans at the time had to listen to people going on about the war all the time then, so it was part of the bedrock of our consciousness). Berlin/Sulphate/Art School you could say - so Hawkwind were part of this tradition of European doom too...
So aside from its brilliant, characterful music, "Quark" is well worth listening too for its raft of literary and cultural associations - it's a clever, intelligent (but never dull) album that is every bit as important as (say) "Heroes" or 'Selling England By The Pound' or 'Black and White'. By bringing New Wave SF to the fore and mirroring its hard, cool literary techniques in a less fussy sound than in the past, Hawkwind reminded everyone that they were pioneers, sounding New Wave Rock before the subgenre existed, before Genesis and yes and every other dinosaur rock band realised they had to strip things down and get sheeny and digital to stay on top of the heap. In this, Calvert, Brock and the other showed superb judgement, admitting they had been 'out of step with the modern world' on the inner sleeve of the original LP. Just don't throw away your copy of "Astounding" though. Ultimately, "Quark" completes the band's run of best work and consequently it's an album that belongs in every serious rock fan's collection. Buy it, or the cool people will laugh at you.
Bonus tracks : unlike most albums, almost all of these are well worth owning and bear multiple re-listens - a rare thing.
Stephen E. Andrews, author of '100 Must Read Science Fiction Novels' and '100 Must Read Fantasy Novels' (both A & C Black, available on Amazon)