Hawkwind : here's the typical chapter and verse from music journos and some fans - 'Hawkwind's seminal period is the "Space Ritual Alive" era. After Lemmy leaves it gets a bit proggy and not so good,'.
OK, consensus out of the way. So since when has the consensus meant anything to true rock and roll fans? Isn't rock about rebellion, subjectivity, individual truth and finding your own way? Well, it is to me, so, consequently, I've always loved this album, which was the first Hawkwind I bought on disc after the introductory compilation 'Masters of the Universe'. And don't get me wrong, as I love all the band's 1970s output as every bit of it is great.
After the masterpiece that was 'Warrior on the Edge of Time' (sorry, that's my fave Hawks album, with its perfect balance of instruments, great mix, lack of sludge and intense sonic colours) and Lemmy departs, we get something new. For the first time Calvert is in the dominant lead vocalist seat throughout a Hawks album, so we're guaranteed superb lyrics, fascinating vocal delivery, intelligent songwriting to rival the likes of Bowie and early Roxy Music (not that it wasn't profound at times before that). The sci-fi trappings of the band are given more authenticity by the covers' parody of "Astounding" (THE key SF magazine of the pulp era), then are beautifully skewed into Euro-Glam territory by the inclusion if the Weimar Eagle and the amazing "Steppenwolf", based, of course, on the brilliant misanthropic novel by Herman Hesse. So just as Bowie is discovering all things Kraftwerk and Neu! (who Dave Brock liked by the way), Hawkwind get in on the Berlin Decadence act. And how well it fits them. A perfect mesh of prog, psychedelia and Eurocentric modernism wrapped in cod nostalgia - for me, this makes mid-seventies Hawkwind more like classic early Roxy than any other band, especially when you compare the mix of instruments.
The musicians : Brock takes a bit of a back seat (maybe why he never seems keen on the album, but he's there singing in the background, that fantastic keening folksy voice always sounding ideally archiac and somehow fitting in these hypermodern settings), Calvert is in full flight, Turner is making a lovely chaotic contribution on the wind instruments, not to mention a lovely vocal on the sublime 'Kadu Flyer', whose lyrical imagery about flight - kites, pterodactyls and so on - simply says to me "Hawkwind are about flying, so share their wings.'. It's al very Himalayn and mystical, but great fun. Paul Rudolph (former Pink Fairy and Eno collaborator) is always great to listen to, as he's a great player (check out his contribution to 'Here He Comes' from Eno's " Before and After Science" album), but he isn't Lemmy, no. But who is? Lemmy is, like all the truly great rock bassists (a very small elite club) totally unique - like J.J. Burnel, Mick Karn, Barry Admanson and Chris Hillman. Rudolph is another guitarist (like Lemmy and Burnel) playing bass here for convenience' sake. Then we have Simon House, whose taste, skill, tone colours and elan are just magical - Hawkwind only became truly special when House came on board to my mind and he plays on all their best records - his classical training always made such a brilliant counterpoint to their grungier charms, rather like John Cale did for The Velvet Underground. His synths on this album are almost as colourful as those on the magnificent "Warrior" album. Fans need to check out his contribution to Bowie's amazing 'Stage' live album, which anyone who likes the Charisma era Hawks should try. Finally, we get the Drum Empire : King and Powell. Some nice stuff, here, lads, well done.
The songs: 'Reefer Madness' is great fun of course, a colourful tongue-in-cheek warning about the dangers of dope (referencing the unintentionally hilarious health warning/exploitation film of the same name). 'Steppenwolf' is for me the moment of unassailable genius on the record, with its Coltrane-esque refrains after each chorus, gorgeously simple guitar riff, brooding violin section and words that are - to this published writer - confirmation of Calvert's poetic mastery. Chosen like the finest precious stones and set in sterling platinum, this is seriously good writing. Hesse himself would have loved the song, I'm sure. Sheer literary rock bliss for those who appreciate lyricists of the calibre of Reed/Morrison/Bowie/Ferry. Proper writing!
'Kerb Crawler' is also massively underrated, with its images of 'boot girl' pickups (in 20s Berlin, casual prostitutes advertised their sexual specialities based on the colour of their boots- avoid any ladies with green high heels is the message if you want to stay healthy) and the narrator who will 'burn you down the autobahn' in this superb meshing of futuristic automobile fetishism and old fashioned lady-of-the-night-cruising. Isherwood via Metropolis via Soul Revues, with some brilliant female backing vocals a la The Sirens and Calvert's stunning middle eight lyrics, whose imagery reflects the influence of New Wave science fiction writers such as Samuel R Delany and Roger Zelazny, while not sounding unalike the early Ultravox! of John Foxx (I'm thinking the first album) in its urban imagery and spindly edgeiness, hitning at the cyberpunk future of William Gibson.
Not only all this, but there's the cracking instrumentals - the near-ECM jazziness of 'City of Lagoons', nicely laid back and spacious, the mutant funk of 'The Aubergine That Ate Rangoon' (very trippy, man) and the transcendental sunny vibe of 'Chronoglide Skyway', which is ideal chill-out room material.
All in all, if you like clever, colourful seventies rock without stodge and lots of style, this album is for you. Ideal for fans of psychedelia and True Glam and even Prog. Excellent!