Article by Johan P.
The stylistically inclusive nature of progressive rock allows quite a lot of stretching of the genre’s musical boundaries. This part of Death Metal Underground’s 1970s Progressive Rock for Hessians series looks into the early, classic period of the English group Hawkwind – a group of sonic shaman-warriors who transgressed more than one genre border right from their inception. Well, almost. Their unconvincing 1970 self-titled debut album can rightfully be dismissed as a failed attempt at improvisational psychedelic folk rock, with songs that sound too much like flawed byproducts of the flower power era. Luckily, the following years saw the band re-forge their sound on In Search of Space (1971), articulate it on Doremi Fasol Latido (1972) and finally push their newfound style to its limits on Space Ritual (1973).
Hawkwind were, along with Ummagumma-era Pink Floyd, among the first bands to have their music labeled as “space rock”. This term sounds almost as implausible and stupid as viking metal, but serves its purpose in the sense of distinguishing between the music of Hawkwind and the genres they drew inspiration from. Hawkwind’s music from their early classic period (counting out the debut) can be seen stylistically as a convergence of different musical streams that were floating about in the early seventies, including progressive rock (although some prog-haters deny this connection), psychedelic rock, heavy metal and krautrock. But Hawkwind also brought something of their own to this mix – a proto-punk attitude, for example – and shaped all this in accordance with their emerging conceptual vision.
The stylistic traits and conceptual basis of the original space rock genre as we know it today were primarily established by Hawkwind and a handful of other band that they were in contact with. The closest musical allies of Hawkwind, who also helped shape the genre in the early seventies, were Amon Düül II from Germany and the French/English group Gong. I’m am ignorant of whatever relationships that might have existed between Pink Floyd and these other bands, but in my opinion Syd Barret and company are more correctly regarded as musical predecessors than being a part of the space rock “scene”.
Considering that as far as I know, there has’ emerged much else from the genre that reaches the same heights as the above mentioned originators, I will not go into detail about the defining stylistic or conceptual features of the genre at large. Instead I will focus exclusively on Hawkwind as the primary example of this type of music.
The word-war still rages on whether Hawkwind is classified as progressive rock or not, although this is not a particularly interesting debate. Instead of participating in such a discussion, I find it more fruitful – when describing Hawkwind’s music – to discuss eventual convergences and discrepancies with prog, etc. than passing a definitive judgement concerning classification. There are definitely similarities between Hawkwind and other progressive rock bands. It only adds to Hawkwind’s credit that they managed to develop their own distinctive sound and concept that marks them out in the company of contemporary 1970s progressive groups. As I wrote earlier, there are traces of psychedelic rock and heavy metal in their music as well and, to a lesser degree, some musical elements that resemble what German bands labeled as “krautrock” were developing at about the same time. Below I present a description of Hawkwind’s music divided into a handful of categories which are meant to highlight the more important and distinguishing features of the band.
The Possibility of Ambient Hard Rock Music?
Hawkwind shares with many 70s progressive groups a willingness to break free from the standard rock song format of tiresomely cyclical verse/refrain/bridge structures, which are driven forward by the simplest of block chord harmonic progressions. The imperative of exploration among progressive rock musicians was definitely one of the salient virtues of the genre. Many ambitious bands of the time took influence from western classical to construct their songs in the form of long, narrative compositions that gradually reveal themselves through several – discreet or connected – “movements”. Hawkwind also had their fair share of 10 or even 15+ minute tracks, but instead of choosing the linear narrative path, they aimed for a different, more ambient, approach to songwriting. The longer songs in Hawkwind’s repertoire constitute about half of their total song material, while the rest is made up of spoken interludes, electronic mood-pieces, folksy acoustic numbers, a couple of straight rock tunes and one or two blues-based tracks. It is not my intention to discredit this other side (or sides) of the band – there is a lot of good material in there that should not be missed – but the focus of this article will almost exclusively be on the longer ambient compositions. For me, these tracks are the natural centerpieces on the albums in question here. However, I urge everyone who wish to explore Hawkwind to listen to the records as a whole (especially Space Ritual), since whatever side of the band one likes most sound so much more powerful in its proper context.
The legacy of Hawkwind is to a high degree associated with their long, trance-inducing heavy metal meets freakout-progressive rock numbers. One reason for their prominent position in the space rock canon (if there is such a thing) is that songs like ‘Brainstorm’, ‘Born to Go’ and ‘Master of the Universe’ manage to achieve mental effects similar to later ambient works by prominent artists from a wide array of genres. It may sound improbable, but even the feral creations of ambient black metal artists like Ildjarn and Nidhogg, the strobing beats of techno/trance music, or even the flowing, repetitive tremolo ambient-punk riffing of Discharge is not all that different from what Hawkwind were doing 25 years earlier. What unites these artists, who on the surface seem miles apart, is their grasp of the power inherent in cyclical repetition – a common element in ambient music – and their understanding of how to manipulate the constituent parts of the composition to achieve interesting effects. The sound and techniques may vary – depending on, for example, style and artistic aims – but a similar compositional logic seem to apply regardless of genre.
The instrumentation used by Hawkwind on the three albums under inspection is pretty much in line with the standard set-up of many 1970s progressive rock acts; including guitar, bass, drums, wind instruments (saxophone and flute), synthesizers and additional electronics (audio generators, for example). However, Hawkwind’s ambient approach demanded that they used their instrumental resources slightly different from most of their progressive peers. The following subchapters contain investigations and descriptions of Hawkwind’s way of composing and performing their song material.
Guitar, Bass and Woodwinds: Riff, Melody and Madness
The guitar-riffing of Dave Brock – Hawkwind’s founder and long-standing member – dominates most songs on all three albums under inspection, together with Lemmy Kilminster‘s driving melodic bass lines. Unlike the majority of prog bands, where the prominence of guitars is toned down in favor of an instrumentally varied and integrated approach, Hawkwind is more akin to the guitar-centered sound of heavy metal. I would not be surprised if later metal and punk bands found inspiration in what Brock and co. were doing a couple of years earlier.
Brock’s guitar tone is satisfyingly grainy and he plays with a street-level grittiness that, by sheer hypnotic power, blows away the work of most prog “virtuosos” and metal shredders alike. There is no trace of the technically accomplished tightness or versatility of British progressive rock of the era; Hawkwind were never a band of instrumental wizards. Technical prowess was not a necessary requirement for performing their kind of music. What they did have was more important: imagination. Like Tom Warrior of Celtic Frost, David Brock works wonders out of his droning, two- or three chord riffs, which are complemented by occasional single-note runs. When these patterns are combined with Lemmy’s running melodic lines, pure hypnotic magic emerges. Their interaction causes normal conceptions of time to ceases to exist, and apparently the rest of the band felt this too – the group’s live concerts could go on for hours and hours. In a way, the guitar style reminds of earlier psychedelic guitarists, although performed with a sense of purpose that is too often absent in the meandering drones of earlier psych bands.
Brock frequently ran his guitar through a plethora of effect-pedals and whatever home-made electronics they had available at the time. Sometimes it’s difficult to discern exactly what is happening in the music; e.g. when the band get entangled in reverb, tape loops and oscillating tone generators and Brock starts playing a glissando-run on his guitar on top of this. It is in moments like this that Hawkwind earns their title of space rock pioneers.
A third prominent voice in most Hawkwind tunes is the woodwind contributions of Nik Turner. He alternates between flute and saxophone and provides a welcome counterpoint to the massive sounds produced by Brock and Kilminster. Sometimes he goes off on an instrumental excursion against the direction of the rest of the band, which cases the music to lift to a different level. His lines are not really atonal, but neither are they too melodically obtrusive to disturb the momentum built up by the guitar/bass-interaction. Turner’s playing follows its own logic, which I assume is at least partly improvisational: a slightly oriental scale is used in one moment, which metamorphoses into a mock-jazzy lead, followed by a note-sequence that stylistically doesn’t sound like anything else. These kind of excursions were not particularly rare in early 70s psychedelic/progressive rock, but requiref a lot of skill and feeling to get it right and avoid sounding like haphazard noodling which gets boring very fast. *
Several of Hawkwind’s songs are composed as riff-loops that don’t seem to have a natural ending-point. However, the cyclical nature of their longer compositions does not suffer from the lethargic repetitions of conventional rock songs. Neither do they degenerate into overlong jamming. Unlike the typical rock template where you know, even before you’ve heard the song, how it will unfold; the forceful and hypnotic direction of many Hawkwind tunes somehow manage to evolve even if the songs seem to move in circles. They also contain elements of surprise and unpredictability, especially in a live setting. The band can thank Nik Turner’s sax/flute-playing for much of the inventiveness. But to get the full picture, it is necessary to discuss the contributions of the additional members of the group.
Drumming: German Motorik
The addition of Simon King at the drummer’s seat on Doremi Fasol Latido pushed the band further into ambient territory. Many people associate progressive rock – especially prog rock drumming – with tricky time signatures. The use of complex rhythms and abrupt time changes abound among 70s prog rock. In some cases this practice is justified and serve a compositional purpose. However, sometimes I get the feeling that rhythmic complexity is used to cover up otherwise unimaginative compositions. Hawkwind, especially during their time with King on the drummer’s seat, stays clear of such pretenses. King stuck stubbornly to a pulsating 4/4 to the point of sounding like analogue techno music with occasional drum fills.
Simon King’s riding, insistent way of playing resembles the tireless motorik-drumming of Klaus Dinger – the percussionist of early Kraftwerk and Neu! – Except that King lacks the precise and light touch of his German counterpart. Where Dinger moves ahead with the elegance and effortlessness of a well-oiled piece of modern machinery, King instead rides his way through the songs like a well-worn but perfectly reliable hot bulb engine. His bashing may sound sloppy from time to time, but the mechanical perfection of Dinger would sound awkwardly out of place in a Hawkwind context.
Both drummers share the significant ability to play monotonous without boring the listener to pieces. Their type of drumming sometimes produce a paradoxical effect similar to what can be achieved through blast beats in metal music. The percussionist stays very busy and creates a forward momentum, but if he/she keeps playing repetitive patterns, a sensation of trance-like immobility is produced at the same time. This “technique” fits well with the ritualistic nature of Hawkwind’s ambient space rock style.
Electronics: Mind Expansion and Mind Explosion
In Hawkwind’s early “classic” phase around 1971-73, the band developed a highly distinctive sound. If one would do a blind-test with random songs by various progressive artists from this period – including Hawkwind – it wouldn’t be too hard to pick out which ones were written and performed by Brock and company. A key component to what made them unique was the way they used electronics. Hawkwind’s sonic equipment not only included more conventional – in a progressive rock context – instruments like the EMS VCS3 synthesizer, but also “non-instruments” like home-built audio-generators, tape loops, etc.
It was common among bands who were active in the early seventies prog explosion to have at least one keyboard instrument in their instrumental rooster – in some cases more than one. Melotrons, Mini-Moogs, Synthi-A’s, etc. were hot stuff back then. Many groups even put keyboards and other electronics in a frontal position in their sound picture, relegating the previously omnipotent guitar to a less prominent role. Hawkwind chose another path – they did give much space to electronics, but in a different way than others. Instead of putting their synthesizers and various technical gadgets in front of the other instruments – separating them out from the guitar, bass, etc. – they virtually drenched their whole sound image in an amorphous torrent of sparkling electronics, which affected the output of practically all instruments. This – combined with the instrumental contributions of the individual members outlined above – gave the band their inimitable “spacey” aura.
Early seventies Hawkwind had two members – DikMik and Del Dettmar – who devoted themselves exclusively to electronics. If my records are correct, one of them operated the VCS3, a somewhat unpredictable (you’d be hard pressed to achieve the same sound twice), but very useful keyboardless synthesizer capable of evoking the strangest of sounds. I assume this was put to heavy use on Space Ritual – it is filled to the brim with typical VCS3 oscillating drones that drift off into the night. However, there seems to be more going on in the electronics department on the live album. While one of the guys operated the synth the other one fooled around with the almost dangerously amplified audio generator. In a manner similar to later metal bands, Hawkwind utilized a massive amplification arsenal to produce their mind-bendingly heavy sound. Lemmy gives a vivid and hilarious account of the power inherent in this little device in a BBC documentary about the band:
If it went too high, your inner ear would fail and you’d lose your balance, fall over and throw up eventually. If it went too low, you’d lose control of your sphincter muscles and shit down your legs. So we had a lot of fun with the audio generator.
What’s most important though is not which, and how many cool vintage instruments they put to use, but rather how they were able to get what they wanted out of these often very quirky instruments. In the early days of synthesizers, malfunction and system breakdowns were annoyingly common. The synths could also start living their own lives – with drones going off into seemingly infinite oscillations until it all collapsed from exhaustion. This unpredictability was not exclusively a bad thing, though. Judging from what is heard on Space Ritual, Hawkwind’s electronic department (DikMik/Delmar) surely knew how to handle their instruments, but they were not afraid to take chances and push their equipment to the limit. By doing so, they could make use of the synths’ and generators’ capricious character to add an element of unforeseeable discovery to the music; and thereby make an album like Space Ritual feel so vital, adventurous and well… spacey.
After the release of Space Ritual in 1973, Hawkwind moved on into a new phase in their career and produced some of their most well-known and acclaimed records. Lemmy stuck around long enough to contribute to 1974’s Hall of the Mountain Grill, which showed signs of a band moving in similar musical directions as other British progressive groups of the time. Hall and its follow-up Warrior at the Edge of Time (1975) – considered by many as their finest efforts – contain highly consistent and dynamic compositions performed in a space rock/progressive style, which bring to life scenes of epic adventures. It would have been very difficult for the group to further improve on the raw, ritualistic style they played up until Space Ritual. So instead of heading for a qualitative downward spiral, they began composing songs in a slighly more technically accomplished and narrative-lead vein, which worked well. It is fortunate however, that up until this day they still include the older material in their live-repertoire.