|Wordsmith from Another World
This interview with Bob Calvert is from the November 1976 issue of muso's mag Beat Instrumental. The illustration below is scanned from the original article!
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|Hawkwind's resident songwriter, vocalist, poet and suave science fiction man-about-stage, Bob Calvert, sits in his publicist's office wielding a cigarette jammed into a black holder. In cultured tones he is holding a phone interview with a certain Northern provincial newspaper journalist. The interview over, he replaces the receiver and asks, incredulously, "Who was that, he was asking me if we were like Kiss!"
If Hawkwind are something of a fringe band, never quite in the mainstream of Rock, then Bob was, for a long while, something of a fringe member of that august group. Sometimes he was with the band, at others he just contributed songs and poems, but now he's a fully paid up member of the newly businesslike Hawkwind.
As a songwriter, Bob is something of a rarity, his background being most definitely not that of a musician who turned his hand to songwriting because he got sick of paying royalties to other people. His background is as a poet (and a very good one), a dramatist (he was responsible for a recent play about Jimi Hendrix) and a well liked figure on the underground Press scene of a few years back. Did that non-musical background, I asked, make it difficult for him to write music?
"I'm constantly hearing about really well-known songwriters who can't play instruments and, in a way, I find that very encouraging. I can play guitar a little and I tend to approach it as a sort of puzzle, if you look at an instrument that way then you can arrive at good musical ideas quite by accident. Brian Eno is someone who works like that, he's said that he regards the piano as a sort of typewriter and I do too.
"In some ways not being able to play an instrument particularly well can be a distinct advantage. A really skilled musician is obviously in a good position but someone who's just about average is going to tend to turn out clichés whereas an inexpert musician will just try things out of the blue that can be totally original."
To date Calvert's reputation has been built up by his work as a lyricist more than a composer. Does this suggest that he has trouble writing melodies?
"No, although I can see how someone listening to my output so far might think that. In fact I find tunes really easy to write, but somehow I mistrust melodies. Lyrics are more important to me in the music I like and I find, with some of the songs I've written, that the lyrics tend to contract to fit the melody."
Perhaps the best example of Calvert's capabilities is on the first of his solo albums for United Artists, 'Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters'. This album, which comprises a widespread mixture of dialogue, songs and poems, deals with the infamous 'Widowmaker', the Lockheed F104 Starfighter bought by the West German Government in the fifties and which proved to be, how shall we say, 'unreliable'.
'Captain Lockheed' is a really fine album but Calvert's follow-up, 'Lucky Lief and the Longships' was, he admits, less successful. There was less humour and far more musical material to the detriment of his quite superb dialogue and poetic work. Another good example of Calvert's technique is on Hawkwind's latest album, 'Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music', where the track 'Steppenwolf' stands out as probably one of the best Hawkwind songs yet. How did Bob come to write that one?
"The original idea came with Adrian Wagner who asked me to write a song for his album, 'Distances Between Us'. He wanted a song about living in cities and I was re-reading Hesse's 'Steppenwolf' at the time. It seemed to me that there was a strong myth in it about city life and it gave me the basic idea. Adrian played me the song he'd written and I put the words to it. I wasn't too happy with the final result, though, because it seemed to lack energy, so recently, when Dave Brock and myself were looking for material, he played me this riff he'd written and I immediately thought of using the words I'd written before with a bit of expansion. I'm still quite pleased with it, especially, the imagery - like that line "My eyes are convex lenses of ebony..."
The song certainly is an impressive idea of what Calvert is capable of, especially in the field of science fiction, one in which both he and the band are well known. One thing which emerged from the lyric contest recently held by Beat was that there are a tremendous number of young songwriters interested in working with S.F. concepts. Did this, I asked Bob, reflect a significant new trend?
"Yes, I think that there is going to be a boom in Science Fiction generally and that this will be reflected in Rock music. I've got a feeling that, in any sort of art, realism isn't going to tell you anything today - it's not a real world we're living in, it's a Science Fiction one and Rock will reflect that if only because Rock music is this generation's literature."
As a band, Hawkwind has had a chequered career. I can remember going to see them in the very early days, when they played in a minute club in Hatfield. At that time they had a drummer, Terry Ollis, whose trip was to take his clothes off during a lengthy drum solo! They went on from there to establish themselves as the epitome of freak-rock bands, giving free concerts, being the centre of heavy dope tales, supporting the underground Press and, finally, winding up bankrupt. That scene was pure Hawkwind, they never made any pretence of being straights but they paid the price, notwithstanding a hit single with 'Silver Machine', which was partly written by Calvert.
Despite having now got themselves into a very businesslike management situation and having left United Artists for Charisma, Bob still has no love for the Rock Music machine.
"I think that we're a fringe band but we do make money - we have to make money because in my experience record companies are neither particularly altruistic nor artistic. When we left United Artists, we nearly signed with CBS, and I'm very glad we didn't because, from what I saw of them, they seemed to sum up a whole side of the music business that talks in terms of 'product', almost like selling soap powder. Mind you, there's probably a whole breed of musicians now who think in terms of 'product'. All you have to do is put on your satin gear and reproduce the 'product' - they must see everything in purely financial terms and we've never had to do that."
Does that mean that any attempt to commercialise your music for the sake of getting accepted is a waste of time?
"The only thing you can do is hope that enough people like what you're doing, but I don't think you can force the pace of it. As far as Science Fiction is concerned, for example, well, I think that people are just beginning to get bored with the Philly Sound and that whole disco thing, music which is just reflecting a fashion trend."
Calvert's songwriting method is variable. He's worked by just giving a lyric to a musician, writing lyrics to existing riffs and melodies and delivering a complete finished song. He was especially pleased with the results of working in what he calls "The Bernie Taupin way", giving the lyric to 'Song of the Gremlins' from the 'Captain Lockheed' album to Adrian Wagner, who then wrote the music with some help from Arthur Brown. Bob's normal method, though, is quite refreshingly straightforward.
"What I do is mess about with the guitar until I find something that works, an interesting chord progression for example. As I find it difficult to play a riff and sing at the same time, I put that guitar part down on a Revox and I can nearly always find a vocal line to go over the top because most of my tunes come straight into my head and what I usually find is that I tend to restrict my lyrics to fit my melody lines.
"Songwriting is like any other task of making something - it's a very boring process. To be a songwriter you've got to be able to live on your own and you've got to be prepared to really work hard at it because it's a craft. It's a bit of a contrived metaphor but songwriting is like laying eggs - a lot of squawking before a final shape arrives. It's very much a process of trial and error and that's one of the reasons that you've got to be able to work alone for long periods. If you're the sort of person that needs to phone somebody up and go out for a drink after three hours on your own then you might as well forget it. In that respect it's very much like any sort of writing."
As a hero, Calvert cites Noel Coward, the reasoning being that Coward survived being a child star and continued working well into old age. If Coward was something of a prolific English upper-class gentleman (in image at least), then so is Bob. During the interview he throws quite astonishing ideas around as if they were nothing in particular and goes off at length to talk about ideas he's had for books, musicals, plays and many other forms of literary art. If he wishes for a career that will take him into old age, it looks like he's found one.
So don't say you've not been warned. When you're about ready for your old age pension, you'll turn on your television screen (it'll be built into your head by then) and see a three-D image of an ancient Calvert busily engrossed in a chat show discussing the Alfalfa crop collective farmers of Signus 5's latest dramatic attempt to revive the ancient art of songwriting. With a suave English smile, Calvert will twirl his cigarette holder and intone something like:
"Ah yes...I wrote some songs once...my, how time flies when you're enjoying yourself!"