|Hawkwind: Winning or Waning?
This article appeared in Sounds on July 6th, 1974.
bags in the park rolling up joints.
A mere eight hundred of them had turned up to see Hawkwind in the Concertgebouw. In the middle of the
stalls they were still falling over each other in the darkness and disorientation,but from the balcony the gaping
empty ranks of seats were all too plain to see. The average age of the Hawkfans: round about sixteen or
seventeen. The average age of Hawkwind is about thirty. They have been going for some four or five years,
about two of them as one of the biggest-drawing acts in Britain (total aggregate of gig attendances during the
course of a year). During that time they have had one hit single, three steadily-selling albums, have played two
tours of America.
Hawkwind are also broke, again: broke in the sense that there is no liquid cash available to continue running a
band which costs some thousand pounds a week, gigging or not. How does it happen? And why is the band's
manager Douglas Smith even now, as the crowd are cheering the encore, having a barney with the Dutch
promoter? Why are they still struggling to bridge the gap between now and a proposed return tour of America
on which they stand â€” if they can keep it together until then â€” to make good money and, as we say in da
bizniz, break in a big way?
Of all the groups Britain has spawned since 1967, none has ever suffered from such a huge credibility gap as
Hawkwindâ€™s. Sometimes, it seems, nobody really believes them at all. Punters who congratulate
themselves on their good taste groan when they are mentioned. Music Journalists devise a thousand and one
excuses, each more ingenious than the last, to avoid going to their gigs. Rock critics, never at a loss for a
quick conclusion, spring question marks from the top of their heads and reckon that it proves that punters still
do acid. Music business stalwarts, for whom record sales are usually the final criterion of approval, fail to
notice that the band's albums have sold steadily and are all kept pressed up. Record companies throw up their
hands in horror at the idea of trying to market a cult.
But, when all's said and done, enough people show up at enough gigs to keep this expensive show turning
over. And organisation runs through the set too, now. Take the tuning ritual, for example. I've seen bands
lose themselves huge reserves of sympathy merely by blowing their entry, by twanging and banging and
shouting one-two for a quarter-hour after their appearance on stage. Not so Hawkwind: the twangs and bleeps
and whistles come together over the course of five minutes in darkness, with space-views whirling behind
them on the backdrop. They thicken, twine and mat into a dense texture and suddenly, without your noticing,
they are into the set.
And if the rhythm section is simple, simple to the point of utter banality, it certainly never misses. It keeps
going. And going. Their secret is never to stop and let up and let the head clear out, for a moment, the reeling
senses, the ears that won't hear, the eyes that won't focus properly. At the end of every piece, swooping
synthesizer slides across the gap, and the restless cosmic images change again.
There are some lighter moments, like Nik Turner's absurd frog-like dance with Stacia at the opening. Stacia
herself does not take off her clothes any more. She says that there was a certain amount of embarrassment
with middle-aged blokes like bouncers and hall porters, who are unaccountably fascinated by her formidable
charms and would shout advice and encouragement from the back of the hall, which detracted from the
serious psychedelics in hand.
Then there is the opening act, Al Matthews. He's a real curiosity. A genuine black American with a slightly
expanding waistline and a good line in jive...he's a friend of Doug Smith's (lives opposite in Acton) and
gradually, well, he's just become part of the Hawk ensemble. He's good, but it's doubtful if the Amsterdam
audience with its appetite for cosmic comics had much idea of what they were hearing. Al has lived in Britain
and Europe for five years and even played a stint with Richie Havens, from whom he's obviously learned a
thing or two, but tricks like the backwards exit from the stage, still strumming furiously, are delivered more
tongue-in-cheek than in the style of the serious folk artist. Really I feel he would prefer to be playing sophisti-
soul with a tight little band than doing this ethnic folkie pitch, and anyone who asks a Hawkwind audience
"Are you in showbiz too?" I must congratulate.
Talking later to Nik Turner at the group's hotel, an unpretentious but stiff little establishment near Dam
Square, I get the impression that he is confused about Hawkwind's real role today. Disclaiming at first that the
band is about anything other than music, he later says that he still thinks the band represents a real and
tangible way of life for many people. Not so much directly, in the sense that they endorse any particular
ecological, social or political views, just that their way of life is one which can still exist.
For it is still true that the group live a very open, shifting life. It is true that they save money against the rainy
day that will surely come. But Dave Brock, despite buying a farm in Devon, lives with his freak friends in
Portobello Road when in town: Nik is of no fixed address; Stacia too always seems to be looking for
somewhere to stay. But they are authentic hippies I guess: they do give what they can: they make a point of
not being aggressive or unpleasantly egocentric. They feel responsible for their fans, and write letters back if
at all possible. The volume of fanmail is remarkable: most of it sincere, some of it very attractive: some Dutch
people gave the group several interesting posters of their own.
For though Hawkwind have become token hippies, the irony is that for the most part they are real hippies â€”
Nik certainly admitted feeling distressed that "hippy" was now used as a term of abuse. But how many hippies
are there left, really? For in Amsterdam, that supposed citadel of the type the cold fact is that they pulled only
one-third capacity at the Concertgebouw. Perhaps the hippies were too busy posing in the parks and lounging
around red light district. "We're all riding on the American Express..." Maybe it's a simple question of
business, after all: that the promoter was not contracted to a guarantee; that the town was pitifully short of
Hawkwind posters (Barney Bubbles' latest, and very striking, effort): that not enough work had gone into
"marketing" them. Cults can look after themselves, maybe.
Hawkwind have become an ideological sounding board for some of the people who still believe that something
can be salvaged from 1967; the fanmail, the graphics, the lighting expertise which is now being hired out to
"fast-breaking" acts like Sparks: the Michael Moorcock scenarios and words. At the middle of all this are
Hawkwind and the constant necessity of running the band and selling records to make all the rest possible.
So: for reasons too complex and too trivial to be detailed here, they find themselves, once again, needing to
borrow vast sums of money to make the album possible to get the product to the American record company
to get the promotional backup to attract the American promoters to give good guarantees to make it
worthwhile to make people take notice that...well, that Hawkwind are still around. But is anybody listening?
Inside the hall the crowd were stamping and
whistling and shouting for more. The
occasional hippy dressed in regulation Levis
and tee shirt stumbled out into the brightly lit,
airy corridors of the Concertgebouw,
adjusting his eyes and ears after that total
assault on the senses of "Masters Of The
Universe". From the corridor the band had a
curiously submarine sound, as though that
irresistible roaring, rushing sound came from
twenty thousand fathoms, on the sea bed, but
when the doors swung open it was more like a
blast-furnace door opening: the full force of
the inferno made you involuntarily wince and
move one hand to fold down your ears.
Outside Amsterdam's cool, elegant concert
hall, which has hosted many of the most
magnificent classical recordings made, it was
a fine Summer evening in a quiet, but posh
residential suburb. The foreign hippies had
cleared away from Dam Square, where they
sit all day to talk and 'take in the atmosphere'
and the cleaning department had hosed away
all trace of them until the next day. Young
people dressed as, casually as for the beach or
the road to Katmandu were strolling up and
down Amsterdam's leafy canalside walks, and
the more determinedly iconoclastic individuals,
determined to take advantage of the only city
in Europe where you can smoke dope in the
streets, were doubtless lying on their sleeping