Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: Hawkwind
Why it’s daunting: Steeped in hippie mysticism, science fiction, arcane energies, and what must be some staggeringly potent acid, Hawkwind has never aimed for the lowest common denominator. Formed in 1969, the legendary British band has spent the last 44 years skirting the edges of the collective unconscious—first as a remnant of the psychedelic ’60s, then as an increasingly diverse and inscrutable collective known for its almost tribal pull. But beneath the crusty, druggy caricature of Hawkwind lurks an iconic group of subcultural pioneers. From the droning pulse of space rock—a genre the band all but invented—to its influence on everything from punk to metal to electronica, Hawkwind has explored depths of sound and thought that few musicians dare to admit exist. Add to that a catalog that penetrates five decades—not to mention a sprawling array of offshoots and solo projects—and it’s no wonder Hawkwind’s image and legacy are among the most impenetrable in rock.
Possible gateway: X In Search Of Space
Why: Accessibility has never been one of Hawkwind’s hallmarks, yet the band was briefly a viable hit-making entity in its native England. In the early ’70s, co-founders Dave Brock and Nik Turner followed their unfocused debut album, 1970’s Hawkwind, with the more assured and forceful X In Search Of Space. Released in 1971, the album borrows its cosmic-echo rhythms from the burgeoning Krautrock movement (the group even swiped bassist Dave Anderson from Krautrock outfit Amon Düül II). Combined with the menacing dementedness of Piper At The Gates Of Dawn-era Pink Floyd—plus a dose of spectral folk and some eerie, lost-in-spacetime synthesizers—those rhythms became mesmerizing. And not in a therapeutic way. Like a psychotic mirage synched to a postindustrial beat, X In Search Of Space placed a posthypnotic suggestion in the record-buying public—at least enough to propel the album into the charts. But it’s also a great introduction to Hawkwind, poised halfway between a pit of dark dreams and the vast, awesome heavens.
Hawkwind’s fluke blip in popularity culminated in the 1972 single “Silver Machine,” which miraculously reached the top 10 in England. Not that it isn’t catchy in its ranting, pummeling endorsement of time travel. Although released a few months after X In Search Of Space, “Silver Machine” has since become a bonus track of the full-length’s reissue. And it fits well with the album as a whole, serving as a punchy encapsulation of Hawkwind’s spacious sound. Part of that has to do with the song’s haggard lead vocals, delivered by bassist and new recruit Ian “Lemmy” Kilmeister—three years before he’d leave Hawkwind to form the band he became much more famous for, Motörhead.
Next steps: Lemmy’s stint with Hawkwind includes four albums that are excellent portals to some of the band’s deeper dimensions. Some of that can be credited to Lemmy, whose driving, knife-edged bass lines tether the group’s hazier tendencies. But really, the early ’70s was when Hawkwind reached its zenith all around. 1972’s Doremi Fasol Latido ably expands the scope of X In Search Of Space, while 1974’s Hall Of The Mountain Grill is a majestic meltdown of a masterpiece that nonetheless sees the group tightening its focus—such as on the throbbing, chant-like opening track “The Psychedelic Warlords (Disappear In Smoke),” which might as well be Hawkwind’s theme song.
Sandwiched between Doremi Fasol Latido and Hall Of The Mountain Grill is the double live album Space Ritual. Not only does it perfectly capture Hawkwind’s meltdown aesthetic, it features the first full appearance of the late Robert Calvert, a singer from the Syd Barrett school of mad genius. Calvert also sang on the doomed 1973 single “Urban Guerilla” (routinely included as a bonus track on Doremi Fasol Latido)—a sarcastic anthem in which Calvert extols the virtues of domestic terrorism. Unfortunately the single’s release coincided with a rash of IRA bombings in London, leading to its withdrawal and a ban by the BBC. It also happens to be one of Hawkwind’s most incredible songs, eschewing the trappings of trippiness for a militant attack that feels indebted to The MC5—and presages punk by a few years.
Hawkwind’s involvement in science fiction and fantasy wasn’t purely academic. Michael Moorcock—one of the legends of genre literature—was heavily involved in the counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s, and he became aligned with Hawkwind after his friend Calvert joined the band. Not only did he contribute lyrics and occasionally join the group on stage, his work wound up being the basis of the 1975 Hawkwind album Warrior On The Edge Of Time. Based loosely on Moorcock’s Eternal Champion mythos (and featuring his guest vocals), it’s not the greatest Hawkwind full-length of the era. Although conceptually intriguing, it’s not as sharply produced nor as energetic as its predecessors, mostly due to tensions within the band that would soon result in Lemmy’s dismissal—plus a change in musical direction that would signal the group’s permanent underground status. But Warrior On The Edge Of Time still boasts some of Hawkwind’s most indelible songs, including the symphonic, prog overload of “The Golden Void (Part 2).”
Where not to start: As detailed in the BBC’s excellent 2007 documentary Hawkwind: Do Not Panic, Hawkwind suffered a decline in fortunes after the relatively successful Warrior On The Edge Of Time. With Lemmy (and Nik Turner) gone and Calvert introducing a more rarified, even theatrical atmosphere, the band ushered out the ’70s with a string of albums that stripped Hawkwind of much of its psychedelic flourishes. What was left is still fantastic—but the influence of punk and new wave increasingly creeps into Hawkwind’s sound, resulting in more polished songs that lack the brute force and stoned enthusiasm of its heyday. Discs like 1977’s Quark, Strangeness And Charm signal a shift to the more fractured, esoteric entity that Hawkwind was about to become.
By the time Turner briefly rejoined Hawkwind in 1982, Brock had begun experimenting with minimalism, synthesized ambience, and cold, robotic loops. Hawkwind had always embraced futurism in its own idiosyncratic way, but now it seemed as though Brock was taking that idea that too literally—and himself too seriously. Still, there’s a wealth of incredible material that the group released in the ’80s, most notably 1985’s The Chronicle Of The Black Sword. Another collaboration with Moorcock, it more intimately connects the author’s work with the band’s—and it’s also a return to form, a rousing and melodic hard-rock record with frequent bursts of inspired, phantasmagoric lunacy.
Hawkwind floundered in the ’90s and beyond, with Brock straying further into mediocre electronica and eventually suing Turner for performing Hawkwind songs under the name xhawkwind.com (which was subsequently changed to Space Ritual, a band he still fronts). That conflict all but ensured that no classic lineup of the band would ever reunite. Yet Turner has kept busy over the years; his myriad side projects and solo albums include some true gems, including the ’80s psychedelic punk outfit Inner City Unit and the ethereal Nik Turner’s Sphynx. Before leaving Hawkwind in 1979, the volatile Calvert also released a pair of amazing solo albums, especially the Brian Eno-produced Lucky Leif And The Longships from 1975. His death in 1988 adds an aura of tragedy to Calvert’s legacy as a troubled yet gifted artist, but his tangential work—along with other such Hawkwind marginalia—is better explored after getting immersed in the basics.