Graded on a Curve: Hawkwind, PXR5

What do I know about Hawkwind? Jack Shit, I’m afraid. Okay, I know Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister spent three years in the band. And I know they play what they call “space rock,” which I’m not quite sure what that means but what I hear is a sort of hybrid of Neu-style Krautrock and acid rock with lots of prog-lite keyboards and sci-fi lyrics, some based on the writings of such top-notch futuristic writers as Michael Moorcock—who had his own band, Michael Moorcock’s Deep Fix—and J.G. Ballard.

Unfortunately, I hate science fiction almost as much as I hate Hobbits, which I shoot on sight with my sister’s cat rifle in Drúadan Forest, which most people are surprised to learn is located in York, Pennsylvania. And when I feel the need to explore outer space, I generally stick to the weird and wonderful skronk and star-fire headpiece of Sun Ra and His Arkestra, because Sun Ra wasn’t just obsessed with space, he was a bona fide citizen. (I have my brother Sterno to thank for my Sun Ra obsession; he owns some 168 Sun Ra LPs, including an extremely rare 45-minute bootleg of Ra brushing his teeth. For a bootleg, the sound quality is excellent.)

Well, the joke, as usual, is on me, because I finally checked out England’s Hawkwind, and they kick interstellar ass. Many of their songs travel at warp speed and they all have great melodies, and if I don’t always like the lyrics it doesn’t much matter, because I’m pressed back into my easy chair with the G-forces turning my mouth into a sideways O and flattening my nose against my left cheek. Or they drone on in a cool, slower way that is every bit as satisfying. In short, Hawkwind knows how to rock, and should it ever decide to roll, the existence of planet Earth itself could be in peril.

Since 1969, when a nascent Hawkwind (then calling themselves Group X) impressed John Peel at their first ever gig with an extended version of The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” the band has gone through gads of musicians and released some 27 studio albums and a shitload of live LPs. Out of that star fleet of LPs I decided to review PXR5. Hawkwind purists may bitch and moan, and say it’s not their best work or that they’d have preferred something from the band’s Lemmy period, but PXR5 sounds just groovy to me. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to write about “Reefer Madness” or the magnificent “LSD,” but everybody knows space and drugs don’t mix, because “lost in space” isn’t just a metaphor and you might drive your spaceship straight into the sun.

Recorded in 1978 but not released until 1979, the year my pig farmer buddy Bill and I drove our own rocket ship (in the form of an El Camino) into the black hole of an oak tree, PXR5 was Hawkwind’s ninth studio LP and featured Robert Calvert and Dave Brock—who also played guitar and keyboards—on vocals, Adrian Shaw on bass, Simon House on violin and keyboards, and Simon King on drums. They were breaking the English law that prohibited two Simons from being in the same band at the same time, but they didn’t care because they were outlaws and renegades and recorded the LP in a secret cavern beneath Stonehenge and besides, Simon House was listed in the original album’s credits as Percival Swinburne Merkin III.

Hawkwind isn’t precisely a hard rock band, as I’ve heard them described; they’re too streamlined sounding and lacking in heavy metal thunder for that. (They remind me of Blue Oyster Cult in this respect.) And they’re too weird too, as “Life Form” demonstrates. But speedfreaks they sometimes are, and I’m not talking in an insectoid and emaciated methed-up Lou Reed way, but in terms of sheer velocity. Hawkwind enjoyed breaking the speed limit every bit as much as they enjoyed their sci-fi classics, as they prove on PXR5, which includes a salute to the great J.G. Ballard (the one sci-fi writer I do enjoy) and his novel High Rise.

PXR5 opener “Death Trap” is an instant classic, a rocket-fueled and very catchy tune that forgoes the heaviness of Bachman and Turner for sheer overdrive. It opens with drums and guitar and a cool whooshing keyboard noise, then Calvert’s vocals kick in, and from there on it’s a straight shot down the intergalactic freeway to aural ecstasy. “Feel like Jesus Christ heading for the Stations… of the Cross,” sings Calvert as the guitars and drums kick alien keister and those electronic whooshes come in and out. There then follows an excellent guitar solo, then another guitar takes over as House makes a weird din on keyboards, and from then on it’s just lots of start and stop and a about two hundred calls of “Death trap! Death trap!” until another great guitar comes in and the calls of “Death trap! Death trap!” resume, until Calvert closes things down with the dark words “Death wish.”

“Jack of Shadows”—which is very reminiscent of Blue Oyster Cult to this guy, what with its not-very heavy guitars, Allen Lanier-like keyboards, and evil-lite lyrics based on Roger Zelazny’s 1971 novel Jack of Shadows—is another speedy number with a great melody, and opens with a guitar playing a cool riff, then the drums come in and Calvert sings, “Jack of Shadows, nocturnal outlaw/Daemon of darkness, brother to the night/Jack of Shadows, what’s he hanging out for?/King of the dimensions, the other side of light.” Well, he could be hanging out in hopes of a dinner invitation, but it doesn’t matter, not with the cool chorus (“And when the flames flare/Flickering forms of velvet dark/He plays his games there/It’s only Jack of Shadows, he’s lit up by a spark/To run into the umbra, as fast as a shark”), the fantastic guitar riffs that follow, and Simon House’s outside-the-earth’s-orbit keyboard solo, which probably helps to explain why some people refer to Hawkwind as a progressive rock band. And meanwhile that cool riff goes on until the song ends with Calvert repeating “Jack of Shadows” followed by some very celestial but earthbound “Sha la la las.”

The Neu-influenced “Uncle Sam on Mars” evolved from the instrumental “Opa Loka” on 1975’s Warrior on the Edge of Time. “Uncle Sam on Mars” features a cameo by none of than Dick “Dick” Nixon and is a condemnation of the United States’ spending bazillions on space exploration while conditions on Earth are going to shit. It opens with some far-out guitar noise, then the drums charge in and a guitar riff by Brock that you don’t need a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram to know is great is joined by House’s quasar keys, and together they establish a great metagalactic groove. Calvert sings, “Science is making the same mistakes, but Uncle Sam’s on Mars/No one down here knows how to work the brakes, but Uncle Sam’s on Mars.”

Then the chorus (“Uncle Sam’s on Mars, etc.”) comes in and House continues to make strange sounds on his keyboards while the guitar fires off notes as fiery as solar flares and after another chorus/verse go-round and some more cosmic jive guitar by Brock Calvert repeats, “He’s looking for life.” Then Tricky Dick comes in via telephone to some astronauts to talk about how “this certainly must be the most exciting telephone call ever made here on Earth/I just can’t tell you how proud we all are/For every American this has to be the proudest day” and other bull hockey as the vocalists bark out “Looking for life” over him.

And so it goes until Calvert and Brock sing dismissively, “MacDonalds’ Hamburger/Construction works/And he’s looking for life/Looking for life to wind up/He’s looking for life to stamp out/He’s looking for life to grind out,” soon after which Calvert goes into a great mocking anti-U.S. monologue overlaid by some terminator guitar riffs that goes in part: “I hope you brought your credit card with you/And I hope you know how to drive on these long, lonely freeways and intersections we’ve got up here/We’ve got two cars in the garage, two cars in the garage, and drum-majorettes in white ankle socks and baton twirling on Sundays” after which the song ends in a great supernova of sound.

“Infinity” is the kind of abstract title I hate, but fortunately the song is great. It includes lyrics from a poem on Hawkwind’s 1973 LP The Space Ritual Alive in London and Liverpool, not that anybody really cares, and is a slow burner with lots of distortion on Calvert’s vocals. “Infinity” goes heavy on the keyboards and boasts a truly beautiful melody, one of the most lovely I’ve heard in eons. The song opens with a small explosion and comes out of the void with Calvert singing, “I used to be of human kind/I had a life to lead/But now I’m frozen in a dream/My life is lost it seems” while House’s piano makes unearthly pleasing sounds. The chorus is fantastically fetching, as are the constant repetitions of “Infinity,” and I love the weird fluttering noises House creates as much as I love the background vocals that come in, along with lots of cool keyboard buzz and hum, as the song comes to its close. You can say what you want about PXR5, which was surrounded by controversy and long considered one of Hawkwind’s lesser efforts, but I say that “Infinity” alone makes the album worth not only owning, but treasuring.

The too brief instrumental “Life Form” features a keyboard drone I could listen to forever. Punctuated by eerie space winds—yes, they do exist—and a more melodic keyboard riff, it progs along for a while before lifting off, getting louder and louder like a space ship firing its thrusters or some lower form of life achieving mighty sentience, as some unintelligibly distorted vocals speak in Plutonian or Peruvian or PCP. I love it and I’m not quite sure why, except I find myself hoping that this new form of life, whatever it is, will knock humanity off the top of evolution’s pecking order forever.

The long and mid-tempo “Robot” isn’t my favorite song on the album, sounding as it does like a track off an Alan Parsons Project or Styx LP. And I don’t care much Brock’s histrionic vocals, either. We’re all robots, saith Hawkwind: “Automated homunculus, you queue for the paper/You queue for the bus, you’re a “good morning” machine/You’re a “how are you?” device/Sit back, light up, never put a fight up/Sit there fuming until your face goes green.” Personally I resent being called a robot—excuse me for a moment while I readjust my gripper assembly—and that may partly account for my ambivalence about the song.

That said “Robot” has its pleasures, not the least of which is its opening’s tuff guitar riffs and big keyboards, to say nothing of the long and heavily modulated violin solo House plays while his keyboards flash like solar flares in and out and Brock backs him up with some chunky riffs. It goes on and on, House’s super-high frequency violin, until it finally ascends to the roof of the heavens and degenerates into freaky feedback. Finally, I’m a fan of the very hard riffs late in the song, and the way the band spells out “Robot” again and again, because I like to hear Englishmen spell (they’re so quaint!) almost as much as I like the way the song speeds up and ends in a keyboard din that sounds like the moon exploding.

“High Rise” is wonderful, a slow and keyboard-driven tune about J.G. Ballard’s dystopian high-rise from Hell. It reminds me a lot of Pink Floyd, and opens with Adrian Shaw’s throbbing bass, which is prominent through the song. Then House’s keyboards come in, Calvert sings while House contributes some weird warbling noises, and the band establishes a very catchy groove that doesn’t change throughout the song. I love the chorus, which basically repeats, “High rise/Living in a high rise” and is sung by Calvert and Brock, as well as the natty organ and guitar solos by House and Brock, respectively. Meanwhile as Calvert sings the verses Brock (I assume) sings behind him, and the lyrics bear quoting: “Starfish/Of human blood shape/Tentacles of human gore/Spread out on the pavement from the 99th floor/Well somebody said he jumped/But we know he was pushed/He was just like you might have been/On the 99th floor of a suicide machine.” Then House’s organ reaches a crescendo, and the band repeats the chorus as the song comes to an end.

Album closer “PXR5” is space rock at its spaciest, and opens with some cosmic noise and a couple of distorted voices repeating “PXR5,” then the song kicks at a speed that would lead to a $1,000,000 speeding ticket in the state of Virginia. Brock sings on this one, along with Calvert, and the first verse is great: “Two years ago our nova-drive failed and we drifted in space/ But now repaired our motors run to continue the race/Three of our crew who were with us then did not survive/Their life supports could not take the strain and so they died.” Calvert and Brock sing the chorus, then sing “PXR5” over and over again, and so it goes with Simon King contributing some great drumming until Brock plays a solo from Pluto, and the song slows down to an ominous and staccato beat. Then a few big drum crashes come in along with House’s baroque keyboards, and the guys sing “PXR5” over and over again. At the very end Brock sings, “And we will pursue the race/That made us outlaws of this space/And led us to become a seed of life,” the song speeds up to the accompaniment of a big whooshing wind, and the vocalists repeat “PXR5” again, at which point the song comes to an end.

What can I say? I dig Hawkwind so much I intend to purchase all their albums (absurd lie), even if their sci-fi themes turn me into a goddamn trekkie. It’s worth the risk, especially after I listened to “Silver Machine” and realized it’s not only a great song, it’s an unacknowledged glam classic to boot. And then I listened to “Master of The Universe,” and wow, infernally wonderful song, another classic. Ditto “Motorhead,” “Born to Go,” and “Hurry On Sundown,” which sounds frighteningly like the title of an Outlaws song. Except the Outlaws, being earthbound Southern rockers, never bravely journeyed from galaxy to galaxy like Hawkwind in quest of the perfect groove, which I’m happy to report they discovered, and which is much more beautiful and important than any silly moon rock. And they didn’t have to spend billions to find it, either. Shit, they didn’t even have to leave the recording studio.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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  • music expert

    Hawkwind? Listening to them since I was a kid_ glad you found them. And so popular in the UK anyone from there us probably laughing as they read this while moaning, well, duh. And two Simons? Big deal, it’s England. Deep Purple had two Ians for the longest time. I (US citizen) was in a band with two Johns (not toilets, stupid) so it means as much as an Arabic band with two Mohammads.

  • Michael Little

    Yeah, I know, I know. But I was a rather dim kid (and adult) and always thought Hawkwind was like a prog band and I hate prog more than I hate Pentangle. And the two Simons bit was a joke. Although the name’s far rarer here than in the U.K. so I don’t think most Amerikkkans would find a band with two Simons common. As for Deep Purple, they could have had five Ians, and I still wouldn’t like them. But that’s just me. And I’d love to hear an Arabic band, two Mohammeds or not. We need more Arabic Rock! Anyway, thanks for reading. And if people want to laugh at what I write, I welcome it, especially from Brits. What do they know? They invented Haircut 100! Your pal, Mike

  • sam

    We just opened for Nik Turner’s Space Ritual. They were a vivid recreation of the only era of Hawkwind I care about. Nik played for 90 minutes. Pretty good for a dude in his mid 70s.

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