Saturday, 24 November 2012

Technicians of Spaceship Earth - History Part 7

To most people who have heard of them, Hawkwind are the one hit wonders responsible for a chart hit, Silver Machine, in the summer of 1972. A few may also realize that the vocalist on that record was one Ian Kilminster a.k.a. the National Treasure that is Lemmy, founder and figurehead of raucous racket-makers Motorhead. All of this is true, but it is also the tip of a very large iceberg which did much to sink my capacity for rational thought in the mid-seventies.

Growing up in a nice middle class household in a nice middle class village several miles from the nice middle class city of Chester back then, opportunities to hear live rock music were few and far between. Folk-rockers Steeleye Span did make an annual visit to the ABC Cinema and I expect a few pubs hosted gigs, but at 14 I was some way off being able to bluff my way past an age check (it was possible then, as few people carried the age-related I.D. that is now de rigeur). There was at least one club, "Quaintways", in Chester that put on gigs but they seemed to be late on a Monday night and getting there and back, supposing the parents agreed, was an insurmountable obstacle. Consequently a trip to Manchester or Liverpool was required to see almost any band, let alone one you might have heard of.

Late in 1974 one of my peers announced that he was going with his big brother to a gig in Liverpool by Hawkwind. A bit of research revealed that the concert was at Liverpool Stadium. This was not Anfield but a run-down indoor boxing venue used by the dockers union for strike meetings. The gig being on Saturday January 18th 1975, this was just as well! Well, not only was Silver Machine still relatively fresh in the memory, but the band's most recent album "Hall of the Mountain Grill" had done the home-taping circuit and been found quite uplifting and different. If I'm honest, I had not been knocked out by it, but it did  fall into a sort of middle ground between the straightforward guitar riffage of the Quo and the techno-classical-pomp of ELP. 

In fact Hawkwind's musical formula at that time was largely a guitar riff supported by Lemmy's undoubted power as a bass player, over which keyboard and other electronic effects were laid to give a richer texture. A couple of the tracks on HOTMG had been recorded live, as was Silver Machine, so it was pretty clear that in this case if you saw them live they might well sound like they did on record. Experience was to show that this could not be said for all bands! Anyway (and I can't remember on whose initiative) four more of us decided that it was time to see what all the fuss was about when it came to live music. It was something of a music-press mantra that the live experience was a cut above listening to a recording and while I don't remember seeing much T.V. coverage of live music beyond brief snatches of screaming girls at Beatles concerts, there was surely no smoke without fire.

Thus a few weeks later we caught the train from Chester to Liverpool, clutching our £1.25 tickets for entry. We set off in the morning as the seating was unreserved and if you're going to splash out you want a decent view. Resigned to queuing for hours, we had not reckoned on it being one of the coldest days of the winter. Well, it certainly felt like it was. Arriving at the venue we found a small but committed bunch of largely hirsute males being properly British and queuing in a nice orderly fashion. We joined them. After about half an hour the need for warmth and a toilet caused us to pair up and start a rota of thawing out over hot chocolate at a nearby cafe while the other two kept our places. At one point one of us (no names, but it wasn't me) started to agitate for giving up and going home, but as his parents were booked to give us a lift back at the end of the night, he was pressed into staying! 

As the sun set and it got really cold, a girl just ahead of us in the queue handed round a bottle of what she described as potato wine. Now I had had wine at 14, but not much of it and certainly nothing that could have compared with whatever was in that bottle. It's not unusual for people to joke about how a drink tastes like paint-stripper or some other caustic substance but this was no joke. To this day I wonder if it was some sort of home-distilled spirit. Eastern Europe has, after all, done quite well turning spuds into vodka. Whatever it was, a couple of swigs were enough to warm the core, even if the extremities were beyond reach.

Maybe an hour before the doors were due to open, ticket touts turned up. Would we sell our tickets? At a profit? Again, one of our number was tempted but restrained. We'd suffered this long and I for one was not going anywhere. How old were we, the tout demanded, before assuring us that at our age we would be unable to appreciate the fine entertainment that awaited within. Or words to that effect. That clinched it, of course, and I still know very well not to tell a kid that they're not old enough to do something if I don't want them to do it!

Finally the doors did open and a small stampede ensued as the prospective audience jostled for what each perceived as best position. We could have been right at the front, but we decided against this. There were plenty of people bigger than us and anyway, it was clear that the stage had a projection screen behind it and you don't choose to sit at the front of a cinema.Or right next to a stack of loudspeakers three times taller than you are. This turned out to be a good call, although it also rendered the act of queuing all day largely superfluous as we probably could have ended up where we did by turning up less than an hour beforehand. Live and learn.

It soon became evident that many, if not most, of our fellow punters were planning on applying chemical enhancement to their appreciation of what was to follow. There was no ban on smoking in public places then, although tobacco was not, quite frankly, the only weed being consumed.

After a restless wait while the hall filled up, a lone figure with an acoustic guitar took the stage to an almost universally hostile reception. How Al Matthews, then a folk musician, was appointed support to a psychedelic rock band I've no idea.I guess that at the time he came cheap,but the poor guy could barely be heard above the heckling, booing and generally hostile cacophony. A former U.S.Marine, he would later become the first black presenter on Radio1 and enjoy considerable success as a movie actor, most memorably Sergeant Apone in Aliens, as well as a hit single in "Fool", thus arguably eclipsing the achievements of the headliners. So while I felt sorry for him then, he clearly didn't let it get him down.
Check him out here: AL MATTHEWS .

Another wait, during which the audience became pretty rowdy,and we were introduced to the mid-seventies gig tradition of Wally! Not sure the origin of this, bu t it would involve individual or multiple orchestrated members of the audience bellowing "WALLY!" at the tops of their voice(s). Other members would respond in kind until the hall was all calling for Wally. It can't have been anything to do with the "Where's Wally" book phenomenon, as that didn't begin until over a decade later. There was a prog-rock band of that name, but I'm not sure that had anything to do with it either. A wally was a euphemism for an idiot for some time, so perhaps that was it. If you have a theory, do please add it to the comments! Whatever the origin, it did pass that gap during which roadies intoned "One Two" over and over into various microphones.

At last the house-lights went out, the stage was flooded with smoke or dry ice and Hawkwind kicked off their show. They were still performing most of the audio-visual concept "Space Ritual" that had been financed with the proceeds from the Silver Machine hit, with much of Hall of the Mountain Grill mixed in. At this point I hadn't heard the double album of Space Ritual, partially recorded at this very venue, so I wasn't ready for the spoken word introduction and interludes between songs. These had been variously composed by Robert Calvert (then on sabbatical from Hawkwind attending to the mental illness that haunted him for the rest of his life) and Michael Moorcock, a science fiction/fantasy writer whose work I later became very keen on. By pure coincidence, when I got home I noticed that the story in the programme ("A Dead Singer" about how Hendrix was alive and well and being driven round the country in a camper van) was by the same Michael Moorcock whose book "The Lord of the Spiders" I had brought (and failed) to read in the queue. Fate or somesuch.

Anyway, the speech (poetry some would say) explained that we were off on some sort of space trip.Out of the general swirling noise of signal generators and synthesizers being twiddled with erupted one of the familiar riffs from HOTMG and.....What. A. Noise !!!

I've heard it said by a fan of a particular record (Miles Davis' Kind of Blue) that seeing a first time buyer of the album provokes some jealousy because they are about to hear it for the first time, and that experience can never be repeated. Well, likewise, hearing rock music at high volume, professionally amplified so that your diaphragm vibrates in sympathy with the throb of the bass and the high-pitched swoosh of a synthesizer threatens to knock you out for the first time is unrepeatable. Perhaps the fact that it was Hawkwind is irrelevant. Maybe any band that night would have had the same effect. Yet, for a number of reasons, I doubt it.

Firstly, while the music is fairly crude in isolation should you feel the need to analyse it, it does have power.Not quite the frenetic pace of Motorhead, perhaps, but Lemmy's bass keeps the thing moving at a tempo not far from punk rock. The synthesizer embellishments were also, if not ground-breaking, then certainly unusual and used effectively. Simon House's violin was another relatively unusual element for a rock band and Nik Turner's sax, well for better or worse, he does his own thing. As he said in the sleeve notes of the first Hawkwind album, he "just digs freaking about on saxophones"!

Secondly, there was the visual element. Credited in advertising as an act in their own right, the lighting crew was known as Liquid Len and The Lensmen, an outfit run by Jonathan Smeeton, a lighting designer who went on to work for the Rolling Stones and many others. Their trademark was the use of sequenced still pictures on rapidly rotating discs in front of high-powered projectors. These became animated when projected onto the screen behind the band. In the days before affordable video, this "flickbook" method of stroboscopic sequencing was probably more reliable and cheaper than running 16mm film projectors which seemed almost exclusively the domain of Pink Floyd. It also allowed for an element of spontaneity as the sequences' speed could be adjusted to keep time with the music. Images produced this way included a dragon flapping its wings, Pegasus (ditto), explosions and more abstract colour sequences. Now and again bright stroboscopes were turned on the band and/or audience and I also remember a "lightpipe", just a bigger version of the kind that now adorns many a Christmas tree, being run across the backline amplifiers.

Also part of the visual presentation was the legendary Stacia (Blake), a lady of imposing stature and figure who would appear on-stage and interpret the music as she felt appropriate. Although she was known for doing so nude I'm pretty sure that she kept her (admittedly revealing) clothes on for this one, although I may have missed something. To this day, Hawkwind still use dancers, although last time I saw them they were on stilts! Some of this may sound more vaudeville than rock and roll, but the accumulated effect was to give a sense of confusion and chaos which worked well with the narrative of what was going on, to the extent that that itself made any sense. The effect of the lighting and the strobing in particular, which I suspect may have crept past the legal limit, was literally mesmerising, so that it was hard to look anywhere but at the stage.

Thirdly, and I am really speculating here, there is the issue of passive smoking. I have since wondered whether, as the atmosphere was so heavily fogged with marijuana smoke, I got high on everyone else's supply. The tout who despaired at our youth also claimed that without chemical enhancement, Hawkwind would be lost on us, and yet they weren't lost on us at all. I loved every minute of it! Anyone know if that might be the case?

The show reached its climax with Sonic Attack, a dystopian rant about how to cope with "imminent sonic destruction", followed by Master of the Universe (the original version of which turned up last week on a Ford B-Max advertisement, forty years after its release). An encore of Silver Machine segued from another song and that was that.

The abiding memory is of bright flashing lights and rib-shaking volume. Quite simply, the most exciting two hours of my life up to that point. Why? Well, it hadn't had a lot of competition. A few pantomimes, otherwise not much in the way of live performance had passed my way at that point. And certainly nothing that loud or visually chaotic. Like the best books, and gigs, the end left me feeling almost bereaved, wishing it had gone on longer or even forever.

On the way out a crush developed at the merchandising stall. I didn't have enough money for a T-Shirt but spent what I had on a poster. The weight of people was gradually pushing the trestle table and those serving behind it closer to the wall. Eventually an understandably miffed Hawk-minion jumped onto the table and addressed the multitude in terms that are quoted to this day by me and and my companions. "Stop pushing", he bellowed "and ACT FUCKING CIVILISED ! It was a good natured if badly behaved crowd and his words were heeded, at least long enough for me to conclude my transaction and make for the door.

2 days later my ears were still ringing and I would bore anyone who came close with what a second-to-none Saturday I had had. And from then until now, I scanned the music press (now the internet) for news of rock shows I could not afford to miss.


  1. Well, as a first gig that certainly beats Vardis at Stroud Leisure Centre! ( Although it was fun at the time - hey, I was only 14! )
    I always wished I'd seen Hawkwind back in the day, although that would have been about 1981 for me.
    In fact, I was meant to see them once but the gig was cancelled due to snow... surely not too much of a problem for the psychedelic overlords...

    Anyway it's always a pleasure to read your looks back at gigs gone by. The past was, as someone once said, a different country.

    ( BTW as I started to read this post I began thinking about Moorcock's A Dead Singer for some reason... only to see you mention it further down. Spooky maaaan! )

    "It's got to build up again soon," said Mo. "It can't last, can it? I mean, everything's so dead. What have we got apart from Hawkwind really? And Bowie, maybe.Where's the energy going to come from, Jimi?"

    1. Cheers my Aardvaark friend! I reckon I've seen them at least 9 times since, but as I said, you can't quite repeat that first frisson! Still, sometime I'll get round to chronicling the subsequent encounters, most of which had something to recommend them. They're on in Bath on my birthday next year, but I fear my better half is not enthused...

  2. Bath, eh? I might give that one a go...