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Anniversary

40 Years On: Hawkwind's Warrior On The Edge Of Time Revisited
Danny Riley , June 26th, 2015 08:37

Danny Riley traverses the space time continuum to find Hawkwind in 1975 at a galactic crossroads

“We’re standing on the edge, on the edge of time. And it is dark, so dark on the edge of time, and we’re tired of making love.”

So intones Hawkwind’s premier nasal-voiced woodwind player and resident birdman Nik Turner on 'Standing At The Edge', one of two spoken-word tracks from the band's most conflicted album, Warrior On The Edge Of Time. The 1975 LP is frustrating and beguiling in equal measure. And his words were pertinent, since this year saw the band reach the edge in more ways than one. There was the increasingly fractious personal relationships within the group, an issue that had informed both Hawkwind’s creative purple patch and their divisive internal politics ever since the amphetamine-powered Lemmy had arrived on the scene to give the dope-addled Hawklords a much-needed injection of speed and heaviosity. Warrior also saw the band at a decidedly patchy and transitory crossroads in their musical journey. In 1975 Hawkwind were warriors on the edge of style, artistic integrity and good taste.

It’s quite easy to see this mid-point in the decade as something of a watershed year for British alternative music, a point by which the majority of well-established progressive and psychedelic rock bands (who had started in the late 60s) had reached the point of creative burnout and cultural irrelevance. Soft Machine had long since ditched Robert Wyatt to enable further jazz-fusion navel gazing; Yes had moved from the pretty excellent prog-pop of Close To The Edge to the utterly monstrous Relayer, whilst in the same year King Crimson wisely went into hibernation. Meanwhile, middling 1975 releases saw Zep and Floyd setting themselves up as pompous emperors ready to be swept away (artistically at least) by the angry proletarian tide of punk.

In the midst of this, Warrior On The Edge Of Time finds Hawkwind eager to shed their perception as Luddite one-chord wonders, and perhaps also keen to appease the progressive-oriented music press. There were ever more elaborate science fiction concepts, slicker production values and a more ‘professional’ approach to their craft. There were also literary lyrical references (to Shelley amongst others) and the more noticeable influence of keyboardist Simon House on the band’s core sound all gestured towards a statement that was more complex, more credible and more mature.

Yet crucially this new impetus towards artistic and critical respectability saw the band losing sight of what made their sound so exhilarating, at least to this writer’s ears. Earlier albums such as Doremi Fasol Latido and Space Ritual showcased Hawkwind’s sheer glorious resoluteness, their dogged single-mindedness. Not to mention their naivety, their winning formula of repetition and heaviosity, their simultaneously liberating and nihilistic view of outer space and, in the case of Space Ritual, the fact that the band seemingly always sounded better when captured live as opposed to in the studio. The former album was spliced together, Miles Davis-like, from hours of in-studio jamming, whilst the latter was recorded at live gigs in Liverpool and London at the end of 1972, encapsulating perfectly the joyous noise of prime-period Hawkwind; haywire electronics swooping over low-end repeater-riffs, spoken word passages veering chaotically around walls of electro-static. Neither comfortably prog, heavy metal nor krautrock, Hawkwind might have seemed impervious to the artistic eddies going on around them. Yet this was to change.

1974’s In The Hall Of The Mountain Grill saw these rough edges significantly smoothed-off, with the exception of the fantastic ‘You’d Better Believe It’, a churning, ecstatic death-drive which projects the listener into the void, and which is itself a live recording taken at the Edmonton Sundown, in January 1974. By the following year, Hawkwind’s change in sound was even more marked. With electronics experts Dik Mik and Del Detmarr both having left the mothership, it was Simon House’s altogether more lush textures of Mellotron, violin and EMS VCS3 synthesizer that dominated the soundscape. No longer the bleeps and bloops of rudimentary audio generators, wah wah peddles and ring modulators: Hawkwind were straying into the dubious realms of symphonic prog rock.

Though this isn’t to say Hawkwind’s movement away from their primitivist beginnings was an intrinsically bad thing. Warrior On The Edge Of Time is an album of mixed results, where the band’s newly ambitious leanings occasionally harmonise with their trademark bedrock of hulking downer-rock. One such occasion might be the opening salvo 'Assault And Battery', in which swirling, phased keyboards soar over Lemmy’s syncopated bassline before band leader Dave Brock’s signature muddy guitar choogle brings the piece into gear. No longer the glaze-eyed riffing, the furious headlong rush toward an unknown destination; the song boldly signposts that Hawkwind have reached new heights of compositional sophistication. It has distinct verses, choruses and bridges, and with Turner’s faun-like flute creating a jazzier mood than the frantic squawks blown into the motorik mush on previous albums. ‘Assault And Battery’ is the impressive result the tension between the two polar extremes of Hawkwind’s new aesthetic: the astute prog rock musicality of Simon House and the strutting, wilfully boorish metal heaviness personified by the ever-waning influence of Lemmy, creating the star-sailing intensity of vintage Hawkwind with cleaner, more polished production. The music and personal duality within the band was clearly something Dave Brock was aware of, remarking of Lemmy in a rather bitchy Melody Maker interview from 1975: “He can put it about a bit. Likes to pose a lot. Simon House is the complete opposite, man. A very quiet boy.”

'Assault And Battery' dissipates into a wash of phased Mellotron, heralding the fabulously bombastic synth and sax breakdown that segues into 'The Golden Void', a piece which returns perhaps most explicitly to those lyrical touchstones that had set Hawkwind apart from other space-fixated hippy music proffered by the likes of Gong. Brock’s strained, anguished howl rides atop a suitably epic backing, with lyrics that figure the boundlessness of space as a chaotic, maddening, identity-crushing paradox: “The golden void speaks to me/ denying my reality,/ I lose my body, lose my mind." What follows encapsulates perfectly the abiding attraction and repulsion of Hawkwind to new listeners, as the high fantasy spoken word piece 'The Wizard Blew His Horn', by science fiction writer Michael Moorcock, moves into the sleek, Neu!-influenced thrum of instrumental 'Opa-Loka'. It’s this contrast that may have caused aesthetic confusion to trend-seeking teenagers directed to the group by contemporary psych bands. Whenever I attempt to persuade a friend of the merits of Hawkwind, it’s more often than not the sometimes silly, always hoary science-fiction elements of the band’s aesthetic that puts them off, and the repetitious, hypnotic elements with affinities to the band’s German contemporaries serving as the hook with which to draw them in. “Look, they do 20-minute songs on one chord, they’re a bit like Can!”, “Hey man, they mess around with atonal synthesizer noises in between songs, they’re almost as innovative as Cluster!”

Although Hawkwind were undoubtedly aware and appreciative of the innovations of krautrock, as the excellent 'Opa-Loka' readily illustrates, the gestations of their driving, hypnotic sound were far more inward-facing than a lot of critics give them credit for. With the cursory influences of composers such as Stockhausen, along with a smattering of popular psychedelia, their core sound is arguably born out of the interconnected influences of their penchant for onstage improvisation, the peculiar personalities in each constituent member, and their enthusiastic drug use. I often feel a twinge of guilt when I attempt to excuse Hawkwind by qualifying them in terms of their similarity to trendier, more “tasteful” German bands from the 70s. Besides, Hawkwind’s was always a different kind of hypnosis to those of the Krautrockers: a frantic trance rather than a serene Teutonic glide. The truth is that Hawkwind’s best moments were when their moments of meditative, mimimal heaviness chimed in with their fantastical but also paranoid conceptions of outer space, and helped along with their latent elements of kinetic, boogie-based rock; their essential virtues as a party band.

By 1975 however, these elements were beginning to crystallise and become more separate. So we get the slapdash acid folk of 'The Demented Man', an acoustic piece which betrays Brock’s background as a busker (though with some admittedly rather tasty, Popol Vuh-esque deep space textures from House), contrasted with the low-end crunch of 'Magnu' on side two, a heads-down rocker and an early representative of the spaced-out biker-metal aesthetic the band would become synonymous with. Let’s not forget this is the period of Hawkwind that birthed the mighty 'Motorhead', the last song the marginalized Lemmy would write for the band and released as a B-side to the similarly excellent album closer, the unashamedly poppy 'Kings Of Speed', in March 1975. 'Magnu' unravels like prime period Hawkwind into a mess of ring-modulated vocals and demented synth noise, whilst House’s 'Spiral Galaxy 28948' is the band’s proggiest moment to that date, with a lurching, 6/8 beat and the perhaps the most audaciously camp synth leads this side of Queen’s Flash Gordon soundtrack. After these last moments of interest and the exhilarating, punk-anticipating attack of 'Kings Of Speed', we see increasing evidence of this LP being a rushed job. There are two more spoken word pieces and the utterly forgettable 'Dying Seas', a flaccid, mid-paced rocker with Nik Turner’s honking nasal vocals strewn all over it. Side two of the album fails to keep up the pace only tentatively set by side one, and by the end I can’t shake the feeling that Warrior On The Edge Of Time is a work of confused band with perhaps divergent goals.

Personal and creative fatigue was setting in for the band - especially for primary songwriter Brock, who would complain from his countryside retreat in Devon: “It’s getting to be like a job, man. And that’s really bad, when it gets to you like that, because you don’t feel it any more.” The speed freak and psychedelic divergences within the band came to a head when Lemmy was sacked whilst on tour in Canada, and it wasn't long before founding member Nik Turner followed him through the exit door. A decidedly conflicted album, Warrior On The Edge Of Time marks the first moment of hesitation in Hawkwind’s oeuvre, signposting a qualitative downturn in the band’s output over the next few years. Though it is not without its own significant merits. With a broader and more varied sound palette, you can hear the psychedelic ambitions of early Hawkwind coming into fruition, as the lusher synthetic textures conjure up an immersive sonic world at its better moments. Moreover the more streamlined, hard-edged tracks see Hawkwind priming themselves for the advent of punk, a process that would pay off on albums like Quark, Strangeness And Charm and Levitation. Unlike the progressive footsoldiers they seem they aspired to join in 1975, these Psychedelic Warlords would live to fight on. Warrior On The Edge Of Time is an awkward, frustrating and exhilarating record, breaking from the naïve rumblings of the band's past pointing toward the increasingly dubious undertakings to come. Welcome to the future.

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