Hawkwind were the first band I ever paid money to see (when I was 17). They were the first rock band I listened to, on cassette through the old mono player I’d gradually acquired from my parents (“Space Ritual” was something so far out of their experience that they were utterly incapable of evenly responding critically to it as music – it was noise in the same way as a car engine or a jet plane passing overhead. To me, however, it was the index of all possible worlds simultaneously. I was 13. I might have expressed it differently).
Recently, I treated myself to the reissue of one of the odder items in their catalogue – Quark, Strangeness and Charm (1977). The original album is an economical eight songs (though three couple of them feature extended jams whilst the (nicely remastered) re-release adds another hour of out-takes and killer live versions. But it’s the original I’m here for.
Quark, Strangeness and Charm was the second album of their late seventies sojourn on the Charisma label. By this point, Bob Calvert was confidently fronting the band who’d somehow transmogrified into a sharp, focused had-rock band with a progressive edge, a startling original lyricist in Calvert and a knack for a good tune that might have surprised earlier aficionados of the likes of ‘Brainstorm’.
The album kicks off with ‘Spirit of the Age’, a rambling narrative about a lonely clone sixty light years from earth with a malfunctioning ‘android replica doll’. It’s hypnotic and atmospheric, drenched in electronic beeps and burbles but rooted in a signature driving beat.
It’s followed by an even longer track – ‘Damnation Alley’. It’s a straight lift from a lesser Roger Zelazny novel and features some lovely violin passages from Simon House, who later (I seem to remember) ended up as part of Bowie’s touring band of the time. The last track of this side, ‘Fable of a Failed Race’, is a short, yearning little piece full of chorused vocals and layered synths.
After this cavalcade of science fiction, the opening title track of side 2 is a bit of a shock. It’s a jaunty pop song about Einstein’s lack of luck with the ladies (and a list of other non-sequiturs) featuring a short, sharp guitar solo and a bona fide. It even bought them an appearance on Marc Bolan’s shortlived TV show of the time. I remember seeing them and (used to Space Ritual) being distinctly baffled at the seemingly abrupt shift in direction. Here’s a pretty rough transfer on YouTube but you get the idea.
‘Hassan I Sabbah’ features more hard rock, Arab inflected violins and dark mutterings about ‘Petro-dollars’ and so on. Calvert juggles themes of terrorism, religion, drugs and Middle-Eastern history without dropping a word. The band digs into a fierce groove, like a revving Duccatti. The track segues into ‘Forge of Vulcan’, cycling instrumental built around a ringing anvil. ‘Days of the Underground’ is a harsh, punk-styled number underlaid by ominously loop synth figures which eases in turn into a closing instrumental, ‘The Iron Dream’ (another science fiction reference, this time to a novel by Norman Spinrad).
It’s quite simply a fine record, one of three like it in the whole catalogue and genuinely like very little else. It’s also very much an album in tune with its times, as aggressive as anything produced by punk but with a visionary sonic and narrative arc that Magazine amongst others would later be lionised for. But by then, of course Hawkwind had already mined this particular seam out and moved on. I had it on a cassette for years and years, played the tape grey and then didn’t listen to it for about fifteen years until I tracked down most of it on low grade mp3s. Fans of anyone from the Mars Volta to Rush to the Arcade Fire should seriously check it out.