Tag Archives: Hawkwind

What music did you first listen to? (Ritual and initiation)

Tara over at Sticky Fingers posted an intriguing question – “What music did you grow up with?” Unsurprizingly, I’ve got a lot to say on the subject but I’m sticking to two points of time – the first rock album I bought into the house and the first record I remember hearing and feeling.

My parents were not musical and music was not an important part of their lives. They owned a piano (which my equally unmusical sister inherited) and my father could play one tune on it – a show tune of some kind. I didn’t get lessons until I was eleven, by which time it was too late to establish any good practising habits.  We did own records, however – Bing Crosby, South Pacific, ‘Music For Pleasure’ light classical (like Handel’s water Music). Later, my mother got into racier stuff like John Denver and Sky – I think it was a genuine effort to try and connect with me at some level as an adolescent as I spiralled into more and alien sounds and spaces, out of their reach. I tried as well – John Denver had some pretty good tunes and latterly, thanks to Mark Kozelek of Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon fame, a measure of credibility. But it didn’t work.  The damage – my damage, good damage – had been done when I was thirteen. I wrote about it on my old blog when I attempted to recapitulate my entire listening life one album at a time:

In 1976, I was thirteen and someone else in Scouts lent me a home-dubbed cassette tape of Hawkwind’s Space Ritual (which was actually released in 1973).  I was already a fanatical science fiction fan so the song titles (‘Space is Deep’, ‘Orgone Accumulator’, ‘Welcome to the Future’…) resonated but it was safe to say that in a house that routinely switched off Top of the Pops and which regarded the Rolling Stones as the veritable incarnation of evil (“What must his poor father think?” my father would say, every time Mick Jagger’s face appeared in the Daily Mail), no-one in my family had ever heard anything remotely like this. I remember listening to it on a tiny little player in the kitchen.  It was the most marvelous noise I had ever heard in my my life.  It was also thoroughly, repulsively offensive to my father and mother who couldn’t understand why anyone could claim this cycling, droning, pulsing melange of heavy metal and the BBC Radiophonics Workshop could be something you could hum.

“That’s not music.”

Oh yes it was.

I dug it out again recently and it still has a kind of primal, blunt instrument power the equal of anything early Black Sabbath issued but with a quicksilvery blur and velocity that’s pure punk rock. Large quantities of amphetamines probably played a supporting role.  ‘Born To Go’ erupts out of a nest of space rock noise (Tangerine Dream’s entire oeuvre compressed into thirty seconds).  And then it gets better.  ‘Down Through The Night’ invents freak folk thirty years early. ‘Brainstorm’ sets the template for black metal. And so on and on.  Brain-melting stuff for a thirteen year old catholic boy whose sole previous rock form had been a Music For Pleasure covers album of Bill Haley standards.

It’s the literal truth to declare that this was the album that changed my interior landscape forever.  I haven’t played it to dudelet yet and in any case, he’ll have to find his own ‘Space Ritual’.  Wonder what it’ll be?

A year later (have I really only been doing Dad Who Writes since May?), I find nothing in this to disagree with. But is isn’t the earliest memory I have.  That would be this.

I was sleeping on the sofa in our living room in a 1940s house*  in a seaside town in the north (not Blackpool).  It was summer, I’m sure of that, the same summer that we’d had to repel repeated invasions of ant armies.  My father had tried to hunt down all the nests in the cracks around our house and drown them in boiling water but evidently the ants had deep, catastrophe-proof shelters as they kept coming back. I would wake up to find the sofa and my legs covered in ants.  I don’t know why I was sleeping down there – perhaps we had visitors or my room was being redecorated.  The sofa was rough, coarse nylon and grey as old tarmac.

One morning I must have been waking from a fever when I heard what I later tracked down as being Donovan’s ‘Jennifer Juniper’.  “Jennifer/Juniper/Flowers in her hair” and so on.  I’m pretty sure this dates it as being when I was four and a half.  I didn’t want to rush off and buy a guitar – that came later. My response, struggling to retrieve it as I sit here and try and project myself backwards through more than forty years into that space, that tiny, fevered little body – my body – was a sensual one.  I felt grass and heat and saw a little girl, my age, a friend.  She was the first romantic template or archetype I became aware of and for a while after that, every time I met another girl my age I wanted to be closer friends with in the innocent way of small children, the song would murmur in my head.  I suspect it still does.

I remember reading** in Margot Adler’s classic account of modern occultism, paganism and witchcraft, Drawing Down The Moon,  about how she witnessed an initiation ceremony that seemed tawdry and unspiritual to her yet how at the conclusion of the ceremony the girl being initiated was glowing with empowerment and wonder.  The initiation is our own, deeply personal business and the source of it is irrelevant – it’s the power it can take on internally that count.  Girls Aloud, Led Zeppelin, Happy Mondays, Sam Cooke, Steeleye Span – it doesn’t matter. Something of that rhythm, melody, the vibrating force of the human voice gets under your skin and you are never the same again.  And initiations, as my experience at thirteen shows, can happen over and over, at any point in your life when you need them.  Perhaps we should seek them out more often.

Anyway. Donovan and Hawkwind, the cornerstones of my musical sensibility. Funny what sticks.

*Identical to the one in the Imperial War Museum – it always makes me tear up when I visit.

**Reading twenty years ago and this is from memory, by the way.

Rocking my iPod #2 – Hawkwind, Quark, Strangeness and Charm, 1977

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.