❉ For their 31st studio album, Hawkwind have collaborated with songwriter and conductor Mike Batt on a series of orchestral manoeuvres.
“Road To Utopia is an oddity even in the Hawkwind canon. It’s to the credit of chief Hawk Dave Brock and the legendary Mike Batt that neither took the easy route on this album… Often when rock bands do orchestral reworkings, the emphasis is on Wagnerian bombast. This, typically for Hawkwind, is a little different.”
Another Hawkwind album? Already? Well….yes, sort of. But it’s not what you’re expecting.
Road To Utopia is an oddity even in the Hawkwind canon, a body of work largely defined by odd records. The result of a chance meeting between chief Hawk Dave Brock and the legendary Mike Batt (musician, composer, arranger, Womble) while queueing at the US Embassy for visas, this is a selection of ‘Wind classics reimagined with a classical emphasis, deploying a brass section, a string quintet and a sax quintet. Now, often when rock bands do orchestral reworkings, the emphasis is on Wagnerian bombast, as exemplified by Metallica’s S&M bloatfest. This, typically for Hawkwind, is a little different. So, what have they tackled, and how do they compare to the originals? Let’s give it a spin…
First up is the late Bob Calvert’s classic Quark, Strangeness And Charm, first released in 1977. The original is a bouncy, quirky quasi-New Wave track centred around taking the piss out of Albert Einstein (the title comes from quantum physics, fact fans). This version gives the song the bossa-nova treatment with big mariachi horns and sci-fi noises in the background; the overall effect is like the Mavericks having been abducted by the Zeta Reticuli.
Next comes Lemmy’s The Watcher. The first iteration of this song (from ’72’s classic Doremi Fasol Latido) was a lilting, slightly unsettling acoustic workout; it resurfaced on Motorhead’s debut album as a guitar-grinding paranoiac leviathan. This incarnation is somewhere inbetween, more of a bar-room blues thing, with honky tonk piano, Gimme Shelter-esque harmonica squalls and a passing Eric Clapton spilling some licks over the top. Lovely stuff.
We Took The Wrong Step Years Ago ramps up the original’s whimsical folkiness level mightily, the flute and string arrangements bringing to mind Batt’s notorious tearjerker Bright Eyes. Flying Doctor (technically a Hawklords rather than Hawkwind track, not that there’s really much of a distinction) replaces its former drug-thug garage-rock swagger with a cheeky shuffle and an almost Parklife style of delivery.
Psi Power (here retitled Psychic Power for reasons unknown) rather suits the core acoustic treatment but the horn orchestration unfortunately comes across like the BBC orchestra “jazzing it up” in the early 70s. You almost expect Tom Jones to burst in with medallion akimbo.
“The rearrangements and orchestrations are frequently clever and inventive. It would be easy to take the basic songs and blat a layer of symphonic bluster over the top, but that’s never been Hawkwind’s style.”
Hymn To The Sun appears to be a new composition, a pleasant, delicate and nicely constructed three-minute instrumental. The Age Of The Micro Man, another Hawklords track, seems more or less unaffected by its rather subtle rearrangement.
The same cannot be said about Down Through The Night. What was originally a slightly-over-three-minute acoustic interlude (with obligatory swirly synths) on Doremi Fasol Latido has been built up into a mini-epic, a tasty seven minute slow-burner with its own two-minute instrumental prologue.
It’s to the credit of both Batt and Brock that neither took the easy route on this album; the selection of tracks reworked includes both lesser known songs and radical reinterpretations of classics, and the rearrangements and orchestrations are frequently clever and inventive. It would be easy to take the basic songs and blat a layer of symphonic bluster over the top, but that’s never been Hawkwind’s style.
So, in all…an interesting experiment, some intriguing and enjoyable alternative versions of old songs, but not an essential artefact. Even the cover art (a jolly cartoon rendering of the band playing cricket in a bucolic middle-English setting) suggests that the intent wasn’t entirely serious.
Hawkwind, with Mike Batt and his orchestral acolytes in tow, tour the UK in October and November. It will be interesting to see how the material comes over live, and also what other songs will receive the orchestral treatment….
❉ Hawkwind – ‘Road To Utopia’ is released 14 September 2018 by Cherry Red Records on CD and LP.
❉ Pre-order the vinyl edition here: http://cherryred.co/RoadToUtopiaVinylLP
❉ Pre-order the CD Edition here: http://cherryred.co/RoadToUtopiaCD
❉ The band will be touring with Mike in October and November, including sold out dates at the Palladium in London.