‘Hawkwind: Days Of The Underground’ reviewed

❉ Writer Joe Banks brings the story of how Hawkwind sprung from a counterculture movement to life.

This mighty book by music writer Joe Banks covers what many people consider to be Hawkwind’s golden era (from the formation of the band in Ladbroke Grove in 1969, to 1980’s Levitation) and what a decade (and ride) it was aboard the Hawkwind Silver Machine.

‘Hawkwind: Days Of The Underground – Radical Escapism In The Age Of Paranoia’ takes a number of different approaches to telling the Hawkwind story of this era: A straightforward analysis of each album, chronologically and track by track; verbatim interviews with key players during this era; and a biographical chronology telling the story of each period and of the (many) changes in musical personnel and most crucially to get to the core of who Hawkwind are and what makes them tick. In addition, several essays look at the external influences each member brought to the band, and significant chapters explore the band’s context in the way of counterculture, free festivals, the position they sit within the musical hierarchy of the era and the musicians they have influenced.

In lesser hands this could have been taking on too much, however in Banks’ skilled hands, he brings the story of Hawkwind to life, and most importantly through the interviews and the sociological and political essays he deftly describes and argues quite convincingly why Hawkwind could be considered one of the first UK punk bands.

Banks has a really fluid writing style, and it’s clear throughout that not only does he know the albums inside out, he also knows the background, how the band’s initial formation was filtered through the wider underground scene that permeated the squats and shared houses of Ladbroke Grove throughout the late ‘60s, and how Hawkwind sprung from a counter-culture movement that was far away from the safe, commercialised psychedelia that had had been appropriated by the record labels to sell.

From magazines like IT and Oz and Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds, and acts like Mick Farren’s Deviants and The Edgar Broughton band, Banks clearly positions this as the true psychedelic revolution, the continuation of the summer of love, and where other bands lumped in amongst the space rock genre became stadium fillers or prog rock noodlers, Hawkwind stayed true to this ethos, regularly playing the free festivals and eschewing the stadium arenas for constantly being out on tour and reaching the smaller towns that the other bands didn’t hit.

This connection with the audience is featured throughout the book, and there’s a great quote from Joy Division/New Order’s Stephen Morris who opines that punk happened because “every town had those teenagers who were Hawkwind fans” and the fact that there were members in the band who weren’t technically proficient as musicians, such as Del Dettmar and Dik Mik whose sonic attacks had more in common with the Radiophonic Workshop than Rick Wakeman’s bank of synths and classical background. Furthermore, the band’s whole DIY ethos, from Barney Bubbles’ artwork and Liquid Len’s lightshows, laid down the prototype for many punk bands of the era.

The musical analysis covers each album track by track and is incredibly in-depth and insightful, and done with a sharp critical process. While Joe Black is quite clearly a huge Hawkwind fan, if he feels a track doesn’t work or is weaker than its brethren, he doesn’t sugar-coat it and his critical analysis is constructive and critical.

There’s always a danger, when writing about a band that you are a fan of, to shy back from overt criticism and that’s where this book works so well. Banks is capable of writing with his critic’s hat on, rather than his fan hat, and that’s what makes this book stand out.

Of course, you can’t discuss the band and the music without the characters that inhabited the band, and there’s plenty of quotes from contemporary interviews with Lemmy and Robert Calvert, both sadly no longer with us. With such huge personalities, the music that they made was big enough to include all of them.

With such a cast of big characters, and a fluid approach to performance and music, it’s inevitable that the line-up would change regularly, the constant (as to this day) being Dave Brock, and whilst he isn’t featured in one of the many insightful interviews in the book the spirit of Dave Brock runs throughout this book. What you get from this book is that Dave Brock had a specific vision and idea for Hawkwind, and sometimes collaborators would work with him on this vision, and then when they drifted too far from the Hawkwind ethos he would move on.

One of the biggest characters than leaps from the pages is poet/writer/singer and ultimately frontman Robert Calvert, whose vision steered Hawkwind initially into their deep space persona, before he took some time off to record his two solo albums (both covered here as well) before returning for the Charisma years, by which point he wasn’t just singing the songs, he was living them out intensely on stage.

Beset by manic depression which spurred on his creativity, but also sabotaged it (waving swords round on stage, paranoia that terrorist organisations were spying on him, episodes of being sectioned) Calvert is one of those unique personalities that are going to be famous somehow, and it was great luck for him and the band that he found Hawkwind.

Banks argues that Calvert could have been an equal to David Bowie, and it’s not hard to see why, as Bowie, like Calvert, would change tack and image and style at will, as well as both men’s fascination with contemporary culture and voracious reading habits. Adrian Shaw tells the author: “Bob was somewhat jealous of David Bowie’s fame, he thought he was every bit as creative…”

When Calvert was at his strongest he would channel his mania into the music, however as this book points out, it also came at a terrible cost to his mental health. An interview where Pamela  Townley talks candidly about former husband Calvert’s mental health issues is both illuminating and moving.

There are several pieces of critical analysis throughout this book that really stand out, and show just how much care and attention Joe has put into his writing, one fascinating essay argues that there are only three other major acts like Hawkwind, who are alone in a genre of one. This deft analysis of Roxy Music (comparing sonic provocateur Eno to Dik Mik), Black Sabbath (taking a whole cultural genre as part of their act – for Hawkwind it was science fiction, for Sabbath it was horror) and David Bowie (both influenced by the Velvet Underground and Krautrock) is worth the price of the book alone, and yes there’s far more than just that, but I don’t want to spoil it all for you.

You also get fascinating essays on the disparate science fiction influences at play throughout the bands impressive 70’s catalogue, an in-depth interview with Michael Moorcock (whose work with the band continued into the 1980s), archive pictures, record sleeves, newspaper cuttings and contemporary reviews throughout to add texture and context to the story.

We also have a complete discography including where to find lost ‘70s recordings that were released post-1980, such as the Atomhenge/Esoteric reissues which tidied up the post-UA era for me, an era was subject to sub-par re-issues and incomplete compilations.

The art of a great biographer is getting to the crux of the subject, warts and all, and with the new interviews, contemporary cuttings and critical analysis, this is one of the best books I have read that goes to such depth around a band, and there’s plenty to get your teeth into for both fans and non-fans.

This is as good a musical biography/critical text as Sid Smith’s In the Court of the Crimson King, and as I was reading this, and going through the track by track analysis, I ended up playing each album in order, and it helped me hear new things in albums that I was already familiar with.

For a band that are still going strong into their half-century, it’s about time the wider world realised the musical influence Hawkwind has had on it. This book is well placed to promote that cause.

❉ Joe Banks: ‘Hawkwind: Days Of The Underground – Radical Escapism In The Age Of Paranoia’ (Strange Attractor Press). Paperback available 13 October 2020, RRP £22.00. ISBN 9781907222849528. CLICK HERE for more information. The hardback Special Edition of the book was limited to 500 copies and is now SOLD OUT.

 James R. Turner is a music and media journalist. Over the last 25 years he has contributed to the Classic Rock Society magazine, BBC online, Albion Online, The Digital Fix, DPRP, Progarchy, ProgRadar and more. James’ debut book is out in September and he is head of PR for Bad Elephant Music. He lives in North Somerset with his fiancee Charlotte, their Westie Dilys & Ridgeback Freja, three cats and too many CDs, records & Blu-Rays.

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1 Comment

  1. Joe’s book on the Hawks is flawless. I read it in a week and was astonished by
    the sheer attention to detail. There was so much more to the Hawks than met the eye.

    Only John Szwed’s book on Sun Ra (mentioned in the book) has matched it.
    It was a joy to read. Beg, steal, or borrow. 10/10

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