Thursday, 31 December 2015

Hawkwind - Quark, Strangeness and Charm (1977)

I heard this very album played in the fifth form common room at school one lunch break thirty or so years ago, which is odd because I have no other memory of there having been a fifth form common room at my school. Similarly mysterious was the identity of the band. I assumed it was probably the Stranglers, although it wasn't a song I recognised and Hugh Cornwell's voice didn't sound quite right even though it was almost certainly him. I was surprised when I saw the cover, knowing Hawkwind to be a bunch of hippies probably sounding a bit like either Pink Floyd or Gong or one of that lot.

I'm kicking myself now of course. I'm not sure why it's taken me so long to get around to this one, although I suppose everything has its time. I probably should have taken the hint back in 2000 when Nigel Ayers of Nocturnal Emissions wrote the following in issue seven of The Sound Projector:

If you look at the whole of that so-called industrial scene from Cabaret Voltaire to Marilyn Manson, the band with the most far reaching influence wouldn't be Throbbing Gristle, but Hawkwind! This is something that they rarely mention in the press, as Hawkwind have this reputation as a British hippie band who do science-fiction and theatrics and therefore must be naff. Whereas if they were a German hippie band... Zoviet France have told me they were very keen on Hawkwind; SPK were well into Hawkwind back in Australia; and what are Graeme Revell and Brian Williams doing nowadays? Making soundtracks for science-fiction films - I rest my case! I think it's about time Hawkwind were reassessed. I have long been tired of those outfits who cite influences no-one has heard of, or can stand listening to. Back in the early seventies, Hawkwind were the first band I was aware of to popularise the idea of sonic attack, infra and ultra sound as a weapon. Listen to Sonic Attack on Space Ritual. That of course has long since been taken up by that whole noise scene, but Hawkwind were rarely acknowledged. If you look at the information war thing, you'll notice that Hawkwind had the post-modern writers, Michael Moorcock and Bob Calvert working with them. Though Moorcock is best known for his very popular science-fiction and fantasy genre work, it's more accurate to call him a postmodernist or at least a modernist. Moorcock pointed many in the direction of William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard and - stone me, he even wrote for Re/Search. When Hawkwind's In Search of Space came out in the early seventies, it came with a booklet of very similar material to what the London Psychogeographical Society, the Association of Autonomous Astronauts, Iain Sinclair, and Tom Vague have been doing more recently. Whenever I used to see Psychic TV, I thought Hawkwind. Whenever I saw Throbbing Gristle I thought Hawkwind without the lights and without the tunes. That combat clothing thing - Hawkwind! Which brings me to the point that I would definitely question the history of punk rock and weirdy music that overlaps it that media hacks have tended to spout. I remember that, apart from media darlings the Sex Pistols, the DIY punk scene in early '70s Britain seemed to be much inspired by the efforts of Hawkwind, the Edgar Broughton Band, the Pink Fairies and even Gong; and the context of the free festivals. Free festival, a self-organising proletarian cultural gathering often involving a bit of a knees up and maybe a punch up with the coppers, see also rave. Brian Eno, for example used to hang out with the Pink Fairies. The whole set-up and costuming of Roxy Music was a direct crib off Hawkwind; AMM - my arse! Eno's a popularist, otherwise why's he working with U2? In 1972 Hawkwind followed up Silver Machine - a million selling hit about a time travel machine built by the pataphysicist Alfred Jarry - with the single Urban Guerilla. It was pulled by the record company because of fears about an IRA bombing campaign in London at the time. They later re-recorded it with Johnny Rotten. Joe Strummer's 101ers and the Stranglers used to play on the same bill as Hawkwind in the free festival days, pre-1976. In interviews at the time, Strummer cited Hawkwind as an influence on the Clash's first album. Pete Shelley of The Buzzcocks admitted he spent a lot of his youth listening to Space Ritual and derived a lot of his musical direction from it; and of course Lemmy of Motorhead used to play bass in Hawkwind. Anyway, I went to see Sun Ra and his Arkestra once and I got bored after twenty minutes of that jazz shite and went home. I've seen Hawkwind loads of times and they rock!

Listening to this now, it's clear that the above is not only on point, but arguably just the tip of the iceberg, even beyond that unearthly electric chug which worked so well for Throbbing Gristle. The fact of post-Britpop Blur sounding a hell of a lot like this album, particularly The Days of the Underground, is probably only great minds thinking alike albeit a couple of decades after the fact; but this is just one of many parallels which seem to difficult to avoid. Case in point being professional industrial music arseholes claiming to have invented acid house or rave, when the established knowledge of who actually innovated such genres isn't negated by their being black guys who never went to art school; but it has to be said that the rave dynamic of extended mesmeric grooves built on riffs of weirdly crunchy sound - guitar in this case - somehow replicating the effect of coming up on a couple of disco biscuits, is very much evident on Quark, Strangeness and Charm. It's a very trippy album - which isn't a word I often use - and euphoric without the usual attendant drippiness of having to put flowers in your hair as you head off in the general direction of San Francisco. Hawkwind were rave before rave, occurring as their own near-autonomous culture in a way which sort of prefigures Crass, amongst others. Yet culturally they have a fiercely urban quality which references mainstream society, as opposed to everything being based on the world as filtered through the spout of a pot of mushroom tea. The lyrics resemble science-fiction, but then science-fiction is as good a metaphor as any for the problems of urban society, and certainly no worse than anything associating lurve with the light of silvery moons.

As with many compact disc reissues, this one is a double disc stuffed with demos, live versions, and so on. Ordinarily this sort of thing annoys the hell out of me. I want the album as it was, a discrete unit of culture with the same beginning, middle, and end, and exclusively comprising the stuff which was considered good enough to release at the time. The worst example of this sort of tendency might be the reissue of Suede's Head Music on three discs including previously unreleased material so dull that I'm surprised even the band would want to hear it ever again - rare out-takes and demos for an album which was actually kind of shit in the first place. Anyway, Quark, Strangeness and Charm turns out to be the opposite of that unfortunate bloating, which is probably testimony to the general quality of Hawkwind as an institution - extras which actually add to the experience. This is a sublime album and I'm definitely going to need more of this stuff.


  1. Thought "Silver Machine" was about Bob Calvert's bicycle?

  2. I love Hawkwind and that's a great reissue.