…delving into this music and finding the hidden gems is what makes listening to this compilation so rewarding.
Cherry Red have hit the jackpot once again with this magnificently informative three-disc retrospective of the space rock / psychedelic movement over the last two decades of the 20th century. If we’re honest, most of us have a fairly narrow perception of this movement, limited to Hawkwind and its most direct offshoots. Hawkwind are indeed represented here – but just by one track – and its offshoots by maybe a dozen others, but this compilation represents an extraordinary eclectic mix of bands. All these bands had two things in common though. Firstly the loose psychedelic/space rock category of the music they played, and secondly the knowledge of being part of a counter-culture, whether expressed through the underground scene of the ‘70s, the free festivals of the ‘80s, or the ‘90s dance movements. Plenty of the tracks here were only ever released on cassette which means there’ll almost certainly be new discoveries for everyone, and most listeners may be as bewildered as me by the flurry of new unheard-of names. The fact that this release begins in 1978 certainly gives the lie to the idea that space rock was an early ‘70s phenomenon, and the quality of the material here, which remains consistently good over the two-decade period, demonstrates the ongoing vibrancy of the scene. And it also gives the lie to the idea that this was a London / Ladbroke Grove scene. There are bands from as far-flung places as Colwyn Bay, Norwich, Newcastle and Whitstable here, plus an international splattering from the States and even one from Norway.
Kudos to Cherry Red also for the wonderful title of the compilation. Don’t forget that Hawkwind’s debut album was released less than a year after the first moon landing. Many of us at that time genuinely believed mankind would reach Mars and onwards to the stars within a decade or two. Listeners did believe that space travel could be their own future, even if we’ve since sadly consigned that to the realms of science fiction (well, unless you’re Elon Musk).
It’s only right and proper that Dave Brock assisted in putting together this compilation. After all, his is the face that launched a thousand space rock star ships. In any case, there’s no doubt that Dave Brock is at the top of the space rock family tree, even if the interesting accompanying booklet points out that Pink Floyd with Astronomy Domine and Interstellar Overdrive were probably the first to explore that space theme. As you might expect, there is such variety here that it is possible to go from the sublime to the ridiculous very quickly. That’s true not only of the music but also with the extravagant group names and song titles that this music seems to attract like moths to a flame. On the ridiculous side, we have band names such as Boris And His Bolshie Balalaika, and Dumpy’s Rusty Nuts. Would you sew those names onto your denim jacket, I wonder? Probably not. Song titles follow a similar pattern with the limp sounding Toadstool Soup and the ludicrously titled An Evening Following A Cuttle-Fish. But before you jump to hasty conclusions about these tracks, I should point out that Toadstool Soup is sung by Boris And His Bolshie Balalaika……and is rather good. So, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, as the saying goes.
On to the three hours of music then. I spent some time wondering whether there was any structure to the running order but if there is then it eludes me. The music happily jumps forward and back through time, as if we are whisked on a mystery tour on the Tardis (after the Tardis has had a sip too much of toadstool soup perhaps….). To ease us gently in, the first disc starts off with a Hawkwind track, PXR5. Perhaps not their most famous opus but a good solid opener. As if to avoid us getting too lost, other Hawkwind-centred tracks on the first disc are Green Finned Demon from Brock’s Earthed To The Ground solo album, and Candle Burning by The Lloyd-Langton Group. One name that everyone will certainly recognise is Ozric Tentacles. Their song, Velmweld, may be less familiar though since it’s off their first ever release on cassette, Erpsongs. It’s an excellent upbeat and concise piece, already demonstrating the qualities that would position them as the true heirs to Hawkwind space rock crown, even if Hawkwind are still holding onto their crown as tightly as Queen Elizabeth!
The aforementioned Toadstool Soup also graces this first disc and it is worth going into details here to get a feel for quite how bizarre this scene was at times. Boris, if that is his real name, was a fixture on the 1980s free festival scene. He was a one-man act, and you guessed it: he played the Balalaika, along with effect pedals too. Apparently, he used to do an impressive version of Voodoo Child, and Boris described himself as being ‘the bastard offspring of George Formby and Jimi Hendrix.’ Let’s not dwell on what George and Jimi needed to do to create a bastard. Coming to Toadstool Soup, I defy you to listen to the beginning section without smiling as Boris bashes away on his Balalaika and sings the jaunty chorus line ‘toadstool soup, toadstool soup, drink it singly, or in a group’. It’s ridiculous but just when you think this comedy is finishing – as the music fades out after just under three minutes – it eases back in and is transformed by symphonic sweeps of synths, sounding distinctly like Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir and Boris now singing the same chorus line slowly and very seriously. You sort of expect him to imitate Robert Plant and peak with ‘trying to find, trying to find, where I’ve been’ although instead we get the more mundane ‘when you drink that toadstool soup your mind goes crazier’ which deflates the atmosphere somewhat. And it definitely does make you wonder how much of that toadstool soup Boris consumed. All I can say is that they don’t make songs like that anymore!
Moving on from toadstools to mushrooms, we get what to these ears is the highlight of the first disc: Pictures In My Mind by the Magic Mushroom Band. The lyrics are as druggy as they come but it’s a remarkably sunny commercial song with a memorable synth hook and a catchy chorus line. It was released as a single in 1991 but sadly didn’t go anywhere. Another highlight of the first disc is Space Bastard by Omnia Opera, an eight-minute mix of Hawkwind’s space rock, punkish vocal sections, and some fine metal guitar soloing. Another standout is Aimless Flight by Underground Zerø, an upbeat and energetic space boogie, with the novelty of female vocals from Judi Griggs. That reminds us that this genre is probably even more male-dominated than most.
The second disc is the one with the most links to the Hawkwind family tree. There’s The Age Of The Micro Man by the Hawklords, from the 25 Years On album which was really Hawkwind in all but name. We get an excellent live version of The Golden Void (actually called Golden Void here) by the Sonic Assassins – a collaboration between Brock/Calvert and a band called Ark that apparently resulted in just the one gig that this track was recorded at. Calvert’s solo work is also featured with the quirky Lord Of The Hornets that was released as a single in 1980. Quite why this was considered to have commercial potential is beyond me. The verses sound like a poor imitation of Bryan Ferry and the synths in the background are so lightweight that they sound as if they are played on an old Casio keyboard (maybe it is a Casio!). Not Calvert’s best effort. Even Brock’s literary collaborator Michael Moorcock gets to contribute musically courtesy of a single entitled Dodgem Dude from his Michael Moorcock’s Deep Fix outfit. It’s nothing to write home about but is one of those curiosities that makes this compilation so fascinating.
Moving to bands with a more tenuous Hawkwind link, we have Mandragora who for a while included a young Niall Hone before he went on to play two stints with Hawkwind. Their 1988 track, Rainbow Warrior, is perhaps the surprise highlight of the entire collection for me. It sounds like Zep’s Achilles Last Stand with the addition of space rock electronics. Its energy puts to shame some of the more lethargic material on this compilation. Dreamscape by Dr. Brown is another that stands out, even if it sounds like a reworking of Master Of The Universe (but, hey, what’s wrong with that?). Hugh Lloyd Langton guested on guitar on that one but it’s the different soundscape created by the use of the harmonica that stuck in my mind. There’s some interesting material here from the American community, including Red Delta from Pressurehed is a fascinating track with a more industrial post-rock feel to it and Ghosts Of Tempera Nymphs by ST37 which has the traditional Hawkwind sound distorted by heavily fuzzed psychedelic guitars. Disc two closes with one of the most bizarre tracks in Gamoto Manopano by Sons Of Selina, characterised by its symphonic sweep and operatic vocalising – as if Brock had been joined onstage by Epica!
The third disc opens with one of those rather silly band names: Dumpy’s Rusty Nuts. Dumpy was the nickname of the guitarist Graham Dunnell so at least we know who Dumpy is, but best not dwell too much on the Rusty Nuts bit. They were a biker band, well known for their live performances including being the support act on Hawkwind’s Chronicle Of The Black Sword tour. Dumpy’s song is called Hawkwind, and is as you might guess a tribute to the Dave and the lads. It certainly tries successfully to sound like Hawkwind. Next up is Dave himself from the same time period with his Dave Brock And The Agents Of Chaos project and a track called Hades Deep. It’s a decent enough piece but to these ears the Brock-imitation of the Rusty Nuts sounded better than Brock himself at that time. Dave makes his last appearance later on in disc three with another side-project, this time Psychedelic Warlords from the ‘90s. The track, In Search Of Shangrila, is typical of Brock’s dance and tribal experimentation in that period. It won’t be hailed as a classic but you’ve got to give Brock full marks for not simply sticking with what works and sounding like…well, Dumpy’s Rusty Nuts. Dave summarises this neatly in the fine accompanying booklet (which gives track by track details of everything here): ‘We’ve always tried to experiment and learn the latest technology; it’s good to try lots of things. It’s like painting, you might do loads and throw them away, but at least you’re doing something.’
The highlights of disc three for me are those outside of the direct Hawkwind sphere of influence. At The Oasis by Ethereal Counterbalance, is a trippy Eastern number with a deeply hypnotic effect and original instrumentation. The obscure Led Zep by Crow (one of the tracks that had only seen the light of day on cassette releases) is an excellent tight space rock boogie. I bet they were a good band live. The last highlight is Yatanah Pt 1 from Norway’s Tangle Edge. This one sounds pretty different from other material here since there’s a strong jazz element and clearly some fine musicianship behind it too.
The ambition of this undertaking is worthy of praise. It’s unlikely that anyone will be familiar with more than a handful of the names or songs here. Yes, there are some throwaways too but delving into this music and finding the hidden gems is what makes listening to this compilation so rewarding.