April 3, 2023

The four discs of live recordings from the period contain a great number of unheard (by me, anyway) gems, and all three albums have enough high quality outtakes with them to give each of them a greater resonance. In short, this is an exhaustive trawl for fans which also contains very little fat which could be trimmed – which is a remarkable balancing act.

The years 1977-79, covered by this exhaustive and handsome box set, have often been overlooked somewhat in the Hawkwind timeline. Coming after the ‘classic’ Lemmy period and yet before the oft-cited second peak of Levitation in 1980, the albums included here were very much dominated by the presence of Bob Calvert, a man who was certainly a genius – if an occasionally slightly unhinged one – but remains divisive among Hawkfans to this day. Confession time straight off the bat, I myself have never been a huge fan of Calvert’s work within the band, and have long believed that their triumphs while fronted by him have often come in spite of his presence rather than because of it. While I still prefer a Hawkwind more rooted in mysticism and fantasy over Calvert’s more straight sci-fi leanings, and I certainly like more Brock in my vocal stew, the recordings collected here have done much to not only underline the stuff I already loved in this period, but also have given me a greater appreciation for some material which I had considered lesser lights. The albums covered here are Quark Strangeness And Charm, the ‘Hawklords’-credited 25 Years On and the subsequent PXR5 reclaiming the name. That’s just three albums over eight CDs here (along with two Blu-ray discs), but in no way does this feel remotely padded. On the contrary, the four discs of live recordings from the period contain a great number of unheard (by me, anyway) gems, and all three albums have enough high quality outtakes with them to give each of them a greater resonance. In short, this is an exhaustive trawl for fans which also contains very little fat which could be trimmed – which is a remarkable balancing act.

Let’s start at the beginning with 1977’s Quark, Strangeness And Charm on the first disc here. Oddly enough, the set does not include 1976’s Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music, even though that album was released on Charisma like the other three here, but I’m unsure of why that would be. No matter, as Quark was an album which gave the band a welcome boost following the muted response to Astounding Sounds, and introduced a generally lighter tone which was simultaneously a little more commercial in places yet also leaner in terms of its production in line with the prevailing new wave zeitgeist. None of that was to say that this was Hawkwind ‘selling out’ or any such charge being levelled, as the classic opener Spirit Of The Age remains one of the band’s most-loved tracks, with the other two tracks on the on first side, Damnation Alley and the brilliant ‘deep cut’ Fable Of A Failed Race making up a brilliant side of vinyl. The title track almost got the band another belated hit single to follow up Silver Machine and the unluckily-timed Urban Guerilla, and Hassan I Sahba is quintessential Hawkwind in a bottle – hypnotic, dense, heavy and utterly addictive. There’s a slight tail off with the underdeveloped The Forge Of Vulcan and The Iron Dream, while the self-referencing Days Of The Underground narrowly misses the greatness mark, but it’s a very solid album even today. The album is remixed here by Steven Wilson, and while there are few startling changes, there is certainly a brightness, punch and vitality to proceedings, and The Forge Of Vulcan is arguably enhanced by superior stereo wizardry. The disc is completed by an excellent live studio version of Damnation Alley, a jam, and a demo excerpt for Spirit Of The Age, all of which are well worth having.

The real Quark meat comes in the shape of the second disc, however, containing ‘The Rockfield Studio Sessions 1977’. Eight tracks stuffed with indispensible Quark outtakes and related tracks, this really turns the album into 3D. The ‘first version’ of Damnation Alley is nothing short of revelatory, and easily the equal of the album cut, if not better. The ‘full version’ of Spirit Of The Age contains an entire first verse which was excised from the final track, while the extended version of Fable Of A Failed Race really should have been left intact. An alternative take of the title track is combined with an early version of Uncle Sam’s On Mars, which would not surface until PXR5, and there are a couple of jams entitled Farenheit 451 and Century X which are easily worth their place here. A real find, however is the terrifying yet underwhelmingly titled Cake Out. Far from a cheery novelty song about baked goods, this is an instrumental which could induce nightmares, especially if combined with the wrong sort of chemicals (which may have had a hand in its creation, of course!). Opening in insidiously creepy mode, it evokes nothing more than an alien being invading your home and setting about devouring your children’s heads for food, in a detached yet self-satisfied way. As things unravel it seems the alien has become enthused by his task, and is now engaging in more demonstrably self-satisfied slaughter, and loving its work. This is the kind of thing which Hawkwind, on their day, could turn out almost without turning a hair, and it’s absolutely essential stuff.

The third disc gives us 25 Years On, a Hawkwind album in all but name which came out under the ‘Hawklords’ banner owing to some nebulous contractual issues. It always seemed a fairly weak offering, and time has confirmed that view in the main, with only the opener PSI Power really achieving anything like greatness. There are other decent offerings, including the atmospheric The Only Ones, the title track and the darkly nuanced (Only) The Dead Dreams Of The Cold War Kid with its oddly redundant brackets. The Age Of The Micro Man is also quite strong, but its brevity coupled with the way it fades in lends it the air of an excerpt from a longer piece, and renders it a slightly unsatisfying closer. Free Fall and the rather pointless minute-long Automotion do little but fill in time pleasantly, while the most contentious cut is still Flying Doctor. A fairly rollicking take of an Australian ‘flying doctor’, who runs short on supplies for a call-out after dipping into his own drug cabinet recreationally rather too often, is fun enough, with a musical accompaniment which drives it along at a nice clip, but there are two things which hamstring the track. Firstly, the Australian accented delivery is hopeless, though I can put up with that. Secondly, and really holing the track below the waterline, is the repeated-for-bloody-ever phrase of ‘the cabinet key’! So often is this hammered into us that the words lose all meaning, other than to leave the listener longing for the key personally to obtain some chemical oblivion!

Once again, mind you, the bonus tracks appended to the disc (nine of them) are again mostly interesting and occasionally essential. There is a demo and an alternate take of Cold War Kid, of which the latter in particular ups the film-noir atmosphere of the story of cold-war espionage, and makes the track more effective – this one should have been on the album I believe. Similarly, an acoustic demo of The Only Ones brings out the unsettling nature of the track to great effect, and it would have been very interesting to see whether this could have been worked into the final arrangement, perhaps building to a full band performance. There is a nice alternative take on The Age Of The Micro Man as well. Once again, bonus material which enhances what is the weakest album here.

Early in 1979, the album PXR5 was released, this time credited to Hawkwind again, and it appears here on Disc Four. Much of it had been recorded before 25 Years On (some of it live and overdubbed in the studio) and subsequently shelved, but it was finally released by Charisma in 1979 as the final album remaining on their contract with the band. Often lumped in with 25 Years On over the years, and partly dismissed, it is actually an album full of quality which has aged extremely well, and is to these ears a big step up from 25 Years On showing the Hawkwind mojo still alive and well. The opening couple of tracks may not be the strongest (the slightly punky Death Trap and the quirky Jack Of Shadows, the latter based on a Roger Zelazny book), but from there the album gains strength right up to the end. Uncle Sam’s On Mars was originally intended for Quark, as an add-on to the title track, but it finds a better home here in a fine version with new vocals added to an overdubbed live recording. The lyrical message, concerning the obsession with space exploration while our own world is left to go to hell in a handbasket, is well couched in metaphor and imagery, and it still just as relevant today; it’s one of Calvert’s best lyrics. The closing title track is a good conclusion to the album, but the real twin jewels in the crown come just before that in the shape of Robot and High Rise – also both reconstructed from live recordings. Robot is classic Hawkwind, all metronomic riffing and a space rock groove you could set up home in, while High Rise, with its powerful lyric about the dehumanising effects of living in a tower block (‘a human zoo, a suicide machine’), is married to a perfect, insistent yet langorous musical accompaniment, and is another of Calvert’s finest hours.

Once again the bonus tracks (eight of them) contain some key moments. There is an unreleased track We Like To Be Frightened, which was recorded as a planned single, and while it may not be peak Hawkwind it was certainly good enough to get a release. Basically Calvert’s tribute to the classic B-movie horror films from the days of drive-in movies, it’s catchy and very enjoyable for what it is. Much better, however, is a different version of Robot (‘first overdubbed version’) which is superior even to the excellent album track, with the vocal significantly tougher and the whole thing taking on an extra sinister edge – it’s a genuine Hawkwind classic. Even Jack Of Shadows is well-served, with both a sprightly live studio recording and also a fascinating take with Adrian Shaw taking the vocal. There are three single versions as well, though PSI Power and 25 Years would have seemed more suited to the previous disc. There was some furore over the PXR5 album itself on release, with the back cover showing a large picture of an electric plug which was glaringly incorrectly wired! The powers that be almost went into apoplexy at the idea of people the length and breadth of the country blowing themselves up to the cheery accompaniment of Hawkwind, and the offending picture was covered up with a large red sticker stating ‘Warning: this sticker must not be removed’ (guess what people were going to do then…), before being removed entirely for the subsequent pressings.

At this halfway point in the CD portion of this box, we hit what for many will be the real meat of proceedings: four whole discs of live material – a large amount of it unreleased – covering five performances in 1977 and 1978. A scattering of these tracks have surfaced on various odds-and-sods compilations which have flooded the market over the years, often combining quality live recordings with aural horrors such as Douglas In The Jungle, so to have all of the surviving tracks from these shows gathered together is Hawkwind Hog Heaven. We start in fact with 22 tracks recorded on the 1977 Hawkwind UK Tour, with 12 from Croydon and Ipswich on Disc Four and a further 10 from Leicester on Disc Five. These shows are separated by mere days, but the differences illustrate perfectly how you never knew what you were going to get with a Hawkwind show, and the band could either be right at the peak of their powers or a little flat.

The five tracks recorded at Croydon on 25 September are top class. A stonking Brainstorm, delivered with punkish energy to rival any new wave outfit, opens things, before a brilliant High Rise and an equally spectacular Robot come right on its heels. Simon House was back in the band at this time, and we get a version of Wind Of Change next – rearranged quite a bit from the studio original, but superb nonetheless. Even Jack Of Shadows kicks along with a real spring in its step, and certainly outdoes the PXR5 version which was yet to be released (as indeed were High Rise and Robot, of course). Ipswich, by contrast, taking place just two days later, lacks anything like the same magic, with even classics such as Spirit Of The Age, Damnation Alley and Master Of The Universe failing to ignite. Calvert sounds less than fully engaged in Uncle Sam’s On Mars, and Sonic Attack is stretched out and diluted from the definitive Space Ritual version. The recording quality is fine, the band just seem to be on a bit of an off night. Overall, it’s half a disc of essential Hawkwind and half a disc of slightly tepid Hawkwind – not bad, but not catching fire at all.

Another two days later, however, in Leicester, the engines were firing on all cylinders again, with another excellent set, repeating most of the tracks from the previous shows but also including a very welcome Steppenwolf. Spirit Of The Age is so much better than the Ipswich show it is remarkable, while the same can be said for Uncle Sam’s On Mars/The Iron Dream, Damnation Alley and Master Of The Universe. The same cannot be said of Sonic Attack, which again fails to contain any of its original claustrophobic menace, and really shouldn’t have been played on this tour. High Rise and Robot are simply the best versions yet. Calvert – who is having the gig of his life in places here – invests himself in the lyric to High Rise with astonishing intensity, drawing you into the plight of the high rise inhabitants, with the ‘suicide’ section chillingly delivered. Robot likewise shudders along with juddering metronomic power, and becomes positively hypnotic in places. A cautionary note to anyone listening: by this stage in proceedings, having been immersed in this material, there is a chance that you may find yourself unconsciously uttering ‘Robot! Robot!’ to yourself in the aisle at Tesco – I can confirm that if this happens you will get some strange looks and people will move away from you…

After this tour, and a trip to the USA, Bob Calvert began having some ‘issues’ which led to some manic behaviour and friction at gigs, and eventually into bouts of depression. The name Hawkwind was temporarily retired, and by the time of the show on Disc Seven here, billed as Sonic Assassins in Barnstaple in December 1977, Simon House, Adrian Shaw and Simon King were gone, to be replaced by Paul Hayles, Harvey Bainbridge and Martin Griffin respectively. The show, the first performed since the Hawkwind ‘retirement’, was almost doomed owing to Calvert refusing to play citing insufficient rehearsals. After a late-night pleading visit by Bainbridge, Calvert relented and played the show, which has gone down as a significant one. In reality, on the evidence here, it appears to have been a somewhat patchy affair, as evidenced by the ragged Golden Void opening the disc, and the half-successful merging of a truncated Magnu and an early iteration of Angels Of Life, which later surfaced as Angels Of Death in 1981. Things improve after that, with perhaps the outstanding track on the disc being the extended and absolutely captivating version of Free Fall from PXR5, which like so much of this show, was yet to be released. In his best performance in evidence from this show, Calvert dreamily keeps the audience and the listener entranced, languidly conjuring the feeling of free-fall parachuting brilliantly. The also-new Death Trap comes next, before the fascinating Over The Top, which is in effect an ad-libbed Calvert lyric over an instrumental intended originally to lead into Master Of The Universe, but extended. Calvert takes a while to get into his stride (initially bizarrely addressing the audience individually and collectively as ‘tiny people’), but when he does it comes out as an almost stream-of-consciousness meditation on his mental issues, leading into an anti-war tirade directed at, for some reason, Lord Kitchener, and the year 1916. It’s beyond unusual, and could be seen as unsettling in places, but it is compelling nevertheless. Master Of The Universe is where Calvert really loses it, however, as he bellows the vocal manically, garnishing the line ‘has the world gone mad or is it me?’ with an obtrusive and wildly inappropriate cry of ‘It must be me!!!’. To say any subtlety or creepy atmosphere inherent in the song is lost would be akin to describing the fall of the Berlin Wall as ‘knocking down a few bricks’. With a similarly throwaway Welcome To The Future closing proceedings, Calvert is gone and, it would have appeared, finally out in a live sense.

Such was not the case, however, as snatching victory from the gaping jaws of defeat in a spectacular way, comes a Hawklords show from Uxbridge in November of 1978, by which time Steve Swindells had replaced Hayles on keyboards (compounding the confusion of the time, he was not on PXR5, released seven months later, as that had already been recorded two keyboard players previously!). Of course, tracks from PXR5 litter the set, as they had the previous year, which must have left audiences wondering when if ever they were going to see these songs appear. With Swindells an unknown quantity (his only solo album had been a resounding flop), and the Hawklords name associated with the slightly underwhelming 25 Years On, the omens were not the best for his tour – and indeed, having not been in attendance, I have always kind of assumed it would have been something of a ‘Hawkwind Lite’ affair. How wrong I was, in actual fact, as despite being reportedly beset by technical gremlins causing the show to be halted twice, this is a terrific performance, with Bob Calvert back in absolutely blistering form. After a strong opening 25 Years, we get the final Free Fall of the set – and it is a cracking one, full of intensity and unease. Death Trap is beefed up successfully, while The Age Of The Micro Man is another to improve on its studio counterpart, being shorn of the fade-in and fade-out effect. Spirit Of The Age is perhaps the heaviest I’ve heard it, but the real surprise is next up, with the ill-fated 1974 non-album single Urban Guerrilla unexpectedly and brilliantly resurrected. Extended to over six minutes and performed faster and heavier than the original, it is definitive and a real find. Sonic Attack is another to rediscover its mojo, with the spoken word original tighter and more focussed, while a literal full-band ‘sonic attack’ lengthy instrumental coda takes it to seven brilliant minutes. PSI Power is another fine performance, while the closing track of the disc and the CD portion of this set is appropriately a vintage performance of the classic old warhorse Brainstorm. This time Calvert gets the vocals just right, and the band are absolutely on pulverising form. It would have been even better to have another Robot, but even without it, it’s probably the best disc here, and certainly the most welcome ‘newcomer’. Seven songs performed after Brainstorm are unavailable (including Robot and also Silver Machine), so if they had been able to be included it would in all likelihood have been better still – though what is here works perfectly for what it is.

Following this cycle of live activity, Calvert degenerated again, and the tales of on-the-road discord and mayhem are legion. In one oft-repeated story, it is claimed that Dave Brock had an athletics starting pistol in his hotel room which he used as a prop in the show, and in Germany on one occasion, as a prank, Calvert contacted the police and informed them that Brock was in fact a member of the Bader-Meinhoff terrorist gang, and that they should search his room – leading to the less-than-impressed guitarist being detained in prison while things were sorted out. Whatever the reality, Calvert’s time with the band ended unceremoniously in 1979 (with them allegedly becoming so fed up of his antics that they left him in mainland Europe without passport or cash!), and this period of the Hawkwind story comes to an end.

There are two Blu-Ray discs completing the set, which are mainly audio, containing 5.1 surround mixes of all three studio albums by Steven Wilson which should transport audiophile Hawkfans into raptures of immersive delight. There are three tracks of video content also included, in the shape of PSI Power and 25 Years from the Uxbridge Hawklords show, and the 1977 appearance on the Marc Bolan TV show Marc, performing Quark Strangeness And Charm in an unsuccessful attempt to get it into the charts. Some may remember that one as being notable for Dave Brock of all people being unavailable, and the band appearing as a four-piece with Calvert miming the guitar part. It was also notable for Calvert performing the whole thing with his trademark flying helmet and goggles, and a stuffed falcon perched on his right arm.

In terms of the packaging of this set it is splendid. A ten-inch box, it contains a poster, two fold-out gatefold CD holders containing the discs, and a thick book which is the real jewel here. It has a great history of the time, putting all of the live shows in context, but as well as that there is an absolute abundance of visual delights. Hordes of photos of the band, memorabilia, original packaging etc are accompanied by all of the lyrics to the three albums, reproduced in the font and background of the Quark inner sleeve. It even includes the marvellous scrawled comment of ‘e=mc5’ which graced that original inner, which I always thought at the time was tremendously clever, especially being a big fan of the MC5 album Kick Out The Jams… ah, the nostalgia! And speaking of nostalgia, there is also the Pete Frame ‘Hawkwind Family Tree’ spread over two pages – anyone remembering those will know just how superbly done they were (his Byrds one also graced their History Of The Byrds compilation album in the ’70s, and his Fairport one the front cover of 1972’s History Of Fairport Convention).

As I said earlier, this may or may not be an era of Hawkwind which is a personal favourite, but I can absolutely attest that, as one who had largely dismissed it after the Quark album, this set has given it the depth and perspective to increase my appreciation of that short era exponentially. And for the obsessives, at last you can stop scrabbling around your copies of Weird Tapes Volume Whatever, or other randomly titled albums on a myriad of small labels over the decades – it’s all here in one handsome box. It may not be Space Ritual or Warrior On The Edge Of Time, but rest assured – This IS Hawkwind. Do Not Panic.