…anyone who has more than a passing interest in Hawkwind really must own this superbly comprehensive six-CD box set.
I know, I know. You are probably thinking ‘oh no, not another another Hawkwind compilation album’. After all, there have been so many Hawkwind compilations that if you laid them back-to-back then you might be able to reach one of the distant galaxies that the band sing about! But, there is a dearth of genuinely career-spanning editions. True, there is the wonderfully titled This Is Your Captain Speaking….Your Captain is Dead box set which includes everything they put down for United Artists during the legendary 1970-74 period when the band basically created space rock. There’s also the excellent three CD set Epocheclipse which has 44 tracks spanning their career up to the point if its release in 1999. But now, thanks to Cherry Red, we have what I think I can safely say will become the definitive Hawkwind compilation album – consisting of a whopping six CDs and 81 tracks embracing their entire career from 1969 to 2021.
The fact that you get 81 tracks is certainly a good start, but with so much material to choose from any attempt to comprehensively summarise such a lengthy and productive career is fraught with risks, even with seven hours or so to play with. And yet Cherry Red have done a truly marvellous job here. Like any other fan of the band, I could think about one or two minor gripes in the selection, and I’ll come to them later, but overall the choice of material is absolutely spot on: every recognised classic is present; there’s a good balance between studio and live recordings; there’s a good balance between sung and instrumental pieces; and lastly there’s a good balance across their career, correctly emphasising the early and middle periods while dipping into their later career enough to pique interest in that less familiar material. I believe every song here has seen the light of day in some form or another in previous releases, but some are obscure enough that they may be new discoveries even for the more ardent Hawkwind fans.
The cherry on the cake is that the songs are presented just about in order of their release. This made listening to the compilation very enjoyable for me for two reasons. Firstly, while we have got into the habit of thinking that this is Brock’s band, you can see the strong influences of others quite clearly: Turner and Lemmy in the early ‘70s, Calvert particularly in the late ‘70s, and Huw Lloyd Langton in the ‘80s. Brock was always there of course and the primary writer but the contributions of other members of the band were crucial to their overall sound. Secondly, while Hawkwind have rightly been cited as an influence by many different musicians over the years, listening to the tracks in chronological order also clearly shows how they were drawn to and influenced by the music around them at any point in time: the blues and psychedelia of the late ‘60s, the emergence of heavy rock from 1970 onwards, punk and new wave in the second half of the ‘70s, NWOBHM/metal and finally techno/trance.
As if to emphasise those ‘60s roots, the first CD, labelled 1969-73, opens with Brock in pre-Hawkwind days singing a cover of Willie Dixon’s Bring It On Home, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica (something he was undoubtedly adept at thanks to all his busking experience). You’re most likely familiar with the heavy blues version of that song from Led Zeppelin II but Brock’s adaptation is more upbeat and akin to the original recording by Sonny Boy Williamson. From the period when the band took shape, originally with the name Hawkwind Zoo, we get Sweet Mistress Of Pain, a song still imbued with the sound of the ‘60s but Nik Turner’s sax work already hints at thing to come. Then we launch into tracks from the legendary five-album sequence (from the self-titled debut through to Warrior On The Edge Of Time). This material takes up the remainder of the first CD and the second CD (labelled 1972-75). Everything you’d expect to see here is present apart from maybe Lord Of Light. A little disappointing though was the inclusion of only two tracks from The Space Ritual – Down Through The Night and Orgone Accumulator. The good studio version of Brainstorm is an acceptable alternative to the stronger version on The Space Ritual, but why, oh, why, do we get the feeble studio version of Master Of The Universe instead of the awesome juggernaut that graced The Space Ritual? There are some unexpected but welcome inclusions from this period including The Watcher, penned by Lemmy and rerecorded by Motorhead later on, and the flowing instrumental Wind Of Change from Hall Of The Mountain Grill. A trio of pieces from Warrior On The Edge Of Time close the second CD – Assault and Battery / The Golden Void and Magnu will be no surprise to anyone, but perhaps Spiral Galaxy 24968 could be seen as a curious choice instead of Kings Of Speed.
The third CD covers the period 1976-79 – neatly enclosing what one could term ‘the Calvert Years’ when Bob not only returned to the band but took over the vocals and pretty much led the group. I confess that having grown up on a diet of The Space Ritual, Hall Of the Mountain Grill, and Warrior On The Edge Of Time, it felt at the time as if the band had….well, literally dropped off the edge of time into some other musical universe. Listening to this material now, there is a definitely lot of quality there – Steppenwolf from Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music and the three tracks from Quark Strangeness And Charm (the title track, Spirit Of The Age and Hasan I Sahba) all demonstrate that the creative juices were still flowing. But the thin sound and punkish feel sadly made the albums feel more like a trip to the supermarket rather than the epic exploration of space evoked by previous releases. The punkish element seems to grow stronger during those years with tracks like Back On The Streets and Death Trap which are mixed with more radio-friendly songs like the excellent PSI Power. Interestingly, in the excellent 48-page booklet that accompanies the box set, Brock is very positive about this era: ‘Bob Calvert and I really pushed the band towards a musical style that best suited what we wanted to do, and with us running things we could develop a slightly different philosophy. In that era, it helped that Nick Turner, Paul Rudolph (bass) and Alan Powell (drums) all left is that gave Bob and I the freedom to get across what we were after’.
The fourth CD (1979-82) and the first part of the fifth CD (1982-1992) could be labelled ‘the Huw Lloyd Langton Years’, as the prodigal son from the first album returned to the band, or perhaps ‘the Elric Years’ due to the strong collaboration with Michael Moorcock during that same period. With a second guitarist back in the band, you can feel how the sound is immediately beefed up, as demonstrated in the opening track the excellent Shot Down In The Night from Live ’79. Gone are the punk influences and we’re back to a heavier rock style, aided by some good soloing from Langton. The return to form was cemented by the first studio album of the period, Levitation. As well as the irresistibly catchy title track, we are treated here to the more ponderous Who’s Gonna Win The War, Motorway City (a good version, but I’d have preferred the one on Live ’79, myself), and Dust Of Time which also gives us the title for this compilation. This was a remarkably fertile period for the band with Sonic Attack, Church Of Hawkwind, and Choose Your Masques all being released within two years of Levitation. There are three good tracks from each of those three albums, with the brilliant Angels Of Death being the highlight. We then get the beautiful Zarozinia from The Chronicle Of The Black Sword, and just one track, Moonglum, from what is surely the band’s second best live album: Live Chronicles. There are four tracks from The Xenon Codex which closes Langton’s period with the band, including his own excellent contribution, the dreamy Tides, and the atmospheric Wastelands Of Sleep which revisits the mood of Zarozinia.
We’re down to at most one track per album for the 1990’s material which reflects that fallow period. In the booklet, Brock euphemistically states ‘I think we were a bit inconsistent in the 1990s, when there were times we lost our way’. So, while there are no hidden classics here, there are still one or two little gems. Take, for example, Treadmill from the Palace Springs album which starts off a bit hesitantly but gets into a great groove, aided also by the arrival of Richard Chadwick behind the drumkit (where he sits to this day). There’s also an excellent live version of Right To Decide from The Business Trip release. The revival of fortunes in the last few years is perhaps a little under-represented with two tracks from The Machine Stops (Synchronised Blue and A Solitary Man), just one from the well-received Into The Woods (Have You Seen Them), and the title track from All Aboard The Skylark. Lastly, we get Strange Encounters from this year’s Somnia album, which is a decent track, but doesn’t really end proceedings with a bang. It’s a pity that 50 Live was overlooked because showcasing a recent composition such as Flesh Fondue would have been a powerful way of saying the band is alive and kicking as a creative force. And wouldn’t it have been valedictory to come full circle and close the compilation with the blistering and celebratory live version of Hurry On Sundown from 50 Live?
Still on the topic of missed opportunities: I do wonder whether a little more thought could have been given to the name of this compilation. For example, any takers for Footprints In The Sand Of Time (which would have emphasised the lasting impact of these songs rather than Dust Of Time which hints at the exact opposite)? Anyway, I really shouldn’t complain – how many groups could put out a seven-hour compilation album that grabs and keeps the attention and leaves you thinking ‘wow, that was great’? Not many, I bet, but this Hawkwind set is certainly one of them. For Hawkwind rookies who know little beyond Silver Machine then there’s the option of a minimalist two CD set, but anyone who has more than a passing interest in Hawkwind really must own this superbly comprehensive six-CD box set.