December 2, 2020

Live photos by CHRIS WALKDEN from Manchester show

To the delight of many an old stoner of a certain vintage, Hawkwind have been experiencing something of a latter-day Renaissance period over the past decade or so, with a string of new studio recordings and some excitingly themed stage shows, including the full conceptual evening of The Machine Stops tour and the grand experiment with the accompanying orchestra, complete with orchestral arrangements and conducting by none other than Mike Batt. (Of course, Batt is still unfairly defined in the public imagination as the man behind the Wombles’ musical career, but hey, if a group of hairy eco-friendly underground creatures cleaning up pollution and waste at a time when Greenpeace and Friends Of The Earth were barely into short Wombling trousers isn’t the very spirit of Hawkwind, then I’m a Psychedelic Warlord). All of this Hawk activity has been leading up to 2019, however, when the band celebrated an astounding 50 years of existence, when most onlookers in 1969 would have probably thought it generous to give them 50 weeks. The resulting celebratory tour was a triumph, and one on which I was fortunate to review the Manchester show, but as we all know, sometimes something magical in live performance can assume feet of clay when shorn of the atmosphere and the visuals, and all of the attendant fairydust of the great live event, and presented as an audio release. How, therefore, does this two-CD, or triple vinyl, record of the Royal Albert Hall show from that tour stack up? The answer, thankfully, is extremely well. Let’s see why…

Tim Blake

There was always going to be an impossible task in choosing a setlist for this kind of show, given half a century of recorded work and also a contemporary album (All Aboard The Skylark) to feature as well, but few would have put money on Motorway City as being the set opener – or at least, without being aware that Tim Blake would be stepping back into the band for the shows, thus making this highlight from the Live Seventy Nine and later Levitation albums as logical as it was exciting. The levels take a little time to even out on this one, with Blake overpowering the band’s cosmic engine room a little at first, but by the time they reach the end and go into Flesh Fondue, the Star Cannibal remake from the Skylark record, all cylinders are being fired on. In fact, it is the material from that then-new album which astonishes the most here, with all four selections outstripping their studio incarnations by some distance. The biggest winners are the epic, Hermann Hesse-inspired Fantasy Of Faldum, which gains far more power and focus in this rendition, and most of all, 45 Million Years Ago, which mutates into a simply astoundingly deep groove, which could happily have rumbled on for the length of an entire third disc without wearing out my patience. How do I put this? If you try to imagine the sound that supernovas would make, endlessly collapsing into each other to infinity, you’ve kind of got the idea. This is the kind of thing that nobody – and that’s absolutely, positively ‘nobody’, not ‘few people’ or ‘only x or y’, but nobody except Hawkwind – can do. Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music indeed…

We still haven’t covered all of the first disc at this point however, as just before 45 Million Years Ago comes along, there is a little matter of a return to the set for the old Space Ritual opener Born To Go, and it is at this point that the penny drops and you realise that this is possibly the closest any other official Hawkwind live release has come to capturing that glorious, dense electric soup which Space Ritual bottled and copyrighted, and casually defined Space Rock with. If you had given up on any contemporary Hawk line-up being able to recapture that time-capsule of mind-expanding, trance-inducing, magical noise, then don’t feel alone – so had I. So it was though, and here, happily, so it is again. By this point the album has paid for itself, shaken your hand and gone to help itself to your dope stash and drinks cabinet, but this isn’t even to mention a joyful romp through Spirit Of The Age – and we’re still on that first disc.

Disc two opens with Lemmy’s old Motorhead band-mate Phil Campbell joining the band for a rocked-up, amped-up and bare-knuckled run through the Lemmy-penned The Watcher – in similar fashion to the version on the debut Motorhead album – in a fine tribute to the great man, who would surely have been there in form as well as in spirit were he still with us. However, if there are a few slight mis-steps, this is where they come up, to the overly critical ear. The old warhorse Silver Machine follows up next, of course another Lemmy-sung track in its single-release form, and it’s done well, sung by drummer Richard Chadwick as is the norm these days. A feeling of whether it’s really something that fits at this stage in the set lingers, however, with an appearance in the encores probably fitting it better. Following that, the timeless two-parter Assault And Battery / The Golden Void comes up, and again, we are slightly underwhelmed, certainly by Assault And Battery which is given a rather cursory run-through in under three minutes. The Golden Void opens with that same languid feel, although this part is actually extended to well over six minutes, and by the time it reaches its halfway point, normal astral service has been resumed. It’s almost as if the energy levels were sucked out by Silver Machine, and take around five minutes to reassert themselves. The closing song of the main set is another surprise, being the Electric Tepee selection The Right To Decide, which is an argument which could go two ways. On the one hand, it ensures that period of the band is represented, which is only right, but on a night when, for example, Hall Of The Mountain Grill and the Black Sword saga are overlooked, it’s a harder sell. Happily, it’s a sprightly, powerful, crowd-pleasing rendition which ups the energy levels hugely, and in the final analysis justifies itself.

Captain Brock – still at the helm!

There are a couple of encores to go, and these are perfectly judged, with the first up being a visit right back to track one on that very first self-titled Hawkwind album, the (sorry, but I have to use the word) bouncy and irresistible acoustic-driven Hurry On Sundown. Musically and historically, it hits the perfect note, with Blake firing up the Theremin for all it’s worth as the crowd have an absolute ball. That’s not it though, because what haven’t we had? Yup, here comes Master Of The Universe, and like Born To Go before it, it comes dressed in its 1972 finery, gets your party going before falling asleep on the landing with a joint in one hand and a bottle of Jack Daniels in the other. It’s never going to beat the definitive Space Ritual version, but dammit if it doesn’t have a bloody good go at it! A quick snatch of Welcome To The Future and we’re done here. Clear out the casualties and flush the evidence. That was a night and a half.

The packaging of the album is beautifully done, in a trifold digipak with two double-panel photo spreads, one of which is cleverly continued right across the discs, giving the feel for the tremendous visuals that the show packed. This of course also illustrates what is missing, and begs the question of whether a DVD of the show will appear at some point – something which really would have put some more icing on a very impressive cake as it is. As an aside, the accompanying booklet also devotes two pages to highlighting the important work the band have been doing (and did via slides during the interval on the night) in terms of lost and stolen dogs – this is something to be highlighted and applauded, and I know they would want people to be made aware of the website – which it gives me the greatest pleasure to do.

Hawkwind’s 50th Anniversary is one of the unlikeliest milestones we could have ended up seeing, and it could also have been easily wasted in lesser hands. Thankfully the band and record company have come together to make this a record that the half-century deserves. I won’t say ‘here’s to another fifty’, as even the indefatigable Dave Brock would then be 128 years old, and probably at least in retirement! Get this though. Even if you haven’t bought a Hawkwind album for decades, and lost touch with them in the haze of your youth, this won’t disappoint – All Aboard The Skylark once again!