Days of the Underground
Book excerpt by Joe Banks
As rock 'evolved' in the '70's through the highbrow aspirations of mostly UK-based 'progressive rock,' there was also a gang of grimy Englishmen who were speed-freaks and sci-fans who had their own aspirations- to mutate rock into their own grimy version of an interplanetary epic. With its own alliances, revolving door membership, egos and power struggles, this motley group included not only a dancer and a science fiction writer but also metal-god Lemmy before he hatched Motörhead. Theirs is a tangled, twisted story that's worth telling in detail, blow by blow, and they've found a fine chronicler in the likes of Joe Banks whose new bio on the band (Days of the Underground, available from Strange Attractor) not only includes details of all of their albums in the '70's but also full interviews with band members Nik Turner, DikMik, author Michael Moorcock, dancer Stacia Blake, Paul Rudolph, Alan Powell, Adrian Shaw, Harvey Bainbridge and more.
This part of the saga details one of the band's non-pharmaceutical highs- the aftermath of their late 1972 hit single "Silver Machine" (which would later be covered by the Sex Pistols) and the ambitious plan they had for their UK tour, which they dubbed 'the Space Ritual.'
'Silver Machine' has supplied the financial leverage to create their most ambitious and extensive tour yet. Ever since Calvert climbed onboard, he's been telling anyone who'll listen about the immersive multimedia presentation that will become the 'Space Ritual': "The basic idea of the opera - for want of a better word - is that a team of starfarers are in a state of suspended animation, and the opera is a presentation of the dreams that they're having in deep space. It's a mythological approach to what's happening today… the mythology of the space age, in the way that rocket ships and interplanetary travel are a parallel with the heroic voyages of man in earlier times". He wants the idea to be taken seriously: "Our show will include electronic music, strobe lights, dancers, mime and space hero costumes. The only danger is that it collapses into carnival; for this reason, it is necessary to always maintain a certain distance."
The band too are enthusiastic, seeing it as a natural extension of what they've been doing, playing continuous live sets that ebb and flow rather than break for applause. Various ideas are mooted for the staging, including touring the show like a circus in an inflatable plastic tent. More outlandishly, it's suggested Del Dettmar be seated on a revolving tower above the heads of the audience. Brock is typically concerned with practicalities: "It's coming along slowly, but there's so much work, really a lot, and you just don't realise how much there is until you start. Our normal number of people on the road is 16, but with this we'll need 24, and they've all got to be paid. When I see it all written down, I tend to freak out, because apart from all that we've got to get it all together musically too."
The expanded road crew that Brock refers to includes a new lightshow team. Mike Hart and Alan Day of Proteus Lights - who have been working on and off with Hawkwind for the past two years - are joined by Jonathan Smeeton, a veteran of Middle Earth and the Roundhouse, who's recently been doing tour lighting for Frank Zappa. Smeeton sees Hawkwind as the perfect musical counterpoint to his increasingly ambitious lighting effects, using multiple slide projectors to create crude but effective five-cell animated loops. Coming together as Liquid Len and the Lensmen, Smeeton, Hart and Day develop a ground-breaking spectacle that becomes another defining aspect of the Hawkwind experience.
A Space Ritual 'manual' is sent out to the press, which Melody Maker treats with unusual seriousness: "Cultural change is an essential part of Hawkwind's image. Cultural, never the obsolescence of politics". And then a quote from the manual itself: "The basic principle for the starship and the space ritual is based on the Pythagorean concept of sound. Briefly, this conceived the Universe to be an immense monochord, with its single string stretched between absolute spirit and at its lowest end absolute matter. Along this string were positioned the planets of our solar system. Each of these spheres as it rushed through space was believed to sound a certain tone caused by its continuous displacement of the ether. These intervals and harmonies are called 'The Sound Of The Spheres.' The interval between earth and the fixed stars being the most perfect harmonic interval."
This is actually Bubbles rather than Calvert, keen to make mystical cosmology central to the realisation of the show. He adds: "I've designed new speakers in chromium boxes which gives us a metallic appearance more in keeping with the group's image, and we've painted various areas in opposition to the Pythagorean musical scale. All the speakers and boxes in that area will be painted those colours and the musicnauts Del, Dik, Simon, Lemmy and Dave will stand in positions relative to their signs."
The band return to Rockfield to complete Doremi Fasol Latido, a punningly titled reference to the Pythagorean scale and a "preview" of the tour. The Space Ritual tour officially begins at the King's Lynn Corn Exchange on November 8. Throughout the tour, every audience member receives a free programme containing lyrics and Calvert's tongue-in-cheek "extract from the Saga of Doremi Fasol Latido." On the first night, the band's 2,500 watt speaker stacks blow the venue's PA. The following evening only a few of the customised stacks are in use for the press performance at Dunstable's Queensway Hall. Regardless, crowd and journalists all seem gratifyingly overwhelmed.
Martin Hayman at Sounds gives the best description of the event, and how it defines the provincial underground: "The bass pulses through the hall, itself like a massive space capsule, the dull insistent hypnotic boom of a nuclear reactor. Spidery figures wield guitars and crash drums in the flickering half-light at the end of the hall, packed with a dense mass of people, a sort of freaks' convention. A mass in another sense too, come to celebrate not only Hawkwind's accession to the ranks of bands whose gigs have 'All Tickets Sold' on the door, but of those who share Hawkwind's populist philosophy."
NME's John Pidgeon describes, "A montage of meteorological, astronomical, sonic and electronic images flashed in front onto the three dancers. The familiar, almost stolid figure of Stacia has been joined by John May (who looks like someone who crashed the stage and didn't get bounced) and (Miss) Renée, whose white-wrapped shape appeared to fragment under the UV's and strobes. The effect on the band, obscured between this sandwich of light, was to eliminate individuality in the same way as their music does."
Also see Joe Banks on Twitter
the Days of the Underground website
and see our interview with Hawkwind's Alan Davey
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