Fans were wary when Hawkwind announced they would be doing an album with strings for their 30th lp release, Road to Utopia. I mean that when a rock band not known for any strings in their songs decides to do an orchestral album, it is usually a signal that it’s finally over. It is the musical equivalent of wearing sweatpants in public–you gave up. Which makes it so puzzling that Hawkwind, who had been riding a streak of victories with their last two studio albums would decide to engage in what is usually perceived to be a musical white flag of surrender. Then the album cover was released:
I was gobsmacked. Were they kidding? I canvassed long term Hawkfans, and most honestly thought this was a parody-couldn’t possibly be real, right? Cricket cartoons in a folk art style? Very ill advised was the kindest comment I heard. So what went wrong? First up, fingers must be pointed at Mike Batt of the Wombles, who orchestrated this collection of yet again more (all) Hawkwind remakes. The Wombles were a Brit children’s TV show featuring the band in fuzzy costumes (see above). Even odder was Eric Clapton guesting on The Watcher. This seemed like a confluence of bad decisions of epic proportions, like an acid trip that despite the best intentions, ends up spinning further out of control at every turn until there is an uncomfortable and painful thud.
First off, more covers of their older classic material is not what Hawkfans have been salivating for. Hey the first cover of Quark Strangeness and Charm in the 90’s was kind of cool, but little did we know that this was to be the blueprint for the next decade and a half. Their propensity for revisiting their older material has gone from eyebrow raising to a genuine problem. And their remakes never capture the magic of the originals, this is also the case here. Early statements tried to assuage fans by stressing that this was not an album of Hawkwind playing with an orchestra, but a Hawkwind album augmented by string and horn arrangements. True, it’s more variety show glitz arrangements than a full on orchestral treatment, but in the end this splitting of hairs matters little. The songs are sapped of whatever power they once contained and vary from semi-successful curios to downright look away embarrassing. Psi Power is vaguely interesting but Batt’s propensity for 1970’s over the top horn arrangements mar even this one slight success. The Age of the Micro Man is haunting but slowed tempos make it eventually sound like they are walking through viscous toffee. Some cool guitar from Brock manages to find its way past the wicket when Batt wasn’t looking in the grand finale. But by the end of the second pass through the album, I could no longer take the histrionic horn flashes intruding like a hamfisted attempt to insert some pep in their step but end up destroying everything-a Vegas inflected big band Hawkwind? Ugh. Things looked so bright when 2016’s The Machine Stops came out. Into the Woods kept the engine running smoothly. But this album pours sand into the oilpan and the whole colossus shudders to a frightening halt. We took the wrong step years ago? A bit more recent than years ago I’m afraid. Avoid.
Record Store Day. The somewhat benevolent creation of the record industry in 2007 to enervate the then fledgling recovering vinyl industry. Records had been considered dead and buried by the end of the 80’s, and vinyl pressings had dwindled to near nil from their hey day. In 1978, over 340 million albums were purchased, the peak year of album buying in America. With the advent of CDs, twenty years later, 1998 saw LP sales drop to 1% of 1978’s sales figures at just over 3 million units. By 2006, vinyl LP sales had plunged to under a million-900,000 units sold for that year. (CDs had shifted an amazing 800 million units in 1998-nearly 1,000 CDs sold for each LP sold) Records were proclaimed dead in every industry paper, folks dumped their decades long curated collections into landfills and Salvation Army bins, and the chore of lugging around hundreds or thousands of pounds of vinyl was solved.
Or so it seemed. Indie labels had never really given up on vinyl, and the cooler indie stores still stocked records by bands that most had never heard of, and sales were moderate. Albums were now pressed in the thousands (sometimes as low as 1000) per release. 2007 saw the innovation of a single day created for the indie record stores that had kept the faith through the lean years. Severely limited editions of some enticing titles were offered for sale on a single day in April, and only independent stores were allowed to order them. Soon, the buzz spread. As years went on, folks began lining up in the early morning hours to grab some genuine treasures, or get tricked into buying repackaged turds that they knew better than to drop another 40 bucks on. (the dreadful double A side 45s from WB with the original vintage single on one side and a cover by a modern band as the B side gets singled out here). Regardless, some real rarities spat out, and it became almost de riguer to jump to eBay to see what the sold out items were fetching.
The past few record store days (now doubled to twice a year-Black Friday in November joins the original April date) have shown an industry short on imagination. Flickers came here and there, but a trend towards reissuing albums at $30 a pop that are easily found across town in a vintage used record store for five bucks? No thanks. Rarely is a truly groundbreaking and definitive rarity released under the guises of Record Store Day. Until this year, where lightning struck not once, but twice.
Hawkwind – Dark Matter (The Alternative Liberty/UA Years 1970-1974) 2 lp
This one escaped almost EVERYONE’S radar. Even Hawkfans online had little idea how important a release this one is for fans of early Hawkwind (considered the definitive era by most). Sourced from the 2011 3 CD compilation Parallel Universe (in and of itself the single definitive Hawkwind collection) Somehow folks didn’t realize how important the gems contained in here were. The plethora of Hawkwind compilations-similar to Stooges releases-have made fans immune to most Hawk comps. Too many are the same things over and over in a new sleeve and a new title. For those who thought that about this release, please take a closer look.
First, this one is easy to miss on the shelf. The band name and title are nearly invisible on the cryptic alien manhole cover. Last years RSD Hawkwind release (Best of the UA Years 1971-1974) sank without a trace with zero track information on a poorly designed cover. . (both record stores in my town still have two copies each of this a year later. Many US record fans sadly would now just flip past any Hawk RSD title ) With this in mind, my early morning arrival to score what I knew to be one of the RSD treasures of the decade turned out to be unnecessary-they had plenty. Bringing this home immediately, I could not believe what was contained within. Basically this had things NEVER heard before by Hawkfans (excepting those who had been wise enough to grab Parallel Universe). And what things these were! The debut lineup of Brock, Turner, Harrison, Lloyd-Langton and Ollis doing In Search of Space material? What?? The In Search of Space lineup doing early Do Re Mi style material? Reworked versions of Hawkwind Zoo material that sound nothing like that EP? Studio versions of songs we’d only heard live? What was going on here? Was this one of the biggest Hawkwind releases in their career?
Digging a little deeper, that is exactly what we have going on here. The 1969-1970 lineup is represented on three tracks, You Know You’re Only Dreaming (which ended up on In Search Of Space) is a completely different take on the song, with only the lyrics as the common thread. It almost heads into a sound not unlike King Crimson of the same 1970 era. A fairly unique sound Hawkwind didn’t really show again. The Reason Is from their debut album is a different take, slightly scarier if that’s possible. Be Yourself is a different mix, very close to the original. Still, side A is an eye opener for a Hawkwind collection, with the Dreaming track being the real treasure. I was already blown away.
Side B kicks off with another unheard song, the instrumental Hog Farm. This contains riffs from the much later Hawklords album of 1978 and is something out of left field for a Hawkwind fan-completely unheard until today. The transition to the In Search of Space line up has happened, and vocalist/poet Robert Calvert has entered, and guitarist Lloyd-Langton has exited, with Dave Anderson from Amon Duul 2 now on bass. Rumblings of Brainstorm and Master of the Universe scuttle in and out of the jamming. Sweet Mistress of Pain (Kiss of the Velvet Whip) is another song from the same session from May 1971. Originally taken from the rare pre Hawkwind EP ‘Hawkwind Zoo’ from early 1969, this version has been pumped up several levels. Calvert carries this one along vocally, and the newly injected instrumental power makes one wonder why the band didn’t up the ante and just keep the melody and replace the puerile lyrics with something a bit more star/drug/cosmic oriented. (lyrics to this song are the low point in Brock’s canon, probably why this song never surfaced) Alas, this was a missed chance to create a truly classic Hawkwind song-still this version is heady. Seven by Seven, made famous on Space Ritual only had a studio version as the B side to the Silver Machine 45. This one here is a different version of the studio version and contains different lyrics. Again, this side is a strong argument as to why Hawkwind is a uniquely amazing musical experience. Brock and Turner are twin masters here; psychedelic voles burrowing into the deepest folds of your brain, and you are helpless in the sincerest sense of the word. The expansive wah wah use by Brock on guitar and Turner on sax create the essence of the Hawkwind sound-pounding bass and drums underneath, psychedelic warpings of guitar and sax, and wooshing chaotic underlay. This is the primordial heart of Hawkwind that perhaps even some of their hard core fans don’t know exists. The sound of In Search of Space has expanded to a more refined primordial puddle of brain bubbles than the studio album could quite aspire to.
Side three starts with another never before heard song, an outtake from Do Re Mi called Take What You Can-a fairly easy going standard Hawkwind type tune, it soon veers off into an instrumental section that features newly minted Lemmy endeavoring to tear holes in the universe before retreating back to home base and dwindling to a gentle two chord segue straight from Space Ritual (the song ends with the segue fading out). Elements of Master of the Universe are clearly evident in the riffing here. The rest of the side is taken up by the full studio version of Brainbox Pollution from August of 1973. Although this song is not unfamiliar to most Hawkfreaks, this version is. Stretched out to full length from the single edit that everyone knows, everything that makes Hawkwind special is contained in here (despite lacking the ‘horn of destiny’ call in the riff). Honestly, this version of the song would be what I’d consider what you’d come up with if you distilled the Hawkwind ethos into a single song. Side three has upped the ante, I can no longer believe that stuff of this quality has been undercover for so long-every song here would stand easily with the classics of the Hawkwind oeuvre.
Side four contains the unheard studio version of the B side It’s So Easy. (the more common version is a live one). A studio version of You Better Believe It (the Hall of the Mountain Grill version was likewise live) with the lyric ‘it’s so easy’ shows why the previous song was likely shelved from the album. Both come from the same January 1974 studio session. It’s So Easy ends with a sublime denouement you never hear from them, almost Grateful Dead-like in elegiac subtlety. A different take on Wind of Change closes out side four, a very Pink Floyd guitar attack that bring the proceedings to an end like watching the most sublime beach sunset close out a lysergic soaked day of adventure.
But make no mistake, these are powerful anthems to sheer lunacy, real howl at the moon kind of shit. The kind of stuff they don’t make anymore. This album already is insanely essential-a landmark of space rock. Nik Turner, who usually flies under the radar musically is shown to be a huge part of the sound–his carefully modulated and wah wah inflected sax sound like nothing on this earth, and provide a twisted musical continuity to most of the pieces. Brock’s likewise heavy wah use throughout most of this helps the call and response between two alien beings manning instruments not of this earth. It is not hyperbole to state that this is perhaps the best Hawkwind album since Space Ritual–the surfacing of a long lost treasure trove of relics we didn’t suspect existed, finally released a full forty plus years after being recorded. Pass the word on to your friends and Hawkfriends: “if you don’t have this album, you are missing a HUGE part of Hawkwind.”
The Residents- The Warner Brothers Album
The Holy Grail of Residents Lore Sees the Light of Day!
The second treasure of RSD 2018 is a doozy, something we were told we would never ever hear-the nearly mythical Warner Bros. Album that gave the band their name. But first, maybe we need a little background on this band.
The Residents are best known as the eyeball wearing quartet from perhaps San Francisco who make some of the most uncommercial, sanity threatening and mutation inducing music this side of a lunatic asylum orchestra. They had been kicking around the psychedelic scene as early as 1967, and though many collectives explored similar paths, none had the vision (or perhaps lack thereof), diligence, dedication to destroying established musical traditions and mores and the ability to excise the word ‘no’ from their vocabulary like the Residents. Getting sued by the Beatles label for their first album cover got them a smidgen of infamy (a trick later borrowed by conceptual cousins Negativland). They had to change the album cover.
Who was actually in the Residents? No one knew. This was a more closely guarded secret than what Kiss looked like under their makeup. Unlike Kiss, few actually cared. Their debut registered minuscule sales. It was an unsettling maelstrom of music concrete, childish sing a longs, advanced modern classical riffs, homemade instruments and intentional mistakes that were the underpinning to some vocals that would disturb even Captain Beefheart. The band stayed the course for an album arc that everyone should dabble their little toes into:
The above five albums set a benchmark for weirdness that is hard to top. In fact, it’s never been topped. But as twisted as these releases are, nothing compares to the early years of the band. And so our tale begins:
Our heroes are ensconced somewhere in California. The sixties are coming to an end. This loose collective who now might include Philip Lithman (better known as Snakefinger) as a guest guitarist on top of Homer Flynn, Hardy Fox, Jay Clem and John Kennedy. (though all four claim they are managers of the Cryptic Corporation, not actual musicians) They start making serious music. Seriously damaged that is. Tapes slow down, instruments are primitively recorded: is it a kazoo? A fuzzed violin? a cat being tortured? No one knew. One never discussed item is that there was another early member of the band (often referred to as N. Senada- a pseudonym), someone classically trained on piano and composition. He became disenchanted with formal collegiate musical training and conservatory approaches, and decided to hitch his star to these acid soaked performance artists with pretty much zero musical talent. Perhaps he recognized flickers of Harry Partch, John Cage, Edgar Varese and Stockhausen in their childish dada clinking and clanking (and occasional transmission throwing out gears at 60 mph) But both factions were willing to make it a go, and the genesis of the Warner Bros. album was created. They recorded into 1971, hand painted the optimistically titled tape cover (see above) and mailed it to Hal Halverstadt, the guy at Warners who signed Captain Beefheart. (hey, if this guy signed Beefheart, he’ll LOVE us!) songlist below:
Strawberry Fields Forever (Lennon-McCartney)
The Mad Sawmill of Copenhagen, Germany
Baby Skeletons & Dogs
Bop Bop (Shoo Bop Bop)
Every Day I Masturbate on A Merican Fag
Oh Mommy, Oh Daddy, Can’t You See that it’s True?
Baby Skeletons & Dogs (Reprise)
The Mad Sawmill of Copenhagen, Germany (Reprise)
Love & Peace
The Mad Sawmill of Copenhagen, Germany (Reprise 2)
Black Velvet Original
The Mad Sawmill of Copenhagen, Germany (Reprise 3)
Christmas Morning Foto
The Mad Sawmill of Copenhagen, Germany (Reprise 4)
In the Still of the Night
Maggie’s Farm (B. Dylan)
Snot and Feces: Live at the Grunt Festival
Oh Yeah Uhh Bop Shoo Bop
Ohm is Where the Art Is
Concerto in R Flat Minor
Love Theme from a Major Motion Picture
Prelude for Accordion, Sousaphone and French Horn
Oh God You’re a Pie in the Sky
Short Circuit Comes to Town
Marching Toward AEIOU Blues
In the Still of the Night Again
Oh Mommy, Oh Daddy, Can’t You See that it’s True Again
Art the White Elephant
Psychedelic and Orgasmic Finale
Unfortunately, Hal was not blown away. But with no information to go on, he was forced to mail the tape back to the return address c/o “Residents” since they had not included any names. Thus, the band was born.
But no one had ever actually heard the album outside their guarded inner circle. It went from history to legend to myth. A single play was allowed on the radio. KBOO in Portland Oregon broadcast the album once in 1977 during a tribute to the Residents. Many Residents fans (myself included) had a multi generation copy of this weirdness on cassette. But nobody thought we’d get to hear it ever again. That was certain.
How this thing got tabbed for a RSD release is beyond me. Nobody, even the most clued in and knowledgeable employees in any store I spoke with had heard of this holy grail of Residents history. I managed to grab the last copy in the 8 am scrum by the RSD release bin. By reaching through four people. Luckily I knew this one was all black, and took a chance by grabbing a jet black single lp–gawwdammmm that is it!!! That afternoon, this puppy was grabbing over $100 on eBay. Too many people found out too late what an important release this was, perhaps one of the most important releases in the whole history of Record Store Day. This record will crack your cranium open, plant little seeds of madness, then haphazardly super glue you back together. Below is a compendium of the ‘songs’ on this set of proto madness for your consumption. Country, blues, current pop music, children’s melodies, monsters under your bed and kitchen utensils get deconstructed, reassembled and collide nicely:
Addendum: Early 80’s, the band split in half at the conclusion of the Mole show tour. I seemed to be the only one to notice the band had dropped from a quartet to a duo. The band steadfastly refused to acknowledge anything of the sort. (Clues from the hard to find “Mole Comics’ printed at the time are very clear that two of the members are not happy at all cruising this mess around Europe). They returned for a 1985 tour with two members, Snakefinger and female dancers in eyeball heads. I’m pretty sure no members of the Residents had boobs. Oddly, one of my long term acquaintances managed to get a job in the periphery of the Cryptic Corporation. I confronted him one day:
‘why doesn’t the band admit they split in half and that two members disappeared in 1983?”
him: “I know nothing about that”
me: ‘mmm hmmm, I’m pretty sure in 1985 in concert in Boston I saw members in leotards with boobs dance and not play a single note.’
me: ‘I’ll take that as a confirmation’
So maybe it’s not news, but Jay Clem and John Kennedy scampered away at the end of 1982. Some of you might have figured it out, some of you might not have even thought to ask, but the Residents have been a duo since then, and in recent years, down to just Homer. (who in a recent cabaret style performance admitted he had recorded most of Donkey for the huge animated film Shrek, then gotten bounced by Eddie Murphy. The vicissitudes of stardom will smack you down, won’t they.)
Two definitive albums. Two acid soaked bands from opposite sides of the world who recorded these treasures at roughly the same time, and had the results sit unheard for 47 years. Sometimes they get it right, eh?
“When an inquisition increases in severity, it regularly throws up bands of visionaries.” -Vera Linhartova, 1961
“one of the highest aims of art has always been the creation of unrest.” -Ivan Jirous
“Plastic people, oh baby now, you’re such a drag” -Frank Zappa and Mothers of Invention
Rock n Roll. It has been viewed over the years as a fad, a public nuisance, a social upheaval, something that needed to be watched, put down, suppressed-for the sake of the children don’t you know. Some view it as a party, some view it as a movement towards changing the way people think about life. This is a story about the latter.
On one hand, the Plastic People of the Universe (originally Plastic People of Universe-their English wasn’t so good) were like many bands popping up all across Europe-progressive leanings, improv jams, edgy jazz inflected takes on the Velvet Underground and the Mothers of Invention, lyrically challenging and lyrically absurd. But one thing set this Czechoslovakian band apart from their peers: they were literally outlaws. Like the government is after them, the secret police are after them, the national guard confiscates their equipment after them, the police burn their houses down after them, they end up doing hard time in prison after them. Their crime? Bombings? Bank robbery? No. Their unique crime that gathered so much attention was their ability to play rock n roll, pure and simple. And for some reason, that scared the shit out of the government.
The Prague Spring of 1968 saw the Iron Curtain country of Czechoslovakia in a weird place. Stalinism was gradually phased out by the new secretary of the Czech communist party, Alexander Dubcek. Newly found ideas like freedom of the press, literary guilds, freedom of speech and freedom of travel helped people shake off the malaise of being a Soviet colony, and things looked good. After eight months of relative freedom, the Soviet Union had seen enough. Nearly half a million Warsaw Pact troops and 2,000 tanks flooded the country to restore order and a more Soviet-like ruling system. Dubcek was shown the door in April of 1969 and a hard line party leader was installed. Slowly, all of the freedoms of the Prague Spring were reversed starting in August of 1968. Things looked grim. But a seed had been planted in the short time of relative freedom.
How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)
One thing that had snuck into the country during the short era of freedom was rock n roll albums. Once the curtain of totalitarianism had descended again, smuggling albums in was nearly the only way to hear western music. (the Beach Boys did manage to play Prague in early 1969). To be a band in the new era of Czechoslovakia, one had to follow some fairly strict rules. Bands had to register with the government and get a license, had to adhere to strict and conservative dress codes and hair styles, were rarely allowed out of the country, and had to submit their lyrics to censors for pre-approval before doing any recording. Concert appearances were likewise regulated. The state owned all of the band’s guitars, drums and amplifiers. Czech tastes in rock n roll had previously been limited to cover bands performing early and mid 60’s rock classics. But Czechoslovakia had been a bit more westernized than the average Iron Curtain country. Allen Ginsberg had visited (and been deported) in 1965, and he had laid the groundwork for a counterculture vibe across all forms of the arts. Hair got longer, and a beatnik vibe overtook the youth movement. But some folks went huge for rock n roll, and the weirder the better. The more offensive, the better. Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, the Velvet Underground, the Fugs, Captain Beefheart were the signpost of a galaxy of weird that resonated with the more artsy circles of proto hippies, drugballs, aspiring revolutionaries, dreamers and artists that were suddenly cut off from the faucet of a thirst quenching world of ideas and musical mayhem beyond their borders. The government had called a halt to the party. What were a bunch of furry freaks supposed to do?
New Potato Caboose
“What’s it like making rock n’ roll in a police state? The same as anywhere else, only harder. Much harder”-Paul Wilson, Plastic People
The flurry of activity in government didn’t affect the rock scene much in the initial months of 1969. Milan Hlavsa, Josef Brabek, Jiri Stevich and Michael Jernek formed an early version of the band called New Electric Potatoes. The name change to Plastic People in homage to the Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention song gave their audiences a clearer hint towards their intents. Things didn’t solidify until the band fused with some important members of another Czech band, the Primitives Group. Guitarist and keyboardist Josef Janicek and more importantly non musician and visionary Ivan Jirous brought a double dose of musical muscle and visionary influences. The Primitives had been one of the weirdest bands in the country: hanging dripping herrings from the ceiling for a “Fish Feast” concert, covering the band in feathers for a “Bird Feast” show-‘happenings’ these might be called-decidedly and purposefully not slick and designed to freak people out. (songs from Zappa’s Freak Out album were in their setlists) With the voluntary dissolution of the Primitives Group in April 1969, Jirous then latched on to the only other enfant terrible band in Prague, the Plastic People. He saw them as the only band who could serve as a vehicle for his version of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable-a multi-sensory performance art based rock experience (the band and Jirous were huge Velvet Underground fans-the Velvets were almost more popular in Czechoslovakia than America). While none of the band had been overseas to America, they cobbled together what they thought would be a good approximation of what they were hearing on albums: dada-ist vignettes, killing a live chicken as a sacrifice to the god Mars to begin a show, flying saucers hung from the ceiling, home made torches across the front of the stage, elements of circus (fire breathing clowns), homemade togas, liquid light shows, spaced out jams, face paint-you know, general psychedelic madness. The band played 13 shows in 1969, the most they managed in their 40 year history.
The band became a lightning rod for the freaks of Prague. However, the state had other ideas. ‘Normalization’ was the Kremlin’s word for what descended upon the arts scene. Censorship was the watchword. Bands were expected to clean up their acts, or else. The Plastic People stuck to their guns, refused to let government censors edit their lyrics and refused to get haircuts. The Czech government responded in January of 1970 by forcing them to audition for a professional musician’s license-then denying them for not cutting their hair short, and being a general menace to society. To reinforce their point, Czech officials seized their government owned instruments, denied them access to rehearsal spaces and performance halls, and put an end to the proceedings. Things looked dark.
“It was clear we weren’t going to pass the state audition to get our professional status,” says Paul Wilson, former lead singer of the Plastic People. “We wouldn’t cut our hair, we wouldn’t allow our lyrics to be vetted, so we were kicked out. We were on our own.”
“Our manager (the well-known pop impresario Pavel “Cassius” Kratochvíl) had good connections with the official music organization and arranged for us to be given free amplifiers and instruments. Around 1970 however we had to play an audition for the committee responsible for registering bands officially, and they decided that our music was too disturbing for young people and very soon they took our equipment back. At that time the easiest path would have been to stay with our manager, cut our hair and get some tidy clothes. We decided to go in the other direction.” Josef Janicek
Long-Haired, Neurotic Drug Addicts and Mental Cases
“Long-haired, neurotic drug addicts and mental cases who take delight in the grossest of perversions and deliberately sing vulgar, anti-social songs”-Plastic People of the Universe review by state sponsored newspaper at the time
The band vowed to soldier on, however. They scraped their meager cash reserves together, and got jobs as forest loggers to purchase their own used guitars and drums (drinking away most of the profits by their own admission), built their own amplifiers from scrap electronics and kept going. Jirous solved the performance problems by offering state approved and legal lectures on art: specifically the relationship between Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. As a member of the Union of Artists, Jirous could get the government to provide permits for large halls and professional sound systems to support the lectures. The Plastic People would be onstage behind a curtain-show a few slides and then pull the curtain to have the band give musical examples of what he was talking about. Eventually these ‘art lectures’ degenerated into a short introductions on Warhol and a couple of hours of Velvet Underground covers courtesy of the Plastics. It took a while, but the government figured out they were being tricked, and put an end to the ‘lectures’. Once again, things looked bleak.
Back To The Starting Line
Jirous had hired Canadian Paul Wilson to teach the band English so they could understand what madness was being spewed by the likes of the Fugs, Zappa and the Velvets, and pronounce things correctly in their slapdash cover versions. He eventually became the band’s lead singer for two years (eventually he was deported in 1977). But with their instruments confiscated once again, the band had been knocked back to square one. They were reduced to borrowing instruments when they could, never being able to rehearse, and playing at secret parties.
“They were pretty much chewing-gum-and-string-gigs,” remembers Wilson. “We had no instruments to practice on, so the only time we played amplified was in front of an audience – you could say we weren’t very polished.”
Wilson estimated the band performed roughly 15 times in the 1970 to 1972 period.
The Heat is ON: 1973 -1976
This is the era when the Plastic People legend was really born. Change was in the wind, and the wind blew in different directions. Musically, things got different in 1973 with the addition of saxophonist Vlatislav Brabenec, someone older and much more musically trained than the rest of the band. His addition brought two important changes. First, he demanded their set list contain only original material, and second that songs now only be sung in Czech. He brought in Czech lyrics by the surrealist writer and poet Egon Bondy. No more cover songs in their set pooched one of their last excuses of legitimacy to the government-‘we are just a band performing western rock because those bands aren’t allowed to visit here.’ Nevertheless, their newfound musical complexity led them to reapply for a ‘professional band’ status card. They were granted a license in 1973, but it was once again revoked within two weeks. Authorities claimed their music was “morbid” and would have a “negative social impact”, and once again they were banned from public concerts and had to retreat to the now familiar ‘underground’.
The band were not at a loss for creative ideas on how to get some illegal concerts going. House parties were the logical choice, but other ideas bubbled in: renting a riverboat for private tourist excursions, with the soundtrack on the boat provided by the Plastics. A Plastic People soccer team (with real uniforms) organized to play a village volunteer fire department. The after party? A Plastic People concert at the fire station of course. Then there were some large parties at weddings. The fact that the couples had already been married recently wasn’t shared with the officials. The wedding band? The Plastic People of the Universe of course. A new scene was growing larger as the Plastic People became the center of a second social and cultural revolution. Newer bands like DG307, the Midsummer’s Night Band and later the Dog Soldiers were drawn in, and writers, poets, singers and artists came into a scene that was developing organically-and exponentially. The band had relocated to obscure Bohemian villages, as the heat in Prague was too much. The government had less control in the boondocks, and perceived dissidents had to leave the city for the relative safety of the forests. Concerts were organized like American raves of the late 90’s-locations were kept secret until the final day, were generally very far out of town, and the exact location was spread by word of mouth only. People would walk for miles. You had to be literally clued into the scene. It wasn’t long until the freaks began to gather in force, and in numbers that would make it hard for the government to ignore.
The Merry Ghetto
“The Plastics really started to get attention from the secret police when they started singing in Czech,” says Wilson, who despite no longer featuring in the band’s line-up, continued to be involved. “Suddenly they became more than a minor annoyance.”
Shit started to get real in March 1974. What became known as the Ceske Budovice Massacre saw the government strike back in a fashion that they never had before. Over 1,500 fans descended on the Bohemian village of Budovice for one of the rare secret Plastic People concerts. By this time, these were more than concerts, they were gatherings of the cognoscenti, the cream of the dissident intellectual crop. (There was a vibe of ‘hey, we’re getting away with this” if the Plastics managed to play for an hour without the proceedings getting busted up.) This time, the police were wise to the game, and were waiting in force. Fans were intercepted as they decamped from the train into a tornado of billy club wielding secret police. Government officials were there to take names, check IDs, throw people back onto a waiting government train to Prague. Hundreds of kids got arrested. Beatings and interrogations were handed out indiscriminately. Those who were students got expelled from college (the government paid for college, remember). The band did not get to perform.
Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club, Banned
Rather than back off, Ivan Jirous wanted the band to be a focal point for a whole new way of life in the country. He organized what was known as the First Music Festival of the Second Culture. The Second Culture was the designation Jirous gave to the collection of (literally) Bohemian dissidents and freaks as the antithesis to the government sponsored ‘First Culture’. Held outside of Benesov in September 1974, it was disguised as a wedding, and hundreds managed to attend. The band was getting more polished, and sounded like a hybrid of some Velvets, but elements of early Mothers of Invention, Henry Cow and Van der Graaf Generator filtered through an early Hawkwind scruffy lens.
The band was recorded at the time by friends at Houska Castle, 30 miles north of Prague in 1974 and 1975. The intentions were to smuggle the master tapes out of the country and give the Plastic People a proper release-Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned. To ensure the success of the endeavor, this information was kept secret from even the band (who were notoriously prodigious drinkers, and might let the secret accidentally slip). The album was pressed in Ireland, the jacket printed in England, assembled in France and sent to the Netherlands for distribution (!). All benefits were listed for the Plastic People Defense Fund, London. They needed funds because the long expected day arrived. The band were all finally arrested.
Folsom Prison Blues
The First Music Festival of the Second Culture had not gone unnoticed by the government. It had grown legendary in the underground among those who could not attend. The police had focused on the most vocal part of the group, Ivan Jirous-now known as ‘Magor’ (short for phantasmagoric, translating better as loony or crazy). Starting in 1974, Jirous would spend many periods in and out of prison-actually spending over nine of the next SIXTEEN years in prison. Jirous organized the Second Music Festival of the Second Culture in Bojanovice in February 1976, disguised as his own wedding. ‘Magor’s Wedding’ attracted fans from all parts of the underground, and oddly, no police attention whatsoever. Or so it appeared.
Less than a month later, the government struck. On March 17, 1976 there was a general round up of the counterculture. Simultaneous raids across the country bagged the Plastic People, DG307, Jirous…in all 27 musicians were arrested, writers and artists were taken in, concert promoters and hundreds of fans of the scene were rounded up and charged with disturbing the peace among other things. Musical instruments were once again confiscated, houses were ransacked, all of the bands tapes, artwork and notebooks were seized. The Plastic People were left without any resources, instruments, spiritual leader and now worst of all-without freedom.
This event did not go unnoticed outside the borders of Czechoslovakia. International outrage led to several of the band being released after a few months in prison. Vlatislav Brabenec, the Plastic’s saxophonist and Jirous were held, along with DG307’s Pavel Zajicek and singer Svatopluk Karasek. Paul Wilson, the person who had organized their one album being smuggled out of the country was deported. The government demanded a large show trial, to put the Second Culture on trial, essentially trying to end the hippie vs. communist question. The velvet glove and the iron hand were about to collide.
“I would say I survived about 80 or 90 interrogations, which was sometimes very exhausting,” said Brabenec. “It was at its worst when they threatened to kidnap my two-year-old daughter,” concedes Brabenec. “But I pitied these people, he said of his interrogators, “I thought they wouldn’t find peace until the end of their days.” Others privy to the events were more specific: “They would beat them up, drown them… it was torture,”
While the charges were almost comical–‘vulgar lyrics’, ‘anti-social phenomenon’, corrupting Czech youth– the verdicts were not. It was a foregone conclusion to all watching how this would end up. Jirous was sentenced to 18 months, Zajicek to 12 months, and both Karasek and Brabenec to 8 months in prison. A simultaneous trial of three concert promoters in Plzen reinforced the government’s attack on the new culture.
This verdict had the opposite effect of what the government hoped for. Powerful forces in the both the underground and mainstream Czech circles were outraged at the massive overreaction. Vaclav Havel wrote some powerful essays on the nature of freedom, and the huge injustice that had been done to the country. He contacted other western intellectuals and kindred spirits, and the cause of the Czech underground became an international one. The remaining Plastic People regrouped with a purpose. Vaclav Havel offered his own house and barn for recording sessions and underground concerts. The dissidents dug their heels in and once again the Plastics were more determined than ever. From prison, Magor tried to direct proceedings, which he now saw as quite serious-a struggle between the future and the past.
Charter 77 was written in the wake of the trial, and published clandestinely in December 1976. It was a manifesto and a declaration of intent-the underground wasn’t about to go quietly. Nine prominent Czech intellectuals from all walks of life were signatories to it, virtually guaranteeing arrest. Soon over 200 important Czechs had signed it. Havel was arrested trying to bring it to the Federal Assembly, and the Charter was confiscated. Unsurprisingly, copies had been smuggled to the west, and it was published simultaneously in newspapers in France, England, Germany and the United States. The Charter was represented as a “loose, informal, and open association of people . . . united by the will to strive individually and collectively for respect for human and civil rights in our country and throughout the world.” The Czech government did not react well, with random arrests, deportations, interrogations, expulsion from college, loss of driving permits-general harassments. The Plastic People were not forgotten by the government.
Midnight, a New Day?
“The teenagers in the boondocks had no idea the underground existed,” says Wilson. “Suddenly they did and it looked exciting as hell. More and more people found themselves drawn into the Plastics’ orbit.”
The band were followed wherever they went. Police were following everyone associated with the Plastics and the underground. They were once again forced to play parties in the woods. One uncomfortable consequence, though? Houses they played in tended to burn down after they played there. The police were immediately suspected, although there was little recourse. (the police did do it). Police surrounded Havel’s barn for a 1977 show, letting people pass (and taking down names), but not moving and letting the band play. (the barn was eventually burned down in retribution for hosting events)
Jirous was released but then arrested twice, once for ‘inappropriate comments at an art opening’ and then again for involvement with an underground magazine. He stayed in jail until the government fell in 1989. Brabenec had enough, and depending on who you listen to, was either forced into exile or petitioned to emigrate permanently in 1982.
According to Pepa Janiček, “Some secret policemen visited Brabenec’s home at night and said “so you play the saxophone? How will you play it after someone has knocked your teeth out?”.
In 1986, the Czech government allowed the first ever rock festival to be held-Rockfest 86. Bands who had been blacklisted for years were allowed to play for the first time. Things were starting to mellow.
In 1988 the government offered the remaining members : Janicek, Hlvasa, Kabes and Brabec a devil’s choice: reinstatement of their performance license, the one denied way back in 1970-with a catch. They could never use the name Plastic People of the Universe again. Brabec quit, refusing to perform without the name they had literally given up blood, teeth and years of their freedom for. The remaining band reformed as Pulnoc, which means ‘midnight’. They were signed to Arista Records in the States, and toured America, to ecstatic expat Czechs and those in the west who knew the tale.
After all of the better than two decades of harassment, imprisonment, confiscations, interrogations and beatings-one might expect the story would end with more of the same. But instead, quite the opposite resulted. The Plastic People of the Universe were asked to reform at the behest of new Czech president, Vaclav Havel. They performed legally for the first time since 1970. Fucking unbelievable.
What About Other Recordings?
Although there are enough people in the west who have heard of this band, fewer have actually heard their lone album-most people who know of them only have heard this single album. And even fewer know there are a dozen or so essential releases out there, lovingly curated by GLOBUS International label out of Prague. They put together a stunning 15 Cd compilation of their various eras (insanely rare, fetching up to $1,000 online). Single CDs are available from this set if one really looks around, and is willing to buy from overseas. The first CD in the set is one of the two treasures: Muz Bez Usi (Man With No Ears) 1969-1972. This one captures the band in the early days-some when they were still legal. Most of this is professionally recorded, something rarely afforded the band. The band is surprisingly tight and inventive-a hybrid of straight ahead Mothers of Invention with general psychedelic jamming. Overall, circa 1969 their blend of influences sounded not unlike early Amon Duul II (who were forming in Germany in the same months). The first eleven minutes of the album is a suite of a half dozen songs that gets the ethos across quickly, and is the best snapshot of what they were like in the chaotic early days-highly recommended :
Other pieces are harder to grab, but the next big one is the recordings they did once released from prison, Kolejnice duni (Railways rumble) 1977-1982. The Third Music Festival of the Second Culture held October 1, 1977 was their first reunion show for the public. Known as the 100 Points, the concert was held in Vaclav Havel’s barn, and this recording is the 28 minute centerpiece of this album. Here the band has evolved into a completely new sound-Magma, Henry Cow collide with darker sounds-early R.I.O. (if there ever was a band deserving of the title ‘Rock In Opposition, it surely is them). Here is 100 Points:
Their 1978 album, Pasijove hry velikonocni (Passion Play), is Vlatislav Brabenec’s masterwork-he wrote the whole album to tie up all of the threads of Plastic madness up to that point in one single statement. (In reality, these guys had to know that every day literally could be their last). Don’t be fooled by the religious implications of the title-the band was finally making an oblique and thinly veiled political statement-persecution ending in crucifixion? Legally plausible deniability? (“C’mon guys, we’re only singing about Jesus! Hey, hey put that guitar amp down!”). Strings from Jiri Kabes were now becoming one of the signature sounds of the band-the link to their earlier Velvets days. Early Magma vibes swirl in with some early Hawkwind, Van der Graaf and Popol Vuh sounds-lots of Christian Vander intonations combine with Peter Hammill angst throughout-alternating with hypnotic instrumental jams reminiscent of Gong or Nik Turner circa 1971. The sounds of the forests are out in full force-again an R.I.O vibe. Stark, harsh and ominous, this is as close to definitive as they got in a single album, with some great meditative playing in there as well. Wide ranging, not easy listening but sometimes confrontational stuff.
Co znamena vesti kone (Leading Horses), was smuggled out to Canada for release in 1981, and is probably their easiest to find release. Poppier and less confrontational than Passion Play, it is the last to feature Brabenec.
An album was recorded in 1983, Horezi porazka (Beef slaughter), to be smuggled to Canada for release, but it had to wait 20 years until it saw the light of day. Here the band continues to develop the heavy strings arrangements that defined their later sound in Pulnoc. Univers Zero with Zeuhl undertones is a good description, but the band is starting to really carve out their own unique Bohemian dark sound-the sounds of the gypsy forests and of villages of centuries past weave seamlessly into one now coherent whole. Those paying close attention might notice that some of their more important riffs get recycled on future albums-the conceptual continuity that Zappa referred to in his own work.
The musical perception of this band as only the snapshot of Egon Bondy’s era recordings is really a crime. This band danced from psych rockers to Amon Duul-ish space rock to darker Velvet Underground to Zeuhl sounds of Magma and Henry Cow to flirtations with quirky Cardiacs and Devo inflected 80’s sounds to a final restrained dark ‘Univers Zero as a pop band’ sound that morphed into the above ground Pulnoc. That is quite a musical history journey for a single band, especially one so hassled on a daily basis, an amazing feat in retrospect.
The Power of Music-Never Underestimate a Hippie
America had a handful of bands that tried to stick it to the government and preached some borderline seditious vibes: the Jefferson Airplane, MC5 are two of the better known examples, with some singular examples like Steppenwolf’s Monster album also lurking in the background. But an important difference is that while American bands consciously tried to foment some level of rebellion, the Plastics were just going about their business, making music as art and being generally weird. But while hippies in America had vague aspirations to some formless change, the Plastic People helped literally overthrow the government, and one of their prominent literary advisers, Vaclav Havel (who had done time in prison for being a dissident) was now president of Czechoslovakia. Frank Zappa was an adviser to Havel, and flew into Prague and found a crowd of 5,000 awaiting him. Lou Reed came in for the extended inauguration proceedings in early 1990 to meet Havel, where Reed gave the president his new album, and Havel told Reed the story of his rise to power and the band that had provided the secret soundtrack-the Plastic People. Havel took Reed to a small club that night to see a band, and Reed realized they were playing a song from the first Velvet Underground album. Fans went wild when they realized that Lou Reed AND the president of Czechoslovakia were in attendance. Long term dissidents came to greet them and regaled Reed with tales of the days of repression-where they had recited Velvet Underground lyrics to each other while in jail to help stay strong. Things had come full circle as the members of the Plastic People wailed away on stage.
American hippies fantasized the dream-change the world and get enough power to start making the rules. Czech hippies didn’t fantasize, and it was no hyperbolic hippie hallucination: they were ones who actually went out and fucking DID it-they changed the rules, dumped the government on its ass, and installed one of their own as president-a president that has Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa albums in his collection. Can’t think of any countries who can say that. And that my friends…is the real power of rock n roll.
“All of the stupid brains are out in the sun: our powerful nation lives in a velvet underground” -The Sun, by the Plastic People of the Universe
“We weren’t political, we were dissidents against our will’‘ -Milan Hlavsa 1988
I will admit it, I had Hawkwind written off. For most long term fans of Hawkwind, the band has been on life support for over 15 years. It’s not as if there wasn’t plenty of evidence. Folks started to wonder what was up as drum machines and sequencers took control of the band. Albums began to have a push button feel to them, and fans had started to abandon ship around the time Alan Davey left circa 1997’s Distant Horizons. This album had ushered in the ‘techno era’ for Hawkwind, and ripping guitars, washes of jet engine level white noise and howling vocals were being replaced by drum machines, polite sequenced synthesizers and a pattern of endless parade of pleasant remakes of their classic tunes, mostly inferior to the originals. Recent clunkers didn’t add to confidence that the ship would stop taking on water.
With that in mind, any new Hawkwind album needs to be graded on a sliding scale. 2010’s Blood of the Earth suffered from an overt absence of Dave Brock, the sole surviving member, and the heart of the band. His vocals and guitar work were essential cogs that made the Hawkship fly so successfully. His handing over the reins of the band to a revolving door of some less inspired associates made for a frustrating and disappointing experience. The follow up, 2013’s Onward, fell even further down the rungs of the ladder-no memorable tunes at all, and padded out with remakes of their own former classics. Ennui and malaise were now the watchwords, and the outlook for the future looked grim.
All of which makes 2016’s The Machine Stops, their 26th studio album such a welcome surprise. When one enters with zero expectations, even a modest level of success is noteworthy. But make no mistake, this album exceeds any modest expectations. Echoes of their underrated 80’s work-Church of Hawkwind, Levitation and Choose Your Masques-flow through this concept album (loosely based on E. M. Forster’s prescient 1909 short story of the same name-a post apocalyptic underground world controlled by machines). Church of Hawkwind is the best reference point, a 1982 album revered by Hawk-heads and generally unknown in their catalog. It has long been considered one of the last of the ‘classic’ Hawk albums, heavy on the synths and thick with a creepy and trippy dystopian vibe. The Machine Stops follows a similar bent: spoken word pieces as intro and outro, synth instrumentals that segue songs seamlessly, genuine rockers interspersed with more dreamy takes. It would appear that this is the first Hawkwind album in decades without a remake of a former classic, but hard core Hawkfans may notice that the song Tube is lifted from the introduction of Choose Your Masques’ Dream Worker, while others may notice musical and lyrical themes from other past songs weaving their way through.
Keeping in mind that Hawkwind has been mostly a functioning band since 1969, it is beyond startling that 47 years later, they could still pull some magic out of their hats and dazzle us. Long term fans and newcomers will resonate with this record, as it plays into Hawkwind’s strengths. Concept album? Check. Large dystopian theme running through the whole thing? Check. Creepy atmospheric interludes? Check. And a big reason for this album’s success is Brock stepping up once more to grab control of his own band, and inject some of his magical energy that has been lacking in the last 20 years. When people say this is one of their best albums in a while, they are spot on. (One review states it is the best since 1975’s Warrior on the Edge of Time, a bit of misguided hyperbolic praise). But this is definitely the most satisfying and complete work since 1992’s Electric Teepee (or some others have pointed towards 1995’s Alien 4 as their last really satisfying and complete album). Either way, it has been over 20 years since a Hawkwind album that really gets you excited and makes you want to play it again immediately has been released. Hawkwind releases used to be cause for celebration, make you want to take the day off from work or school and just—you know-get into it, get out of it, get into it. Blood of the Earth I played a few times and haven’t revisited in six years. Onward? I actually sold it after two plays knowing I’d never listen to it again. Hawkwind’s recent output was starting to tarnish the unique power and beauty of their 1969-1992 era of near perfection.
Their recent attempts at sticking their toes into the prog rock pool also didn’t sit right. Prog bands are known for their chops and tricky compositional skills, this was never Hawkwind’s vibe. Hawkwind was always about the SOUND. They always had taken a punk rock approach, long before punk existed. “Plug a bunch of things in, wail away, and let’s see what happens” has always been their approach, and nobody in the history of the band would claim virtuoso status in any era of their existence. This is what made Hawkwind stand out from the crowd, in a field crowded by anorak prog geeks wielding moogs, Hawkwind were the Neanderthals armed with technology who co-opted the fancy gear and created a glorious primal electronic caterwauling, a maelstrom of sound that could pluck your consciousness from your shaking body and take it to new dimensions, something ELP and their ilk could never do. Attempting to enter territory they weren’t well equipped for wasn’t playing to their strengths, and their recent work showed it. Only 2012’s Hawkwind Light Orchestra’s Stellar Variations avoided this trap, stripped to a trio of Brock, Chadwick and Hone.
Perhaps the transition of Dibs from bass to more of a full time vocalist has something to do with this revitalization. Niall Hone and powerful newcomer Haz Wheaton (this kid brings the Lemmy hunger back into the mix) play bass on 70% of the album. Coincidence or not, there is magic once again bubbling up in the lower frequencies.
Is this album perfect? No. Although it does not fare as well in comparison to their groundbreaking 1970-1977 period, and can suffer from time to time from overly generic synthesizer work, it should quickly grab the attention of any Hawkwind fans who would consider themselves a bit disaffected in the millennium. Overall, this album has an elegiac feel to it. Under the guises of following the storyline, the third to last (and best) song on the album, the infectious Solitary Man sounds as if Dave Brock is finally letting the long term fan peek behind the curtain into his private life for both a quick glimpse and large statement, and has pinned an appropriate title to let you know. For as the song says, Dave has always been a Solitary Man, single-handedly guiding the starship Hawkwind through the Cosmos, surrounded by friends, but alone with his thoughts. If this is the last Hawkwind album ever, it is a solid final statement, and they have done us proud. Highly recommended for Hawkwind fans both old and new.
Lemmy’s death this week has spawned more hurried articles in more unlikely places (even porn sites were changing their front web pages to give tribute to him…) But there is a reason for this-Lemmy was a force in rock n roll rarely seen: part of the rock scene since before the Beatles caught the nation’s fancy, and one of the loudest and hardest partying motherfuckers ever spawned from the growling belly of the six string hell-beast had touched many lives in the five decade swath he cut through polite society.
In short, Lemmy was unique in rock, an eye blinkingly difficult feat to achieve in a field of fairly unique personalities. His dedication to ‘heavy’ single handedly spawned most of the current metal bands dating over the past three decades-thrash metal, speed metal, death metal, black metal? All of these genres can be traced directly to the humble Motörhead origins. A simple power trio, unapologetic and single minded in approach to the end, Lemmy and company pushed the limits of volume to unimagined heights of “huh? what?” as folks tried to assess what the hell had just happened at the end of a show and where the hell had their hearing gotten off to.
Why is there no hold button on this thing? -Emerson with dagger
Hendrix: currently experienced
Many sites have chronicled his curriculum vitae, but in short: Ian Kilminster started his career proper in roughly 1965 in the Rockin’ Vicars, his third or so band of his career, but one who released a few singles that made no dent in the charts or hearts of the grim Manchester surroundings. His involvement in the late sixties as a roadie for the Nice and Jimi Hendrix showed him what the road could really be like, from pulling birds and loads of equipment while out of his mind with Hendrix (“That’s how I learned to function on five hits of acid”) to giving Keith Emerson some of his Hitler Youth knives as a present (some of which were used to stab keys down to hold notes as an early pre-ELP band the Nice stage trick), Lemmy was fine tuning his act.
It was with the space rock band Hawkwind that the legend began to form. Hawkwind was a collection of furry freaks from Ladbroke Grove who took the Pink Floyd blueprint from Interstellar Overdrive and ran with it. Lemmy’s legendary 1971 debut gig introduction to the band was being told by Nik Turner, “make some noises in E” and he was off. His Motörhead style of bass playing was honed here: two note chords strummed to give a helluva bottom to the sound– simultaneously functioning as bassist and a second guitarist in a one guitar band. The drug taking? Legendary. Hawkwind’s only hit, Silver Machine, was one of the rare tunes sung by Lemmy and became a huge hit across Europe. It was recorded live at the Greasy Truckers Party.
After three days spent taking Dexedrine with Dik Mik, Lemmy and his bandmate took Mandrax, a depressant, to lessen the intensity of the high. But Lemmy got bored, so he dropped acid and mescaline, then took more Mandrax. Dik Mik drove to the venue, where they pair partook in cocaine and eight Black Beauties (uppers) each. “Fuckin’ hell, Mik, I can’t move,” Lemmy said. “Can you?” As he explained in his book, the band’s roadies helped them onstage for the show, which was taped for the Greasy Truckers Party live album “That was one of the best gigs we ever taped,” Lemmy enthused. “The jamming between me and [leader Dave] Brock was great. We got ‘Silver Machine,’ our only hit – and Number Two at that – from that gig!”
This wasn’t his first trip to the edge, nor his last:
In 1969, before Lemmy joined Hawkwind, a friend convinced his nurse girlfriend to sneak them some amphetamine sulfate from the dispensary where she worked. She accidentally brought home a jar of atropine sulfate. Lemmy did a teaspoon full, which he said was “200 times the overdose,” and then everyone “went berserk.” In his memoir White Line Fever he recalled talking to a TV held under his arm, then passing out and waking up in the hospital. “If we got you in another hour you would have been dead,” the doctor told him. Even after being treated, he had sporadic hallucinations for two weeks and recalled, “sitting, reading a book, and I’d turn to page 42 – but there was no book.”
Seemingly not possible, yet…
…on another night in the early 70’s, the band was coming from a show and were pulled over by the police. Already aware of the unfriendly attitude that the constabulary had towards them, Lemmy and Bob Calvert split up the bottle of speed and Mandrax, eating the lion’s share himself. Later in his hotel room he shared with Stacia, Hawkwind’s statuesque naked dancer, Lemmy passed out cold. She phoned the band in other rooms and said Lemmy was unresponsive on top of her, she was trapped and couldn’t move at all, and he was apparently dead. The band came, dragged him into his bed, and let him sleep it off. “‘Tis but a scratch”
Motörhead mk1-Larry Wallis, Lucas Fox, Lemmy
Motörhead proper began shortly after Lemmy had been sacked in 1975 from Hawkwind. His playing and integration into the band had given Hawkwind the sound and the success that had been eluding them for so long. Success in America beckoned. But getting caught crossing the US/Canada border mid tour with an inordinate amount of amphetamines led to a muddle headed decision to sack him immediately.
“If I was busted for acid, everything would have been fine,” he said. “But they were all about the psychedelic experience. The most cosmic band in the world fired me for getting busted with the wrong kinds of drugs!”
Lemmy joined forces with Larry Wallis of the Pink Fairies, who had laid down a rough blueprint for Motörhead with the Fairies recent “Kings of Oblivion” lp-a dash of Hawkwind stirred into an uncomplicated pot of pub rock and heavy rock. Lemmy brought up the volume, scaled back the psychedelia, used his last tune written for Hawkwind as the sign out front, and hit the throttle and popped the clutch on the motorcycle.
Things did not go well. Fox couldn’t cut it, and was replaced by Phil ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor on drums. (he is a story all by himself). Wallis had his fingers in other pies and as interest waxed and waned (Motörhead won NME’s poll for worst band of the year in 1976), the future was uncertain. Fast Eddie Clarke replaced Wallis, and the classic trio was in place. The only thing missing were two important parts: fans and a record label.
The band flew through a couple of labels, before Hawkwind’s management put them on to Bronze records to make a final go of it. They reworked their first unreleased album to no avail and things looked grim. But those in the know had noticed they had a crossover following lacking in all bands on the UK scene: Metal heads liked them, punk rock kids liked them, bikers liked them, and a few die hard Hawkwind fans (see: hippies) liked them- that covered most of the bases. The potential was there, and in 1979 they released their first tour de force, Overkill. These three albums: Overkill, Bomber and Ace of Spades were the trifecta of metal, creating a genre. This started a five year run of over the top metal-stuff that unscrewed your brain case, rewired the the hardware, and nailed the whole thing shut again. Microphone stand impossibly high, with microphone pointing straight back back down towards the floor (supposedly to stretch Lemmy’s vocal chords for maximum effect), Motörhead re-defined metal for the next decade.
The Big Three
Overkill Bomber Ace of Spades
All of this stuff was available in Europe only. In the States, punters had to find independent shops that carried imported vinyl- easy in cities, not so easy in the sticks. But America was in for a treat: Motörhead opening for Ozzy with Ozzy allowing them to bring their ‘Bomber’ rig-a lighting rig that simulated a somewhat life sized WW2 German dive bomber, complete with sound effects and an ability to dive into the stage (and first rows occasionally) The tour was accompanied by the first ever big US Motörhead release and most peoples introduction to the band -No Sleep til Hammersmith, an introduction if there ever was one-one of the heaviest live albums ever put to vinyl. (technically Ace of Spades was first, but this one got the push) I got this the week it came out, hurried home and dropped the needle down on this one while my roommate slept in the other room-it sounded like a car crash as they took the stage. I turned it up to aircraft landing volume, and as he staggered into the living room worried and confused he said “I honestly thought a truck had just come through the fucking front wall and smashed into the kitchen..” That’s what would make Lemmy smile.
The follow up, Iron Fist, seemed to have something wrong. Other than the title track, even this three chord outfit seemed to be running out of ideas. Nobody was surprised when Fast Eddie exited at the end of the 1982 US tour (supposedly pissed over Motörhead’s collaboration with the dreadful Plasmatics, who made Motörhead look like King Crimson in comparison)
Motörhead seemed dead in the water. The choice of Brian Robertson from Thin Lizzy was an odd one. Too melodic. Too..uhh…pretty. Motorhead prided themselves as being the ugliest band around, and were a band that- to quote them- “if we moved in next door, your lawn would die” Musos were excited though, could a guy who literally dripped melody from his fingers get anything out of Lemmy and Philthy, or was a multi car pile up imminent?
Early buzz had it that something really special was going on in rehearsals. Robertson had made Lemmy change to the other side of the stage (“he was so deaf in one ear, he needed to change and have his good ear pointed at me so he could follow what we were doing”) Sounds magazine in Britain chronicled their early days and pumped the hype with a weekly comic strip.
The results? Some would say the best Motörhead album ever. It certainly was the most daring. Robertson’s natural melodies swirled through the new tunes, and the cover was a pretty accurate depiction of what was happening inside-a swirling rainbow of color coming from the Motörhead skull. I Got Mine was the first single, and was likewise a pretty good representation of the change that Robertson brought to the band:
Lemmy trying to actually sing, melodic arpeggiations-what was going on? I was delighted-Motörhead had done a fairly challenging musical album. At the time I had been working at a fairly well known Northeast heavy metal record store. Motörhead was due to come for an in store appearance and record signing. The whole store was pumped-the owner sent me off to buy a case of Carlsberg Elephants, Lemmy’s brew of choice. “So we can drink at work while the band is here?” Yes, yes we could. The band showed up, living legends strode in and a line went around the corner. I stood in line near the end and unfolded Space Ritual, Hawkwind’s masterpiece. It folds out triple gatefold, then opens downward again into a full six panel 36″ x 24″ tablecloth unfolding kerffflopp:
Lemmy took one look at this and growled: “Aaargh ye still listen to this do ye?”
But he signed it.(six years later, Dave Brock signed the same album and said “hmm, Lemmy. Alright, there’s two now”) That night at the Paradise, they almost literally blew up the whole sound system. Robertson had four 100 watt double stack Marshalls, Lemmy had two 200 watt HiWatt heads on two double high stacks. Lets clarify: you could play Madison Square Garden easily with this rig, and be heard clearly in the rafters. I had never experienced volume even close to this in my life. I spoke later to the house sound guy as he chronicled the damage the volume had caused: all floor monitors blown out, left side of stage PA fully blown out, right side stack half blown out, overhead monitors two of three fully fried. He had never seen anything like it either. I had expensive earplugs with metal internal baffles, useless. My internal organs actually hurt the next day. I realized that the bass had set up standing waves in my body cavity and were rattling me like a slow motion maraca. It took days before my hearing returned and my internal bruises dissipated.
The next night in Providence, a club about twice the size of the Paradise, Robertson was down from four to two double stacks, and Lemmy down to a single from a double rig. Apparently they had learned their lesson. The volume was sane, but the music? The combination of Robertson, Taylor and Lemmy was one that had to be seen live to be believed. Musicality and Motörhead in one sentence? It didn’t make sense. (quick aside: in Sounds that month, Motörhead had done a stunning multi page interview by an open sewer pouring into a river. Within the interview, Lemmy semi-bragged about having anal warts. Not mad, not proud, just telling something nobody should ever tell. In another magazine interview the same month, Philthy Animal Taylor allowed that he had a case of warts on his dick. In the bathroom of the Providence venue, I noticed I was at the urinal next to Philthy. We chatted (while peeing) about the insane volume of the previous night, and then…the thought flickered for a second-putting two and two together–and asking if his dick warts came from the warts on Lemmy’s ass? Y’know, investigative reporting and such. I calculated the odds of getting punched out instantly as pretty high and kept that one inside)
It was too good to be true. Robertson’s illogical insistence on exercise headbands and jogging shorts for a costume alienated a large part of the fanbase. He was resistant to much of the back catalog and wanted to create a new version of Motörhead based on their new sound. Bikers, tweakers and metal heads looking to Motörhead as the point of the plow tearing metal forward saw this as an unnecessary slip off the rails. Metal was heading further into the unknown realms of heaviness. This wasn’t. I was devastated. (Philthy proved I wasn’t completely off base by also quitting the band– to join up with Robertson in a new project.)
After this LP, I put Motörhead into the background. Oh sure, I bought the greatest hits double LP that came in an actual leather sleeve, No Remorse. It was the first appearance of Wurzel, Phil Campbell and Pete Gill-the new Motörhead. For me-it was pretty much over.
Not completely though. I still checked in once in a while. The line up stabilized in 1995 with Mikkey Dee already in and the departure of Wurzel, the band was a trio for the next two decades, steady and consistent. In the early aughts I worked at a high school and had a punk rock chick student. Her mom had been one of Lemmy’s girlfriends and actually had him on her answering machine, all growling and shit. I went to an area show. On the way in, a bloodied guy in the lobby was on a stool surrounded by security trying to ascertain what happened. He was all covered in blood-shirt, nose, face….he muttered a snippet ‘he was in a Slayer shirt’ as I passed. Well that’s still a Motörhead show. The show was pretty good, but they were no longer the Motörhead I had known. They did get there finally by the encore, full on rip into the stratosphere. (My student brought an autographed band photo the next day: “take it easy on the kid in math today–love, Motörhead and then signed by all. Probably the only document of Motörhead trying to influence a teacher. )
In later years, Lemmy’s health slipped, but the constancy of the band did not. Lemmy knew that “rock n roll is gonna save your soul, you gotta let it” This gave him a nearly universal respect across the board-Ozzy, Jarvis Cocker, Slash-hell pretty much everybody knew who Lemmy was and what he did: leather, spikes, Rickenbacker bass powered metal. Good metal. It was like thousands of people had a universally shared crazy uncle, depraved and beloved in the same breath-people knew his lifestyle… and liked it.
An auto defibrillator was installed in 2013 after a few heart related events, but the band didn’t really slow down until the very end (sixteen studio albums and seven live albums released post 1983). But still Lemmy had reasons to keep going with the band, and reasons to keep rocking out towards age 70. On his 65th birthday, he said: “Rock ‘n’ roll is rock ‘n’ roll – it speaks for itself. You hear it and you know it, whether it is or not. It’s quite simple. It means ‘fuck you’ – that’s the attitude of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s about music that makes you 10ft tall and immortal.”
Events related to his conspicuous consumption of alcohol and cigarettes started to take their toll. Lemmy had bragged that he had drunk a full bottle of Jack Daniels every day since his 30th birthday. (hence the 14,600 bottles of Jack in the headline). He hadn’t thought that the multiple liters of Coke he drank every day in his dozens of Jack and Cokes would be a problem. He switched to vodka and orange juice from whiskey “for health reasons” in 2015. He cut down smoking from two packs a day to one pack per week. It was too late. But he didn’t stop. Motörhead played over 50 shows between May and December 2015. Hell, they played six shows in December by the last show on the 11th. Lemmy was diagnosed with cancer only fifteen days later. Two days after that, he died in his sleep-in his chair with his favorite video game in his lap. A living legend no longer, the motto of the 2015 tour said it all: victoria aut morte–victory or death.
Click below for a quick run through of Stone Dead Forever from Bomber:
The final show ever, December 11, 2015 below….gawdammm he died only 17 days later, probably thwarting his plans to die onstage.
So hats off to this one of a kind whiskey swilling, ear drum smashing, gun toting, Nazi memorabilia collecting brawling tripping speeding banging living biker legend. Summed up in the eponymous song, the last one he wrote while in Hawkwind in 1975, this both sums up and predicts the whole imbroglio perfectly:
Fourth day, five day marathon, We’re moving like a parallelogram, Don’t move, I’ll shut the door and kill the lights, I guess I’ll see you all on the ice, I should be tired, And all I am is wired, Ain’t felt this good for an hour, Motörhead, remember me now, Motörhead alright
Not since Martin Luther nailed up some truths on an imposing church door has there been such a troubling schism in a monolithic religious organization. Pastoral and visionary, this highly bonded group have worshipped at the altar of the band Hawkwind for nigh on five distinct decades. But what could cause such a rift in this pacifist (minus the home made lager) and like minded group? Nik Turner. Just saying that name in certain circles is a call for public hangings, vitriol, character assassinations and general flame wars. Why does this septuagenarian gentleman get singled out so consistently and what is his publicly offensive crime? Only one thing-playing Hawkwind music. So why do some UK fans get such a bug in their butts about Nik? The Backstory
Nik was a founding member of the seminal space rock band Hawkwind in 1969. Co founder Dave Brock and Nik pretty much created space rock (Edgar Froese may disagree). To be truthful, several other key components rotated through Hawkwind from the key years of 1969-1976: Lemmy (Motorhead), Robert Calvert, Simon House, the dual electronic maelstroms of DikMik and Del Dettmar. But the foundation sound and vision came from these two twins of space rock-Dave Brock and Nik Turner. Dave was the sound and Nik was the voice, and both came from beyond the edge of the cosmos. Hawkwind came slowly through unending waves of music press criticism, shrugged their shoulders and set the controls for the unknown. One of the few bands to remain mostly relevant throughout their 46 year history, their iconoclast view ended up being correct. Pink Floyd? Gone. Tangerine Dream? Gone. They are name checked by hundreds of known and unknown bands across the planet. Hawkwind showed the early critics who was correct. The Trouble With Nik
Nik began to have some trouble in the band in the mid 70’s. Dave had sacked more than a few (although it is reported that Nik was tabbed to sack Lemmy on their 1975 tour for getting caught with speed crossing the Canadian border, two years after Dave had temporarily sacked Lemmy in 1973) and the band line up had become fluid. The last one on the chopping block was Nik. He was sent to the wilderness in 1976 (purportedly for instigating a coup to get the band to fire Dave, which temporarily happened). This set off a film worthy love/hate relationship between these two stewards of spaceship Hawkwind that has lasted until this day. Like some lingering diseases, the disorder occasionally went dormant (Nik rejoined the band full time in 1983, saving them from their formulaic metal bent and getting them back towards a festival and space rock track) and reconciliations were offered. Nik was shown the door again in 1985, ostensibly for being a stage hog (partly true). Although some debated their likes and dislikes of 15 years of Hawkwind, everyone agreed that this was not only THE band, it was their band. Reunions in the millennium included many former members, and the Hawkwind family was one huge extended clan.
Enter the Hawknerds
Something started to go wrong recently. In 2013, posts on Amazon and Yahoo groups indicated a new breed had arisen–the self appointed Hawkwind police. They trolled the internet looking for mentions of Nik Turner, gathered the troops, and attacked. Where this new strain had come from was a mystery for a while. Somewhere in 2014, something happened on the UK Hawkwind fan site. Known amongst themselves as Hawknerds, the site began to show some troubling signs. ‘Wanted For Treason” and other nasty threats were posted over pictures of Nik Turner. Beheadings, Hangings, stonings were all mentioned. What the hell were these people talking about? Most of the folks on this site are straight shooting music fans, unwilling to be drawn into political discussions of the “schism”. But moderators either tacitly or actively approved of this misbehavior. Posts by current members of the band fueled the fires and opinions got very heated. A strong cadre of members were increasingly vociferous about their opinions of Nik Turner. And in sharing these opinions, they were not shy. Like a child in a divorce, they were told to take sides, and poisoned by…..someone. They took to the web (mostly friend face) and screamed the mantra “Nik Turner is the devil!” They started a flame war that was single minded: destroy anyone who disagreed with the party line. You like Nik Turner? You are banned from the site. Did you have your own site? (Nik Turner’s main friend face site and the Hawkwind North America/Canada site are good examples) We show up and attack. When faced with logic or asked questions logically-they descended into name calling, attacks and bans. This happened on the UK site where many US fans questioning the double cancellation were just muted and sent away. They orchestrated a concerted effort to suppress and censor any information on the internet about the Hawkwind failed tour, and shifted all blame on Nik, by any means possible. “They had questioned the integrity of the band”. Why would they say this? Why would they intentionally divide a fan base that was such a global family? That some on the UK site were bothered by US fans complaining about losing two rounds of hotels and flights to go to unplayed shows-and offered a “who cares, they’re playing ten times this fall” attitude only added to an already forming rift. The Non Tour Saga and the Blaming of Nik
Although this is detailed here earlier, a quick recap: Hawkwind had a tour of America booked in fall 2013. Three days before the tour was to commence, they canceled the whole thing. The reason? Dave Brock had been stricken ill over stress by the fact that Nik was suing to use the Hawkwind name in America, and was unable to tour. Whether this was the idea of Nik or Cleopatra Records is to be determined. But given this excuse, people were sad and regrouped. Online,the complaints were solidified. It was stressed that a concurrent tour as Nik Turner’s Hawkwind would be confusing to prospective fans. Ignoring the fact that all US (and Canadian) fans know the difference, and would attend both bands no matter what, the claim of a single Hawkwind was a rallying cry to many UK fans. A larger problem developed in the spring. The rescheduled tour in 2014 was once again canceled two weeks before it began with the band citing some fairly implausible excuses-they had nowhere to sleep (tour buses are where bands sleep), they had no food plans (venues feed bands), promoters would not put up the cash (they had done enough in October to satisfy the band), renting a back line would be expensive (many US tours from 1989 to 1997 prove they know this isn’t a problem). When mentioning visas and airfare, the explanation gets into a twilight zone of logic. People started to doubt this story, and by proxy, the October story. (Hawkwind had gone on a short UK tour near the proposed US tour dates in October). Was there something else out there that kept them from coming? Nik? Certainly not a real excuse. (All of Nik Turner’s shows in cities that Hawkwind were scheduled to play were after Hawkwind had done a show, precluding any supposed confusion). Another troubling question was: Were Hawkwind legally prevented from coming to North America by the legal kerfuffle? This would go a loooong way to explaining the fairly unconvincing and contradictory claims regarding the spring 2014 tour. The fact that they couldn’t legally come would explain not touring and not telling anyone at the same time.
An interview with Dave Brock in 2016 finally confirms that their excuses were a smokescreen for legal troubles that prevented the band from coming to the States (as well as Dave wishing Nik would die(!). A good article that chronicles this and quotes the stated at the time reasons from Hawkwind’s main website can be read here ) What’s In A Name?
Now let’s set some history straight. Two Hawkwinds? Is that possible? A quick perusal of rock history can show us some things. Multiple Wishbone Ash, Venom, Queensryche, Foghat units populate a dwindling rock god gene pool. Steve Hackett’s Genesis just toured. Collins, Banks and Rutheford toured in 2007, are planning a tour now, and own the name-no problem. Yes? Well there’s Yes, and uh Yes featuring Anderson, Wakeman, Rabin (as of April 2017). Hawkwind’s space rock contemporaries, Gong are an even better example. Gong, Paragong, New York Gong, Gnog, Gong Maison, Mother Gong, Pierre Moerlen’s Gong? For better or worse, this band of UK and French stoners managed to get along and share…after all, wasn’t that the vibe of the sixties? Free shows and Portobello Road communes were the order of the day. Money? That’s for fat cats, the man, the establishment. Although it is sure that the Gong family squabbled about many things PHP, they never took their family fights public, and gave the illusion of getting along. And so did their fans. Not the End But a Denouement
How this will play out isn’t easy to predict. As noted before, the band of Hawkwind fans was one of the strongest and longest lived underground and nearly religious cadres in rock behind Deadheads. But this divide in the following weakens a group that has never seen strife as fans. Nik Turner’s Hawkwind and Hawkwind? US fans don’t care. Bring ’em both. This US refusal to recognize any conflict drew vociferous attacks via the UK. The Hawknerds are partially guilty of inciting this schism in a fan base that was solid for decades. Not reining in wayward factions and tolerating or encouraging childlike internet behavior has gone a long way to creating ill will that never existed before. This campaign seems to have the quiet backing of the official band as well. Airing of dirty laundry in public is not a smart way to solve problems. There is no evidence of squabbling between Hawkwind factions, hell there were no Hawkwind factions before this recent flame war started. They have advised to be patient and wait until the legal battle is settled, yet actively promote a squabble over a conflict, a conflict between two band members, not fans. This is irresponsible, and uses age old smear and censorship tactics, spreading the hate that they gleefully accuse folks who honestly voice any opposing opinions of, and silencing and deleting whenever possible.
But this article is not intended to be an apology for Nik Turner, it is a plea for reconciliation, and to get everyone back together, fans (and band members). Some will disagree. I know that few of the hardened hatchet men will be moved by this message, but I feel sorry for them. “Cutting off one’s nose to spite their face” comes to mind as these people miss out on some amazing music to fight a battle, a battle that is not even theirs to fight. If a band splits, then either a limb dies off, or it roots and regrows. The obvious solution is to get the original band back together. (Nik had openly said on his 2013 tour that he had no problem with Dave and wanted to play at any time, and that he had contacted Lemmy’s son about a full on reunion…(sadly no longer possible). But this is not always possible. So when a long lived band has two incarnations, it actually is double the fun for the crowd. Two Hawkwinds? Two Hawkwinds touring America at once? Hallelujah! Two space rock gods fighting-not something that has any winners. Two 70 year old guys fighting over a band name? It makes one shake a head and think…”why can’t stoner grandpas just get along?”
For verification of any of the above, the sources are the closed groups of Hawkwind UK fans, Hawkwind US/Canada, and the Nik Turner group, all friend face locations.
Update June 29, 2017-Out of the Woods
The trademark dispute ended in the US this week with the board finding for Dave Brock and Hawkwind, barring use of “Nik Turner’s Hawkwind” as a billing moniker. He still can play as “Nik Turner formerly of Hawkwind” on the bill, which seems as if two words were the cause of four years of strife in the Hawkwind fanbase. The result was pretty much expected by everyone when the complaint is read closely. (Brock has been the only constant member since 1969). The 22 page finding can be read here.
The confusion part of the case as argued relied on an early 1970’s trademark dispute between du Pont owning an automotive cleaning agent called Rally vs a smaller company who held the trademark for a detergent called Rally. Du Pont was originally refused a trademark for Rally, took the smaller company to court, and the original company was forced to share the name with du Pont. The argument that there would be confusion as to which was which was disputed by the board. That angle seemed unclear as to how this was so influential when the conclusions between this and the Hawkwind dispute were diametrically opposed viz a viz sharing. I would have thought the now forgotten Bay Area 80’s supergroup Dinosaur suing punk rock from Massachusetts Dinosaur (eventually settling on Dinosaur Jr to get out of it) would have been more relevant. Nik touring as Hawkwind Jr is probably not going to bring folks through the door though.
So who won? Obviously Brock will be happy to get Nik off his back. (reading the board decision, it is hard to tell who was the motivating power in this dispute, Nik or Cleopatra Records. From reading the 22 pages, my guess would point towards Cleo.) Beyond that…?
Who lost? On paper, Nik loses the battle to be called Nik Turner’s Hawkwind, though as pointed out above, touring as ‘Nik Turner formerly of Hawkwind’ isn’t that much of a change. The general public is unaware of this squabble, so his following in North America will likely stay unaffected. He comes out mostly a wash. Cleopatra certainly is out lawyer’s fees for pressing the issue, so they’d be in the loss column. The real loss falls to the Hawkfans who have been polarized (even when not choosing sides) into some real rabble rousing hate camps. (see: Hawknerdz). Hawkwind, as the extended family, was once a mobile free festival- a moveable cosmic feast that spread across all of the continents, friends all whenever we met. We knew a secret. The rifts caused by elements of coordinated online social media fanning flames of dissent and causing an unnecessary UK vs North America, us vs. them fan squabble lasting years and something that will take years to heal. Some folks should take time to reflect on what they’ve done to this pretty damn cool planet-wide fan base. Time for an Earth Ritual folks.
This has been a rough winter for fans of the cosmos. First Edgar Froese. Then Spock (supposedly actor Leonard Nimoy, but facts are unclear as to whether Spock is real or not) and now Daevid Allen. Although Daevid is the least well known of the three, he made a fairly large imprint on the minds of impressionable space rock aficionados across the planet as he wove his magic from the late 60’s up to the current decade. Six decades by my reckoning.
This month (March) had brought the sad news from the Gong camp that Daevid Allen was not doing well health-wise. He had made the decision to quit all radical chemo and radiation therapies and let nature take its course. Although this should not have been that surprising (he was born in 1938), Daevid Allen has been such a constant in many people’s lives that they were taken completely unaware. Because for my whole life of following bands and collecting records, Daevid Allen was always there, lurking in the background. The elusive Flying Teapot trilogy was legendary in the late 70’s, and nearly impossible to find in record stores. I remember getting Angel’s Egg in an import store in Boston when my parents refused to help me shell out the nearly 20 bucks a Japanese copy of Cheap Trick’s Live at Budokan commanded. (It was released within two months to the US market at a much more sensible six dollar price point). But with Flying Teapot already in the collection, Angel’s Egg upped the weirdness quotient exponentially, if that is even possible. How to describe the mythological weirdness that floats around Gong? A coterie of green pointy headed aliens with propellers on their heads, known as Pot Head Pixies, fly from their home planet, Gong, to visit Earth. From here the story gets a little murky. The pixies come to earth in flying teapots from across the galaxy to offer earthlings tea. Said tea will promote wisdom, peace, enlightenment and mischief. They broadcast to us via a cross galaxy station known as Radio Gnome. The healing vibes of Planet Gong….uhhh…..well Daevid was not quite clear about this part. But you get the idea perhaps. Drugs clearly are a big part of this. Gong as a band were inveterate stoners, and LSD was sprinkled in liberally to tighten up the recipe. Pot Head Pixies, from Flying Teapot is a paen to their drug of choice:
David started his bohemian existence in Australia in the late 1950’s, the beatnik era. (Daevid was considerably older than his contemporaries). Stints in Paris and London in the early sixties led him to a musical pathway. Along this path he left no turn unstoned, and spread his burgeoning mythical vibes. He hooked up with William Burroughs to do soundtracks to live plays, lifting the band name ‘Soft Machine’ from a Burroughs novel. These free jazz experiments and lifestyle lay the foundations for some incredible moments: Allen overstaying a visa meant he was unable to return to the UK after Soft Machine’s first Europe tour, and was bounced from the band. (the other famous early member of Soft Machine, Kevin Ayers, chose to quit the band to hang out on the beaches of Spain and soak up sun, champagne, drugs and bang rich and bored European heiresses) David shifted to Paris in time for the commune revolts that spread in the spring of 1968 and nearly toppled the government. Now a borderline revolutionary, Daevid was getting close to being persona non grata in two of the largest European countries. It was in France that the seeds of Gong were planted. Gilli Smyth came on board as muse and space whisperer. Daevid perfected his glissando guitar techniques that he used until his dying day: sliding a metal bar over guitar strings yielding an astral sound of the galaxies and beyond. This was a sound that was integral to Gong’s whole ethos-bubbling synthesizers from Tim Blake, echoing leads piercing the sky from Steve Hillage, and an underpinning of galactic gravy gliss from Daevid to hold it all together. Gong famously sprinted from France to England to perform at the 1971 Glastonbury Fayre Festival. Their side long contribution-Glad Stoned Buried Fielding Flash and Fresh Fest Footprint in My Memory-is a classic of space rock and an indelible part of the hippy culture of England in the early 70’s.
Gong was signed to Richard Branson’s fledgling Virgin label in 1972 in the wake of the massive success of debut labelmate Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. Their communal lifestyle and music drew druggies to them like moths to a flame. Much like the Grateful Dead had Americans follow them everywhere while imbibing improbable amounts of psychedelics, and Hawkwind had a likewise following in the UK, Gong drew in the French hippies en masse. Concerts were like tribal family gatherings, and the line between band and fan was not always clear. Success bred insanity, break ups, reunions, line up shifts and a colorful tapestry of alternative living, with an undercurrent of ‘better living through chemistry”. Three albums later, Daevid quit Gong while onstage. During the 1975 tour for the third album of the Teapot trilogy, You, he was watching a jam from offstage waiting for his cue to return. But the vibes were not right. He said “I felt a wall, invisible but real, form while I stood side stage. I decided to leave through the stage door, and walk out into the night, still dressed in my psychedelic stage costume. I left Gong forever that night” Solo Daevid Allen albums became more pastoral and gentle as he honed his philosophy. Woodland critters and gentle streams and breezes informed his new work.Then a punky phase from New York. Then a stint with Here and Now, one of the only Gong influenced bands on the planet (Ozric Tentacles would be the other one) He continued to be prolific throughout the nineties and millenium. I met Daevid several times in the nineties, once at a solo show where gliss guitar filled the air, and once at a full blown Gong reunion show in Boston. A white haired wizard, he had not lost a step in wits or in cosmic attunement.
In retrospect, Daevid Allen was a unique synthesis of talents. A mystic, a mime, a musician, an artist, a visionary. Only Vivian Stanshall and his work in the Bonzo Dog Band is a close reference point. Job descriptions blurred as Daevid took the stage. Performance art, rock, cosmic experiences, theater, jazz–it all blurred into one glorious experience, with Daevid as the psychedelic mastermind. From his busking daze in Australia to proto agit prop firebrand in France to elder statesman of space rock, Daevid carved a genuinely low key and delightfully positive path through the world. Would that were more folks like that in the rock world. I am sure Daevid would agree. If you point your antennae to the stars and can locate an obscure alien transmission known as Radio Gnome, you might just get an answer. The teapot taxi will not be visiting any more. But I will still be pointing my dish towards the galaxy, hoping to pick up a transmission. “You are I and I am you”.