Notes from the underground

Joe Banks – Hawkwind, Days Of The Underground, Radical Escapism In The Age of Paranoia (Strange Attractor Press)

Firstly, and most straightforwardly, this book is a magical thing of wonder. If you can get the limited edition with the extra book of interviews, you are in for a real treat. However, the special edition seems to have gone out of print completely the instant it came out.

Not to worry, I am told the paperback edition should be available very soon. But what to do in a review? Here at Manchester Review of Books we think about such things. Not for us the standard written discussion of the thing in all circumstances. So I am going to expand outwards, jam on the topic.

I also want to avoid simply repeating the narrative in Joe’s book – for when you buy the paperback, and you will buy the paperback – it would be a bad spoiler.

One book that really needs writing is the one which begins where this wonderful Joe Banks book leaves off. It is the place he got into Hawkwind, in the 1980s. I wasn’t far behind him, I saw them first in the late 80s. I hope Joe writes that book, not someone else.

In the 80s the underlying themes of utopia and dystopia in Hawkwind’s music started to turn into tight tensions as the band travelled through the post-Thatcher landscape.

Andrew Means of Melody Maker commented on Hawkwind’s theme of technology and utopia/dystopia in the Banks book, he speculated ‘on the band’s role as explorers of both outer and inner space during a time of apocalyptic foreboding’ that ‘while this new age of mechanical space travel suggests unlimited horizons, the situation upon Earth promises the opposite’, that ‘doomsday is all too viable’ and this actually ‘sets the background for the group’s activities.’

An examination of Hawkwind’s career demolishes the fake lines drawn around 67-68 ‘and after’ as well as 1977 as ‘year zero’. Michael Moorcock – who actually wrote a book on The Sex Pistols – comments on the erroneous periodising of the age we might call ‘progressive’ (this is in the limited edition book of interviews):

‘My own view is that “the 60s” lasted as long as a relatively progressive government was in power and ended around 1980 with the last Stiff tour. I think we need a different term for that period of relative optimism. The dystopian element in Hawkwind was of the “warning” sort and therefore hopeful of change…’

Hawkwind’s presence at the Stonehenge free festivals can also serve as a useful alternative timeline. Tolerated for some time, the festivals were then harshly clamped down on into the 1980s. The internal civil war against ‘the travellers’ ran alongside the one against the miners, the trade unions and civil liberty groups. We’re still there. That shift has reached right through to cover the supposedly respectable surface of British life in class porn TV and English populism.

When I went to see Hawkwind, as late as 1988, what is now called the ‘merch’ stall was full of ‘zines about the travellers, free festivals and police excess. I still have a ragged issue of Hawkfan in which Dave Brock bemoans travelling in his van and getting stopped and hassled in summertime. These signals from another social cosmos were revelations to me when a youngster.

Hawkwind shot right through the late 1960s to now, they could be classified as hippie / freak rock / prog rock and punk, but not in different eras, they were all of these things in all of their incarnations.

It is possible to explore these tensions in the times and their music by taking two items from Hawkwind’s back catalogue and examining them together.

We could do this with lots of tracks, but let’s first take ‘Assault and Battery’ from 1975, and then ‘Looking in the Future’ from 1982. There are only seven years between the recordings. Elements of the two tracks are almost identical, primarily their texts – their words – yet in other ways, the tracks are worlds apart. ‘Assault and Battery’ opens the 1975 album Warrior on the Edge of Time:

‘…the lives of great men all remind us that we may make our lives sublime, and so departing leave behind us, footprints in the sands of time…’

Stylistically, ‘Assault and Battery’ is a grand mellotron sweep. The lyrics are delivered in the same style. They seem to announce the revival of an appetite for a nineteenth century quest for adventure. Michael Moorcock has recounted times driving with the band, head out of a sunroof, chemically enhanced… ‘Assault and Battery’ is perhaps the iconic track of this ‘unheeding adventurism’ side of the Hawkwind trip.

In 1982 ‘Looking in the Future’ opens with exactly the same words, also sung by Dave Brock. But here they are tortuously confessed. Brock twists and pulls the lines out of himself, as though he has become half automaton in a Georg Grosz painting. He sounds as though he has been assaulted and battered and is trying to recall them. It sounds as though the human trapped in the machine is trying to free itself to recall these words from an earlier, buried existence. ‘The Damage of Life’, a contemporary Brock composition, reveals an equally exhausted worldview.

The musical backing of ‘Looking in the Future’ is heavy. During this time Hawkwind’s demographic was as much New Wave of British Heavy Metal as it was old hippies. Huw Lloyd-Langton’s guitar flourishes are gloriously baroque. He decorates the track in the full purple of a by now antique British psychedelia. There is a kind of radical nostalgia in this.

The text then diverges from that of ‘Assault and Battery’. Brock is ‘looking in the future’ but ‘living in the past’. As he repeats these lines the distinction between past, present and future seems to disappear. The track then speeds up to an explosion which yields to a cloud of angelic, technologically processed voices. Symbolically ‘Looking in the Future’ moves us into our digital, eternal present. Past, present and future become irrelevant, time is shattered. We are shattered.

In the cloud we feel fine, but pull away and feel the empty space below your feet. The floor has been sold off to pay for it all. ‘Looking in the Future’ is from the album Church of Hawkwind. That album is the culmination of a series of early 1980s RCA records. This album saw Brock and Harvey Bainbridge invest in new synth tech and drum machines and then just make music.

New Order were into all of this, who knew? I had no idea at the time. The Banks book talks to them, and to Manchester’s Michael Butterworth. A gem of a man.

The albums which led up to the moment of ‘Looking in the Future’ in 1982 were full of tension. ‘Living on a Knife Edge’ and ‘Streets of Fear’ were clearly responses to Thatcher’s Britain in the early 1980s, a Britain of surveillance and paranoia. In a parallel move, Robert Calvert made Freq in 1984, about the miner’s strike. For this album he used Kraftwerk’s techniques exactly like a folk artist uses an acoustic guitar.

The ‘lines between’ so earnestly fought over in the NME were irrelevant to Hawkwind and their friends and relations. Their work is a continuum. At the same time the 80s work signals the entry into a freezing political decade. ‘Choose Your Masques’ asks you to choose sides and to prepare for a long hard winter. An obscure cut ‘Now is the Winter of Our Discontent’ does this more explicitly.

‘Coded Languages’ from the album Sonic Attack is more Rotten than John Rotten. ‘A cunning phrase can burn a town’ Mike Moorcock shrieks on it. ‘Coded Languages’ is about popular discourse becoming a pernicious disease via sentimentalised propaganda. Sound familiar?

Dave Brock’s solo work would be essential to include in this theoretical book on the Hawkwind of the 1980s. Agents of Chaos from 1988 is a particularly strong record (and also seems to be completely out of print). One cut on that record – called ‘A Day’ – echoes Strawberry Fields, but there’s a strobing Moog sound inside it, like the cheeping of a digital canary, the algorithm has taken it.

‘I pay my stamps I pay my tax’ Brock sings, ‘I daren’t stop working and that’s a fact’, but ‘all I see on the TV screen are starving kids and war machines’. This protest song perhaps harks back to older numbers such as ‘We Took The Wrong Step Years Ago’, but it now sits within the circuits of a total environment, a sort of digital circus, it can no longer exist anywhere else. It seems lost in there. Empty.

Suddenly we are in a lift in one of the faceless office blocks on the album sleeve. Someone is gasping for breath. ‘Quick somebody help me, this man is dying’ a worker exclaims. The line is delivered with sarcastic, comedy ambivalence. The brutal musical attack which follows exemplifies a Bataillean desire to reduce humanity to the primordial slime from whence it came. Whether this is done by alien invaders or not isn’t clear, but it doesn’t matter. That track is called ‘Hades Deep’.

The cover image of Agents of Chaos looks like the view across Hulme Park in Manchester now that the Deansgate Square skyscrapers are complete. This is just a stroll from where I currently live. Planes, helicopters and drones fly across it. It is not in any sense science fiction. Not any more. Take away the sci-fi gloss and ‘the Agents of Chaos’ = Capital.

The album’s theme also lies under Moorcock’s novel Rituals of Infinity, in which multiple, parallel versions of earth are being destabilised by disrupter agents. This could almost be a banal description of the present. Moorcock is our version of H.G. Wells, not only for the grand sci-fi, but the London novels.

There is so much to say about this corner of popular culture. But space is limited. Joe Banks’ book is the best introduction to the work of the band available. I think the 1980s work is utterly relevant to our times.

At one point in the Banks’ book, in a reproduced clipping, Dave Brock says something like ‘it would be inevitable that people would catch up with what we were doing eventually.’

I disagree, none of us have fully caught up yet. Reading this book is the first step to doing so. Absolutely marvellous work. Watch out for the reprint and order fast!

– Steve Hanson

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