Like most fans of music that both rocks and rolls, I had heard of Hawkwind. They almost seemed like an urban legend. Old heads whispered about the band as the pioneers of “space rock,” a genre I naturally lean toward. After a few drinks, trivia lovers would tell me that the venerable Lemmy was a member of Hawkwind before forming Motorhead. Despite the encouragement, Hawkwind remained a gap in my musical knowledge until this year. Instead of choosing a Hawkwind album at random and forming an opinion of the band from there, I held my breath and dove into the massive six-disc retrospective from Cherry Red Records, Dust of Time 1969-2021.
With the exception of a harmonica heavy solo track from band founder Dave Brock, the first disc gets freaky right away. With production values reminiscent of Black Sabbath’s early work, Hawkwind dives right into gratuitous phasing and swooping electronic noises on “Master of the Universe.” Saxophone and satellite sounds propel “You Shouldn’t Do That,” a stellar fifteen-minute-long opus. Hawkwind’s biggest radio hit, the Lemmy-fronted “Silver Machine,” is a nutty description of a device that may hurl the user through time and space. The most straightforward and eerie song on the first disc is “Urban Guerilla,” a fast-paced song with heavy Stooges vibes about a domestic terrorism and the end of the hippie era (“Let’s not talk about love and flowers and things that don’t explode/We used up all our magic powers trying to do it in the road”).
On the second disc, which covers the span of 1972-1975, Hawkwind began leaning hard into the space rock vibe. With song titles like “Brainstorm,” “Space is Deep,” and “Spiral Galaxy 24968,” the band explored futurism, parapsychology and the possibility of alien life. This worked as part of the band’s sonic expansion as synthesizers and Mellotron work took on greater importance in the music. Even a relatively dirty little rock song aspires toward New Age gravitas. “Orgone Accumulator,” about a device that absorbs and collects cosmic energy, is a nice little rave-up. If you’re writing a paper and need a word that rhymes with “accumulator,” please reference this song. All the rhymes are here.
Disc three showcases Hawkwind’s expansive range of lyrical interests. “Spirit of the Age” is sung from the viewpoint of a clone. “Back on the Streets” is a great gnarly rocker on par with anything KISS ever released. “PSI Power” espouses the glories of telepathy, particularly on the dating scene. However, the standout is vocalist Robert Calvert’s interpretation of the Hermann Hesse classic, “Steppenwolf.” Calvert threatens his way throughout the song with the periodic declaration, “I am a man-wolf!” We believe you, dude.
Hawkwind embraces the 1980s rock on disc four with thunderous drums and songs about the looming threat of nuclear war. Sci-fi writer Michael Moorcock shows up for a bit to inject some weirdness on the live track “Running Through My Back Brain (Messages).” However, take a good listen to “Arrival in Utopia,” a bruiser of a rock song with some Geddy Lee-esque synth work. Put simply, that song slaps.
Disc five drips with heavy rock and roll mysticism. “Zarozinia” from the 1985 album The Chronicle of the Black Sword is a mournful lament filled with imagery of flames, flesh and tears. Fanciful titles such as “Dragons and Fables” and “Wastelands of Sleep” appear here, as do lyrics like “I look neither right nor left/I sail upon the dreams of death.” It’s cheerful stuff, to be sure, and yet this is the weakest disc of the entire collection. Although “Needle Gun” is a fine rocker, the other songs feel tailor-made for a downer Dungeons and Dragons session.
Hawkwind’s more recent music makes up the last disc of the set. The politically tinged live track “Right to Decide” should have been a hit. With an anthemic singalong chorus and crazy laser burst sounds, it’s a standout song. Instrumental tracks “Space is Their Palestine” and “All Aboard the Skylark” step over the line into ambient music. Hawkwind’s overarching science-fiction concepts are still in full effect, with “Alien (I Am)” featuring computer voices talking about processing signals “directly to the human brain.”
There are times when Hawkwind presents itself as a grimier, less Victorian version of the Moody Blues, with flute and theremin bouncing along jauntily in the background. Some lyrics veer over into simplistic silliness (“Space is dark, it is so endless/When you’re lost, it’s so relentless”) but there is an inherent naivete in the tunes that renders them charming instead of annoying.
Hawkwind’s influence on other musicians is undeniable. One can hear shades of Iron Maiden, Cheap Trick, Kraftwerk, Motley Crue, Public Image Ltd., 1980s reunion-era Deep Purple, Tubeway Army, Spinal Tap and other bands in Hawkwind’s music. But how much of Hawkwind’s music was created to keep up with current musical trends? It requires maths, calendars and preternatural knowledge to figure that out. For example, 1979’s “High Rise” wouldn’t be out of place on a Pink Floyd album. Robert Calvert’s vocals seem to echo Roger Waters’ singing/speaking style while Adrian Shaw’s snaky bass groove sounds like something Waters would have written. It’s a chicken-and-the-egg situation. Notice that and other musical similarities in this set, but don’t spend too much time thinking about them.
Dust of Time 1969-2021 features a gorgeous booklet including a long-ranging interview with Hawkwind founder Dave Brock and artwork highlighting cover art from Hawkwind albums. As always, Cherry Red Records treats the subjects of their collections with respect. The quality of the recordings and the nice packaging are proof.
What it comes down to is that Hawkwind can do it all, everything from quarter-hour long psychedelic freak-outs to short snarling slugs of pop-punk fury. Hawkwind is more than just The Band Lemmy Used To Be In. It has become a waystation for all the genres rock invaded over the last fifty years, enhancing the art for musicians and fans alike. For new listeners, there is no better place to begin adventuring with Hawkwind than this set.