Sunday, April 16, 2006


I went to see Hawkwind at The Phoenix the Friday before last, and I'm not embarrased to say that they were superb! Dave Brock's been keeping this thing together for 37 years, and it's heartening to see how much he seems to be enjoying it. After all the years of drug excess, lineup changes and general madness, he's finally found himself a relatively stable band who appear to all get along and seem to be having a great time. The other three come across as Hawkwind fans who are still delighted to be members of their favourite band. Drummer Richard Chadwick always strikes me as a man who thoroughly enjoys his work.

Several Hawkfans have written detailed reviews, so I won't do that here.

Highlights for me: Bassist Alan Davey's "Sword of the East" from the lesser-known 80's album The Xenon Codex, "The Black Corridor" and "7x7" from the ultra-classic Space Ritual, with Dibs the roadie doing the spoken word bit most effectively in the latter. Dibs reappeared at the end of the set to sing "Upside Down" (also from Space Ritual, though this more fluid version was an improvement on the original, I thought) which the band interpolated into a brain-pummeling "Brainstorm". The excellent lightshow (conceptually linked to each song) reached a peak of psychedelic intensity at this point, appropriately. It had featured the usual sort of imagery - you know: android women, anthrax spores, US currency, swords, Islamic geometry, fractals, vortices, ganja leaves, that sort of thing...

We got two encores, three songs - The 1974 classic "Psychedelic Warlords (Disappear in Smoke)", a wild, almost honky-tonk version of the obscure early B-side "Brainbox Pollution" - new keyboardist Jason Stewart, an excellent addition to the lineup, was entirely in his element by this point - and Tim Blake's "Lighthouse" ("He [Blake]'s back in the country!" announced Dave gleefully, "He rang us up and said he was going to visit...OH NO! He never does the washing up...Straight into the fridge...")

There were a couple of very entertaining dancers - very much in tune with what's left of British festival culture in 2006: kind of punk/faery/kitch/alien - a bloke with a mohican, pixie ears, furry green trousers and UV body paint, interacting with a young woman sporting giant wings, fluorescent hair ribbons and a high-tech bubble-gun.

A sax and flute player called Jez Huggett (just being himself, not trying to be Nik Turner) filled the sound out nicely for a good part of the set, although unfortunately low in the mix at times.

Brock seems to be gradually handing over vocal duties to the others, but this works very well. Chadwick sang a couple, including the last encore, and Davey's developing a Lemmy-like voice (as well as a very Hawkwind psychedelic-warrior-cum-trogolodyte look) which works very well on certain tracks. Brock also spent parts of the set which didn't require his vocals sitting down, but he's been doing this for almost forty years, so he's definitely earned the right to sit down. I didn't get a chance to check out his chair, but there's a real significance to Dave Brock's chair, which he himself probably doesn't even realise:

This strange tale goes back to 18th December 2004, the last time they played in Exeter. I'd got together an acoustic Hawkwind tribute band called "Children of the Sun" to play in the Phoenix bar that night (me, Henry and Simon from Children of the Drone, Pok from The Spacegoats and our friend Steve from Cornwall on flute, melodica and backing vocals...Banana Tom turned up from France to do a spontaneous, but extraordinary "The Wizard Blew His Horn"). A patchy recording of our set can be found here, and photos here. This was great fun, although we missed almost the whole of Hawkwind's set due to last-minute rescheduling, and ended up playing to the drongos and skint Hawkfans outside (rather like Hawkwind playing free outside the Isle of Wight Festival in 1969, we thought). The next day I took everyone on a psychogeographical tour of Exeter, and there was some discussion of the ancient druidic "Gorsedd mound" which, according to E.O. Gordon in her supremely odd, yet engaging, book Prehistoric London: Its Mounds and Circles would have been located where the Rougemont Castle now stands - until very recently the location of the Exeter Crown Courts. Steve has a well-developed interest in such things, and sent me some curious documents when he got home, including this.

Mark Earley
Mark Earley - self-proclaimed Bard of Exeter

It seems that this character Mark Earley had decided it was time to revive the tradition of there being a Bard of Exeter. He claimed the position or "Chair" for himself for a year and a day, with the idea being that an Eisteddfod (something like a bardic-druidic version of a rap battle) would be held on the Gorsedd mound on the afternoon of December 18th 2004 (see "The Competition", p.4 of the above document) where he would defend his title against all wannabe Bards who turned up. Now the Exeter Gorsedd isn't a distinct conical mound like some Mrs. Gordon mentions (the ones at Windsor and Totnes, the Dane John mound in Canterbury, Glastonbury Tor, Silbury Hill, etc.) - it's a rather more spread out "volcanic knob" on which The Rougemont now stands. Earley himself had decided that the Phoenix Arts Centre [located here] is sufficiently "on" the Gorsedd mound to be an appropriate location for his contest. As it happened, there was almost no interest (perhaps due to limited publicity, perhaps due to the Spirit of the Age) and the event was postponed.

Whether anything actually occured on the later date or not, I have no idea. But at a symbolic/energetic level of reality, Dave Brock turned up with his crew to the proposed venue that very evening, sang his songs, spoke his poetries, strummed his "lute" with great skill (and VOLUME!) and definitively walked away with the "Chair". Seasoned Hawkfans proclaimed that night's performance to have been of the highest order - see reviews on this page. Dave meets all the conditions for Bard of Exeter, and with flying colours! He's been resident in the area (somewhere near Seaton, I believe) for years, and his Bardic credentials are unparalleled. He's played up and down the British Isles (even on that epicentre of British druidism, the Isle of Man) for 37 years, is known and respected throughout the land for having played for free for "the people", and has even played at Stonehenge during several summer solstices. The subject matter of the songs being sung (although often mocked) - future technology, social control, madness, dystopian visions, parapsychology, drugs, altered consciousness, sacred sites, forgotten wisdom, geopolitics, conspiracy, space travel, etc. - is about as relevant as one could expect from any turn-of-the-second-millenium British bard. OK, they turned up a few hours late, but we're talking about Hawkwind here! (thinking about it, they were probably doing their soundcheck around the designated time).

Dave Brock - the true Bard of Exeter
Dave Brock, the true Bard of Exeter, whether he realises it or not

So whether he, or Mark Earley, or anyone else realises it, Dave Brock is the real Bard of Exeter! And the Bard of Exeter is distinguished by his Chair. If you look at p.3 of the document mentioned above, you'll find reference to "...pursuing a local craftsman to make a ceremonial chair...". Brock arrived in Exeter with his chair this time, so maybe someone's told him about his new status...After their last encore, with people still shouting for more, he made a joke (one presumes) about needing to go and have his Horlicks, so if anyone is inspired to make Dave a ceremonial Chair, a comfy armchair is probably most appropriate.

Getting back to the musical side of things...Hawkwind are sometimes dismissed by "serious" music critics as a bit of a joke, but Brock et al.'s body of work perhaps deserves more serious consideration. Rather than writing them off as neanderthal riff-merchants, I'm reminded of Antonio Gaudi's words of wisdom:

"Originality should not be sought after since then it is extravagance. One should look at what one normally does and try to improve it."

After decades of making loud, throbbing electric noises and playing songs like "Master of the Universe" and "Brainstorm", Hawkwind have got very good at "what they normally do".

A couple of days after the event, Pok was leafing through a copy of The Wire and found the following in an interview with Skullflower/Sunroof!/Hotogisu guitarist Matthew Bower:

"Hawkwind were the first group to really inspire me," he confesses. "In their long instrumental passages they aren't counting bars per se. They have a riff structure, but they're also making it up as they go along, messing with the top layer of interplay and how the repetition changes. Hawkwind were also important in the way they linked the soundworlds of Van der Graaf Generator with Black Sabbath and Can, all the most primal Progressive rock. The influences of Dave Brock and Terry Riley have been quite similar to me."

So there you have it.


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