Interview: Joe Banks
Hawkwind represented another way to the mainstream, or at the very least offered solace to those who didn’t fit in. They were underground, but they also managed to cross over, to engage with a significant number of the disenfranchised, or the simply bored, throughout society.
The early history of Hawkwind has been well documented. From their inception in 1969 until Robert Calvert’s departure in 1979 Hawkwind released a string of astounding albums including Space Ritual, widely regarded as one of the greatest live albums of any time and any genre! Responsible for the establishment of a new musical genre, space rock, the departure of Lemmy after 1975’s Warrior On the Edge Of Time saw an evolution in Hawkwind’s sound with the next four albums, released on Charisma, very much showcasing the remarkable wit, prescience and intelligence of Calvert.
Post Calvert, Hawkwind have continued to release albums on a variety of labels, their most recent being All Aboard The Skylark released in 2019. The constant throughout this 50 year (and counting) history of the band has been founder member, guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Dave Brock. One of the few bands that early punk esteemed, and John Lydon enthused about, Hawkwind prefigured punk’s DIY attitude, its deconstruction of the performer/spectator divide and its aversion to unnecessary technical virtuosity.
In his new book Hawkwind: Days Of The Underground. Radical Escapism in the Age Of Paranoia Joe Banks explores the cultural significance of 1970s Hawkwind focusing on the band as communicators and exemplars of ‘radical escapism’ from a world that was often portrayed and (therefore?) experienced as both on the edge of political, economic and social collapse (due to the overt political, social and class struggles going on) and in imminent danger of nuclear annihilation. Joe re-presents ‘Hawkwind as one of the most innovative and culturally significant bands of the 1970s’, reminding the reader of ‘just how revolutionary’ they were (1).
Since hearing ‘Silver Machine’ and Doremi Fasol Latido as a teenager and having the good fortune to see them on the Hawklords tour I’ve had an enduring affection for early Hawkwind. The recuperation of them as an important cultural entity sounds an exciting premise for a book and so, with the book coming out on 25th August, I asked Joe if he would be kind enough to consider an interview. He did.
(((o))): I suppose the obvious first question is how and when did you first hear Hawkwind and what were your first impressions of them?
Joe Banks: I first heard them through my older brother, who had a copy of Warrior On The Edge Of Time. He used to play a lot of classic rock – Deep Purple, Floyd, Queen etc – but Warrior… was something else: the sound itself was so overwhelming, and in combination with the spoken word pieces and fold-out fantasy cover, it really did feel to my 9-year old self like a mysterious transmission from somewhere else, both thrilling and not a little scary.
When I seriously started getting into music as a young teen, one of the first things I got out of the local record library was Space Ritual, which contains all of the above elements, only more so! Fair to say I was hooked soon after that.
(((o))): Why did you decide to write a book on the cultural significance of 70s Hawkwind? Was it difficult to disentangle reality from myth? Has it taken a lot of research to get back to primary sources?
Joe Banks: When I started to write for The Quietus, one of the first things I did was a sprawling anniversary feature on Space Ritual – https://thequietus.com/articles/13222-space-ritual-hawkwind-review-anniversary – which tried to not only describe the unique listening experience of the album, but also put it into some kind of context with the apocalyptic vibe that pervaded culture and politics during the early 70s. This got a good response, and to my amazement, the venerable French music magazine Rock & Folk asked to reprint it – all of which led me to think I was onto something worth pursuing.
Disentangling myth from reality? Good question. From the off, you’re dealing with the perception that people have today – both of Hawkwind and the 1970s – compared to what actually happened. For instance, it tends to be under acknowledged just how big Hawkwind were for a few years in the 70s, particularly for a band that did its utmost to remain outside of the traditional music business. For tens of thousands of fans all around the country (not just London), they were the underground, the alternative to everything else that was happening in rock at the time. Even contemporary primary sources ie. the music press, often failed to grasp this, though there were a few writers that did.
On saying that, Hawkwind created a mythology around themselves as well – they were all about messing with reality. As their old manager Doug Smith said to me, there were many times when they would “let the myth do the work” when the truth was more prosaic.
(((o))): What were the main cultural influences at play in early Hawkwind? Art, left politics, preceding/contemporary counterculture, working class experience, a mix of all the above!?
Joe Banks: Ha, the main cultural influence on early Hawkwind was probably LSD! At a time when just about every other band was stepping back from the perceived excesses of psychedelia and calling themselves ‘progressive’, Hawkwind just dug in deeper, combining the acid experience with loud, metronomic music that eschewed both whimsy and virtuosity.
Being based out of Ladbroke Grove, epicentre of the London counterculture, they inevitably became involved with all the left-leaning causes espoused by the alternative society, and played numerous benefit gigs for everybody from CND to Gay Lib – but they weren’t ideologically political. Quickly tagged a ‘people’s band’ by the press, they were certainly associated with a more working class crowd than, for instance, the progressive groups, but Hawkwind had a knack of bringing all kinds of people together whatever their background, from sci-fi heads to Hells Angels, posh hippies to estate kids.
(((o))): Your book focuses, I think, on Hawkwind of the 70s. What was the balance between continuity and change in that period? Were there any moments of dramatic shifts or disjuncture?
Joe Banks: For a band that are routinely (and unfairly) criticised as always sounding the same, the way that Hawkwind’s sound changes throughout the 70s, often from album to album, is pretty head-spinning. There are always common elements – for instance, Dave Brock’s style of stun guitar – but they move from barbarian psych through propulsive space rock and Kraut/prog to new wave dystopian pop during that period, while always being identifiably ‘Hawkwind’. Brock maintained that the band was always about constant change.
(((o))): Often Genesis are discussed in terms of Gabriel/Collins eras when a good argument could be made for Steve Hackett’s departure as the defining change. Is there any figure you would see as central to Hawkwind’s evolution through the 70s?
Joe Banks: For a lot of fans, ‘classic’ Hawkwind ends when Lemmy gets sacked in 1975 – and certainly the difference between 75’s Warrior and 76’s Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music is pretty huge. Dave Brock was the captain of the ship who held it all together (and still does to this day), but for me, the key figure for Hawkwind in the 70s is singer, poet and conceptualist Robert Calvert – he’s the guy that really turns them into the definitive science fiction rock band, from writing ‘The Hawkwind Log’ that came with 1971’s In Search Of Space album, to performing with them during the Space Ritual period and on their Charisma albums (76-79). He was absolutely one of a kind – clever, funny, exciting, and a brilliant role-player. It’s not a stretch to say that, in many ways, he was comparable to Bowie.
(((o))): Recently I was wondering how to explain to someone why Oasis seemed dull to me. The best explanation I could think of was to show him the TOTP video of ‘Silver Machine’ as something I’d seen as a young person!
Joe Banks: It’s interesting that, one week, you had Bowie’s appearance on TOTP performing ‘Starman’, which everybody cites as a defining moment in pop/LGBTQ culture, then the next, you have the ‘Silver Machine’ promo, which probably turned just as many (literal) heads at the time – suddenly, this portal to the underground opening up in front rooms across the nation!
(((o))): The preview of your book alludes to Hawkwind as creating an alternative social space, a reimagining of community, of possibilities. Could you elaborate on that at all?
Joe Banks: More than anything, I think Hawkwind acted as a rallying point for heads and freaks everywhere, not just in London. They toured relentlessly throughout the 70s, and took their show everywhere. Attending a Hawkwind gig was a special event, because the combination of deep space riffage, raw electronics, spoken word, lights, imagery and performance absolutely wasn’t like your standard rock show – it was a trip that aimed to involve the audience. While Hawkwind inevitably became more like a rock band as the decade progressed, their entire ethos was against the ‘us and them’ spectator vibe of traditional concerts. They wanted to bring people together and be accessible to their audience.
(((o))): The subtitle of your book is ‘Radical Escapism in the Age of Paranoia’, was that a utopian v dystopian response to technology? The utopian possibilities of science that was simultaneously complicit in the Cold War and MAD?
Joe Banks: ‘Radical escapism’ refers to a specific idea, both an acknowledgement of what you’re getting away from and an imagining of a new reality. Hawkwind is protest music plus liberation mythology, something that’s expressed both sonically and lyrically. In other words, the music is heavy with the fears and paranoias of the time, even as the concept is about an escape to the stars, or more metaphorically, embracing the void, opening yourself up to a way of life/thinking outside of straight society. I’m trying to extrapolate in words what I think is implicit in the music itself.
I think it’s fair to say that Hawkwind had an ambivalent relationship with technology. They were very much future-facing, and as you say, interested in the utopian possibilities of science, but in particular, Robert Calvert was concerned with the potential misuse of technologies such as cloning and the technocratic way of thinking that saw us all as merely ‘clones’ to be moulded by dogma. He was also cynical of the ‘space race’ during the early 70s as ultimately a colonial/military exercise.
(((o))): ‘Radical Escapism’ or prefigurative practice? Contrasted to the surrounding society Hawkwind seemed a glimpse of something ‘other’. Was that the case internally? Would you identify Hawkwind’s internal practice as offering glimpses of a radical, alternative model or was it more conventionally hierarchical than that?
Joe Banks: Ultimately, I don’t think Hawkwind were offering a particular design for life, above and beyond the fact that more free-thinking, non-consumerist alternatives were available. The fact that they were so closely associated with the counterculture meant that they continually got it in the neck as ‘aging hippies’, but they were hugely influential on the early punks. Members of the Sex Pistols, Clash, Damned etc were all fans, but it was their anti-establishment, anyone-can-do-it attitude that had just as much of an impact as their music.
(((o))): Robert Calvert lyrics particularly seemed to have an incisive intelligence and prescience, I’m thinking about ‘Uncle Sam’s on Mars’ and the hints at climate change, ‘Robot’ and AI, the division of labour and corporate power in ‘The Age of the Micro Man’. Social commentary and sci fi as protest?
Joe Banks: Calvert is quite simply one of the greatest lyricists to have ever worked in rock, and yes, incredibly prescient in many of the things he was writing about. He absolutely saw science fiction as a vehicle for satire and social comment rather than just an escapist/heroic medium, though of course he was also interested in that as well. It’s one of the things that frustrates me about how Hawkwind are perceived, because a lot of their songs are exceptionally sharp and literate without ever being pompous or overbearing.
(((o))): Like many great bands they seemed like a portal, a nexus, alerting the listener to thinkers and writers beyond the band?!
Joe Banks: Absolutely, perhaps more so than any other band in the 70s. Who else was declaiming Günter Grass poems from the stage at Wembley, or writing songs inspired by Herman Hesse, or co-opting SF works by the likes of J.G. Ballard, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury etc? Not to mention having New Wave SF author/prophet Michael Moorcock writing lyrics, occasionally performing, and generally being a guiding inspiration.
(((o))): Both Robert Calvert and Stacia went on to have art practices after Hawkwind in literature and the fine arts respectively. Hawkwind, art collective or band?
Joe Banks: I think Hawkwind were certainly regarded as being much more than just a band, particularly in the 70s. Their shows were multimedia spectacles and immersive experiences before such terms became commonplace. There were dancers and poetry was read. They took the 60s’ concept of a ‘happening’ and ran with it, attempting to turn Britain’s parochial concert halls into places where spontaneous theatre (as Calvert termed it) could happen.
(((o))): In ‘Resilience and Melancholy’ Robin James seems to be saying, if I understand her correctly, that certain pop music structures parallel values within neoliberalism (2). Would that go some way to explaining ‘space rock’ as somehow giving expression, via musical form, to Hawkwind’s internalised, alternative narrative and vision?
Joe Banks: The early 70s sound of Hawkwind in particular was definitely viewed as disruptive to standard procedure as defined by the music business and press of the time. You often come across journalists who literally can’t understand why the band’s music is so popular, because it’s so outside their experience of what rock should sound like, which at the time tended towards either the virtuosic or blues-derived. It can’t be stressed enough how different Hawkwind sounded to just about every other band in Britain. I don’t think that transgressive is too strong a word, and of course, this sound reinforced their status as flag bearers for the alternative society.
(((o))): In ‘Lipstick Traces’ Marcus connects Dadaism, the Situationists and early Punk as movements that creatively disrupted and exposed society as construct (3). Would you have included Hawkwind in that lineage?
Joe Banks: Yes, I think that Hawkwind also connect these movements, particularly as embodied by Calvert and his ideas/performance persona. As I say, Hawkwind were a disruptive force in the music scene of the 70s, and a challenge to the staid and narrow focus of both highbrow and lowbrow culture in this country at the time.
(((o))): Hawkwind’s cultural legacy can be seen in the continual re-emergence of similarly independent, collectivist, politicised bands like Crass, Test Dept, Gnod, Girls In Synthesis. Are there other artists you would add to that list?
Joe Banks: Not so much politicised, but I’d certainly add the music and bands that emerged from the mid-late 80s Club Dog/crustie/traveller scene as being an important part of Hawkwind’s legacy, as this then fed into the early 90s rave scene and the re-emergence of the free festival concept.
(((o))): Cited as prefiguring punk and rave, can 70s Hawkwind be a resource in contemporary political and cultural struggles? What specific aspects of Hawkwind do you think we should be re-examining and learning from?
Joe Banks: In some ways, we’re living in very different times from the 70s, while in other ways, the sense of paranoia and division that first took root in the 70s has now burst wide open. At its simplest, Hawkwind represented another way to the mainstream, or at the very least offered solace to those who didn’t fit in. They were underground, but they also managed to cross over, to engage with a significant number of the disenfranchised, or the simply bored, throughout society.
I’m not sure it’s possible for a band to inspire or mobilise people in the same way that Hawkwind did in the 70s, but one thing to take away is their ability to create a space for people to exist inside, a world where standard reality is paused – fandom that’s not just driven by rock star adulation, but by ideas and a different way of being. In other words, radical escapism – a retreat, but also an outlook, and maybe a chance to gather breath and become re-engaged again.
Hawkwind: Days Of The Underground. Radical Escapism in the Age Of Paranoia is available from http://strangeattractor.co.uk/shoppe/hawkwind-days-of-the-underground/
(1) Hawkwind: Days Of The Underground. Radical Escapism in the Age Of Paranoia Joe Banks https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/hawkwind-days-underground
(2)James, R. (2014) Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism, Zero Books, Winchester UK and Washington, USA.
(3)Marcus, G. (2011) Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Faber and Faber, London.
Also referenced for Intro:
Hawkwind Discography. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hawkwind_discography
Warrior On The Edge of Time. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warrior_on_the_Edge_of_Time