It takes a while for Dave Brock to reach the phone, his wife Kris – a former Hawkwind dancer, these days the band’s manager – searching for him at their Devon base while their ‘very stubborn’ Hungarian Sheepdogs prove their worth as guard-dogs, barking down the line … or perhaps calling their master.
Finally Hawkwind’s Captain of the Mothership reaches me, his craft having docked at Earth Studios before The Machine Stops tour.
“We’re down here rehearsing, but also having a bit of a purge of junk – throwing things out.”
Earth Studios is clearly an inspirational setting, despite the junk, with Hawkwind’s 74-year-old co-founder, singer/songwriter, guitar and keyboard player based there for quite some time. How long?
I’m not sure if Dave’s talking earth or light years, but it’s not important anyway. Am I right in thinking his studio is a converted barn and former milking shed?
“Yes … with clutter though.”
Was it a milking shed when he moved in?
“Yes, many years ago. We had to drill up cow-pens with a hydraulic drill, de-woodworm all the beams, put about a foot of concrete on the floor. But I was a lot younger then … and we had our young road crew!”
Dave’s been in Devon several years now, his parents moving down from Middlesex first. But while he likes the pace of West Country life, the road beckons now and again.
“I wouldn’t do it if it was boring. It is an art form … believe it or not!”
It certainly is with Hawkwind, whose current tour is about to reach its final four dates, with several summer shows – including those in Greece, Sweden, Italy and Germany – following a little later.
“When we go to these places we usually have a couple of days off, maybe go a day before. Some of the festivals are really interesting, with lots of bands. It’s nice to be able to see a few and see what’s going on. That’s the joy – going out, sampling some fine wines … like those in Germany!”
I believe this is your first show in 24 years at Preston Guild Hall (my excuse for speaking to the band, and date 11 on this section of the tour).
“Is it? Well, we played Preston a couple of years ago. I suppose we haven’t played the Guild Hall for a while though. Hawkwind fans will know – there’s a chart of every gig we’ve ever done!”
I’ve since checked out two gig archives and reckon this is Hawkwind’s 17th Preston trip since December 1972, but their first Guild Hall visit since April 1992, the last two involving UCLan’s 53 Degrees in March 2008 and April 2013. There have been many more North West outings along the way too, the first at Blackpool Casino in May 1970 and May 1971, as well as the first of five gigs in six years at Lancaster University in November 1972, and the first of seven in 25 years at Blackburn’s King George’s Hall a month later.
What’s more, the Mothership docked at Morecambe Dome (1997 and 2006), Southport Theatre (1997) and Blackpool Summer Camp (2003). Don’t take my work for it though – try this hawklord.com link and http://www.starfarer.net/ for a comprehensive list of past UK dates, from that Notting Hill debut onwards.
In the meantime, I’ll focus on the current visit, for a live concept show showcasing new album The Machine Stops, E.M. Forster’s dystopian vision of the future brought to life in classic Hawkwind style. And apparently you can expect a spectacular array of music, lights, dance and visual effects, and ‘a journey from the surface of this world to the centre of the next, with time for a few old favourites along the way’.
So how long has Dave been aware of E.M. Forster’s 1909 novella – written in the wake of better-known sci-fi stories such as HG Wells’ The Time Machine, War of the Worlds and The First Men in the Moon?
“It was Kris who actually read the book, and said what a wonderful story it was. It’s an interesting one, quite relevant to today in a way, with computer technology and so on.”
E.M. Forster’s not an author readily associated in literary circles for sci-fi, is he?
“I know. Funnily enough, I’ve a huge book of his life story. He lived quite a varied existence, was with the Bloomsbury Set, travelled around a lot, hence A Passage to India and so on, living quite an artistic, Bohemian lifestyle.”
You seem to be a big reader, but I gather you’ve never really classed yourself as a lyricist.
“I think some journalist wrote that. I’ve written a huge amount of songs. I suppose there was the time when I was working with Bob Calvert.”
South African writer, poet, and musician Bob Calvert, who died in 1988, was a vocalist with Hawkwind from 1972 to 1973 and 1975 to 1979.
“He wrote a lot with me. I’d do the music and he’d mainly do the lyrics, but that was just two or three years during that era. I want to get a big book of poems out actually. I thought that while listening to Poetry Hour on Radio 4 the other day.”
Is The Machine Stops your way of reclaiming back the crown of successful musical adaptations of classic sci-fi fiction from Jeff Wayne?
“Well, he does something totally different from us. We’ve been doing this on and off for years. And reading sci-fi books does give you good ideas for writing lyrics. Music is for people to drift away and visualise what’s going on, like Damnation Alley (from 1977’s Quark, Strangeness and Charm) or Sonic Attack (from 1981’s LP of the same name).
“When we did Sonic Attack with Brian Blessed, first off he did a polite Radio 4 version, ‘In case of sonic attack on your district …’. Very quiet and unlike Brian Blessed! I phoned him and said, ‘Brian – you’re a Hawkman in Flash Gordon,’ and did an impression of him in that. He said, ‘Oh, I get the picture, right …’
And Blessed – who appeared with Hawkwind at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire on Sonic Attack as recently as early 2014, a recording later released as a single – hammed it up from there, didn’t he?
“He certainly did!”
Totting up, I make it 30 albums between a self-titled 1970 debut and The Machine Stops, with 13 Hawkwind LPs making the UK top 40. So does it irk Dave that his band are still primarily known for one 1972 top-three UK hit, three years into their 47-year existence?
Yes … or is that a badge of pride?
“Well, it’s a badge of pride! It’s a great song, and one played endlessly on the radio. Each one of us tried to do the vocals, and of course it was Lemmy who succeeded.
“Funnily enough, we had a single with Sam Fox, covering Gimme Shelter for a homeless charity, and that was Richard, our drummer, singing. He’s got a fantastic voice.”
If Dave – who received a lifetime achievement award at the annual Progressive Music Awards in 2013 – is suggesting others got the credit when it came to hit records, he’s certainly not complaining.
Getting back to Lemmy, who died just after Christmas last year four days after his 70th birthday, it’s now more than 40 years since a drugs bust on the US/Canadian border signalled his departure from Hawkwind. That wasn’t so long after recording Motorhead, the track that inspired his new band’s name. Was Dave in touch with Lemmy in his later years?
“We played together at festivals, where Motorhead would also be on, and we’d meet up. Right up until he died we were in touch. And if he played Bristol we’d go up and see him. Funnily enough, Phil Campbell (the Welsh guitarist who served more than 30 years in Motorhead) played with us only a couple of weeks ago in Seaton. Kris got his band to play, and he came and played Silver Machine with us. He told us, ‘I’ve always wanted to play with you!’ We’ll probably see him at Cardiff on this tour.”
Lemmy was one of many musicians who has featured with Hawkwind in getting on for five decades, including Cream drumming legend Ginger Baker (1980-81) and Arthur Brown (2001-03). When did Dave lose count of the numbers involved?
“I never counted. In a way you have to think it like a jazz musician. You can draw parallels where lots of different musicians go in and out of bands, adding bits and pieces. That’s how it should be. It shouldn’t stay boring.”
That said, the current line up – with Dave joined by Richard Chadwick (drums, vocals), Mr Dibs (vocals), Niall Hone (keyboards, effects), Dead Fred (keyboards, violin, vocals), Haz Wheaton (bass) and Tim Blake (keyboards, theremin) – make up the longest established line-up in Hawkwind history. Between them they’ve clocked up more than 112 years aboard the Mothership, and Richard has been with them since the late ‘80s.
Does that make it the longest-serving membership?
“It is, I think. Tim comes in and out. He’s recording his own album in France and I was supposed to be going over. Unfortunately we all went down with this bad cold. He’s also in the middle of his new recording with Crystal Machine.”
Dave, the only constant member throughout Hawkwind’s distinguished history, was playing banjo at the age of 12, listening to Fats Domino and Humphrey Lyttelton, leaving school in 1959 to work as a capstan-setter before time with an animation company. But he pursued a love of music at night at clubs like Eel Pie Island, playing New Orleans trad jazz and blues, or busking with friends such as The Yardbirds’ Eric Clapton and Keith Relf.
He soon started the Dharma Blues Band with pianist Mike King and harmonica player Luke Francis, recording blues covers and backing touring US blues singers like Memphis Slim and Champion Jack Dupree. Dave then quit his job to busk and travel around Europe, co-forming The Famous Cure, touring the Netherlands. And as the psychedelic scene grew and the band started experimenting with LSD, the music changed, playing electric instruments and effects units.
In 1968 he joined a band of buskers touring Britain on a double-decker bus, and with Mick Slattery and bass player John Harrison, Hawkwind evolved, drummer Terry Olli, Nik Turner (sax) and Dik Mik (electronics) soon joining. Gatecrashing a talent night in Notting Hill, the new band – dubbed Group X at the last minute – played an extended 20-minute jam based on The Byrds’ Eight Miles High. Legendary Radio 1 DJ John Peel, in the audience, told event organiser Douglas Smith to keep an eye on them, Smith duly signing them and getting a deal with Liberty Records, the band settling on their name after brief billing as Hawkwind Zoo.
Hawkwind have incorporated various styles over the years, from hard rock to metal, prog to psychedelia, even punk (the Sex Pistols covering them back in the day). But they’ve stuck by their original premise – influenced by The Moody Blues, Steve Miller Band, Kraftwerk and kraut-rock bands Neu! and Can – of simple three-chord rock with experimental electronic music.
“That’s true. We haven’t really changed. We’ve just carried on playing electronic music with heavy chords – spacey music. It’s like a ship sailing along. We just drop people off at islands along the way, they come on board again another time.”
That seems an apt analogy for someone who started watching bands at Eel Pie Island.
“That’s the joy of it. I knew all The Yardbirds. They lived in Richmond, and an old mate ran The Crawdaddy Club and booked The Rolling Stones there. He’s around 77 now. I only spoke to him quite recently. And who’d have thought Ginger Baker would be playing with us in later years?
“As long as you enjoy doing it, it’s great. And this last album was quite a challenge really. It’s an interesting concept that flows along, so it takes people on the journey E.M. Forster wrote. In the storyline, this character struggles to contact his mother as the machine’s falling apart because no one knows how to fix it. They live below ground. Lots of humans live above ground, but they’ve told him it’s dangerous. Yet he finds it’s not charred black after all – the land is beautifully green.”
While The Machine Stops is dystopian fiction, Dave feels it’s something we can all relate to, the way the world’s turning.
“You know yourself if your computer goes wrong you haven’t the faintest idea how to repair it. Sometimes you switch it on or off and it’s downloading bloody things you don’t want! You don’t know how to stop it. All these little things prove we’re slaves to these machines.”
Speaking of technology, are there times when you want to leave the Mothership and go out with a guitar or banjo instead, reverting to your busking and trad jazz and blues roots?
“No. I did my solo albums, you see. That was my escape. I still write loads, so if the band don’t particularly like a song I’ll do it myself.”
I get the impression you’re a reluctant front-man, preferring others to take centre-stage … or the show itself.
“The show itself’s always the important thing. For this, the light show’s spectacular. That’s down to John who does our lighting and Martin who does the artwork. They’re clever guys. It’s funny, people just think we turn up and do these things sometimes. They don’t realise you work really hard behind the scenes and the band rehearse for three months. The artist spends ages on a computer designing and so on, and then you go out. We don’t just appear out of the blue, do the show and go. And Kris had to knit it all together. There’s a lot of organising.”
Are you essentially a shy bloke behind that wall of sound?
“Well, occasionally I come out and do my little bit here and there! It’s like a football team. I’d rather be in the midfield.”
A creative midfielder at that.
“Yes … rather than a striker!”
There have been ups and downs, such as legal wrangles with ex-members, but you’re still out there – playing live, recording, doing what you love.
“Absolutely. That’s what we do it for. It’s an artistic thing to do, and obviously it’s fun. That’s what we try to do – entertain people and enjoy doing what we’re doing.”
Hawkwind’s next dates are at Islington Assembly Hall on Friday, April 22 (020 7527 8900 or via this link), Norwich UEA on Saturday, April 23 (01603 508050, or via this link), Stamford Corn Exchange on Sunday, April 24 (01780 766455, or via this link) and Preston Guild Hall on Monday, April 25 (01772 80 44 44, or via this link).