Review Summary: The sonic equivalent of an acid trip.
In Portugql, we have a saying. It was concocted by one of our greatest poets, and it eventually became a sort of proverb or adagio. It’s not immediately translatable into English, since it relies heavily on the phonic similarities between two Portuguese words, but the gist of it is that there are some things that at first you find strange, but later become used to and fully accept. The closest approximation I can come up with is “first you can’t face it, then you embrace it”. Not great, I know, but hey – I may be a good writer, but I’m a terrible poet.
All of the previous paragraph had one purpose only: to introduce Hawkwind, a band that fits our local adage to a “T”. In fact, the spaced-out space-rockers are exactly the kind of band that at first you can’t face, but then you embrace. Starting life as first Group X and then Hawkwind Zoo, the group eventually settled for their definitive name in time to join the London hippy scene of the late 1960’s. There, they made a name for themselves and, unknowingly, gave a big boost to both prog (think Cactus and Cream, not ELP or Styx) and desert rock (in the Galactic Cowboys/Kyuss vein, not the Fu Manchu/QOTSA vein). They would also rise to cult notoriety by serving as a launch platform for one Lemmy Kilmister, a promising bass player and singer who would quickly leave to pursue his own idea for a band. The rest is history…
In the beginning, however, Hawkwind was essentially a permanently high jam band. In true hippie spirit, the project was open to anyone, which explains the existence of a rock band who list a backup dancer, a saxophonist and no less than two
science fiction writers in their official lineup. The two core members, however, were guitarist Dave Brock and saxophonist Nik Turner, who were also the main songwriters. The group’s first recording experience came after legendary BBC DJ John Peel caught one of their performances, and took them into the studio to record a few demos. Those demos, along with some haphazard live performances, make up the bulk of our present object of analysis, In The Beginning
Released by bootleg masters Charly Records, this is a semi-official “early days” release whose main defining trait is its poor sound quality. The company does warn us on the back cover – “live recordings” – but nothing can really prepare you for how muffled the sound is. This is taken straight from vinyl, folks. You know how those old Edith Piaf or Bessie Smith records sound? That’s how this one sounds, too. Get ready to crank up the volume a few pegs – that’s the only way to get past the characteristic ‘crackling’ effect and actually hear what’s going on.
Despite the “live” tag, only two of these tracks actually feature any sort of clapping – and quite artificial-sounding, at that – leading me to believe that these might be “live-in-the-studio” takes. That impression is further driven home by the songs’ (lack of) structure – basically, what we have here is a bunch of high-as-kites musicians jamming for six minutes, eight times over. The group will start off a song, get the lyrical part over quite quickly, then launch head-first into a smorgasbord of guitar and saxophone solos and electronic keyboard effects. Other times, the musicians choose to just dispose of vocals altogether, and replace them with vaguely orgasmic throat sounds (Paranoia, I Do It
) or hypnotic, trance-like repetitions of a couple of sentences (Shouldn’t Do It
). Or nothing at all – the last two tracks on here are full-fledged instrumentals, driven by Dave Anderson’s simple-yet-complex bassline. The closest you’d get to a “real” song, however, would be Hurry On A Sundown
, deservedly the group’s first hit, and a faithful representation of what The Animals might have sounded like when they were on acid. Master Of The Universe
also manages to maintain some semblance of structure, making these the only two recommended tracks for the uninitiated listener. For the most part, however, the songs walk the fine line between actual music and random white noise, and sometimes fall head-first into the later (see: Dreaming
’s instrumental passages and the waste of three perfectly good minutes that is Paranoia
Is that bad, though? Not really. The instrumental quality is absurd – remember, this was the late 60’s, and being a good musician was actually a prerequisite of joining a band. Soon, the Ramones and the Sex Pistols would disperse with such foolish notions, but Hawkwind still follow that rule quite strictly. A particular standout is the drummer, who – if Wikipedia has it right – was still a teenager
at the time of recording! Seriously, this kid could give Portnoy a run for his money, and I’m not just saying that. Other players play it quite straight, as well – as noted, Anderson provides good basslines, and there are some ripping solos from lead axeman Huw Lloyd-Langton. However, it is Turner’s saxophone that gets the most airplay – in nearly every song, there it is, creating trippy atmospheres that only add to the hallucinogen feel of the album.
All in all, then, this is a tough one to make up your mind over. It is definitely quality music, but you have to really be in the mood to endure the six-plus-minutes improvisation and the old-school sound quality. The biggest test on your patience is See It As You Really Are
, nearly ten minutes of an often random sonic assault guaranteed to leave your nerves on edge. Towards the end, the album starts to become “too much” – too much noise, too much spaceness, too much hippieness. For the first few tracks, however, it is an enjoyable listen, provided you can live with poor sound quality and endless improvisation. It’s also intriguing, in the sense that it keeps you coming back for more, seeking to repeat the experience yet at the same time dreading it. Kind of like an acid trip, actually.
Also, be warned – although we clearly see Lemmy on the cover, he features nowhere on these eight tracks. So Mötörhead fans had better look for their idol’s first steps elsewhere. For prog enthusiasts, spaced-out stoners and music curios, this is a decent bargain-bin find. Just don’t for the love of God get it at full price. There are much better ways to waste your money.
Master Of The Universe
Hurry On A Sundown