“Drugs at our age? You don’t have to take them forever. Once you’ve opened the doors of perception you can see what’s going on; you’ve got the ideas”: Dave Brock on Hawkwind’s late-period purple patch

Dave Brock
(Image credit: Future)

On 36th studio album Stories From Time And Space, Hawkwind have lost none of their sense of injustice about the world. Bandleader Dave Brock reveals the drive behind their new music, why he’s continuing to fight for an alternative society, and responds to recent concerns about his health.

Ask a musician what the highlight of their recent tour might have been, and the answers will range from positive crowd reaction to new material, or a hospitality rider that included a decent feed as much as libation, to perhaps wifi that worked or just good old camaraderie on the tour bus. 

For Dave Brock, linchpin of the venerable space rock institution that is Hawkwind, it’s all of these things and more – not least as the six-date tour he completed in support of 36th album, Stories From Time And Space, very nearly didn’t happen.

“It was quite hard going because prior to that, I had just come out of hospital,” recalls Brock as he talks to Prog from his farmhouse in Devon. “I got Covid in February and I was really ill. It affects your breathing a lot and, you know, singing and all that was difficult. It knocked my heart out of sync, so I had to go to hospital. I’ve had all the checks.”

Much like the stoic generation of which he’s a member, 82-year-old Brock isn’t one to dwell on what might have been or what he had to go through to get match fit, so we’ll draw a veil over his recuperation. Instead, he’s more interested in how the tour developed and how his enforced hospitalisation actually brought out the best in his bandmates – guitarist-singer Magnus Martin, keyboardist Tim ‘Thighpaulsandra’ Lewis, bassist Doug Mackinnon and longtime drummer Richard Chadwick.

“I started getting better as I went along,” Brock reassures. “The band had been rehearsing without me for all of March. And because they didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it or not, they’d been practising all their vocals. The good thing was, all of them can sing. Some of them say they can’t, but they really can. So, when I came back, we had really good backing vocals!”

Not only is Brock pleased with the way the tour went, he’s also thrilled by the reaction the new material has been receiving. Rarely looking in the rear-view mirror, it’s precisely this attitude that’s ensured the continuation of Hawkwind’s late-period purple patch that began with the eerily prescient The Machine Stops in 2016.

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And with Stories From Time And Space, the band have consolidated their strengths – melodies that burrow their way into the brain, insistent riffs, instrumental workouts, all driven by the allegory of science fiction – to keep moving ahead. It gives them the opportunity to bend their new songs this way and that, helping them take their place in the band’s ever-increasing pantheon.

“I’d hate to just constantly play the old numbers,” stresses Brock. “We do lots of new numbers, and the more you play them, the more they change and the more interesting they become. Some of the stuff started off at maybe about four minutes. And now you can play it for about eight or 10 because it’s got more interesting. People feel more comfortable with it and we can go off on tangents.” He adds: “You’ve got to get the balance. You can’t just rely on your old material, because the music is going forward.”

We used to go swimming down where we live here and we all became ill. We all thought we had flu, but it was the bloody water! This is happening on a huge scale now

Hawkwind’s sonic attack, along with their fabled and gloriously intense light show, is also pulling through a new generation of fans in its slipstream – a fact that tickles Dave Brock pink. “We do actually get quite a few young fans, and that’s a good thing,” he says with no little pride. “We’ve got a really good fanbase, and they actually travel around. A lot of them come every night and a lot of them bring their families and kids on tour. It’s really good fun!”

Crucially, even after 55 years of playing and recording, they still manage the high-wire balancing act that has entertainment on one side and something to say on the other. A visceral and occasionally disorientating experience that’s left its mark on scenes as disparate as psychedelia and rave, Hawkwind are mindful not to churn it out for the sake of it.

“What you’re doing is you’re entertaining people,” reasons Brock. “The objective of music is an escapism for people to enjoy themselves. We’ve got a really good laser light show; we’ve got a really good back projection. The guys who do all our stuff want it to be a wonderful show. And so the audience come along wanting to be taken off on a big trip. That’s what musicians want to do: they want to entertain people and make it a wonderful experience. And if you perform really well, they’ll go, ‘Wow! That was a really fantastic evening!’ That’s what you do it for.”

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Underpinning that entertainment is Hawkwind’s central and long-standing opposition to the mainstream. This is the continuation of a journey that began more than half a century ago in the urban squalor of Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill, and honed to perfection as the de facto house band of the free-festival ‘freak’ scene of the 70s and 80s. Their abhorrence of the political elite and the institutions that keep them there beats at the heart of their oeuvre.

“The same things occur,” says Brock with a sigh. “You know, doing The Psychedelic Warlords (Disappear In Smoke): ‘Sick of politicians, harassment and laws/All we do is get screwed up by other people’s flaws.’ The words mean the same thing as they did many years ago. You do songs about situations and you think, ‘Crikey – 50 years on and nothing’s really changed.’ Unfortunately, it’s getting worse.”

We were younger when we were doing the free festivals; as you get older you slow down a bit… there’s so much going on, you try and bring attention to certain things

Warming to the theme, Brock continues, “You know We Took The Wrong Step Years Ago? That was influenced by Rachel Carson, who wrote a book in the 60s called Silent Spring; she actually wrote all about pollution. And now you look at the amount of sewage and dumping that’s going on in the rivers. Years and years ago, we used to go swimming down where we live here and we all became ill. We all thought we had flu, but it was the bloody water!

“We found out that there was a slurry pit about a mile down the river, which was leaking into the river. Eventually, the farmer got fined £5,000 for leaking his slurry into the river and polluting the river and all the fish died. This is happening on a huge scale now. The water companies are more interested in making money instead of investing.”

Turning his ire to the ill-fated HS2 project, he continues, “I mean, look at the stupid railway system. Do we really need to spend all this money on a high- speed train going to Birmingham? Billions and billions of pounds wasted and all those people who have lost their homes because of it; it’s all wasted time. We have no control, I don’t think, anymore. So we write songs about it.”

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Despite the passing of the years, Brock insists that he’s still making music for the same reasons that he always has – though the causes may have changed over the years, Hawkwind are here to highlight them as they continually struggle against oppression and fighting for the possibility of an alternative society.

“We were younger when we were doing the free festivals; as you get older you slow down a bit,” he says. “But we do lots of stuff constantly for animal charities to bring attention to what’s going on – like dogs being kidnapped and having ransoms demanded for them. A dog to a family of people with kids is part of that family, and they’re living entities. I mean, there’s so much going on all around the world; you try and bring attention to certain things.”

So, while Hawkwind’s commitment to an alternative way of life is as solid as ever, their use of psychedelic substances as a means of composing music and fuel for their belief system and lifestyle has long been shelved. “At our age in life?” chuckles Brock. “I think when you’re younger, you can accommodate these things. You don’t have to take them forever. Once you’ve opened the doors of perception, you can see what’s going on, and therefore you don’t have to take drugs anymore because you’ve got the ideas.” He adds sagely: “And remember the saying – ‘a little is always better than too much.’”

We work on things as a group because that’s what a band’s supposed to be: a unit of people coming together

The only chemistry that interests Brock at this stage is the one that exists between the band’s principal players. Not for them the internecine fighting and drug and alcohol problems that blighted previous formations – it’s all about the joy of making music as a coherent and focused unit. “It’s a nice line-up at the moment,” he says proudly. “We all get on and we don’t have any arguments. We work on things as a group because that’s what a band’s supposed to be: a unit of people coming together.

“Richard’s been our drummer now for nearly 40 years. Doug’s a really good bass player; and when you’ve got a really solid rhythm section, you can go off into different areas. Tim is really good on the synths and Magnus can double up on the keyboards and the guitar. And, like I say, now everybody comes to the fore and can sing. And to think they tried not to do it for so long!”

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But what of the work in progress with famed dance and electronics producer William Orbit? As revealed last year, Hawkwind have begun recording their next album, though Orbit’s production commitment to the project hasn’t been as exclusive as might have been desired

“He’s in Jamaica recording a reggae artist who is in prison,” laughs Brock. “He wanted me to do some synthesiser on that. I think that’s what he’s up to. I’ve got a lot of his stuff that he sent me, and he’s got some of ours. He’s quite busy at the moment.”

He chuckles again, revelling in the time and space he’s afforded himself. “We have just come back from touring, so who knows what’s gonna happen next?” And with that, Dave Brock looks ahead to the future once more.

Julian Marszalek

Julian Marszalek is the former Reviews Editor of The Blues Magazine. He has written about music for Music365, Yahoo! Music, The Quietus, The Guardian, NME and Shindig! among many others. As the Deputy Online News Editor at Xfm he revealed exclusively that Nick Cave’s second novel was on the way. During his two-decade career, he’s interviewed the likes of Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Ozzy Osbourne, and has been ranted at by John Lydon. He’s also in the select group of music journalists to have actually got on with Lou Reed. Marszalek taught music journalism at Middlesex University and co-ran the genre-fluid Stow Festival in Walthamstow for six years.