It takes a certain kind of constitution to lead the same band for five decades, not least when that band happens to be Hawkwind. A nebulous proposition at the best of times, Britain’s premier space rockers have seen nearly 50 members come and go since they were founded in 1969. But there’s only been one constant factor in that lifespan: Dave Brock.
Now aged 74, Brock has skippered the band through a vast sea of cultural change. Hawkwind have forever been in flux, from their time as standard-bearers for the UK underground scene and the free festival movement through to the post-punk era of techno and rave and onto the prog renaissance of recent years. Neither time nor ongoing quarrels with certain ex-members of the band have dampened Brock’s creative zeal. Since the turn of the millennium he’s issued eight albums of Hawkwind-related product, along with a further six under his own name.
The most recent is The Machine Stops, a busy concept LP and live stage show based on EM Forster’s celebrated sci-fi classic of the same name. It’s very much in keeping with the overarching theme of Hawkwind’s work – mankind’s search for utopia amid a dystopian vision of the future – and, in the words of the band, promises “an atmospheric, musical interpretation beginning in tunnels deep beneath the earth, where every need is controlled and catered for by the machine”. The Machine Stops also carries the distinctive hallmarks of the best Hawkwind albums: scintillating rhythms that meander through space and time, hallucinatory effects, unexpected shifts in mood and edifying dollops of weirdness on top.
Brock is on his farm in Devon when Prog calls, getting ready for rehearsals with the band in his home studio, where he’s also been plotting his next solo album. It’s a set-up that means he can record as and when he likes, though he’s keen to point out that he still needs to keep a firm hand on the tiller. “We do spend a lot of time talking, philosophising about changing the world and stuff,” he says. “So you have to have somebody to say: ‘C’mon, let’s start doing this thing’. Otherwise, we could sit here forever.”
Going back to his formative days on the British blues scene and into the birth of Hawkwind, Brock is admittedly a little hazy on some of the finer detail, but that’s entirely understandable. He did, after all, begin his musical education back in 1959, when he played the banjo as a teenager with a bunch of New Orleans-styled jazzers called the Gravnier Street Stompers. By the early 60s he was jamming with friends like Eric Clapton and Keith Relf in blues hotspots Richmond and Twickenham, before forming the Dharma Blues Band. Brock’s travels took him around Europe, including a Dutch tour billed as the Famous Cure, after which he returned to London in 1968 and began busking on the streets. A few co-conspirators and an echo unit later, Hawkwind was airborne.
The recipient of Prog’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013, Dave Brock turns out to be an engaging interviewee, mapping his journey with tales of drugs, gigs, sackings, celebrity druids and lost band members (among them an “embittered and grumpy” Ginger Baker). And while he appears happy to talk about the highs and lows of Hawkwind, the only sign of irritation in his voice arrives when we get to the subject of ex-bandmate Nik Turner, with whom he’s been locked in a fractious dispute for some years now. But more of that later…
What inspired you to make The Machine Stops?
The Machine Stops is a fascinating short story, especially when you consider that EM Forster wrote it in 1909, and I thought it would make a good stage show. We haven’t actually done a proper stage show like this for quite
a few years.
The remarkable thing is that Forster’s tale predicts the internet, virtual reality, instant messaging and other things that we now take for granted…
Absolutely. His story finds the population relying on a machine below ground. The people who used to look after it have all died and no one knows how to look after it anymore, which is a similar thing to a computer. I haven’t got the faintest fucking clue how the circuitry in my computer works and wouldn’t know what to do if it all fell apart. The album starts with All Hail The Machine, because, in a way, the human race is becoming gradually more reliant on computers. You could sum up all our work over the years as being about [adopts dramatic voice] ‘the fall of human society.’
Is this the most spirited Hawkwind album in recent memory?
It’s definitely good old space rock music. And our new bass player, Haz [Wheaton], has really invigorated us. He’s still only 21 and used to work as our roadie. We’ve known him since he was 13, when he first came to see us with his mum. He’s a far better bassist than [Mr.] Dibs or Niall [Hone], actually, which has freed them up in the band. And it’s opened the door for Richard [Chadwick, drummer/vocalist] and me, because Haz plays these wonderful melody lines.
I’m guessing his youthful enthusiasm was a reminder of your very earliest days in the 60s. When did music stop being a hobby and become a vocation for you?
I was busking for a living for quite a while back then. Some of the subways were fantastic for creating echo, especially the one in South Kensington that used to connect the museums [it’s still there! – Sub Ed]. It was a huge long tunnel and I used to practice lots of songs down there, then I’d do them at home with my echo unit. And I used to daydream, as one does, about how nice it would be to get a band together.
I remember the sun coming up in the distance on this lovely golden dawn and all the druids coming down in their robes. Ken Barlow [actor William Roache] was among them and we were all going, ‘Ken Barlooow!’
So what was the impetus for Hawkwind?
I used to practice at home in Putney, with my friend John Harrison, who I’d met when I was out busking and who
used to play bass with Joe Loss’ band. Another friend, lead guitar player Mick Slattery, joined us and we’d rehearse in our front room and annoy the neighbours. Then we put an advert in the Melody Maker for a drummer, which is how we got Terry Ollis. On a few occasions I didn’t bother turning up at the early Hawkwind gigs, because I earned more money busking at cinema queues in the West End. Eventually, our manager Doug Smith gave me this long lecture: “Look, you’ve got to make up your mind: Are you going to play in a band or be a busker all your life?”
Given your blues background, how come Hawkwind took a totally different direction to most of your peers?
I worked in a cartoon studio for a while, where we did lots of TV commercials and soundtracks for musique concrète. We used to make huge tape loops on Revoxes and around door handles. It was interesting work and I was able to experiment with a lot of weird sounds. So it was a combination of that and John and I mucking around with a Revox in our back room. We’d get Sonny Terry’s harmonica going backwards on a big loop, then play guitar over it and really get the echo going. On stage as Hawkwind we could play 10- or 15-minute numbers, because that was the age where you could be as avant-garde as you liked. We had Dik Mik doing his oscillators, John would just hold the bassline forever and we’d chug away. We’d get slagged off for only using three chords. Or even being one-chord wonders. But you could experiment with one chord for half an hour and still make it interesting. Can, who actually toured with us in the early 70s, used to do the same sort of thing.
What’s your enduring memory of Hawkwind’s first gig in August 1969, when you were billed as Group X at All Saints Hall in Notting Hill?
[Laughter] I can vaguely remember it at all. We just had this one huge strobe light that flashed on and off. Most everybody down there was on LSD anyway. In those days you used to drop acid, freak out and run around the place.
What was your first acid experience like?
It was all right, actually. Me and Mick Slattery were at the flat of Pete Meaden, who used to be The Who’s manager, somewhere near Willesden. Pete had a really good record collection, with 60s stuff like Sopwith Camel, and it was nice music to drop acid to. He also had some really good books on art, which I remember going through. When you looked at Turner’s paintings on LSD, it was a revelation. They were all moving. You could see spirits in the winds coming up with the ghost ship in the estuary.
When Hawkwind began performing at full volume with light shows and effects, was it a purely confrontational idea?
On the sleeve of our first album [1970’s Hawkwind] it basically said that our aim was to freak people out without them needing to take acid. But after a while, corruption sets in. At the beginning, taking LSD and organic mescaline was like a religious experience, because it was something really important and you had to be careful what you were doing. Then, as people got more blasé, they became drunk on acid and would take speed with it, or get stoned and so on. People just pushed themselves to see how far they could go on different drugs. Sometimes people took these things and went mad.
Were there times when you were close to madness yourself?
Yeah, absolutely. You can only do these things for so long. Eventually you think, “Fuck, I’ve got to be really careful here.” We were lucky in that we were around in an era where you could get pure LSD. Loads of people took it and lots of artistic things happened in this country as a probable result.
Did you feel as though you were Hawkwind’s captain from the get-go?
In the early days there were a lot of captains in Hawkwind. It was really a band of eccentric individuals. Bob Calvert was a great writer and poet. I know he was up and down, but when he was on form he was fantastic. Hawkwind had a really good rhythm section in Simon King and Lemmy, then we had [Nik] Turner’s antics of jumping around. And having Del Dettmar and Dik Mik meant that we were really quite revolutionary in the electronics field. You could freak people out just with the volume of deep, throbbing EMS synthesizers, with Dik Mik going through his oscillators and the light show pulsating away, courtesy of John Smeeton [aka Liquid Len].
1975 seemed to be a watershed of sorts for Hawkwind: Lemmy was fired, Bob Calvert rejoined and you had a change of record company and management…
After Lemmy was sacked we brought in Paul Rudolph on bass, who we’d known from when we played gigs with the Pink Fairies. Paul was a really nice guy and we got on well, but I suddenly became really insecure in my guitar playing. The others wanted to go more into the funk side of things, whereas I was still into the spacey stuff. And my confidence suffered as a result. Tony Howard, who was also Marc Bolan’s manager, started looking after us and they sacked me from the band. Bob Calvert phoned me up: “Look, we’ve just had a meeting in London and they’ve sacked you. I don’t agree with this, so I think we’ve got to have another meeting.” I went up to London and we all met in Tony’s office. Basically it was Turner – I mean, Turner had got rid of Lemmy and it was me next – Alan Powell, Paul Rudolph and Simon King, I believe, who wanted to go into funkier music. Bob didn’t want to do that and said he wanted to carry on doing space rock.
So how did you get your own way?
Simon House [keyboards/violin] was on my side as well and that’s when we decided to get rid of the others instead. We’d signed with Charisma and they all got paid off, though I don’t know how much. But they were out of the picture.
Three years later though, you decided to jack it all in after a miserable Hawkwind tour of America. What exactly happened?
That was when Bob Calvert was suffering. He was really depressed and was going to have to go into a sanitorium when he got back home. It was a low for us all and I’d already sold my guitar by then. I remember watching [bassist] Adrian Shaw from my hotel room in San Francisco, walking down through Chinatown, just looking totally despondent. I didn’t see him for years after that. Touring really does wear you down. But once I got back home, back to sanctuary as it were, I started thinking about getting things together again and was a bit more positive. We got Tim Blake in the band, plus Simon King and all that lot, and did Live Seventy Nine, which was quite a successful record.
The studio follow-up, which was 1980’s Levitation, suggested that you were on a creative roll…
We’d signed up with Bronze Records by then, with our old manager, Doug Smith. Doug had Motörhead, Girlschool and us. When it came to do Levitation our drummer wasn’t very well, which is when Marion Lloyd-Langton, [guitarist] Huw’s wife, suggested we bring in Ginger Baker. She worked in Ginger’s management company and phoned him up. We were all really nervous, to say the least, when he came down to the studio. But off he went and he ended up being in the band for a year and a half.
And how was Ginger?
People always used to say what a miserable old cunt he was, but I always got on all right with him. So did Kris [Tait, Brock’s wife], though their dogs used to fight each other. She actually hit Ginger over the head with a pool cue one time. Kris has quite a temper on her and she’d had some kind of confrontation with Ginger. Looking back at it, he’d been owed so much money by so many people over the years that it was enough to make anybody really pissed off. He was very embittered and grumpy. I was still busking when Eric Clapton was playing with Ginger and Jack Bruce in Cream. Eric had a flat just off Notting Hill Gate and I used to pop round and see him for a cup of tea when I’d finished for the day. I’d seen Ginger play at Eel Pie Island a few times, then I’d gone to Middle Earth and seen him in Graham Bond’s band. So I couldn’t help thinking how strange it was that Ginger ended up playing with us.
Post-Ginger, Stonehenge became synonymous with Hawkwind for a while. Did it feel like the band’s spiritual home?
It was the magical place, which it still is of course. We used to play there as regularly as we could, for free, when we weren’t touring. When we did the big number there in 1984 I remember the sun coming up in the distance on this lovely golden dawn and all the druids coming down in their robes. Ken Barlow [actor William Roache] was among them and we were all going, “Ken Barlooow!” using this drone, like a meditation. Harvey [Bainbridge] was just playing this one note on his keyboard and the druids could obviously hear us.
What happened with the all-star Hawkwind project that was proposed fairly recently?
There was this supergroup thing that came up two-and-a-half years ago, which I refused to do. And it’s cost us dearly. It’s an American company – the guy who runs it is a millionaire and he wanted me to do all these recordings. His idea was to use Hawkwind to get people like Paul Kantner involved. The line-up would’ve been spectacular. He wanted some of the old psychedelic giants in the States to come together to do an album with me and the band. Then I found out he wasn’t going to use any of the band and was going to basically manipulate the Hawkwind name and use session musicians. And I said no, because these were my mates. Lemmy was asked too, but refused to do it. It’s a hard story to tell you, because it’s ongoing as we speak, but our American tour was cancelled because of it all and there’s a certain ex-member that he utilises. This is who’s behind it all, this stupid old cunt who I wish would just die.
I’m guessing you’re talking about Nik Turner here. This is probably a stupid question, but can you foresee a time when you two will make up?
Never, ever. He has done untold damage to this band. He’s an absolute idiot with what he’s done. When he went over
to America he was playing in pubs and using the Hawkwind name. It’s all linked to our webpage and people assume
it’s us. It’s actually really ruined the band’s credibility in America.
In light of the recent demise of people like Lemmy, David Bowie and Keith Emerson, do you become more conscious of your own mortality?
It does actually make you think. I remember my mum and dad, years ago, having a telephone book and there were lots of crossings-out where their friends had died. It’s the same with me now, there are only two of my really old mates who are still alive. But you don’t dwell on it.
Aside from that legal business, what’s it like being the keeper of Hawkwind’s flame in 2016?
It’s quite fun at the moment. We’re enjoying ourselves and we’ve got a happy band. This line-up has been together for nearly 10 years now and it’s exciting, musically. Do I have regrets about any of it? Not really. Hawkwind have had loads of ups and downs, but generally it’s been fun. I’m lucky in that I’ve ended up doing something that I really like doing, which is what most people want from their lives. What more do I need?
The Machine Stops is out now on Cherry Red. See Hawkwind’s websitefor more information.