For many people, Hawkwind will forever be the band who, at the dawn of the 1970s, blasted off into the cosmic void and created a uniquely heavy and propulsive take on space rock – as Lemmy eloquently put it, “a black fucking nightmare” of stun guitar riffs, primitive electronics and madman-at-the-controls drumming.
But that’s definitely not the whole story of Hawkwind’s first decade. By 1976, they’d left United Artists to sign to Charisma and were barely recognisable from the band that had made Silver Machine – Lemmy had been kicked out, while brilliant if erratic sci-fi poet Robert Calvert had re-joined as singer and conceptualist-in-chief. The Charisma Years 1976-1979 collects together the four albums that Hawkwind recorded for the label, and includes many of their finest songs.
25 Years On is perhaps the hidden classic in their catalogue…
1976’s Astounding Sounds Amazing Music still divides fans, veering between the stoner prog of Pink Floyd and the electro funk of Herbie Hancock. But while not their most consistent, it contains a few gems: Reefer Madness is a witty, upbeat satire on the moral panic around drugs; Steppenwolf is a dream-like prowl through the back streets of Mitteleuropa, with a wonderfully evocative lyric from Calvert; City Of Lagoons is a luxuriantly laid-back instrumental.
Band leader Dave Brock wasn’t happy though. Following an attempted coup, sax maverick and founding member Nik Turner was ousted and the Hawkship steered “back on course” with Quark, Strangeness And Charm. But again, don’t expect a return to the deep space psychedelia of their early days – the sound is sharper and more controlled, while Calvert’s words are at their cleverest on the elegantly unfolding Spirit Of The Age. The production has an almost new wave sheen to it, but the complex interplay of Damnation Alley will keep any hardcore prog fan happy.
After a dispiriting tour of the US in 1978, the band split – only to reassemble a few months later as Hawklords. The sombre but musically prescient 25 Years On is perhaps the hidden classic in the Hawkwind catalogue, the spooked pop of Psi Power and off-kilter crunch of 25 Years perfectly capturing Calvert’s vision of a bleak, technocratic future. Finally, PXR5 is a contractual obligation album featuring many of the songs originally intended for the follow-up to Quark… It’s a bit of a curate’s egg, but tracks such as Uncle Sam’s On Mars and Robot sum up everything that’s great about late 70s Hawkwind: dense, metallic soundscapes allied to funny, incisive lyrics.
The UA albums might have been more influential, but the Charisma years saw Hawkwind at their smartest and most inventive.