Robert Calvert: Flying High With The Starfighters

In 1974, Hawkwind's Robert Calvert released a determinedly eccentric, yet endearingly charismatic concept album. In 2004, Classic Rock celebrated Calvert's genius

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It would take a special talent to construct a concept album at all, let alone a great concept album, out of the story of 159 crashed jet fighters. Bob Calvert was the only man for the job.

An occasional frontman and poet-in-residence with Hawkwind, Calvert was one of the truly great English rock’n’roll eccentrics of our age. As a science fiction poet and novelist, he seemed to be living a decade ahead of the rest of the world, anticipating everything from virtual reality and the internet while cyberpunk author William Gibson was still in short pants, to punk rock while a long-haired John Lydon stood in the audience at numerous Hawkwind shows.

As well as writing _Silver Machine and its follow up Urban Guerrilla for Hawkwind, Calvert used that band, along with fellow English eccentrics Twink (Pink Fairies drummer), Brian Eno, Arthur Brown and Viv Stanshall, for Captain Lockheed And The Starfighters_, his first of five solo albums recorded intermittently until his death in 1988.

Perhaps it was a wry send-up of the idea of rock operas and concept albums – although, as with everything Calvert did, tragedy and comedy seemed to balance each other like yin and yang. Thus the album told more of a story (in this case about the insanity and paranoia of the cold-war era at its peak) than any dodgy deaf, dumb and blind messiah concept.

Linked by short, Pythonesque sketches, this is the story of West Germany’s attempt to modernise its Luftwaffe at the height of the cold war with a fleet of Lockheed F104G Starfighters – a jet with a safety record so woeful that it was nicknamed ‘the widowmaker’ or ‘the flying coffin’ – bought from the US.

Songs from the album, such as The Widow’s Song, continue to crop up in Hawkwind sets from time to time, but the album’s other gems are the folky Hero With A Wing and the wry Cold War Kid. The sketches, such as Stanshall’s upper-class German twit in Two Test Pilots Discuss The Starfighter’s Performance are genuinely funny: First pilot: “How does she handle?” Second pilot: “Pretty good. I found I could balance a glass of beer on my oxygen mask, while I was flying it in a slow roll… go into a loop, light a cigarette, peel a banana and thread a needle at twenty-five-thousand feet… go into a dive, do the three-card trick, write my name backwards, catch a peanut in my mouth and juggle my eyeballs from one socket to the other.” First pilot: “Sounds like a pretty nifty kite.”

Captain Lockheed… also includes one of the great lost classic rock’n’roll songs of all time in Ejection, which has a snarling guitar riff by Paul Rudolph (ex-Pink Fairies, and later a Hawkwind member) that is the equal of Satisfaction or Born To Be Wild, and the same acid-fried vibe that characterised Hawkwind’s – and particularly Calvert’s – best songs. Although it’s about a pilot ejecting from a crashing plane, Calvert the poet moulds it into a great rock’n’roll death song; a post-psychedelic Johnny Angel; a heavy metal Leader Of The Pack.

Like a great cult film, _Captain Lockheed And The Starfighters _is a very flawed work, but the brilliance and dazzling invention so outweigh the defects that you can’t help but fall in love with it.

This was published in Classic Rock issue 64

Robert Calvert died on August 14, 1988

See Hawkwind mainman Dave Brock receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at last year’s Progressive Music Awards here

Tommy Udo

Allan McLachlan spent the late 70s studying politics at Strathclyde University and cut his teeth as a journalist in the west of Scotland on arts and culture magazines. He moved to London in the late 80s and started his life-long love affair with the metropolitan district as Music Editor on City Limits magazine. Following a brief period as News Editor on Sounds, he went freelance and then scored the high-profile gig of News Editor at NME. Quickly making his mark, he adopted the nom de plume Tommy Udo. He moved onto the NME's website, then Xfm online before his eventual longer-term tenure on Metal Hammer and associated magazines. He wrote biographies of Nine Inch Nails and Charles Manson. A devotee of Asian cinema, Tommy was an expert on 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano and co-wrote an English language biography on the Japanese actor and director. He died in 2019.