ON THE ROAD AGAIN
Gary Steel chronicles the NZ tour of legendary space rockers Hawkwind.
TWENTY four hours has drifted by since the godlike spectre of space-rock warhorse Hawkwind arrived, jet-weary at Auckland airport, into the unseasonably monsoon-like Auckland Summer.
Most of the group are slumbering fitfully after their nightmare air fear: on their way from old Blighty, the good ship Hawkwind had been diverted to an unscheduled LA stopover, where violinist Simon House and his 14-year-old daughter, Holly, were incarcerated with hardened criminals because of a 1969 drug conviction.
Pacing the room is a spindly, mustachioed 59-year-old, ranting like something out of an x-rated Charles Dickens.
‘Oh god it’s the same fucking shit that always fucking happens. why is this shit always happening?’ whines Hawkwind founder and leader Dave Brock, as band members and entourage scuttle out of his way.
Grumpy that the promised Pacific idyll is just like a London Winter, just warmer, Brock is starting to realise that a few things are amiss about this 6-week New Zealand tour, Hawkwind’s first downunder. Like a publicity budget about as big as a Ponsonby Rd designer burger. And the rather pressing need for every single gig to make a profit to prevent the members from having to apply for refugee status to ensure their tickets home.
The sky is dull and broody in a uniquely Auckland manner as the wizened wizard of space rock surveys Witchwood, the configuration of house trucks that makes up this suburban hippy haven in Henderson.
It must get better than this.
INTERNATIONALLY, the UK group are getting more attention than at any time since their debut (and only) 1971 smash hit, the gonzoid genius of ‘Silver Machine’. Celebrating thirty years of on-the-road anarchy as England’s closest equivalent to the Grateful Dead, Hawkwind members past and present observe benignly as previously neglected albums and live documents are reissued and canonised by a newly respectful press; and it gawks back in wonderment as everyone from the Clash to the Chemical Brothers cite them as a huge influence.
Having endured decades of neglect and caricature, highlighted by their resemblance to the rock spoof portrayal of Spinal Tap, it must seem almost incomprehensible that serious kudos is finally coming their way. To longtime fans, it just seems inevitable: in the 70s, when their contemporaries were more interested in clever appeggiated regurgitations, Hawkwind found much more gratification in grunged-up guitar riffs and synthesiser oscillation frenzies. And their gargantuan bulldozer approach to riffology and improvised skronk provided a dark side to the hippy idealisation of their peers that suddenly sounds bang up-to-date in year nought.
THE Waihi Beach Hotel is a low-slung 70s structure of obsolescent architecture and premature decay, set precisely in the middle of nowhere. Two hundred freaks have come down off the mountains to witness this warmup date, but many locals stay away, apparently convinced that these guys are imposters: that the real Hawkwind would not condescend to playing down the boondoks.
It’s an ignoble start to the tour, but even at this outpost of civilisation, where Hawkwind’s attack is lessened to pub-rock status, the heavens collide. On stage, the Hawkwind myth takes shape. These epic seismic shifts of songs sound like they forged themselves out of primeval goo and molten earthcore.
The ridiculous and the sublime run in parallel dimensions simultaneously as silly Dr Who-like Dalek incantations meet the kind of malevolent stoner riffs that played only once sound truly moronic, but run to epic repetition bring out the tantric genius of Hawkwind.
Completing the early 70s glitter and Styrofoam vibes are keyboardist/vocalist Harvey Bainbridge and violinist Simon House, who both look like silver-haired replicas of Dr Who actor John Pertwee. Concurrently owing much to Hawkwind’s vision is the X-Files; the group have been talking conspiracy theory and alien invasion paranoia throughout its history, including a stint in the 70s when sci-fi writer Michael Moorcock flew with the Hawk crew.
Long cyborg orations by Bainbridge include recitations on the healing power of New Zealand dak, and delightfully vaudevilian between-song repartee includes House burning it down with macro-classical violin renditions.
Night two at Auckland’s Powerstation suffers through sound gremlins. Lacking the happy chatter and energy of Waihi, they appeared tired and the performance was perfunctory. An audience of 450 watched support get their sets curtailed, and there were rumours that Brock had insisted on being in bed with a cup of tea by 11.45pm.
MY ears are still painfully screaming when I rendezvous with the band the next day at their Henderson hideaway.
When I confront Dave Brock about the tortuous decibels, he admits that over the years he’s lost the top range of his hearing. “I’m deaf, I can’t hear the telephone ring. You lose frequencies,” he smiles.
After two gigs with lower than expected attendances, Brock is already resigned to making a loss on the tour.
“ We’re going to lose money. We exist on a very low, meagre budget. But it’s quite cheap in New Zealand. Staying out here (Henderson) keeps costs down a lot. If we’d been staying in a hotel, we’d just have to pack up and clear off. “
Harvey Bainbridge, who has been with Hawkwind since the 70s, blames the costs of having 13 people on the road. “Doing it this way the aim was to cover costs and not make much out of it but have a holiday; we’re here to play and see the country.”
Brock, however, admits that the constant financial worries do get to him. “It’s stressful. seriously stressful. “
Bainbridge: “It stops you from concentrating on what you’re here to do, playing the music, going places you’ve never been with the music before, which is the whole point of the band. It’s like a big machine, reckless and wild. You don’t have a lot of control over what’s going on, but sometimes the shows are really interesting, because it’s so anarchic. You’re being bombarded with sound, it really is sonic bombardment, because it’s wildly out of control. So you wait for the magic moment. and when it comes along you get on board and go as far as you can with it. Changing people’s perceptions and consciousness, is what we’re trying to do.”
Brock’s no idiot, and he knows that the Hawkwind formula of endless repetition can be potent: just ask today’s electronic trance musicians, who have created a whole new genre out of something that Hawkwind kicked off.
“It’s taking the intensity of playing maybe two notes. You can play two notes for a long period of time and make those two notes different in terms of the intensity,” says Brock. “Trance has the same sort of principles. Back then it was just doing the same thing on the guitar. but we used to get slagged off for playing three chords and being boring. There’s a fundamental beauty in playing one chord. Even one chord. A lot of different African musicians do some wonderful stuff on one note.”
While the current crop of trance musicians tends to play it safe with reproduction of the sounds the makers of their gadgets envisioned, Hawkwind have a different take:
“Machines are here to make life easier, not to be dictated by machines, and a lot of the time is spent trying to corrupt the machine so you get some weird noise out of them: abuse the machine, says Bainbridge. “But at the heart of it is real musicians who can play their chosen instruments. and it’s that combination of technology and traditional instruments that makes the sound you get.
“Genius is the moment of creation, everything else is replication. If Simon’s playing some incredible spacey thing, everybody will catch hold of that, and go with the flow. He might go off into a space you didn’t know you were going to, which is what you’re striving for when you’re writing music. We’re so conditioned not to notice syncronicities by our authorities, but they’re going on all the time. Try to remember to notice them, keep your eyes and ears open, so when you stumble across something interesting, a fantastic noise…”
And his voice trails off while the eyes settle into an acid burnout stare.
As various members turn up with tea and toast, talk turns to the police crackdown on hippy culture in the UK, where the roving anarchy of house-truck havens and free festivals at Stonehenge has been firmly quashed. They warn us to keep hold of our freedom, and commend us for the way “alternative culture here is part of the mainstream”.
Proceedings come to a resounding halt when a spouting falls off the roof and whacks Simon House on the head.
IT’S Thursday evening, and people are filing into New Plymouth’s the Fitzroy Hotel. What they don’t know is that Hawkwind are still on the road: a three hour drive from Taupo has taken two dodgy vans eight hours on the gravel roads of a scenic route, and the group arrive just in the nick of time.
Unfortunately, the group’s American lighting person is onboard (having just joined the tour) and when he is faced with working locally hired gear (his own had been smashed to smithereens on the flight over) and the lack of American transformers, he snaps. Half an hour before the group are due to take the stage, the American lighting person spazzes out at the sound technician, who promptly takes off, insisting that he’s going to hitch back to Auckland and get the next plane out of the country.
A dismal situation – no sound technician, no lights – is remedied when someone finds the American transformer and someone else convinces the technician to return. Around 250 punters, many of them the biker contingent that traditionally makes up a percentage of the Hawkwind fanbase, turn up for a great gig. But the crowd are lame, and don’t respond to a fiery set.
The group arrive in Wellington for two dates to find that student station Radioactive, which constituted the their main radio ad spend in the city, had run an orchestrated campaign taking the piss out of the group. Uncharacteristically, they are an hour late taking the stage. Eventually, they play a rousing set to 300 people, but Dave Brock stands onstage, refusing to play. “I’m on strike”, he tells the other band members, who manfully jam on without their leader.
Eventually, he capitulates; it seems his gesture was a protest at an earlier standoff, in which the rest of the group had refused to go on at all unless they were guaranteed some cash in hand.
Forcing the issue, the group finally got a little cash for coffees, cigarettes and food. Yes, folks, things had got that desperate.
The second Wellington date was the tour highlight, despite a miserable attendance of 150 paying punters. When one of the crew remarked to the sound technician about the high standard of the set, his response was: “Yeah, it’s amazing what a little bit of comfort money will do for a band.”
The next day, Hawkwind headed up country for a night off enjoying the sight delights and smells of Rotorua, but even this moment of bliss was denied them. Simon House – who was recovering from a recent operation – took ill and needed a visit to hospital. Ditto guitarist Jerry, who had a back spasm and needed laying flat on the side of the road before treatment at Taupo hospital.
They didn’t arrive in Rotorua until after 10pm, and had time only for a brief dip in a hotpool, before bed and a rush to Auckland airport the next morning.
Australia. Where New Zealand couldn’t even offer Hawkwind enough paying customers to make ends meet, Australia was a huge success, and the group were feted wherever they went. Rumour has it that this group with the most male of audience profiles even got groupies there.
It must have been with sinking spirits that the group returned to New Zealand for their final date, a second try at the Powerstation. Where the first had been promoted through alternative means, like student station Bfm, this time they chose a more conventional medium, like radio Hauraki. It flopped. Bigtime. The show drew around 100 paying customers, who, over the course of the performance, drifted away. With a few lurkers and what seemed like acres of empty floor in front of the stage, Hawkwind gave up.
And the road goes on.
This is the original version of the piece which appeared in the NZ Listener, April 1, 2000. Thanks to Adrian Dentice for his insider info.