Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Fables of the Reconstruction: Hawkwind

In 1977, NASA launched a pair of LPs made of copper and gold into space. Both were attached to the Voyager I and II, a couple of spacecraft that examined Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus and are now drifting past the outer reaches of our solar system, and they’ll continue doing so, presumably forever. The records are for whoever or whatever finds them. They contain images from earth encoded into their grooves and about 90 minutes of music that was chosen to give a sense of what humankind is like. There are Western masterpieces by Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, of course, and prime examples of music from the Far East, Middle East and Africa, and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”. As wonderful as this gesture was, I can’t help but believe that they made a grave error by not including any Hawkwind. I think that of all the music from our little blue ball in space, Hawkwind’s would best speak to the souls of extra terrestrials, because they were the lords of Space Rock.

            Other fans might argue with me, but the Hawkwind record I’d choose for inclusion on the interstellar comp would be In Search of Space. It’s their second album, released in 1971, and the first where they fully embraced the sci-fi aesthetic. When the aliens figure out how to play the golden record with the diamond stylus that comes with it, they’ll hear familiar cosmic sounds: the light ticking of radar signals, blobular pulsations like those from a vast cloud of cosmic dust, the built up pressure of pent-up nuclear energy, a metronomic countdown and then, blast off! Their ears will be rocketing though space like intergalactic bandits on a star-faring hot rod. In earthly terms, the opening track, a 15+ minute epic called “You Shouldn’t Do That,” has an early heavy metal/proto-punk feel -- a couple of chords played fast and hard, but all throughout are strange oscillations and vibrations of space tones, like the sound effects from movies where little green men shoot laser beams and photon waves. And all these sounds weave and meld together into a singular force of forward momentum that’ll likely please the ears and minds of whatever ultra-intelligent beings happen to find them.
            I’d caution against including Hawkwind’s third album, though. Upon listening to the 1972 release Doremi Faso Latido, they might think we mean them harm. The punk and heavy metal elements are more pronounced here, so it’s much darker, more sinister (though the flying saucer sounds remain). To my ears, it’s like the soundtrack of an interstellar warlord civilization on a mission to conquer the universe. The vocals remind me a bit of Ozzy—high-pitched but flat, and shouted. The heavy guitar riffs pulsate and drone like a lot of metal and hardcore, but there’s enough variance across both sides of the album—a bit of acoustic guitar and saxophone and some shifts in syncopation—to keep it from feeling monotonous and redundant. In fact, there’s so much going on in the music, between the pulse and drive of the songs and the weird noises that float around it, that it starts to form aural moirés that are so intense they set your head to spinning. Fun for a wild night on earth, to be sure, but probably not appropriate as a greeting to fellow space beings.
            I definitely do not recommend sending Hawkwind’s first self-titled record, though in some respects it’s my favorite. I vote against it only because it reveals the band in their pre-space days, when they were more of an acid rock group. Pondering the heavens, to be sure, but still lacking the wherewithal to fully escape the earth. The opening track, “Hurry On Sundown,” has a bluesy/folksy feel. It begins with a bright riff strummed on an acoustic guitar, then a blaring harmonica kicks in and dances along with the melodic vocals. On the second track, they venture a fair distance into space, but it’s a feedback-based approximation of space that’s still rooted in earthliness. There’s less artifice; you can picture ragamuffin stoners making the music in some groovy pad somewhere, tripping out. The shape of some of the songs is less streamlined and symmetrical than on their later records, too. The third track, “Be Yourself,” for instance, has an odd three-beat form that’s kind of arty in a punk-rock sort of way, the punkiness due mainly to shouted lyrics. Side two has a similar form, only in reverse, going from off-centered, dark melody and rhythm, through several interludes of guitar-and-amp cosmos (with a touch of crazy saxophone from the gates of hell thrown in), and it ends with another down-to-earth tune, “Mirror of Illusion,” which verges on pop, in a hippy sort of way. It’s a great album, but probably not the best hello for whoever might be out there, millions of light years away. Better to wait to play the space creatures Hawkwind’s first record when they finally arrive at our home planet, where we can have them over for supper and wine and maybe even some of our precious herbs for a long night gathered around a real turntable.

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