Hawkwind and the politics of guitar music...

A familiar looking bass guitar?

Bands nowadays tend to bare an uncanny resemblance (sonically and visually) to the one or two bands they are influenced by (ripping off). We've never done that. I don't understand how any group of people can do that. It almost feels like duty to go the other way. Like really, really far. Too far maybe. I used to feel that what we were doing as a (Post-Everything) group suffered due to a lack of recognizable influences. But now I'm not so sure.

We are a group of people (The Mekano Set) making music that doesn't fit into one genre. This was never a calculated thing. That would be a big compromise, a contrivance. It must require a hell of a lot of time and effort to copy, wholesale, someone else's groove (and wardrobe). We work real hard to realize our own sound, our own sonic landscape. That puts us in a serious minority. But we're not alone, right?

When you grow up listening to a band like Hawkwind you receive a musical education. You're better able to understand and appreciate so much more music because it's all there in those Hawkwind albums: droning post-rock, neurotic punk, edgy techno, blissed-out ambient, psychonautical dub, interstellar psych-rock, holographic kraut-rock etc. You also quickly get over any troublesome phobias about whether something is cool or not. You don't wait for someone else to tell you it's OK to like what you already know you like.

My teens were spent latching onto a random selection of weird and wonderful acts (Public Image Limited, Cocteau Twins, David Sylvian, Curve, Magazine, Tricky, Tom Waits, Kate Bush, Leftfield, Seefeel, Autechre) as well as random snippets of unusual sounds old and new recorded off of radio shows by Gilles Peterson and Saint John Peel. Hawkwind were the first band I got into that hit the spot for me. And I feel very lucky that I found them. They opened my ears, enabled me to look beyond genre and just appreciate music, sound, noise...

The Shoegaze thing that's had a revival recently seemed kind of derivative to my ears; and a little bit too middle-class: all those vintage guitars and bespoke stomp boxes require some serious disposable income. Indie guitar scenes are like that, unfortunately. A major factor for me was that I was never able to afford stomp boxes, big amps, or guitars that stayed in tune as a kid. Fuzz? Delay? They sounded like sex aids.

Of course, when I eventually got hold of a cheap second-hand delay pedal (and a knife...) - it all started to make sense. A world of sound revealed itself. But things like our treasured white-noise guitar sound was a happy accident generated by a noisy power supply putting a lot of hiss through a cheap plastic wah pedal. We don't always use it because it doesn't always happen.

Same with the medium-wave radio signals that sometimes creep into our mix (via the combination of a cheap guitar cable and a cheaper compressor pedal): happy accidents generated by a couple of cheap bits of kit. It doesn't have to be all about vintage Fender Jags, huge amps and 200 quid a time fuzz boxes that sound oddly similar to what happens when you plug a guitar into an old (and much cheaper) tape recorder. Seriously - give it a try.

Just give me a bit of reverb on the guitar and we're good to go. The swirl and intricate harmonics tend to happen without the aid of too many effects, if you let them. The fetishization of equipment is a sign that maybe they are less interested in making music, and more interested in buying shiny stuff.

Broken guitar effects pedals
Look at all our shiny stuff.

Having had songs like Psychedelic Warlords, Back in the Box, Images and Wings (see vid links below) on my playlist on a daily basis for months again recently, it finally hit me just how much we owe to Hawkwind. That and the fact that the last time we played live we had sax (through a load of fx), and a fire dancer...

The 'often misunderstood Hawkwind': a grimy, narcotically moody, sci-fi tinged bunch of sonic explorers; fond of pulsing synths, swirling yet gritty guitars, urgent bass riffs, chaos and groove; drones, electronic noise, motoric beats and anthemic dirge. Sound familiar? Remind you of anyone?

Tense, dystopian ( a word you'll be seeing a lot of in this post), anarchic, blissed-out soundscapes... Getting warmer? I type this out and it all makes sense. Where would we be without them?


Eventually I began to recognize that sound and music are a kind of foodstuff. They can be (potentially) nourishing. But almost everything around me just sounded that little bit too macho, aggressive and egotistical. So it took me a while.

Long before I had any interest in music or music making, I was lucky enough to have read Michael Moorcock's Cornelius books (a heady cocktail of experimental writing, gender, politics, sex, psychedelia, anarchism and anachronisms), where the likes of Hawkwind, Lemmy, The Sex Pistols and Siouxsie Sioux made appearances alongside a cast of intriguingly enigmatic ficitonal characters.

I found Hall of The Mountain Grill in a second hand vinyl store sometime during the mid 90's (either Piccadilly Records in Manchester, or Mike Lloyd Music in Hanley or Wolverhampton). I recognized the band name from the Cornelius books and figured I'd give them a go. I soon went back for more.

Space Bandits by Hawkwind

I got hold of 90s albums Palace Springs, Space Bandits and Electric Tepee (terrible titles, great albums): kinda slick but also edgy electro-rock all radiating a dark dystopian psychedelia.

There was a lot of surging bass end powering away up-close in the mix, and a sense of near-chaos; but that grimy minimalist drone-rock guitar and pristine drumming held it all together. And there was a lot of space left over for the listener's imagination. This was exactly what I'd been looking for and I lost myself in it.

It was angry stuff too but not in a macho, formulaeic Metal way. The presence of Bridget Wishart's urgent vocals, Harvey Bainbridge's lush analog synths and Simon House's violin (sometimes plaintive, sometimes unhinged) added a sense of depth to these Post-Everything sonic explorations.

I found a VHS tape of a gig from around that time (Live Legends?) and was fascinated by the contrast between the musicality and the sense of chaos on-stage. There was nothing Prog about this stuff. It was all about a manic, surging Punk energy. There was none of the lumpen, horribly dated 'we're classically trained and must play a million notes a minute' daftness of Yes or whoever. It was raw, gritty. If this was Space Rock it was the grimy grunge future of Alien and Bladerunner.

The surreal-bordering on downright nightmarish theatrics, smoke machines and video projections definitely made an impression on me too. We've had a few gigs where we've delighted in swamping the crowds in smoke, strobes and video footage hehe (and again - I never made the connnection at the time). Audiences either love or hate this stuff. Which is great. The last thing you want is a passive audience that just stands there stoney-faced, politely applauding when it's safe to do so, and more interested in what equipment you're using than how it sounds. Seriously.

Hawkwind was definitely music to get lost in, and with a dark 'everything is not going to be OK' undercurrent that made total sense to me (I was looking for music to escape into, from an environment that was pretty damn bleak: happy trippy hippie music wasn't what I was looking for).

The way that 'Awkwind didn't restrict themselves to conventional song structures (a track like Images goes from an amphetamine surge to 'fallen off the edge of the world into dreamspace' and then back again); the way they can take one churning riff (or no-riff) and make it groove made total sense to me.

I loved how they were unafraid of technology too. I needed that because even early on I found myself wanting to hear and make use of non-musical sounds in a musical context. And I didn't care what I needed to use to realize that. The snobbishness of the musicians I met early on was a real drag. This is the 21st Century - this isn't the goddamn 1960's!

It was years before I found out that the drums on albums like Space Bandits were actually programmed (by the excellent drummer Richard Chadwick on discovering that he couldn't face having to play live drums in a studio environment); something that obviously had a subliminal effect on me.

I love drums AND drum-machinery and I don't see why you can't have both! We now use programmed (and de-programmed) drums, acoustic and electronic drums AND a load of exotic percussion instruments. Give me more drums!

Cowbell, congas and shakers
Mechete-style shakers (spot the cowbell)

It was disappointing as a kid when I eventually connected with local outsiders on the alternative scene, to find that the majority of the Techno heads, Goths and Metallers alike all thought Hawkwind (and Pil) sounded like unlistenable noise. You'd think these people would love a bit of chaos. Hell no. Hawkwind were far too multi-dimensional for that lot.

Looking back, they were just your average small-town small-minded people, shopping in different places to their leisure-suit and white trainered counterparts. A band that wasn't on TV or on the cover of certain magazines wasn't acceptable. It still pisses me off to this day the way that so many people can't decide whether they like something until a certain magazine or TV personality says so first. Like you need permission to simply enjoy music?

Discovering Hawkwind whilst still in my teens broke down some barriers in my head, so when I eventually heard some decent electronic, dance, Post-Punk, Dub and experimental music - I was ready for it, I recognized it, it made sense. And as you grow up and go further afield you meet other people that see no problem in being a fan of both electronic and rock music, and bands that play a mash-up of both. Sometimes you even meet musicians that like that too.

I can see now that we owe Hawkwind a lot. So I'm forever singing their praises. They are one of my obsessions, along with obscure / overpriced analog drum-synths and the equally underground sonic heaven-and-hell explorations of  Kevin Martin (The Bug, Techno Animal, King Midas Sound).

Synths + guitars + a load of delay + spoken word bits...

How many bands that have been going for... five decades can honestly say they have embraced - and been embraced in return by - everything from Punk, Metal and Dub Reggae to House, Alternative Rock and Techno (the darkness AND light of the psychedelic drug - dance -trance experience) and beyond?

I think the later-day Electronic / Underground / Alternative scenes owe more to the likes of Hawkwind then they realize. Pounding beats, a sense of impending doom and a generally grimy approach to production values... Hawkwind were on that groove decades before the mainstream was even capable of perceiving such a thing was a possibility.

That bass.....

Like any band with longevity they've gone astray, their sci-fi inspired antics can sometimes end up horribly one-dimensional, and I've got no time for anything resembling a 12-bar blues. But these are momentary glitches and the good albums far outweigh the bad.

I'm playing people Back in the Box and Psychedelic Warlords (along with things like Scorn, King Midas Sound, Young Fathers, The Bug) in an effort to prove that hey, we're not operating out on a limb, we're a part of the underground tradition of not giving a fuck about genre, and you CAN have a sense of dread AND a groove in the same mix!