Published 8 September 2020.
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
My route to becoming what you could loosely term a ‘professional music journalist’ is perhaps a little different from most people here. For a start, I’m in my early 50s, but only began writing seriously about music in 2013, and this only came about via a change in circumstances. Having two young children who needed looking after, and a wife who earnt considerably more than me, I made the decision to give up my job at a tech PR firm to become a house husband. However, I quickly realised that, when I wasn’t ferrying the kids around to nursery/school, washing their clothes or feeding them, I now had time – and perhaps more importantly, headspace – to do something creative. This is, I realise, an incredibly lucky position to be in, but one I hope I’ve used to add, even in an infinitesimally small way, to the plus column of human culture ;-0. I know that sounds ludicrous and not a little pompous, but I also know how much joy and nourishment I’ve got from reading about music over the years, so if I can give even a little bit of that back to other people, I’ll feel that I’ve done some good.
This isn’t the first period of my life in which I’ve written about music, but it’s certainly the only time anybody’s actually paid me to do it. If we go right back to the beginning, like many people, I used to write reviews for my student newspaper (1987-89), and then for Southern Cross (1990-91), a free mag available at London tube stations aimed at Aussie/NZ travellers (of which there seemed to be a great deal in those days). While this was a useful introduction to writing about music in a semi-meaningful way (not that I’d want to re-read many of those pieces), it was primarily a handy way of getting records and into gigs for free. I did gee myself up to phone Melody Maker and send in some reviews, but nothing came of this. After that, much of the ‘90s was spent making music, first singing in a band, then attempting to become a solo artist, despite having practically no musical skills whatsoever. Suffice to say, the world wasn’t quite ready for my talents back then.
Increasingly fed up of doing temp jobs and living from one month’s rent to the next, I decided I needed a ‘proper’ profession – but ended up doing PR anyway. Yet if nothing else, this taught me how to write both concisely and persuasively. In the early ‘00s, I started contributing reviews to Julian Cope’s Head Heritage website, while also trying to (ahem) re-invent myself as screenwriter (I’d previously written and directed plays at university, and wrote a novel (unpublished) after leaving). I turned out various scripts, none of which ultimately came to anything, but I certainly learnt a lot about narrative (and the dreaded ‘genre confusion’, but that’s another story). Taking matters into my own hands, I then wrote and produced a short film, which got shown in a van at Cannes…
I guess the takeaway from all this is that I’ve been writing professionally and non-professionally for over 30 years now, and it’s the one thing I’d say I’m reasonably good at. So being able to combine this with the one thing I know quite a bit about ie. music, has been an amazing experience for which I’m deeply grateful. Having persuaded John Doran at The Quietus to let me write for them (based on a couple of those Head Heritage reviews), I’ve since written – through a mix of good fortune and perseverance – for The Guardian, MOJO, Prog, Shindig! and Rock & Folk.
How did you come to this subject for a book? What made Hawkwind so interesting to you?
My older brother used to play Hawkwind’s Warrior On The Edge Of Time when I was young. He also used to play a lot of classic rock eg. Pink Floyd, Queen, Deep Purple etc, but in comparison, there was something particularly beguiling and not a little frightening about Warrior. As an 8-year old, I couldn’t get a handle on Hawkwind, but even then, I could tell they weren’t your standard rock band – there was something about the sheer density of the music, not to mention Warrior’s strange spoken word pieces and fantastic fold-put sleeve!
When I started getting seriously into music as a young teen, one of the first albums I got out of our local record library was Space Ritual, Hawkwind’s legendary live album from 1973, which remains an utterly unique (and extreme) listening experience – it took me a little while to get my head around that, but then I was well and truly hooked, especially when I bought a twofer cassette of Quark, Strangeness And Charm and PXR5, a couple of late ‘70s albums where their status as a science fiction band (as opposed to just a ‘space rock’ band) is really established. On a basic level, the fact that they made this terrific noise while promoting a blackly satirical SF worldview was very appealing. But as the years went by, I realised that Hawkwind connected to the 1970s in all kinds of interesting ways, both musically and culturally.
One of the first things I wrote for The Quietus was an anniversary piece on Space Ritual https://thequietus.com/articles/13222-space-ritual-hawkwind-review-anniversary, which tried to clarify and pull some of these thoughts together. It got a really positive response, and somewhat unbelievably to me at the time, ended up being translated and published in French music magazine Rock & Folk (which led to a series of other commissions from them). Not only did this spur me on as a ‘serious’ music writer, but also made me wonder if there might be something more I could write about Hawkwind – because while there’d previously been books written about the band, I thought there was a lot more to say about them in terms of their cultural impact and influence.
Tell me a bit about the process of securing the book deal.
My first thought was to pitch the Quietus Space Ritual piece as the basis of a 33 1⁄3 book – however, my proposal didn’t go anywhere (and looking back on the process and what I submitted, I’m not entirely surprised). I then realised that I wanted to write something a little broader, which took in the whole of Hawkwind’s classic ‘70s era. I think at that point I put together a new pitch, though it wasn’t massively fleshed out, more over-riding ideas and a rough structure. And then it was just a case of investigating relevant publishers (based on previous books they’d published etc) and working out how to get to them. (I’d gone through the rigmarole of trying to get an agent when I was writing scripts, and wasn’t going to bother with that again.)
Unlike just about every other creative endeavour I’ve embarked on, my book deal came indecently fast. I’d just pitched to a specialist music publisher, and after some to-ing and fro-ing – they’d expressed initial interest – got a rejection, when I mentioned to an acquaintance what I was up to, and he suggested trying Strange Attractor. I knew of them as publishers of esoteric/occult/countercultural non-fiction, and that they were quite cool, but what I hadn’t twigged was that they were starting to put out more music-related books. I dropped Mark Pilkington – SA’s main man – an introductory email, not really expecting to hear anything back, but he replied almost immediately, and suggested a meeting. What I hadn’t realised was that Mark was also a big Hawkwind fan, so I’d basically hit the jackpot without really trying! I quickly put a bit more detail into my pitch – though it was still pretty bare bones to be honest, as I wasn’t sure myself exactly what I was going to produce – and sent it over. The meeting was very informal, more of a getting to know you chat, with me no doubt gushing out various crackpot theories regarding Hawkwind, but at the end of it, Mark said, OK, let’s do it, and that was that. This was December 2015.
Basically, it was another serious stroke of good fortune. However, would I have had the front/confidence to be pitching a book like this if I didn’t have the published pieces I’d already done to back it up? Almost certainly not, and by coincidence, I’d just found out on the day of the meeting that a pitch I’d made to The Guardian for an article on Hawkwind’s singer Robert Calvert had been accepted – these kind of things help your credibility and positively affect your demeanour in those situations. Ultimately, a publisher has to trust that you’re going to deliver something that’s worth putting out, so building a profile or portfolio by whatever means necessary is invaluable.
Was there much of a research process? What did that look like?
Carol Clerk, who wrote The Saga Of Hawkwind, the first proper biography of the band, said something in interview which really stuck with me – if you going to write a book like this, you’re going to be carrying the band around in your head pretty much non-stop for 2-3 years, so you’d better like ‘em! Which is a roundabout way of saying that Hawkwind were part of the fabric of my musical life, so I already knew quite a bit about them – though of course, there then followed some fairly intensive listening (and note-taking) sessions as I revisited albums I thought I knew inside out, only to realise there were all kinds of details and nuances I hadn’t spotted before. And seeing as I wanted to plug Hawkwind into the social and cultural life of Britain in the 1970s, this was definitely something I needed to gen up on through reading and general rabbit holing online. I didn’t want to write some pseudo-political thesis with Hawkwind sandwiched somewhere in the middle, but I did want to assemble a cogent overview of the period, even if most of it I’d ultimately discard.
The internet is of course an incredible research tool – in particular, there were a couple of sites where transcriptions of music press features and coverage of the band were available, which was invaluable not only for contemporary quotes, but also for building up a picture of how Hawkwind were perceived during the ‘70s (and how for instance, this perception changed over time). In the latter stage of writing particularly, various Facebook fan pages were also an excellent source of detail and great places to ask questions of people who had been in the crowd during the ‘70s, and chat generally with Hawkwind collectors, archivists and experts. I was determined that my book was going to be as factually correct as possible.
I also did lots of primary research interviewing ex-band members and related crew – management, artists, roadies, dancers etc. In fact, I spoke to a LOT more people than I’d originally intended (which is why the special edition of Days Of The Underground comes with an additional book – Sideways Through Time – which includes interviews not included in the main book), having originally thought the book was going to be more music and analysis based.
I have a slight love/hate relationship with traditional music biogs that pivot around the same quotes you’ve read a million times before, and most of those either being about the time the singer thought he could fly from the PA, the time the drummer smuggled ten groupies back to his hotel room etc etc, or just repeat received wisdom without any additional insight… Of course, you soon realise that, particularly for guys who’ve been doing this for 40-50 years, they have their version of the narrative, they have their set quotes, and no matter how much you try and come at topics from different angles or ask new questions, they tend to circle back to what they’ve said before. That’s not a criticism, it’s just the way things are. On saying that, I found that it was worth doing these interviews because a) it’s quite cool (if not a little nerve-wracking) to speak to your heroes, b) sometimes new stuff did emerge, and c) ultimately, a lot of readers expect this kind of input. Also, I did manage to speak to quite a few people who hadn’t spoken before, or not for a very long time. I guess what I’m saying is don’t always expect amazing revelations, but keep an ear open for something that your readers may not have heard before.
How did you go about writing the actual book?
As I’ve said, I was lucky enough to have time in between school runs and housework to sit down and write. I still had other commitments which would take up some days eg. music press writing, freelance PR work, but usually, I was able to carve out four to five hours a day for the book, and sometimes go into the evening after the kids’ bedtime if I was either on a roll or I hadn’t made by 1,000 words for the day (which is the target I set myself). This probably sounds like an inordinate amount of time, particularly for anybody trying to juggle a full-time job with writing, but I am a very slow writer. Whereas some people will blam it out and go through lots of edits and re-writes, I tend to edit as I go along, both in my head and on the screen. I find it difficult to type a sentence I’m not happy with straight away, or think, oh, I’ll just fix that later. This isn’t necessarily an ideal way to work, but as well as desperately attempting to get my ideas on the (electronic) page, I’m also trying to be a stylist. That’s not to say there hasn’t been lots of chopping and changing as I’ve gone along – just that the raw material wasn’t completely blood red.
I did have a rough outline of what I thought the book was going to be before I began, and I knew I didn’t want to write a standard music biog, but it evolved substantially as I went along. One thing I definitely wanted to do was write about the music itself, so I eased myself in by writing analysis-cum-personal response pieces on each of Hawkwind’s ‘70s albums. (Another of my bugbears about most music biogs is their entire indifference to understanding why certain songs and albums affect people so profoundly, beyond the most superficial analysis.) My intention then was to write a series of thinkpieces examining various ideas and themes related to Hawkwind and the ‘70s, which I eventually did, but not before it became clear that I also needed to write a more traditional chronological narrative to hang everything else off. And then there were the interviews, which took a lot of time planning, conducting, transcribing and editing.
After an initial period of research and geeing myself up, I began writing in April 2016. After various course corrections and multiple additions to my original chapter outline, I sent my first draft to Strange Attractor in April 2018, having already missed a couple of deadlines. It was a gigantic 214k words, which is about 900 pages – SA’s original brief was 100k words! (I’m also fortunate that SA have been very understanding and patient throughout this whole process.) We agreed it needed to be longer than originally envisioned, but obviously not that long. I took a long break from writing, concentrating on chasing down pictures and images instead (and conducting even more interviews!), then had an edit/chop and produced a second draft in March 2019. However, this was still 182k words.
At this point, it was time to bring in a professional editor – enter Mark Sinker, ex-editor of The Wire. In May 2019, he came back with a pretty radical edit of 127k words. At first, I was a little flabbergasted to say the least, but once I’d calmed down, I realised he’d done a remarkable job, paring back the text, but keeping all of the content. However, there was quite a bit of repair work needed in stylistic terms, and other bits and pieces that I felt needed to go back in. So, I went through it again line by line, and produced a third draft in August 2019 of 130k words. We’d originally planned to get the book out by the end of last year, but this proved impossible due to various technical reasons. As such, the text has remained ‘live’ throughout this period, and inevitably I’ve been tweaking and adding new details to it, and no doubt will continue to do so until it’s finally sent to the printers!
What are a few tracks / videos / films / books we should also look at, in addition to your book, to get a better sense of Hawkwind?
One of the curious things about Hawkwind is that, although they were a very big band for a few years in the ‘70s (certainly in the UK, and also France and Germany), there’s practically no film footage of them from this period. As such, one piece of film that does exist – a promo for ‘Silver Machine’, their surprise hit single from 1972, filmed for UK chart show Top Of The Pops – is a sacred item for fans, as it’s just about the only representation of the Hawkwind live experience at that time. (For the casual rock fan, ‘Silver Machine’ is the one Hawkwind song that most people know, particularly as it’s sung by Lemmy, perhaps the band’s most famous member – but musically, it isn’t that representative of them): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tXejh8HQrYs
Here’s five songs which I think give a better sense of Hawkwind’s output during the ‘70s…
‘Born To Go’ (propulsive, anarchic deep space psychedelia): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BqM-yVUZl-4
‘Sonic Attack’ (chillingly satirical spoken word): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=go0JMX3zNeA
‘Assault & Battery/The Golden Void’ (trippy, mystical Kraut-prog): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1UIYMxZRLf0
‘Spirit Of The Age’ (new wave science fiction rock): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSR5TnNGKmo
‘Psi Power’ (literate dystopian pop): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p84gLHmUn90&t=49s
Here’s a BBC documentary on Hawkwind from a few years ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9zBNQL7Uo9w
Other Hawkwind biographies:
The Saga Of Hawkwind – Carol Clerk https://www.amazon.co.uk/Saga-34-Hawkwind34-Carol-Clerk/dp/1844498328
Hawkwind: Sonic Assassins – Ian Abrahams https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hawkwind-Sonic-Assassins-Ian-Abrahams/dp/1542379032
Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?
Not really any mentors as such, but when I was going through the 33 1/3 proposal process, I noticed that one of their recent books – on Can’s Tago Mago – had been written by Scottish author Alan Warner (Morvern Callar, The Sopranos etc). Intrigued, I read an interview with him talking about the book, in which he revealed he was a huge Hawkwind fan, and that if he hadn’t chosen to write about Can, he would have done Space Ritual. This obviously piqued my interest further, and so I wrote him an email via his teaching post at a Scottish university, though again not really expecting a reply. But he answered, and we then entered into a correspondence, which was really encouraging, because it was another thing that somehow legitimised what I was doing and made me feel a bit more like a proper writer. Alan was also very funny and shared some great memories of his time as a young Hawkwind fan in the Highlands.
What's one tip that you'd give someone looking to write a music book right now?
Just write about something that you really believe in – find that idea or angle that’s going to keep you going through to the end. Also, try to find a topic that you want to genuinely explore further, that has the capacity to surprise you, rather than just writing down what’s already in your head. And always think about the music itself – what is it that gets you so much about that song or that album? Try to channel that feeling into your writing.
Anything you want to plug?
Days Of The Underground can be pre-ordered here: http://strangeattractor.co.uk/shoppe/hawkwind-days-of-the-underground/
The book’s website is here (which I intend to keep updating once the book’s published): https://www.daysoftheunderground.com/
Follow me on Twitter for endless Hawkwind trivia and other music-related musings: https://twitter.com/JoeBanksWriter
Please recommend a great piece of music journalism.
It’s difficult to select one single piece of journalism, because pieces can be great for all kinds of different reasons. However, the music journalism that really inspired me was much of what appeared in Melody Maker in the mid to late ‘80s, specifically from people such as Simon Reynolds and David Stubbs – even though these guys were only a few years older than me at the time, they wrote with a wit, authority and fire that was thrilling to read. You simply had to seek out the bands they were eulogising and theorising about. They showed you could write both passionately and intelligently about rock music without fear of being damned as ‘pretentious’. As Reynolds says himself in this overview of his time at Melody Maker, “If you were into this sort of rock criticism, it was a massive rush to read, almost as intoxicating as the music itself.” https://reynoldsretro.blogspot.com/2008/03/introduction-to-beijar-o-cu-kiss-sky.html