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Shindig! - Interview with Dave Brock

"Returning Volumes Of Sound..." - published February 2018 (reproduced courtesy of Shindig!)

On 26 May 2017, Hawkwind staged a stunning return to London’s Roundhouse a full 40 years since last playing there. The Roundhouse is one of the most iconic venues in the history of the British underground music scene, and looms large in Hawkwind’s own backstory as well. With new album At The Roundhouse just released, Shindig caught up with captain of the ship Dave Brock to talk about the band’s recent performance there and reflect on the other times that Hawkwind took to its stage, tracking their rise from Ladbroke Grove freak-out crew to internationally feted space rock heroes.

Dave Brock isn’t the type of man who likes to live in the past. It’s perhaps the main reason why Hawkwind continue to thrive nearly 50 years since they first burst into life at Notting Hill’s All Saints Hall in August 1969, with their last two albums – The Machine Stops and Into The Woods – being their most well-received in years. But even Brock can’t help but sound genuinely moved by playing the Roundhouse once again, describing it as “a momentous occasion for me” at the end of the show in May.

Speaking today, Brock says, “It was interesting going back there because it’s changed so dramatically. Upstairs has got seats and places to wander round now, whereas years ago it was all full up with old railway sleepers! The stage in the same place, but the dressing rooms are a lot smaller. Years ago, dressing rooms were a lot bigger.”

The recent death of Michael ‘DikMik’ Davies, Hawkwind’s original electronics guru, gives rise to another reflection on the past. At the Roundhouse gig in May, Brock talked about bumping into DikMik on the tour’s Ipswich date, and the very mention of his name brought a huge cheer from the crowd. While saddened by the news of his death, Brock is keen to celebrate DikMik as a true pioneer of early electronic music: “Listen to what DikMik’s doing with his audio generator on a track like ‘Mirror Of Illusion’, he’s actually playing it like a theremin. He was quite innovative, though that’s always been glossed over. At the same time, Brian Eno was using a VCS3 synthesiser with Roxy Music, and Eno went onto great heights of fame!”

An intriguing feature of recent shows has been the ‘Hawkwind Unplugged’ section at the start of each gig, the band sat together like members of some cosmic folk club, treating the audience to acoustic versions of Hawkwind classics such as ‘The Watcher’ and ‘We Took The Wrong Step Years Ago’, as well as newer material such as eco-protest song ‘Ascent’. A departure from the heavy-duty, deep space psychedelia that the band are more renowned for, it nevertheless connects back to Brock’s formative years as a busker. He also later recalls that, “When I first played the Roundhouse, I did it acoustically with a blues trio, on the same bill as the Pretty Things, who were doing SF Sorrow.”

When Shindig wonders about the possibility of an acoustic album, Brock says, “Well, funny you should mention that!” And sure enough, halfway through our conversation, a call comes through from Hawkwind’s label Cherry Red confirming that the band have got the green light to go ahead and record one, with its release planned for May. Mooted tracks include new versions of ‘The Age Of The Micro Man’, ‘The Only Ones’ and ‘The Demented Man’.

At The Roundhouse faithfully captures the entire gig, with the acoustic numbers soon swallowed up by a torrent of noise and cries of “This is Earth calling!” before the band launch into the head-spinning barrage of ‘Born To Go’. A perfect illustration of why Hawkwind’s early shows were so brutally mesmeric compared to what their contemporaries were doing, it’s also a song that highlights Brock’s propulsive, block riffing style. A development from how he learnt to play blues, this choppy, almost robotic sound has come to define Hawkwind’s brand of science fiction rock & roll. “It’s just the style I’ve got over time,” he says. “I’m pretty good with timing, you see. When you listen to guys like Lightning Hopkins, Sonny Terry, and Big Bill Broonzy, who I based myself on, they’re using their thumb to play the rhythm on the bass strings. You listen to what they’re doing, it’s very rhythmic, and that’s my influence.”

As well as featuring a selection of classic Hawkwind tracks, At the Roundhouse also makes room for a number of songs from their last two albums, emphasising that the band have remained relevant without sacrificing their unique essence. The recent addition of young bassist Haz Wheaton and multi-instrumentalist Magnus Martin has revitalised the band’s sound and injected a new dynamic into the music, something of which Brock clearly approves: “As a band, you want to do new stuff. You don’t want to be stuck in a time loop, or you become a tribute band.”

But while the future is always in Brock’s sights, it’s Hawkwind’s reputation during the 1970s as the ultimate people’s band on which their legend is built. Using Hawkwind’s previous gigs at the Roundhouse as staging posts along the way, Shindig takes a look back at those early years with Brock, who shares some of this stand-out memories from that time…

15 Feb 1970 – Hawkwind’s first gig at the Roundhouse, on an Implosion bill that also includes Mighty Baby and Skin Alley

Shindig: You’d been involved in the UK underground and psychedelic scene from early on…

Dave Brock: I only went to UFO a couple of times in Tottenham Court Road, because it was quite small. Middle Earth was a nice one, I used to go down there quite a few times for the all-nighters. I also played there with the Famous Cure (Brock’s pre-Hawkwind psychedelic band, which also featured Hawkwind’s original guitarist, Mick Slattery). But Implosion was the big one because the Roundhouse was so spacious.

SD: What was a typical Sunday night at Implosion like?

DB: They used to have big white drapes dangling down from the balconies for the oil projections and blobs. At first there was no seating, you had to sit against the big pillars, but there was this big space where people just danced around. It was just that feeling of freedom, you could do whatever you wanted. There was plenty of room to run around the place or sit down and get out of it, because of course, most people used to drop acid when they went there! It was a safe place to take it – once you were in there, you were alright.

SD: What were you trying to achieve with Hawkwind that you hadn’t done before?

DB: Nothing much, it was pretty similar. When we were the Famous Cure, we were doing psychedelic freak-out music with long solos and weird noises, playing slide guitar with echo units. Relentless drumming, relentless bass playing thundering on. Of course, when we got Hawkwind together, we got DikMik to do his electronics, and it became this weird electronic music with relentless rhythms.

13 March 1970 – Atomic Sunrise at the Roundhouse, billed as “Seven days of celebration and living theatre” – Hawkwind play on the night that Brian Augur headlines

SD: Atomic Sunrise is notable for being one of the UK’s first indoor festivals. Some rare colour footage exists from this gig of the early Hawkwind line-up, including Huw Lloyd-Langton on guitar and John Harrison on bass…

DB: Yeah, Huwie’s wife Marion went to the Roundhouse to an exhibition a few years ago, and they had some film of us playing there, but there was no soundtrack to it. I think they’d overdubbed ‘Hurry On Sundown’ onto it.

SD: David Bowie also played Atomic Sunrise with his short-lived band The Hype, having had a big hit the previous year with ‘Space Oddity’. Hawkwind went in a space rock direction early on, but was a song such as ‘Space Oddity’ a conceptual influence in any way?

DB: It didn’t have an influence on us, because we had Bob Calvert! We all used to read science fiction books, but Bob was the leading factor, because he was a poet and was into loads of sci-fi stuff. I suppose Bob’s very similar to David Bowie, if you listen to his vocals, because of his refined accent. But I honestly don’t think there was any influence at all, because we were going our way, and Bowie was doing it his way.

SD: Around this time, you start recording your debut album with ex-Pretty Thing Dick Taylor…

DB: He was a great help to us, and a great influence, because of course we’d go off at tangents, playing long tunes, and he’d say, hang on, you’re going to have to cut that down for an album. Dick played 12 string guitar on ‘Hurry On Sundown’, and also did a few gigs with us.

12 April & 24 May 1970 – Hawkwind play another two Implosion gigs at the Roundhouse

SD: You soon become a prolific gigging band – what was that experience like in the early ‘70s?

DB: I found an old diary of dates, and we were playing for free just about every day in the ‘70s – I was aghast! We travelled around in this old van we called The Yellow Wart, which had no heating in it. We used to sit in our sleeping bags because it was so cold, going up and down the country playing in various pubs and small clubs. DikMik used to have his sleeping bag on top of the equipment, in this gap that was about three feet from the roof, wobbling around on all the speaker cabinets...

SD: What inspired you to keep playing under those conditions?

DB: Later on, when we’d bought our own van with aircraft seats in it, we played Liverpool Stadium, and as we drove towards the venue, there was a huge queue around it. It was like the gladiators arriving, everyone was clapping and cheering, it was fantastic! It’s those little moments…

13 December 1970 – Hawkwind are second on the bill to the Pretty Things at the Christmas Space Party, a benefit for the underground press held at the Roundhouse

SD: In less than 18 months, you’d become one of the biggest bands in the underground – what do you attribute that early success to?

DB: Probably playing free everywhere! We used to do lots of benefit concerts as well, for Friends magazine and IT (International Times) of course, and also for lots of charities. We were a people’s band…

SD: How important was the underground press to Hawkwind?

DB: Very important actually because of what was going on. They used to have what dope was available, warnings about bad acid, and also your rights. Guys with long hair were always getting picked up, always being searched in the street. Every time we arrived back in the early hours in our van, we’d be stopped by the police in Notting Hill and searched. In those days, anyone with long hair was a drug addict. Friends and IT were always doing these exposés of what was going on. They were an alternative to the likes of the Daily Express.

2 May 1971 – Hawkwind play Implosion at the Roundhouse with Caravan and Gnidrolog

SD: There’s a progressive scene rapidly developing in the UK by this point, as evidenced by this gig, and you also play dates with the likes of Genesis and Van Der Graaf Generator. But Hawkwind are more aligned with what’s happening in Germany rather than the UK prog scene…

DB: That’s true, and we did some dates with Can. I also did those sleeve notes for Neu! (for the UK release of Neu!’s debut album) I suppose we were the underground, the poor relations! We were the alternative to prog, and we stuck to our guns, doing this very rhythmic thing with electronics. It was good music to get stoned to.

SD: It could also be quite intense…

DB: There was a gig where both Terry Ollis (Hawkwind’s original drummer) and Simon King played, and some guy in the front freaked out and had to be strapped into a stretcher and taken away. Terry was slowing down while Simon was speeding up, and the band was playing weird electronic music – it must have been terrifying! That was the last gig that Terry did with us...

13 February 1972 – The Greasy Truckers Party at the Roundhouse, a benefit for the community organisation of the same name, headlined by Hawkwind with support from Man and Brinsley Schwarz

SD: The Greasy Truckers Party is the gig where famously the backing track to ‘Silver Machine’ is recorded. Is it fair to say that you’ve had a bit of a love/hate relationship with this song over the years?

DB: No, not really. We decided once not to do it for a while, because we were doing it every night. But sometimes we do it now because Richard (Chadwick, Hawkwind’s drummer since 1988) likes singing it, cos it’s his favourite song! In a way, it became a bit of a millstone for a while, but overall, looking back on it, it did us a great favour. Because of that, we were able to get new equipment and a new deal…

11 May 1972 – Hawkwind headline the Roundhouse just three months later…

SD: ‘Silver Machine’ is released as a single and goes on to become an unexpected smash hit over the summer. The money it generates enables you to stage the long-planned ‘Space Ritual’ live show…

DB: Musically we were doing what we’d always done, but on a larger scale. We’d invested in our light show, and we had Tony Crerar dancing and doing mime as well. It was a multimedia show! We also had Bob Calvert doing poetry – Space Ritual was one of his ideas. He was a good performance artist too. When we used to play solos on stage, Bob would sit in a chair reading a newspaper and look bored, rattling the paper, like, “When are you going to stop doing this??” When he was about to do a vocal, he’d wrap the newspaper up into a football, kick it out into the audience, then come in and sing. It would become a performance.

SD: In 1973, you play your biggest headlining gig at Wembley Pool – did this seem like a major vindication in the face of a hostile media or were you not bothered that you weren’t a critics’ favourite?

DB: No, couldn’t care less actually, we lived for the day. They used to say, “Here’s Hawkwind doing their usual three chords, how boring,” though we used to play a lot more than three chords! But you can play one chord for half an hour and it won’t be boring. A lot of interesting things can happen on one chord. There’s six strings on a guitar and you can do lots of variations on ‘E’.

SD: Later in the year, you play your first US dates – in Chicago, you sell out the 6,000 seater Auditorium…

DB: It was quite something, it never really sunk in. It was a different culture, and there’s lots of strange stories. We did this big place in St Louis, and when I went round to the box office, they were actually taking guns off people, booking them in with these guys’ names on – fucking hell! And believe it or not, some of the police were dealing in dope. The police are knocking at the door, and the promoter’s saying come in. We quickly stop rolling joints, but he’s saying, “It’s alright, these guys have got some marijuana for us!”

16 February 1975 – Hawkwind play the Roundhouse supported by their old underground comrades the Pink Fairies

SD: By now, keyboardist/violinist Simon House and second drummer Alan Powell have joined the band, which has a big impact on your sound…

I suppose the music did become quite proggy in a way. Simon’s classically trained, and when he used to freak out on his violin, it was quite exciting. Alan Powell was an excellent drummer, but Lemmy used to hate having two drummers, because of the amount of gear they had on stage – giant gongs! Lemmy used to call it the drum emporium. “We don’t need two drummers,” he used to say, “It’s all got out of hand!”

SD: Did you get to the point where you felt you’d gone too far down the progressive path?

DB: 1976 was the turning point, where it all went funky, which I didn’t like… After Lemmy was sacked from the band, Paul Rudolph came over. Paul was a great lead guitarist and I used to double up sometimes on the bass. I must admit I always felt that Paul was a far better guitarist than me, so my confidence went down the drain somewhat! They had a meeting while I was down in Devon. I got a phone call from Bob saying, “Look, we’ve just had a meeting and we decided to sack you from the band.” They’d got rid of Lemmy, and now it was my turn a year later. So I had a freak out: “Bunch of cunts!” I went up to London and met with Bob and Simon King, and they said, “No, let’s get rid of them (Nik Turner, Rudolph & Powell), the band’s going in another direction and we don’t like it.” Bob wanted to do the more aggressive, weird stuff we were into. Some kind of agreement was reached, and they all left, and we went on to do Quark (Strangeness And Charm).

27 February 1977 – Hawkwind play a one-off gig at the Roundhouse, the first with their new streamlined line-up

SD: With punk starting to break, you encore with ‘Waiting For The Man’, while support comes from a new band called Motörhead…

DB: Well, that was the big joke between me and Lemmy, that if he hadn’t got the sack, he wouldn’t have gone on to become a famous legendary rockstar!


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