Appearing in the October 2019 issue of Shindig!, this was an adapted extract from Days Of The Underground looking at the phenomenon of 'Silver Machine' (reproduced courtesy of Shindig!)
It’s early evening on Thursday 13 July, 1972, and something strange and rather wonderful is about to happen. We’re midway through Top Of The Pops and Pan’s People have just finished their interpretation of The Stylistics’ ‘Betcha By Golly Wow’. Jimmy Savile makes a noise like a rutting seal, then introduces the next band. They’re not in the studio, but have been filmed playing live for the purpose of promoting their latest single. Cut to a provincial venue (Queensway Hall, Dunstable) – and for the next few minutes, the freaks are let loose in the nation’s living rooms. For many young viewers, music will never be the same again.
Over the coming weeks, repeat showings of this extraordinary footage will propel ‘Silver Machine’ into the top three. Its opening shot is of a crowd already in the grip of what looks like religious ecstasy, hands aloft flicking peace signs in the air, the provincial underground in its scuzzy glory. As the radiophonic oscillations of the intro give way to the thunderous whoosh of the riff, the camera focuses on the striking figure of Stacia, her short black dress embroidered with stars, her face painted silver and white. Acting out a sequence of moves at stage front, she’s rapt in her own secret ceremony, implacable and mesmerising. The flouncing of Pan’s People seems a long way off now.
Shot and edited in an impressionistic style to convey the immersive nature of Hawkwind’s live experience, the camera moves inside the action and between the band, lights and crowd incorporated as integral to the show. Cutting back to the gaudy Top Of The Pops studio and a mimed performance by Johnny Nash of ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ is like emerging from a temporary wormhole in the artificial fabric of everyday reality. ‘Silver Machine’ offers a disruptive vision, a bold assertion of a music scene and lifestyle that rejects straight society’s conventions. It’s a clarion call to nascent heads and freaks everywhere.
The unlikely success of ‘Silver Machine’ will change everything for Hawkwind. Recorded at the Greasy Truckers benefit show on 13 February at London’s Roundhouse, the initial auspices aren’t great: the band prepare by getting off their heads, with Lemmy and DikMik’s preferred cocktail of speed, downers and acid being particularly debilitating. The event is sold-out, but when a power cut requires everybody to leave the building, hundreds more join the original audience on return.
‘Silver Machine’ is a powerful slab of interstellar boogie which always gets a good reaction, but tonight, singer and co-writer of the song Robert Calvert seems to forget both his words and where the microphone is. Nik Turner joins in, but sounds jostled, as though in the midst of a stage invasion. And they pretty much miss the chorus altogether. Yet despite its shambolic nature, there’s still something about that riff…
On 9 June, an overdubbed and remixed version of ‘Silver Machine’ is released as the band’s second single, the post-production cladding its fuselage in steel and mounting a new engine on each wing. It opens now with a squelchy electronic call-sign which, even as its grimy Chuck Berry riff fades up, sets the song apart from the lumpen rock & roll being played by countless other bands. But the real difference comes from Lemmy’s imperious vocal and the cosmic biker vibe he brings to the song. He bellows the opening “I!” like a man asserting his will to power sat astride a gleaming missile heading straight for the sun – as the casing gets hotter and hotter, he struggles manfully to hit the high notes, while nevertheless “still feeling meeeeeeeann!”
Dave Brock beefs up the chorus with extra guitar and a faltering but determined solo, and adds screechy, Golem-like backing vocals which suggest that “the other side of the sky” might be a good place to lose your mind. But it’s Lemmy who gives the song its irresistible charm, inspiring teenyboppers and Hells Angels alike to shout along with its chorus.
‘Silver Machine’ becomes a bona fide phenomenon. Initial sales are a testament to Hawkwind’s position as the country’s number one underground band – but when the single starts getting plays from Radio 1’s Tony Blackburn and Jimmy Young, it enters the chart on 1 July. Two weeks later, it’s on Top Of The Pops. The following week, NME gives them their first front cover – Turner playing his flute under the headline “Hawkwind Lift Off” – though press and punters alike find the idea of the band having a hit single hard to process: “Was I tripping or did I really see Hawkwind on Top Of The Pops?” someone writes to NME, and the paper reports “a lot of people were similarly astonished.”
‘Silver Machine’ features four times on TOTP, peaks for two weeks at number three (19-26 August) and remains on the chart for a total of 15 weeks. It eventually sells over 500,000 copies in the UK alone, and becomes a worldwide hit, charting in France, West Germany, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Rhodesia, Japan and Australia – it even gets to number one in Switzerland. By any estimation, it’s one of the songs of the year.
Yet Hawkwind claim to have planned it all along. Brock says, “It didn’t surprise us, man. We knew it was going to be a hit,” while Turner is positively Machiavellian: “We’ve become involved in the singles market by choice because we want to get a few things moving… We calculated that a good single would put us in a strong bargaining position, because as a rule [United Artists] don’t give us a great deal of support.” It’s ‘Silver Machine’ that gives Hawkwind the financial leverage to create their most ambitious and extensive tour yet, the immersive multimedia presentation that will become the legendary Space Ritual…
As the credits roll on the TOTP festive special on Christmas Day 1972, the crowd dance along to ‘Silver Machine’, by now the underground’s totemic song, and a space rock classic for the ages.