An Essential Ritual
It's seldom nowadays that Yer Judge gets a psychedelic experience. It used to happen quite a bit in my younger days, often without any neurochemical assistance at all. But - no doubt as a result of my growing closed-minded in my old age - such epiphanies have become exceedingly rare.
Which is why one has to get one's psychoactive kicks where one can find them. Like here, for example:
This is the fence at the front of my house. It was installed as part of the fettling up of the paths which the Council's contractors did whilst I was laid up in Manchester Heart Hospital a couple of years ago.
So what possible mind-warping effect could a wooden fence have? Well, nothing in and of itself; it's a largely inert object.
But three or four weeks ago, I was standing at the living-room window surveying the passing scene when I noticed something peculiar. When a car or similar conveyance went past the fence, its passage induced a strobe-like effect on the wheel trim, especially if - as is usually the case - said trim was of a silver hue.
I stood there transfixed for a while, grooving to this new scene which had opened up before me. Depending on the speed of the vehicle, the wheels appeared either to skid, or to rotate in reverse, or to stand still altogether.
I tried capturing this on video, but the camera in my phone doesn't seem to have the acuity to pick this phenomenon up, so you'll just have to take my word for it.
But this keys in with another experience I've had recently. And for this, I have to take you back to 1985 (although, ultimately, it derives from more than a decade earlier still).
I've mentioned before how I came to 'get into' Hawkwind, but my main interest was in the material they produced in the second half of the seventies, with poet/lyricist/vocalist/lunatic Robert Calvert (nicknamed 'Raving Rupert' by his band-mate Lemmy) fronting them.
I didn't really become acquainted with their earlier stuff until my final year at university, where a shared a house with - amongst others - a young man called Danny O'Dare (yes, that is his real name). He was even more fanatical about the Hawks than I'd ever been, and had just about everything they'd ever made copied onto cassettes.
One evening, I borrowed his tape of Space Ritual, the seminal live double album which they had released early in 1973 from recordings made during concerts at Edmonton and Liverpool the previous December.
I already knew that Space Ritual was a sort of concept performance featuring music, visuals and dance (the last-named provided by the unforgettable Stacia, a woman of such...erm...attributes that, had she turned round suddenly, would have both deafened and blinded any person of restricted height standing behind her). All I had was the audio, but that I felt would be enough. So it was that I lay on my bed in a room the size of a storage cupboard (of the sort which costs £2000 a week to rent in London today) with not only the tape but the ghetto-blaster and the headphones borrowed from my neighbour, turned the light out (I think I left the curtains open so that the lights from the promenade outside could provide some sort of visual component to the experience), put my head back on my pillow, pressed 'Play' and closed my eyes.
The opener, Earth Calling, faded in, followed by the thundering beat of the first 'real' song, Born To Go.
This wasn't hippydom as we'd come to understand it; this was a speed-augmented lysergic vortex of noise, with Dave Brock's brain-skewer chords competing with the hammering of the comparatively new rhythm section of Simon King (drums) and the later-legendary Lemmy (bass, vocals) and the electronic atmospherics of Del Dettmar and Michael 'Dik Mik' Davies, with Nik Turner's vocals just about discernible through the wall of sound.
When things calm down a bit, Hawkwind deliver a piece which - having repeated my 1985 experience only a few nights ago, which is why I'm bothering to tell you all this at such length - has taken up a very welcome residence in my head. Down Through The Night, which - like much of the material in this set - had first appeared on the band's preceding studio LP Doremi Fasol Latido earlier in '72 in a semi-acoustic form, is here given a fully electric treatment which adds hugely to both the atmosphere and the power of the piece. This is what the transformation wrought (special attention should be paid to Lemmy's contribution; his bass playing here reminds us that he was brought into the group to provide a second electric guitar, but switched to bass when the previous purveyor of that instrument decamped suddenly, leaving his Rickenbacker behind. In short, Lemmy plays the bass like he would have played a guitar, and the result is almost mesmerising):
Calvert then delivers the first of his poems, the unnerving The Awakening, which describes the arrival of a spaceship full of humans on a new planet, before Lord Of Light returns us to the hard drive of earlier.
'Raving Rupert' then comes back front and centre to recite The Black Corridor, a monologue written by their chum and collaborator Michael Moorcock, which combines the prosaic observation that, "Space is not large and it is not small" with the more sardonic, "Stars [...] are clustered a few billion here and a few billion there, as if seeking consolation in numbers."
This leads with almost Spockian logic to the stunning Space Is Deep. This too started out as a mostly-acoustic piece on Doremi, but is again given a fuller instrumentation and leads into a second section which cannot help but deliver to the listener the feel of a spaceship ploughing relentlessly through a field of stars on into the ceaseless void:
Space Is Deep then segues into an excursion into pure electronics as Dettmar and Davies throw a tangled skein of tones and swoops into the listener's inner ear.
At this point in my 1985 voyage, I felt that I had merged right into the ambience of the gig, and it was therefore a huge pity that I had to demerge myself from it to turn the tape over. This disruption to the state of mind which I had managed to conjure broke the spell to some degree, and I have never viewed the second half of the album with the same sort of affection which I developed towards the first half; which is a shame.
Side Three of the original set starts off promisingly enough, with Calvert now doing some singing in the heavy blues shuffle of Orgone Accumulator. (Hawkwind - particularly during Calvert's spells with the band - were highly literate, referencing over the years not just Moorcock (particularly his to me unreadable Eternal Champion novels), but Zelazny (Damnation Alley), Hesse (Steppenwolf), Spinrad (The Iron Dream) and Ballard (High Rise). And Wilhelm Reich, of course.
This then breaks down into the rather inconsequential Upside Down (which, like the preceding number, had never been issued on record before), which is the first of a number of tracks on the second disc of the album which had to be edited for time; the unsnipped versions of which can be found on the Space Ritual Vol. 2 set which was released in the mid-eighties).
Calvert then comes back with his cosmic countdown of the Ten Seconds Of Forever, leading us into what had already become a firm fan favourite (which it remains to this day), Nik Turner's Brainstorm (another edit; or rather a fade-out, as it closes Side Three).
The final side opens with Seven By Seven, which featured (in an earlier version) as the B-side of the band's only Top Ten single Silver Machine, and which - like the A-side - is credited to 'S. MacManus'. This was in fact Sylvia MacManus, who was Dave Brock's wife at the time, and Brock allocated his composer credit for both sides to her in order to piss off the company he had a publishing deal with. They did quite a bit of this down the years did the Hawks: Nik Turner assigned some of his compositions to his friend the artist Jamie Mandelkau; and Moorcock himself had one or two of his later contributions to Hawkwind's recorded output credited to his then-wife Linda Steele.
Seven By Seven fluctuates between loud rock and a quieter, almost acoustic, middle section in which Robert Calvert intones the tale of some sort of quest ("Seven signs rode on seven stars/Seven ways to find the long-lost bards"), before we come to one of the most famous non-sung tracks in rock history, Moorcock's Sonic Attack, with its 'Protect And Survive' theme ("In case of sonic attack on your district, follow these rules...").
We then go back into the slow metal shuffle of Time We Left This World Today before reaching a crescendo with another Hawks classic, Master Of The Universe ("Has the world gone mad, or is it me?", growls Turner: it could easily be both, Nik).
The whole set (at least as presented here) brings us as a finale Calvert's Welcome To The Future which, if it appeared apocalyptic in 1972, seems merely like the evening news headlines today:
"Welcome to the oceans in a labelled can.
Welcome to the dehydrated land.
Welcome to the Self-Police parade,
Welcome to the neo-Golden Age,
Welcome to the days you've made.
before concluding with a shuddering, thundering final hyper-extended chord in which the entire ensemble seems to thrash, blow, twiddle and belt practically anything and everything in reach.
The musicianship throughout Space Ritual may not have a high technical proficiency - Brock is no Zappa, Lemmy was no Pastorius and Turner can't play sax for ready money - but the ensemble effect is devastatingly powerful and succeeds in producing a live album which - like Deep Purple's Made In Japan from earlier that year - captures a band at the very zenith of their form. Hawkwind have never sounded so ballsy on record since.
It's well worth the trip, I reckon.