Last week, Hawkwind’s original guitarist Huw Lloyd-Langton passed away. I’ve spent a lot of time with a lot of Hawkwind albums over the years. God knows there are enough of them!
Lloyd-Langton’s heyday with the band was actually in the 80s, commencing with Levitation in 1980 and ending with The Xenon Codex in 1988. His spacy style is highly melodic and never shreddy…he shares David Gilmour’s ability to sound both truly bluesy and crazily cosmic simultaneously. His playing defines a decade of Hawkwind music, most of which is quite good. But way back in 1970, he was on the legendary very first Hawkwind lp before departing for the body of the decade. Hence, I thought I’d write a bit about this album as a tribute to one of rock’s under-appreciated heroes.
In case you don’t know, Hawkwind is one of rock’s greatest cult bands, one of the inventors of space rock, electronic sound pioneers, crazy loud live act, cosmic voyageurs of the first order. Their cult of fans is devoted to the band’s sci-fi sound and has followed them through endless lineup changes and stylistic variations. Anyone, and I mean anyone, with an interest in psychedelic music must acquire the core Hawkwind discography, of which this is album is the foundation. I’ll talk about the others some other time.
Hawkwind was produced by Pretty Things guitarist Dick Taylor and was apparently recorded live off the floor as a representation of the band’s frenetic and mind-blowingly loud live shows (they were known for playing on flatbed trucks outside festivals as a protest against charging to get in…so the legend says). The album is a suite of linked pieces bookended by two rootsier pieces by singer/guitarist Dave Brock, who also was a well-known busker around London.
The first of these, “Hurry on Sundown”, gets things off to a rousing start with harmonica and acoustic and drums thumping away cheerfully. It’s a catchy number with a vaguely psychedelic ambience, but it really doesn’t give much of a clue as to what’s to follow…and that’s where Hawkwind start to make their mark on musical history.
Suddenly we’re surrounded by brushed cymbals and ominous gamelan-esque percussion sounds, a pick being scratched on a guitar neck and saxophonist Nik Turner’s reed sounds being manipulated by mad electronics expert Dik Mik, who delighted in the primitive warping of sounds. Remember this is pre-digital, and people made do with whatever they had. Broken guitar chords build up the tension until they break like a wave into the savage beating of “Be Yourself”, where we get our first hint of the classic Hawkwind sound. Over a monolithic riff Turner honks away gaily on his horn as Brock enthusiastically bellows his mystical lyrics. Eventually the song breaks down into a jam that would be boring were it not for the unbridled fury of Lloyd-Langton’s soloing. There’s a controlled viciousness and an admirable clarity to his playing that would serve him in good stead in the 80s, when he would add spacy delay to create a signature cosmic guitar sound.
“Paranoia” is another unhinged, almost atonal freakout with repetitive guitar and bass hammering away as Dik Mik wrings sci-fi screeches out of a synth. It speeds up faster and faster (and with an admirable “pocket” for a band playing live and possibly stoned out of their trees) before slowing down and segueing into the 11-minute “Seeing it as You Really Are”, yet another exploration of the possibilities of echo and reverb, both vocally and instrumentally. Of course a jam erupts featuring more menacing but tasteful lead guitar from Lloyd-Langton, which combats the mindless screeching of either Turner or Brock as more cosmic wind synth sounds howl overhead.
I hate to sound like a nerd, but there’s something pretty Lovecraftian about all this. You know, like the sound of the Elder Gods coming howling from the Crawling Chaos beyond the hidden planets to reclaim Earth, their primordial home, and smother us all with Shoggoths. Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn! Er, excuse me, I got carried away there.
Anyway, since Hawkwind has spent about half an hour bludgeoning us into submission, they kindly finish the album with another bluesy folk excursion, “Mirror of Illusion”, which features some incredibly tasty lead work from our departed hero. I’m not really into bluesy soloing as a rule. In fact, I quite dislike it. But there’s just something about Lloyd-Langton’s playing that draws me in. He was a truly skilled musician with that soul that only the best have in their playing.
There you have it. A true ground-breaking classic. This album and most early Hawkwind actually fits better with the Krautrock genre than anything else going on in the UK at the time, so if by some chance you dig Amon Düül II and Can but have not heard the Hawk (and I find that unlikely), you need to get on this, pal. Your mind will be blown. I don’t necessarily recommend this as the best starter album, but you could do worse.
RIP Mr. Lloyd-Langton, and may your axe chime through the nebulae forever.
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Enjoyed reading your thoughts on this Hawkwind album, they are a fine band and made some astounding sounds considering the technology available at the time.
Thanks. No one can beat the mighty Hawk for space rock!