If you know anything about Robert Calvert, you’re probably a Hawkwind fan, and in that case I’ll be preaching to the choir. However, if you aren’t, you still must read on. In Calvert, we’re talking about one of the true visionaries to come out of the chaotic mind expansion of the late sixties, a supple intellect that made use of the conventions of rock music and science fiction to posit real questions about the future of our species. The results were always intelligent if sometimes a bit wacky. But always amusingly wacky! And Calvert’s lyrical explorations put him up there with the finest science fiction minds of a very fertile era for that misunderstood but most important genre.
Calvert, born in South Africa, was a true eccentric who also suffered from some mental illness issues, but of course genius often rides that line between mentally ill and incredibly clear-thinking, and while of course we wish peace for those who suffer, we who have heard Calvert’s cultural contributions are all the better for his willingness to set his mind free in the cosmos, even if he found it hard sometimes to come back down to earth.
But that’s what made Calvert special. While psych music was glorious to listen to, often its lyrics were just as ham-fisted as any to be found in the most leaden boogie-rock thumper. Calvert’s massive intelligence and his willingness to explore any topic produced lyrics as good as any in the annals of rock.
Calvert was not an “official” member of Hawkwind until the mid-seventies — previous to that he made poetic contributions to their work and was part of their radical circle. His first contribution was singing “Silver Machine”, the band’s most famous song, though the version released ended up being sung by Lemmy. He also contributed the very controversial “Urban Guerrilla” single, which presented in song a chilling slice of urban terrorism. Calvert scored his own recording contract and made a couple of concept albums (see below) before joining as the band’s lead singer after a line-up shakeup in 1975, for the Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music album, to which he contributed such classics as “Steppenwolf“, a musical adaptation of Hesse’s story, and “Reefer Madness“, a hilarious take on early anti-marijuana propaganda. But Calvert’s greatest musical contributions came on an album that is an all-time classic, one of the greatest recordings ever made, Hawkwind’s Quark Strangeness and Charm. I’m not even going to go into that, because I wish to dissect that album more thoroughly in a full review. Suffice it to say that NEVER has a human being written better lyrics than those which appear on that album. Listen to “Spirit of the Age” for a space-age poet in full possession of his powers. On his last album with Hawkwind, PXR5, Calvert contributed the majestic but disturbing “High Rise“, based on J.G. Ballard’s novel of the same title, as well as other classics like “Robot” and “Uncle Sam’s on Mars”. All fun and thought-provoking tunes.
Calvert was also a boon onstage as lead singer. While not possessed of a fabulous voice, relying more on charisma and drama than technique, his habit of donning aviator gear and his dry stage banter added an element of steampunk cool that gave Hawkwind, previously the kings of hippie space rock, a new wave edge that kept them relevant.
After moving on from Hawkwind, Calvert released Hype (accompanied by a novel that I really want to read but have yet to get a hold of), before bravely taking on a new world, that of synth-pop/rock for his very thought-provoking final two albums.
Calvert died far too young, in 1988. There has been a series of archival live releases that are of very poor sonic quality but of interest to the collector, so seek them out if you become a devotee. In the meantime, here’s the discography to explore to familiarize yourself with one of rock’s greatest minds and finest lyricists.
Calvert’s first solo album is the most Hawkwind-esque, featuring as it does pretty well the whole cast from the good ship Hawk (and feedback king guitarist Paul Rudolph of the Pink Fairies, as well as none other than Eno himself!), and showcasing the proto-metal/proto-punk style of recordings like Doremi Fasol Latido and Space Ritual (a fansite proprietor once labelled it “blanga blanga music”). So it can be seen as an extension of their discography, and a good one at that. The difference, of course, is the weird conceptual framework of the album, the invention of a fancy new warplane and dastardly German plans to buy said plane. Calvert introduces a cast of characters sporting campy accents in humorous dialogue featuring contemporary stars like Viv Stanshall and Jim Capaldi. But naturally it’s the songs that stand out, from the punky “Aerospace Age Inferno”, the crushingly heavy “Widowmaker” and “The Right Stuff“, to the eternal Hawkwind classic, the frenetic “Ejection” — all with a stratospheric theme. “Song of the Gremlin” even features a typically bizarre vocal turn from (Crazy World of) Arthur Brown! A mighty weird album, but gloriously, ecstatically so, this is Calvert letting it all hang out.
Album two, which is, yes, about the Scandinavian discovery of the New World, is less successful, though not a bad album in its own right. The theme is not as fun and it’s just a less fitting digression from Calvert’s usual free-wheeling futurism. There are some good tunes, though. The recording was produced by Eno, so it sounds great, and there are some stellar musicians, including Rudolph, Hawkwind’s violinist Simon House and sax honker Nik Turner, Andy Roberts, Sal Maida, and writer Michael Moorcock. Overall, this is more of a standard prog-rock album than anything Calvert ever did. Sometimes things get too comedy-rock for me, on the country parody “Moonshine in the Mountains” and Island music-influenced “Volstead O Vodeo Do”. Amusing songs but they don’t stick with you. Highlights include the ponderous “Ship of Fools“, the cute and accurate Beach Boys pastiche of “Lay of the Surfers” and the strangely Roxy Music-ish (well, not so strange when you think about it) bounce of “Ragna Rock”.
After losing some members, Dave Brock and Calvert changed Hawkwind’s name briefly and took the new wave direction of Quark Strangeness and Charm even further on this project, a smooth, cold-sounding and futuristic album that blows any fake new indie rock new wave of the kind that is proliferating these days right out of the water. Why? Because of the words, of course. Calvert’s questing intellect covers all types of topics on this one, including telepathy (“PSI Power“), space travel (“Free Fall”) and the development of the cyber world in “The Age of the Micro Man“. Why, and lookie here! We’re in that age, and um, it’s lovely. Really. As Calvert would say, “It’s the age of the micro man, who sees the detail and never the plan.” That’s right! Brock’s tunes are as catchy, sparse and well-sculpted as any in his discography and as icily cool as anything else recorded in that era. Nice synths too. This is a classic album that pretty well anyone interested in smart (and smartass) rock should have in his or her collection. Don’t be turned off by the cover looking like a men’s magazine about men (of which I do not disapprove, it just doesn’t represent the music very well).
Calvert returned to solo albums with this, a total departure. It’s another concept album, being based on a novel he wrote. Anyone has a copy, please send it to me. Anyway, Hype is totally different in every way, being the songs of his fictional singer and the novel’s protagonist, Tom Mahler. What we have here is a set of sharp, witty new wave, sort of a Cars/Graham Parker combo of wry social observations and crunchy riffs. “Over My Head” particularly has some choice lines about a smart lady that the singer is trying to pick up (“She asked me was I ever into Fellini, And what did I think of Godard. I tried to imagine her in a bikini, And didn’t find it was hard.”) The extremely witty “Evil Rock” would have been a big-ass hit in the hands of any popular rock band of the era. There are also sparse, synthy songs like “The Teen Ballad of Deano” that are on par with anything any post-punkers were producing at the time, and Calvert’s deadpan voice fits perfectly with the material. While not representative of his work as a whole, this is another intelligent album well worth a listen.
The questing Calvert changed his style once more for this album: full on synth-pop, and let me tell you, the cold, clanking drum machines and burbling electronics of this album are easily a match for Kraftwerk or John Foxx’s material. This is a serious album indeed, being partially concerned with the labour unrest in early eighties Britain under the repressive regime of Maggie Thatcher. Interspersed among the songs are electronic/musique concrète interludes featuring commentary from striking miners. The songs themselves deal with such topics but also the increasing mechanization of life (“All the Machines are Quiet” and “Work Song“), which of course was proceeding (and still does proceed) without any coherent plan for the betterment of the human species. “Work Song” itself is oddly uplifting, a veritable anthem for the technologized worker. Freq is one of the best synth-pop albums ever made.
Calvert’s final long-player continues in the vein of Freq, though aggressive guitars are added back prominently into the mix. This album also continues Calvert’s investigation of the consequences of technology in the future of humankind’s development, obviously artificial births being one of those investigations (“In Vitro Breed“). Genetic engineering and the horrors of animal testing (“Save Them From the Scientists”) and mental illness (“I Hear Voices”) also figure into the bleak truth-telling of this album. Calvert ironically shows gratitude to research scientists on “Thanks to the Scientists” for the dubious glory that endless, moral-free “innovation” is bringing us. While Freq is pretty frenetic at times, the pace of this album is measured and calm, and Calvert’s voice is softer, raspier, an artist in full control of what he wants to say. Unfortunately, what he had to say was a bit too far ahead of its time, even if the sounds were cutting-edge. While of course we all wish that Calvert lived on to share more of his thoughts with us, this album is not a bad end to his career — plenty of food for thought!
As I already mentioned, there are also a number of archival live recordings available, not all of great quality, but if you become interested, you may wish to check them out. And one well-recorded live album.
So there you have it. One of the great minds to come out of rock music, shockingly under-appreciated to this day and overshadowed a bit by his more famous colleagues. You’ve read about him, now go listen for yourself.