Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: Hawkwind, Warrior on the Edge of Time (1975)

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day One. Archive here.] 

In 1972, the prolific science fiction writer Michael Moorcock published a semi-autobiographical book called Breakfast In the Ruins: A Novel of Inhumanity, which included a note claiming that the author had recently died of lung cancer. This was meant to be a joke, but in the pre-Internet age, fans were distraught at the news, with no immediate way of telling whether that part of the book was meant to be speculative or serious. Author Neil Gaiman, a fan of Moorcock's since childhood, would later write a short essay and comic “One Life Furnished in Early Moorcock,” which amusingly quotes Moorcock in a 1976 interview, commenting on the response to his Breakfast In The Ruins joke:
That fucking biography. Shortly after it came out I was at a Hawkwind gig, stoned out of my brain, and these people kept coming up to me, and I thought I was dead. They kept saying, "You’re dead, you’re dead." Later I realized what they were saying, "But we thought you were dead."
There's something about this surreal scenario, of a British author being told "you're dead, you're dead" by random passersby to the soundtrack of one of Hawkwind's legendary 70s live shows, which is typical of the diabolically reflexive creative synergy between this particular writer and band, which is like nothing else in rock history (Robert Hunter and the Grateful Dead do not come close). Between them, they shared a love of grand, epic world-building, but they were also pranksters at heart, and they didn’t mind if some of their high concepts struck listeners as nonsensical or silly. Hawkwind’s third studio album, 1972’s Doremi Fasol Latido, featured the David Brock-written “Space Is Deep,” which contained elements of Moorcock’s “Black Corridor” poem, appearing again as the song “Black Corridor” on the live album Space Ritual. Moorcock wrote a few other songs for the group in this period, and sometimes joined the band onstage, often whenever main vocalist Robert Calvert was hallucinating too intensely to perform. Their collaborative process would reach fruition with Warrior on the Edge of Time, the culmination of Hawkwind’s staggering five-album run of early 70s masterpieces and an eerily powerful science-fiction concept album.

Admittedly, as with most concept albums, the storyline is barely coherent. I consider Moorcock to be one of the best science fiction authors, but his often alienating prose style did not always translate into compelling theme or character, even with memorable lyrical buzzwords like “the sands of time,” “corridors of flame,” and references to the mythologies of iconic Moorcock characters like Elric of Melniboné being bandied about. Spacey, psychedelic lyrics were always part of the Hawkwind sound, but that was usually a byproduct of the music itself, along with its sludgy Krautrock grooves, backwards vocal effects, wild bits of free jazz violin, and impenetrably murky production. With Warrior on the Edge of Time, the band built the music around Moorcock’s concepts, rather than any particular storyline, and the transitions between the conventional rock tunes, epic space jams and spoken-word sound collages (read by Moorcock himself) are much smoother as a result. One very notable transition is found in the opening double KO of “Assault & Battery/”The Golden Void,” two of Hawkwind’s most epic and mind-blowing compositions, which reinforce each other seamlessly. The same is also true of the final two songs, the speedy rockers “Kings of Speed” and “Motorhead”--the latter, of course, was bassist Lemmy’s mid-70s statement of purpose and last contribution to the group.

Moorcock’s lyrical strategy was not to write a linear fantasy tale, but to apply his facility for arresting high concept imagery in a manner that reinforces the strangeness of the music. With the possible exceptions of Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard, he was probably the only sci-fi thinker at the time good enough to pull off something this weird. With its surreal sense of dramatics and unpredictable pacing, Warrior on the Edge of Time is the ideal conceptual intersection between writer and band, two of the twentieth century's most endearingly unrestrained creative forces.

            

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