INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Guardian DECEMBER 9, 2015 - by Joe Banks
CULT HEROES: ROBERT CALVERT - HAWKWIND'S PRESCIENT SPACE-ROCK POET
Calvert was a unique creative force whose performance, poetry, wit and love of spectacle elevated Hawkwind into one of the most respected bands of the era.
I'm not the kind of person given to needing heroes. But adolescence is the time when they creep in under your defences, when you're looking for somebody else's attitude and worldview to co-opt. I've loved Hawkwind ever since I heard them thudding majestically through my older brother's bedroom wall, so it made sense that Robert Calvert, the band's resident poet and agitator, would be the figure to exert a hold upon my puny imagination.
A brilliant performer and clever, witty songwriter, Calvert used science-fiction and fantasy as a way of interrogating, rather than escaping, the modern world. He enjoyed inhabiting roles and wanted to bring satire and theatre into rock music. In Hawkwind, he found the perfect vehicle for his ambitions.
A classic small town misfit and autodidact, Calvert was born in South Africa in 1945, but moved with his parents at the age of two to Margate in Kent. Consumed by the possibilities of poetry and literature, the young Calvert was also obsessed with flying, and after school joined the Air Training Corps. Alas, a problem with his ear prevented him from fulfilling his dream of becoming a pilot (though he would subsequently find other ways of channelling this obsession).
Drifting between teaching English and working in Margate's Dreamland amusement park, he found himself drawn to Notting Hill and Portobello Road in west London, the centre of the capital's counterculture at the time. He also began to contribute poetry and articles to underground magazine Frendz, which was based there. Eventually, at the end of the 1960s, he moved to London.
Quickly becoming a fixture on the scene, he made lots of new friends, including the writer Michael Moorcock. But it was Nik Turner, an old friend from Margate, who brought him into the Hawkwind fold. Calvert had been giving readings influenced by the Moorcock-nurtured new wave of science fiction and Turner, saxophonist and singer with Hawkwind, thought his poetry would be a good fit with the band's music. And so in May 1971 at the Sisters Club in Tottenham, Calvert made his debut with the band reciting a poem entitled Technicians Of Spaceship Earth.
Hawkwind arguably only really became a space rock band with the arrival of Calvert, or certainly one whose image and lyrical themes became overtly science fictional. More importantly, it was Calvert's gonzoid intelligence that saved Hawkwind from becoming a psychedelic novelty act - even Silver Machine, the band's surprise hit single from 1972, turns out to be inspired by Alfred Jarry's essay How To Construct A Time Machine, which Calvert interpreted as actually being about how to build a bicycle.
Funded by the success of Silver Machine, Hawkwind put together their most ambitious stage show yet, planned by Calvert and designer Barney Bubbles. A multimedia extravaganza featuring lighting, projections and dancers, synched to the deep space riffage and primitive electronics of Hawkwind's "black fucking nightmare" (as Lemmy described it), the shows were framed by a series of readings from Calvert, notably Sonic Attack (Moorcock's parody of civil-defence announcements in the age of mutually assured destruction) and the JG Ballardesque 10 Seconds Of Forever. Space Ritual, the 1973 album of the show, is one of the greatest live documents ever, and still sounds like nothing else over forty years on.
Calvert's next collaboration with the band would prove more controversial. Pressured by their label for a single to emulate Silver Machine's success, Hawkwind produced another slab of foot-tapping garage rock with a Calvert lyric, Urban Guerilla. While he intended it as a metaphor for an attitude rather than an incitement to terrorism, the band had the misfortune to release the song just before a mainland bombing campaign by the IRA. It was rapidly withdrawn - Calvert was forced to defend himself in the press, while Nik Turner's flat was raided by the bomb squad. This was perhaps the first major indication that Calvert's sometimes shaky grasp on reality would become an issue for Hawkwind.
Despite this, Calvert had somehow managed to wangle himself a solo deal with United Artists, from which came two of rock's oddest concept albums. Captain Lockheed And The Starfighters was inspired by the German air force's disastrous introduction of an unsuitable plane, which resulted in the death of over a hundred pilots; Lucky Leif And The Longships imagined what would have happened if the US had been colonised by Vikings. It's these albums that reveal Calvert's peculiar genius for comedy in a rock context. Captain Lockheed is half-Hawkwind album, half a series of Monty Pythonesque skits (featuring the likes of Vivian Stanshall), while the Brian Eno-produced Lucky Leif pastiches various musical styles, the Beach Boys-apeing The Lay Of The Surfers - "I guess you could call us bar-ba-rians!" - being especially amusing.
If Calvert was an irregular presence in Hawkwind's lineup in the first half of the 1970s, he was firmly at the helm (alongside band leader Dave Brock) for the second, appearing as lead vocalist on four albums for Charisma. While his vocal style had previously alternated between cool detachment and hyperventilating speed freak, it was more controlled on Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music and Quark, Strangeness And Charm, uttering immortal lines such as "Your android replica is playing up again... When she comes, she moans another's name", delivered in a playful if slightly crazed monotone. (Hawkwind's huge influence on punk and new wave is rarely acknowledged, but you can clearly detect Calvert's voice in John Lydon, Howard Devoto and Jello Biafra, among many others, and Lydon was a dedicated Hawkwind fan.)
Calvert's lyrics became increasingly rich in imagery and drew on a variety of literary sources, from Hermann Hesse to Roger Zelazny. And on stage, in flying scarf, goggles and leather jodhpurs, he started to play out the visions in his head more intensely, threatening band members with swords or firing a fake machine gun at the audience. As a lifelong manic depressive who regularly booked himself into sanatoriums, it was little wonder that touring would take its toll on his mental health, culminating in a notorious incident in Paris where the rest of the band elected to abandon him as Calvert chased them through traffic dressed in combat gear.
Calvert recorded another album with Hawkwind - the brilliant Hawklords/25 Years On - before leaving to pursue other projects. He had already written and performed The Stars That Play With Laughing Sam's Dice, a play about Jimi Hendrix, and had published Centigrade 232, a collection of poetry. The next few years would see the publication of his novel Hype, a jaundiced look at the music business (with accompanying album) and the performance of "electronic musical" The Kid From Silicon Gulch, a spin on the hard-boiled detective genre which sounded like Sam Spade backed by early Human League.
Calvert continued in the electronic vein with the harsh minimalism of Freq, an album inspired by the destruction of traditional industry and the ongoing miners' strike. With remarkable prescience, his final album - Test-Tube Conceived - took as its theme the emergence of a technologically oppressed, "online" society, and saw a return to a more rock-based sound. I was lucky enough to see Calvert on the tour supporting this album, dressed head to foot in white and cutting a distinctly more urbane figure than the manic performer of the '70s. And then, with a return to Hawkwind being mooted, he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1988. He was just forty-three.
All of the cliches of the cult hero apply to Robert Calvert: he was a one-off; ahead of his time; a unique voice; an unsung inspiration. But as Calvert himself said: "The hero figure is something I am fascinated by, mostly in sending up." Yet as a true visionary in the golden age of music, he deserves to be remembered as much more than just a footnote in rock's history.
Joe Banks is currently writing a book on Hawkwind and the 1970s.