It would seem that the solo output of Hawkwind’s visionary frontman Robert Calvert is something of a best-kept secret. We reveal the untold story of his maverick work as an electronic pioneer
Ask any Hawkwind fan and they’ll tell you Robert Calvert was a genius. The space-age poet who co-wrote ‘Silver Machine’, conceived their ground-breaking Space Ritual tour and thrilled audiences with his electrifying stage presence was absolutely key to the band’s classic 1970s output.
Yet beyond this fanbase, Calvert has been relegated to cult-hero status at best. While comparable in many ways to figures such as Peter Hammill, Brian Eno, Bowie even, his musical legacy remains largely unheralded. This is especially true of his post-Hawkwind pivot towards electronic music in the 1980s, which produced some of his finest songs, but which has rarely been highlighted, let alone celebrated.
Things changed earlier this year, however, with the release of ‘The Last Star Fighter’, an album of his solo work remixed by a new generation of electronic musicians, including Xeno & Oaklander, Sixth June, Xiu Xiu, Antoni Maiovvi and The KVB.
Reworking tracks from ‘Hype’ (1981), ‘Freq’ (1984) and ‘Test-Tube Conceived’ (1986) as well as some of the demos he left behind, it reveals him as ahead of the curve in combining stark, minimal synth arrangements with brilliant melody lines and lyrics that capture the dawning of the digital age.
Calvert’s involvement with electronica began a long time before the 1980s. Hawkwind established a unique position in the UK underground by augmenting their metronomic, post-psychedelic riffage with raw frequencies produced by signal testing equipment and an EMS VCS 3. Against a backdrop of unearthly drones and eerie whooshes, Calvert would recite poems such as ‘The Awakening’ and ‘10 Seconds Of Forever’ before delivering the shuddering, howling tour de force of ‘Sonic Attack’.
Temporarily leaving the band at the end of 1973, he recorded two solo albums, which featured further electronic experimentation. ‘Captain Lockheed And The Starfighters’ (1974) was enlivened by the presence of Brian Eno, who used his EMS Synthi to manipulate the voice of guest singer Arthur Brown on ‘The Song Of The Gremlin’, an eccentric slice of electro-punk also featuring Adrian Wagner on synth.
While Eno subsequently produced ‘Lucky Leif And The Longships’ (1975), Wagner proved the more enduring and important collaborator. In 1974 he released one of Britain’s first all-electronic albums, ‘Distances Between Us’, on which Calvert guests, most significantly on ‘Steppenwolf’. A track bearing this lyric and melody would appear on Hawkwind’s ‘Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music’ from 1976, but the harsh, synthetic rumble of this version anticipates Calvert’s later work.
He also sang on Wagner’s cosmic 1979 disco cash-in album ‘Disco Dream And The Androids’. The most significant exchange between the two men, though, was technological – Wagner was the co-designer of the Wasp, the cheap digital synth that inspired a legion of bedroom electronic musicians, and it wasn’t long before Calvert got his hands on one.
After leaving Hawkwind for good in 1979, Calvert wrote the novel ‘Hype’, a pulpy takedown of the music business that led to an album of the same name. Ostensibly the songs of protagonist Tom Mahler, it’s a collection of well-turned, catchy powerpop, but with a few proto-electronic tunes too, most notably the moody synth noir of ‘Flight 105’ and the spiky urban paranoia of ‘The Luminous Green Glow Of The Dials On The Dashboard (At Night)’, which could be Chrome, early Ultravox or – as remixer Antoni Maiovvi says – “Devo meets Cybotron”.
‘Hype’ was also the project that brought Calvert together with his next significant collaborator, ex-High Tide bass player and cellist Pete Pavli. They bonded over a shared interest in Futurism and the avant-garde. The fact that the early synthpop acts were being called “Futurists” caught Calvert’s ear.
“They were outraging the public with music that hadn’t been done before, just like the Italian Futurists in 1912,” says Pavli. “I love electronica and I think we were both influenced by what was going on at the time. Synths weren’t a new thing, but they were now being used in a different way, becoming the main focus of the song.”
Calvert invited Pavli to take part in a series of shows at Theatrespace, a fringe venue in Covent Garden, London. Billed as Kränkschaft Cabaret, it featured songs, skits and poems.
“We had loads of fun – it was an absolute hoot from start to finish,” remembers Pavli, who now comprises one half of the shoegaze/electropop duo Strata Florida, alongside ex-Swallow vocalist Louise Trehy.
Kränkschaft Cabaret also set the template for Calvert’s next project, ‘The Kid From Silicon Gulch’, a self-described “electronic musical”. Featuring his wife Jill and Pavli, it was both a send-up of Sam Spade-style private eye movies and a prescient cybercrime caper, with Calvert as Brad Spark investigating a series of murders apparently committed by home computers. The songs for the play were written and recorded in just two weeks.
“We set up a little studio in his front room,” says Pavli. “Revox, Wasp, bass, guitar and a drum machine – that was all we needed. Bob had an extraordinary way of composing. He’d get the Wasp, this little touch-sensitive thing with only a dozen keys on it, and record a riff for a song, then just press one note for the chord. We were on this Futurist kick, so we wanted to make it quite jagged, atonal and a bit robotic. Recording to a 2-track Revox also meant it had to be succinct and minimalist.”
Performed for one week only at Theatrespace in February 1981, it was a sell-out each night. A rough recording on YouTube shows a ridiculously basic stage set, with the cast just singing to the Revox backing track, but Calvert’s intense charisma and personality held it together. The music is also striking in its wired, synthetic attack, with tracks such as ‘Silicon Tronic Blues’, ‘On The Case’ and ‘A Day Called X’ all thumping mechanical beats, buzzing Wasp bass and piercing electronic toplines. Without any thought to posterity, not a single one of these tracks was recorded for release. Calvert and Pavli performed another series of Kränkschaft shows in June 1981, but it would be the last time they worked with each other.
“Bob had a lot of mental health problems during his life,” explains Pavli. “He was OK up to the last couple of days of the show, but then he got quite agitated and started shouting at people. On the second last day, we had a big row. We got through the performances fine – he was very professional – but there was a bit of bad feeling when we’d finished. So we packed up, I went off, and that was pretty much it. I’m really sorry we fell out, as we’d become good friends and had a lot of fun. But he just moved on.”
Steve Pond first met Calvert while browsing the science fiction section of Compendium Books in Camden, north London. But the two became properly acquainted through Inner City Unit, the space-punk band that was formed by ex-Hawkwind saxophonist Nik Turner that Pond
was slowly edging his way into.
Calvert began to sporadically appear live with ICU, performing old Hawkwind tracks along with his own material. Pictures from the time show him dressed in tweeds, with a megaphone and hammer in his hands.
“He had his Wasp on a flight case next to him and a hammer to hit it with,” Pond remembers. “He couldn’t really make a noise that way, but it didn’t stop him.”
Pond also had his own band, The Three Laws, a trio consisting of two Wasp players and a female singer. Despite being managed by Wham! supremo Simon Napier-Bell and playing gigs with the nascent Depeche Mode through their contacts with Mute’s Daniel Miller, they failed to be signed. Coincidentally, Calvert had a Mute connection after appearing as the Titanic’s captain in the video for Silicon Teens’ version of ‘Memphis Tennessee’ – much to the amusement of Miller, who had been a Hawkwind fan as a teenager.
“I don’t think electronic music was a 100 per cent stylistic choice,” says Pond of Calvert. “It was more out of necessity. He loved the technology, but he wanted to get things done now. He wasn’t going to buy a Prophet-5 and learn how to use it – he was going to stick with his Wasp and little 4-track recorder he understood and squeeze as many ideas out as possible.
“He didn’t pay much attention to modern music because he was making it. His head was so alive with ideas, and he had so many things going on all the time that there was no space for consumption – he was too busy producing.”
For the next couple of years, Calvert holed up in his Ramsgate home, writing and making demos.
“His entire studio rig lived on a large wooden table in the kitchen,” recalls ICU keyboardist Phillip “Dead Fred” Reeves. “Bob did all his writing in a rickety shed down at the bottom of the garden. A battery cassette recorder was on hand, ready to capture any words or tunes that came his way. There was a complete absence of vinyl records or tapes in his home. In fact, the only piece of modern tech I saw was a VHS video machine hooked up to the TV – he’d record news and science programmes for post-midnight viewing.”
The fruits of this labour emerged in late 1984 with the release of ‘Freq’, Calvert’s most electronic album. Recorded almost entirely alone, with assistance from just his wife Jill and local guitarist friend PG Martin, ‘Freq’ is a visionary work that marries a minimal aesthetic to sophisticated songcraft.
Lyrically, it continues Calvert’s obsession with how we relate to technology, both in our work and personal lives, and was particularly informed by the miners’ strike of the day, with vérité news and field recordings included throughout.
Mythical wrecker of machinery Ned Ludd is celebrated through acid bass, Simmons drums and random tone bursts – form and function in perfect unison. The clanking, skipping beat and creepy melody of ‘Acid Rain’ conjure an oppressive, gothic atmosphere. ‘Work Song’ is like a blue-collar take on Kraftwerk’s modernism – England endures rather than Europe endless, but similarly affecting nonetheless. Shortly after the album’s release, Calvert knocked on Martin Holdcroft’s door.
“I was just a young kid living in a small town,” says Holdcroft. “I had no idea who he was. He said, ‘I hear you play guitar’. I said, ‘I’m the shittest guitarist in the world’. And he replied, ‘That doesn’t matter, because I’ve read your poetry’ – stuff I used to publish in local fanzines. So we got talking, and he said he wanted to make a record and do a tour.
“Robert would get out his Casiotone – a tiny, basic monophonic keyboard – and jab at the notes and say, ‘This is an idea for a song’. It was like his sketchbook, the electronic equivalent of a bodhrán drum, the foundation upon which a song can be sung. He was a big fan of folk, which is usually quite simple, and ‘Ned Ludd’ was a classic folk song about politics, class and revolution. His music was minimalist because he didn’t want to complicate it.”
They travelled to Welshpool to the legendary Foel Studio – run by ex-Hawkwind bassist Dave Anderson – to record what would be Calvert’s last album, ‘Test-Tube Conceived’. While still overtly electronic and deliberately stark, some tracks returned to a more rock dynamic, such as the ESP-referencing ‘Telekinesis’ and paean to early hacker culture ‘On Line’. ‘In Vitro Breed’, which flags Calvert’s concerns with genetic engineering, is almost anthemic, but there’s a disturbing, nightmarish quality to the slow-burning ‘I Hear Voices’ and ‘Thanks To The Scientists’.
The atmosphere in the studio was similarly anxious, particularly for the inexperienced Holdcroft.
“During the recording, it got weird, as Robert was quite fragile,” he recalls. “He was overexcited, didn’t sleep for five days and lost his voice through talking. He drove everyone mad because he was so intense. He was a lovely man, but so fickle. I’d say, ‘Robert, these songs are quite slow and ponderous’, and he’d say, ‘Yeah, you’re right’. Then half an hour later he’d make them even slower.”
‘Test-Tube Conceived’ was released in April 1986, with a short promotional tour which Holdcroft describes as “ramshackle and chaotic”. A particularly low point came when Calvert was hospitalised for two days following a toxic reaction to the band’s smoke machine.
But in a reversal of fortune, Calvert was overjoyed to receive an invite to perform at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank. With Pond and Reeves as his backing band, they were billed as Krankschaft. The concert was put together on a shoestring, with arrangements exchanged on cassette and rehearsed just two days before the show in October 1986.
“We used a Roland TR-707 drum machine live, and that triggered an SH-101 sequencer which I had to load between songs,” remembers Pond. “My set-list would have titles, then a string of numbers and letters which I had to put in and pray to god I’d not missed one.”
With the concert a major success, a follow-up tour was booked – the band now going out as The Maximum Effect.
“Some of the shows were brilliant, some of them were embarrassingly empty,” says Pond. “In Carlisle, we turned up and said, ‘How many tickets have you sold?’, and the promoter said, ‘Seven. But don’t worry, lads, we had Nazareth last week and they only sold three’.”
For all that, morale remained high, with Calvert performing dressed all in white.
“He’d got hold of a Pollard Syndrum, which he would hit with gusto to help out the TR-707 and humanise the beats,” recalls Reeves. “I consider this line-up to be an augmented electronics band due to the 707 being at the heart of it. We were doing an early form of EDM five years before it became a thing.”
On 14 August 1988, Calvert died of a heart attack. He was just 43 years old. The demos he left behind were by turns poppier and more political. ‘Over The Moon’ and ‘Three Gentle Words From A Fool’ were love songs, while ‘Working Down A Diamond Mine’ and ‘White Dynasty’ addressed Calvert’s South African heritage. Liz Wendelbo of Xeno & Oaklander describes ‘Hidden Persuasion’, a song about subliminal advertising, as “magical – as if it has been excavated in some off-planet mine”.
Pond and Reeves reunited as Krankschaft for a memorial concert in 2008 and subsequently recorded ‘The Flame Red Superstar’, which features versions of tracks from Calvert’s previous three albums. Pond continues to lead Krankschaft, while Phillip Reeves now plays with the Hawklords. As for Robert Calvert’s legacy, ask any Hawkwind fan.
“Robert was a genius,” says Steve Pond. “Incredibly funny, with his finger in everything – exactly what you hoped he’d be.”
‘The Last Star Fighter’ is out now on Cleopatra
With thanks and acknowledgement to Nick Calvert and Knut Gerwers’ online resource, Spirit Of The P/age