We’re setting the dials for 1972 and the futuristic multimedia explosion of Hawkwind’s Space Ritual tour
Upon the release of their eponymous debut album in 1970, Hawkwind were immediately described by the press as being makers of “electronic music”. Despite the record being a slightly curious mix of folk blues and barbarian psychedelia, and still some way from the classic space rock sound they would become renowned for, it was the unruly electronic whooshes, shrieks and howls punctuating their songs that caught the ear, and marked Hawkwind out as an alien presence on the UK music scene.
Band leader Dave Brock, who has acknowledged the early influence of US electro-psych pioneers such as Silver Apples and Fifty Foot Hose, had initially experimented with tape loops of old blues harmonica recordings fed through a Binson Echorec echo machine. But when his friend Richard Michael Davies, aka DikMik, turned up to a rehearsal with a strange piece of electronic equipment, subsequently revealed to be a signal generator for testing radio valves, a less cumbersome and more mobile way of injecting eerie tonalities into the group’s music was discovered.
Running his “audio generator” through a series of effects boxes, most importantly a Watkins Copicat, DikMik created what saxophonist and frontman Nik Turner has called “the sound of Hawkwind”. Music fans at the time might have previously encountered the relatively sedate vibes of early electronic instruments such as the Mellotron and the Moog, but they were entirely unprepared for the raw, sometimes violent frequencies produced by DikMik’s primitive rig. Early gig reviews describe members of the audience being physically sick as a result of the electronic bombardment.
By 1972, Hawkwind were the biggest cult outfit in Britain, kings of the underground with a fanatical following. They’d also recruited former roadie and soundman Del Dettmar to their ranks to handle the latest addition to their electronic armoury, an EMS VCS 3 synthesiser, which Dettmar used to process the band’s instruments onstage. But everything changed when the interstellar boogie of ‘Silver Machine’, with its squiggly, radiophonic intro, became a massive hit single in the UK, going on to eventually sell over a million copies.
‘Silver Machine’ supplied the financial leverage for Hawkwind to create their most ambitious and extensive tour yet, an immersive multimedia presentation they called the “Space Ritual”. Robert Calvert, the band’s visionary poet and conceptualist, described the planned show as depicting the dreams of a group of starfarers in suspended animation: “It’s a mythological approach to what’s happening today… the mythology of the space age, in the way that rocket ships and interplanetary travel are a parallel with the heroic voyages of man in earlier times.”
Various ideas were mooted for the staging, which included touring the show like a circus in an inflatable plastic tent. More outlandishly, it was suggested that Del Dettmar should be seated on a revolving tower above the heads of the crowd. Visual designer Barney Bubbles got in on the act too, producing a set of metallic speaker cabinets and positioning the band onstage according to the Pythagorean musical scale.
The Space Ritual tour would also see the mounting of a truly innovative light show in an era when basic follow spots were the norm. The group’s semi-regular lighting crew of Mike Hart and Alan Day were joined by scene veteran Jonathan Smeeton, who regarded Hawkwind as the perfect musical counterpoint to his increasingly ambitious effects, such as using multiple projectors to produce animated loops and sending Marvel’s Silver Surfer skittering over the band’s heads. Coming together as Liquid Len And The Lensmen, the groundbreaking spectacle they created became a defining part of the Space Ritual experience.
Another key element was the trio of dancers who acted as a lightning rod for the music. Hawkwind’s regular visual interpreter, the statuesque and often naked Stacia, was joined by the sylphlike Miss Renée, who had previously danced with the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, and was described by Sounds magazine as “a space fairy, frozen at perhaps 10 frames a second, [doing] a futuristic parody of the can-can across the line of the strobe”. The trio was completed by mime artist Tony Crerar, with all three making multiple costume changes throughout the show.
To build anticipation on the night, every member of the audience received a joss stick and a free programme containing lyrics and Robert Calvert’s tongue-in-cheek ‘An Extract from the Saga of Doremi Fasol Latido’, wherein Hawkwind are depicted as spacelords returning to Earth to save the planet from itself, the millenarian mythology that the group wove around itself being another essential part of their appeal. And if that wasn’t enough, the group had Andy Dunkley, their resident DJ, to act as master of ceremonies, leading the countdown while playing Terry Riley’s ‘A Rainbow In Curved Air’. Dunkley would also occasionally play in Stockhausen records when the electronics were malfunctioning.
It was the music that was the most extraordinary part of the Space Ritual – a seamless, near-two hour set of deep space psychedelia, cosmic electronics and science fiction poetry that pushed the crowd to its limits. For every propulsive slab of riffarama, such as ‘Born To Go’ and ‘Orgone Accumulator’, there were unearthly bleeps and washes of white noise from DikMik and Dettmar, sometimes backing Calvert’s apocalyptic readings – most famously on the public information parody ‘Sonic Attack’ – and sometimes as compositions in their own right, such as the jagged, archly-titled ‘Electronic No 1’.
The Space Ritual tour commenced at the King’s Lynn Corn Exchange on 8 November 1972 and ended on 30 December at the Brixton Sundown (now the Academy). Thousands of fans attended every night of this nationwide 32-date jaunt, with one recalling, “This certainly wasn’t a bunch of acid head hippies playing drippy post-1968 rock, it was an aural and visual assault that left you blown away”. For many, the ‘Space Ritual’ album, a vinyl document of the London and Liverpool gigs, remains the greatest live record ever released.
With their freaky dancers, synapse-frazzling lights and hypnotic, bass-heavy sounds, the Space Ritual shows were arguably the UK’s earliest raves. What’s certain is that this would have been the first time that provincial heads were turned on by the visceral power of electronics in a live setting. The Space Ritual was an unforgettable experience, for some literally life-changing, and a signpost to the future, when a whole new generation gathered en masse to be transported by driving, repetitive beats and trippy, acidic frequencies.
Joe Banks’ book, ’Hawkwind: Days Of The Underground’, is published by Strange Attractor Press