1973: Effortful, Sticky, Jammy – Space Ritual by Hawkwind

The Adam Roberts Project

The cover looks pretty exciting, doesn’t it? A flame-haired naked woman with a boomerang on her head standing in a big gold cauldron firing rockets from her fingertips into some cooking pots from which gigantic strands of frogspawn depend – how could that not be brilliant?

Hawkwind - Space RitualBut the truth is that no such woman actually appears in the music of Hawkwind’s Space Ritual (1973). Oh, Hawkwind’s stage show had statuesque topless Stacia, everybody knows about her. But the album itself … not so much. What you get on the album is space rock, and lots and lots and lots of it.

This is what that invaluable research resource Wikipedia has to say about space rock:

A style of music particularly associated with a group of early mostly British 1970s progressive rock and psychedelic bands such as Hawkwind and Pink Floyd, characterized by slow, lengthy instrumental passages dominated by synthesizers, experimental guitar work, and science fiction lyrical themes.

Several terms in that nicely concise description leap out at us, I think. For instance the words ‘slow‘, ‘lengthy‘ and ‘instrumental‘. Words to quicken the pulse of any music lover, surely. What could be more exciting? Slowness? Prolonged length? Too too thrilling!

And then there’s the ‘experimental guitar work.’ I’d say the crucial part of this phrase is the work part. Should playing, or indeed listening, to pop music be, let’s say, I don’t know – fun? By no means! It must be laborious, continuous, effortful work. Work! Work! Work!

Space Ritual is a two-disc, prolonged improvised space-rock ramble. It’s what musicians call ‘a jam’, not, in this case, so much on account of its spontaneous musical co-ordination as for the fact that it’s sticky and hard to wade through. It truly goes on and on. And then it goes on some more. It chugs. Then it chugs some more. There are sung bits. Here, for instance, are the lyrics to track 1, “Earth Calling”:

This is Earth calling
Earth calling
This is Earth calling

Earth calling

This is Earth calling
Earth calling, this is Earth calling
Earth calling, this is Earth calling

Earth calling this is Earth calling Earth calling this is.

The longer you listen, the more the urge rises within you to shout ‘Oh pick up, for Christ’s sake! Pick up the phone! Earth is calling, don’t you hear?’

And then there are talky bits. These could more accurately be described as ‘long, long talky bits’. Or, ‘ponderously-intoned talky bits’. Written by Michael Moorcock no less.

This was reality, however grim:
Our journey’s end. The landing itself
Was nothing. We just touched upon a shelf
Of rock selected by the Automind.
And left a galaxy of dreams behind.

This doesn’t look too bad, written down, I agree; but you need to remember that it is (a) spoken rather than sung, and (b) spoken in a quasi-autistic monotone. For example, the phrase ‘this was reality’ is delivered as ‘this, was, re, ah, li, tee‘, every syllable the same length and same pitch, which makes the whole thing sound very unlike re, ah, li, tee indeed.

Don’t misunderstand me. My problem with this album is not that it is prog. The continent of Europe contains within it no bigger fan of prog than I. But prog needs a certain play, a certain dash and dance, a certain widdly-fiddly rapid arpeggio flourish. It needs to be less sticky, and less jammy. It needs more hawk, and less wind.

2 thoughts on “1973: Effortful, Sticky, Jammy – Space Ritual by Hawkwind”

  1. The more correct term I believe might be ‘punk-prog’, and rather than being a ‘lengthy jam’, it is in fact a series of distinct songs picked from several previous albums. It should be said that it is my er, understanding that this is an album best enjoyed in what might be loosely termed ‘an altered state of mind’. I myself could not possibly comment; nonetheless what I can say is that I love, love, love this album.

    The music pulses like a tribal ceremony – or, indeed, a ritual. It’s not an album to be listened to casually; one should dive into it headfirst, eyes closed, quality headphones on. It digs into the primitive backbrain and extracts your half-naked prehistorical ancestor daubed in white paint and lost in the jubilant trance of ceremony.

    Damn right there’s no twiddly arpeggios. Or perhaps that should be, damn right there’s no twiddly, effete, poncing, puffy-haired, glass-of-shandy dull as ditchwater arpeggios. This is earth music; raw, primal, frightening, pounding, consciousness-swallowing neural shock treatment

  2. I think I’d be obliged to take a middle ground between the two of you on this one; taxonomically speaking, I’d say Hawkwind’s work (and Space Ritual in particular) is in fact a form of proto-stoner rock – the earliest point at which psychedelia rejoined the nascent heavy metal aesthetic. The proggish feel is undoubtedly connected to altered states of mind, but the filigree and virtuosity of prog is conspicuous by its absence; the driving force here is hypnotic repetition and high volume, which could also be used to draw a conceptual (if not sonic) line between Hawkwind and the second generation of rave and techno, as exemplified by the now-defunct free-festival circuit, which of course brings us full circle historically given Hawkwind’s founding role in said subculture. But I’ll concede it’s not an easy listen; prog is like a visit to a the over-furnished home of someone with an eclectic taste in art and ephemera, while Hawkwind is like twelve hours of huffing ketamine in a squat where all the windows are covered with tie-dyed bedsheets.

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