The Old Market, Brighton, Mon 29th Sept
Hawkwind, I discovered recently, now have their own covers band. Which is pretty weird when you think about it. Cover bands are of course a red rag to rock fans. Fans like to listen to the original band with the original line-up, ideally playing an original album in the correct track order. They can become almost as obsessive as ornithologists; if they insist on seeing a particular line-up with the original bass player, it's not necessarily because they think it will sound better or even different that way. It's just what they want to come and see, something to tick from the checklist.
But what if you've been in the same band, playing the same songs for decade after decade? Don't you hit a point where you effectively become your own covers band? And the whole business of staying true, of keeping it like it was, doesn't that hasten the process? Stalwartism can be an albatross.
And past reputation, that risks weighting the albatross. As argued here only recently “you couldn't overstate the importance of Hawkwind if you tried. They're a credible candidate for the most important band in the history of everything, ever.” A reputation based on the classic 'space trilogy' they produced early in the Seventies, culminating in the legendary live album 'Space Ritual'. But if they weren never quite the same sonic visionaries again, they carried on releasing classic albums throughout the decade. (This account by my blogroll buddy Murray Ewing is a pretty good guide.)
Except of course the Seventies are now a long time ago. Plus, as most reading this will already know, the two founders irrevocably fell out with Dave Brock booting Nik Turner from the band. (Twice over. The history of Hawkwind can be confusing.) Picture if Paul McCartney had continued the Beatles without John Lennon. Or, more accurately as Turner was always the frontman, Brock would be Brian Wilson or Jerry Dammers – a pivotal figure who was not necessarily terribly visible.
Which leads to the question - with all these changes and setbacks, combined with the heightened expectations people have of Hawkwind, have they been blown into becoming their own covers band? And their actual covers band are actually redundant? Let's take some pointers...
The merch stall notably only sells T-shirts. Okay, maybe there was a bag you could buy, but none of the actual music. And there must be more same-band T-shirts being sported here than at any gig I've ever been to. Hawkfans are clearly the Deadheads of the UK. It made the whole thing feel almost like some kind of rally.
Yet a fair percentage of the audience are young folk, and they seem to know as many of the songs as me. (Which left me wondering, when I first saw the band early in the Eighties, were any of the old timers there heartened to see the fresh faces of me and my schoolmates? Thinking about it – probably not.)
It is an oldies set-list. Yet quite an eclectic one, which ignores their token hit single. Their unreproducable early years quite sensibly go unreproduced, with most emphasis on the riff-based tracks of the mid to late Seventies. 'Steppenwolf' and 'Reefer Madness' are the order of the day. Notably, the politics and drugs references of the Sixties underground remain intact. If anything there's a disproportionately high number of political songs, including 'Uncle Sams On Mars' (in a different, more abrasive version) and a new track accompanied by an Occupy photo-montage.
The lengthy instrumental breaks were retained, but rather than wig-out sessions were more like regular solos. The keyboard section of 'Orgone Accumulator' in particular felt like it had dropped in from somewhere else, merely interrupting the track. At other times it felt like the music was being made a sonic backdrop while the filmshow or the dancers did something. The theatre-show notion that only one thing can happen at once, that couldn't be more counter to the crazy fugue states of the early days.
The band are extremely tight and proficient, and Mr Dibs makes for a decent enough frontman. But they're polished, they're in control. The classic space rock band has carved out some turf for itself down here on Earth. They're not their own covers band. The Hawk is still a hawk not an albatross, but does much less of the actual hunting. It's like an underground form of showbiz.
Nothing is more likely to tug at my sense of nostalgia more than this band. Those basslines are my Proustian cake. But in the great schism of the Church of Hawkwind, I guess I'm more a dissenter and a Turnerite than a devout Brockian. (His post-Hawkwind outfit Inner City Unit reviewed here. Which makes you like the Protestant heretics breaking from Catholicism, there's less of the flamboyance and the ostentation, and the congregation is normally smaller. But perhaps its stayed more attached to the roots of the thing, the Church of Hawkwind versus the Gospel.
'Motorway City' may not be most people's first thought for a Hawkwind classic. But for me it dates from the time I was first getting into the band, and represented everything about why they mattered to me – euphoria and escape given a science fictiony spin. Steppenwolf (the band, that is) gave you the image of the biker sailing on the open road, but Hawkwind upped the ante with a whole city on the move. (Was it written about the then-still-intact Peace Convoy? I don't suppose we'll ever know.) Plus it was one of the live numbers where an instrumental break actually was an instrumental break.
Concorde 2, Brighton, Wed 1st Oct
Goat hail from Korpilombolo, a small town so far to the north of Sweden that it was never truly Christianised and pagan traditions still thrive. The music they play is simply the folk music of this town, and its something they've done since childhood. It's a blend of psychedelic funk and afrobeat, the latter influence stemming from a Voodoo witch doctor who one day decided to decamp there. They now live together in a commune from where they await “the return of the horned one”.
On the other hand, they might not do. There doesn't seem to be any history of the band before they were gigging in Gothenburg and a reliable source of gossip states they don't even spell the town's name right on their website. But the point of the story is more likely that it's a good story. Its one of those stories which should be true, to the point where the fact that it isn't becomes almost trivial.
Of course some might want to argue that, much like their origin story, with their wacky masks and crazy costumes there's something of a simulation to it all. And of course as the record shows we at Lucid Frenzy take a dim view of simulation. Like New Wave was to punk, have they taken volatile unpredictable freeform psychedelic music and bottled it, make it neat and tight, made it marketable? While they frequently go into lengthy instrumental breaks they notably keep to the beat. There's nothing that teeters on the edge.
But if there's no actual derangement to their music, there's no shortage of abandon. With many bands you can tell when they're coming to the climax of the main set, when they start pulling out enough stops to make sure they get clapped back on. With Goat the gig's pretty much at that fever pitch the whole way through. They're quite unrelentingly up.
Besides, lacing afrobeat with psychedelia actually makes for a pretty good cocktail drug. Psychedlia could get ungrounded quite quickly, and only some of its practitioners were able to fly through space in the way that lack of grounding required. Even something like Pink Floyd's 'Interstellar Overdrive' needed a heavy riff to moor it at either end of the track, more barrage baloon than rokcet. Here the afrobeat provides that grounding, stops things floating off into noodliness or indulgence. It's sky meets earth, head aligned with feet. And the afrobeat has enough space within it to stay insistently punchy without ever becoming merely repetitive. (Within tracks. There's perhaps not a massive scope to the sound between tracks.) In the Guardian, Paul Lester described their music as “Parliament covering Can's 'Tago Mago' with Bhundu Boys and the Incredible String Band, or a super-jam involving Faust, Funkadelic, Fairport Convention and Fela Kuti.” Which sounds like a magic potion of some sort.
And another besides, the truly out-there psychedelia was non-mainstream music which worked best in a non-mainstream setting. And the squat centres and free festivals it used to happen in, they've all been supressed in recent years. It simply won't work as well in a venue that clamps shut at 10.30pm so they can fit a club night in. Goat's more concentrated, more directed music fits better inside those confines. While notably their audience is the Hawkwind audience with the proportions inverted – a young and boisterous crowd with a fair smattering of us old 'uns.
The neologism I'd coin for it is 'bironic'. In one sense it feels a knowing parody of this sort of music, blowing up the absurdity with over-the-top fancy dress. And yet at the same time it's so compelling that you cannot help but be swept up in it. It's self-mocking and it's genuine. It's to psychedelia what the Fucked Up gig was to hardcore. And, where we're at right now, perhaps it's bironic men and women we need to come and rescue us. There's no point trying to imagine ourselves back in the Sixties, where people blithely fancied The Man would never be able to take their music. But if we're all just going to smile knowingly like a bunch of hipsters there's no point in our showing up. We could just as easily feel self-satisfied at home. The absurdity becomes the spoon of sugar that helps the medicine go down. And the medicine can still work. (According to the Urban Dictionary, bironic actually means “ironically bisexual” or some such. Whatever, mate...)
Because at the end of the day Goat seem to have the same bit between their teeth that pyschedelic music always had. Which is the same as the instinct that makes a child melt down all his plastic toy soldiers - it's to melt everything back into one again. The masks and costumes aren't just an image gimmick, but the age-old carnivalesque trigger to the loss of self. The singers wave branches across the audience like magic sticks, and indeed once you've been annointed it feels impossible to stay outside of things. The perfect Goat gig would be where we all show up in masks.
And in fact after the gig I stumbled across this quote from band spokesman Mr Goatman: “When you make music in a collective, the individual is unimportant. The music I partake in making has little to do with me as a person; there’s something else at play.... For us, it’s unimportant who we are.” Quite so, Mr Goatman.
Goat probably don't come from a small town in northern Sweden where old pagan rites are still practised. But after seeing them live you could imagine they did. Which is probably the part that counts.
Not from Brighton. Not from anywhere near Brighton. Hey, would you rather have something local or decent footage..?
BRAKHAGE'S 'DOG STAR MAN' WITH LIVE SCORE BY REDS
Fabrica, Brighton, Mon 22nd Sept
The work of American experimental film-maker Stan Brakhage is something I have always enjoyed whenever I've come across them. (Even though I am not exactly what you'd call a subject expert.) True, he's very much yesterday's avant-garde. But I suspect at least some of the appeal may stem from that. Starting in (yes, really) the early Fifties he used the most lo-fi technology, even of the day. Partly due to working practices including marking or multi-exposing the film frame itself, you pretty much have to see his work on old-style film reel projections. (At the Barbican's 'Watch Me Move' exhibition a few years ago, his was the only work to be shown this babbage engined way!)
Though coming after the classic Modernist era, Brakhage is in that way very Modernist – rather than trying to naturalise film grammar in your mind until you take it for granted, he ruthlessly homes in on everything that's unique to the medium of film, and uses that as his native language. He's less using film to talk than he is talking film. But more than that, his non-narrative semi-abstract works are almost like Pollock paintings – you're best off going to see them on a big screen rather than catching them on an iPhone while you queue for a cheeseburger.
His linked series of 'Dog Star Man' films, made between '61 and '64 and described herein as “a hypnotic visual feast”, is given a live score by local impro collective Reds. (Themselves described as “an amorphous psychedelic beast”.) Wind instruments blow up squalls while violins pluck and keyboards throw up tones. Perhaps the nearest to a conventional sound comes from the guitar, whose reverby lines live up to that psyschedelic tag with echoes of Robby Krieger. (At points even the Dead Kennedys' East Bay Ray came to mind!) The guitar can be like the skeleton of the sound, around which the other players mass. The programme tells us they're recently formed but there doesn't seem to be any casting about for themes – spirited yet accomplished, they strike up straight away. While at the same time the daunting-sounding seventy-plus minute duration of the films seems to allow them to grow bolder and wilder.
Unlike other films he made, it seems Brakhage wanted 'Dog Star Man' to be silent. Yet the programme tells us his widow okayed this performance. Personally, I side with the YouTube poster who states “this needs some crazy weird music”. After all, why stimulate just one sense?
And you know the magic is realy working when the synaesthesia takes hold. It comes in stages. Brakhage's rapid-cut and overlaid images are sometimes from abstract and sometimes from natural sources. They also vary massively in scale, from a solar corona (the High Altitude Observatory of Boulder, Colorado are thanked) to close-ups of the human face and body. (The title might be a portmanteau between the dog star and the recurring shots of a man with his dog.) Other images might well have been microscopic. But you stop making the distinctions after a while. Like the overlaid images, everything starts to multi-expose on your mind.
Similarly, having the musicans play in semi-darkness around the screen stops you differentiating between them too much. You can't observe whether the violinist or keyboardist made that particular sound (and round here its not always obvious), so you just take in how those sounds combine. In your mind, they move as one.
But after a while, when the magic is really working, you stop even diferrentiating between sound and vision. The soundtrack might well be subsequent to the film, but the two start to coalesce and you simply see what you hear, and vice versa. It all becomes one experience.
Chiefly, the word from that description of Reds that rang with me wasn't even “psychedelic” but “amorphous”. The experience is incohate without being formless, a state of flux which never settles – like swirling dots which may or may not be joined together. It's the suggestion of form, without ever spelling anything out, that sets your mind racing.
Getting hopelessly carried away, as is my wont, and riffing on the cosmic imagery I started to imagine the period just after the Big Bang, where nothing was yet locked down, before things had to become thing-like, when the universe was effectively a stem cell and everything still had the potential to become anything.
Which may be the basis of those repeating scenes of the man (actually Brakhage himself) and dog struggling to climb a snowy mountain. (An unusually recognisable image for Brakhage.) Significantly, in a typical violation of standard film grammar, we're never shown if he's made it to the top or even get to glimpse the peak. Perhaps in some ways the solar corona so frequently cut to stands for the peak, something unattainable yet still to be reached for.
The film not having a soundtrack becomes like Shakespeare not coming with many stage directions or authoral notes, it just increases the opportunities. But it doesn't work like the open ending to a novel, where you're given some information and left free to speculate what's left. You don't come away with your own reading. It's more like a space you can hang out in, with no end to the free association.
A better way to spend a Monday evening I simply cannot imagine.
Brakhage's film in full...
Various commenters come up with multiple suggestions of other pieces of music to play in a parallel browser window. Perhaps the John Cage thing would be to choose another YouTube page at total random, and try that. Or you could if you so desired try the below, an entirely separate performance from Reds (but sounding every bit as good as the one I saw)...
Coming soon! Back to 'Quatermass'...