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There was a strange apparition in the UK charts last week, like a half-forgotten space vessel from the 1970s reappearing in Earth’s orbit after a convoluted journey around the galaxy. It is Hawkwind, the venerable cosmic adventurers, whose new album The Machine Stops is currently at number 29.
“Who’d a thunk it?” said singer Jonathan “Mr Dibs” Darbyshire at Islington Assembly Hall to a rumbling cheer from the leather-jacketed faithful in the audience. He is a relatively recent inductee into the band’s ever-changing line-up, having joined in 1997. The only original member stood to his left, Dave Brock, a wiry-looking 74-year-old who co-founded Hawkwind in 1969.
More than 40 musicians have passed through the group’s ranks since then. Cream drummer Ginger Baker had a brief stint behind the sticks, while Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister appeared on bass for several years until being sacked for falling asleep at inopportune moments, an unfortunate side-effect of his enthusiasm for amphetamines.
The current line-up is a five-piece with Brock on lead guitar. The staging lacked the arresting visuals of old Hawkwind shows — Stacia, their half-naked interpretative dancer, retired from active duty in 1975 — but the new record looks back at the music of their heyday, a mix of sci-fi storytelling and sludgy space-rock.
Adapted from a futuristic short story by E.M. Forster, The Machine Stops is an apocalyptic tale of a world ruled by machinery. Mr Dibs, in a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, recited Luddite lyrics in a sturdily theatrical fashion. Brock cranked out fast riffs and shrieking solos, not so much a hippy relic as a proto-punk. Niall Hone on synthesiser provided a modest degree of modernisation with early-1990s trance effects.
With keyboardist Phillip “Dead Fred” Reeves absent due to ill health, the songs tended to the muddier end of the Hawkwind spectrum, as with the lumpen thrashing of new track “Synchronised Blue”. But the music had drive too, aided by the solid rhythm section of bassist Haz Wheaton and drummer Richard Chadwick.
There was a generous sprinkling of back catalogue tracks, including “The Watcher” and a climactic “Silver Machine”, both from the band’s Lemmy-assisted prime in 1972. The Hawkwind of today is a lesser vehicle for far-out fantasies, but this relic of a long-vanished counterculture still packs a certain wallop. At least one audience member required medical assistance during the set.