50 Years Ago: Hawkwind Reaches Their Apex on Live ‘Space Ritual’
Like many other '70s rock greats, Hawkwind built their legacy onstage rather than in the recording studio.
The British space-rock pioneers' defining masterpiece arrived on May 11, 1973, as their fourth overall LP and first live album. Space Ritual is a mind-numbing double-record behemoth that captures the Hawkwind experience in all the band's demented glory.
It's called "space rock" for a reason: Combining sci-fi lyrics, motorik pulses and trippy sound effects, Hawkwind's music is the perfect simulation of space flight – a turbulent rocket blast through alternate galaxies of riffage and noise.
And Space Ritual (recorded during a pair of performances in London and Liverpool) is their most explosive moment.
If there's a lead instrument at all, it's the distorted, brain-bullet bass guitar of Lemmy Kilmister. As a former rhythm guitarist, he brings a chordal, melodic presence to the band's low-end, while the rest of the band (woodwind player Nik Turner, drummer Simon King, guitarist/vocalist Dave Brock and the twin synthesizers of Dik Mik and Del Dettmar) offers texture and turmoil.
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Hawkwind has often been labeled a "prog-rock" band, and on some levels, that makes perfect sense: As a whole, prog is saturated with spacey concept albums and indulgent textures. But Hawkwind were never virtuosos. Their playing here is too raw, too reckless, too barbaric. The sheer repetition of the riffs puts them more in line with the kraut-rock scene, and the rhythm section (particularly King's sloppy drum fills) points toward punk. Perhaps the band's easiest reference point is Pink Floyd (who released a psychedelic masterwork of their own in 1973), but Hawkwind's brand of space-rock is more aggressive and, well, nasty.
The Space Ritual Tour (in promotion of the band's third studio album, 1972's Doremi Fasol Latido) itself was a spectacle, filled with light shows, dancers, and spoken-word interludes delivered by sci-fi writer Robert Calvert.
Through the sheer velocity of its music, Space Ritual the album feels like a multi-sensory experience, from the unrelenting psychedelic throb of "Born to Go" to the bluesy thrust of "Orgone Accumulator" to the sound effect showcase "Electronic No. 1." Calvert's mood-setting poems (delivered in a campy, borderline-Shakespearian accent) are a tad off-putting without a visual counterpart, but they do offer the album a welcome respite from the aural onslaught.
Space Ritual was the band's most commercially successful album to date, landing at No. 9 in the U.K. and even cracking the Billboard Top 200 at No. 179. Today, it's something of a cult classic, a relic from an age of space-age wonder. Even now, there's still nothing else quite like it.
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