Pause for a moment and think about your grandfather. There he is, resplendent in beige knitwear, smiling benignly as he gently dozes in his favorite armchair, in the gap between dinner and his mid-evening bedtime. Unless, of course, your grandfather is Hawkwind’s Dave Brock, who at 78 years of age has just made one of the best rock albums of 2019.
All Aboard the Skylark is Hawkwind’s 32nd album in a 50-year career, and Brock has helmed every one. Impervious to fashion, critical mauling, inter-band squabblefests, and a prodigious intake of pharmaceuticals, the band have plowed through half a century of popular music with the steely determination of a Polar icebreaker. Miraculously, 2019 sees them pretty close to the top of their game.
Last year’s semi-orchestral album Road to Utopia, didn’t quite hit the mark, in spite of the presence of Brock’s old busking buddy, Eric Clapton. Possibly with that in mind, the ‘Wind looked back towards their golden era – the 1970s – for inspiration. They’ve combined that with a little contemporary vim and vigor and made a great sounding record that contains all the stuff you want and expect from a Hawkwind album without it sounding like a cynical, money-grabbing exercise in self-plagiarisation. You get the motorik grooves, the sci-fi fantasy lyrics, and the whooshing synths, but the good news is that all those parts are bolted to some great tunes.
You can’t help but love an album that starts with a tune called “Flesh Fondue”. Over a relentless, punk rock rhythm, Brock yells a delightfully daft lyric about intergalactic meat-munching, which not many bands would even consider, let alone pull off. As a sorbet to clear the palate, “Nets of Space” floats some trademarked, atmospheric synths over a vaguely tribal rhythm. Did someone say “shamanic”? But it’s not all business as usual – “Last Man on Earth” has a lighter touch and the band break out the acoustic guitars and – whisper it- sound a little bit like Crowded House. There aren’t many Hawkwind tunes you can say that about. The sax arrangement is a lovely detail and a cute nod to their past.
The title track is what lazy rock DJs will call “classic Hawkwind”. It unfolds gently, with burbling synths and a reverb-soaked sax, until an overactive bassline pushes everything along with a real sense of urgency. A brief burst of “Aladdin Sane” piano and after a mere four minutes, in comes the guitar riff. And then, it has the good taste to fade away gently. Not many bands who inhabit Hawkwind’s genre (whatever that is) would display that degree of restraint.
At over nine minutes, “The Fantasy of Faldum” is the album’s statement piece. Before you roll your eyes over the sword and sorcery imagery, the whooshing keyboards and the weird, bleeping and blooping, remember – Hawkwind invented that. The tune could have overbalanced and tipped into self-parody, but there’s enough forward motion to keep it interesting. It’s the perfect closer for a genuinely great record.
If you needed another incentive to pick up a copy of All Aboard the Skylark, the album comes with Acoustic Daze, an album of Hawkwind tunes played “unplugged”. It’s a bit of a mixed bag; some tunes survive the ordeal of being stripped of electricity while others sound like the demos they were. It’s nice to have, but only the most ardent Hawkwind fan will find themselves returning to it.
Critics have not always been kind to Hawkwind. “One-chord wonders” is just one of the charming brickbats hurled at the band. I can’t imagine Dave Brock cares anymore; after all, he’s probably outlived all the people responsible for all the snarky comments, and those who survive are probably in nursing homes, waiting for a bowl of mashed banana and a visit from the grandchildren. Brock, however, has a 50th-anniversary tour to prepare for. I wonder what he and Keith Richards will talk about when they’re the last men alive on Earth?