By the time 1976 rolled around, Hawkwind was very much a band in transition. Having fired bassist Lemmy Kilmister the year before for his increasingly problematic drug habit, the band’s shift in sound from the proto-heavy metal space rock of such undisputed classics as Hall of the Mountain Grill and the sprawling, live Space Ritual to something far lighter should not have, in hindsight, come as a surprise. Given not only the personal change, but also the changing face of the music industry, the remaining members of Hawkwind were forced to reassemble into something keeping with their musical lineage but lacking the solid groundwork laid by Kilmister’s thundering bass. Having helped underscore the band’s heavier moments, his departure rather profoundly affected the band’s sound on the albums covered on the newly issued compilation The Charisma Years 1976-1979.
For nearly all groups who had made a name for themselves in the progressive underground of the late ‘60s, the mid-‘70s proved to be an awkward provisional period. The drastic sea change transpiring within the music industry at that time left less and less room, at least within the mainstream, for those acts adopting a middle ground between punk’s raw, primitive minimalism and progressive and corporate rock’s increasingly maximalist absurdities. Given the sheer scope of the change underway in the years leading up to the now Lemmy-less Hawkwind’s 1976 album Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music, it comes as little surprise that the title proves to be an overstated misnomer.
Where before the band had relied on long, improvisational explorations of sound and texture both in the studio and with multimedia live shows, Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music features a band in search of itself, attempting to write structured pop music of the commercially accessible variety. Opening track “Reefer Madness” attempts to retain the band’s drug-fueled roots, seemingly unaware of the irony that they had fired Kilmister for just that reason. “Steppenwolf”, with its Santana-esque intro and long, rambling description of life as a werewolf, at nearly 10 minutes long, is at best a test of fan patience. There are some interesting moments on the album, but nothing nearing the title’s implication. “The Aubergine That Ate Rangoon” is an odd circular groove that, while similar in theory to their earlier recordings, is closer in practice to krautrock filtered through a disco lens. It’s an experiment that, unlike much of the rest of the album, proves successful.
Fortunately, 1977’s Quark, Strangeness & Charm found the band once again exploring the astral plane, taking the space rock tag literally. Here they return to a more exploratory approach that allows the music to develop rather than be shoehorned into corporate expectations. “Spirit of the Age” finds vocalist Robert Calvert employing an icy, detached vocal approach that sounds like a cross between Gary Numan and Thomas Dolby. It’s a decidedly lighter approach throughout, but one that would set the tone for this next incarnation of the band. Taking more of a pop-oriented route, they still manage to work in some of their esoteric musical proclivities — assorted sound effects, broken conversations, and a host of other synthetic sounds — but they successfully split the difference between the underground and corporate rock. “Damnation Alley”, with its almost Jam-esque melody and lead vocal, is a fine example of the band once again finding its feet. In this, Quark, Strangeness & Charm is the best of the quartet of albums covered here.
Reinventing themselves yet again with 1978’s anomalous 25 Years On, the band, here rechristened Hawklords, sounds nothing like that which made Quark, Strangeness & Charm live up to its title. Not that this is necessarily a detriment. Rather the band, namely Calvert, further embraces a turn towards the increasingly popular worlds of New Wave and power pop. While still retaining some of their inimitable idiosyncrasies, 25 Years On is a more structured affair with a pop sheen. It’s a far cry from the heavy atmospheric weirdness of Space Ritual yet remains an enjoyable listen throughout. From opener “PSI Power”, with its layered power pop harmonies and hooks, they toe the line between experimentation and accessibility without compromising or slipping into complacent malaise. On “25 Years”, they adopt a sort of punk freneticism virtually unheard elsewhere in their catalog. Rich in ideas and commercial potential, 25 Years On marked not the start of a vibrant new beginning, but rather an evolutionary dead end.
For their last release with Calvert fronting the band, they largely ditch the electronics and synths that had cropped up over their two previous releases. After the twin successes of Quark, Strangeness & Charm and 25 Years On, this sonic retreat can’t help but feel like a letdown. That said, PXR 5 still carries traces of the more pop-leaning group, as on the near straight-ahead punk of “Death Trap” and anthem-like “High Rise”. While not definitive, PXR 5 served as a satisfying dénouement for the Hawkwind that was and the Hawkwind that would fall back on stock musical and lyrical tropes in the 1980s. Because of this, The Charisma Years 1976-1979 proves an ideal introduction to the second phase of the Hawkwind sound. Don’t come to this expecting the trademark heavy space rock on which they built their name. Rather the collection requires an open mind and an appreciation for thinking outside the self-restricting box that is genre tags.