Robert Calvert (1945 - 1987) is perhaps one of the lesser known literary figures of the 20th century, his best known works being his contributions as lyricist (and vocalist) with anarcho acid-rockers Hawkwind
. Nonetheless, he was a published poet, and a performed playwright, with an interesting and eventful, albeit tragically short, career. And a unique, innovative and influential body of work. Those influenced included Jello Biafra
, and his collaborators included Brian Eno
Born to English parents in Pretoria (in South Africa) he moved with his parents to the UK in 1947. His early ambition to become a fighter pilot was frustrated when doctors discovered he had a defect of the eardrum, and he went on to develop his interest in writing and music.
Working summers in seasonal occupations in Margate (as a deckchair attendant) he teamed up with (later to be Hawkwind Saxophonist) Nik Turner, whom he'd known from childhood, and who was also working the deckchairs, and Dik Mik, later to twiddle knobs on the old sonic generator for Hawkwind, too. They made plans to form a band, and Calvert moved, by stages, to London, where he soon met guitarist / singer Dave Brock who was busking on Portobello Road, Once established in London, he became involved, and was published in, alternative magazines FRENDz and International Times (so alternative, in fact, that their offices were regularly raided by the police), and Michael Moorcock's speculative fiction outlet New Worlds Magazine.
Here's Calvert describing how he got involved with Hawkwind:
I suppose I got actively involved with music through just spending a lot of time ... I used to review certain gigs, I went out to review gigs, hang around gigs. I did poetries, I'd done readings, I'd always written poetry since I was about 15, and I'd done the odd reading, first of all
in folk clubs actually, really a long time before this, then I started doing some readings around rock gigs, particularly around the gigs that were being put on at the Seven Sisters club. The Sisters club it was called, which was jointly organised by IT and FRENDz and that was the first gig with Hawkwind I actually played ... I mean I'd seen Nick.. No, actually, ... yeah that was the very first gig with Hawkwind yeah, the Sisters Club, yeah, got up on stage with the band at their invitation, and read a long poem, to start the set of the show off with, that was called Co-Pilots of Spaceship Earth, something I'd been working on for quite a long time, and that was really the beginning
of the Space Ritual, that was the sort of germ of the Space Ritual. It wasn't through FRENDz that I first met Hawkwind, in fact, it was really though the fact that Nik was an old mate from Kent, and Dik Mik, and when they went off to join Hawkwind I actually went off to form another sort of band, which was quite a ... quite a lot of lunacy was involved in it.
And here's a couple of verses from his Days of the Underground, written later, about those heady times..
We believed in Guevara,
we saw that head held up
and our anger welled up,
but we kept it cool.
No need for machine guns
'cause the system was crumbling
our leaders were fumbling,
while we broke every rule.
Now we can look back
at the heroes we were then,
we made quite a stir then
with our sonic attack.
assassins of silence,
with make-believe violence
on a hundred watt stack.
They offered us contracts,
we said "we don't need 'em,
we'll just take our freedom,
we will not be bound."
Calvert contributed some of his poems to the sleeve notes
for Hawkwind's 1971 album X - In Search of Space
, including the aforementioned Co-Pilots of Spaceship Earth
, and Ten Seconds of Forever
. He was quite involved with the band by this time, often collaborating in gigs, though not appearing on their recorded releases (however X - In Search of Space
has been rereleased in a digitally remastered version that features three Calvert pieces.)
Calvert found Hawkwind's chosen genre, 'space rock', quite
exciting and inspirational. Elsewhere, he describes this:
a term I actually hadn't heard before - but it seemed like the magic key to a movement that was afoot. It was like Ezra Pound and the Imagists discussing the new movement in poetry. And to me it sounded like something brand new - which it was. It wasn't long after that I found myself performing more gigs with the band and I'd already plannned doing the Space Ritual - not necessarily with Hawkwind - it was something I'd wanted to do for quite a long time - probably even before Hawkwind was formed. It was something I used to dream up and write bits of while I was working in my mom's shop, actually.
(Calvert is referring to the bits of spoken word performance of his, that ornament their epic double live album, Space Ritual Alive
, as much as the Hawkwind set itself, I think.)
Eventually, Calvert's undoubted vocal and frontman talents helped him
to replace Brock as lead singer. but his recurring mental health problems precluded his remaining permanently in that role, and he dropped in and out of the spot over the next several years.
He still exercised a guiding influence over the band, however, and is credited with 'conceptual guidance' on several works.
Hawkwind's one hit single, the infamous Silver Machine (Calvert's lyric), was successful enough to fund their extravagant 1972 Space Ritual tour (pretty much a unique event in the history of rock'n'roll) but, unluckily, the followup single, the pre-punk Urban Guerilla, which featured Calvert's lyrics and vocals, was released at the same time as the I.R.A. chose to terrify London with a series of bomb attacks. Calvert was perhaps ill-equipped to deal with the hostile reaction from all sections of the Press, the single was dropped from the airwaves, and eventually United Artists caved in and dropped it from sale.
By mid 1973, these pressures, and the traditional ego-clashes of rock and roll frontmen, had caused the severance of his relations with Hawkwind. He went to "work on solo projects", releasing Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters (1974), (hearkening back to his old fighter-pilot ambitions, and presciently referring to the soon to explode Lockheed scandal of the mid-70s) and Lucky Lief and the Longships (1975), a strange piece of work, set in an alternate present, where America had been colonised by Vikings (incidentally, produced by Brian Eno) Also in 1975, Calvert was awarded the Capital Radio poetry prize, for his poem Circle Line.
By 1976, Calvert had patched things up with Hawkwind, performing as lead vocalist, and penning all lyrics, on their album of that year: Astounding Sounds; Amazing Music (one of the few rock albums to feature a semicolon in its title!) Outside of his involvement with the band, Calvert had written a play, The Star that played with Laughing Sam's Dice about Jimi Hendrix before he became a rock star, which was performed in London in 1976. He continued to work on poetry, and published a collection, Centigrade 232, the following year.
Hawkwind album Quark, Strangeness and Charm was also released in 1977, again featuring some excellent Calvert lyrics. Both Days of the Underground, on that album (quoted above), a touching poetic salute to the London scene that they were involved in in the early 1970's, and Spirit of the Age, adapted from his earlier The Clone's Poem, are worth mentioning in particular.
Calvert was struggling to keep the lid on his mental health problems, reading a lot of stuff on revolutionary theory, and finding it harder and harder to distinguish his stage personas from real life. As the personas in question were crazed revolutionaries, science fiction horrors, and evil minions of a techno-fascist state, this didn't entirely endear him to the rest of the band. Calvert relates a famous incident which took place in Paris, at the peak of the European terrorism campaigns run by groups like the Red Brigade, on their 1977 tour:
A combat outfit is unbeatable as a travelling unit. [...] Due to circumstances beyond my control it so happened that on this European tour with Hawkwind, I didn`t have enough gear with me to keep changing clothes all of the time. So I spent a lot of time wearing this sort of combat outfit, and I ended up, after having a bad scene with rest of the band, being left behind in Paris, wearing this outfit. And being a short haired chap, looking like I could be a British Army officer.
I recall the image of actually chasing a silver Mercedes limousine, that had four or five longhaired indivduals in it with the windows all wound up, through the main street of Paris, wearing this uniform.
This is absolutely true, all the passers by, the people out shopping, stopped dead. It was like a scene out of a movie like Alphaville. All these people stopped dead in their tracks with their mouths open watching this scene take place, this silver car speeding away with this guy chasing it, wearing this uniform.
When it got to the traffic lights I was so fucking annoyed with Brock and the others that I tried to get the door open, shaking this vehicle up and down. It looked like I was single handedly trying to turn it over and arrest these people in it. When the lights changed, the car went off. It was more like a Woody Allen film than anything else.
When the car drove off, I was left standing there in this uniform, suddenly realising that on either side of this main throughfare in Paris were all these people shopping, who were used to seeing terrorism.
I think everyone felt this panic. I think they thought, fucking hell, there`s a bomb going to go off any minute somewhere. Is this guy trying to arrest these people? What have they done? Are we going to be blown up?
There was a lot of shooting going on at the time, a lot of explosions, all these Red Brigade people, and a lot of other organisations were there. I had to walk back through the streets, walk the Gauntlet of Stares, wearing this uniform, trying to say, in simple French, hey, look, it's alright...calm down. I could feel their panic. It was like being on stage, having just discharged a grenade in front of the audience, who are absolutely stunned.
That to me is an example of the pure power of theatre - I mean it was pure theatre. My actions were theatre for the benefit of Dave Brock and the others, and their behaviour was theatre for me.
They were showing me that they were fed up with the way I was carrying on. We had a big fucking argument. They were pissed off. It was a mutual demonstration to each other of our discontent that this audience in the street misinterpreted. I could see why immediately.
It was actually an unfortunate sartorial mistake to wear that gear on that day."
This incident and others like it, once more threatened Calvert's relationship with Hawkwind, who were having further personnel difficulties besides, but by 1978 Calvert and Hawkwind mainstay Brock had teamed up again to tour firstly as Hawkwind, and then with a skeleton Hawkwind crew as Hawklords
(the name change being due to contractual and legal difficulties.)
On their 1978 tour of the states, a significant meeting took place between Calvert and fellow would-be revolutionary Jello Biafra, who had been wowed by Calvert's political stance. Jello tells it thus:
I only met him once as a shy, wide-eyed fan at a Hawkwind show in San Francisco in 1978. I was fascinated by Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters because the text predicted the worldwide Lockheed scandal one or two years before the mainstream press!
I asked him how he came by this information when reporters all over the world couldn't find it if it was right in front of their nose.
He said that he kept files on different renegade corporations that disturbed him. In other words, a dossier on corporate criminals, instead of the kind the F.B.I. keeps track of.
Years later I began to do the same thing myself, thinking back to Calvert and knowing how much this would help me in the fight against censorship and for my Spoken Word performances in general.
I think it's important that all artists use their art to spread suppressed information in a time when the mass media that used to report this information is so badly censored. This is what many punk and rap groups do.
The 1978 Hawklords
album itself contains some of Calvert's finest work, in the form of lyrics and the accompanying booklet, a sort of skit corporate report for Pan Transcendental Industries
, prefiguring the economic and social transitions that were to dominate the 80's
as big business took an even firmer grasp of the reins of power, and came to dominate society in almost every area of life.
One further Hawkwind album was released featuring Calvert, PXR5, which was recorded during the Quark Strangeness and Charm sessions, but held back until the various difficulties besetting the band were resolved.
Calvert took a rest, and then in 1980 and 1981 toured his
Krankschaft Cabaret featuring his songs, poems and
sketches. Also, his The Kid from Silicon Gulch, perhaps the first electronic cyberpunk musical, themed around noir-ish detectives and computer hackers, was performed in 1981, featuring Calvert himself in the lead role of Brad Spark.
1982 saw the release of his novel Hype, a tale of
cynicism and exploitation in the rock music industry, in which the protagonist, rockstar Tom Mahler, is swindled by evil executive Tony Cahn on a scale undreamed of by Malcolm McLaren or the Sex Pistols. An album of the same name was released simultaneously with the book.
Teaming up with his old chum Nik Turner, himself long parted from Hawkwind, and gigging with combo Inner City Unit, he released Ersatz in 1983, with the ICU musicians going by the name of The Imperial Pompadours. The politically inspired album Freq (1984), is an audio collage of songs and live sound, (including interviews and recordings from picket lines and demos) electronically processed, dealing with the rapidly changing political climate in Britain, as Margaret Thatcher did battle with the striking miners.
In his 1986 album Test-Tube Conceived he returned to his preoccupation with things futurological, singing about genetic engineering, animal experiments, and, notably, life as experienced through a modem, in his On-Line. Material from the album was worked into a black comedy about what happens when genetic technology goes wrong, Test-Tube Baby of Mine, which saw performances in London and New York.
A collection of poems, The Earth Ritual was published in 1987, and was his last completed work. He died from a heart attack in 1988 while preparing a tour with a new band, to be called The Starfighters, and while making plans to rejoin Hawkwind, and begin work on another Brian Eno collaboration. Work was also in progress on a collaboration with German acid rock survivors Amon Duul II, to have been called Die Losung (The Solution), which seems to be Calvert's last recorded appearance.
In his short life, he had married three times, and left four children behind him.
Information and quotes from the magnificent and extensive Calvert site at: