Lonely figures waiting, shadows on the hill
Looking into valleys where everything is still
Only death is lurking, the creeping sickness waits
So who’s gonna win the war, now
Okay so strictly speaking I’m cheating on the whole 1537 thing again as I only bought Hawkwind Levitation last year after Huw Lloyd-Langton died, but unless you’re a 1537 fundamentalist*, give me a break. Now I’m a bit of a Hawkwind fundamentalist myself, in terms of their recorded output I lose interest when Lemmy got the boot in ’75, partly because they lost their harder edge then, but also because that’s when they began, several goodies aside, slide towards the Grateful Dead trap of putting innumerable live albums out of ever-variable quality. But for this album I’ll make the exception and willingly make the jump to 1980, particularly when it involves a ride on a blue vinyl spaceship.
The headline news at the time was the recruitment of Ginger Baker**, to the good ship ‘Wind to replace Simon King, who was allegedly stood down for, narcotic reasons; Huw Lloyd-Langton’s wife worked for baker’s managers’ company. Now Mr Baker is one of those unstable catalysts I vaguely remember from chemistry, making all manner of exciting things happen before exploding/emitting noxious chemicals and being unfit for human consumption. Simon King was a brilliant drummer in his own right and to my leaden ears there is no real appreciable difference between the two here, which is I think a tribute to both men concerned. The production is ever so slightly trebley, as was the way of the times and I would love to have heard the drums fore-grounded a little more, really driving, but that is a minor quibble really. Keyboard player Tim Blake stated that because Ginger was new to the band when Levitation was recorded he was being led, not driving the sound, by the time they toured the album he was really driving those songs.
With the exception of the omnipresent Dave Brock and Lloyd-Langton on lead guitar the rest of the band was Tim Blake on keys and Harvey Bainbridge on bass. They were a good supple unit too, albeit without the sheer greasy wattage of the Space Ritual era, not quite enough whoosh space noises for my tastes either. All this is exemplified on the hard rocking title track and opener, ‘Levitation’. The only outright rocker on show ‘Levitation’ is more of a rapier than the claymore the band used to decapitate their audiences with, twitching along in a spritely fashion there are surprising Spanish guitar bursts, wonky keyboard noises and some great riffing from Brock and Lloyd-Langton, all contained in a satisfying melodic shell It’s a great opener and as the live versions included on the various CD re-releases show, really got amped up a notch live.
‘Motor Way City’ is an interesting one too, it really does not sound like anyone else at all I can think of, not even Hawkwind – which is great. It is a propulsive pop-rocker, mostly synth-led, about how things aren’t the same anymore, stretched but not over-stretched by some really interesting instrumental breaks, which would almost sound new-wavey if it wasn’t 6:46 long and had sweeter vocals. Every time I come back to Levitation I find it this song a real treat, as well as finding new groovy corners to the song that I’d somehow missed before.
Then we hit two instrumentals in a row, ‘Psychosis’ I just find a bit of a place-filler nice keyboard noises and everything but going nowhere. ‘World of Tiers’ on the other hand is excellent, a key-board dominated space rocker of the highest order, even finding time for a medieval-minstrel-mash-massacre in the middle; perfect for sound-tracking flight scenes in the next sci-fi film you direct. True.
The second side begins brilliantly with Tim Blake’s gentle ‘Prelude’ which segues into ‘Who’s Gonna Win The War’. Now this really is the shit. It’s a beautiful elegiac, sorrowful track which would have graced Wish You Were Here, which features some stunning guitar touches from Huw Lloyd-Langton, if I say they’re very redolent of Dave Gilmour at his best I really don’t want that to sound like it’s an impersonation job, it really isn’t. What I mean by that is that every note and every solo has just been perfectly judged and feels as though it has been wrung out straight from the guitarist’s limbic system. I love Hawkwind and this is the only really emotional track of theirs I can think of, it makes me wish they’d done more.
We hit the prog high road on ‘Space Chase’, which is great if you like that sort of thing, purgatorial if not. ‘The 5th Second of Forever (from the film)’ as well as being the least catchiest track name I can think of in the Hawkwind catalogue is another track with real accents of Pink Floyd, with a gentle plucked intro and outro bookending an urgent uneasy synth-led tune in the middle, classy stuff. Then we hit my favourite track on Levitation, ‘Dust of Time’, not a hugely well-known tune by any means, even by Hawkwind standards, but again just an absolute class act. there is something about that recurring guitar motif, it’s too big to be a riff, that floats serene and disembodied within the songs rhythmic structure. Brock’s heavily treated vocals just work as well on this one as they did on the earlier ‘Who’s Gonna Win The War’. I love the way the song breaks down midway through and you can hear the keyboards searching, waiting to build up into a continuation of the original theme; it’s such a great tease, you know it’s coming but it is just so effective when it does it almost makes me weep with the sheer inevitable joy of it all^.
Levitation has had its champions and its’ critics over the years but having spent a lot of time with it recently, I think it’s a great, consistent Hawkwind LP and I say that knowing that their song writing consistency is what has limited them so often. If you’re a casual fan give it a spin; if you’re a rabid fan listen to it again; if you’re new to this particular planet try a couple of tracks, I suspect they may well surprise you.
Needless to say in the great Hawkwind tradition this volatile line-up splintered on the rocks of the subsequent tour, shedding band members at an almost comical rate and the end of this particular adventure was sealed by Ginger Baker’s acrimonious departure when they gathered together to record a follow-up – there was far too much Bacardi, dogs called Kickstart and Toerag and a titanic row with bassist Harvey Bainbridge. Business as usual.
Levitation also stands as a very fitting memorial to a really excellent lead guitarist. Huw Lloyd-Langton, RIP.
P.S – all sorts of useful info was gleaned from Carol Clerk’s brilliant book, The Saga of Hawkwind, a damn entertaining read.
*they do exist apparently, spending their time decrying my various transgressions and keeping their own count, ignoring the 11 LPs I’ve reviewed so far that I bought after starting the blog.
**in his 60’s heyday a doppelgänger of my father, or Old Man 1537 as he will hereafter be known for all eternity.
^on a Monday night no less.