In October 1978 I went to see Hawklords at Leicester De Montfort Hall, I was blown away! In fact so blown away I got tickets for the Cambridge gig a few weeks later! Of course nearly half a century later it’s hard to remember what it was about that Leicester gig that so impressed me but central to it was Robert Calvert, the most charismatic and convincing frontman I have ever seen. The image of him dressed in quasi military gear, beret on head has stuck with me ever since. Seeing him again in the two Brunel University Hawklords gig videos included in the recently released and excellent Days of the Underground boxed set reminded me again of his significance as both writer and performer. The section in ‘25 Years On’ when he ad libs a verse from a newspaper is genius! (The above image is from that vid.) Jung says of archetypes that they ‘are not determined as regards their content, but only as regards their form and then only to a very limited degree’(Jung 1968a: 381). That is, that while archetypes exist in the human subconscious their content is culturally specific (Jung 1968b: 380). Whatever archetype a frontman fulfils, for me it was completed at that early point by Calvert! (Can you hear that sound, it’s Jung turning in his grave!).
Fast forward forty years and that (often dormant) interest in Calvert resparked in to life again, I went to see one of his plays Mirror Mirror pre lockdown in London, bought Centigrade 232 and re immersed myself in the Charisma years when Calvert as singer and lyric writer was front and centre in Hawkwind/lords. The more I dug the more intrigued I was by Robert Calvert as artist. His struggles with mental health have been well documented and several episodes can easily dominate biographies thus obscuring and eclipsing his remarkable intelligence, knowledge and talent.
One strand of Calvert, the writer, that has maybe been partially obscured by other preoccupations has been his political writing. Art in general, including lyrics, poetry and prose, are an attempt at communication but they can all include metaphor and hyperbole and that makes it difficult to trace though them a writer’s position but it maybe possible, through tracking reoccurring themes and interviews, to get a clearer idea of the writer’s views. At least that is the hope behind this article.
The first recorded political choice that Robert made was at age seventeen, his parents had moved back to Britain from South Africa when Robert was two and now, fifteen years later they were moving back to apartheid South Africa. Apartheid was a system that ‘governed relations between the white minority and the non white majority’ in South Africa, legalising ‘racial segregation’ and also ‘political and economic discrimination’, part of the system required non white people to carry passes authorising them to access white areas. Although dismantled in the 1990s its economic legacy, particularly, lives on. (McKenna et al n.d: no pag.). Robert refused to move back citing his opposition to the apartheid system as the reason (Abrahams 2004: 43). Some years later in an interview he commented “I am in actual fact, in exile from the situation through choice. Although I was brought up in England, my parents went back to South Africa in the early Sixties, and they gave me the chance to stay here or go with them – they weren’t just going to dump me here – and I chose to stay in England which they suggested was not a wise decision on my part… I`ve always been very much against the system in South Africa and couldn’t live there myself, although the rest of my family seem to have no problem dealing with it. My feelings about this are expressed as clearly as I can in the poem ‘White Dynasty’…Although I`ve divorced myself from active participation in an exploitative system, I’m still descended from white fascists who live there, but they are my family, and I must say that the talk about the bloodbath is very disturbing from all points of view, but especially from my personal feelings about it…” (Calvert n.d.: no pag.).
In the interview Robert refers to the poem ‘White Dynasty’ which appeared in his poetry book Earth Ritual. The poem includes the lines:
“…I sometimes catch
Myself in this
Of my dad’s.
Does it too.
(It leaves a mark.)
While they relax
On their verandahs –
X-Raying the page –
Tear gas drifts
In Soweto’s lanes.
And I am exiled
At a desk in Kent:
My conscience clear.
But by the time
I have written this,
I know the left side
Of my face will bear
Around the eye” (Calvert 1987).
This isn’t the only piece to engage with South Africa; he also wrote ‘Working Down a Diamond Mine’ and ‘Soweto’. The former is about the experience of a young black man experiencing both racism and exploitation, contrasting his experience with that of a transnational elite. It includes the lines:
“Don’t talk back
If your skin is black
‘Cause your job is on the line
You’ll never own
A precious stone
Working down a diamond mine
Those ladies in their theatre blocks
In their vermin wraps
Never know what life it saps
Drilling holes in rocks” (Calvert 1986)
In 1973 Hawkwind attempted to follow up their successful single ‘Silver Machine’ with ‘Urban Guerilla’. Although Robert attempts to diffuse the lyrics of ‘Urban Guerilla’ in an article in Frendz, writing it’s ‘…not meant to be taken too literally. There is quite a bit of irony behind them. It certainly isn’t advocating violence in the streets by any means’… his opposition to racism and capitalist relations of production are superbly highlighted in the song’s lyrics (Calvert 1973). Two lines in particular stand out (for me), “I’m a two tone panther”, a statement of solidarity with both the Black Panthers and the support group the White Panthers. The Black Panthers were an American organisation initially set up to protect black areas against police violence. They developed into a Marxist group with a class based politics, alleviating poverty and forging alliances with other (white and Latino) progressive groups (Duncan 2023: no pag.). The White Panthers were a support group (who also existed in the UK). The second line is “I’m the people’s debt collector” a brilliant encapsulation of the Marxist concept of surplus value which identifies that the worker adds value to the goods/raw materials owned by the capitalist/corporation. The worker is only paid a fraction of that added value, the owner in effect capturing the difference – the surplus value (McKenna n.d. no pag.).
This opposition to capitalism, and it’s imperative to expansion and disregard of everything except profit, is also expressed in ‘Uncle Sam’s on Mars’ on 1979’s PXR5, a damning indictment of capitalist imperialism, in this case extra terrestrial. Destruction of habitats, desertification, the hegemony of unfettered capitalism, americanisation are all referenced in surely one of the most accurately observed and prescient songs ever written!
“Shoals of dead fish float on the lakes,
But Uncle Sam’s on Mars And science is making the same mistakes,
But Uncle Sam’s on Mars
No one down here knows how to work the brakes,
But Uncle Sam’s on Mars…
Layers of smoke in the atmosphere have made the earth
Too hot to bear
The Earth might be a desert soon, America has left the Moon” (Calvert 1979).
This opposition to capitalist relations of exploitation probably finds its fullest expression around the 1978 album 25 Years On and the later Freq.
The extraordinary observed and prescient Pan Transcendental Industries booklet that accompanied the 25 Years On tour was based around a Calvert concept that found its most comprehensive expression in the booklet/programme that was not printed in time for the album release but was available on the tour (Banks 2020: 312,316). Alongside the images from the front and back of the album and other striking, quasi scientific, images the 16 page booklet gives Calvert the room to develop his vision of Pan Transcendental Industries, a concept that underpins and holds together the album, tour set and ‘25 Years’ single. Pan Transcendental Industries is a transnational corporation formed in 1953 (+25 years=1978). Through a reciprocal arrangement with governments, and financing by corporations and states of all political persuasions, all power over the planet has been ceded to PTI. The text seems to describe PTI as setting up vast mega factories that produce car doors for use as wings by extra terrestrial beings -angels- in exchange for their feathers and ‘cosmic energies’, these energies possibly used to power ‘techno psychic batteries’. The work force is described as made up of car crash victims and ‘voluntary prisoners’ who are being ‘perfected’, once perfected they are permitted to meet the ‘painted angel brides’. (In London there is a megafactory that employs 9 million people. Globally PTI employs 45 million which was roughly 1% of the world population in 1978 (4.29 billion), it may be that Asia, Australasia, the Americas and Africa each have a similarly sized factory?) The text continues, ‘In 1966, Pan Transcendental Industries began its historic programme for the industrialisation of religion. To fuse the popular with the metaphysical and the commercial with the sublime… the reduction of culture to commodity…’. Within the booklet there are hints at virtual reality and computer controlled environments/societies within a global totalitarian industrial complex which controls religious and ideological thought, ‘a wholesale megastructural rehabilitation of the globe’ (Hawkbinge).
Lyons, reviewing Joe Banks’ book, comments ‘the dark satire of Pan Transcendental Industries – developed by Calvert, again in partnership with Barney Bubbles, for the 1978 Hawklords tour, and drawing on the thinking of architectural theorist Rem Koolhaas – offers a prescient metaphorical critique of global corporate hegemony that’s acutely alive to the essential absurdity of hegemonic ambition. The tour programme came in the form of a corporate brochure for PTI, a business engaged in the industrialisation of religion; proof of PTI’s success, Calvert writes, is the fact that angels have now exchanged their wings for car doors’ (Lyons 2020: n.pag.). In this booklet Calvert seems to grasp the trajectory of neoliberal late capitalism, its totalitarian ambitions where all is incorporated, or eradicated. A system where all is commodified, people are prisoners in a vast, global open prison, mentally trapped within a VR enhanced version of Debord’s ‘spectacle’ and governments have in reality ceded power to corporations.
As Conlon writes ‘In 1977, a book by Jacques Attali was published entitled Noise: The Political Economy of Music. It made the following claim: ‘Music is prophecy: its styles and economic organization are ahead of the rest of society because it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code. It makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible, that will impose itself and regulate the order of things; it is not only the image of things, but the transcending of the everyday, the herald of the future.” Calvert’s work lends credence to Attali’s thesis. His translation into music of the science-fiction eschatologies of J.G. Ballard, Norman Spinrad and Roger Zelazny was genuinely prescient, and in spite of his bipolarity, or perhaps as a result of it, he was able to perceive with lucidity the authoritarian contours of an emerging dystopia’ (Conlon 2013: n.pag.).
Strangely for such a concept heavy presentation Calvert commented about the album “…¦there’s a much less self-conscious approach. We’re concerned with creating sounds and lyrics that actually feel right, rather than being tailored to fit a concept…” (Gill 1978: n.pag.). Only four tracks on the album could be considered to continue the PTI booklet’s/live show’s critique of industrial capitalism and express a working class experience: ‘25 Years’ by Brock, the instrumental ’Automaton, ‘The Only Ones’ and ‘The Age of the Micro Man’.
The booklet refers to PTI as ‘(f)ounded in 1953, by a dream concurrent with space flight to the moon’ and to the angels as being able to ‘…assume, at any moment, the status of artificial planets visiting earth only occasionally’ (Hawkbinge). These ‘space’ themes seem to be picked up in ‘The Only Ones’, which uses the myth of Icarus to explore the tension between flight and hubris commenting more concretely “In chariots of fury and flame, we head for above to stake out our claim. With radioscopes, electronic eyes, we scan for our hopes in different skies”. (Calvert 1978) This may be a reference to PTI’s extra terrestrial ambitions or more generally the territorial ambitions behind the space programme and hints at the capitalist colonialism made explicit in ‘Uncle Sam’s on Mars’.
Track 8 ‘The Age of the Micro Man’ is an explicit reference to the themes of mundanity and alienation generated by the division of labour that was emphasised by the dancers in the stage show and reflects Brock’s comment of his experience of “working monotonously on a machine” (Gett 1978: n.pag.). “It’s the age of the micro man who sees the detail but never the plan, it’s the time of the tiny creep, who pulls the levers while he falls asleep. Twenty five years of social research. It’s the age of the insect man, who pushes buttons and takes back the can. It’s the age of the micro man, who sees the detail but never the plan. Twenty five years of social research”. (Calvert 1978)
For a period Robert collaborated with Pete Pavli, some of the results released in 1982 as an EP, Revenge. Pavli talks about them bonding ‘over a shared interest in’ the early 1900s art movement, Italian Futurism (Banks 2021: no pag.). Robert’s interest could be confusing in the light of his previous writings and involvements as the Italian Futurists became very entwined with fascism. The movement was launched in 1909 with the publication of Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism, which celebrated modern technology but was/is notorious for its accompanying misogyny and celebration of patriotism, militarism, violence and war (1 & 2). However any concerns about Robert’s interest in the movement are put to rest by the track ‘Fascism/Futurism’ where in the title he makes the connection explicit and, after quoting The Futurist Manifesto, he ends the track by appropriating and subverting a sentence within it, “And ending justice”, a comment that simultaneously references, exposes and undermines the whole fascist/futurist project.
The end of the 1970s were a turbulent time in the UK culminating in the ‘Winter of Discontent’. Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979. Describing neoliberalism as ‘a successful project for the restoration of ruling-class power’, Harvey wrote ‘(a)ll forms of social solidarity were to be dissolved in favour of individualism, private property, personal responsibility and family values’ (Harvey 2005: 23). The imposition of neoliberalism, (an economic theory devised by Hayek, propagated by Friedman and initially termed ‘Reaganomics’) required economic, political and social restructuring. But Thatcher was aiming high, her intention was to reconfigure both the subject under neoliberal capitalism and the structures of society (Harvey 2005: 23). As well as further empowering the capitalist class through the privatisation of state assets and deregulation the Tory government also sought to disempower the working class by dismantling trade union power, promoting individualism and diminishing the significance of class as a primary marker of identity.
Although the decline of collective and personal identity based around industrial work had begun some time earlier as the percentage of those employed in the industrial sector fell from the 1950/60s onwards, ‘(d)e-industrialization reached a crescendo in 1979–82, when a grossly overvalued exchange rate rendered large swathes of British industry uncompetitive, and industrial output fell by 20 per cent. As the Prime Ministerial adviser, John Hoskyns, noted in his memoirs, the Thatcher government had ‘accidentally engineered’ a major recession by its misguided adherence to monetary targets’ (Tomlinson 2016: n. pag.). Unemployment had been increasing through the 1970s, but under Thatcher’s government it reached three million by 1983. These changes ‘eroded workplace and occupational communities’, meaning that ‘in place of collective work-based identities, individuals constructed their images of themselves much more around consumption and lifestyles’ (Mackintosh and Mooney 2000: 106-7). The Conservatives also appropriated and subverted pre existent popular and counter cultural concepts of ‘individuality, freedom and choice’ as they represented themselves in opposition to ‘the Establishment’ (Robinson et al 2017: n. pag.).
The restructuring of Britain had made Thatcher increasingly unpopular but the Falklands War of 1982 enabled her to rally the country behind her on a wave of militaristic patriotism. The government realised their intention of confronting and dismantling trade union power with the miners strike of 1984-5, Margaret Thatcher’s describing the miners as ‘the enemy within’.
It was in this context that the album Freq was released in 1985. The album consists of six tracks punctuated by recordings made by Robert of conversations he had with miners on a picket line and speeches by trade unionists. ’Ned Ludd’ and ‘Acid Rain’ have a socio political dimension but the two most explicitly political tracks are ‘All the Machines are Quiet’ and ’Picket Line’. Both tracks are written from the position of a striking worker. In the former Robert explores the emotional and financial effects of the experience of separation from work
“We’re walking out
We’re downing our tools.
They take us for fools.
All we’re asking is
A living wage
A living wage
A living wage…
Watch that tiger
Pacing in his cage.
I feel his rage.
I feel his rage….
The winter’s coming
We need new shoes.
I’m selling the car,
I’m paying my dues.
The union bosses
Tell us five more weeks – five more weeks –
Five more weeks
I can do
I spend my days in dreams
And join the endless queue,
So far from the machines,
All the machines are quiet.
I could scream
All the machines are quiet”. (Calvert 1985)
The second, ‘Picket Line’, is again from the perspective of a striking worker
“There’s a convoy coming:
Carrying a load of coal.
All we’ve got is banners,
On a six-foot pole.
I said: slow down brother,
You ain’t driving in here.
Shove that lever into reverse gear
We’re the picket line.?
The police are massing,
In their riot gear.
They’ve got pickaxe handles
And it’s very clear,
That they’re just strike-breakers
Working for the government.
I said: slow down brother,
You ain’t driving in here.
Shove that lever into reverse gear
We’re the picket line.?
It’s so fucking cold.
My fingers are purple,
And I’m losing my hold.
It’s a shame
Such a crying shame.
Even if we win this
They’ll still red file my name
Standing on the picket line”. (Calvert 1985)
Both tracks show Robert’s empathy with the striking miners, a recognition of the emotional, economic and social cost of their struggle, his writing drawing attention to the miners as people. ‘Picket Line’ also references the use of violence by the police against those on strike.
One of the last statements of Robert’s political intent was a letter dated June 1988 where he seems to be writing about wanting to stage a production around what’s become known as the Battle of the Beanfield (3). The Battle of the Beanfield happened in 1985 only a year after ‘The Battle of Orgreave’ when miners were attacked by the police. One of the members of the convoy attacked by the police on their way to Stonehenge commented, ‘It felt as if hippies had become the new enemies of the state merely for choosing an alternative lifestyle. We were viewed as outlaws’ (Brash 2016: no pag.). The Battle of the Beanfield refers to violent police attacks on members of a convoy of travellers who had been prohibited from holding/attending a free festival at Stonehenge (4). With Hawkwind’s having played the festival in 1977 and Robert stating in the letter his desire to be there for that year’s solstice it is reasonable to assume the intended play would have been sympathetic to the travellers!
This has only been a relatively quick survey of Robert’s lyrics, poems, prose and interviews and there are other pieces he wrote that raise political points but are primarily ethical, for instance his anti vivisection song, ‘Save Them From the Scientists’ on Test Tube Conceived or social, eg ‘Highrise’. Maybe other themes could be explored in Robert’s writings; ethics and futurology for instance. But, as can be seen from the above, there are consistent themes running through his work from ‘Urban Guerilla’ to Freq, a sense of working class identity/solidarity, an opposition to racism, authoritarianism, capitalism/imperialism and an internationalist concern for the oppressed whether in South Africa, the USA or Britain.
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(3)Facebook post 27-2-23
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