In a now much quoted review of the Hawkwind show at the 1976 Cardiff Castle Music Festival Mick Farren wrote ‘Visually Hawkwind are still the mutations you know and love. World War 1 aviator goggles seem to be the order of the day. Turner wears them with a Long John Silver tricorn hat and Dave Brock with the debonair grace of the first man to swim the Atlantic.

Bob Calvert, however, must take the prize. In black leather jodhpurs, riding boots, head scarf and flying helmet, he comes on like a cross between Biggles and Lawrence of Arabia with definite S & M undertones’ (Farren 1976: no pag.).

The set list for the Cardiff Castle gig in 1976 included, ‘Reefer Madness’, ‘Uncle Sam’s On Mars’ and ‘Urban Guerrilla’ (setlist.fm n.d: no pag.). 

On the Quark, Strangeness and Charm tour of 1977 Robert continued to adopt the ‘cross between Biggles and Lawrence of Arabia’ persona (Banks 2020: 249). Their set by then also included ‘Hassan I Sahba’, ‘High Rise ‘, ‘Robot’ and ‘Damnation Alley’ (setlist.fm n.d: no pag.). Robert had also written the lyrics for ‘Days of the Underground’. 

Fast forward to Andy Gill’s 1978 article ‘Leisure Wear of the Hawklords’. In it, while describing a Hawklords gig he observes, ‘Calvert, an obsessive dresser-up/actor, (and, if the truth be known, a more accomplished singer than he’s usually given credit for), is in guerilla chic: beret, bullet-belt diagonal ‘cross torso, etc..  Attired thus, the resemblance to Wolfie Smith from TV sitcom Citizen Smith is astonishing…(Gill 1978: no pag.).

Reviewing another gig from the same tour the Brunel University students’ zine commented ‘…Bob Calvert stood in his urban guerrilla costume, empty bandolier over his shoulder and megaphone hanging at his side’ (Thompson 1978 in Banks 2020: 312).

The aim of this essay is to try and explore the ideas, concepts, influences and contexts around Robert Calvert’s slightly militarised stage persona in the middle to late ‘70s. His visual presentation of ‘guerilla chic’ was predated by his lyrics for the 1973 single ‘Urban Guerilla’, a song inspired by his sighting of graffiti and the cover of the book of the same name by Martin Oppenheimer (Calvert 1982: no pag.).. The essay will draw on Robert’s comments, social science concepts and social history to try to understand this particular choice of stage persona. Other musicians who had strong visual personas obviously include Robert’s contemporary, David Bowie, whose adoption of a series of stage personas included the alien come to earth turned rock star Ziggy Stardust and the increasingly sinister Thin White Duke. The videos from his last album see him presenting another character with his eyes bandaged and replaced with buttons (Wardle 2021; no pag.). Hebdige commented on Bowie in 1979 ‘Bowie’s meta-message was escape – from class, from sex, from personality, from obvious commitment – into a fantasy past…or a science-fiction future.’ (Hebdige 79: 61). This contrasts with Robert who as Banks wrote was ‘(a) brilliant performer and clever, witty songwriter, Calvert used science-fiction and fantasy as a way of interrogating, rather than escaping, the modern world’ (Banks 2015: no pag.).

Another performer who adopted a series of personas was Adam Ant. In Lucy Robinson’s excellent 2023 book Now That’s What I Call A History Of The 1980s she includes a chapter, ‘Warriors in Face Paint’, on Adam Ant’s adoption of various historic hero personas. In 1982 Cleave had described Adam Ant as ‘…the very stuff of infant fantasy, part pirate, part highwayman, part Big Indian Chief, decked in all the random glories of the dressing-box’ (Cleave 1982: no pag.). Robinson writes that Adam Ant ‘often explained himself as the product of the heroic stories he had grown up hearing and watching, particularly the action series that epitomised the possibilities and restraints of post-war culture, especially around gender’ (Robinson 2023: 52). She also observed, on the adoption of these personas, ‘These warrior heroes may have looked like they were playing on iconic archetypes, but they were developed, constructed and disseminated in a context all their own. For Adam Ant’s warriors to make sense, it’s important to understand how these new soldier stories worked in Britain’s military context’ (Robinson 2023: 51). In the second part of the chapter Robinson explores social context, how embedded militarisation was in British culture and the ubiquity/prevalence of historic and contemporary military stories and images in 1980s Britain, including the construction of the military hero (Robinson 2023: 57-71).

Riffing off Robinson’s observations about Adam Ant this essay will attempt to explore and contextualise Robert’s militarised stage persona and his (possibly associated) interest in the lone hero using various concepts to help the process. 

One such concept is social constructionism which suggests that we construct ourselves, our sense of self and our sense of self in relation to that/those around us, using the cultural and social resources available to us. In social constructionism the individual is heavily influenced in their understanding of themselves and the world around them by their socialisation; the internalisation and reproduction of societal norms (Wikipedia n.d: no pag.). This would include sub cultural norms.

Socialisation inculcates into the subject societal/cultural views about how to view the world, behave, present, relate. It begins for most in the family and carries on throughout life via school, work, media and, increasingly over the last few decades, the internet. However, how society’s messages and informations are understood and incorporated into practice is open to individual interpretation (Thompson 2023: no pag.). One aspect of socialisation is gender; the behaviours, characteristics, activities and appearances expected of the individual by a given society on the basis of their biological sex.    

The concept of hegemonic masculinity focuses on an historically specific ‘way of being a man that…successfully asserts its leadership in relation to…competing versions of masculinity’, however, despite its hegemony this dominant version of masculinity will be contested, can be replaced and can adapt (Woodward 2008: 88-89). It is argued that hegemonic masculinities may be a more accurate concept as this incorporates the idea of variation due to class and subcultures.

In No Future: Punk, Politics and British Youth Culture, 1976-84, Worley observes that ‘as the politics of neoliberalism gained leverage’ in the late ‘70s ‘(n)otions of ‘freedom’, ‘individuality’ and ‘innovation’ were framed in the language of the market; human activities – life styles – were recognised in terms of commodification’ (Worley 2017: 131). Robinson et al identify an increase in individualism in progressive movements and mainstream society, arguing that the 1970s were an important period in the increase of a ‘popular, aspirational form of individualism in post-war Britain…’ and that ‘(t)his individualism was not the result of Thatcher’ but fed into the rise of Thatcherism (Robinson et al 2017: 11, 13, 45-46.). Through the 70s identity formed around class and work had been decreasing and identity around consumption had increased. 

The counterculture of the 60s had been anti-war, anti-capitalist/consumerism and involved in struggles for equality and social justice (Frommer n.d: no pag.). The movement also included a concern for environmentalism and individual liberty (wikipedia n.; no pag.). However, Peter Doggett in the intriguing There’s A Riot Going On about 1960s counterculture, predominantly in the USA, also repeatedly makes the point that as the sixties proceeded and segued into the 70s the character of the counterculture changed from a collective struggle for peace and social justice to an individualised search for fulfillment and freedom citing causes such as transcendental meditation and identity politics; ‘personal transformation’ becoming ‘more important than collective activism…the movement would threaten to fragment into a million pieces, each living out its own psychodrama and pursuing its own form of liberation’…the personal became political until the politics dissolved and the personal became all that existed’ (Doggett 2007: 282, 283,387).

That deterioration in the counterculture from collectivism to individualism is something Robert lamented; “Those papers were actually having international circulations…Frendz had quite a wide circulation for an underground paper, so had International Times. They were also creating quite a stir at the time; there were court cases and the police were taking notice, they were raiding offices. It was good fun to be involved in all that, it was very much a key part of the underground movement… We are actually living in a period of very little collective activity. Obviously activities are going on, but they don’t seem to be collectively in any common root or any sort of common understanding. You have riots going on, you have wars going on, terrorism going on, there`s no sort of consciousness explosion of any kind that was taking place in the late Sixties & early Seventies. And obviously the demise of the underground magazines of that time is reflective of the fact that the whole thing declined” (Calvert n.d: no pag.).

Robert’s lyrics reflect the concerns of the earlier counterculture. In ‘Urban Guerrilla’, ‘Reefer Madness’,  ‘Hassan I Sahba’, ‘Damnation Alley’, ‘Days of the Underground’ and ‘Uncle Sam’s On Mars’ Robert references (anti) capitalism, moral panics, global energy politics, nuclear devastation, anti establishment struggle, imperialism and environmentalist concerns. 

Lucy Robinson presents Adam Ant’s adoption of various historic ‘hero’ personas against a backdrop of, and as a way into interrogating, the prominence of militaristic imagery and the construction of the military hero in national discourse in the 1980s citing the Falklands War and the Iran Embassy siege as events that enabled the reinforcing and retelling of heroic mythologies. She observes that ‘(s)oldier stories can be found everywhere in the 1980s; the press, news, films, videos, computer games, music, television fact and fiction, toys, clothes and material culture all became ways to tell soldiers’ stories’ before concluding that ‘(t)he warrior heroes of Thatcher’s Britain provided opportunities to talk through the experiences, memories and resonances of militarised culture’ (Robinson 2023: 58, 71).

Anderson defines the nation as an ‘imagined political community’, ‘imagined’ because it can never in reality be a community due to the number of people involved and also ‘it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship’ (Anderson 1991: 6-7).

In order to sustain a sense of ‘deep, horizontal comradeship’ despite the reality of ‘inequality and exploitation’ the institutions of the nation-state have to inculcate into the population a sense of national community through myths, symbols and rituals (Guibernau and Goldblatt 2000: 136-7).

The monumental spectacle of the Remembrance Sunday rituals at the Cenotaph, relayed to the nation via television, is an example of the use of ritual to create a sense of national identity and community, reproducing a ‘history of a united Britain upon which we draw on other occasions, such as at times of military action against other nations’ (Guibernau and Goldblatt 2000: 137).

It is an aspect of what Althusser terms ‘Ideological State Apparatus’ which includes cultural, media, religious and educational institutions and is used by governments to construct a sense of the nation and national identity that serves the interest of those in power (Althusser n.d: 17). 

Like the 1980s Britain in the 1950s, 60s and 70s was equally awash with militaristic imagery via television, films, books, comic books and toys. Growing up in these decades, perhaps especially  as a boy, was to grow up surrounded by historical militaristic imagery and the heroic warrior (including the film Lawrence of Arabia (released 1962) and numerous Biggles books, The Bridge on the River Kwai (film), The Dam Busters (film), Reach For the Sky (film), Colditz (TV), The World at War (TV), Garrison’s Gorillas (TV), The Battle of Britain (film), The Great Escape (film) and Action Man).

In a 1996 interview with Gerwers Jill Calvert comments in answer to his question, “Were there any other things like that? 

JC: Yes. One of his favourite novels was The Thirty Nine Steps which is kind of one man up against everybody else, the solitary…the solitary protagonist, which I think Robert saw himself as.

KG: Do you think he had a fascination for the character of the ‘hero’?

JC: Yes, absolutely, yes, the solitary hero. And that appears many, many times, in many, many different guises in his work” (J. Calvert and Gerwers 1996: 2).

Robert Calvert was born in 1945 and arrived in Britain as a young child in the late ‘40s, it is reasonable to assume that his experience from that point would have been one of exposure to the prevalence of this top down discourse of heroic imagery and its influence on concepts of masculinity. Robert went to school in both London and Margate and having finished school he joined the Air Training Corps, where he became a corporal, playing the trumpet in the 438 Squadron band (Bailes 2021: no pag.). Robert commented in interview, “(s)ince I was a young boy I’ve always wanted to be connected with aircrafts – ideally as an ‘ace’” (Calvert 1973: no pag). However these hopes of a career as a fighter pilot were thwarted by a defective ear (Banks 2020: 46).

As noted earlier Robinson comments that Adam Ant ‘often explained himself as the product of the heroic stories he had grown up hearing and watching…’, it is reasonable to assume (and Jill Calvert implies) that these may also have been the cultural resources Robert (at times) drew on in his lyrics and construction of his subsequent stage persona (Robinson 2023: 52). However, in an act of appropriation and detournement Robert subverted these images, filling them with meanings very different to the source material.

With the help of Nik Turner, Robert moved to Ladbroke Grove, the epicenter of the alternative scene in London (Banks 2020: 46). His immersion in its counterculture began, “When I moved to London I had an exhibition of environmental poetry at the Roundhouse ‘Better Place to Live’ exhibition. I got involved with the underground as soon as I came to London. I looked on myself as a kind of anti-literary establishment guerilla. I hated the weak impact of straight poetry, and realised that the only way to get through to people is through music. I began working for Friends writing fiction. I’d known Hawkwind before they even formed, and we shared some anti-establishment attitudes” (Calvert n.d: no pag.). Robert was publishing fiction in Friends by 1971/2 and his first appearance with Hawkwind was in May ‘71 opening their set with a recital of his poem ‘Co-Pilots of Spaceship Earth’ (Banks 2020: 46).

In a 1974 article by Hayman the author observes ‘Above all Calvert admires the autonomy of the hero, his aloofness. Hence, the Hero With A Wing; hence his admiration for the German expressionist playwright Bertolt Brecht, hence his admiration for Hamlet, and the need to re-use him in ‘The Ride And Fall Of Luigi Brillantino’, the project which follows ‘Captain Lockheed’’. Later in the article Calvert comments ‘“One thing that  has been missing from almost every form of fiction,” he says, countering a suggestion that Bruce Lee was a very real popular hero, “the hero seems to have been lacking. I think the actions of a hero more or less sums up the ideals of his race. They are the expression of the ideals of his race”’ (Hayman 1974: no pag).

This ties up with a comment by Robinson on H. Jones’ death in the Falklands conflict that ‘Jones’s death helped pull the nation into a shared story – after all, having shared heroes to mourn is key to the way in which a nation imagines itself’ (Robinson 2023: 69). Although phrased differently Calvert and Robinson seem to imply that a ‘national hero’ can (be constructed to) mythically represent a nation to itself, to create a sense of ‘imagined community’ and to personify how a ‘nation imagines itself’. 

After taking a break from Hawkwind Robert rejoined in 1975 as main lyric writer and lead vocalist, by 1976 he had adopted the ‘Biggles in Arabia’ stage persona constructed from recognisable historic sources. Talking about the song ‘Steppenwolf’ and the main character from the book, Harry Haller, he comments “The hero figure is something I am fascinated in, mostly in sending up” (Calvert n.d; no pag.).

This would tie up with, and give an additional angle to both Hayman’s and Jill’s comments that Robert had a fascination with the figure of the lone hero. Robert’s enthusiasm for the collectivism of the 60s counterculture and his comment that “The hero figure is something I am fascinated in, mostly in sending up” forces a reappraisal of his heroic personas of 1976-77 and ‘guerilla chic’ of ‘78 as acts of appropriation and detournement, the adoption and subversion of images.

Appropriation and detournement is the art strategy of subversion, generally the turning of images against the powerful. In this strategy images are taken from pre existing sources but through re contextualising or juxtapositioning their meaning is changed. It was a technique used by both the Lettrists and the Situationists in the 1950s/60s and later used by the punk movement in the 1970s and culture jamming in the 80s (wikipedia n.d; no pag.).

Robert constructed his composite, militarised persona from recognisable historic imagery that had previously been deployed in top down discourse by the state and media to perpetuate nationalist myths and remembrances and ideas of the ‘imagined community’ that served the interests of the powerful. Robert would have been surrounded by these images growing up in Britain in the 50s and 60s. It may be that the legacy of that experience plus his time in the RAF cadets and his own interest in literature gave him the abiding fascination with the hero figure that Hayman and Jill refer to above. However, this is where it gets really interesting. Robert’s time in the counterculture had provided him with the cultural resources to construct a self and view of the world that was progressive, left leaning, anti establishment, opposed to oppression and exploitation and collectivist, possibly the reason for his desire to subvert or ‘sent up’ the hero figure. In a sophisticated act of appropriation and detournement he managed to bring these two aspects together in his performance art as the ‘Biggles of Arabia’ persona; a composite figure visually constructed from historic images of hegemonic masculinity but who was actively engaged in propagating a world view that was in opposition to the capitalist system and the militarist nation state. In an audacious act he took the mythic hero of nation state propaganda and filled it with radical content!

Robert commented on his role “Mine’s an acting job really, I have to embody what the music’s about, which is, I suppose, heroic fantasy really” (Calvert n.d: no pag.) He managed to do that by drawing on, and subverting, pre existing imagery; “sending up” the heroic figure by filling it with counter cultural content.

For the 1978 Hawklords tour Robert tweaked the militarised front man persona. When the tour started the band ‘“adopted the uniform look that Barney Bubbles had designed to heighten the industrial tone of the set” recalls Swindells. “We had paint splattered jumpsuits, a la Jackson Pollock, but we soon dumped that. It was just daft”’ (Abrahams 2017: 130). From photos in Joe Banks Hawkwind: Days of the Underground. Radical Escapism in the Age of Paranoia it would appear that Robert customised the ‘uniform’ with his trademark goggles and scarf (Banks 2020: 274-5). However, as Swindells recounted the band ‘dumped’ that look with Robert moving on to the urban ‘guerilla chic’ look referred to above of utilitarian militarised clothing, beret and bandolier. This overtly revolutionary persona was more apt for the material than the previous figure as the set and concepts around the 25 Years On project were very much about classed experience/struggle and industrialisation, the set including; ‘Automoton’, ‘25 Years’, ‘High Rise’, ‘The Age of the Micro Man’ and ‘Urban Guerrilla’. 

Conclusion.

Drawing on interviews and reviews, this article has, through the use of social sciences and art history concepts, examined an aspect of Robert Calvert’s art, his construction and performance of the ‘Biggles of Arabia’ persona. The article has attempted to place this persona in a social historical context following on from Lucy Robinson’s chapter on Adam Ant. It may be that there are other ways of approaching and explaining this persona that are equally valid, for instance Joe Banks wonders whether an illustration by Mal Dean of Jerry Cornelius from New Worlds may have been the source material drawn on by Robert for the persona (Banks 2020: 337). This is a valid question, especially in light of the similarity between the image and Robert’s appearance on the Marc Bolan Show in 1977. However, these two explanations are not incompatible but complimentary if the illustration is seen as an additional resource utilised by Robert.

Following on from Lucy Robinson’s chapter on Adam Ant in Now That’s What I Call A History Of The 1980s, this article has argued that in his role as front man for Hawkwind, Robert Calvert’s adoption of  militarised imagery, the famous ‘cross between Biggles and Lawrence of Arabia’ persona, was a remarkable example of the artistic technique of appropriation and detournement. Robert took hero images of hegemonic masculinity that had previously served the interests of the nation state and the powerful and, having created a composite but recognisable figure, filled it with radical, progressive content through his lyrics and vocals. As Hawkwind segued into Hawklords 25 Years On tour in 1978 Robert adapted the persona to fit the new set, adopting a more revolutionary guerrilla look to compliment the material.

Image from video of ’25 Years’ on Days of the Underground boxed set, Atomhenge 2023. 

 

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