It’s December 1972 and the dawn of space rock has broken all over England. In the third year of Hawkwind’s existence, the release of their live double album The Space Ritual Alive In Liverpool And London, best known as Space Ritual, would cement their status as fathers of the genre.
Songwriter and guitarist Dave Brock formed the band in 1969 and is today the only remaining original member, but the early line-up captured on Space Ritual is the one that most endures in the popular imagination. In addition to Brock, there’s Nik Turner on saxophone and flute, bassist Lemmy Kilmister, drummer Simon King, Michael Davies (Dik Mik) and Del Dettmar both contributing electronics, and spoken-word vocals by the poet Robert Calvert. Space Ritual was born out of the tour they undertook to promote ’72’s Doremi Fasol Latido, with an audio-visual cosmic spectacle that included dancing by de facto Hawkwind member Stasia and others, a stage set by artist Barney Bubbles and an elaborate light show by Liquid Len.
All of this was meant to represent themes of space travellers moving through the cosmos in suspended animation enmeshed with the music of the spheres, a philosophical concept that views the mathematical proportions in the movements of celestial objects as a mode of music. Heady stuff for a bunch of folks who presented as burnouts.
Three sets were recorded to tape by the Pye Records mobile unit: Liverpool Stadium on December 22, 1972; the Locarno in Sunderland on December 23; and Brixton Sundown on December 30. None of these venues are operating right now, lending an additional dimension of historical preservation to these recordings. The original double album combines tracks from Liverpool and Brixton, somehow capturing a great deal of the warped cosmic wonder and sci-fi psychedelia that must have been truly phenomenal to witness in person.
Now Cherry Red, the label that’s been releasing and reissuing new and archival Hawkwind material since 2008, is celebrating the album’s 50th anniversary with a brand new 11CD definitive set. It includes a new remaster from the original tapes, new mixes of all three complete concerts recorded during the tour (two nights of which have never been released in full before) from the original masters, a new stereo remix and a new 5.1 Surround Sound mix.
In true Hawkwind fashion, a sci-fi sensation of travelling back in time persists when listening to these sets, enhanced by Tayler’s improved mixing; the sound is much crisper and the vocals clearer than ever. But what really stands out with the inclusion of the three concerts in full is how well-rehearsed they must have been; one could easily substitute any of the three versions into the original selections. Careful listeners will have plenty to pick apart between the three sets, but it’s remarkable how similar the execution is while still allowing for singular expressions of the extended jams. It’s the work of a band in peak form. Lemmy and King are propulsive forces alongside Brock’s warped guitar freakouts, Dik Mik and Dettmar’s electronic excursions, and Turner’s galactic sax.
“Brainstorm”, hypnotic and hard-driving, is a showcase for Turner’s saxophone, some unholy blend of jazz and proto-metal turned into a psychedelic freakout. The Sunderland and Brixton versions are both a couple of minutes longer than Liverpool’s, affording the band space to get a bit more primal, warped vocals straining at the edges of consciousness as the sax and guitar circle around each other in a cosmic duel. The rhythm section keeps the affair only as grounded as it needs to be – the point, after all, is the takeoff. “Born To Go” is another long jammer and one of the few new songs performed in these sets. Closing with a muscular bass solo from Lemmy, the tune chugs along into seeming infinity as the band slows to a crawl, right before “Down Through the Night”, an originally acoustic Brock-led tune that’s beautifully expanded into an electric experience here.
The psychedelic jazz rock banger “You Shouldn’t Do That” is of particular note; it doesn’t appear on the original Space Ritual though it has been included in reissues throughout the years. The song’s title makes for a perfectly paranoid rhythmic chant, while the music takes us on a journey that is as close as one can get to a sonic experience of a rocket ship taking flight. The Liverpool version is longer and the guitar chugs more, while the Brixton version doubles down on the reverb-laden spaciness of it all. Both revel in the intensity of the build-up.
This is all to say nothing of the 68-page illustrated booklet where the crafty nerdiness of sci-fi and inherent sexiness of rock’n’roll meet. These highly charged pleasures are expounded upon in mellifluous, merciless style by the writer Robert Godwin, known for his work on rock music and spaceflight, and of course a natural authority on Hawkwind. Littered with lyrics and archival photos, the deep-dive history of the band and a reproduction of the rare Space Ritual poster format tour programme alongside the new mixes and full concerts solidify this boxset as the definitive experience of Hawkwind’s Space Ritual.