of the week

Silver Machine

Although probably impossible to verify, Hawkwind claim that their landmark single, Silver Machine is the only top three single ever recorded entirely on LSD. Hawkwind were Robert Calvert – vocals, Dave Brock – guitar & vocals, Nik Turner (saxophone & flute) Lemmy (Ian Kilmister) (bass guitar & vocals), Dik Mik aka Michael Davies and Del Dettmar (Synthesizers) and Simon King on drums.

They were formed in 1967 and originally called Famous Cure, Dave Brock tells more, “Famous Cure was a band I had in 1967. We toured Holland in a psychedelic circus so we were travelling around in caravans. But all that fell apart and I went back to England and then formed Hawkwind. It was initially called Group X because we didn’t have a title. We then called it Hawkwind Zoo and then our manager said, ‘drop the Zoo bit’ and so we were called Hawkwind. That’s how that came about.”

In 1970, London was experiencing a serious comedown with Brian Jones, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix all having recently passed away and British rock was at a crossroads torn between prog-rock and the space-age stomp of glam and then along came Hawkwind. Dave Brock explains how their best known song came about, “Silver Machine was recorded at The Greasy Truckers Ball at the Roundhouse in Camden on a Sunday night in February 1972. “During the afternoon we all took LSD in the dressing room. As we were sitting there, someone said it was time to get on stage. We were all completely off our heads, but once we got started it was OK. We’d done so many gigs by then, it was easy. When we listened back to the tapes, we realised Bob Calvert’s vocals didn’t sound right, so we went into Morgan Studios to finish it off. Robert Calvert wrote the words and put them to a riff I’d come up with when I was living in Putney. He was one of the earliest alternative types, heavily into science fiction, a real free-thinker. Everyone thinks Silver Machine is some sort of sci-fi epic, but in actual fact it was a send-up – it was about a bicycle. It was inspired by the Alfred Jarry essay How to Construct a Time Machine which Calvert interpreted as a description of how to build a bicycle, he was very good at conjuring up images which would stick in your head. A lot of notable French intellectuals formed an academy around the basic idea of coming up with theories to explain the exceptions to the Laws of the Universe, people like Ionesco the playwright. The College of metaphysics. I thought it was a great idea for a song. At that time there were a lot of songs about space travel, and it was the time when NASA was actually, really doing it. They’d put a man on the moon and were planning to put parking lots and hamburger stalls and everything up there. I thought that it was about time to come up with a song that actually sent this all.”

The writing credit on the single is Bob Calvert and someone who claims to be Sylvia MacManus. It was often speculated that it was something of a pseudonym for the famous wrestler Mick McManus. I even read somewhere that it was Elvis Costello’s father, who was a musician, and whose real name was McManus but all are completely wrong. She was Dave Brock’s then wife Sylvia, whose maiden name was Macmanus which Dave used for the credits in order to put pressure on his publishing company to improve his deal. Using non-de plume’s seemed to be the order of the day, if you look at the producer credit; it says Dr Technical, which was Dave Brock’s alias.

Robert Calvert sang the lead vocal on the original live recording. However, the vocals were considered too weak for the single release so they were re-recorded in the studio. Calvert, who suffered from bi-polar disorder, had been sectioned at the time so was unavailable to attempt another version. Dave said, “His vocal was fucking hopeless, but he never realised it. That’s how mad he was. It sounded like Captain Kirk reading Blowing in the Wind. They tried everybody singing it except me. Then, as a last shot, someone said try Lemmy. It was late one evening and we’d all cleared off, Lemmy decided he’d do it and when we came back he’d put his vocal on it, it sounded fine, so that was that.  Lemmy just had the best voice for it. Of course, Bob was not pleased when he found out.”

The psychedelic space sounding intro was recorded on a VSC3 synthesiser which is a Voltage Controlled Studio with 3 oscillators. Hawkwind were one of the first to use this machine but became more commonly used by Brian Eno, Jean Michel Jarre, The Alan Parsons Project and The Who among others.

Simon King, the drummer recalled what happened on that day at the Greasy Truckers, “It was about my third gig, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I hadn’t done any rehearsals and I thought that Silver Machine was a Chuck Berry number, really!”

When it came to Top of the Pops, they didn’t feel comfortable. They had done very little television but now the single was in the chart an appearance was required. They felt ill at ease at the prospect of miming a performance in front of a studio audience who didn’t represent their following, so a compromise was reached with the BBC recording the band performing live at Dunstable Civic Hall on 7 July 1972, this clip being shown with the single version dubbed over it.

They followed it up with Urban Guerrilla which only reached number 39 and the next run of singles, Psychedelic Warlords, Kings of Speed, Kerb Crawler and Back on the Streets all failed to make an impact. They had one further hit which was a live version of Shot Down In The Night which peaked at number 59 in July 1980, just before Cream’s Ginger Baker very briefly joined the band.

Lemmy was sacked in the spring of 1975, Dave Brock recalled what happened, “Well, we’d be on tour and Lemmy was into taking speed back then and unfortunately, if you’re up for a few days you usually fall asleep for a long time afterwards. So Lemmy was always late, we’d be leaving the hotel for the next gig and there’s no Lemmy and this habit used to piss everybody off. When we crossed the Canadian border, Lemmy was asleep and they decided to search him. Our manager had said ‘make sure you don’t have anything on you’ and of course he got pulled at the border. We had this gig in Toronto we had to do the next day and it didn’t look like Lemmy was going to be allowed into Canada. We had to get Paul Rudolph who used to play in a band called Pink Fairies to fly out and replace Lemmy.” In the summer of the same year Lemmy formed Motörhead and are still going to this day albeit as a trio.

Calvert died of a heart attack in 1988 aged just 44. Dave Brock is the only remaining member of Hawkwind who still tour with a line up of Tim Blake, Richard Chadwick, Mr Dibs & Niall Hone. In 2012 they released their 25th album called Onward.

Not too many cover versions have appeared of Silver Machine, but a couple to note are James Last who performed a version on his Non Stop Dancing 1973 album and William Shatner with Carmine Appice and Wayne Kramer covered the song on his 2011 album Seeking Major Tom.