Robert Calvert, one of the most intelligent songwriters in the progressive-rock field, displayed in both his recorded and published work an informed and compassionate concern for the world around him. During the course of a brilliant though erratic career, he recorded five solo albums, published two volumes of poetry, penned a novel and five plays, and gave several performances, all the while aiming to be a “true space-age oral poet,” as quoted by Martin Haggerty in Rock: The Rough Guide. Whether singing with a band such as Hawkwind or performing his own plays and cabaret, Calvert always gave the impression of immense talent and ferocious energy in spite of his lean physical stature. Although a whirlwind performer, Calvert was also known as a man of great humor, tolerance, and open-heartedness, characteristics that were revealed in his work. Calvert’s records, publications, and performances consistently dealt with social and environmental issues.
Born in 1945 in Pretoria, South Africa, to English parents, Calvert spent his infancy overseas before returning to Great Britain with his parents in 1947. His father, who worked in the building trade, settled his family in Margate, a borough of southeast England near Canterbury. As a child, Calvert dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot with the Royal Air Force, a fascination that stuck throughout his life. However, after a physical examination revealed a defective eardrum, Calvert’s flying ambitions were put to rest. Instead, he decided to train and work as a building surveyor before his long-held literary aspirations started to take over. Sitting in churchyards pondering the works of John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Dylan Thomas, among others, Calvert realized that poetry, literature, drama, and music were his true calling.
Consequently, Calvert set out to further his artistic development, joining Street DaDa Nihilismus, a provoking street theater group, and founding two comedy and entertainment bands in the same vein as the British art-school outfit Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. In the late-1960s, Calvert moved to London, the heart of the psychedelic subculture and the hippie movement, where he gave his first exhibition of environmental poetry entitled “Better Place to Live.” Upon his arrival, the young writer also became an active member of the underground scene and started writing for Friendz, a leading underground magazine. “I looked on myself as a kind of anti-literary guerilla,” Calvert stated in an online biography. “I hated the weak impact of straight poetry, and realized that the only way to get through to people is through music… I still don’t like iambic pentameters. I am more interested in what a poem can do—what a piece of music is good for.”
Meanwhile, he also met “New Wave” science fiction writer Michael Moorcock, who became a lifelong friend. Moorcock also published the influential New Worlds magazine and printed several of Calvert’s poems. But while inspired by the work of Moorcock and other science fiction writers, Calvert nevertheless developed a style all his own.
In 1970 at a London café, Calvert met guitarist Dave Brock, the leader of the band Hawkwind, one of the foremost psychedelic bands of the time. That year Calvert joined the group as a peripheral member and resident poet, guesting in their stage act and reciting poems and dramatic monologues. In sharp contrast to the stereotypical psychedelic performer, Calvert, with his short, cropped hair style, recited his words directly to the audience, delivering his poems with such force that he often felt totally exhausted after a concert.
Calvert’s photograph appeared on the cover of Hawkwind’s 1971 album In Search of Space, and he also co-wrote with Brock the group’s million-selling 1972 hit “Silver Machine,” although Calvert’s original vocals were replaced by Hawkwind bassist and future Motōr-head founder Lemmy Kilminster. For Hawkwind’s next single, a portrait of a terrorist entitled “Urban Guerilla,” Calvert’s vocals did remain intact, but an Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.) bombing in London led to the single’s swift deletion. Nonetheless, the success of “Silver Machine” enabled Hawkwind, accompanied by Calvert, to take their “Space Ritual” show on an extended tour. These performances yielded the 1973
For the Record…
Born in 1945 in Pretoria, South Africa; died on August 14, 1988, in Margate, England; son of English parents, father worked in the building trade; married three times; four children.
Moved to London, gave his first exhibition of environmental poetry entitled “Better Place to Live,” late-1960s; joined the psychedelic group Hawkwind as a peripheral member and resident poet, 1970-73; released debut solo album Captain Lockheed & the Starfighters, 1974; released Lucky Leif and the Long-ships, performed with Hawkwind at the Reading Rock Festival, 1975; Calvert’s play The Stars that Play; with Laughing Sam’s Dice, debuted in London, 1976; published his first volume of poetry, Centigrade 232, briefly reunited and toured with Hawkwind, 1977; recorded and toured with Dave Brock as the Hawklords, 1978; toured with his “Krankschaft Cabaret,” and wrote, directed, and performed electronic musical The Kid from Silicon Gulch, 1980-81; published novel Hype, as well as a straight-forward rock album by the same name, 1982; released Freq, made several guest appearances with Hawkwind, 1984; released album Test Tube Conceived and debuted play Test Tube Baby of Mine, 1986; published final book of poetry, The Earth Ritual, 1987.
concert set Space Ritual Alive, featuring such Calvert contributions as “Sonic Attack,” “In the Egg,” and “Wage War.” But soon after the record’s release, and just before Hawkwind’s first United States tour, Calvert left the band in order to start a solo career.
In 1974, Calvert released his first album, Captain Lockheed & the Starfighters. Described as a cross between a rock concept album and a Monty Python-like radio program, Captain Lockheed & the Starfighters addressed the deathtrap aircraft used in the modern German air force which cost the lives of numerous pilots. Many of Calvert’s colleagues played on the album, including Brian Eno, Arthur Brown, Vivian Stan-shall, and Traffic’s Jim Capaldi. Winning instant critical acclaim, Captain Lockheed & the Starfighters thrust Calvert into the limelight. His 1975 follow-up album, Lucky Leif and the Longships, a lighter effort about the Vikings’ discovery of America, won favorable reviews as well. Produced by Eno, the album combined a myriad of different musical styles, such as rock music, word experiments, electronic collages, country, and even Beach Boys pop parodies, illustrating Calvert’s songwriting versatility.
After rejoining Hawkwind briefly to appear at the 1975 Reading Rock Festival, Calvert turned his energies to poetry and the theater. In 1976, his play, The Stars that Play with Laughing Sam’s Dice, a drama about the life of Jimi Hendrix before he started his career in rock music, debuted in London. Then in 1977, he published his first volume of poetry, Centigrade 232, a collection that showed Calvert’s ability to combine futuristic themes with his own personal views. In the meantime, Calvert reunited with Hawkwind as a vocalist/lyricist and appeared on the band’s 1977 album Quark, Strangeness and Charm. Here, Calvert provided Hawkwind’s music with an intellectual boost, once again calling attention to his songwriting talents.
Calvert remained with the group for a European tour, but afterward, Hawkwind split for a time and Calvert and Brock formed their own short-lived group called the Hawklords. They recorded one album together, 25 Years On, in 1978. While retaining the Hawkwind idiosyncratic style, the album also allowed more room for Calvert’s imagination. After the album’s release, the Hawklords toured extensively, then broke up at the end of 1978. Hawkwind subsequently regrouped in January of 1979. Returning to his work as a solo performer, Calvert toured in 1980 through 1981 with his “Krank-schaft Cabaret,” a collage of poems, songs, and sketches, and wrote, directed, and performed an electronic musical entitled The Kid from Silicon Gulch, a detective story about computer hackers.
At the same time, Calvert had also been writing his first novel, Hype, which he published in 1982. A cynical portrayal of a fictional rock star named Tom Mahler, the novel was accompanied that same year by an album of the same name. Mostly a straight-forward rock album, Hype not only showed Calvert at his most accessible, but also revealed a maturing songwriting talent. Both the album and novel went largely unnoticed.
For the remainder of his career, Calvert moved further away from rock, drifting progressively closer toward electronic music and futurist minimalism. In 1983, Calvert and a band called Inner City Unit recorded together under the name The Imperial Pompadours. They released Ersatz, a grim satire on Hitler and the Third Reich. The following year, he released the creditable Freq, a sparse concept album dealing with automation in the workplace, industrial decline, unemployment, and the overall mechanization of man. Interspersed with sound footage from the 1984-85 miners’ strike, an event that threw Great Britain into turmoil, Freq won the approval of both loyal fans and critics, but remained too intense for the mainstream.
During 1984, Calvert also made several guest appearances with Hawkwind, then returned to his preoccupation with new technologies, in particular genetics, for the release of Test Tube Conceived in 1986. Considered his most disciplined album, Test Tube Conceived centered on the development, consequences, and manifestations of new scientific and technological discoveries, with Calvert in a futurist tone examining gene manipulation, in vitro fertilization, government surveillance, computer hacking, and vivisection. The album also gave rise to Calvert’s next play, Test Tube Baby of Mine, a black comedy about two geneticists whose experiments take a turn for the worse. Co-directed by Calvert as well, the play opened in London, then moved on for performances in New York City.
In 1987, Calvert published his last book of poetry, The Earth Ritual. Then on August 14, 1988, Calvert died following a heart attack at his home in Margate, England. At the time, he was preparing for a new album and a tour with his new band called The Starfighters, planned to work again with Hawkwind, and was about to collaborate with Eno on a forthcoming solo album. Calvert is survived by his third wife and four children. In memory of their longtime friend, the members of Hawkwind performed a benefit concert a few months after Calvert’s death to honor his family.
Captain Lockheed & the Starfighters, United Artists, 1974.
Lucky Leif and the Longships, United Artists, 1975.
Hype, See For Miles, 1982.
Freq, Flicknife, 1984.
Test Tube Conceived, Demi-Monde, 1986.
The Stars that Play with Laughing Sam’s Dice (play), 1976.
Centigrade 232 (poetry collection), 1977.
Hype (novel), 1982.
Test Tube Baby of Mine (play), 1986.
The Earth Ritual (poetry collection), 1987.
Buckley, Jonathan and others, editors., Rock: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 1999.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 28, 2000).
“Biography of Robert Calvert,” http://www.thing.org/projekte/future/calbio.htm (June 28, 2000).
Official Hawkwind Website, http://www.hawkwind.com (June 28, 2000).
“Robert Calvert,” http://www.demimonde.co.uk/rcalbio2.htm (June 28, 2000).
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