Today’s installment of Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands finds technological change as a core recurring concept, in terms of how we acquire information about musical artists, how we purchase (or rent, or steal) and listen to music, how we make friends over long distances, and how we share our thoughts and opinions about the artists we love. There are varying levels of personal discomfort for me in this narrative, because I’m not at all a fan of needless technological change, especially when markets or events force me to abandon technology which meets my needs, which I’m good at using, and which is stable, tested and mature. I’m not a Luddite, but I like what I like, and I hate change for change’s sake. Or for the sake of corporate profit and/or reduced customer service and experience. Though I know in hindsight that if I’d not been pushed out of my technological comfort zones at various points of time, most of the events in today’s narrative wouldn’t have happened at all. But still . . . Harrumph!
That obligatory grumbling done, let’s open this narrative with a “now vs then” reflection on how we acquire information about musical artists. Today, we all essentially carry The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy around with us everywhere, and we can get instant, mostly-accurate answers and information about absolutely anything or anybody that piques our curiosity, and listen to it, right now. We truly control the gain, on everything. (See this post for related thoughts on Douglas Adams’ prescient work and how it fits into this narrative). But way back when I was a little music geek, you didn’t determine the timing or get to specify the details of the content you received about artists both loved and emergent. You waited a week or a month until the next installment of your favorite music magazine came out, and you read what they decided to give you, whether it was what you liked or wanted, or not. You could also read previews and reviews in the local newspaper about whatever musical artists happened to be coming to or leaving your town (all beyond your control), or you could go to the library or book store and read what their librarians and buyers decided to shelve on your behalf. I did all of those things. A lot.
I had mentioned Pete Frame’s Rock Family Trees in the Jethro Tull installment of this series. It was through those beautiful, informative pieces of data presentation that I first became aware of English space-rock pioneers Hawkwind in the latter half of the ’70s, though I do not recall precisely in what year that happened. I do, though, precisely recall how it happened when I was sitting on the floor of a mall book store below the “Music Geeks” shelf and first encountered the elaborate and knotted Hawkwind Family Tree. (They were only about a decade old at the time, and are still a going concern with frequent personnel changes, so their modern family tree would be really complex and intense).
I learned that singer-guitarist and former blues busker Dave Brock was (and remains) the only constant in the group’s history, while a rapid procession of players filled out the remainder of a typical rock band configuration: bass (most famously Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister, who went on to found and lead Motörhead until his death), drum and/or second guitar roles. But then there were all sorts of weird other things in the family tree too. Saxophone and flute, well, yeah, that made sense to a Jethro Tull fan. Second drummer? Alright, the Grateful Dead did that, I get it. But also violin? Hmmm. And what are those guys playing “audio generators” doing? And, wait, there’s a member of the group (Stacia) who is credited only as “Dancer?” How did that work? And why?
That low-technology information source filled me with a need to hear this Hawkwind bunch, but then came the issue of low-technology musical distribution. The once deeply-underground Hawks had a big U.K. hit with the Lemmy-sung “Silver Machine” in 1972, which also charted in various other European spaces, so they were a known, going concern on their home continent. (There’s a great live video of “Silver Machine” here, featuring Stacia in action, though unusually for the time, and probably for the television cameras’ sake, she keeps her clothes on). Unfortunately, “Silver Machine” didn’t translate as a hit across the big pond, and Hawkwind weren’t well enough known in the U.S. when I discovered them to have much of a presence in the mall record store racks available to me in my home community. I could not yet drive to other communities to seek them out, I didn’t have the money to pay for some of the expensive imports that I did find along they way, and there was no easy infrastructure for affordably custom-ordering such specialties. Phooey.
After poking around fruitlessly for some time, I did eventually find an affordable used vinyl copy of their live magnum opus Space Ritual (1973), which was probably the best possible introduction to them, and remains one of their most beloved albums. I picked up a few more of their records along the way in the years ahead when I could. Good stuff. Crunchy. Spacy. Noisy. Deep. That incomplete, yet pleasing, assortment of Hawkwind vinyl was still in my collection and still spun fairly regularly when another technological transition took place, this time in how I listened to my music.
Compact Discs had emerged during the latter part of my time at the Naval Academy, during the full flushes (heh heh heh) of my Butthole Surfers phase. The first one I heard was Pink Floyd’s The Wall at high volume in an audiophile friend’s room and it was awesome, no denying that. But by that time I had a collection of about 2,000 records and big carrying cases full of cassette tapes, and I really did not want to re-purchase everything in a new format. I knew that once I switched to CDs and embraced their (seeming) convenience, sound quality and durability, it was going to render my record collection obsolete, so I resisted their charms for a long, long time.
Marcia finally facilitated the end of that era when she gave me my first CD player for Christmas in 1989. The very first silver disc that I purchased soon thereafter was Hawkwind’s Masters of the Universe, a compilation album of six choice long cuts from 1971 to 1974. It was awesome, no denying that. The synths and swirls and slams and strums and swooshes and solos all sounded great and as clear as such mucky, murky music could seemingly be presented. But then, as predicted and expected, my CD collection grew rapidly, primarily as a result of trading off all my records (all of them!) for store credit which I immediately used to buy more shiny silver discs, including both new (to me) Hawkwind releases and re-purchases of scratchy old vinyl favorites in pristine, eternal (so we thought) digital formats. Eventually my CD collection swelled into the thousands, and we know how that chapter ends too, don’t we? (If interested, here’s an article about the full range of my raging against the dying of my music-listening technology over the years. I’m just touching the tip of the iceberg here today).
We now step forward another couple of years to the biggest of the technological game-changers: the emergence of the Internet. I worked at a Naval nuclear research and training facility in Idaho from 1989 to 1991, and one of my engineering colleagues there was regularly using something called “CompuServe” on his office computer to communicate with and access information from what I first assumed was a small collection of like-minded nerds, but which I later learned was actually a passionate, swarming Army of Nerds, proselytizing their technological gospel with missionary fervor and zeal. My work colleague and I used CompuServe resources together on a couple of arcane projects, so I gained some sense of its utility for work purposes, but not enough to make me want to bring it home.
After we had moved to Upstate New York in ’91, one of my long-time Naval Academy roommates (a senior officer in that Nerd Army, for sure) politely insisted that I get CompuServe on my own home computer so that we could communicate with each other more readily and regularly. I wasn’t sure what was wrong with the phone and the post office for those needs, but whatever, he was persistent, so at some point I agreed to dabble in his nerdy sandbox with him. First, though, I had to actually get a home computer, so that took a little time. I think I finally tapped into the internet pipes from home for the first time in spring or early summer of 1993 and, of course, it was transformative. Duh.
I quickly found my first online home in the RockNet forum on CompuServe, where I romped and stomped for a while, happy, connected, and entertained. In 1995, I left CompuServe and set out on my own to homestead the newly-opened World Wide Web, launching the very first incarnation of the site you’re reading now, with able technical assistance again from my ex-roommate, who was by that time was apparently a Lieutenant General in the Nerd Army. Before I left CompuServe, I had established some great, long-term friendships in the RockNet community, including a pair of English musicians who directly contributed to Hawkwind rising to my Favorite Band status for several years, and also to my longest-running claim to Internet notoriety.
Dead Fred (born Phillip Reeves) had been a member of Hawkwind in the mid-’80s before leaving with sax player and vocalist Nik Turner (a founding Hawk, though a divisive figure in the band’s long historic arc) to form the outstanding Inner City Unit. Guitar and synth player Steve Pond later joined ICU and contributed the glam-tastic crunch and rhythmic swing to what I consider to be their very best work. Fred and Steve then went on to play with the lunatic (literally) former Hawkwind vocalist Robert Calvert until his untimely death in 1988. The pair worked together on and off in the years that followed, issuing a variety of rewarding albums and singles under various names and with various other collaborators. Fred rejoined Hawkwind from 2012 to 2016, and Steve still fronts the outstanding Krankschaft, who I most highly commend for your attention and pleasure.
There was lots of Hawkwind-related discussion involving Steve, Fred, me and many other Hawkfans in that RockNet community, along with a healthy and helpful bit of tape and CD trading. At some point in some 1994 conversation between Steve and I, in a stab at onomatopoeia, one or the other of us described the lock-step grinding guitar figures that anchored some of Hawkwind’s most scintillating flights of fancy as making a sound like “BLANGA BLANGA BLANGA BLANGA BLANGA.” We eventually started using the word “BLANGA” as a short-form description of the best qualities of Hawkwind’s music, and along with another RockNet chum named Dave Rice, we started compiling rankings of various Hawkwind albums based on their BLANGA scores, rating them on a scale from 0 to 10. To support that effort, I had to fill in the blanks in my own Hawkwind collection, and having transportation, global communication and more money available to me than had been the case in my early Hawkwind-collecting days, I was able to score their entire extant studio and official live album catalogs on CD’s or tapes in short order. Hey presto, new favorite band!
Steve and Dave were both very technically adept with the online thingies, and at some point in 1995, the three of us agreed to craft an interactive version of our unofficial Hawkwind BLANGA Guide and put it out there on the World Wide Web for others to gawp at. I wrote the copy and assigned the ratings, then Dave worked his coding magic, and Steve did what needed to be done to host it on his Doremi website, named after the Hawks’ masterful Doremi Fasol Latido album. Much to our collective surprise, the BLANGA Guide quickly became an improbably lively element of the online Hawkwind experience. It still lives on there at Steve’s Doremi to this very day, with one major sprucing and updating completed in 2010, some 15-plus years after the original version went online. It could probably stand another at some point soon, since the Hawks have issued a lot of new music over the past decade.
The word “BLANGA” has widely propagated among the Hawkwind community and beyond since then, to the point where I have heard band members using it in interviews, have been challenged by former band members about low BLANGA scores given to discs they played on, and have seen tape traders rating various shows based on the quality of BLANGA therein. Other bands and their fans have adopted the term as well, e.g. American space-rockers F/i, who titled their 2005 album Blanga, and filled it with songs like “In the Garden of Blanga,” “Blanga’s Transformation,” “An Extremely Lovely Girl Dreams of Blanga,” and “Grandfather Blanga and his Band Light it Up.”
It’s weirdly gratifying to have influenced people that way, without (m)any of them having any idea that the word “BLANGA” wasn’t something that just emerged spontaneously from the ether, but rather has a specific, definable birth-place and pedigree. It was my word and it was Steve’s word first, but it has since flown away and taken on a life of its own, with meaning to countless people who we have never and will never meet. How cool is that? Pretty darn cool, I say. We invented a word!
Hawkwind celebrated their 50th anniversary in late 2019, and are still trucking on, still prolific in the studio and onstage, and still delivering the BLANGA, along with a wide variety of other styles and textures they’ve accumulated over the years. I still buy all of their studio albums, and still mostly enjoy the experience, sometimes more than others. That meant I had a lot of material to cull and choose from when it came to posting my ten favorite cuts from Captain Brock and his (many) colleagues, but in the end, I’m happy with the roster presented below. Space is deep, man. Hawkwind said so.
#10. “We Took the Wrong Step Years Ago,” from In Search Of Space (1971)
#9. “Urban Guerilla,” from “Urban Guerilla” / “Brainbox Pollution” Single (1973)
#8. “Assault and Battery/The Golden Void,” from Warrior on the Edge of Time (1975)
#7. “Spirit of the Age,” from Quark, Strangeness and Charm (1977)
#6. “Hurry On Sundown,” from Hawkwind (1970)
#5. “The War I Survived,” from The Xenon Codex (1988)
#4. “Space Is Deep,” from Doremi Fasol Latido (1972)
#3. “Hassan I Sahba,” from Quark, Strangeness and Charm (1977)
#2. “Right to Decide,” from Electric Tepee (1992)
#1. “The Psychedelic Warlords (Disappear in Smoke),” from Hall of the Mountain Grill (1974)
Note #1: Click Here for an after-the-fact summary of this series, with a convenient listing of links for all articles contained within it.
Note #2: For those who stream your music, Marcia has created a Spotify playlist with all of the songs discussed in this series. Note that the browser embed link below is limited to 100 preview songs. We have confirmed that all 120 songs included in the series are available when you open the playlist in the Spotify app.