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Thursday 5 January 2017

The Story of Sonic Assassins; the band that nearly became the new Hawkwind.

Early autumn 1977.
I was not a big Hawkwind fan at the time but had got to know Dave Brock and Bob Calvert because they lived fairly close to me in rural North Devon, particularly after my band, ARK, had toured with them. Dave lived the other side of the Taw valley in a farm house up on the top of the valley about 4 miles away and Bob lived a couple of miles up our lane leading to the small village of Chittlehamholt. Dave had asked me to help him work on some loops for his EMS synthesiser a couple of times, his then wife, Sylvie, was friendly with mine, my eldest the same age as their son Pascoe, and then suddenly one day the three of us from ARK, myself, Harvey Bainbridge our bass player and Martin Griffin, our drummer, were invited to meet Dave and Bob at a gentrified hotel in Barnstaple, we weren't sure why.
Yours truly in 1977.
We met up with Dave in the covered market and went to the hotel to find Bob ensconced in the small private lounge with tea and afternoon cakes, looking quite the country squire in his deerstalker and tweeds. The proposition was quite straightforward: Dave wanted to record a live show in Barnstaple at Christmas under the name Sonic Assassins and wanted us three to provide keyboards and rhythm section. He was full of enthusiasm, Bob rather less so and, of course, us three were gratified to be asked. Dave said that we should have a couple of rehearsals beforehand and that he had booked the Queens' Hall in Barnstaple for Xmas Eve. This was a great choice of venue because it was very much home turf for both bands....Ark had sold it out as headliners (it had an official capacity of 850) and in fact overfilled it when Hawkwind with Ark played the Shelter benefit. I had been de facto promoter of that gig and know for a fact that we sold we'll over a thousand tickets on the door the money from which I had given to Dave (after withholding Ark's small fee) much to the annoyance of their then manager Doug Smith who had been chasing me round the building.
Now I don't know what Dave said to the others but he chatted to me quite a lot moaning about the other band members not wanting to leave London unless they were paid cash. He quite obviously would like the band to be based in Devon with most the band i.e. us three from Ark, being on a salary rather than equal band members. Also, the band had record label troubles and it wasn't sure how long they would be with their present label. Offering a new band with a good live recording could help relaunch things commercially. Plus, in the background, there were legal battles afoot about ownership of the Hawkwind name.
Sonic Assassins T-Shirt, available on eBay today even.
So, we decided on Umberleigh Village Hall for rehearsals using Ark's sound engineer, Geoff Hocking, and his PA. It was a great place to rehearse because it was located under a cliff with no near neighbours, just off the main Barnstaple to Exeter road. And, except for Martin and Geoff, we all lived within a few miles of the place. Now at this time my only vehicle was an ex-GPO crew truck, great for bands with its 6 place cab and loads of space behind. So, after the first rehearsal, where we ran through a selection of Hawkwind standards pretty successfully, it was decided all the gear would be loaded into my truck and I would bring it all to the next rehearsal planned for later in the week....we were in mid-December.
So, everything was loaded in and everyone cleared off not thinking that that left no-one to direct me backwards onto the main road. I was parked up facing the hall with no room to turn round so reversing out blind across the road was the only option. I waited a bit to see if anyone would suddenly realise and come back but no, I had to do it myself, just hoping that no-one was coming along that road at speed. And, shit, yes, I was lucky, although as I put the truck in first to set off, a car came speeding round the bend who a minute earlier would have pranged itself very badly into the truck.
I bumped into Bob in the village between rehearsals and he virtually ignored me but I spoke to Dave on the phone and he was very enthusiastic. Anyhow, the second, much longer rehearsal, went well too. We concentrated on two new songs, both with lyrics by Bob and chord sequences by Dave. Dave is a pretty good guitarist but with no musical 'knowledge' such as which chord is which. He would just go it's this one (showing the shape of his fingers on the strings) followed by this one (showing a different shape) and Harvey would translate this into chord names. With Freefall, Harvey came up with the crucial baseline and I came up (later) with the intro. And the song was exactly about that, free falling through space at 22 feet per second squared, as Bob sang.
The second song was called Death Trap, and we all knew what it was about. Earlier that year, Bob had tried out a quite powerful motor, taking a local girl we all knew called Jill, with him. He drove too fast, wrote it off and Jill was in a neck brace for months. (Equally, Bob went round to the house of the person selling that car and threatened him with a gun, a starting pistol it turned out.) I came up with the keyboard part, my electric piano going thru a wah-wah pedal, which was copied when the song later appeared on a Hawkwind (Hawklords) album.
The show was now only days away and I was busy trying to find a babysitter so my wife could come. Also, I was glad to be on school holidays cos back then, like Harvey, I worked in a boarding school for maladjusted boys just outside Barnstaple, which was pretty hard work. All the seasonal decorations were up, including in the Queen's Hall, and advance ticket sales were good but then Dave told me that Bob was getting cold feet about doing the gig and did I think we could do the gig without him. My answer was a definite no because, although Dave could sing lead, at that time I didn't sing at all and Harvey could only sing occasional backing vocals. So Dave said he'd have to work on him, persuade him otherwise.
I forgot about that, being busy buying presents for the family, doing the Xmas shopping and all that, and I just turned up at the theatre ready to go on the 24th December. I've been racking my brains trying to remember who the support act was; I think it was Osmosis, a band formed by Alastair Merry and Harry Williamson, ex-members of Ark, a very freak band with oriental tendencies but not bad at all: Giles Isaac was another member. Backstage, right until the last minute, it was touch and go whether Bob would come on stage with us. His bi-polar behaviour was at its worst. However, Dave did a great job and finally there we were, all five of us on stage.
Right from the first number, I had problems with my keyboards. My own keyboards were a Wurlitzer electric piano (with a fuzz/wah pedal to give it a heavier sound) and a monophonic Roland SH 100, top of the range back then. To give some orchestral polyphonic possibilities, I had borrowed a string machine which refused to work for some reason. Equally, my Roland seemed to have problems holding a note without sliding down the tonalities. But it was going thru a tape echo which helped, as was my piano.
Notice the set list, first 5 songs are played by Sonic Assassins in 1977.
Dave said we should play continuously, no gaps between numbers.....he'd provide electronic noises which we could join if we saw fit and then give the sign for the next number to begin. And wisely, we started out with two numbers that were Hawkwind standards and where Dave much took the lead with the guitar riffs: Angels of Light and Magnu. The full crowd lapped it up as Geoff on the desk maximised the volume levels. Both songs contain some improvisation around the main riffs and even Bob seemed to relax into the spirit of things. And this became totally clear when Harvey started the bass riff into Free Fall. Bob delivered that song with great panache and it worked really well. I was particularly pleased with my keyboard descriptions of free-falling. We drowned out the applause by Dave getting us straight into Death Crash which between his guitar and my keys became a strong basis for the song, supported by a great rhythm section. On the other hand, I felt that Bob was getting a bit flakey, looking around like he was looking for a way offstage.
At the end of that, Dave set off in an electronic drone riff which should have led us into Masters of the Universe. Harvey and I joined in with the Dave riff but Bob started singing Masters of the Universe and told us to stop playing the gypsy music which we didn't. I thought, this is where he leaves stage, and looking at Martin, he obviously had similar worries. But then, Bob started off into improvisation-land too, leading the way into some bits of his own poetry, and the band changed over to following him. This became the cult track, Over The Top, nearly 9 minutes of pure improvised Hawkwind, the whole band clicking into the same groove.
By the end, Bob was wilting visibly and Dave made it clear that was the end....we had played 45 minutes, enough for the album he had in mind. The audience had had a great time and showed it. We had made it. It was over.
A couple of weeks later Dave phoned about us all going down to Martin's studio on Bodmin Moor to record a few overdubs and on a very wintry February morning, at the start of the school holidays so that Harvey and I were work free, we drove down to Bodmin Moor for two days really out in the sticks. Harvey and I dossed in the farm attached to the studio and Dave was in a small local hotel. I had a couple of keyboard dubs to do, little additions but Dave wanted me to create something new, a keyboard entrance to Free Fall prior to Harvey starting off the crucial, omni-present, bass-line riff. We went out, the three of us from Ark, to the local pub and had a few beers, questioning where this was going and thinking it would probably come out as a HAWKWIND live, with little being made of the change of backline personnel.
I decided to get started early the next day, working on the intro, something that made sense musically after Magnu but that could lead into Free Fall (all part of Dave's thinking of no gaps between songs).
I came up with an old jazzy riff of mine and tried it slower and more straightforward than jazzy. And it worked!! I practised it a few times and was sure I was ready to record. I started the tape of the 8 track rolling and then put on the brake when I saw it had gone past
Nothing to do with Sonic Assassins?!?!
Luckily, Martin was the first to arrive and, after a few choice swear words, had discovered that the break was in the gap between Magnu and FreeFall, just about where I was to start to record. And he stuck it together so that only those who knew might hear a tiny click....I don't think Dave ever knew. Anyhow he loved the intro......he must have done because when the band recorded the song the following year (I was long gone), he got Steve Swindells, the new keyboard player, to copy my intro note for note. We recorded it and a couple more bits of guitar and it was off back home.
And we heard no more about Sonic Assassins until I was asked to join HAWKWIND for their 1978 US tour: Simon House, the then keyboard and violin player, was leaving to join the DAVID BOWIE band.
Now, I have covered the US tour elsewhere in my blog, so I'll just going to mention a couple of things pertaining to Sonic Assassins.
While we were in New York, in the City Squire Hotel, downtown Manhattan, Dave invited me to join him for a swim and a sauna and during these exercises, he started to tell me about his plan to use this tour to big-up Sonic Assassins. He would be in charge of organising promotion of the tour, interviews with the press and radio mainly, and was going to handle them all himself but I would be doing some radio ones and we would only talk about Sonic Assassins, this new, younger-spirited, almost punky Hawkwind, more direct, more committed. harder-edged. Great I thought. Martin and Harvey will be pleased. And Dave kept me very much under his wing for most of the tour, until San Francisco when his wife arrived to join him for an end of tour holiday. And these ideas were continually brought up and I did several radio interviews in that vein. However, Bob was very distant, not just of me but of everybody. To (not) help this, one night Dave and I put on black clothes and ski masks and pretended to carry out a very physical mugging of Bob which freaked him out totally. Poor old Bob. He just didn't want to be in the USA on tour with us people.

After the tour, I didn't want to continue with the band, in whatever form. The whole rock n roll lifestyle didn't agree with me, it was too late. I was already a family man with a wife and two kids, a house in the country and a good and interesting job. It was 10 years too late for me. Harvey and Martin stayed the course with Hawklords and then Hhawkwind. And Sonic Assassins disappeared for good. Or so it seemed.

Dave Brock was nurturing Frenchy Golder and his record label, Flicknife, as an outlet for various Hawkwind-related recordings, where money was to be made. In 1981, on Flicknife Records, out came an EP titled Sonic Assassins, containing the three new songs played at the 1977 concert. I had previously had arguments about Free Fall when this song had come out on the Hawklords album
Standard Hawkwind poster with Sonic Assassins too.?
using my intro to the song. I felt I should have had a writing credit at least. Now with the live Sonic Assassins album, this question remained, particularly as Harvey was credited for his bass line. And, Over The Top was a jam, 100 per cent improvisation. As such, and normally, the writing credits would have gone to the whole band. And, this argument was to be extended when the songs appeared on various other albums on Flicknife. And then again when the recordings re-surfaced on Cherry Red.
Now, I'm mates with Frenchy and have a lot of respect for him and I believe him when he says the following in his recent autobiography (available on Amazon). His deals with artists were 50/50. a very good system for the artists. And he said that for all the Hawkwind related records, he gave the artists share to Dave and left him to share it out appropriately.
Apparently the recordings have sold quite well over the years, not top sellers but in the thousands and more. But I have never received a penny for my work with Sonic Assassins except for once a cheque for forty something pounds.
Poor return perhaps but, I did get to play with Hawkwind, I did get to make an American tour, I did get into loads of concerts free on the back of the Hawkwind connection and got my recordings listened to a lot more than they would have been because of the connection. And over the years, I've met loads of people who remember that gig and congratulate me for being part of it.
So, I'm not complaining. Cheers Captain Badger Brock!!!

By the way, I'll be putting up Sonic Assassins Live on SOundCloud very soon.

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely loved your story.

    Hawkwind and many of the associated bands that have been part of Hawkwind at times are amongst my favourite bands. Hawkwind were the first band I ever saw live in the early 70's and I carried on going to their gig's every year until life got in the way around the Mid 80's.

    The last tour gig I saw was the Chronicles tour. Though I did take my daughter to a benefit gig at the Rock Club in Manchester in the early 90's for her 18th birthday; at which I spent a good five minutes while searching out a drink, talking to my self in a mirror because I didn't recognise myself. I put that little escapade down to sharing spliffs with the band members of Rage against the Machine with whom I sat on the floor watching Hawkwind at the benefit gig.

    I would love to hear more stories of Hawkwind if you have them. :)