When you think of the British pioneers of space rock, you don't imagine getting to see one of them in a relatively small setting in the United States, three decades after their cosmic enlargement of psychedelic, progressive music, and yet here we are. It's the seventh Echo Fest at the newly reopened Magic Stick, and Nik Turner, formerly of Hawkwind, is here to heal our aching souls with the restorative spirit of his interplanetary sounds.
Turner, who plays flute and saxophone, is an early and original member of the notoriously large cast of characters that have comprised space rock progenitors Hawkwind throughout the years. Turner left and/or was fired from the group twice: once in 1976, and again in 1984 after having been invited to rejoin in 1982. During his time in the band, he was known for his experimentation with free jazz in a rock setting as well as his outlandish stage antics and appearance, the latter of which is these days mainly represented by a face full of gold glitter. Back then, it could have meant anything from wearing Ancient Egyptian-inspired costumes to being carried onstage in a coffin.
Since and in between then, he's never stopped playing music, including his particularly intriguing 1978 album Xitintoday, released under the name Sphynx (more on this to come) as well as in the political space punk band Inner City Unit and the jazzy rhythm and blues group Nik Turner's Fantastic All-Stars.
If there's one thing Hawkwind is known for beyond their massive contribution to music via space rock, it's the modern-day feud between Turner and Dave Brock. Guitarist Brock is the original founding member of Hawkwind, the sole mainstay since the inception of the band, and the person who many fans think is the only rightfully deserving owner of the Hawkwind name. We have neither the space nor desire to get into the nitty-gritty of it here, but suffice it to say that since 2000, when the Hawkestra — a reunion featuring appearances from past and present members — took place and rekindled relationships between many said members, Brock grew irritated that ex-members were calling themselves Hawkwind, filed a lawsuit, and even allegedly had all footage of himself removed from a 2007 BBC documentary on the band when he found out Turner was also involved in it. Turner, to his utmost credit, is not upset about any of the events of the past (despite the fact that he lost the lawsuit, which is why his band with ex-members of Hawkwind is known as Space Ritual).
"It's not a sore point for me," he tells me when the subject comes up. "I just feel very sad." He would happily participate in a reunion, but until then, he's equally as happy to take his various acts on the road in all their numerous manifestations, with all the lovely people he's gathered to spread the merry word along the way.
We speak after his recent arrival in California to meet up with Hedersleben, his band for Echo Fest and the presently ongoing U.S. tour, the Space Rock Odyssey Tour 2016. Turner is pleasantly talkative as we discuss his current goings-on and stories from throughout the spectrum of his musical life.
Metro Times: You just had a book come out.
Nik Turner: It's my vision of my time in Hawkwind. It's called Nik Turner: The Spirit of Hawkwind 1969-1976.
MT: What inspired you to do this now?
Turner: I've not had a voice, really. There have been a few other books out by different people .... [The Saga of Hawkwind by Carol Clerk, among others] ... But this one shows my vision of Hawkwind and my time in the band [to] try to make people realize what my position had been, what I had done, and what I was involved in.
MT: You helped write some of my favorite Hawkwind songs. I wanted to ask about "Children of the Sun." What is that song about?
Turner: Well, it's about my philosophy. I try to put my heart into everything I write — really what I feel. I like to present things in a very positive way. I try to use my music as a means of healing.
When I left Hawkwind in 1976, I spent time in Egypt. I just went there for a holiday, really, but I've always been interested in ancient mythology. I grew up on that sort of thing. So I went to Egypt and while I was there I recorded some flute music inside the Great Pyramid. I spent a lot of time in the Great Pyramid, laying in a sarcophagus in the King's Chamber, meditating and playing my flute. It had such a fantastic sound in there, so when I came back to Britain, I still had a recording contract out there, so I managed to convince my record company, which was Charisma Records, into letting me go into a recording studio to turn the thing into an album based upon the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which I had been studying quite a lot.
So I went into the studio with Steve Hillage producing it, and members of Gong and a couple people from Hawkwind playing on it. And we put it together. My friend Barney Bubbles, who did the Hawkwind album [covers], I asked him if he would design an album cover for me, and he said he would on two conditions: one of which was that he could use the artwork as part of his own projects, and the second was that I would let him choreograph the show we were going to put together. Well, I didn't know we were going to put together a show at the time! [Laughs.] But we did, and we made the whole thing into some sort of magical spectacle, and had a big concert at the Roundhouse, a venue in London. We told about 3,500 people and had a free concert on a Sunday and jammed the place with people. We had all these bands, one of which was [science fiction author and frequent Hawkwind collaborator] Michael Moorcock's band the Deep Fix. Several bands played, [as well as] lots of performance artists, and it was very exciting, a wonderfully spectacular event, and then I put the thing together as a show and took it on the road and had a pyramid designed based upon the dimensions of the Great Pyramid.
Barney choreographed the thing based around the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a story with a science fiction angle [about a character who] starts up on Venus and goes into a pyramid that's there and comes across the Egyptian gods, Osiris, Horus, Isis, Thoth, Anubis. He meets these people, and he has to know the spells to pass through, and he manages to get to the Weighing of the Heart. And then he passes through and comes out into Egypt in 1977! The story is a science-fiction version of the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
I eventually ran out of money and couldn't afford professional dancers, so I started appealing to members of the audience to come up on stage, about 10 or so, and when they came up, I'd say, "Who do you think you are?" and they might say, "I think I'm Osiris," and they would get that costume. I recruited all these people from the festival scene and it was a bit of a mish-mash, but it was always spiritual and well-intentioned.
Later on, I met a journalist who was writing for The Sun, among other papers. One of the things he was doing was a series on reincarnation. He saw me as a very apt character to talk about reincarnation, so it ended up that he wrote articles about me in The Sun. He also approached the BBC about recording my show, so we performed it at Glastonbury Festival in 1979 on my pyramid stage and the BBC filmed it and it was included in a program about reincarnation! [Laughs.]
MT: Do you remember playing Detroit with Hawkwind in the '70s?
Turner: I do. I think we probably played on Halloween. [They did, in 1974, most likely at the Ford Auditorium.] I remember playing a lot of shows in Detroit, but I know we did do a show in Detroit on Halloween because I remember everybody dressed up and it was quite frightening, but it was fantastic. It was great that people participated in these things and had a lot of fun. I remember seeing the MC5. I met them in a nightclub. I had known them in England, when they played a few concerts there around Britain, one was Phun City. A 1970 festival near Brighton. I remember meeting them at Phun City and I hung around with them quite a bit at that time. Then I bumped into them in Detroit after the show!
Bump into Nik Turner's Hawkwind at Echo Fest during the Detroit stop of his Space Rock Odyssey Tour 2016, backed by Hedersleben. The festival is at the Magic Stick on Saturday, Nov. 12; doors at 5 p.m; 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700; $20 at the door. 18 and over.