I have a new project, a book (an entire book!) about Radio On, a film only I and a couple of other people actually like, and about the A4, which is a road. Yes, a book about an obscure(ish) film, and the road from London to Bristol (or Bristol to London) on which much of the film’s inaction takes place. But actually (inactually) much of the early scenes in Radio On were filmed on or under the Westway, the A40, which doesn’t go to Bristol, but does enable me to talk about David Bowie, J.G. Ballard and Hawkwind.
Early in Radio On, the main character, Robert, gets a haircut. That’s about as eventful as the film gets, although his brother has died mysteriously in his bath (before the film starts) and Robert does pick up an army deserter in a roadside pub, then chucks him out of the car at Silbury Hill, near Avebury. But none of that matters. What matters is that Robert admires his new haircut in the rear-view mirror of his beat-up old Rover as David Bowie’s Always Crashing in the Same Car plays on the soundtrack.
Chris Petit, the director of Radio On, claims not to have read much Ballard before he made his film – certainly not Crash, the book for which Ballard is best known, and which David Cronenberg later made into a film even less narrative-driven than Radio On (but with more sex). And yet here is a song called Always Crashing in the Same Car and we are, or appear to be, on the Westway, Jimmy Ballard’s favourite stretch of road, “this massive concrete motion-sculpture, an heroically isolated fragment of the modern city London might once have become… a stone dream that, like Angkor Wat, will never awake.”
On the waste ground beneath the Westway, long before Radio On, when Petit was but a critic for Time Out, and Time Out was still a sort-of-underground-magazine, the original People’s Band (Hawkwind!) took Ballard and his obsessions with technology, car culture, the space race, modern architecture etc as their dystopian cue. It’s in the titles of their songs (Motorway City, Silver Machine, Urban Guerrilla) and the lyrics. There is, in Hawkwind, as in Ballard, a simultaneous fascination with the potential of the future and horror at the risks. Not for them the middle-class hippy’s flight from modernity into an mythical, idealised past, the “getting it together in the country” of Traffic (ironic name) the Incredible String Band etc. “We weren’t looking for peaceful,” said bassman Lemmy, “we were looking for horrid. We used to have the strobes pointed out at the crowd. We used to fuck people up good, give people epileptic fits.” Thus their appeal to a massive fan base in the big cities of the UK, Europe and the USA, including the Motor City itself, where many gig goers were already fucked up on Quaaludes and Hawkwind went down a storm.
Off Ladbroke Grove, Hawkwind staged free concerts, “surrounded by a protective henge of amps, the flyover’s concrete supports forming a bleak modernist backdrop. Hawkwind reclaimed an ugly urban space and imbibed it with good vibes” (Joe Banks, Hawkwind: Days of the Underground). Their on/off collaboration with the sci-fi writer Michael Moorcock provided an introduction to the great man (Ballard) himself. Recounting this meeting for The Guardian, Moorcock said the gulf between Hawkwind and JGB was unbridgeable. He recalled sax man Nik Turner “rolling up a joint and offering it to Jimmy” and Jimmy throwing up his hands in horror, protesting “I’m a whisky man myself.” He did try LSD, once, and said it was the most horrible experience of his life (and he’d lived through the Japanese occupation of China). All the same, in 1977 Hawkwind brought out their most “Ballardian” album, Quark Strangeness & Charm. Self-mythology (Days of the Underground) malfunctioning androids (Spirit of the Age) post-nuclear wastelands (Damnation Alleyway) – it’s all there. The title track – a humorous paean to physics with some of Bob Calvert’s cleverest lyrics – was chosen as the now obligatory single and led to an incongruous teatime appearance on the Marc Bolan Show which I, for one, will never forget.
Bolan, his career already in terminal decline, died soon after in a car crash, the passenger to girlfriend Gloria Jones, best known these days for her original recording of Tainted Love. Hawkwind singer Calvert also crashed while test driving a car in Devon, allegedly trying to impress his female passenger and breaking her neck in the process (at least she and Calvert survived!). As a result of the accident, the fetishization of the car’s component parts, its sexual allure – themes that run through both Ballard and Hawkwind’s own Kerb Crawler – were replaced by the “hysterical autophobia” (Joe Banks again) of Death Trap, which appeared on the 1979 bits-and-bobs album PXR5, along with the overtly Ballard-inspired High Rise and the overtly Asimov-inspired Robot.
Wasn’t this a more frantic, panic-stricken companion piece to the languid Always Crashing in The Same Car? Were it not for the sheer pace, it would have worked well in Radio On. As it was, we had to settle for Bowie’s vaguer, less literal lyrics (something about Jasmine). And what’s all this got to do with wombling, the eagle-eyed and keen-memoried among you cry. I clicked on this blog cuz you promised me Wombles. Well, Mike Batt was a Womble – King of the Wombles – and now he orchestrates Hawkwind songs. Check out their recent, rather decent album of re-recorded favourites, Road to Utopia, which includes a swinging, brass-driven version of Quark which shouldn’t work but does. Can’t find a video on You Tube but even Jimmy Ballard would have tapped an approving foot to it, I assure you.