INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
New Musical Express SEPTEMBER 20, 1975 - by Vivien Goldman
SOME THOUGHTS ON THE UNDERGROUND FROM HENDON CEMETERY
Mr. Robert Calvert, ex-Oliver Twist & The Lower Third, ex-Mordecai Sludd & The Others, ex-Hawkwind, pontificates on the past and the present - the latter represented by his album Lucky Leif And The Longships.
"Anyone who knows my work" said Bob Calvert earnestly, "would realise that however bad they might think it is, it's all intentional."That's a fair enough answer to the criticisms that have been levelled at Bob's latest album, Lucky Leif And The Longships. Its eclecticism irritated many people who might perhaps have preferred a Hawkwind re-hash, or the more direct narrative of his previous offering, Captain Lockheed And The Starfighters.
Lucky Leif is about the Vikings' discovery of America, beating Amerigo de Vespucci by a pretty good lap of the track.
When the Norse lads turned up in their long boats, they took one look at America's green and pleasant land, and dubbed it Vinland. Dispute has been rife in the circles that dispute about such matters as to whether the name Vinland suggests wine (geddit?) or whether in fact it bears no relation to the goblet that cheers and actually means The-Backwater-Where-We-Finally-Ran-Out-Of-Sick-Pills.
Well, it's hardly my place to say, especially as I just scraped O-Level geography and my Latin ain't that hot either. Bob must have felt the same way; he decided to work on the assumption that in fact the Vikings stumbled on a land flowing with vine-leaves, hops, and similar substances and were so overwhelmed that they decided to name the land after its most endearing attribute.
"I mean, even if it isn't true, it's still quite amusing."
Bob and myself are sitting on a park bench in a cemetery in Hendon. It's the kind of Saturday afternoon that kids you into relaxing in shirtsleeves, and then does the dirty by pelting rain on your flimsy summer garb. Consoled by the fact that we can always dash into the church. we muse on the rise and fall of the underground in Great Britain, the state of the arts today, the new LP, and whether the folks dashing to and fro from synagogue (it's the Jewish New Year) will mistake him in his suave brown shirt for a Fascist.
But right now, the album's topmost on Bob's mind. He's anxious to correct some misapprehensions on the part of colleagues about the direction this album has taken.
"It's an experimental album, you see. Some of it works, some of it doesn't... it's not for me to say, I suppose."
Aren't some of the tracks very folk-oriented? And isn't that surprising from a musician who was weaned in the anarchist aggressiveness of Hawkwind?
"I was trying to make musical references all the way through. Most of my formative years were spent writing poetry, and now I apply the same process to music. Nowadays I find music relaxing and easier, because it involves more feeling than thinking.
"It's wrong to say that any of the tracks are just pastiche - they've all got more than one musical reference. I tried to keep the cross reference between American culture and Scandinavian folklore and ancient myths.
"I don't think that all of it came off as well as I'd hoped - it's interesting, but not all of it knocks me out.
"Eno (that's ex-Roxy Music Brian Eno, who produced) made a lot of difference. We both had to compromise. I really wanted his more objective view, it's so easy to imagine that an idea's working out when in fact it hasn't. I still think Eno is the best producer I could possibly have had. The recording went like a dream.
"I mean, we did have some friendly arguments while we were working. Originally I wanted some dialogue sketches between the tracks, to help along the narrative. But Eno advised me that dialogue and humour don't really work on LP - I can't listen to Captain Lockheed any more, because all the dialogue gets boring when you know it back to front.
"I decided he was right, and we left out the talking. But I definitely think that the story line's still there. People have said that each track is too Isolated, and the album doesn't flow. But to me, it's just a different kind of flow.
"At the time I was writing Lief I was very impressed by Peter Barnes' (author of The Ruling Class) approach to theatre. It's a magpie kind of attitude - taking aspects of lots of theatrical genres, anything from music hall to Shakespeare. That's what I tried to do; to be eclectic not for the sake of it, but when it seems appropriate."
One track in particular seems to have aroused a lot of criticism for precisely this, attitude; The Lay Of The Surfers. To say that it's derivative of surf music would be an understatement. One chorus runs thusly: "I guess you could call us, Barbarians, Bar Bar Barbarians, Bar Bar Barbarians..." Strike a chord? It's meant to! What about it Bob?
"It just seemed to me that a song about the Vikings' attitude to piracy was suited to a cross between heavy rock and surf music. I don't think it sounds like The Beach Boys, but, then it's not meant to. I don't set out to mimic Jan and Dean, although I love them. I'm not the Dick Emery of pop..."
Having done two concept albums one after another, both sharing an unusually intellectual attitude to rock 'n' roll, whither Bob Calvert?
"Well, I've just finished writing a scenario for a stage show which might involve Hawkwind, I can't really say what it's about, but it's gonna be a smash. It's based on a character we all know and love, but I don't want to say more about it till it's completed.
"It's a theatrical story, with a plot, characters, actors as well as music. It seems to me that the straight theatre has used rock and roll so much by now that the effects have been totally watered down. I'd actually like the next thing I write to be something non-musical. After all, I started off being a poet!"
And that seems as good a point as any to take a gander at the career of this immensely suave and dapper individual. It seems an almost inconceivable incongruity that such a well-spoken and nattily turned-out young man should he in any way connected with those wild, hairy and intensely uncouth seeming lads who make up Hawkwind.
So tell us how it all came together Mr C.
"I was born in South Africa of English parents. My father's in the building trade - a kind of Meisterbuilder in the Ibsen tradition. We moved to England when I was three, and my parents went back when I was in my teens.
"My first band was when I was fifteen. It was called Oliver Twist And The Lower Third (nothing do with the Bowie Band), and we played round the Margate dancehalls.
"The next outfit was Mordecia Sludd & The Others. We were kind of satirical, a bit like the Bonzos though it was a lot earlier. Unfortunately, there wasn't a lot of demand for satire round the dancehalls, so we had a rather rough time. I remember I used to wear luminous socks...
"Then I turned very snobbish and decided to be a poet instead of a singer. I even got snobbish about music for a short time, decided it was an inferior form. I used to enjoy sitting in churchyards - rather like we are now - and reading Verlaine in translation, Keats, Shelley, Dylan Thomas. God, I was naive! I thought you could make a living as a poet! (Some pop poets do, mind you).
"When I moved to London I had an exhibition of environmental poetry at the Roundhouse 'Better Place To Live' exhibition."
Hey, that sounds like the Underground!
"Yes - I got involved with the underground as soon as I came to London. I looked on myself as a kind of anti-literary establishment guerilla. I hated the weak impact of straight poetry, and realised that the only way to get through to people is through music. I began working for Frendz writing fiction.
"I'd known Hawkwind before they even formed, and we shared the same anti-establishment attitudes. I still don't like iambic pentameters. I'm more interested in what a poem can do - what a piece of music is good for. What I liked about Hawkwind is that they were experimenters you could understand. You either liked them or you didn't - there was no 'should' about it.
"I remember my time with Hawkwind as an endless succession of flashing gigs.I wrote a fantastic hymn to the sun at Glastonbury Fayre, and lost it the same day. That really was the high point of the British Underground.
"Looking back, it's impossible to put things in any chronological order. Everything happened at the same time. Really, only someone who's seriously experimented with pharmaceutical agents could understand..."
And so how do you see yourself now, ex-hippy, recording artist and cult figure, or what?
"I know that I'd only like to be a star like George Bernard Shaw - durable. A rock star's got such a short life expectancy, and it's difficult to change direction. I'd always like to be fluid. I won't be a star till I'm over forty. Which is cool - neither was Shaw!"