Mojo MAY 2009 - by Roy Wilkinson



Rescued and elevated this month, an out-to-lunch aviation concept opera with lipstick, Largactil and the Luftwaffe.

Quite possibly the only album to feature both Lemmy and Brian Eno, Captain Lockheed And The Starfighters is a tragi-comic rock requiem for an American Cold War jet fighter plane. It was produced by Roy Thomas Baker, the man at the controls for Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. Released in 1974, the album's air of crazed inventiveness is underlined by the between-songs dialogue - variously spoken by The Bonzo Doo-Dah Dog Band's Vivian Stanshall and Traffic drummer Jim Capaldi. The references to the Red Baron, fatal crashes and Phenbarbitone suggests a Monty Python sketch saluting both Biggles and J.G. Ballard. However, the record is rooted in the reality of post-war Britain.

The album's creator was the late Robert Calvert, intermittently vocalist and in-house poet with Hawkwind. Born in 1945 and killed by a heart attack in 1988, Calvert grew up in Kent - alongside Nik Turner, who would also feature in Hawkwind. Calvert had wanted to be an RAF pilot and would later write the lyrics to Hawkwind's hit single Silver machine. His childhood was spent adjacent to the big silver nuclear bombers of America's Strategic Air Command. Although there were no Starfighters at Manston, the plane took a hold on Calvert. "I've grown up with the Starfighter," he said after the album's release. "I've had to write about it to get it out of my system."

"As a teenager," says Nik Turner, "I used to hang out with American pilots and they used to give me science-fiction comics and play early rock'n'roll records. Robert was also fascinated by these American influences. Every payday, trainloads of prostitues would arrive from London to service the servicemen. I first met Robert when we were quite young in Kent and we'd get stoned and go to dances. Later, our paths crossed again with Hawkwind."

Hawkwind alumni including Turner, Dave Brock and Lemmy all feature on Captain Lockheed. The album takes its name from the Lockheed Starfighter, a plane whose name and dart-like design recall the spaceships of Hawkwind's sci-fi rock. The album also very specifically features drugs, hardly foreign terrain for Hawkwind. However, with Captain Lockheed, these elements became part of a distressed reality rather than Hawkwind's cosmic fantasia. The album includes some flight-preparation dialogue. But, instead of ticking off oil pressure and rudder trim, the checklist consists of prescription sedatives" "'Largactil...' 'Check.' 'Valium...' 'Check.'"

Calvert suffered mental problems and at one point had been sectioned to hospital.

"Yes, Robert had probably taken all those drugs," says Turner. "I think he'd been given Largactil in the mental hospital. He was completely manic, with ideas flying out nineteen to the dozen - and then going off on a twenty-mile route-march in all his military costume."

"Bob was an up-and-down character," recalls Dave Brock, Hawkwind's singer, guitarist and supreme commander. "I remember him writing the dialogue for Captain Lockheed when he was in the tour van with Hawkwind. He'd read it out, doing these two voices, talking in this sort of spiffing RAF accent."

The Starfighter had a poor safety record and the album deals with its troubled service in the post-war German airforce - which gave Calvert latitude for comic-book Donner-und-Blitzen dialogue. Moreover, J.G. Ballard's novel Crash had been published while Captain Lockheed was being recorded and lines spoken by one of the LP's pilot characters - unhinged, wearing mascara - give a macabre comic spin to Ballard's deranged, sexualised car-crashes: "It would be an honour to crash in such a plane," he says, "to be mutilated beyond the recognition of one's own mother..."

The album had no hits to match Silver Machine, but tracks like The Right Stuff and The Aerospaceage Inferno glide along on Hawkwind's metronomic, effects-veiled, space rock signature sound - in effect, a British counterpart to Krautrock.

"Yes, we did like Neu!, for example," says Brock. "In fact, I wrote sleeve-notes for their debut album. They had that lovely drum sound with the phasing on it and that's where we probably got the idea to do similar things with our drums. Bob was always very keen on being inventive in the studio."

As with Hawkwind, Captain Lockheed is a compelling collision between a mind-expanded hippy multiverse and something more earthbound - in this case comics and air-crashes. Comic books almost made a later return. "After Captain Lockheed," says Brock, "Bob wanted to put on a play based on the Dan Dare comics. We actually got around to buying the performance rights to Dan Dare. I wish we'd done it because they weren't asking for much money. It could've been great, but it never happened. Typical of us, typical of Bob."


Tracks: Franz Josef Strauß, Defence Minister, Reviews The Luftwaffe In 1958 / The Aerospaceage Inferno / Aircraft Salesman (A Door In The Foot) / The Widow Maker / Two Test Pilots Discuss The Starfighter's Performance / The Right Stuff / Board Meeting (Seen Through A Contract Lense) / The Song Of The Gremlin (Part One) / Ground Crew (Last Minute Reassembly Before Take Off) / Hero With A Wing / Ground Control To Pilot / Ejection / Interview / I Resign / The Song Of The Gremlin (Part Two) / Bier Garten / Catch A Falling Starfighter

Producer: Roy Thomas Baker

Recorded: Olympic, Island and Radio Luxembourg (dialogue), London, March 1973 - January 1974

Released: May 1974

Personnel: Robert Calvert (vocals, dialogue) / Lemmy (bass) / Arthur Brown (vocals) / Paul Rudolph (guitar, bass) / David Brock (guitar) / Nik Turner (saxophone) / Brian Eno (synthesizers) / Del Dettmar (synthesizers) / Adrian Wagner (keyboards) / Simon King (drums) / Twink Alder (funeral drum) / Ladbroke Grove Hermaphroditic Voice Ensemble (backing vocals) / Vivian Stanshall (dialogue) / Jim Capaldi (dialogue) / Tom Mittledorf (dialogue) / Richard Ealing (dialogue)