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Hawkwind Is the Most Influential Psych Rock Band You've Never Heard Of

Hawkwind's Nik Turner has had a career most musicians could only imagine in a dream. Not because of Turner's success, creating chart-placing albums for the prog legends, but because Turner seriously followed his dreams of musical abandon. In a long and storied career, Turner has perfected the form of space rock, creating head-spinning albums around the subjects of Greek, Mayan, and Egyptian mythology, along with epic jazz fusion and jazz punk albums that showed just how limitless music can be.

The journey began in 1940s Oxford, England. Growing up in a household of jazz musicians — Mom played boogie woogie piano, Dad the trumpet, and his uncle the clarinet — Turner naturally gravitated toward the form, taking up the saxophone after hearing Earl Bostic wailing in the speakers in a small cafe.

"I was sort of subjected to all this Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and Billie Holiday as a child," he says by phone from San Francisco. "Then I got inspired by this sax player Earl Bostic. It made me want to play the saxophone like that."

Turner eventually found his way to Berlin, where a cohort of free jazz musicians quite unknowingly influenced Turner's career direction.

"I went to Berlin and started hanging out with these free jazz musicians. They told me I didn't need to be technical to express myself, so that's when I went to play free jazz in a rock band," he says with a laugh.

Hawkwind is credited with helping usher in the progressive rock and space rock movements. It strikes Turner as a little ironic — he never really felt confined by traditional rock norms anyway.

"No, not really," he says with a laugh. "I liked rock music, but I wanted to just play jazz."

Around the same time — the early 1970s — Miles Davis was busy creating jazz fusion, something Turner proclaims gradually exerted a tremendous influence on his musical thinking — particularly Davis' Bitches Brew album.

"That's what Hawkwind was to me at the outset, and then I sort of developed, I guess, and got bored with the band," he says.

Bitches Brew — and numerous Davis concerts from that era — remain the few albums still in constant rotation for Turner, and those musical expressions continually drive Turner as well.

"Oh, yes. It just keeps coming back to Bitches Brew," he says. "I have been influenced by it all my life."

Much of Turner's post-Hawkwind career has revolved around jazz fusion, including the "punk jazz" of the Inner City Unit, which Turner says influenced the Sex Pistols. Turner also played modern variations on Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Herbie Hancock, and, of course, Miles. Turner even worked with William Shatner, a true space cadet, on his Ponder the Mystery album.

"He actually said, 'I've always been a great admirer of yours,'" Turner laughs. "I said, 'Oh, gosh, I thought nobody'd ever heard of me?' I had my photo taken with him."

Turner's latest album continues along the fusion realm, though, ironically, he didn't perform with any of the many people on the album — including jazz drummer Billy Cobham, Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger, and Megadeth bassist Chris Polland. Turner just "noodled" over backing tracks.

"I can't say I've ever played with or met them," he admits. "But, I'd like to work with them someday."

His current tour, however, focuses on Hawkwind's glory days, with progressive Kraut-rockers Hedersleben acting as the opener and Turner's backing band.

"I'd really like to be playing this jazz fusion stuff, but we're not geared up for that. But, we're actually performing the original Space Ritual," he says, before adding. "It's wonderful . . . really."

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Glenn BurnSilver
Contact: Glenn BurnSilver