Thanet Writers Spotlight Robert Calvert
As a horror writer, I’d like to be able to start by setting an atmospheric scene: I’m staring at the cold grey headstone at the edge of a bleak and intimidating hillside graveyard, rain pelting down, a swirling maelstrom of clouds roiling above me. Tears stream down my face as I look down.
But this is only partially true.
It has been raining, and the wind is blowing across Minster Cemetery in Thanet, but right now it’s quite pleasant. The rain has stopped. The sun has broken through, its weak rays reflecting warmly off the tombstone in a rather pleasant way, highlighting the differing green shades of the moss which grow on the yellowing stone. I’m not crying, but I do feel a little sad at the untimely death of the man interred under me.
At the foot of the modest memorial is a handwritten poem and a framed photograph of Robert Newton ‘Captain Bob’ Calvert, sporting a flying cap and goggles. There’s a stone model of a wizard next to them.
This is the grave of one of the most experimental poets I have ever encountered.
Robert Calvert, born in Pretoria, South Africa, in 1945, moved to Margate in when he was two years old. By the tender age of fifteen he was playing around the Margate dancehalls in a mod band called Oliver Twist and the Lower Third, who later went on to be fronted by David Bowie.
Since childhood he had always harboured deep desires to become a jet pilot and had even joined the Air Training Corps, playing trumpet in the squadron band and becoming a corporal. This obsession later led to his 1974 solo concept album Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters. Unfortunately, due to an ear defect, he was unable to pursue a career flying, and so settled on a life more artistic and literary.
After attending school, he went to college in Canterbury where he began to read and write poetry.
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 and reading Verlaine, Keats, Shelley, Dylan Thomas. God, I was naive! I thought you could make a living as a poet!
Interview with New Musical Express, 1975
It was in 1964 he first met Nik Turner, his future collaborator and bandmate, when they were both employed as seasonal workers at Dreamland Amusement Park. Turner (Hawkwind flutist, saxophonist, vocalist, and composer) also grew up in Margate and went to Chatham House Grammar School.
By 1970, Calvert was fully immersed in the London psychedelic scene and formed the street theatre group ‘The Street Dada Nihilismus.’ He got involved with the underground magazines Frendz and The International Times. He also met the sci-fi writer Michael Moorcock. They soon became good friends, and Moorcock published Calvert’s poems in his magazine New Worlds.
In 1971, following an introduction from Turner, Calvert met Dave Brock, the driving force behind the space-rock band Hawkwind. He contributed poems for the sleeve notes of that year’s LP release In Search of Space. It didn’t take long for Calvert to become the band’s resident poet, reciting his work (and Moorcock’s) amidst the swirling dry ice and oil lamp projections, while the band noodled away behind him. Often, his poems would find their way into lyrics and he became more and more integrated into the live shows.
Calvert’s performances were eccentric, theatrical and energetic—he improvised extensively and donned wild costumes, frequently sporting leather jodhpurs, a flying hat, and goggles on stage. He utilised an extensive array of props including freaky giant heads, swords, and a machine gun. His recitations usually took on a sci-fi theme, as might be expected from the space rock band, but were often as humorous as they were foreboding:
Your android replica is playing up again
Oh, it’s no joke
When she comes, she moans another’s name
‘Black Corridor’ by Hawkwind, 1973
One superb example of his performance art is the spine-tingling ‘Sonic Attack,’ a Moorcock-authored spoken-word piece, captured on the 1973 live album ‘Space Ritual.’ It lambasts the civil-defence leaflets of the day, and is delivered by Calvert in a terrifying monotone. Eventually, the repetitive and rising chorus exhorts the listener.
Do not panic
Do not panic
Do not panic!
‘Sonic Attack’ by Hawkwind, 1973
Naturally, this invokes the very fears the instruction is supposed to allay.
Calvert eventually became Hawkwind’s full-time vocalist in 1975, but listen to any Hawkwind album from the 1970s and you’ll hear him.
Famously, he penned the band’s top three hit single, ‘Silver Machine,’ only for the vocals to be overdubbed by Lemmy, when Calvert’s voice was lost in the mix at the Roundhouse live recording. According to Turner, Calvert’s lyrics for the song were “deliberately ambiguous,” whilst Brock claims they were a send up about Calvert’s boyhood bicycle. Calvert himself related that they were inspired by the Alfred Jarry pataphysics essay ‘How to Construct a Time Machine.’
The storytelling approach he developed with Brock and co perhaps reached its pinnacle on the 1977 milestone album Quark, Strangeness and Charm, for which he wrote all the lyrics. In many ways this is the most expressively rich of Hawkwind’s albums and a fan-favourite. The album track ‘Spirit of the Age’ is a synthesis of two of Calvert’s most well-known poems set to music: ‘The Starfarer’s Dispatch’ and ‘The Clone’s Poem,’ both of which appear separately in his poetry collection Centigrade 232.
Arguably, despite his solo career, poetry, plays, and novel, Calvert is probably best remembered for his time with Hawkwind—a band with roots sunk deep into the chalk beds of Thanet. Their 1979 song, ‘High Rise,’ is even said to have been penned by Calvert whilst living in Arlington House, Margate—although it was probably also inspired by JG Ballard’s novel of the same name.
A total commitment to his craft led to Robert’s mental health deteriorating. He suffered from bi-polar disorder, and throughout the 70s he performed less and less with the band, eventually calling it a day in 1978. After that, he only appeared for occasional guest spots, such as his final ever gig with the band on 28th May 1984 at the old Marina Park, Ramsgate.
Other than through his lyrics, Calvert’s poetry is probably best accessed through the 2007 album Centigrade 232, a spoken word recording of his 1977 book of poetry of the same name. The collection includes ‘Circle Line,’ with which he won the 1975 Capital Radio poetry competition.
The book’s title, Centigrade 232, is a reference to the temperature at which paper burns, much like Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 (232° Centigrade equals 451° Fahrenheit). Some of the forty-seven poems it contains will be familiar to Hawkwind fans, but most are unique to Centigrade 232. Listening to this spoken word album, I am strangely mesmerised. I’m looking for the familiar, yet drawn in by the new and find myself particularly taken by the titular creature from the poem ‘Caterpillar,’ and its sad demise:
On rows of prehistoric feet, it flowed against the glass,
Then curved backwards in a graceful arc.
Centigrade 232 by Robert Calvert
In addition to his poems and music, Calvert published four plays between 1976 and 1979. The first, The Stars that Played with Laughing Sam’s Dice, is a one act composition that tells the story of Jimi Hendrix’s time serving as a paratrooper from 1961 to 1962, and his conflict with one Sergeant McNulty over their competing visions for America.
It’s still possible to find Calvert’s work being performed in fringe London theatres. His final published play was the science fiction drama Mirror Mirror, which premiered in 1979, and then has been subsequently revived on several occasions. The play deals with themes of physical beauty and self-worth, telling the story of Eleanor Bryant, who owns a “psychochromic” dress that responds to her mood and a “multiperspecitval” mirror which reflects her image as others see her, and her encounter with a mirror technician.
Mirror Mirror is typical of Calvert, as his work was often set in dark, dystopian futures with a sci-fi bend. A central theme is often the impact of technology on society. His other plays are also technology driven.
Hype, Calvert’s only novel, was published in 1982. It was an exception to his usual style and, given his background, might be a less surprising storyline.
It’s the tale of Tom Mahler and his band—young rock stars in the making—who are exploited by their manager. He plots to frame Tom for a drug deal and then murder him, live on stage, in order to posthumously propel him into the limelight and sell millions of records.
The novel spawned an album, which is perhaps one of Calvert’s oddest recordings—mainly because it sounds so overtly mainstream, whilst covertly, from within the libretto, it deconstructs the music business from the perspective of a jaded rock-star.
Calvert’s prolific output was sadly curtailed when, aged just forty-three, he died of a heart attack on the 14th August 1988, in Ramsgate, as he was preparing to launch a new band and tour.
I have rather grown to love Robert’s work over the last thirty-five odd years. Unfortunately, I only discovered him in the early 80s, and really only for his lyrics and vocal performances—initially with Hawkwind, and then his solo material. I was fortunate to see him live on two or three occasions, when his spoken word interjections into the psychedelic experience of a Hawkwind live show was an often surreal and jarring experience, bringing islands of dystopian lucidity.
He was not everyone’s cup of tea, but I rather like his unapologetic and rebellious stance. You could even argue that his artistic flexibility, along with his dramatic stage presence, turned him into one of the first true multimedia artists.
© 2019 Lee Stoddart
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Lee quit the corporate world to write spec-fic and horror. He was twice shortlisted and published by the HG Wells Short Story Competition.