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Nik Turner: Life On Planet Freakout

From the sci-fi sonics of Hawkwind to playing his flute in the Great Pyramid Of Giza, Nik Turner has always tripped through musical boundaries. The acid-sax star recalls a life less ordinary.

As a founding member of iconic space-rock stalwarts Hawkwind, Nik Turner helped psychedelicise a generation. When Jimi Hendrix dedicated Foxy Lady to “the cat right there with the silver face” at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, he was talking about Turner. Having successfully turned on the sleepy shires of 70s suburbia aboard an acid-fuelled Silver Machine, Turner brought a scene-unifying spikiness to the early-80s anarchic post-punk underground with his Inner City Unit.

Now in his mid-70s, and enthusiastically jazz-rocking alongside Billy Cobham, is this august elder statesman of the counterculture still essentially the same Nik Turner who introduced himself on Hawkwind’s debut as someone who just “digs freaking about on saxophones (groove, groove)”?

It’s God’s own earth up here. Everywhere you look there’s a breathtaking view. Lush, green and dramatic, the hills above Carmarthen, South Wales can very easily send a monoxide-lunged flatlander from the metropolis staggering back on his heels. 

“Mind all the dog shit,” cautions Turner as he strides through a pack of Italian greyhounds toward the sanctuary of the farmhouse he’s occupied since 1977. Oh well, I suppose you get used to it. 

Born in Oxford in 1940, Nicholas Turner grew up in the Kent seaside town of Margate. The product of a theatrical family, he remembers swapping soliloquies with an aunt who’d been in the Royal Shakespeare Company. Meanwhile, his entire family were roped into appearing in the concert parties run by his grandfather, an entertainment entrepreneur who also made movies and published a widely distributed film review pamphlet, for which young Nicholas provided enthusiastic critiques of Westerns.    

“I grew up on jazz,” Turner recalls. “My mother played piano, my uncle played clarinet, my brother played trumpet and I… was very impressed.” 

Fed on a diet of traditional New Orleans jazz (the first record he bought was Pee Wee Hunt’s 1948 assault on Twelfth Street Rag), Turner gravitated toward the clarinet and began taking lessons. Then, as his teens approached, he heard a sound that turned his world upside down. In order to get to school in Ramsgate, Turner had to change buses on Margate seafront. “While waiting for the bus, I used to hang around all these juke joints and penny arcades, and that’s where I first heard Earl Bostic.” 

By comparison to the staid, archaic and slightly comedic sound of trad jazz, Oklahoman alto-saxophonist Bostic’s 1951 recording of Flamingo sounded fresh, sophisticated and sexy. It swung to an almost dangerous degree – you might even say that it rocked. “Hearing Bostic made me want to play the saxophone,” Turner recalls “I managed to coerce my music teacher into getting me an alto-sax and didn’t look back.

“I wanted to join the American Air Force when I left school,” he adds with a laugh. “There was an American airbase nearby and they all seemed to be having a great time. They had loads of money, loads of girls, loads of cigarettes, and the teenagers used to turn me on to the latest rock’n’roll.” 

But upon leaving grammar school at 17, Turner accepted an apprenticeship from the local generator factory. Once he’d obtained his Higher National Certificate in Mechanical Engineering, he left for London, taking a job in London Transport’s Development And Experimental office, “testing brakes on buses”. 

In the evenings he continued his education in West End nightclubs, alongside the fledgling Rolling Stones: “I found them very friendly, hung out with them a lot.” So much so that he eventually got the sack from London Transport for habitual lateness. Meanwhile, the practical constraints of city life saw his saxophone studies fall into neglect. “When I lived in Kent I used to play my saxophone on the beach, but there wasn’t anywhere to practise in London.”

Always looking for new experiences, Turner then joined the Merchant Navy as an engineer, initially sailing to Australia on a Christmas cruise. “It was great,” he says, deftly sidestepping the ever-yowling brood of greyhound pups that skitter about his feet to deliver a couple of cups of Earl Grey, “but there was just too much alcohol. I used to hang around pubs a lot, but this was a twenty-four-hour party, high-pressure drinking. I soon got bored and ended up spending my time in the ship’s library reading about Zen Buddhism.”  

Gravitating back to Margate in 1964, Turner sold deckchairs on the beach, before launching his own seafront business: “Selling buckets, spades, kiss-me-quick hats and naughty postcards. It was also around this time that I became aware of Robert Calvert, a poet going around the pubs giving poetry readings. He was a flamboyant bohemian, a beatnik existentialist, and he had a wife who he treated like a rag. He was like JP Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, and I was like his accomplice, O’Keefe, who’d take him out and get him drunk. French friends would occasionally give us cannabis, which I found interesting. Robert turned me on to Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs… another world.”

Following his itchy feet, Turner bummed around Europe during much of the 60s, suffering a brace of near-death experiences along the way. First in Crete – “The boat I missed sank, with the loss of everybody on board” – then in Antwerp: “There was a loud clunk and the back wheel went sailing past.” 

In Berlin he sold jewellery and joss sticks, while immersing himself in the city’s psychedelic club scene. “I met Edgar Froese and all these free-jazz people. They used to take me to parties and get me stoned, and to the Blue Note Club where they had all this expressionistic music. It was really fantastic, and they all said: ‘You don’t have to be technical to enjoy yourself. Just have a good time.’ So I thought, that sounds nice, I think I’ll take free jazz into the rock world.”

By the time Turner had made it to Haarlem in The Netherlands he was a roustabout in a travelling music circus. So, what does a roustabout do? “Put up a great big nine-pole tent every day! I’d bang stakes into a tarmac car park with a sledgehammer, give away flowers, work in the bar.” Obviously.

“We had a flatbed truck we used as a stage and bands would come from Amsterdam to play. There was lots of LSD about, but I didn’t get into it at first. I was a bit wary of it, really. Anyway, one of the bands that came to play was Dr Brock’s Famous Cure, which featured Dave Brock and Mick Slattery, and we palled up, got on really well. I took Dave’s phone number and when I got back to Britain I used to go and see him, stay at his flat in Putney.”

As the proud owner of a van, Turner was rapidly recruited as road manager for Brock and Slattery’s embryonic band. On attending a rehearsal, he mentioned that he also owned a sax. “Bring it along,” they said. 

So he did. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

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