Greatest Albums Of The 70s: The Story of Robert Calvert’s comical concept album
#59: Captain Lockheed And The Starfighters - Robert Calvert. United Artists, 1974
Robert Calvert’s manic imagination was fuelled by bipolar disorder, an obscure condition in the 1970s. But it helped him conceive one of the decade’s most outlandish concept albums.
From its first flight on March 4, 1954 it was clear that the Lockheed F-104 was no regular airplane. Distinctively sleek and seemingly dipped in silver, it was the visual personification of the jet age – a time when speed and altitude records were front-page news and outcome of the Cold War seemed inextricably linked to our mastery of the heavens.
Imaginatively nicknamed the Starfighter, its elegantly streamlined design masked a massive single engine. The plane had a cruising speed of Mach 2 – twice the speed of sound - and was capable of rocketing to an altitude of 100,000 feet under its own power.
There had been nothing like it before, and it wouldn’t be long before the dart-shaped marvel was imprinted on the imaginations of pilots and enthusiasts alike – sadly, for all the wrong reasons. The disproportionate fatality rate of the people who flew it ensured the Starfighter would never shake its reputation as a pilot killer, and within a decade a generation of the newly resurrected West German Luftwaffe would rechristen it ‘der Witwenmacher’.
Robert Calvert always dreamed of climbing into the cockpit. A native South African whose family moved to the coastal town of Margate when he was an infant, the man who would one day stand behind the mic for Hawkwind was a true child of the jet age whose childhood fascination with airplanes and their operators would be fuelled by what he’d spy through the chain-link fence at a nearby US Air Force base at Manston.
The stream of fighters and bombers and their crews taking off and landing would leave a deep imprint on the young Calvert’s mind. In his teens, he would join the Air Training Corps, where he reached the rank of corporal and played trumpet for the 438th Squadron band. But his dream of becoming a fighter pilot was crushed by an inner ear defect. It was a disappointment that Calvert would never shake.
“Flying was an obsession with him,” says Nik Turner, Calvert’s sax-toting future bandmate in Hawkwind. “He wanted to be a poet, really, but he also had these obsessions, and that was one of them. I remember knocking around with him, it was maybe 1966, and we’d go boogie to Born To Be Wild and get stoned and have a great time. He’d go and do these poetry readings down in Thanet and Margate, these happenings. I was working on the seafront at the time selling naughty postcards, ‘Kiss Me Quick’ hats and holding drugs for mods. They’d throw a dustbin through a window, grab what they could and then I’d look after them for them. Robert’s mother was a state-registered nurse and she had a cupboard full of drugs, so he and his brother used to steal them and sell them to the mods on the seafront.”
It soon became clear to Turner that there was something profoundly different about his friend, and it wasn’t just his eclectic interests. Calvert suffered from bipolar disorder at a time when the condition was poorly understood by the medical profession and the public at large. His erratic behaviour veered towards the manic.
“My mother was frightened of him,” says Turner. “He used to come by my house and blabber on… people were scared but I never was. He’d always have breakdowns; he’d have one every 18 months according to his mother. He was a very nice guy and very stimulating company, and he turned me on to a lot of very interesting things, like William Burroughs and JP Donleavy, all these weird books, but he had some real difficulties. I remember one time he put on his full army uniform with boots and a bloomin’ great big pack and went on a march up the motorway. He put himself in hospital that time. He had an obsession with military things, but he always wanted to fly. I think his dad wanted him to be a real man. He was a foreman on a building site, and I think Robert was always a disappointment to his dad. Psychologically he wanted to impress him, which is where the military thing came from.”
It wouldn’t be long before Turner would decamp to the bright, psychedelic lights of Notting Hill in West London. Calvert would soon follow, getting a job in a tyre shop but rapidly insinuating himself into the fuzzy, anarchic communalism of Portobello Road. Turner was recruited by his friend Dave Brock to haul equipment for his newly formed band Hawkwind Zoo, and would soon join the band outright. Once again Calvert would not be far behind.