An Interview With Nik Turner

Photo: Nik Turner in 2010

Nik Turner, who died 10 November 2022, was a well known Kent musician. Born in Margate, 26 August 1940, he is most famous for being a member of Hawkwind in its early period, from 1969-1976. The following interview was recorded in 1994 at his home near Cardigan, in mid-Wales.

From Fierce Dancing: Adventures in the Underground (1996)

by CJ Stone.

Chapter 14: Back to the Garden

The joke at Stonehenge was always that Hawkwind would appear. Hawkwind were the name band that had put their influence behind several of the festivals. Every year the rumour would fly around: “Hawkwind are coming, Hawkwind are coming!” Mostly the bands were fairly mediocre: endless pedestrian replays of “Smoke on the Water” and other dreary rock classics. Big-name bands wouldn’t play because there was no intention of paying them. The story goes that Free turned up at a free festival one year, then left when they discovered they weren’t going to be paid. But Hawkwind were never like that, not in the early days. They were “on the vibe”, as the expression goes. They believed in the philosophy of the free festivals. So the rumour would go around year after year that this year they were going to appear. In fact they only ever played there about three times.

I went to see Nik Turner, who was in the band when they had their chart hit, and who turned up at Stonehenge almost every year, with or without Hawkwind. He lives in the Welsh countryside, in the hills near Cardigan, in a rambling pink cottage several miles down an isolated track. There were caravans parked all over the place and kids running round with space helmets shooting each other with electronic pistols. There was a cowed-looking dog and two pot-bellied pigs with deep frowns looking grumpy.

I asked, “Are you intending to eat them, or are they just pets?” I was referring to the pigs, not the kids.

Nik Turner replied, “We’re not intending to eat them. They just wander around and we feed them occasionally.” He was probably referring to the pigs and the kids.

I took to him immediately. In a way he reminded me of Penny Rimbaud from Crass, only less serious. He’s about the same age, in his fifties I’d guess. He was wearing only a pair of shorts, and his hair was cut short and dyed blonde. He had on a copper anklet. We sat on the floor outside his workshop basking in the evening sunlight. He has a relaxed and easy manner, and sparkling blue eyes. You could tell immediately that he has enjoyed his life.

The first thing he told me was that he didn’t want to talk about drugs. He’d heard of a man in America recently who had taken some acid and then freaked out. He went to the police. They immediately charged him. He was banged up for about ten years. Such is the atmosphere of fear over there.

This was the day after he’d returned from an American tour. He talked a lot about America.

He was always into alternative culture, he told me. He was always involved, always found it attractive. Taking drugs (so he was talking about drugs straight away) was really groovy. Yet he never took heroin, though he was reputed to have been some sort of a dealer at the time and to have carried up to 15lbs of heroin around in his sax case. That was never true. It was just propaganda. He has some ex-junkie friends, some of whom are now in a bad way. He wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. He only ever took drugs as a sort of experiment.

He was brought up in Margate, he told me. Margate is about fifteen miles from where I live. We chatted on a bit about places we knew.

He mentioned a lot of names: Richard Neville, Mick Farren, Michael Moorcock.

“You obviously knew all the characters,” I said.

“Yeah, I was involved in it for such a long time—counter-culture, or whatever you might call it—my first involvement in the whole thing, apart from being peripherally caught up in it, was going to UFO in Tottenham Court Road.” It had been his first experience of seeing bands and other people who were “doing things”, as he says. He saw Pink Floyd and a band called Suntrolley. This was in about 1966.

“I thought that was quite groovy,” he said. “Groovy” is his favourite word. He says “groovy” in a groovy sort of way. He’s a groovy guy. “Then I went to Berlin in 1969. There were these free jazz musicians and they convinced me that you didn’t have to be technically competent in order to express yourself. So I started playing free jazz in a rock’n’roll band. That’s how I became involved in Hawkwind.”

He spent some time in Holland in 1967. He worked in a rock’n’roll circus. “The Psychedelic Circus, it was called, Tent ’67, it was known as at the time.” It was a huge tent taking up to 2,000 people. Nik was working as one of the crew and in the bar. They’d arrive on site in the afternoon, put up the tent, then do a show. They’d take the tent down at midnight and by 2am they were back on the road, heading for the next gig. They’d arrive there, kip out till about midday, and the whole process would start again. He laughed as he told me this.

“What was the nature of the performance?” I asked.

“The nature of the performance was, we had this articulated lorry. It had flaps that would come out and make it about twice the size of the trailer, which was used as a stage, and we had a PA and a light show, and we had a bar and… basically it was a light show and bands and flowers we were giving away. You know, flower-power and all that sort of thing. There were a few shops in there as well—not exactly shops, but merchandising and things going on as well.”

I noticed the similarities to the current rave scene and mentioned this to him.

“Yes, it was similar,” he said, enthusing over the point, “except it was legal and nobody even questioned it. Nobody hassled us. It was in Holland, which is pretty liberal, anyway. We did a different town every night and we travelled around for a couple of months.”

After that he became a roadie for a soul singer, a guy who did James Brown impersonations. The soul singer would fall to the ground as if overcome with emotion, and Nik used to have to rush up to him on the stage with a towel and try to mop his brow, saying, “Davy, Davy, are you all right?” The guy would brush him aside, grab hold of the microphone and start up some heavy-duty song full of wrenched emotion: “You know, ‘A Change Has Got To Come’, something like that.” It was all part of the act.

As he was telling me this, the pot-bellied pigs were snuffling and grunting about, looking for food. It was as if they were snorting disparagingly at the whole notion of counter-culture, like a pair of grumpy aunties making an unfavourable commentary on our musical tastes.

While he was in Holland, he got to know these blokes from a band called Doctor Brock’s Famous Cure. He kept in touch with them. Years later they asked him to join their band. This was before Hawkwind. It was a band which didn’t even have a name, latterly called Group X. They did one gig. That barnstormed a place in Notting Hill Gate. They simply turned up there and asked if they could play for ten minutes.

“The people who ran the place said, ‘Oh all right then.’ You know, reluctantly, ‘Oh all right then’.”

Everybody was impressed and John Peel, the DJ, advised a manager who was present at the gig to take them on board. So almost immediately they had a management deal and, soon after, a record deal, and they really didn’t have much problem. They called themselves Hawkwind. It was a combination of Michael Moorcock’s involvement—he was writing books about a character called Hawkmoon—and what was reputed to be Nik Turner’s nickname.

“Rumour has it that it was a reference to my prodigious farting and spitting. You know, hawking and farting.”

Earlier in the conversation, when we’d been talking about Margate, Nik had told me that he’d run a stall there for a while. This intrigued me. I wanted to know more.

“Yeah, I spent about four years doing that, on and off. I had my own business there. A mate of mine’s father was an importer of fancy goods and silly hats—kiss-me-quick, Italian hats, that sort of thing. We got them on credit, paid a minimal rent for a pitch on the seafront and ran it selling stuff to the tourists—you know, buckets and spades, all that sort of thing.”

Kiss-me-quick hats on Margate seafront. The very thing I’d envisaged at Glastonbury.

This was in the mid-sixties during the mods and rockers era. He had been in the middle. “I knew all the mods and all the rockers and they were all fighting. I was looking after the rocker’s motorbikes and I was looking after the speed that had just come out of a chemist’s shop—big boxes of Methedrine, etc. I knew all the local policemen as well. They’d stop and chat to me while I had all these drugs. They’d say, ‘How you doin’?’ and I’d say, ‘Yeah fine, yeah, blah, blah.’ ‘Everythin’ all right? Quiet day, nice weather…’ I was in the middle really. I knew everybody. I suppose I was a bit of a mod. I had a scooter at the time.”

I couldn’t help reflecting on the difference between Nik Turner and Rose from the Incredible String Band. Nik was telling me stories. He was laughing at all the things he’d got up to. He had obviously enjoyed his life. It was clear that he never regretted anything. I told him that this was my impression.

“Yeah, yeah. I don’t regret anything I did. I don’t see the point of regretting it. I’ve always been of the philosophy that, for better or worse, that was my life. That was what I did.”

I asked Nik about his involvement with Stonehenge. How many had he actually played?

“I think Hawkwind played at—was it the second or the third Stonehenge? Might have been the second one. They had the stage next to the stones. I think that might have been the first year that we actually played there. I sort of instigated it.”

“Had you had your chart hit by then?” I asked.

“No, we didn’t have the chart hit, but by then we had an album out.”

“So you were a known album band?”

“Yeah, we had the first album out. You say the first festival was 1974? So I guess we played in 1975 and 1976, and I believe Hawkwind did play there in 1977. I wasn’t with them then. They erected their Atomhenge thing. It looked like a molecular structure, with pillars and pieces going across it, and great big crystalline shapes, star clusters of crystals. It was quite a large structure. In fact, we’d had it built for stage shows for part of the space-ritual thing, but that happened after I’d left the band. I was involved with having it built, but then I left.”

It was around this time, in 1978, that he moved to Wales. He also went on holiday that year and did some recording in the Great Pyramid, from which he made an album, and formed a band called Sphynx. He had a pyramid stage constructed for promoting the album and played at all the free festivals with the stage. The album was released in June, with a free concert at the Roundhouse, backed up by punk poets and New Wave bands. The next day they went down to Stonehenge. Nik was one of those responsible for the rainbow-punk phenomena: punks turned on by mysticism and the hippie ideal.

They toured with that stage, did lots of festivals. They were playing throughout the summer.

“We took it to Blackbushe Airport where Bob Dylan was playing, and set it up outside as a sort of protest gig—protesting against Bob Dylan and the price of his concert, and the fact that the only reason he was having a concert was to pay for his alimony. It wasn’t in the spirit of what I thought he was about, so we did this gig as a protest against him. He’d suddenly become very Establishment.”

I was interested in what makes people, who have once been counter-culture icons, turn to the Establishment. Nik had never taken that route, though I’m sure the temptations had been there.

“It’s difficult to say. I mean, if somebody came along and said, ‘Here’s a million pounds. Will you sign with Warner Brothers and make an album with….'”


“Well, I like Pavarotti, but I suppose it depends how you view it. I mean, I like Pavarotti, but then I like good music. I don’t like bad music. A lot of alternative music is bad. One way of looking at it is that people are alternative because they’re not talented enough to be anything else. I have my own principles. I suppose it’s also the way you define ‘alternative’. I live what you might call an alternative lifestyle. I eat only organic food. I don’t like shopping at supermarkets because I think, on principle, they’re a bunch of cunts. They offer you something cheap, they put everyone else out of business, then they put up the price. In the end, it’s not cheap at all. On one level you can’t go against progress; you can’t go against what people want. Hypermarkets are in fact progressive, because they’re a reaction to what’s happening. In America you can go into one shop and buy everything on a credit card, and that’s what they’re trying to do in this country: they’re trying to turn this country into America.”

“Do you think this is inevitable,” I asked, “or do you think that there’s a way of opposing it?”

“I think that materialism is a funny thing. People are brainwashed into it. I think people get brainwashed with television. I don’t watch television myself. I haven’t had one in twenty-five years.”

I was looking to Nik to guide me out of a dilemma I’d been caught up in. Counter-culture as a movement has been very strong in the nineties and it is very influenced by the sixties. It has some positive sides to it, but at the same time I want to remind people of the drawbacks. I was trying to draw upon Nik Turner’s experience to help me get across my point.

I said, “For instance, drugs aren’t the answer because look who took drugs. Mick Jagger took drugs and he’s the Establishment. Bob Dylan took drugs and now he’s the Establishment…”

“Even the Grateful Dead,” said Nik. “Although they’re less Establishment really. They’re the exception that proves the rule, in a way, because they’re probably the most popular band in America, I would say, although unfortunately Jerry Garcia has just died. He was in a drugs rehabilitation clinic where he’d gone to get himself off crack and he died… Well they say he died of natural causes, but he probably had a heart attack or something like that. He was a figurehead; like a guru in a way. He was like a father to a lot of people, because America is a soulless place and I think he was someone with a bit of heart who people related to. Now there’s a whole generation of parents who are from broken homes, and I think that Jerry Garcia represented a bit of stability and also something spiritual; something solid, something with a bit of foundation.”

The genesis of this book had been a dream featuring the now disbanded Grateful Dead.

“It’s sad that it was crack,” I said. “The story goes that Grateful Dead concerts were like the original raves. They carried on and on, like the original acid tests, and the drug was always acid.”

“Yes, that’s right. But in the last few years it’s come to pass that the Dead have stimulated a great following which is bigger than the band and also more spiritual. There used to be a great group of people that would simply follow the band around. They wouldn’t even go to the concerts, they’d just park up in the car-park and that was where it was all happening—it was a social gathering. It’s rather like Hawkwind gigs. Hawkwind were likened to the Dead in the early days for that reason: you knew at a Hawkwind gig that you would see loads of your friends, people that you hadn’t seen for a long time. It’s like Stonehenge. You’d see loads of people you hadn’t seen since the last Stonehenge.

“Festivals are gathering places. They’re quite meaningful spiritual things. I’ve read books about megalithic culture. At Stonehenge there was a great gathering every year, and a great festival, and a great party, and everybody used to get totally wasted and it was like a real… a spiritual thing.”

“And you think that the latter-day Stonehenge, the more recent ones, were the successors to that?”

“People have a need for that sort of thing. They have a need for communion with each other and for communication. Christianity sucks, and I think that the old religion is much more meaningful to people. That’s what Stonehenge represents: the old religion, paganism, some sort of earth magic, to do with the seasons, the natural spirits and the fertility of the ground. That’s what happened, initially. Some fairly wise people became aware of how the seasons worked, that there was a summer, a winter, a spring and an autumn, and the solstice and the equinox, the guiding points that they could take their calendar from…”

“So Stonehenge was basically a huge calendar?”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“So when do you think that people became aware—I’m talking about this generation—that Stonehenge was somehow significant?”

“A lot of people didn’t realise it, but a few people did, and those are the ones who instigated and encouraged other people to become involved. A lot of people didn’t know why they went to Stonehenge. They went there to see their friends, but their friends were probably there because they realised the importance of it.

He went to his first Stonehenge in 1974, he told me, the year it was instigated. He was driving back from Wales and he saw some people there. He’d heard about the festival—it was being promoted by Radio Caroline—and so he stopped for a few hours. There were no bands, no PA, no stage. It was just a gathering of people to celebrate the solstice. He met a few people (he didn’t have any recollection of any of them being called Wally and he never met Wally Hope), then he drove back to London. The next year he played there with Hawkwind.

They went to a few of the Windsor festivals too. They did a gig there with Michael Moorcock in 1973, the year before it was trashed. They were happy to play free festivals, despite the fact that they were a name band. They were never materially motivated. They were happy simply to play and for people to enjoy it. He was aware of the free festivals as a spiritual thing. Hawkwind were always a spiritually motivated band. Spiritual and social revolutionaries at the same time. That’s why Michael Moorcock got involved with them.

We drew parallels between the rave scene and the festival scene. Same blend of the spiritual and the revolutionary. Same motivation, for political freedom and spiritual growth.

“You could say that the rave scene is the modern festival scene,” he said. “Or it has been, although they’ve tried to suppress that as well.”

“Well they have. They’ve suppressed it very successfully in fact,” I said. “Most of the rave organisations now live in Europe.”

“That’s right, yeah. When I was in Germany, Spiral Tribe were living in Berlin. I met some of the guys. I think they call themselves SP23 now.”

“Did they give any kind of nod of recognition to you, as someone who had come before?”

“Oh yeah. They came to one of my gigs.

He’d been in America recently, he told me, under the name of Nik Turner’s Hawkwind. This had got up the nose of the current Hawkwind, who’d taken out injunctions against him, banning him from using the name.

“That’s how Establishment they’ve become, that they’ll appeal to a lawyer to take out injunctions against me, to prevent me from using the name that I’d helped make successful.”

The tour was a great success. People were saying, “We’ve been waiting twenty years to see you guys.”

“One guy came up to me, he looked deeply into my eyes and shook me by the hand, and he said, ‘I really want to thank you from the bottom of my heart,’ and I said, ‘Why’s that?’ He said, ‘In 1972 I was in Vietnam. When I came back from there I was a fucking killer. I was a complete psychopath. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I found this album,’ and he produced In Search of Space, which is Hawkwind’s second album. And he said, ‘This album really straightened me out, and I wanna thank you.’ I was flabbergasted. I thought, wow, it’s really worth all the work I’ve ever done to have that one guy say that to me.”

After Nik returned from America he went on a tour of Europe. In Berlin he met the Mutoid Waste Company, who build weird sculptures out of disused cars etc. Spiral Tribe were living with them, squatting a place in East Germany.

“They were all at the gig, and Spiral Tribe did have that attitude towards me—a sort of mutual respect. I know what they’ve been doing and they know what I’ve been doing. And”— putting on a parody biblical voice—‘It Was Good’.”

We talked about the ethos of the free festivals, discussing the difference between the free festivals and free parties, and the licensed variety.

“Nothing’s free,” he said. “Somebody has to pay for it. A festival is as good as what you take there.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but the difference in ethos boils down to: At a pay festival, where the point is to make money, for a start you have to pay for licenses, which are vast, then you’ve got to pay for security fences because you’ve got to stop people getting in for free. Once you’ve paid for security, security fencing, policing, and all the rest of it, the price is bumped up phenomenally. At a free festival you can cover the cost by taking a bucket round.”

“Yeah, but what I’m saying about nothing being free: I had a stage constructed to promote my act, then I donated it to the people, because I didn’t want to carry on going round to all the festivals putting it up all the time. Half the time I used to put it up single-handedly. I just used to take it to Stonehenge, where it was used as the main stage for the rest of the time, for as long as it was going. Nothing is free, but a free festival is what everybody brings to it. I’d take the stage, but I didn’t want any money for it. I saw it as my contribution. This is what free festivals are about: what people could contribute to them. It gives me a buzz to be involved and to do something. I don’t want thanks or anything, it’s just a giving thing. This is what I’ve got. I’ve helped as much as I can. I can work my bollocks off at these sorts of events in the hope that people will enjoy themselves.

“It’s a spiritual thing—not in a religious way, but meaningful in other than a materialist way. A communion of people, communication; a bringing of people together in a nice, loving way. Brotherly love: what I’ve always been into. I suppose I’m a hippie, whatever that means—wanting to give, wanting to turn people on, not doing things for any other reason than for the joy of doing it.”

After Sphinx he formed a band called Inner City Unit, a cult band of the eighties. It had a political/satirical edge. I asked him to define what he meant by that.

“It was a bit like Crass, except it was humorous. I always found Crass a bit too noisy, a bit self-indulgent, taking themselves a bit too seriously.”

“But you saw yourselves as kind of parallel to Crass?” I asked.

“We were on the same sort of level. We used to play in all kinds of squats, places like that, and we did loads of benefits, free concerts and parties. The difference between them and us is that they (although it’s a bit of a contradiction in terms) tried to start the ‘Anarchists’ Centre’, but they were doing a lot for young kids. I didn’t do anything like that. I just did benefits. When people used to get a squat, I used to go and play there. I did a lot of parties at squats. I was involved. I was accessible to all those people living on the edge. We never really came together with Crass at all. I did do a gig at Stonehenge where they were playing. All these Hell’s Angels were trying to smash up the stage and I was trying to stop them. I went up to a big gang of Hell’s Angels and said, ‘What’s the problem?’ They’d say, ‘It’s not me, it’s him.’ When it came down to it, it was in fact one really psychopathic guy out of his head on speed and booze, who was basically a troublemaker, and he was instigating all the others.”

“It was the idea of punks, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, yeah. ‘Fuckin’ spiky-haired punks,’ he was saying. This was at the time when punks were becoming a bit of a cross-over, you know. They were becoming rainbow punks and were joining with the hippies, which had been something they’d reacted against. They suddenly found they had a lot in common with them.”

“Which is precisely what Crass were all about, what they were trying to do. They were trying to make the cross-over.”

“Yeah, because they were all what you might call ex-hippies.”

“There’s an interesting parallel here. The first person I interviewed for this book was the drummer with Crass and he lives in a very similar setting to you.”

“Yeah, yeah. I always had a lot of respect for them, although I never went to one of their gigs. They were a very popular band and they were sort of a super-cult band. You’d see loads of punks around with the Crass symbol on the backs of their jackets. They had a really big following, which I thought was great, you know. I never knew them. I never got involved with them. One of my roadies eventually did. He became the guitarist with a band called Conflict, one of the Crass bands. He was called Kevin Webb. I think he played bass in the band.”

By now it was getting dark and fairly cold. We were still sitting out in the garden as the peachy sky drifted into subdued splendour.

Before setting off for home I went to the toilet. I walked through the back door into the spacious, polished-wood-floored living room. There was a notice on the door: “Please remove footwear before entering.” I was reminded of my dream and the rule at the Crass house.

All through the conversation there had been this peculiar honking noise. I’d looked around to discover that it was coming from a little girl. Later on the girl (another of Nik’s children) came over to talk to him. She was deaf. She pointed to his hair, then twirled her fingers in her own and made some signs.

Nik said, in a careful, laboured voice while signing, “Yes. I had it done in America. I’ve cut my hair and dyed it blonde. Do you like it?”

The look on her face was one of unrestrained affection, and the tone in his voice was gentle and filled with affection. The bond between them was palpable. Like love.

About CJ Stone

CJ Stone is an author, columnist and feature writer. He has written seven books, and columns and articles for many newspapers and magazines.

Read more of CJ Stone’s work here, here and here.

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