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Van Der Graaf Generator

Formed towards the end of ‘67 at Manchester University by singer (and acoustic guitarist) Peter Hammill, drummer Chris Judge Smith and organist Nick Pearne, the trio borrowed their moniker from static electricity device inventor Robert Jemison Van Der Graaf. However, after only one “bottled-off” gig the following February, Pearne decided to call it a day; it was around this time Hammill signed an ill-advised “solo” contract with US imprint, Mercury Records.
Spurred on by new manager Tony Stratton-Smith, Peter and Chris regrouped that summer with keyboard player Hugh Banton, bassist Keith Ellis and drummer/percussionist Guy Evans, the latter two having cut their teeth with the Koobas and the Misunderstood respectively.
In January 1969, contractual wrangles led to the band’s debut 45, `People You Were Going To’, being withdrawn from shops after only a few weeks. VDGG continued to perform live, supporting the likes of PINK FLOYD, The MOODY BLUES, etc. When their van and equipment was stolen it looked a tad gloomy, especially when Chris bailed out; he formed Heebalob but still remained friends with Peter.
Hammill subsequently went into the studio as a solo artist, assisted by the group – who’d refused to sign with Mercury – as his session band. Just prior to the release of what was to be a solo LP, Stratton-Smith and the label arrived at a conclusion, whereas VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR would be accredited on the set, unchaining Peter from his music masters. Phew!
Issued only in the States, THE AEROSOL GREY MACHINE (1969) {*8} was certainly worth all the musical trials and tribulations. With only import copies available at the time, the album managed to instigate a certain degree of cult-dom, Hammill exercising his wide-ranging vocal talent to startling effect on such rich oddities as `Necromancer’, `Running Back’ and `Afterwards’.
Much to the delight of nearly everyone involved with VDGG, the group re-formed, although JUICY LUCY-bound Ellis had made way for Nic Potter (ex-MISUNDERSTOOD) and sax and flute player David Jackson (ex-Heebalob). Signing to manager Tony’s newly-formed Charisma Records, the quintet released their UK Top 50-breaking, conceptual follow-up, THE LEAST WE CAN DO IS WAVE TO EACH OTHER (1970) {*8}, a fusion of sorts, blending together jazz, blues and of course, progressive rock. The record saw VDGG developing a hybrid of pseudo-gothic lyrics and poetry, the stand-out tracks being `Refugees’ (also a 5-minute plus single), `Darkness (11/11)’ and the lengthy closing cue, `After The Flood’.
Potter departed during the recording of their next project, H TO HE, WHO AM THE ONLY ONE (1970) {*8}, a record which featured the services of the (then) in-demand KING CRIMSON guitarist ROBERT FRIPP. Distinctive with its melancholy Hammond organ and synth oscillator, Hammill and Co delved deep into the cosmic world of futuristic sci-fi through conceptual pieces such as `The Emperor In His War-Room’ and `Lost’. Opener `Killer’ was indeed bleak and menacing to say the least, while echoes of BOWIE overshadowed much of Hammill’s textured tones on `House With No Door’.
That man FRIPP was also on board for VDGG’s subsequent effort, PAWN HEARTS (1971) {*7}, another conceptual, prog-rock gem which delivered three main compositions including an epic 23-minute piece, `A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers’. The composition traversed a varying degree of moods and tempos, hitting a breath-taking finale that was both innovative and excessive. The GENTLE GIANT-esque `Lemmings’ and follow-on cue `Man-Erg’, showcased the very individual VDGG at every musical twist and turn, each note it seemed, weirdly expressive and meticulous. This fourth set was their last for some time as they disbanded in ‘72.
With assistance from some VDGG members, PETER HAMMILL had squeezed in a debut solo album, `Fools Mate’ (1971) in between two previous group efforts. Sophomore solo LP, `Chameleon In The Shadow Of The Night’ (1973) was in all but the credits a VDGG set, featuring as it did his group musicians from the previous effort. For a few years, HAMMILL continued on in an increasingly experimental and inventive vein, much in evidence on his 1974 albums, `The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage’ and `In Camera’. Taking the pseudo-moniker of Rikki Nadir (a rock’n’roll refugee), 1975’s `Nadir’s Big Chance’ was somewhat thrash-y and proto-new wave.
VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR re-formed around this time, releasing three albums during the next year or two. Comprising of only four lengthy, prog-ish pieces, GODBLUFF (1975) {*8} was as complex and dense as anything from the band’s heyday; 7-minute opening salvo `The Undercover Man’ was less introspective and more emo-friendly – Peter’s trademark scream-to-a-whisper vox still echoing on the likes of `Scorched Earth’ and the fantastical 10-minute endgame `The Sleepwalkers’.
Taking a tentative second step in their cosmic comeback, the concept of STILL LIFE (1976) {*7} looked to chosen paths over time and immortality. Lyrically tongue-twisting and nobly narrative in its format and layout, side two wins out on its two 10-minute-plus epics, `My Room (Waiting For Wonderland)’ and the almost theatrical `Childlike Faith In Childhood’s End’.
Clocking-in at over 50 minutes in total and third on VDGG’s glorious comeback trail, WORLD RECORD (1976) {*8}, matched its predecessors, albeit this time with a little commercial savvy and sensibility; opener `When She Comes’ was re-vamped in part as HAMMILL’s `Sitting Targets’. Completing side one, `Masks’ was almost early ROXY MUSIC-meets-BOWIE in its sax-fuelled execution, but glam-rock was dead – or was it? Had death-glam come and went without anyone really noticing? One would have to look at side two’s post-BOWIE-esque glints of gold, `Meurglys III (The Songwriter’s Guild)’ – all 20 mind-blowing minutes of it – and almost hymnal `Wondering’; edited from its celestial crescendos on the LP, one of the very few VDGG 45s.
Featuring a revised line-up which included the addition of violin virtuoso Graham Smith (ex-STRING DRIVEN THING) and the returning Nic Potter (Jackson and Banton had taken leave), VAN DER GRAAF (as they were now called) enjoyed yet another critical success in THE QUIET ZONE / THE PLEASURE DOME (1977) {*8}. Whether their short-ish tracks were a sign of the times as punk and new wave were beginning to kick in, tracks such `Lizard Play’, `The Habit Of The Broken Heart’ and the PETER GABRIEL-esque `The Siren Song’ (plus `Chemical World’) showed Hammill and whoever could match any of the era’ spiky-topped counterparts, including fan Johnny Rotten (of The SEX PISTOLS) who later cited PH’s vocal gymnastics as a guiding influence; check out the fast-n-furious `Cat’s Eye – Yellow Fever (Running)’. The proverbial plug was finally pulled on the ‘Generator after double-live concert set VITAL (1978) {*6} went virtually unnoticed. Rasping and croaky as any good noisy prog-vs-punk act should be, Hammill and VDGG’s over-amplified, in-yer-face approach on the likes of `Ship Of Fools’ and several other gems, closed, what was to be, the penultimate chapter of the band’s history. A second wave of HAMMILL albums was already underway with `Over’ (1976) and, while his early work was really just an extension of his VDGG salad days, `The Future Now’ (1978) was prophetic in its title.
But what else could a poor boy do? yes, re-form VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR, now over a quarter of a century in the dark. Along with Jackson, Evans and Banton, the 4-piece ventured into the studio early in 2004; double-disc PRESENT {*7} surfacing the following summer. VDGG never sounded so claustrophobically adept. 27 years is a lifetime for most iconic rock star (HENDRIX, MORRISON, JOPLIN), most releasing their mortal coil as VDGG were still in their early-’70s prime. So when the group re-formed after this period of repose, fan loyalty would be tested to the max. As directly literate and provocative as their ye olde distant outings, the screech of sax, the punch percussion and the ominous organ, one could spend a good few hours rediscovering this zero-to-hero set. Opening salvo `Every Bloody Emperor’, `Nutter Alert’ and `In Babelsberg’ are the standout pieces in this rather remarkable record. If there one criticism be, maybe a double-set comeback – disc two is a tad long and laborious – was very, very ambitious in this day and age. On the back of their “Royal Festival Hall” gig on 6th May 2005, REAL TIME (2007) {*7} showed the experimental quartet could combine both aspects of their generational pull.
VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR without sax-man Jackson gave the remaining trio impetus for the group’s sophomore comeback set, TRISECTOR (2008) {*6}. The strength of epic, 12-minute piece `Over The Hill’ or organ/percussion-led group compositions `The Final Reel’ and prog-possessed `(We Are) Not Here’ were high-spots here, while the trio’s sources were as much from Peter’s 80s-era than the decade that preceded it.
On either side of a couple of VDGG reunion concert soirees (LIVE AT THE PARADISO 14:04:07 (2009) {*7} and RECORDED LIVE IN CONCERT AT METROPOLIS STUDIOS, LONDON (2012) {*6}), the band’s third studio set in four years, A GROUNDING IN NUMBERS (2011) {*6} was delivered for Esoteric Antenna Records, the latter label more at home re-issuing past glories than new ones. A little lighter and accessible than VDGG’s previous pokes and prods, and while there was no `Lemmings’ (or indeed “lemons”), Peter and Co were at their darkest on `Smoke’, `Your Time Starts Now’, `Bunsho’ and `Mathematics’. The instrumental ALT (2012) {*6} was of the avant-jazz variety, confounded by the unearthly `Colossus’, `Here’s One I Made Earlier’ and `Dronus’ tracks.
A touring schedule that crept into the following year, VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR’s MERLIN ATMOS: Live Performances 2013 (2015) {*6}; confusingly released as a double-CD and a condensed single-LP it was a further chance to yield to the 25-minute excellence of both `A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers’ and `Flight’.
Dispatching album No.13, DO NOT DISTURB (2016) {*7}, before spokesman HAMMILL would take his leave once again for solo sustenance, the veritable VDGG played to the Krimson/Floyd-ian slips among us mere mortals; this was indeed an intense and insular set of songs. But for the soaring larynx of said Peter H and the complex rhythms of co-conspirators Banton and Evans (`Aloft’, `Room 1210’, `Forever Falling’ and the head-spinning `(Oh No I Must Have Said) Yes’, particular high spots), their rewarding, quintessentially English prog grandeur would not be worth revisiting.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS May2012-Sep2016

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