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Peter Hammill

Born 5th November 1948 in Ealing, west London, singer-songwriter PETER HAMMILL has been at the core of the avant/prog/experimental rock world since allowing his solo album, `Aerosol Grey Machine’, to become VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR’s debut set in 1969 – the year that progressive rock shone through from its kaleidoscopic beams. While fans of the genre can salivate over early 70s sets such as `The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other’, `H To He, Who Am The Only One’ and `Pawn Hearts’, the prolific HAMMILL combined intermittent group with a plethora of solo albums: some great and some to fulfil a mind racing with ideas and concepts.
With assistance from some VDGG members, PETER HAMMILL had squeezed in a debut solo album FOOLS MATE (1971) {*7} in between two previous VDGG efforts. Certainly more mainstream and less grandiose, the set found the singer/lyricist developing a contemporary sound, while surrounding himself with past and present VDGG members: Potter, Evans, Banton and Jackson (others included Ray Jackson, ROD CLEMENTS, Martin Pottinger and ROBERT FRIPP). Tracks arguably touching on perfection were rapid-fire opener `Imperial Zeppelin’ (co-written like `Viking’, with old mate Smith), `Re-Awakening’ (one of his best ever), `Candle’, the BOWIE-esque `Sunshine’ and finale `I Once Wrote Some Poems’.
Sophomore solo LP CHAMELEON IN THE SHADOW OF THE NIGHT (1973) {*7} was in all but the credits a VDGG set, featuring as it did Van Der Graaf musicians from the previous effort; closing track `(In The) Black Room – The Tower’ was in fact a group cue. On this and others, HAMMILL’s passionate vocals held no barriers, his range of choral-high and deep-croon were best measured on the semi-autobiographical `German Overalls’, `Slender Threads’ and the self-explanatory `Rock And Role’. Why HAMMILL wasn’t as appreciated like his rock’n’roll counterpart BOWIE, was a mystery to many at the time – and now! Okay, his off-kilter songs were burdened with an experimental, neo-classical touch (example his piano-led `In The End’, `Easy To Slip Away’ and `What’s It Worth’).
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 {*7} and “IN CAMERA” {*5}. Every bit as harsh and tense as each other, the former record thought-provokingly questions modern-day society in songs like `Forsaken Gardens’ and the dour but essential 12-minute closer `A Louse Is Not A Home’. The latter set, meanwhile, uncharacteristically dished out a little dark humour via tail-ender `Magog (In Bromine Chambers)’, while he’s almost medieval and folky on `Faint Heart And The Sermon’ and `The Comet, The Course, The Tail’.
Taking the pseudo-moniker of Rikki Nadir (a rock’n’roll refugee), 1975’s NADIR’S BIG CHANCE {*6} was somewhat thrash-y and proto-new wave, while he and his usual suspects of Banton, Evans, Potter and Jackson cut a dash via `Birthday Special’, `Pompeii’, the punk-y title track and a re-vamp of a VDGG gem `People You Were Going To’. VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR re-formed around this time, releasing three albums during the next year or two.
PETER HAMMILL’s second solo wave had already taken shape around the time of VDGG’s `World Record’ LP release. OVER (1976) {*7} was as doom-laden and dour as any of his previous performances, although on this occasion his orchestral manoeuvres in the dark documented the trauma of a relationship breakdown and the feelings of self-recrimination. A difficult album due to its uncompromising delve into Peter’s trauma and turmoil, tracks like `Time Heals’ and the exorcising in `Lost And Found’ were just a few examples of a record that is sad as it is beautiful.
Really just an extension of VDGG in all but name (Jackson and Smith were still on board at this stage), THE FUTURE NOW (1978) {*8}, and his two subsequent efforts, were as scathing and scouring as ever. The first of these was easily his most creative albeit disconcerting and schizoid; as if proof was necessary, the cover art showed the sardonic singer with a half-side beard. With one foot back in the early 70s, the new wave of the day and possibly his own strange and sinister vision, courtesy of a few snapshots of genius in `Trappings’, `Mediaevil’ and the title track. Digging the establishment/religion, his record label, Charisma, and his own musical mortality, `Pushing Thirty’ was quite poignant, while the theatrical `The Mousetrap (Caught In)’ and anti-limelight `Energy Vampires’ were equally dramatic. If Peter’s more sedate look at life was one’s cup of char, then the reflective and introspective `If I Could’ (featuring Graham Smith on violin) was nice; if the political times were one’s bag, his aural snapshot of Boer and colonialism came no better than `A Motor-Bike In Afrika’ – a couple of years before PETER GABRIEL’s `Biko’ and others like PAUL SIMON. “The Future Now” was Peter’s prophetic opinion(s) set to thought-provoking soundscapes.
Darker and detached musically from his previous outing, 1979’s pH7 {*7} was HAMMILL taking rock to a new level – his own. But for the odd nicety such as opener, `My Favourite’, `Mirror Images’ (a VDGG “Tital” oddity),and `Handicap And Equality’, Peter’s vision was basically centred around things from the past; `Not For Keith’, `The Old School Tie’ and `Imperial Walls’. With several listens, the album attacks and grows on you in equal measures. Ditto 1980’s self-financed A BLACK BOX {*7}, a record that flitted between technoid experimentation (`Jargon King’ or `The Wipe’), VDGG-like alt-rock (`Golden Promises’), frenetic folk (`The Spirit’) and prog-rock 19-minute epic (`Flight’).
Inevitably finding a home at Virgin Records (who’d bought over Charisma), solo album number ten SITTING TARGETS (1981) {*8} was a welcome return to basic song structure; Guy Evans was back as drummer. Opening with `Breakthrough’ and the single `My Experience’, there was still a cold coda on a handful of cuts, but basically songs like the beautiful `Ophelia’, the darker `Empress’s Clothes’, `Hesitation’ and everything remaining (including the title track and classic curtain call `Central Hotel’) oozed the best from the genius of HAMMILL.
Sidestepping the rather weird cassette-only LOOPS & REELS (1983) {*5} – recorded during the early 80s, the freshly independent HAMMILL completed a couple of arty “K” group sets, ENTER K (1982) {*6} and PATIENCE (1983) {*6}. There was a sense of woulda/coulda/shoulda in most of Peter’s work, but in songs such as `Don’t Tell Me’ and the almost-epic `Happy Hour’ (both from “K”) or one-that-got-away-single `Just Good Friends’, `Comfortable?’ and `Jeunesse d’Oree’ (from the latter), the man always delivered the odd gem. Rounding off a somewhat up and down stretch for HAMMILL (and “The K Group”: aka Guy Evans, Nic Potter and ex-VIBRATORS guitarist John Ellis), the man showcased several of his best-loved tunes by way of the unconvincing but at least spontaneous THE MARGIN (1985) {*6} live in concert set.
With Jackson back in the fold and retaining Evans from “K”, SKIN (1986) {*6} continued HAMMILL’s search for the long-lost chord of the VDGG; the use of Chris Judge-Smith’s semi-a cappella `Four Pails’ was inspired indeed, while the 10-minute `Now Lover’ harked back to his prog-rock halcyon days of yore. Prolific if not essential for the 80s-centric post-prog/post-punk masses, Virgin Records release AND CLOSE AS THIS (1986) {*5} was yet another in a long line of unpredictable and intense works. Spiritual and emotionally dour at times, one could certainly file book-enders `Too Many Of My Yesterdays’ to `Sleep Now’ as slow-burners, or just slow.
Moving on from a rather new “analogue” age set (SPUR OF THE MOMENT (1988) {*5}) that combined HAMMILL with GUY EVANS, IN A FOREIGN TOWN (1988) {*6} reminded one of the all-new GENESIS or the recent KING CRIMSON/Adrian Belew melee. Criticism of Peter’s anaemic production and other such 80s foibles were rife, but tracks like `Invisible Ink’, `Auto’ and `Sci-Finance’ probably saved the day.
Thank Christ for a new decade then. Not quite, as OUT OF WATER (1990) {*5} would bear testament. Augmented by Potter, Jackson and Ellis (Evans had departed) plus Scottish violinist Stuart Gordon, one had to be a committed – or just committed – follower of the forty-something PH and self-conscious traumas; `Evidently Goldfish’ et al. Unconventional and inconsistent as the man could be, retrospective, 2 and a hour double-disc ROOM TEMPERATURE: LIVE (1990) {*6} delivered several of his recent performances. Like some Shelleyan Count from the crypt, HAMMILL takes the listener into his grandiose gloom via epic pieces such as `After The Show’, the excellent `Cat’s Eye – Yellow Fever (Running)’, `The Comet, The Course, The Tail’, `Patient’ and `Modern’.
Not immune to the theatrical basis of the rock opera, and a work he’d been touting since the 70s, HAMMILL’s musical re-interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe’s THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1991) {*5} was indeed ambitious and, need one say, outdated and out-of-sync – if Sir Lloyd-Webber be not your bag. Still, there were moments when “Poe”-faced Peter could get us into the Act; all six of them!
Back to basics and repeating a pattern much like his 80s sojourns, the smouldering FIRESHIPS (1992) {*7} and THE NOISE (1993) {*5} – the latter trailed by the obligatory live-band set THERE GOES THE DAYLIGHT (1993) {*5} – found HAMMILL the poet/artist in contemplative and reflective mood(s). From the romantic `I Will Find You’ to the demure `His Best Girl’, the former album has all the correct credentials to make this his most mainstream effort ever. But for the haunting and swirling title track, “The Noise” – the name also of his backing combo – the accompanying set falls short of expectations.
Now content to release his works through his own Fie! Records (“Fireships” had been his maiden voyage), HAMMILL continued on his musical/poetical quest on a plethora of demanding yet inspirational sets. 1994’s ROARING FORTIES {*6} – featuring the epic seven-part sojourn `A Headlong Stretch’ – was typical fare from a man willing to always expand his horizons. X MY HEART (1996) {*6}, SONIX (1996) {*5} and the collaborative live double-disc THE UNION CHAPEL CONCERT (1997) {*7} – the latter with Guy Evans (and VDGG friends) at the helm – certainly captured the HAMMILL experience and echoed many of his halcyon days. Ditto EVERYONE YOU HOLD (1997) {*6}, THIS (1998) {*6} and his first post-50-something excursion alongside ROGER ENO (Brian’s bro) on THE APPOINTED HOUR (1999) {*7}. The latter was arguably his most experimental for some time, taking in Roger’s ambient and ethereal textures on twenty pieces of silvery soundscapes.
Peter passed the millennium with NONE OF THE ABOVE (2000) {*6}, an album that reinstated the man’s love of the melancholy and monotone; his two daughters featured as back-up. WHAT, NOW? (2001) {*6}, his Hammill/Sonix outing UNSUNG (2001) {*5} and his return to form CLUTCH (2002) {*7}. The latter folky/acoustic set teamed the sombre singer-songwriter with regulars David Jackson and Stuart Gordon, while the as-always confrontational subject matters (religion, domesticity and illness) were his tour de force; check out `Driven’, `We Are Written’ and `This Is The Fall’.
In contrast to his previous diversion, the multi-layered 40-minute song-cycle concept of INCOHERENCE (2004) {*6} was yet another transitional piece in HAMMILL’s absorbing canon. Probably perturbed yet quietly taken in by the success of another former prog star, PETER GABRIEL, this Peter looked to find a theme between the language of misunderstanding and miscommunication – many of today’s foibles; `All Greek’, `Gone Ahead’, `Babel’ and `Cretans Always Lie’, conveyed his angle best.
Meanwhile, back at PETER HAMMILL’s solo ranch while VDGG re-formed, SINGULARITY (2006) {*8} – recorded entirely on his lonesome – was received in high praise in most quarters. Bookended by stunning pieces, `Our Eyes Give It Shape’ and the apocalyptic `White Dot’, Peter is again eloquent and delightfully dramatic on the likes of `Event Horizon’, `Famous Last Words’ and the glam-grunge gem `Vainglorious Boy’. Of course, raw live performances by HAMMILL – this time alongside stalwart Stuart Gordon between ’99 and ’04 – on their previous part-live/part-studio VERACIOUS (2006) {*6} was of the cumulative kind from “The Noise” to “Incoherence”.
Now content to stretch himself between two camps (solo & VDGG), HAMMILL expanded on his prolific solo CV via a couple of studio CDs and a retrospective concert delight, PNO GTR VOX: LIVE PERFORMANCES (2011) {*6}. 2009’s THIN AIR {*7} took the theme of hypocrisy and secrecy among governments (`Undone’ and `Stumbled’ are the treasures here), while 2012’s CONSEQUENCES {*6} retained all the classic HAMMILL traits.
Friends since meeting in 2005 at a VDGG reunion gig in London, PETER HAMMILL and guitarist Gary Lucas (formerly of CAPTAIN BEEFHEART’s Magic Band) vowed to work one day when the chance arose. A fan of Peter’s work since his earliest VDGG days, a collaborative EP turned into enough songs for a full-set; OTHER WORLD {*7} arriving from Esoteric Antenna in the second month of 2014. A strange liaison indeed, there were more than enough spacey soundscapes to contend with (examples `Spinning Coins’, `The Kid’ plus `Of Kith & Kin’), and in the distinctive aura of the HAMMILL halo, eerie ambience and atmosphere collide with a sense of purpose. Should do more.
Almost invisible and obscured by the plentiful retro releases from former prog stars (and all the re-issues), the 21-track …ALL THAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN… (2014) {*7}, was delivered without much fuss. Consciously edited to come across as incomplete, HAMMILL once again challenged both himself and his audience. At times sprawling and as always brooding and haunting, the avant-rock star was at his most seductive with `Piper Smile’, `Never Wanted’, `Inklings, Darling’ and `In Overview’.
Whether one could see the woods, FROM THE TREES (2017) {*7} was certainly HAMMILL’s most enchanting and intimate solo album for years. Awash with swathes of introspective vocals over haunting piano flourishes, the underrated but nevertheless undeterred cosmic star excelled on the memorable `Reputation’ and `The Descent’, whilst patience and persistence could well reap rewards for sprawling opener `My Unintended’, `Torper’, `Girl To The North Country’ et al.
Putting to one side the complementary live track-for-track “From The Trees” set, X/TEN (2018) {*6} and the exhaustive in-concert 8xCD boxed set, NOT YET NOT NOW (2019) {*6}, the prog-rock side of lyricist PETER HAMMILL re-surfaced with Sweden’s seasoned ISILDURS BANE on `In Amazonia’ (2019). A perfect vehicle for the gaunt-like VDGG veteran, there was much to debate on this one-off and unique combination.
© MC Strong 1994-2002/GRD // rev-up MCS Dec2014-Jun2019

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