Van der Graaf Generator

TrackAlbum
A Plague Of Lighthouse KeepersPawn Hearts
After The FloodThe Least We Can Do
Is Wave To Each Other
Chemical WorldThe Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome
House With No DoorH To He Who Am The Only One
La RossaStill Life
Man-ErgPawn Hearts
MathematicsA Grounding In Numbers
PilgrimsStill Life
Theme One (original mix)Pawn Hearts (bonus track)
The Sphinx In The FaceThe Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm

 

Contributor: Ian Ashleigh

There are some who find Peter Hammill’s voice difficult and I will admit it is not an easy listen. There are others who compare Hammill’s vocal style favourably with Nico. When Hammill’s voice is accompanied by the strange and unusual lyrics he writes and to, sometimes, less than obvious musical arrangements, the effect can be somewhat disturbing. John Lydon cites him as an influence.

The turbulent career of Van der Graaf Generator is catalogued in numerous places and I won’t recreate that here.

There will be some people reading for whom Van der Graaf Generator is a new name. They were, and indeed are, a progressive rock band formed in Manchester, England in 1967 and have been through splits, two periods of ‘disbandment’, reformations and numerous band members ever since. Peter Hammill founder, songwriter, keyboard player and vocalist, has been a constant presence. The current trio of Peter Hammill, Hugh Banton and Guy Evans have been the mainstays of the band throughout the majority of its career.

The band had limited commercial success in the UK but had a big following in Italy in the early 1970s and as a teenager I thought that (like PFM) Van der Graaf Generator were Italian.

They took their name from the electrostatic generator which uses a moving belt to accumulate very high amounts of electrical potential on a hollow metal globe on the top of a stand. It was invented by American physicist Robert J. Van de Graaff in 1929. The band spells its name without the second letter ‘f’ at the end.

My ten does not reflect any particular period but tracks that speak to me. I wasn’t sure how to arrange the ten, so I went for alphabetical order.

VdGG (to use their abbreviation) primarily created keyboard and saxophone led progressive rock music, with minimal focus on the guitar. There was a period when along with a guitarist, violin player Graham Smith (also a member of String Driven Thing) was a member of the band.

A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers opens this collection and is from the 1971 album Pawn Hearts, the name being a ‘spoonerism’ of ‘horn parts’ and apparently coming when saxophonist David Jackson indicated he was going into the studio to record further overdubs for the album. The track itself is over 23 minutes long but is listed as being in 10 sections. The very name of the track is enough to raise eyebrows and the lyric is equally opaque but compelling along with the musical arrangement that includes ‘Dalek’ vocal effects. Robert Fripp (of King Crimson) plays on this and on Man-Erg.

This is the longest recorded track from VdGG’s studio albums although 18 tracks across their albums are in excess of 10 minutes. Two others feature in the selection here.

After The Flood closes 1970’s offering The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other and paints a bleak picture of the world following such an event, and a stark warning that it could be repeated if the ice caps melt, with the lines, “And when the water falls again / All is dead and nobody lives” as a continuous refrain. Yet somehow there is some hope.

Chemical World is another bleak song from The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome (1977) on which Graham Smith plays violin in place of David Jackson’s saxophone. The album has a less intense feel than its predecessors but even so the lyrical and musical expressions are clearly VdGG even if there is a more prominent role for guitars.

I just love House With No Door and as I played about with the rest of the list, this track from H To He Who Am The Only One (1970) was always going to feature. There is something about Peter Hammill’s piano on this track that resonates with me and the pleas within the lyric speak to me of a little boy lost trying to find his way home.

The amazing cover of Still Life from 1976 is a Lichtenberg figure, a frozen-in-action shot of an electrical discharge from a real Van de Graaff generator machine, set in acrylic. La Rossa is one of the few rock songs in the catalogue that moves away from the prog genre towards the mainstream.

A return to Pawn Hearts gives us Man-Erg which, on the face of it, starts in almost exuberant musical form but then listen to the lyric and you realise that Peter Hammill has lulled us into a false sense of serenity which is totally shattered at the 3½ minute mark.

The most recent song in the ten is Mathematics which is taken from A Grounding In Numbers (2011) and bizarrely sets mathematical terms to music to strangely good effect. The core of the album was recorded in a studio in a week with the members then exchanging pieces for overdub recorded in their own studios either over the internet or on CD-R.

Pilgrims is from Still Life and again is musically more accessible than other tracks but in true VdGG style has a disturbing lyric.

Theme One was written by George Martin as the main theme for BBC Radio 1 and was the first piece of music heard on the new radio station at 7.00 a.m. on 30th September 1967. VdGG released it as a single and it was a hit in Italy. It appeared as a bonus track on the 2005 reissue of Pawn Hearts in a version that differed from the track on the US and Canadian release of the LP and the single.

The Sphinx In The Face and Sphinx Returns are either side of Chemical World at the end of The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome and it closes my selection. Another complex set of lyrics set into a complicated musical arrangement and possibly the most opaque of the ten here, but by no means of the VdGG recorded output.

I did sound out a friend of mine for his 10 and we only had two in common. I rather hope he will read this and add his comments.

Sofa Sound – official Peter Hammill website

Van der Graaf Generator website

Van der Graaf Generator biography (iTunes)

Peter Hammill has also had a mighty prolific career as a solo artist releasing over thirty albums between 1971 and now. Would anyone in his massive and dedicated fan base like to deliver a solo topper-ten unto toppermost? Just email FromMeToYou@toppermost.co.uk

TopperPost #368

2 Comments

  1. Nairn Davidson
    Oct 25, 2014

    I think you really need Killer in your ten. A great watch live, so intense.

  2. Rob Millis
    Oct 29, 2014

    A good read. I’ve never been 100% into VDGG despite a good friend or two trying to convince me otherwise, but I know the material well enough to kind of agree on the choices! The Hammond-botherer in me does find it necessary to highlight Hugh Banton’s self-customised E100 as a fine device. I might point out that with regard to finding Hammill’s voice difficult or comparing it favourably to that of Nico – it is quite easy to be in both camps!
    Cheers, RM.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

↓