I first heard Van der Graaf Generator on the Charisma Keyboards sampler LP released in 1974. The Charisma label had been set up by former sports journalist Tony Stratton-Smith, who was manager of The Nice and the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. Unable to find a record company that would release an album by one of his favourite bands, he founded his own company and released the Van der Graaf Generator album The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other himself. The track on that sampler was White Hammer from The Least We Can Do and, compared to the rather elaborate Fountain of Salmacis (the Genesis offering) with its alternating delicate passages and swelling mellotron, White Hammer struck me almost forcibly; an intense, almost frightening piece of music. The original Peter Hammill-penned sleeve notes for The Least We Can Do give an insightful view into the kind of music that VdGG were playing, warning people not to listen to the album when they were angry because “you’ll smash something” and the depressed would “get more so.”
Though I sometimes reflected on the song, I didn’t pursue the music at the time. It was actually 1981 when I bought my first VdGG album – at a sale in the Streatham branch of WH Smith. I had a choice between Godbluff and Still Life and plumped for the latter because of the rather interesting lyrics printed on the back of the sleeve. The subject matter covered seemed to reflect Hammill’s former undergraduate course, Liberal Studies in Science at Manchester. Still Life is one of my favourite albums and for a couple of weeks after buying it, it rarely left my turntable.
When I saw the first VdGG reunion gig at the Festival Hall in 2005 I was stunned by the power of the quartet – it was like being pinned in my chair by a sonic tour-de-force (and I regard it as the best gig I’ve ever attended, one that I’m able to revisit because it’s captured on the brilliant CD Real Time.) I went to see the band, sans David Jackson at the Barbican during the Trisector tour in 2007 and that was also like a physical assault, but losing the wind instrumentalist made it more unbalanced, raw and awkward and when in full flow, like on Gog, the band seemed to be teetering on the edge. I have a bit of a soft spot for the Barbican; the brutalist architecture and the whiff of culture. It’s actually a decent size and has very favourable ticket prices for such a comfortable venue with great acoustics (£25 for a front stalls ticket, a little off centre.)
This show started on time with a few thoughtful words from Hammill sitting at his electric piano, beginning with the lengthy Over the Hill from Trisector. The power of the music generated by the three members of the band was quite remarkable. I thought the 64 year old Hammill looked slightly frail, but he certainly can still belt out songs – with some of the most intelligent lyrics ever written. Next up was Flight, the only side-long track from Hammill’s solo career, found on A Black Box and also performed by the K Group on the live album The Margin. This began and ended with organ generated aeroplane sounds and showcased the band at the ragged edge as we were taken through the different subsections – dangerous and brilliant.
I’ve not been such a fan of the post-2005 material partly because of the change in song content but mostly because I prefer my prog long-form. Hammill seems rather preoccupied with his age and though there’s no denying his writing is as clever as ever, I’m a fan of his flights of fancy rather than when he deals with the mundane. Having said that, the next three tracks they played Lifetime, All That Before and, I believe, Bunsho, made me reappraise my point of view. No one uses the guitar like Peter Hammill. His unique style, coupled with the superb organ and bass pedal work of Hugh Banton and remarkable drumming of Guy Evans flitting seamlessly between time signatures really does make the material incredibly interesting. Plus the guitar riff on All That Before can rightly be called a killer.
Throughout the tour there have been subtle variations to the set list. Next, following a short but certainly not perfunctory introduction we were treated to Man-Erg and A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers. These two tracks are crowd favourites, from what many regard as the defining Van der Graaf Generator album Pawn Hearts, and they were stunning. Banton somehow managed to cover for the absence of saxophone and the alternating passages of calm and near-mania from melody to dissonance were pulled off with aplomb, highlighting their status as stand-out musicians.
At the conclusion of Lighthouse Keepers they left the stage to a justifiable standing ovation and returned to play one more song: Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End the standout track from Still Life, with its overtones of science fiction (Arthur C. Clarke) and the philosophy of life after death. It really is quite something to think that, once again, I didn’t miss David Jackson.
The whole show lasted for a little less than two hours and it was all gripping drama – against a very basic stage presentation that consisted solely of spotlights and smoke machines. This, coupled with the fireworks of the performers was all that was required. I walked away feeling bruised but happy.