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Electrostatic maelstrom

By ProgBlog, May 31 2015 09:06AM

This month marks the the 10th anniversary of the live reunion of Van der Graaf Generator (Friday 6th May 2005.) I’d heard about the event a couple of weeks beforehand but when I checked for availability, the Royal Festival Hall had sold out. Fortunately, one of my work colleagues was something of an expert at getting seats for prestigious concerts with high public demand and advised me that the press were often allocated a job lot of tickets that they didn’t always use and that I should check for returns about 24 hours before the show. I ‘phoned the box office two days beforehand and to my surprise and delight, managed to secure my attendance.

I think it’s fair to say that Van der Graaf Generator are an acquired taste. From being intrigued by the track White Hammer from The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other that I first heard on the Charisma Keyboards sampler LP in 1974 which I found to be an intense, almost frightening piece of music about the Spanish Inquisition, of all things, I’ve been a big fan. As much as I liked The Fountain of Salmacis, the Genesis offering on that album, it was the sheer force of VdGG that impressed me, blowing the twee Genesis track into the dust. Older brother Tony recently thought that he should see what the fuss was about and I directed him to Pawn Hearts as a good representation of the Mark I incarnation and Godbluff from the 1975 formation. He wasn’t over impressed and I think that VdGG inspires adoration and dislike in equal measure. That John Lydon should go on records as being a fan is quite amazing.

Apart from some powerful music, one of the things that I like about VdGG is Peter Hammill’s use of words. There can’t be any other lyricist who utilises the lexicon in the same way, something I put down to his education; from Jesuit public school to studying Liberal Studies in Science at Manchester University. There’s an immense range of material covered that reflected my interest in science and science fiction plus some deeper, philosophical thinking.

Commercially, VdGG were something of a second-division band. They may have been nurtured by Charisma Records owner Tony Stratton-Smith but they didn’t really get too much coverage in the music press at the time. However, I do remember being impressed by the photography on adverts for World Record in Melody Maker when the album was released in 1976 and it was only much, much later that I discovered that they had been successful in Italy.

It wasn’t until 1981 that I bought my first VdGG album, Still Life, from the Streatham branch of WH Smith. I had a choice between that and Godbluff but chose Still Life because I could see the lyrics on the back of the sleeve which looked interesting. I then randomly completed my collection, on vinyl and on cassette, whenever the opportunity presented itself. I included the out-take LP Time Vaults in my collection but I didn’t buy any of the compilation albums until I started to switch from vinyl to CD. I also embarked upon the acquisition of Peter Hammill solo albums, beginning with The Future Now and pH7 (both in a sale from Streatham WH Smith.) I went to see a solo performance by Hammill at the Bloomsbury Theatre in Camden on July 26th 1984 and was so impressed that I went to his show the next night, armed with a camera. I went to the first show not really knowing what to expect; it turned out to be almost entirely solo material but he did include Last Frame from the Van der Graaf album The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome. I seem to recall that, despite playing consecutive nights at the same venue, he still subtly adjusted the set list.

Though I remained reluctant to spend a lot of money on music, I bought the King Crimson 4CD box set The Great Deceiver in when it was released in 1992, thinking that it might represent a decent investment (it worked out at about £14.50 per CD.) When I came across 4CD The Box (2000) on a trip home to Barrow, with its remastered tracks and bonus material from BBC sessions and some unreleased live recordings, it seemed to me that VdGG were having something of a renaissance and I bought it without over-thinking. On reflection, this heralded the remastered 2005 releases and in the mean time, the band had remained friends and even played together at birthday parties. Shortly before the reunion gig they released their first CD of new studio material, Present (April 2005) since the Van der Graaf line-up released The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome in 1977. There used to be a record shop on the north east side of London Bridge, close to Guy’s Hospital, where I went to buy my copy so I’d know any new material that they were due to play.

The reunion gig was the best gig I’ve ever attended. The Royal Festival Hall is comfortable and has amazing acoustics and my seat was in row H of the front stalls, a little way to the left of centre. The choice of material couldn’t really be bettered; I imagine that the assembled audience (from 27 different countries), including me, were really there to hear some old classics but the two new songs that were performed, Every Bloody Emperor and Nutter Alert, were seamlessly integrated into a set comprising the best of VdGG, captured for posterity on the brilliant subsequent release Real Time (2007). The power of the quartet was almost overwhelming; the Hugh Banton bass pedals with their low-frequency punch, the manic horns (and double horns) from David Jackson, Guy Evans’ fluid drums and the urgent vocals from Hammill, delivered with unbrlievable feeling. I loved it all, even though I felt pinned to my chair by a brutal, sonic blitzkrieg. Part of the reason for this reunion was that the band members tended to see each other mainly at the funerals of friends and former roadies and, as Hammill had himself suffered a heart attack in 2003, if they were ever going to play together again, Hammill suggested that it seemed like a good time to start. Under these circumstances, his performance was truly outstanding but the whole band was on incredible form. I didn’t think I’d ever hear VdGG music played live by the original ensemble and I think that’s why it was such a special occasion. Later in 2005 Jim Christopulos and Phil Smart released their excellent Van der Graaf Generator The Book, an in-depth biography of the band that concludes with the 2005 reunion. I had pre-ordered my copy (which cost around £20) but it is no longer available. Second-hand copies on Amazon sell for around £150.

I subsequently went to see the band, sans David Jackson at the Barbican during the Trisector tour in 2007 and again at the Barbican in June 2013; losing the horn player made the performances more unbalanced, raw and awkward and when in full flow the band seemed to be teetering on the ragged edge, dangerous and brilliant. On the latter occasion I thought the 64 year old Hammill looked slightly frail, but he proved he could still belt out songs and Hugh Banton somehow managed to mitigate the loss of saxophone and flute.

I was sorely tempted to attend an intimate evening with VdGG at Metropolis Studios in December 2010, part of a series of gigs by so-called ‘rock legends’. In the end I didn’t feel I could justify the cost and have had to make do with a DVD filmed at the event. I still have some reservations about the post-2005 material even though Hammill’s writing is as clever as ever; I remain stuck in the past and a fan of long-form VdGG flights of fancy.


Postscript:

I saw David Jackson perform with David Cross at The Bedford Arms last week and, in such an intimate venue it became clear how innovative he is. I wasn’t disappointed to see him bedecked his leather cap as he not only played saxes, flute and whistles, he also used the saxophone keys as a form of percussion instrument.



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