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By ProgBlog, Apr 10 2016 03:34PM

April 1976. Forty years ago. This was late summer-early autumn in the progressive rock golden era timeline though none of us knew it at the time; it was also in the middle of the major player hiatus and consequently there were only three significant releases that month which, on reflection, may have been an indication of change in the musical landscape. During this period I had limited cash for buying albums, though my part-time job delivering the Cancer and Polio Research Fund News Letter to households around the Infield and Hawcoat wards of Barrow could sometimes result in a substantial tip if the recipient won a respectable sum on one of the bingo cards that were sold with the newsletter. Back then I was still catching up with previous releases by a range of prog bands and it wasn’t until a few years later that I acquired the cream of the April 1976 crop: Moonmadness by Camel, Interview by Gentle Giant and Still Life by Van der Graaf Generator.

There isn’t too much common ground between the three albums with Camel’s efforts moving from symphonic prog towards a jazz-tinged melodic prog, Gentle Giant providing their usual eclectic mix of styles, albeit with a distinct rockier feel than some of their earlier work that equates to an increased degree of accessibility, and Van der Graaf Generator’s second release from the stabilised second generation four piece which I believe represents the creative pinnacle of their career, more composed (in both senses of the word) than the albums of the 70 – 72 incarnation and Godbluff (1975) with some of Hammill’s best lyrics and exploration of philosophy.


Moonmadness hardly needs any introduction. The last release by the original line-up, this was a deliberate move by the band to create something other than ‘son of Snow Goose’, and the result was an album loosely held together with the concept that each of the main tracks represented a member of the band: Chord Change is keyboard player Pete Bardens; Another Night is bassist Doug Ferguson; Air Born is guitarist/flautist Andy Latimer; and Lunar Sea is drummer Andy Ward. The album title comes from a pun on Lunar Sea and there are other references to the moon throughout the album, from lyrics on Another Night to the title of the concise opening track Aristillus, a prominent impact crater that lies in the eastern Mare Imbrium. This song features Andy Ward reciting ‘Aristillus’ and ‘Autolycus’ (a slightly smaller crater due south of Aristillus.)

All the preceding Camel albums contained songs of a uniformly high standard and Snow Goose stands out as a major composition that never dips in quality. The band was finding its feet with the eponymous debut and got more confident, and heavier, with Mirage (1974). Moonmadness returns to the song format but the quality has notched up a level and though on balance I probably prefer Snow Goose, its successor rates very highly with Lunar Sea remaining one of my favourite instrumental tracks of all time. Though most evident on Lunar Sea which features alternating lead guitar and keyboard lines, the entire album has a very satisfactory balance and neither Bardens nor Latimer comes out as particularly dominant, with the lead musicians giving each other ample space to conjure those beautiful, melodic lines. The rhythm section also performs admirably; I’ve always been a fan of Andy Ward’s drumming but Doug Ferguson, if we had to choose the weakest contributor, provides really solid bass throughout and positively bubbles on Lunar Sea.

Interview could almost act as a statement of Gentle Giant’s career up to that point. The subject matter concerns some well-trodden Giant subject material, concerning aspects of the music business, with another look at a roadie’s perspective but there was supposed to be a concept behind the whole project, the crassness of the interview process to publicise the output of a band. There are clips of an imaginary interview: “how would you describe your music?” Unfortunately the concept falls a little flat, without any real conviction and the interviewer is Phil Sutcliffe, one of the only journalists to genuinely appreciate the band.

Musically, the title track which opens the album continues from where 1975’s Free Hand left off. It’s clever, rocky and accessible, a style that continues on the original LP side 2 opener Another Show. Empty City is more gentle and reflective but it’s only in the first half of final track I Lost My Head, that the band show off their acoustic, medieval chops, then conclude with a muscular, rocking section that is also featured on the live set Playing the Fool (1977); I think this is probably the most satisfactory track on the album. The one departure from the previous Giant musical direction comes in the form of the proto reggae of Give it Back which reminds me of Dreadlock Holiday, the most memorable single from 10cc’s Bloody Tourists (1978.) Though there are a number of parallels with Free Hand, the production on Interview allows a good deal of space between the instruments that almost adds a feeling of sparseness. Gentle Giant remain one of the only progressive rock bands I never got to see, even outside of the golden era but at least their music seems to have reached a wider audience than that attained during the 70s.


When I bought Still Life I had the choice between that and Godbluff, both in the bargain bin of the Streatham branch of that well known purveyor of vinyl, WH Smith. I plumped for Still Life because I preferred the cover and I could see Hammill’s lyrics. I might have been swayed by the two-track per side format of Godbluff but without the song words and with what I thought was a less attractive title, I saved Godbluff for another day.
When I bought Still Life I had the choice between that and Godbluff, both in the bargain bin of the Streatham branch of that well known purveyor of vinyl, WH Smith. I plumped for Still Life because I preferred the cover and I could see Hammill’s lyrics. I might have been swayed by the two-track per side format of Godbluff but without the song words and with what I thought was a less attractive title, I saved Godbluff for another day.

There’s a sort of roughness to the production of the early 70s VdGG albums, with the surprise possible exception of H to He, which suits the music. Godbluff is also fairly raw in contrast to Still Life which comes across as though the band have spent as much time as they needed to produce the record. It sounds well rehearsed and controlled so that even when the band lets rip it almost feels as though they’ve got something in reserve. Not that Still Life could truly be described as polished in the sense of being over-produced; the anthemic Pilgrims and the full-on La Rossa were written during the Godbluff sessions so that in effect the band only required three pieces to complete the album, arriving at the hymn-like title track, the relatively calm My Room (Waiting for Wonderland) where the lyrics really grabbed me: “Searching for diamonds in a sulphur mine...” and the deep, epically structured Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End. The band employed some simple and effective devices during the recording with the aim of stirring the listeners’ emotions, including delaying the introduction of the drums (and horns) on the track Still Life and using single-track vocals on My Room, where there’s also some fine bass work from Banton. The cover photo by Paul Brierley adds to the impression that considerable thought went into the making of the album. A chance find in a magazine, the image is of electrical discharge from a Van der Graaf generator though I’ve always felt that it had the appearance of mineralisation or a treated photograph of a fossil fern, a reference to still life. The Paul Whitehead sleeves may have been iconic but Still Life is class. It’s not an easy album to listen to, coming across more of an aural assault and I still don’t think my brother Tony gets it, even though he was the one that got me into progressive rock in the first place. I think it’s a brilliant work, one of the best pieces of music to emerge from the whole of 1976 and probably the most adventurous; Van der Graaf Generator didn’t really know how to play safe!






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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