By ProgBlog, Aug 28 2016 10:05PM
Sometime in July my wife forwarded me an Amazon recommendation, Peter Hammill and the K Group Live At Rockpalast – Hamburg 1981, a DVD and double CD production available for pre-order. I’ve come to rely on her input for potential new purchases, though their appearance in her Amazon suggestions must irritate her as much as the People You May Know feature on Facebook infuriates me; I don’t know these people and I don’t want to know them, so please stop trying to expand my social network. I can count my Facebook friends just using my fingers and toes. I’m a sociopath. Leave me alone with my music.
I’m a Peter Hammill fan and the K Group’s The Margin (1985) recorded at live shows in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London in 1983 is something of a favourite, with a raw, seat-of-the-pants feel, even though the band had been touring with Hammill’s solo material since 1981, so I ordered it immediately. On Friday 26th August I received an email from Amazon informing me that the item was due for delivery that day and, not knowing how it was packaged and whether or not it would fit through the letterbox, my wife stayed at home to take collection. By the time I got home from work, with a short detour to the shops in Addiscombe, there was still no sign of my parcel. I utilised the tracking facility on Amazon’s email and was informed that it was out for delivery. After dinner, a little before 8pm, I looked again and Amazon reported a ‘delay in delivery due to external factors, Croydon GB’ but didn’t provide any explanation. At 10pm, without any further changes to the message, I contacted Amazon customer services to be told that there was a problem with their system and that they couldn’t check my account. I thought that they may be able to tell me at what point I should give up waiting without going into details; apparently they deliver up to 9.30pm. The package was pushed through my letterbox at around 1.30pm on Saturday, some time after I’d seen announcements of its arrival with other recipients on Twitter, despatched from Burning Shed. It’s a good job that I’ve used Burning Shed for the forthcoming VdGG release Do Not Disturb and King Crimson’s Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind.
In the sleeve notes to Live at Rockpalast, Hammill is quoted as saying of The K Group “I was the boss; it was ‘my’ band. But our human and musical interaction was unimpeachable.” This suggests that it was a band put together to perform his solo material in order to present the material in a way that fully reflected the power of songs from his then most recent album, Sitting Targets (1981), not something that represented a true collective. When I first discovered prog, the genre appeared to me fairly egalitarian, but it may be that my thinking has been influenced by two of the first few albums I heard; the completeness of Close to the Edge is to a great extent down to the balanced roles of the musicians and predecessor Fragile, which appeared after CttE in our house, reinforced that view with its five ‘solo’ spots interspersed with some quite amazing band compositions. The first ‘solo’ album I bought, a joint enterprise with brother Tony, was Rick Wakeman’s Six Wives of Henry VIII (1973), where all the music was written Wakeman and guitar, bass and percussion were provided by guest musicians, gathered together for this one-off release. It was this formulation of the solo album that I regarded as being the archetypal model, one that was repeated by Wakeman’s erstwhile band mates during the Yes hiatus of 1975 – 1977. Solo projects allowed a member of a band to record material that might not have been suitable for their regular work outfit though the circles in which they moved were quite evident from the list of guest musicians; following the example of Wakeman, Steve Howe and Chris Squire borrowed fellow members of Yes, and Steve Hackett utilised Genesis colleagues on his first solo venture, Voyage of the Acolyte (1975). Meanwhile, Alan White, releasing Ramshackled (1976) under his own name despite not writing any of the material, borrowed the vocal and guitar talents of Jon Anderson and Steve Howe respectively for one track. Patrick Moraz chose to release The Story of i (1976) without any members of Yes, so that whereas you could detect the DNA of Yes in Fish Out of Water (1975) and Beginnings (1975) because of the distinctive playing and song writing styles of Squire and Howe, Moraz’s effort was a frenetic jazz rock workout which borrowed from Mainhorse (his first band) and world music without referencing Yes. Anderson’s Olias of Sunhillow (1976) was the only genuine solo effort which may have not sounded particularly like Yes but certainly embodied the spirit of the band.
Even though there was considerable debate about the true solo nature of Olias of Sunhillow, with suggestions that Vangelis had some uncredited physical input (Vangelis having borrowed Jon Anderson for a vocal contribution on So Long Ago, So Clear, from 1975’s Heaven and Hell, another genuine solo album if you discount the vocal and choral parts), there could be no disputing the stand out solo album of the period, even with contributions from Lindsay Cooper on string bass and Jon Field on flutes, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (1973) where one man pushed multi-tracking to the extreme. This brings us back to Hammill, whose second and third solo albums Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night (1973) and The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage (1974) fall between the initial break up and reformation of VdGG but, due to the inclusion of (In The) Black Room/The Tower and A Louse is not a Home, long-form compositions which would have featured on a studio follow-up to Pawn Hearts, the line between solo and group material becomes heavily blurred. In Camera (1974) marks a departure from over-reliance on other members of Van der Graaf Generator (Guy Evans is still on hand to provide some of the drums) but this is the beginning of the Sofa Sound home recordings, utilising extensive multitracking. There were two more Hammill solo venture featuring more than just a couple of the Hammill coterie; the entire cast of Van der Graaf Generator appeared on the pre-reformation, proto-punk Nadir’s Big Chance (1975) and Over (1977) includes members of the somewhat different Van der Graaf. Hammill’s appropriation of the alter ego Rikki Nadir heralded his later adoption of an alternative character, K, leader of the K Group. The pared-back solo outings The Future Now (1978) and pH7 (1979) were the last two releases on Charisma and I regard them as a sort of pair. The only guest musicians are Graham Smith and David Jackson, the songs could be interchangeable and the covers are stylistically similar; I also bought both of them from WH Smith in Streatham from a sale bin.
The next two albums, A Black Box (1980) and Sitting Targets (1981) provide many of the songs played by the K Group. The epic Flight deserves full band treatment but the songs that made up the K Group set list all benefit from a band performance. I’ve seen Hammill perform solo shows and loved them, watching him play on two successive nights in 1984 as I was catching up on his solo records and Van der Graaf. His emotion and projection are quite incredible and there’s always a sense that you’re being taken into uncharted territory, however well you know the material. A good place to start for the uninitiated is the double CD Typical (1999) taken from concerts in 1992).
But where does solo begin and band end? Hammill wrote almost all the material for Van der Graaf Generator but there’s no way you could call VdGG the backing band. I think that the solo artist Hammill is the singer/songwriter performing material primarily sourced outside of VdGG, with or without accompaniment, and whether or not he’s alone with piano and guitar, or has someone like Stuart Gordon on violin helping out or even backed by the full K Group, he’s always interesting to listen to on record and compelling to watch live. Live at Rockpalast is worth buying just for the DVD.