A LIFELONG FASCINATION WITH GUY EVANS
If the later seventies and the eighties saw musical shifts arising from the development of the synthesizer, the sixties and early seventies heralded the rise of the drummer in importance. Rival for drumming GOAT Stephen Morris (Joy Division/New Order) represented the shift from acoustic drumming to the ubiquitous drum machine of the eighties by creating the sound acoustically. The most important drummer of the sixties is Ringo Starr partly because he wielded his sticks for that minor rock phenomenon The Beatles, but also because he represented, as Stephen Morris was to do a decade later, the link between the past and future. When Ringo Starr was recruited to The Beatles it wasn’t just because he could comb his hair forwards and could stay sober long enough to turn up to rehearsals on time. Ringo Starr was a highly regarded jazz oriented percussionist in his own right. And can the next person who buys into the myth that Ringo Starr couldn’t drum, and who tells me Paul McCartney did the difficult bits, please do me a favour and take a pill and lie down in a dark room with the “Abbey Road” medley on a half decent Linn/B&W system until the mood passes. Ringo Starr drummed from an age when the percussion was rooted in the rhythm section and by not straying made sure the rest of the band didn’t stray either. You don’t get to be The Beatles and have a mediocre drummer. By the way, for Ringo Starr and The Beatles you can also read Nick Mason and Pink Floyd and listen to the “Ummagumma” version of “A Saucerful Of Secrets”.
By the end of the sixties Rock had developed exponentially and with hindsight we see “The Velvet Underground And Nico” if not as a defining moment then certainly representing a seismic shift. Of course Mo Tucker’s vocals as well as her drumming were seminal, and Mo Tucker herself must be seen as part of a new more flamboyant drumming movement with more to say for herself than staggeringly innovative and beautiful off-key vocals and the gentle art of keeping time. By the end of the sixties the big three had emerged, Keith Moon, John Bonham and Ginger Baker, and without splitting too many hairs, and accepting they were all geniuses, probably in that order – perhaps if only because you might rank the bands that way too. And as Moon & Co were hitting the headlines a young Guy Evans was making his name with the legendary students of all dark matter Van Der Graaf Generator.
If you were looking for a definition of what the great Prog Rock bands had in common, which in fact wasn’t much, it being the loosest of all federations, they all had fabulous drummers, including of course Carl Palmer Phil Collins and Ian Wallace, who went on to become Dylan’s drummer when King Crimson split up, thus materially helping to create Dylan’s own masterpiece “Street-Legal”. Indeed the drumming on “Street-Legal” is so integral to the sound that I’m surprised Wallace doesn’t get a writing credit. Chatting to Guy I was interested that he cited Ian Wallace and “Street-Legal” before I’d even mentioned it, although I did have it in my notes to discuss with him. Guy’s high opinion of Mitch Mitchell is hardly surprising as Mitchell did for The Jimi Hendrix Experience what Evans himself did for Van Der Graaf Generator. I was interested in Guy’s comments in praise of John Bonham, no more controversial than Mitch Mitchell, but Led Zeppelin were really quite a different act, moving us towards Heavy Metal in a way that Van Der Graaf Generator couldn’t if they’d wanted to, hardly ever using the guitar.
I accept that Van Der Graaf Generator are in my opinion the greatest band that walked the boards in the Rock era or any other, so am I just biased towards my own team’s sticks? Interestingly enough I would definitely rank Joy Division’s Stephen Morris as second only to Evans so there might be a bit of that going on, but I’ve done my very best to edit out any subjective influences. I’d probably counter the accusation by asserting that percussion in Hard Rock is so important that it is no wonder that the very best bands did indeed have the best drummers.
There are a number of simple facts that support Guy Evans’ claim to stand out from the crowd – well it’s not really his claim, it’s mine for him as he’s far too modest. Van Der Graaf Generator always pushed everything to the limit. “The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other” was the first album to be recorded on sixteen tracks, and even then the band squeezed every ounce of music out of the vinyl – Van Der Graaf Generator’s music is so complex that in my opinion “The Box” digitally re-mastered versions are superior even to the very best vinyl analogue reproductions – especially the drumming. Peter Hammill himself oversaw the re-mastering, and listening to those versions of thundering masterpieces like “Killer” “La Rossa” and “Childlike Faith In Childhood’s End” I can’t help thinking he meant to pay tribute to the man who’s devoted a substantial part of his life to being Hammill’s drummer. The tensions that arose creatively and financially in the early stages meant constant changes in the line-up, and indeed even the branding was confused with band albums being marketed as “Peter Hammill” and vice-versa – a key factor as to why they’re not more well-known. Half-way through the recording of the third album (or second album if you accept that “Aerosol Grey Machine” was a solo album really, albeit an excellent one featuring amongst others the band’s only drummer, Guy Evans), anyway, half-way through the third album “H To He, Who Am The Only One” (and can we please call it “H to H E” and not as one ex-member of the band recently called it “H to he”) Nic Potter, the bassist, left, and thus the band embarked on a bass-less and largely guitar-less golden age. The simple truth was, even if unplanned, that they just didn’t need a bass. Guy Evans had such a firm grip on the rhythm section that he might as well just be it. While he was ably supported by Hugh Banton’s pedal bass, if you listen to the tracks you’ll struggle to believe there isn’t a bass guitar because Guy’s banging his big drum creating the sound force majeure.
The likes of The Beatles, The Who, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Joy Division and Cream had bassists the like of Paul McCartney, John Entwistle, Roger Waters, John Paul Jones, Peter Hook and a certain Jack Bruce. Van Der Graaf Generator didn’t. Just told Guy Evans to pull his finger out and get on with it. And boy, did he? And how.
I had the great privilege of interviewing Guy Evans recently and I asked him about the development of a style he is generally credited as being either the inventor, or certainly the most celebrated developer, that of the sound best described as “lead drumming”. By lead drumming we are describing that moment when the percussion comes forward in the mix and drives the melody. Guy Evans is in my opinion the leading exponent now just as he always has been. Just go to one VDGG gig and listen to one song “La Rossa” and you’ll see where I’m coming from. The crescendo at the end of “La Rossa” makes “The Ride Of The Valkyries” sound like a folk song, and in the mayhem (and the glorious references to Slade’s “Cum On Feel The Noize”) you’ll hear Evans not only keeping everything together, but urging the rest of the band on to greater excesses, as if exhorting them in the knowledge that if it all goes horribly wrong Evans will pull it all back together. If I’m asked, I’ll be having “La Rossa” on my desert island, please, for the simple reason it actually is the greatest example of the Hardest Rock that’s ever been recorded. After Van Der Graaf Generator everything else is Abba. Fact. Punk Rock in the context of Van Der Graaf Generator is so much milk and honey.
If doing without a bass and defining lead drumming isn’t enough, let’s turn to that eclectic blend of musical references at the core of the Van Der Graaf Generator vision. Van Der Graaf Generator is a blend of the Hard Rock we now tend to call Proto Punk, together with Jazz, Symphony, Choral, and Opera. So, Guy. You haven’t got the support of a bass guitar, and we expect you to join in the complex melodies, while keeping time during the various shifts in beat demanded by the mix of styles that is our particular brand. Can we suggest you pop behind the nearest phone box and slip into your cape? I resist turning to the iconic “A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers” just because it’s so, well, iconic. (Bluntly speaking while I agree of course it’s a masterpiece, it isn’t even the best track on “Pawn Hearts”.) Nevertheless, it is an excellent example of the more ambitious Van Der Graaf Generator pieces, Symphonic in scale, with the full panoply of influences and references. Throughout this Titanic endeavour Guy Evans holds the whole thing together and regularly it’s his drumming that delivers the melody through trademark cacophony. Guy even gets a writing credit, on part of the track – and I struggle to understand why he doesn’t get more, given the importance of the drums to the sound. “The Rolling Stone” loves Van Der Graaf Generator’s music and cites Evans as possibly the only truly virtuoso member of the band – while I applaud the sentiment the others aren’t slouches either.
Guy himself is a little more circumspect about his claims to Rock immortality citing, as touched on above, Mitch Mitchell and John Bonham, together with Ian Wallace and Stephen Morris amongst his favourite peers. As for the lead drumming, he claims to be doing it subconsciously.
A naturally modest and reserved man who would scoff at the GOAT tag I’m hanging round his neck, I accept his explanation with some reservations. The members of Van Der Graaf Generator are a notoriously disciplined bunch. (In the seventies they produced or supported Peter Hammill on an average of two albums a year for a couple of months shy of a decade – cutting edge records of unsurpassed innovation and beauty without a filler track on one of them). They all claim (including Hammill himself) that Peter Hammill is merely the writer and front-man with a strongly democratic ethos driving rehearsals, but there is a Jesuitical work ethic in place that is surely a remnant of his Catholic schooling. Rumour has it that the band drifted apart from Dave Jackson because he wasn’t taking the reunion seriously enough. In the context of the sixteen or seventeen note perfect Van Der Graaf Generator/Peter Hammill solo albums of that era (1969 – 1978) you’ll forgive me for struggling with the idea that any of them even breathed, never mind beat the drums, subconsciously. Throughout the eighties and nineties Guy Evans regularly toured with Peter Hammill occasionally being joined by the other members of the classic middle era Van Der Graaf Generator line-up (Banton and Jackson). Evans also produced a joint album with Hammill, but perhaps more importantly for him was the sonic playground with Echo City and his extensive involvement in projects with disabled people generally over a twenty year period. Have a look at the website at www.echocity.co.uk . When Guy joined us for a Rokpool dinner recently he described the celebrated chimes Echo City created in a valley in Cumbria, and explained how the sonic properties of the tubes, and their resulting sound waves, created the most harmonious sights as well as sounds.
I still pinch myself at the thought that they’ve reformed, and wasn’t “Nutter Alert” worth the wait? Thank you Guy for beating the time of my life. It’s wonderful to have you back where you belong. At the back of the stage but right up there in the front of the mix, banging the gongs for the greatest rock’n’roll band that ever was, and is, Van Der Graaf Generator.
© JD Shanks 2010
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