VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR
ENTERING THE LABYRINTH
Van Der Graaf Generator is ultimately a great British success story. While Pawn Heart (1971) wasn't the break-through album it might have been in the UK, say for example like The Dark Side Of The Moon was for Pink Floyd (1973), it did go to number one in Italy and the band still enjoys a huge following throughout Europe and indeed at home. Their reunion tour of 2005 was acclaimed critically and they sold out across the country. The new material that they all insisted must be part of what was always going to be so much more than a nostalgia trip has been warmly greeted, and Present (2005) staggered us all, including the band (according to legendary drummer Guy Evans), by being voted BBC album of the week on its release.
I’ve never understood quite why Van Der Graaf Generator hasn’t enjoyed a greater vogue although I sense that their current tours and material have kick-started a strong and sustainable new interest in this the most dynamic and inventive of the early experimental bands. If you like bands like Radiohead, The Prodigy, and Spiritualized, I would struggle to understand why you wouldn’t like Van Der Graaf Generator.
Active from 1967 to 1978 and currently from 2005, the breadth of their appeal can be summarised by being a staple of John Peel’s shows throughout the seventies, and being listed by both Johnny Rotten and David Bowie as a major influence. With rumours that the current line up, a three piece featuring the ever-youthful and hugely charismatic front-man Peter Hammill, God’s own drummer Evans, and Hugh Banton with his trademark keyboards and pedal base, is planning a third album in the current series, to add to the eight studio albums from their earlier incarnation, Van der Graaf Generator are finding themselves more talked about than ever.
The accepted reason why Van Der Graaf Generator may not have enjoyed quite the commercial success they might have done, is that the name has become synonymous with complex, hard-to-unlock, dark material. In pure marketing terms it didn’t help much either that Peter Hammill ended up pursuing twin solo and band careers - if you add the seven solo contemporaneous albums to the eight band ones (and add some touring) the word ‘prolific’ doesn’t seem to cover it. I think the solo and band branding is actually the real explanation. It’s one thing for Coca-Cola to be co-branded Coke but quite another for an emerging largely guitar-less experimental Rock band to try the same thing. Oddly enough though, this provides the key to the entrance to the labyrinth.
With interest in the band rising, I’m finding myself (well known amongst my peers as a life long aficionado) asked how best to approach massively complex albums that you simply cannot just barge in to. The vast majority of music lovers are just going to get lost and there's a dreadful pun in there somewhere as ‘Lost’ (from H To He, Who Am The Only One (1970)) definitely isn’t a recommended starting point. The wonderful thing is that this is a genuine 5 star band with no album falling short of 5 stars and the same is true of Hammill’s solo work, most certainly all Van Der Graaf Generator period albums up to and including ‘Over’ (1976), and virtually everything since.
So having unlocked the secret, having given the band and indeed Hammill himself your confidence, you then have a huge world (a cosmos indeed), some fifteen albums including the live masterpiece ‘Vital’ (1978), to explore, and set yourself up for the journey through Hammill‚s long ably-supported-by-Evans career (and indeed Evans' parallel career designing and building sonic landscapes), to the band's triumphant reunion in 2005 and to date. Finally you’ll have the added bonus of getting to know an active band, one you can see live and at the peak of their powers.
So where to start? I just think it‚s too dense and too complicated just to start at the beginning, and in any event the beginning was the atypical ‘The Aerosol Grey Machine’ (1969), a stunning debut but quite different in feel from the next three, ‘Pawn Hearts’ and its prequels, which were themselves quite different from the following two generally accepted jointly as the chef d‚oeuvres ‘Godbluff’ (1975) and ‘Still Life’ (1976). Indeed the evolution of the band’s sound has been more of a hallmark than the sound itself, as highlighted by their staggering and quite brilliantly successful post Punk shift with ‘The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome’ (1977). So, again, where to start?
I recommend that you download the solo track ‘Forsaken Gardens’ (‘The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage’ (1974)) and don‚t worry too much about whether it‚s branded Peter Hammill or Van Der Graaf Generator. There is a general difference in that broadly speaking the solo work tends to be more personal while the band‚s themes are more cosmic but to be honest even this rule of thumb doesn‚t stand up to too much analysis. They form part of the same body of work and the different branding was usually for contractual or economic reasons. Two important examples are ‘The Aerosol Grey Machine’ credited to the band but originally conceived as solo album, and the iconic solo album ‘Nadir's Big Chance’ (1975) featuring the band in its classic form (Banton, Evans, Hammill, with Dave Jackson on flute and saxophone).
No album has a stand-out track. Every track on every album is a masterpiece. No track should be skipped and each album should eventually be taken as a complete work in itself every album is in the right order. However some tracks are more approachable while still being typical and ‘Forsaken Gardens’ is a great start. Then download ‘The Lie’ and ‘A Louse Is Not A Home’ from the same album. Interestingly enough the latter was originally written for the band, supporting the crossover theory. Other solo tracks that offer a Van Der Graaf-lite entrée include ‘The Faint-Heart And The Sermon’ from ‘In Camera’ (also 1974) and the hauntingly beautiful ‘Gog’ and ‘Magog’ from the same album. If like me your key to heavier work is in the ballads, consider downloading 'Refugees', 'House With No Door', and 'Wondering'.
Then I suggest you download the whole of ‘Still Life’ which is marginally more accessible than its predecessor ‘Godbluff’ and work slowly backwards to what remains my own personal favourite ’The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other’ (1970), first album proper, and a quite remarkable follow up to their most interesting and rewarding debut. I suggest working backwards because the work does become increasingly both dark and complex the earlier you go. Keep until last ‘The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome’ and indeed its sister albums ‘Over’, and ‘Vital’. Not because they aren’t five star albums themselves (they are), but because they are sufficiently different to the others to be worth tackling separately.
As I said, there are no stand out tracks, but ‘Man-Erg’ from ‘Pawn Hearts’ is interesting as its symphonic structure and operatic presentation links the earlier work and the classic middle era and it features Robert Fripp on guitar ... and it happens to be my own favourite.