As co-author (with Phil Smart) of Van der Graaf Generator – The Book in 2005, I was able to interview several of the band’s famous admirers. One of them was Marc Almond, the singer of Soft Cell and a successful solo artist, who had covered a few of Van der Graaf vocalist-songwriter Peter Hammill‘s songs and later met with him.
We communicated in 2004, first via E-mail, then on the phone in October, at the end of which we made plans for a follow-up, which never happened because Almond was involved in a serious motorcycle accident.
At any rate, Almond was great to talk to, very easygoing and jovial. I remember coming away from the experience thinking that he seemed like a really nice, heartfelt guy. The following is an edited combination of that taped conversation and the prior E-mail.
How did you first get into Van der Graaf Generator?
I first heard Van der Graaf when I was about 14 years old. At my school, we used to have a lunchtime record club where people could bring their favorite albums to play. Someone brought in a copy of H to He, Who Am the Only One, and “Killer” was a favorite track. I was mesmerized by it. I’d heard nothing quite like it before. It wasn’t just Peter’s snarling operatic vocal, it was the mix of instruments – waves of haunting organ and treated saxophone that made your hair stand on end. I became an instant fan.
Did you ever see them live?
Van der Graaf Generator was the first band I ever saw live. It was at Leeds Poly, if I recall, probably in 1971. The support band were called Audience. Peter was a hypnotic performer with an incredible voice – one minute gothic opera howling, the next threatening, and then tender and introspective as he sang a love song. I would say he was truly inspirational to me in my style, and it’s easy to see why John Lydon rates him as an influence as he was punk before punk.
One only has to listen to Nadir’s Big Chance to hear that. That is one of my favorite Hammill albums, along with Chameleon in the Shadow of Night, Silent Corner and the Empty Stage, In Camera and The Love Songs. My favorite Van der Graaf album is Pawn Hearts.
You’ve recorded a couple of Peter’s songs.
I covered “Vision” on my Torment and Toreros album [by Marc and the Mambas] and still sing it sometimes now. It was recently voted in the Top 10 of my fans’ favorite songs that I’d ever written or done. I think [it] was number-five. A lot of times I hear back from fans and this has turned them on to Peter’s music, and they go pick up his albums. And that’s a great thing when you’re an artist and you can turn your fans onto other people’s music.
I later covered “Just Good Friends” [on A Woman’s Story].
I got the chance to meet Peter years later, sometime in the late ’80s or early ’90s, at his home and studio in Bath. I was feeling very ill that day as I travelled up on the train with my assistant manager, who had organized the meeting with a view to recording a couple of Peter’s songs. As well as feeling ill, I was more than a little overawed at meeting Peter and, together with my shyness, I probably didn’t make much of an impression.
Peter gave me a couple of songs and also played me a bit of a fantastic new opera he was working on, The Fall of the House of Usher. Peter even asked me if I would be interested in a part. I was thrilled.
[But] after listening to the songs, I felt that they were too personal and of Peter’s style to find a place for myself in them, and I was sort of bewildered. I didn’t know whether Peter wanted to collaborate, or if these were tracks where he’d be playing the piano, or if he wanted me to recreate the tracks – it was all very unclear.
I took the tracks home with me and felt that I couldn’t really find myself in these. Some of Peter’s stuff is very personal, and these seemed just for him, not me. But I didn’t really want to go back to Peter and say that I couldn’t find myself in these tracks, nor a place for me in these tracks. It’s always a strange thing meeting with your music idols.
Were these the other tracks he gave you, or were they for Usher?
These were other tracks that eventually appeared on his solo albums. I can’t remember straight off what the names of them were or what albums they appeared on. They were very Peter-style tracks. I mean something like “Vision” and “Just Good Friends” were more of a classic song style and I could find my own relation to them. I chose those songs because of their relevance to my life and because I loved them. They were something I could relate to in my life even though they were probably incredibly personal songs to Peter.
I think I heard back from somebody that Peter felt it was kind of weird to hear someone else sing these songs because he’d have personal relationships in mind. But I just loved them and thought they were more classic songs, and that they could be done by other people. But the other ones were just personal for him and I couldn’t find myself in them. I suppose I felt a bit shy to say this to Peter and resolved to put them on one side for a while and come back to them fresh. So I got sidetracked and then, with the opera, I didn’t hear any news on that.
The next thing it turned up with my manager Stevo, and Andy Bell from Erasure was singing the part that I think was meant to be mine. I must admit I was very, very hurt but I blamed myself for not pursuing the project more. I just presumed that Peter would contact me, and I didn’t want to be pushy. Peter was having problems finding a suitable home for the project as it wasn’t deemed commercial. I told Stevo he must release it [on his Some Bizzare label], though on reflection, knowing Stevo, I don’t know whether I was really doing Peter a favor.
If you can’t relate to a tune then it wouldn’t be honest for you to throw yourself into it, it would be almost a lie. But then you don’t want to tell your idol that either!
Well, that’s it! You don’t want to have to tell someone you’ve admired that “I can’t relate to this,” and I felt really kind of bad about it. I kind of felt lost in the whole thing and my nerves kind of got the better of me. And eventually Peter gave me what was him playing and him singing, and they just sounded great with him doing them, basically. I thought, “Well, what’s the point for me to do them.”
Hammill’s never gotten the acclaim that we both think he deserves.
Often there are people who are very prolific and they kind of suffer in a way for being too prolific, because there’s so much stuff and so many albums that people – even your closest fans – can’t keep track of what you do. I think this about myself as well. I was looking at some of Peter’s stuff and thought, “My god, what’s with all these albums out, I missed this album, I missed that album…” In a way you do suffer from being that prolific because people take you for granted. You think, “I’ll catch up with that album some time,” and it doesn’t really get the attention it should get at that moment.
Yeah, it’s a lot to catch up on if you’re not a hardcore fan. It does sound like it’s being taken for granted, I’ve read reviews of Peter’s albums that start off, “Another year, another Peter Hammill album.” And somebody like Scott Walker puts out an album every ten years so it’s more of an event and gets big articles and coverage.
That’s very true… but if you’re a prolific artist and you have a studio at home that’s what you do. You put an idea down and then you release it. I’m sure that’s the price you pay, and then one day later after you’re gone or something, people will look back on your work and rediscover it. Unfortunately, you’re not around to reap the benefits.
You mentioned Pawn Hearts as your favorite Van der Graaf Generator album.
I’m going to go back and have a listen to the album and refresh my memory and thoughts on it before having a word with you about it. So if you don’t mind, can we talk again in a few days? I can re-listen to the album, it’s been a while since I heard it and I want to listen to the others as well to make sure it is my favorite [laughs].
We chatted a bit more, and then the tape stops. A few days later, I saw the news that Almond had been in a horrible motorcycle accident and was in critical condition. I remember the vibe was that he wasn’t going to make it. It really jarred me, I found it totally disturbing, as I’d just spoken to him and was thinking about what to ask when we spoke again a few days later. Thankfully, he pulled through and is still performing and recording. We never did speak again. But I feel fortunate to have made his acquaintance, even via telephone, for a brief moment all those many years ago.
Van der Graaf Generator – The Book is out of print but remains available digitally through Amazon.
Jim Christopulos is a professional musician. He has been the drummer in the contemporary Chicago blues band Howard and the White Boys for more than 30 years.