A remark by Johnny Rotten citing Peter Hammill’s Nadir’s Big Chance as an influence cast a brief but bright UK hip-media spotlight on an artist who has otherwise spent most of his long career in the shadows. (Lydon later publicly insulted Hammill — not rotten enough?)
In 1966, while at university in Manchester, the London-born Hammill formed Van der Graaf Generator, a progressive-rock band that had just enough success to remain an active loss-leader for years. Not as hollowly contrived as many likeminded explorers, VdGG’s guitar-bass-drums-organ-sax lineup featured no virtuosos. Actually, the band’s chief instrument was Hammill’s baritone voice, able to swoop into adjacent registers and rasp wickedly like nobody’s business. If anything has put people off Hammill, it’s been the occasional overkill of his delivery and lyrics, which commonly concern extremists, and the direst contortions into which intellect and emotion can twist each other. He has no compunction about singing from a point of view which he — or we — may only inhabit at a moment of extraordinary emotional duress.
Until the group’s demise in 1978, Hammill split his studio time between Van der Graaf (ten LPs) and solo recordings made with some or all of his bandmates. The most influential and best remembered of these is the 1975 LP (Hammill’s fifth) for which he assumed the identity of “anarchic” teenager Rikki Nadir. While some tunes and arrangements may be simpler than his usual, none of it’s really punk, rather more like Hunky Dory, though less image-conscious, much bleaker, more confessional and barely produced at all. A stimulating, affecting record.
Hammill has continued to churn out solo LPs (even to this day with the help of ex-VdGG people, as well as ex-Vibrators guitarist John Ellis). Musically, he has modernized somewhat, but he’s still his own unpretentiously pretentious self. Or is that pretentiously unpretentious?