Van der Graaf Generator committed several of prog-rock’s cardinal sins and confirmed some of its dodgier stereotypes: they mixed jazz, rock, classical and even operatic sensibilities; they assembled lengthy, often multi-partite, occasionally bombastic songs; they oozed musicianship, delighting in complex time signatures and tricky chord changes; their lyrics were literate, philosophical and sometimes utterly ridiculous; they were educated, middle class and very English. However, to dismiss Van der Graaf Generator along with rock’s great scapegoat genre would be to misrepresent them and to gloss over the traits that made them a singular presence on the ’70s art-rock landscape.
The band’s instrumental roster was unconventional. Its most storied line-up (1970-’76) featured organ, drums and sax but practically no guitar or bass. Guest Robert Fripp contributed the former on a couple of records, while cathedral-trained organist Hugh Banton’s bass pedals took care of the bottom-end. Indeed, Banton conspired with drummer Guy Evans’ earth-moving beat to endow Van der Graaf Generator’s sound with overwhelming heft, and his extensively customized organs garnered mythical status. Loaded down and fleshed out with all sorts of noise-warping devices, they hit frequencies so low as to rearrange furniture and even topple walls (or so apocryphal stories had it). In the absence of a guitar-slinger, saxophonist/flautist David Jackson approached his instruments with rock’n’roll panache and free-jazz inventiveness, running his horns through a labyrinth of effects. He was even known to blow two of them simultaneously, as Rahsaan Roland Kirk did. And as if that weren’t enough, Peter Hammill was a frontman possessed of one of rock’s more distinctive and challenging voices. In fact, the Jesuit-educated ex-boy chorister could sing as if he actually were possessed. His voice was generally the single component that decided whether listeners loved the band or hated it.
The group was infamously volatile, splitting up more than once (including prior to the release of its debut album). The need to push to extremes and court implosion was, paradoxically, an essential condition and the crux of its aesthetic, which veered from mellow pastorality one moment to noise-terror in extremis the next, particularly in concert, where improvisation and sonic anarchy went hand in hand. But although that dangerous energy proved to be Van der Graaf Generator’s undoing — driving bandmembers to take breaks from participation — it was also crucial to the group’s continuity: the moments of rupture in turn revitalized the band and spawned reinventions of its sound. A disregard for longevity, compromise and commercial success, as well as a chaotic, self-destructive streak, gave the group something in common with adventurous punks and post-punks. Ironically, while new wave’s Year Zero ethos and its rejection of musicianship, artistry and complexity might have seen Van der Graaf Generator first up against the wall in 1976, they (along with Can, Neu! and several others) struck a chord with figures like Mark E. Smith, Howard Devoto and John Lydon.
Hammill and fellow Manchester University student Chris Judge Smith first brought Van der Graaf Generator to life in November 1967. In the best Spinal Tap tradition, the misspelling of physicist Robert J. van de Graaff’s name was unintentional. The maiden line-up was an ominously unstable unit that managed only one performance — for which the band was almost named Zeiss Manifold and the Shrieking Plasma Exudation. By February 1968, it was a trio of Hammill (guitar/vocals), Judge Smith (drums) and Nick Pearne (organ) plus a pair of dancers (it was the ’60s, after all). As a duo, Hammill and Judge Smith opened for Tyrannosaurus Rex in Manchester and, using TV sets as amplifiers, the fledgling Van der Graaf Generator recorded a demo that helped secure them a contract with Mercury. Hammill and Judge Smith subsequently left for London, where Mercury sent them into the studio and offered staff producer Quincy Jones a chance to work with them. Jones dropped in to check out the band, but what might have been one of rock’s odder collaborations didn’t come to pass. With Pearne remaining in Manchester, Hugh Banton was recruited to play organ, former Koobas bassist Keith Ellis joined, and Tony Stratton-Smith, who would soon launch The Famous Charisma Label, agreed to manage the band. A four-piece cut a debut single: a hippy-dippy ballad titled “People You Were Going To.” Although the rousing sword-and-sorcery B-side, “Firebrand,” didn’t necessarily travel any better beyond the ’60s, it was more intriguing: here Hammill reworks part of the old Icelandic saga The Story of Burnt Njal and Judge Smith makes his first and last (and frankly bizarre) vocal contribution to Van der Graaf Generator’s recorded oeuvre. Drummer Guy Evans joined, and this version of the band managed a session for John Peel’s nascent BBC Radio program, Top Gear, in November 1968; Judge Smith quit shortly after. The band gigged steadily through early ’69, opening for Jimi Hendrix at the Royal Albert Hall and appearing on a bill with Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac. But then their equipment was stolen — something that would become a recurring theme — and Van der Graaf Generator disbanded in June 1969.
A couple of months later, Hammill, Banton, Ellis and Evans gathered to make The Aerosol Grey Machine as Hammill’s solo debut. Following some contractual wrangling with Mercury, however, the record came out under the group’s name. Several tracks have a singer-songwriter feel that anticipates Hammill’s eventual solo work, particularly “Running Back,” the two-part “Orthenthian St.” and the wah-wah-infused psychedelic ballad “Afterwards.” Overall, The Aerosol Grey Machine is very much of its time, from the title track’s Bonzo-esque jingle to “Aquarian,” an anthemic, ’60s zeitgeist sing-along: “We are riding on rainbows and happy today / Now we move to the sun in every direction / We are cloaked in veils of mystic protection / Joking a lot, smoking or not / Floating our yacht off to freedom / Voting to be Aquarian!” Peace and love notwithstanding, there are strong portents of the direction Van der Graaf Generator would take. The inexplicably compelling “Necromancer” heads into territory that would soon be universally known as “progressive.” Amid the song’s stop-start rhythmic patterns and melodramatic flourishes, Hammill waxes magickal, although the overriding Dungeons and Dragons tenor of his lyrics makes it hard to suppress a snigger. Elsewhere, the group abandons the oneiric psychedelia of “Aquarian” for some decidedly nightmarish trips. A case in point is “Octopus,” part love song, part sub-aquatic horror story (“I must endure your / Red-copper hair screaming like a water-baby / Black eyes stare from my ceiling / You who I now truly know”). While the album has a measure of tranquility, “Octopus” is a harbinger of the tougher, chaotic edge that would come to characterize VdGG, especially in live performance. Crucial in that regard is Banton: on “Octopus” he asserts himself as distinctively as peers like Keith Emerson, Jon Lord and Mike Ratledge, his waves of surging organ leaving Hammill consumed in the beloved’s tentacular grip. (This song makes for an interesting companion piece to “Octopus” by contemporaneous psychedelic unknowns JP Sunshine, who celebrated the “mystical monster marine” and its “deadly erotic embrace,” albeit in a more whimsical mode.) Although The Aerosol Grey Machine is Van der Graaf Generator’s least enduring record, many of the band’s trademark ingredients were established here.
Late 1969 brought a new lineup, including sax player David Jackson, late of Chris Judge Smith’s new outfit, Heebalob, and replacing Ellis with 17-year-old Nic Potter, who had enjoyed a brief stint in the Misunderstood. Having failed to secure a record deal for the band, manager Stratton-Smith decided to release it himself on Charisma, which would become one of English prog rock’s stately homes. Recorded in December 1969, The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other was one of the label’s first albums. With Jackson on board, the band’s signature sound began to coalesce; the ominous opener “Darkness (11/11)” (dealing obliquely with the 11th-century English anti-Norman resistance figure Hereward the Wake) is a blueprint for the band’s finest moments in the coming years: shot through with Jackson’s braying horns, the vibe is altogether darker and heavier than anything on the debut album. And while The Aerosol Grey Machine certainly foregrounded Hammill’s unique voice, the singer’s full idiosyncrasy now declares itself in unsettling shifts from warm, reassuring tones to the brink of carpet-biting madness. Especially striking is Hammill’s ability, even in the grip of these wild swings, to sustain the sort of precise, crisp enunciation worthy of a 1950s English public school headmaster or a vintage BBC announcer. (Perhaps this accounts for the band’s considerable popularity with non-native-English speakers.) Another standout is the historical-theological behemoth “White Hammer,” which begins with Hammill in professor of canon law mode, delivering the sort of lyrics that only he could get away with: “In the year 1486 the Malleus first appeared / Designed to kill all witchcraft and end the papal fears / Prescribing tortures to kill the Black Arts / And the Hammer struck hard.” The song was cut from the same occult cloth as “Necromancer,” but, somehow, combined totally loony bombast and genuine menace, building from an austere churchy introduction to a dissonant, truly disquieting climax. The 11-minute “After the Flood” displays similarly noisy inclinations, morphing from sprightly folk-rock to metal machine music, with Hammill’s Dalek-like voice threatening “total annihilation.” These numbers emphasize an evolution in the band’s sound: the tumultuous tendencies (rooted primarily in Banton’s increasingly customized organ and Jackson’s distorted sax) that dominated the improvised sections of their live performances were now manifesting themselves in the studio. Although The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other pretty much exorcised any remaining residue of ’60s fun and games, “Out of My Book” is lighter, and there is an elegy of sorts to the era on the sublime “Refugees,” which exudes a beautiful pastoral aura, thanks to its cocoon of organ and cello.
A cursory glance at H to He Who Am the Only One suggests that Van der Graaf Generator had become the quintessence of prog: the songs are longer and fewer, prone to elaborate subdivided titles; the cover painting looks like a pair of enormous clockwork testicles orbiting the earth; the liner notes are prefaced by a chemical equation involving Hydrogen (H) and Helium (He), apparently an explanation of life, the universe and everything else. That said, H to He Who Am the Only One also proved that Van der Graaf Generator wasn’t just any prog band. Beyond the virtuosity, the literary sensibility, the allusions to classical music, the jazz nuances and an appreciation of the difference between 13/8 and 15/8 time, they stood apart from most of their contemporaries. What distinguished Van der Graaf Generator is made crystal clear on this record. There’s a dark, almost proto-goth flavor and, most importantly, a punk attitude avant la lettre: a focus on the here-and-now, during which they wanted to play as loudly and anarchically as possible. Unlike most of their fellow-travelers, they were capable of rocking with a dangerous intensity matched only by King Crimson. Indeed, Fripp brings some breathtakingly dexterous, liquid guitar to “The Emperor in His War-Room,” a cerebral “War Pigs” in diptych form. The colossal “Pioneers Over C” is a foray into metaphysical science fiction in which Hammill’s ontological concerns take on cosmic proportions. This is a thinking-man’s “Space Oddity”: “Left the earth in 1983, fingers groping for the galaxies,” sings Hammill at the outset, only to end up adrift like Major Tom, after digesting Leibniz, Kant, Mach and Einstein: “Well now, where is the time, and who the hell am I / Here floating in an aimless way? / I am now quite alone, part of a vacant time-zone / Here floating in the void / Only dimly aware of existence / A dimly existing awareness.” The highlight, “Killers,” brings things back down to Earth, or more accurately underwater, assembling a juggernaut of sub-aquatic existential and familial angst that recasts Hobbes’ “man to man is an arrant wolf” as man to man is an arrant fish: “On a black day, in a black month, at the black bottom of the sea / Your mother gave birth to you and died immediately / ‘Cos you can’t have two killers living in the same pad / And when your mother knew that her time had come / She was really rather glad.” In true Van der Graaf Generator style, this is absurd but totally gripping. Having played on three of H to He Who Am the Only One‘s five tracks, Potter became genuinely alarmed about an aura of malevolence surrounding the band and quit. With the album complete, he was not replaced, leaving Banton to assume Potter’s duties using pedals. The group’s classic incarnation as a guitar- and bass-less rock group was in place.
In January 1971, on the heels of H to He Who Am the Only One, Van der Graaf Generator boarded a bus with labelmates Genesis and Lindisfarne for the Six Bob Tour of England and Wales. Another Charisma package excursion with Audience and Jackson Heights (in a pink bus) took them across the Channel, where they played to largely bemused Germans and Swiss. By July, sessions had begun for Pawn Hearts. (As Guy Evans famously observed, “I liked the way things were going. We’d actually gone mad by then.”) The image on the album’s original inner sleeve is a hideous Technicolor nightmare of four weirdos in an English country garden offering Nazi salutes. Whatever madness was afoot, it definitely made its creative presence felt on Pawn Hearts, which proved to be the group’s most fully realized work thus far. Each of its three tracks embodied the Van der Graaf Generator dialectical world view, embracing extremes, working through cycles of thesis-antithesis-synthesis and, ultimately, pulling off impossibly grand statements. These numbers do crease slightly under the weight of pretension and are almost consumed by their own inner-destructive energies; however, they emerge whole and triumphant. While so much prog was purely cerebral, Van der Graaf Generator combined braininess with an intense and sometimes exhausting viscerality. With the sense that the wheels were often close to coming off, that is what made the band so absorbing. Comprising ten separately named sections, the side-long “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” encapsulates this feeling. The parts (some of which border on free-jazz freak-out) threaten to overwhelm the whole, but by the end, the whole wins out by a hair. This counterpart to Genesis’ “Supper’s Ready” is a nautically themed existential meditation on man hopelessly adrift on the sea of meaning — the lighthouse keeper as the universal embodiment of alienated man. Hammill goes to the edge, as usual: “The maelstrom of my memory / Is a vampire and it feeds on me / Now, staggering madly, over the brink I fall.” Nevertheless, the track concludes on a note of reasonably optimistic acquiescence and knowledge: “It doesn’t feel so very bad now, I think the end is the start,” muses Hammill, recalling T.S. Eliot’s conclusion of “Little Gidding.” (Hammill seems to draw also on Eliot’s “The Waste Land” here.) The two other, comparatively more compact, tracks here offer equally vexed visions of the human condition. Speeding up and slowing down and punctuated with harsh-soft passages, “Lemmings (Including Cog)” rehashes the idea of human beings as members of the Arvicolinae subfamily in a world of soulless mechanization, culminating in a Beckettian “I-can’t-go-on-I’ll-go-on” moment of resignation: “What choice is there left but to try?” Progressing from an almost hymnal intro, with Hammill’s voice accompanied by piano, to a manic climax and back, “Man-Erg” reflects on the human capacity for evil: “I’m just a man, and killers, angels, all are these / Dictators, saviours, refugees.” Pawn Hearts topped the album chart in Italy and was more or less ignored everywhere else. The group split up, again.
With the band out of commission, Hammill forged ahead with his increasingly prolific solo career. Banton, Evans and Jackson were less active, joining forces to record The Long Hello. In October 1974, the four came back together to play on Hammill’s proto-punk record, Nadir’s Big Chance, and agreed to reform Van der Graaf Generator. Following a spring 1975 comeback tour, the band started work on Godbluff. The opportunity to road-test and rehearse the majority of the new material before entering the studio helped to head off the problems that had dogged Pawn Hearts — the seat-of-the-pants writing and recording of “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” had been a major factor contributing to the group’s burnout. Echoing the mood of “Lemmings,” on Godbluff‘s opener, “The Undercover Man,” Hammill adopts an attitude of resigned persistence (“You ask, in uncertain voice, what you should do / As if there were a choice but to carry on”), and while his delivery is comparatively restrained here, it’s no less compelling. That dynamic extends to the overall sound of Godbluff, which marks a departure from the preceding album: the record’s four tracks are familiarly lengthy, and baroque, but they’re focused, rather than sprawling and overwhelming; while reining in its more unhinged inclinations, the band never forfeits intensity or urgency. In contrast with the prosaic contemplation of the misery of the human condition that characterizes “The Undercover Man,” the two strongest tracks find Hammill staging his perennial existential struggles as life-versus-death psychodramas, set in forbidding pseudo-medieval environments. The weighty “Scorched Earth” taps back into the band’s menacing, cacophonic tendencies and gallops to a feedback-addled conclusion as the song’s protagonist flees for his life. “Arrow” starts out like something from the dark, brooding depths, but Banton’s bass, Jackson’s electrified squall and Evans’ nodding beat together shape a funky groove that gradually coalesces into the song itself, with Hammill’s stentorian voice leading another epic charge. The song’s atmospheric rendering of a medieval warrior fleeing for his life doesn’t end well for its hero who, after a desperate chase and a failed attempt at gaining sanctuary, reflects, “How strange my body feels, impaled upon the arrow.” For all the churning turmoil, Godbluff isn’t without levity: witness the completely random, supremely cheesy Latin cocktail interlude during “The Sleepwalkers.”
Still Life has a degree of continuity from its predecessor (in fact, two of its six tracks were actually recorded during the Godbluff sessions). The changes aren’t dramatic, yet there’s definitely a sense of progression here as the band evens out its spikier edges and smoothes down some of its jarring rhythmic patterns for music that is more fluid but no less powerful. While the anthemic “Pilgrims” and the sedate “My Room” revisit some of the previously charted peaceful, pastoral territory, “La Rossa” epitomizes Still Life‘s fresh sonic dimension and finds the band exploring a different modus operandi. Sudden changes were a Van der Graaf Generator staple, but this track seamlessly combines diametrically opposed moods, moving almost imperceptibly from soft to hard, light to heavy, quiet to loud. Hammill, who here paints himself in an unflattering light as a frantic organ-grinder’s monkey, still seems to be in the thrall of the watery femme fatale who made his life such a misery on the earlier “Octopus.” The song is a textbook case of the male psyche’s simultaneous fear of, and desire for, engulfment by the feminine: “Take me, take me now and hold me / Deep inside your ocean body,” Hammill pleads, “Wash me as some flotsam to the shore / There leave me lying evermore! / Drown me, drown me now and hold me down / Before your naked hunger.” No Van der Graaf Generator record would be complete without a couple of lengthy philosophical treatises, and Still Life doesn’t disappoint. The title track ponders a future time without physical decline and death. For some, such a vision might provide brighter lyrical possibilities, but in Hammill’s hands the prospect of immortality, of course, becomes the stuff of ennui and eternal torture. On “Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End,” he launches into another meditation on the meaning of life, returning to by-now familiar themes and dilemmas and coming up with a familiar response: “Existence is a stage on which we pass / A sleepwalk trick for mind and heart / It’s hopeless, I know, but onward I must go.” Overall, Still Life isn’t perhaps quite as immediate in its impact as Pawn Hearts, but it still ranks as a career highlight.
Only a month after the release of Still Life, Van der Graaf Generator found the time to make World Record. But with three albums in a year, they lost the balance between quantity and quality. The creative momentum that followed the group’s reunion was flagging, and the emergence of commercial aspirations was no antidote. After making precious few concessions to mainstream sensibilities for so long, World Record suggests a band with an eye on actually selling records. Van der Graaf Generator had previously progressed idiosyncratically, never placing the onus on breaking radically new stylistic ground with each release but, rather, emphasizing the process itself and challenging themselves to push their own limits. World Record shows some stylistic departures, but trades immediacy and intensity for a comfortable, safer sound. Although a couple of tracks rock reasonably hard, they’re ultimately unsatisfying precisely because the band is working so obviously and self-consciously within a more conventional rock idiom. On “A Place to Survive,” as Banton, Jackson and Evans establish a busy, vaguely funky structure, Hammill takes an unusually optimistic path, which doesn’t become him. The lyrics are earnest and trite: melodramatic as opposed to dramatic, they come across not unlike a fusion of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “Climb Every Mountain.” Similarly, the placid “Masks” falls into awkward cliché: social interaction as role-playing. However, it’s business as usual on the harsher “When She Comes,” where Hammill revisits his ambivalent relationship with women, name-checking William Blake, Edward Burne-Jones and Edgar Allan Poe in the process. The album runs aground with the 21-minute “Meurglys III (The Songwriter’s Guild),” which rarely sounds like more than an extended jam and even lapses into an unprecedented attack of awful would-be reggae. To make matters worse, Hammill hits a lyrical nadir in the song, declaring that his only true friend is his guitar. The hymnal, valedictory “Wondering” is some compensation, but not enough.
A shake-up for The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome significantly altered the group’s structural dynamics and initiated a new creative phase. When Banton and Jackson left, Hammill and Evans did not replace the pair. Having abbreviated the band name to (the familiar) Van der Graaf in deference to the departed duo, they excised the trademark sax-and-organ emphasis (although Jackson hung around just long enough to play on a few tracks), brought in violinist Graham Smith and lured Nic Potter back. While Smith’s string enhancements and Potter’s supple, fuzzy bass add a bold new dimension, the contributions of the two remaining members also underwent some changes. Evans drums with renewed vim and vigor and Hammill expands his guitar work, cranking up the volume and bringing a harsher, more visceral quality to his playing. Crucially, Hammill emerges as the focal point of the music. With Banton absent, he is responsible for the harmonic framework and the stylistic difference from World Record to The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome is pronounced. Just as parts of Godbluff and Hammill’s Nadir’s Big Chance anticipated the musical anarchy on the horizon in the mid-’70s, The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome is a record that, in its own way, resonates with the upheavals wrought by punk. The doomy, overwhelming blocs of organ and the jazz inflections of classic Van der Graaf Generator give way to a pared-down, raw-and-jagged approach; while the band had never wanted for energy, the new version found another gear, its rhythmic changes and melodic shifts spikier and speedier. Hammill’s lyrical preoccupations here fall into two familiar categories: tortured relationships and existential ruminations. The songs are grouped more or less accordingly on the original vinyl sides, respectively titled “The Quiet Zone” and “The Pleasure Dome.” The sinewy, elastic “Lizard Play” sees Hammill get down and dirty with an “Iguana lady,” whereas “The Siren Song” has him, predictably enough, “lashed to the mast” in an effort to resist “the sweet kisses of addiction” and a laugh that “chills my marrow.” On “Last Frame,” distorted guitar and eerie violin duke it out as Hammill metaphorically ensconces himself in a darkroom, weaving a sorry tale of lost love and photography, and eventually blurring the line between pathos and pathetic as he wistfully concludes, “I only have a negative of you.” Hammill returns to questions of life’s meaning and purpose on the “Pleasure Dome” section of the record, opening with “The Wave,” a slow, meditative piano-based ballad. However, not all of his metaphysical explorations are couched in such reflective arrangements: on the standout “Cat’s Eye/Yellow Fever (Running),” for instance, the mood is fraught and frantic as overdubbed voices collide, violins whip up a storm and staccato percussion stabs; “Chemical World” features an intense, angular soundscape of frenzied violin and heavy fuzz-bass. While The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome could never be mistaken for punk rock, the band certainly aligns itself ideologically with the Class of ’77. There’s a clear sense in which Van der Graaf have had their own minor Year Zero. They’ve blown out the cobwebs and are prepared to move forward — in stark contrast with many of their less adventurous prog peers, who were left stranded on the other side of punk’s gaping divide.
Cellist/keyboard player Charles Dickie joined after the completion of The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome. If the idea was that a new component would take the edge off a little, as the excellent live album Vital demonstrates, that didn’t exactly work. Recorded at London’s Marquee Club, Van der Graaf is leaner than in previous incarnations but no less hungry, noisy or potent. Ads for the release called it “The Most Extreme Live Album” by “The Most Extreme Band in the World.” Hyperbole aside, it is a vivid document of a group that was already disbanded. Whereas live albums by most ’70s bands at the end of their careers tend to be pitiful monuments to decadence, self-indulgence and irrelevance, Vital is none of the above. (It was surprising that a group that reveled in live performance would wait so long to release a live album, and then only as an epitaph.) Sounding as if the group has been on a strict diet of steroids, the lumbering, pounding opener “Ship of Fools” sets the tone: flatulent bassline, anxious strings, assaultive beat, frazzled riffage and braying vocals. Drawing from the band’s entire oeuvre and including new material, the music is severe and punishing. The quieter interludes don’t offer much respite, serving instead as uneasy, menacing punctuation. One of the record’s most engaging aspects is the way the reconfigured band reinvents some of the older, most ambitious Van der Graaf Generator tracks. A 17-minute “Pioneers Over C” and a 14-minute medley of “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” and “The Sleepwalkers” might not appear to be wholly attractive propositions, especially in the wake of punk’s atomizing influence on song lengths, but they work exceptionally well. Most impressive is the rendition of “Still Life.” Starting with Hammill backed only by cello and violin, the track eventually topples into the sonic maelstrom. The newer songs are equally successful, especially “Last Frame,” which receives an epic, scorching makeover, and previously unreleased tracks like the frenzied anti-capitalist screed “Sci-Finance” and the riff-heavy, metallic “Door.” “Nadir’s Big Chance” provides a fitting conclusion. On the song’s original studio version, Hammill’s proto-punk alter-ego Ricky Nadir sounded the death-knell of glam, chiding “all these jerks in their tinsel-glitter suits”; here he modifies the lyrics and ups the ante by labeling punks as “all these jerks in their leather bondage suits.” (Ironically, John Lydon was in the audience.) Vital is the sound of a band refusing to go quietly, dying as it lived, in a state of turmoil and cacophony. While it’s a perfectly apposite coda to the group’s career, it’s frustrating that this line-up never had the opportunity to realize its potential on another studio album.
Nearly three decades after World Record, Banton, Evans, Hammill and Jackson reunited to record Present. The four had performed together at a couple of Hammill’s solo gigs, as well as at birthday parties for family members, but a full-fledged reunion had never looked likely. Nevertheless, the former bandmates’ experience of running into each other with alarming regularity at ex-roadies’ funerals, coupled with Hammill’s heart attack in 2004, provided the impetus to revive the group before it was too late. The resulting album is a two-CD set, the first disc containing largely song-oriented tracks and the second featuring a selection of improvised instrumental numbers. Inevitably, Van der Graaf Generator 2005 doesn’t pick up stylistically where it left off in 1976, and there’s no direct line between Word Record and Present, but this is still clearly a Van der Graaf Generator record. All of the characteristic ingredients remain to some degree (harrowing vocals, squealing horns, off-kilter organ and a weighty-yet-agile bottom-end), without making the album sound at all anachronistic. The contemporary feel of many of the tracks on disc one also resonates in some of the lyrical themes. Hammill gets his war on for “Every Bloody Emperor,” a splenetic waltz with both immediate and more universal historical concerns: “We grieve for the democratic process / As our glorious leaders conspire to feed us / The last dregs of imperious disdain / In the new empire’s name.” Dealing with less serious matters, albeit just as vituperatively, “Nutter Alert” is a surging Hammill rant about fools and having to suffer them — or not. Similarly tongue-in-cheek, the fevered “Abandon Ship!” (keeping up the Van der Graaf Generator tradition of nautical- or maritime-themed songs) looks at aging, apparently casting a jaundiced eye on the band itself: “It’s difficult to think of anything less magic / Than the aged in pursuit of the hip.” Alongside these more turbulent numbers, “Boleas Panic” is a sax-driven instrumental with a stately gravitas at times suggesting “Jerusalem.” While a couple of the improvisations on the second disc test the patience a little (the reggae dabbling of “Manuelle” strays into “Meurglys III” territory), it affords a fascinating vista on the band’s creative process and underlines the prowess of Banton, Evans and Jackson. Musical reunions can be dodgy prospects at the best of times, but to get together after almost 30 years apart might seem like sheer madness — in other words, business as usual for Van der Graaf Generator. For a comeback record, there’s nothing undignified or embarrassing about it.
Jackson left again in November 2005. A year later, Banton, Evans and Hammill announced plans to continue as a trio.
By the time of Van der Graaf’s demise in 1978, the band had only two compilation albums to its name, Charisma’s 68-71 (later issued in Germany as Reflection) and Rock Heavies. The former covered the first three records and included “The Boat of Millions of Years,” B-side of the 1970 “Refugees” single (originally entitled “The Boat of a Million Years”), while the latter gathered material from the Banton-Evans-Hammill-Jackson albums, skipping over Godbluff. Repeat Performance assembles tracks from the first four records, adding “The Boat of Millions of Years” and “w,” the B-side of the 1972 single “Theme One.” Time Vaults was the first set of hitherto unreleased work: billing itself as an “anti-compilation,” this is a rattlebag of rough practice recordings from the period between Pawn Hearts and Godbluff. Virgin put together two of the better ’80s collections, First Generation (Scenes from 1969-71) and Second Generation (Scenes from 1975-1977). The first traces the group’s output from H to He Who Am the Only One to Pawn Hearts (and includes “Theme One”); the second picks up with Godbluff and draws on all of the band’s subsequent studio albums. Of little interest is Now and Then, which incorporates two tracks from Time Vaults and six numbers from Banton, Evans and Jackson’s Gentlemen Prefer Blues. Virgin’s I Prophesy Disaster attempts a comprehensive overview, omitting material from H to He Who Am the Only One, World Record and The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome, and featuring Vital‘s medley of “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” and “The Sleepwalkers.” Also included are a studio recording of “Ship of Fools” (previously the B-side of the France-only single “Cat’s Eye”), “The Boat of Millions of Years” and “w.” Maida Vale is the only substantial, legally available evidence of the Banton-Evans-Hammill-Jackson line-up outside the studio. Comprising tracks recorded for BBC Radio between ’71 and ’76, it’s a good testament to the band’s live power, particularly the renditions of “Darkness (11/11),” “Man-Erg” and “Scorched Earth.” Another rip-off, The Masters, recycles seven numbers from Time Vaults and cobbles them together with three Banton, Evans and Jackson tracks from Gentlemen Prefer Blues.
The Box is a four-CD, 34-track monster that seeks to combine a “best of” with rarities. Although there are no album versions of tracks from The Aerosol Grey Machine (and the presence of “Meurglys III,” even in edited form, is unnecessary), The Box conducts an adequate tour of Van der Graaf Generator’s studio oeuvre. However, the 14 previously unavailable (legally, at least) recordings aren’t entirely satisfying. Nine performances captured on BBC sessions between ’68 and ’77 complement the Maida Vale material nicely, but the sound quality of some of these is lacking (for instance, “People You Were Going To”). On the plus side, the superior fidelity on tracks from the ’77 sessions gives another rare glimpse of the group’s last incarnation with Charles Dickie on cello, as does an unheard studio version of “Door.” The rest of the rare material consists of four numbers from a 1975 gig in Rimini, Italy, which has long circulated as a bootleg. These are excellent live documents (especially “Scorched Earth”), but the sound quality is poor. The Box also includes a booklet packed with reminiscences from Banton, Evans, Hammill, Jackson and Genesis’s Tony Banks; a wealth of photos; and an annotated band chronology/gigography. Having gone to considerable lengths to assemble this lovely compendium, the compilers, unfortunately, didn’t bother to proofread it with anything close to the care it merits. An abbreviated, single-disc companion to The Box was released as An Introduction: From the Least to the Quiet Zone.