Van Der Graaf Generator

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special introductory paragraph
The Aerosol Grey Machine
The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other
H to He Who Am the Only One
Pawn Hearts
Time Vaults
Godbluff
Still Life
Maida Vale
World Record
The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome
Vital
Now and Then
Present
Real Time
Trisector
Live at the Paradiso
Live at Metropolis Studios 2010
A Grounding in Numbers
ALT

Note: I apologize for this page being incomplete. I let it go live without reviewing every single album. If you click on a link and it doesn’t take you to an album or the review doesn’t exist yet, I’m working on it!

I first heard of Van Der Graaf Generator because Mark E. Smith, John Lydon and Nick Cave all claimed they were fans of the group.  Although now I absolutely love their stuff, initially I had trouble getting into them because their sound is so weird!  On one hand they appear to be just another progressive rock group to have emerged from some British art school in the late 60s that wanted to extrapolate on their chops and push the musical envelope a little further. However one listen to any of their classic albums tells a different story.

First of all singer/composer/guitarist/occasional pianist Peter Hammill has no ordinary voice. At times his singing is so high, feminine and wussy, he makes Jon Anderson seem like a tough guy while other times he caterwauls like a police siren or a screeching woodwind instrument while delivering his lyrics in a highly melodramatic fashion. Second of all, and although they would make their songs a tad more accessible, Van Der Graaf Generator songs tend to violently bounce between sublime, quiet piano music and ragingly loud, discordant, free jazz noise thanks to the musical skills of pianist/organist Hugh Banton, saxophonist/flutist David Jackson and percussionist Guy Evans.

And then there’s Peter Hammill’s lyrics; at times they’re clever and sophisticated like Brian Ferry, other times extremely bizarre and pseudo-philosophical and yet at other times, filled with self-pity. Personally though I prefer the ones about the killer fish at the bottom of the sea.

The Aerosol Grey Machine – Mercury – 1969

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Okay, I lied.  They didn’t start off with the aforementioned lineup.  The members listed on the back of The Aerosol Grey Machine include Peter Hammill, Hugh Banton and Guy Evans but, unfortunately, David Jackson wasn’t in the band yet.  Therefore there were no noisy sax blasts that would appear as early as their next album and make their music that much more fun.  Instead we have a Keith Ellis on bass and Jeff Peach on flute.

While there is definitely early signs of the type of music Van Der Graaf would become more famously known for throughout The Aerosol Grey Machine, for the most part, the album has a serene, late 60s vibe to it.  Most of the songs consist of pretty acoustic guitar strumming and simple, gentle melodies accompanied by piano and occasionally flute.  Banton’s Farfisa does appear on the album, especially on darker songs like “Necromancer”, the tail end of “Aquarian” and album closer, “Octopus” while “Into a Game” definitely uses sad minor notes.

But, overall the album is happy and hippie-dippie sounding.  There are “show-offy” moments of flute and organ solos but the beats and song structures remain pretty normal.  That’s okay though!  The songs are still great!  Peter Hammill’s unmistakable high pitch voice is already in place but he he doesn’t caterwaul and shout as aggressively as he would on subsequent releases.

On a lyrical tip, even here we see signs of what would come; specifically “Necromancer” is about a “white magician” warning off a those into the “black arts”, a theme which would be revisited as early as the group’s next album but, for the most part, it’s just hippies-laying-in-flower-field-la-dee-da lyrics.  It was the late 60s, whadaya want?

Did I mention the song “Necromancer”?  It goes, “I am the Necromancaaaaahhh!!!”  It’s cool!

The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other – Charisma – 1970

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Apparently, The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other is supposed to be the real Van Der Graaf Generator debut album; I guess the first one was supposed to be a Peter Hammill solo album but then the rest of the members became part of the official band?  This here second Van Der Graaf Generator album is closer to what you and I have come expect from the group and it’s AWESOME! I think one thing people other than me tend to not notice, if you replaced David Jackson’s saxophone with an electric guitar, Van Der Graaf Generator would sound like a slightly weirder heavy rock band. For the most part Jackson plays rhythm sax, preferring catchy riffs over endless soloing while Hugh Banton backs it up with little melodies on his keyboard. Goes to show that this band is more about sound, mood and melody than crazy arrangements and complicated time changes. There are a few on the album but none that seem to be too mind boggling, I don’t think.

The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other consists of six songs of varying lengths. Most of them move from part to part in a natural but by no means boring fashion, with several building in intensity until coming to their cataclysmic conclusions. Both opener “Darkness (11/11)” and the Inquisition, persecution towards black and white magic practitioners epic “White Hammer” end with especially noisy, discord. I guess I should also mention that Van Der Graaf are slack on guitars; Hammill plays some catchy little, individual note melodies on his acoustic during the quieter parts of album closer “After the Flood” and Robert Fripp contributes some wicked, fuzzed out licks on “Whatever Would Robert Have Said?” but, as you might have guessed, the majority of the instrumentation is handled by sax and keyboard. Jackson also jams out on his flute along with playing corny, renaissance King Arthur melodies.

Possibly the biggest turnoffs for potential fans might be the songs “Refugees” and “Out of My Book.” The former is a soft, piano driven piece accompanied by high pitch, feminine singing and the latter contains aforementioned renaissance era flute. However, if you can see past that, then you might enjoy these for what they are; very pretty and melodious songs. Also check out Banton’s kewl church organ tones at the beginning of “White Hammer.”

And if you want a specific example of what deep, important matters concern Peter Hammill, check out these lyrics:

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

Malleus Maleficarum slaughtered and tortured
All those under suspicion, as the inquisition ordered
Burning black hearts and innocents alike
Killing the mad, such was the power the hammer had

Though Hexenhammer was intended to slay only evil
Fear and anger against magic overspilled
They also killed those of the white

So for two centuries and more they tried to slay
Both the black and the white arts but spirits override pain
For every one that the torture took, two were hid secure
And so the craft, yes, it endured

Love and hate lived on in the face of fear
Hexenhammer’s force died
And the real power became clear

White Hammer no more is beaten, now it begins to beat
And the gray, once oppressor now at good hands, faces defeat
And the black, too, shall bow down to the power above
Black hate beats gray but supreme is
The white hammer of love, the white hammer of love

Some might say that those lyrics are nerdy.

H to He Who Am the Only One – Charisma – 1970

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H to He Who Am the Only One is a heavy album that doesn’t rely on distorted guitar riffs. That’s what makes this band so unique – that the saxophone is primarily a rhythm instrument, playing what would amount to heavy metal riffs if played on guitar.  Also H to He Who Am the Only One is the record that made me a fan. The big noticeable change from The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other and H to He Who Am the Only One is an overall higher reliance on whacked out, abrupt time changes and way more instances of noisy free jazz. If I’m not mistaken these elements are what many find off-putting about the band and possibly why people like John Lydon and Mark E. Smith like them so much.

For instance, opening track “Killer” begins with this killer, angry riff played on sax and organ.  A brooding voice then sings “So you live at the bottom of the sea and you kill all that comes near you/but you’re very lonely because all the other fish fear you/and you crave companionship and someone to call your own/because for the whole of your life, you’ve been living alone” before the organ plays a tense, dramatic build up and then the first verse comes back in, followed by the organ part and then it changes to this happier, rockin’ part and then the crazy sax part comes in, prompting my friend Zach to remark, “Edwin, it’s too early and I’m too hung over for this free jazz freak out!” Also, both Ian O’Brian and I noticed how the end of each line, where Hammill goes, “you-oo-oo-oo-oo-oooo” sounds a little like the end of the “Iron Man” riff.

After a brief, six minute detour into the soft, piano ballad “House with No Door”, the rest of the album caries on in similar fashion as “Killer.” All of the songs (including “House with No Door”) are great but individual parts are worth noting – the whirling, organ intro and similarly noisy Hammond breakdown to “Lost”, the flute/organ interplay and tense, angry build ups in “The Emperor in His War Room”, the spacey noises and driving riff in “Pioneers over C” and many other fine examples!

And yes, it may be difficult to take Peter Hammill seriously with his overwrought and melodramatic vocals and ridiculous lyrics like “live by sword and you will die so/all your paths shall come to naught” but I’ve personally come to enjoy his vocals and lyrics quite a bit. Especially the man blasting off and getting lost in space theme of “Pioneers over C”, which takes place in the futuristic year of 1983, no less!

“It is so dark around, no life, no hope, no sound!”

Pawn Hearts – Charisma -1971

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I don’t know which album I’d tell someone to listen to first if suggesting a Van Der Graaf Generator album because between what I and other people prefer differs but if I’m trying to make someone vehemently hate the band, there’s no better album to do that with than Pawn Hearts.

It’s not as if the group was particularly accessible in the first place but this three song, 45 minute long LP is one dense and challenging piece of work!  When I first heard the album, I immediately liked the noisier bits.  The album’s opening track “Lemmings (Including Cog)” starts with a soft part, prompting a lady friend of mine to laugh out loud and exclaim, “is that a GUY?” but then the noisy “dee-do, dee-da” part abruptly comes in and the song gets all loud and the sax starts bleating away but then it gets quiet again.  And it’s this ugly/pretty, loud/quiet, scary/pleasant motif which dominates the record.

When the songs aren’t loud, Hammill sings in his wussy, high pitched voice over light piano melodies or acoustic guitars for minutes at a time.  What the hell is this crap?  And it sure doesn’t help that the third song “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” is a 23 minute, ten part medley!  You have to listen closely to suss enjoyment out of the record but it sure does pay off. There are a lot of things to listen for – bits, dodads, sounds, melodies, Hammill’s “ah-ah-ah-ah” imitating the distorted Farfisa organ during the loud part in “Man Erg” for instance, the sound of the ship horn in the fourth minute of “…Lighthouse Keepers”

I guess you can say Hammill uses his voice as an instrument, going up and down the note scale as a saxophone or trumpet might do. I guess this influenced John Lydon’s singing style in Public Image Ltd. 

And check out some of these lyrics. They’re surprisingly violent and dark!

“Greasy machinery slides on the rails
young minds and bodies on steal spokes impaled
cogs tearing bones
cogs tearing bones
iron-throated monsters are forcing the screams
mind and machinery box press the dreams.”

“But stalking in my cloisters bang the acolytes of doom
and Death’s Head throws his cloak into the corner of my room.”

“When you see the skeletons of sailing-ship spars sinking low
you’ll begin to wonder if the points of all the ancient myths are solemnly directed straight… at… you…”

Indeed Hammill’s lyrics are philosophical and apocalyptic but I’ll be damned if I understand what they’re about!

Then the band broke up and got back together a few years later.

2 thoughts on “Van Der Graaf Generator

  1. Great to hear such interest in Van Der Graaf Gen. Peter Hammill’s lyrics frequently explore themes of alienation, disconnection and (as he ‘matured’!) connection. The albums you have covered here certainly batter at the theme of unbridgeable aloneness. Anyway, nice connection!

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