Prog Rock So White, So What?

me_josh_ian_procol_harumThe cultural apparatchiks can’t figure out if it’s worse for white people to “culturally appropriate” the styles, customs, and musics from various racial and ethnic groups or to avoid them. If you do the former, you’re diluting them with your lack of understanding and context, and thus you’re racist. If you do the latter, you’re showing in-group preference, and thus you’re racist.

So, when the very Anglo Saxon sounding James Parker writes for The Atlantic that “prog rock is the whitest music ever”, what is his point, other than he doesn’t like progressive rock very much? He begins by talking about a prog rock themed cruise that’s taking off from the port of Miami.

“We are the most uncool people in Miami.” So begins, promisingly enough, David Weigel’s The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock. Weigel, along with 3,000 fellow Yes-heads, Rush-oids, Tull freaks, and votaries of King Crimson—cultural underdogs all, twitching and grimacing with revenge-of-the-nerds excitement—is at the port of Miami, about to embark on a five-day progressive-rock-themed cruise: a floating orgy of some of the most despised music ever produced by long-haired white men.

Despised by who exactly? He goes on:

Do you like prog rock, the extravagantly conceptual and wildly technical post-psychedelic subgenre that ruled the world for about 30 seconds in the early 1970s before being torn to pieces by the starving street dogs of punk rock?

Absolutely. Blame Hawkwind, Can, and Van der Graaf Generator for that. I suppose you could also blame Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath if you think they scrape against the progressive rock genre; Sabbath DID hire Rick Wakeman to play keyboards on Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath, and the album has the weird sounding, Moog filled “Who Are You?” on it, while Alice Cooper blatantly said that he and his early band wrote the eight minute, multi-part epic “Halo of Flies” to impress the prog crowd. But you know who you should REALLY blame? Johnny Rotten. That’s right, the former Sex Pistol, who reverted back to John Lydon when he launched Public Image Ltd. in 1978, talked about how his favorite pre-1975 bands were all of the above mentioned. Hawkwind, the band Lemmy was in before he started Motörhead, was my gateway drug into all things nerdy and progressive. Their songs are long and jammy like progressive rock, but driving and aggressive like punk rock or metal; check out “Brainstorm” if you wanna hear thirteen straight minutes of spacey, Stooges-style, proto-punk aggression.

As anyone with a cursory knowledge of rock history knows, John Lydon was spotted in the Summer of 1975 walking down a London street wearing an “I Hate Pink Floyd” t-shirt, which lead to his landing the Pistols gig. But, if he HATED Pink Floyd (in actuality, he doesn’t), and Hawkwind COVERED Pink Floyd – “Cymbaline” – then that’s a bloody contradiction, innit? On top of THAT, Lydon openly and often talks about how he loves the very progressive Van der Graaf Generator. Listen to Peter Hamill’s singing, such as in the song “Killer”, and you know where post-Pistols John Lydon got his caterwauling vocal style from.

And so, I realized it wasn’t 1977 anymore, and my punk/prog tribalism was torpedoed FOREVER!!! There isn’t THAT big of a leap from Sabbath to the King Crimson track “21st Century Schizoid Man”, with its heavy metal riff and bonkers jam out section. And, although Crimson use a saxophone in “Schizoid Man”, Hawkwind, X-Ray Spex, and the Butthole Surfers incorporate saxophone into their sound as well. Pretty soon, I was aurally scarfing down the music of Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Gentle Giant, Gong, Nektar, Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come, Greenslade, Egg, Kayak, Fuzzy Duck, and Atomic Rooster, along with German progressive rock acts like Eloy and Birth Control – which shouldn’t be mistaken for kraut rock bands like Can, Kraftwerk, Neu!, Faust, Amon Duul 2, Cosmic Jokers and Tangerine Dream – Italian bands like Goblin, Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso, New Trolls, Area, Maxophone, and Premiata Forneria Marconi, and of course the extremely weird French band Magma. I also really dig the fantasy art of Roger Dean, which decorates the album sleeves of Yes, Uriah Heep, Budgie, and Osibisa. That’s right, James Parker, I listen to Osibisa, an all black group of African expatriates! How’s THAT for virtue signalling?!

So, to answer your original question, yes, I like prog rock. But go on…

Do you like the proggers, with their terrible pampered proficiency, their priestly robes, and their air—once they get behind their instruments—of an inverted, almost abscessed Englishness? I don’t.

You don’t say…

At least, I think I don’t. I like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which is a kind of wonderful satirical compression of prog rock, a fast-forward operetta with goofy existentialist trappings and a heavy-metal blowout in the middle; I like the bit of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells that became the theme music for The Exorcist.

Actually, Mr. Parker, the Jethro Tull album Thick as a Brick is a spoof of self-important progressive rock conceits; that’s the album with the newspaper sleeve, which features a phony story about a nine year old boy, who wrote a poem that the Jethro Tull members thought was so brilliant, they used it as the lyrics for their album. In case you couldn’t guess, that was a joke. But you ARE right; “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a very good song, if a bit overplayed, and I like Tubular Bells as well.

Hated, dated, sonically superannuated … One could enjoy prog ironically, I suppose—listen to it with a drooping and decadent ear, getting off on the fabulous obsolescence, etc.

“Hated, dated, sonically superannuated”? What, are you Bob Dylan now?

Prog as a wild chamber of experimentation, a sci-fi trespass across the limits of popular music, driving clear of fashion and orbiting the Earth forever. Awesome. The problem comes, for me, when I actually listen to the stuff. Is it not a form of aesthetic dissipation to praise something for its ambition and its bold idiosyncrasy when that something is, objectively speaking, crap?

Okay, so you don’t like it. Nobody’s forcing you to listen to it, but when exactly did musical taste become “objective”?

Gentle Giant, in 1972, took a poem from Knots, a book by the great heretic psychiatrist R. D. Laing, and turned it into an intricate, multivoice chant: It hurts him to think that she is / hurting her by him being hurt to think / that she thinks he is hurt by making her / feel guilty at hurting him by her thinking / she wants him to want her. The idea is great on paper. But listen to the song, to its scurrying, fidgety instrumentation, its fussy avoidance of anything like a melody. It is not enjoyable. At all. Magma, the French prog band, invented not only its own L. Ron Hubbard–style cosmic origin story but its own language (Kobaïan, which reads like a sequence of Gothic expletives: Nebëhr gudahttKöhntarkösz). Again, very creative. But run, oh run, from the music.

Blah, blah, blah… Gentle Giant is actually VERY enjoyable. In fact Sherman Hemsley LOVES ’em, and you’re not going to argue with George Jefferson, are you?! More on point; Magma IS a very weird band. But their weirdness is fun, jackass. I remember driving around with my friend in our little burg near Detroit, blasting Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh just to annoy people.

Eventually James “so Anglo Saxon it hurts” Parker attempts at cycling the piece away from his personal bias and back to what is allegedly the point of the article.

“We’re a European group,” declared the lead singer of proto-proggers The Nice in 1969, “so we’re improvising on European structures … We’re not American Negros, so we can’t really improvise and feel the way they can.” Indeed. Thus did prog divorce itself from the blues, take flight into the neoclassical, and become the whitest music ever.

Well, ACTUALLY, that’s not entirely true, and even if it was, who cares? Soft Machine (why didn’t I mention them above?) incorporated jazz into their sound, and if Jethro Tull, King Crimson, and Uriah Heep were as metal as they were progressive, then there’s no way in hell they abandoned blues. On top of that, Deep Purple, who I guess also straddles the fence between early heavy metal and progressive rock, started playing goddamn soul music on albums like Burn and Stormbringer. In fact, this musical change annoyed original Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore so much, he quit the band because of it and started Rainbow. Oh, and you have heard “Money” by Pink Floyd, haven’t you?

Parker goes on to complain about Procol Harum incorporating elements of Bach into “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and then spends the rest of the paragraph bitching about Keith Emerson making cool sounds with his Hammond organ before replacing it with the Moog synthesizer, as if that violates some sort of anti-Hammond/anti-Moog code of honor. To be fair, Keith Emerson’s playing in ELP gets a little dense, leaving little space in the music for my taste, and it turns out Vincent Crane, former keyboardist for the Crazy World of Arthur Brown and band leader for the criminally underrated Atomic Rooster (how underrated, you ask? Check out the groovy ass “Break the Ice”, and see for yourself!), agreed. So, Parker, there IS a system of checks and balances in prog. On top of that, I don’t like how Emerson, Lake and Palmer couldn’t think of a better name for their band than just their last names separated by a comma and an “and”, but hey! At least H.R. Giger did the artwork for Brain Salad Surgery. And no, “brain salad surgery” isn’t an ethereal and philosophical concept; it’s slang for a blowjob.

Fiending for technology, vivid with turbulence, he went from the Hammond organ to the freshly developed Moog synthesizer. (The proper pronunciation of Moog, I recently discovered, is “Mogue,” like “vogue.” Perhaps prog should be pronounced “progue.”)

QUIT YOUR DAY JOB RIGHT NOW AND GET ONTO A COMEDY STAGE, YOU COMEDIC GENIUS!!!

Money rained down upon the proggers.

Horrible!

Bands went on tour with orchestras in tow; Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Greg Lake stood onstage on his own private patch of Persian rug. But prog’s doom was built in. It had to die. As a breed, the proggers were hook-averse, earworm-allergic; they disdained the tune, which is the infinitely precious sound of the universe rhyming with one’s own brain. What’s more, they showed no reverence before the sacred mystery of repetition, before its power as what the music critic Ben Ratliff called “the expansion of an idea.” Instead, like mad professors, they threw everything in there: the ideas, the complexity, the guitars with two necks, the groove-bedeviling tempo shifts. To all this, the relative crudity of punk rock was simply a biological corrective—a healing, if you like.

Bitch, bitch, bitch… I’m guessing Parker hasn’t heard “Roundabout” by Yes. It’s got plenty of that “sacred repetition”, which makes a song hooky, enjoyable, and memorable. On top of that, I wonder if Parker has heard prog/punk hybrid groups like Nomeansno or the Jesus Lizard, who combined “the groove-bedeviling tempo shifts” with “the relative crudity of punk rock.” Though, he’s got a point; neither of those bands ever used dual neck guitars.

Also, economics intervened. In 1979, as Weigel explains, record sales declined 20 percent in Britain and 11 percent in the United States, and there was a corresponding crash in the inclination of labels to indulge their progged-out artistes. No more disappearing into the countryside for two years to make an album. Now you had to compete in the singles market.

So, music has to sell a lot of records for you to like it? But, punk rock records NEVER sold as much as progressive rock albums… unless we’re talking about Nirvana, the Offspring, and Green Day, and I know we’re not, so what’s your point?

Some startling adaptations did occur. King Crimson’s Robert Fripp achieved a furious pop relevance by, as he described it, “spraying burning guitar all over David Bowie’s album”—the album in question being 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).

Okay first all, Fripp had already played some fuzzed out licks on the Brian Eno album Here Come the Warm Jets, which, like a Bowie album, is full of succinct and catchy pop rock tunes, only better (yeah, Eno is better than Bowie, blow me.). But, if Parker wants to talk about “adaptations”, then he fails to mention the 1981 King Crimson album Discipline, in which Fripp and his group absorbed the neurotic, jittery, and deliberately stilted new wave influence of David Byrne, along with the Talking Heads’ synthetic businessman attire. Check out their Fridays performance of “Elephant Talk” if you don’t believe me! It’s AWESOME. Now, I’m no Fripp apologist; King Crimson have done their share of unlistenable, pretentious crap (Lizard, Islands), but when they nail it, hoo boy, do they nail it (In the Court of the Crimson King, Red, Larks’ Tongues in AspicDiscipline, The ConstruKtion of Light, The Power to Believe).

Yes hit big in 1983 with the genderless cocaine-frost of “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” And Genesis, having lost ultra-arty front man Peter Gabriel, turned out to have been incubating behind the drum kit an enormous pop star: the keening everyman Phil Collins.

Okay, yeah, “Owner of a Lonely Heart” IS a pretty catchy song, but is Parker actually praising the artless, easily listening muzak of Phil Collins OVER the weird and experimental Peter Gabriel?! Dude, if you want to LARP the 80s, coke-snorting yuppie lifestyle, there is FAR better music to do it to; for instance, Avalon by Roxy Music.

These, though, were the exceptions. The labels wanted punk, or punky pop, or new wave—anything but prog.

Except that, with the exception of a few noteworthy new wave or crossover acts like Devo, Blondie, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, the Stranglers, or the Police, punk rock never sold any records, and labels stopped wanting it after three years of watching it fail commercially. Sire only kept the Ramones on as a tax write-off.

“None of those genres,” grumbled Greg Lake, retrospectively, “had any musical or cultural or intellectual foundation … They were invented by music magazines and record companies talking together.” Fake news!

Parker can’t resist taking a swipe at Trump supporters with his “fake news” quip, as if Greg Lake said something that’s SO preposterous. EVERY genre or sub-genre is invented by the journalists and record labels, who group bands together into made-up tribes. For the journalists, it creates a sense of cultural or, I guess, sub-cultural cohesion, and for the labels, it helps sell records.

But the change was irreversible: The proggers were, at a stroke, outmoded. Which is how, to a remarkable degree, their music still sounds—noodling and time-bound, a failed mutation, an evolutionary red herring. (Bebop doesn’t sound like that. Speed metal doesn’t sound like that.)

Damn, dude… did you catch your girlfriend cheating on you while Close to the Edge was playing in the background? Speaking of Close to the Edge, have you heard the nutty first two minutes of “Close to the Edge”? If you don’t like THAT, then you know where you can stuff your “red herring.” By the way, if you’re using speed metal (or its close cousin thrash metal) as some sort of barometer with which to measure musical “evolution” by, then I’m guessing you’re not aware that most thrash kinda sounds the same. And this is coming from a fan of Motörhead, Venom, Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, Voivod, Exciter, Exodus, Overkill, Sodom, Kreator, Destruction, Sepultura, Onslaught, Possessed, Celtic Frost, Suicidal Tendencies, Corrosion of Conformity, and S.O.D. (but NOT Anthrax, sorry).

I feel you out there, prog-lovers, burning at my glibness. And who knows? If the great texts of prog had inscribed themselves, like The Lord of the Rings, upon my frontal lobes when they were teenage and putty-soft, I might be writing a different column altogether. But they didn’t, and I’m not. The proggers got away with murder, artistically speaking. And then, like justice, came the Ramones.

You do realize that the music of the Ramones is AS white, if not whiter, than virtually any prog band? According to Johnny Ramone’s obituary in the New York Times:

Mr. Ramone once described his guitar style as “pure, white rock ‘n’ roll, with no blues influence.”

Playlist 4/27/2016

Gentle Giant – The Power and the Glory
Hawkwind – The Machine Stops
Hawkwind Light Orchestra – Stellar Variations
Van der Graaf Generator – Godbluff
Van der Graaf Generator – Still Life
The Fall – The Unutterable
The Fall – Room to Live
The Fall – Slates
Hawklords – We Are One
Death – Leprosy
Morbid Angel – Blessed Are the Sick
Pagan Altar – The Time Lord

Playlist 4/25/2016

Melt-Banana – Bambi’s Dilemma
Flamin’ Groovies – Teenage Head
The Fall – Grotesque (After the Gramme)
The Fall – The Marshall Suite
The Fall – Hex Enduction Hour
The Residents – Commercial Album
Hawkwind – Sonic Attack
Hawkwind – Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music
Van der Graaf Generator – The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other
Van der Graaf Generator – Pawn Hearts

Playlist 4/5/2016

Nattefrost – Blood & Vomit
Mike & the Melvins – Three Men and a Baby
Oranssi Pazuzu – Värähtelijä 
Pixies – Doolittle
Drive Like Jehu – Yank Crime
Fraction – Moon Blood
Lou Reed & Metallica – Lulu
Van der Graaf Generator – H to He Who Am the Only One
The Creation – Our Music Is Red – With Purple Flashes
Entombed – Clandestine
Abbath – Abbath
Weidorje – Weidorje 

Playlist 3/18/2016

The Damned – Damned Damned Damned
The Damned – Music for Pleasure
The Seeds – A Web of Sound deluxe edition disc one (mono version + demos)
The Seeds – A Web of Sound deluxe edition disc two (stereo version)
Sky Saxon Blues Band – A Full Spoon of Seedy Blues (part of disc two of A Web of Sound deluxe edition)
Tyrannosaurus Rex – My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair… but Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows
Van der Graaf Generator – World Record
Frank Zappa – Apostrophe (‘)
Manilla Road – Mystification
Atomic Rooster – Death Walks Behind You
Guild Navigators – Phase 2: Zone Unknown CDr
Jim Jones and the Kool-Ade Kids – Trust Me…/Contrafusion

Van Der Graaf Generator

Image

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

Aerosol_Grey_Machine

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

Van_Der_Graaf_H_To_He_Who_Am_The_Only_One

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

van_der_graaf_pawn_hearts

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.