Cult Heroes No. 22: Van der Graaf Generator
Van der Graaf Generator are the most singular of English (as opposed to British; there’s a crucial distinction, of course) prog bands. Come inside for a celebration of their epic, oddball and angst-ridden career… Check out all the Cult Heroes here.
Words: Geoff Barton
By now you’ve probably noticed the cunningly conceived slogan of sister mag Classic Rock Presents Prog. It’s there on every one of Prog‘s front covers. Taken from the title of Hawkwind’s 1976 album, it reads: ‘Astounding sounds, amazing music.’ In Van der Graaf Generator’s case, however, perhaps we should change it to: ‘Eccentric sounds, bewildering music.’ Avant-garde? Sheesh… in this band’s case, that’s not even the half of it.
Van der Graaf formed way back in 1967 and their history, as you can imagine, is as complex as their music, which mixes cryptic poetry, volatile organ playing, intricate drumming and absent-minded saxophone parps. Dyed-in-the-wool fans will know Van der Graaf’s story by heart; most other people won’t give a damn. It’s always been that way. It’s a straight choice between dedication and divisiveness. The only constant during Van der Graaf’s career has been their wilful idiosyncrasy.
When this writer first interviewed Van der Graaf leader, Peter Hammill, in August 1974, I wrote in Sounds music weekly: ‘I must admit I had a preconceived idea as to what he would be like. I thought that he would be enigmatic, complex and certainly obscure. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. I still haven’t made up my mind.’ And you know what? More than 35 years down the line, those comments still hold true.
We meet in Bath, where Hammill lives these days, in a noisy restaurant called the Firehouse Rotisserie. The singer – he also plays keyboards and dabbles with guitar – is grey-haired, a trifle gaunt, his teeth yellowed from years of smoking. (He had to give up in 2005, when he suffered a heart attack.) He is dressed anonymously in a plain fleece and corduroy trousers. He is clasping what can only be described as a ‘hippy bag’ – a kind of hessian suitcase with big, colourful handles. On the table in front of him is a small carafe of red wine. It’s a perfectly ordinary setting… but in the company of Hammill it becomes strangely surreal.
In typically perverse fashion, Hammill starts off by questioning Van der Graaf’s prog credentials. “Technically, we’ve always been an underground band,” he insists in his posh but not plummy voice. “Underground was Deep Purple to Soft Machine, via Hatfield And The North, Pink Floyd and The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown. It was just this enormous miasma.” A very Hammill-esque word, is miasma.
He continues: “What I generally think about in terms of prog is loads of keyboards, big stage shows, big budgets, lots of egos and lots of excess. Which of those might apply to Van der Graaf? Er, none of the above.
“Having said that,” he admits, backtracking slightly, “I no longer raise an eyebrow when the ‘P’ word comes up and I do understand why people think of us as prog.”
Van der Graaf were the first band to be signed to the legendary Charisma record label, also home to Genesis. “Technically Rare Bird were the first. They had the first release, but we were the first signing,” Hammill clarifies.
Did Van der Graaf ever consider themselves to be rivals to their label-mates, Genesis? “No, there was always a big difference between us and them,” Hammill maintains. “Even back in the day they were doing a theatrical stage show, being very professional about it, whereas we – as I’m sure you’ll remember – had a tendency to blow up every so often. Well, not even a tendency. You could virtually guarantee that if you saw three Van der Graaf shows in a row, one of them would be horrible. They were never the same in term of content, songs or delivery. Because we came from the late 60s rather than the early 70s, we were much more chaotic.”
Van der Graaf challenged the listener right from the outset. The title track of their 1969 debut album, Aerosol Grey Machine (originally scheduled to be a Hammill solo effort), sounds like a mad Monty Python ditty. Two years later, for 1971’s Pawn Hearts, Hammill composed A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers, a bewildering 23-minute epic based around the wrath of the sea. Then, after an ill-fated stab at singles chart success with the George Martin instrumental Theme One (the Radio One signature tune and later used on The Friday Rock Show), Van der Graaf split up.
Hammill chuckles at the memories: “Back in the day we were always portrayed as very, very serious. Kind of po-faced, in fact. We thought that if we revealed we had a sense of humour it would skew things for us.”
Nevertheless, even a daunting work such as …Lighthouse Keepers contains amusing moments: two of its ‘movements’ are called (Custard’s) Last Stand and The Clot Thickens. More recent VdGG song-title divertissements have included Nutter Alert and ’Eavy Mate.
“To be honest it’s always been the case,” Hammill states. “The highest accolade we can come up with, both then and now, is: ‘That’s very funny.’ We can be deadly serious but when we create something absurd it’s the icing on the cake. In modern terms, Radiohead are in exactly the same waters. Originally they must have sat there banging their heads on the table but in later years they’ve managed to add some humorous, quirky elements to their approach that connoisseurs really do appreciate.”
Besides Radiohead, is Hammill aware of the work of modern-day proggers such as Muse of The Mars Volta? “Kind of,” he shrugs, “but I’m not a great follower of much of today’s music. For better or worse. Pardon the ego, but the music I want to listen to is still the music I want to make. Whether it’s with the band or with solo work. Obviously I do retain an interest and I can see echoes and reverberations of the stuff we do in some of the new prog bands. I never think there’s a direct connection but there are certain coincidences and attitudes.”
The history of Van der Graaf is a stop-start affair, with Hammill solo efforts peppering the plentiful periods while the band went on hiatus. Then, in late 2003, 40 hours after completing his album Incoherence, Hammill collapsed in the street with a sudden heart attack.
“We’d already blocked out this 10-day period for rehearsals for the revival of Van der Graaf,” Hammill reveals, adding dryly: “Needless to say, my heart attack delayed things somewhat.”
Ironically, the classic line-up of the band – Hammill, organist Hugh Banton, saxophonist Dave Jackson and drummer Guy Evans – had agreed to reconvene out of the fear that one of them might die soon. There was unfinished business to be, well… finished.
Hammill recalls: “I got through December and January , recuperating. When I finally drove my car down to rehearsals in North Devon I’d just been allowed to behind the wheel again. I was taking it very slowly. I became fantastically and acutely aware of how brilliant it is to be alive. Just to see that flower-bud opening, whatever. The absolutely mundane things become fantastic.
“Obviously I dealt with some of this on Singularity [his 2006 solo album]. I’m 60 years old now; I’ve got my railcard. In fact the other day a young lad offered me his seat on a train. Which I declined. One of the main tunes on Van der Graaf’s most recent album Trisector is actually about losing your glasses, forgetting to charge your mobile, losing your car keys… This is what older – not old, older – people do.” [The track is called All That Before if you want to check it out.]
Van der Graaf’s live comeback is documented on the Real Time album, recorded at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in May 2005. Listening to it, one can detect a palpable sensation – equal parts nail-biting anticipation and wide-eyed reverence – as set opener Undercover Man begins. Was Hammill aware of the almost overbearing tension?
“Oh, yes. But I was more aware of how scary it was, to be honest. I don’t suffer from stage fright but I do often get moments when I say to myself: ‘I must have said yes to this some time. I must have said yes or I wouldn’t be here. Whose stupid idea was it in the first place?’
“We honestly didn’t know if we’d be able to get through the night. We did… and of course there were a few mistakes. But that’s a forgivable part of Van der Graaf and will continue to be so. We have the same attitude as we did when we re-formed back in the mid 70s – we’re determined not to become a caricature or a pastiche of ourselves.”
Nevertheless, Van der Graaf’s 21st Century reunion was almost scuppered when David Jackson – once dubbed ‘the Van Gogh of the saxophone’ – left under mysterious circumstances. The band were forced to reinvent themselves as a trio.
Hammill states: “Without wishing to come over all kind of 70s obscurantist, it became clear that it was impossible for David to carry on being a member of Van der Graaf. I can say no more than that. Come back in 10 years maybe and I’ll explain more.”
Hammill is playing bridge this evening (“A much more sociable, less solitary game than chess, don’t you think?”) so our interview must end. He drains his last drop of red wine and gathers up his hippy bag, ready to depart.
He offers a final reflection: “I do think that you have to be a certain kind of character to enjoy our music. Usually when people discover Van der Graaf, they… have to be a bit odd.”
Odd in their musical tastes, or odd in their personality?
“Oh, a bit of both, dear chap. A bit of both.”