Van Der Graaf Generator

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Matt Wilson
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Van Der Graaf Generator

Postby Matt Wilson » 19 Sep 2021, 03:56

Van Der Graaf Generator are a great prog group that we don't seem to talk about much. Or at least I don't see too many conversations concerning them. Peter Hammill's voice is an acquired taste I guess, because the main complaint I hear about the band is that listeners can't get past the vocals - which are sometimes histrionic to be sure. But therein lies the power of the performances. All that added drama creates a sense of theatricality so important to the appeal of the music. Take Peter out of the equation and you'd have no group, as he's also their principal songwriter. As per usual, I'll cover the LPs through the '70s, and there aren't that many of them - so this won't be an epic thread like the Genesis or Yes ones. More like the Caravan or Soft Machine pieces. Had I many of Hammill's solo efforts, I'd throw those in as well - but as it is I only have The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage, so I'll be reviewing that too. If anyone would like to review any other Peter LPs, feel free.

The first 45 was called "People You Were Going To" backed with "Firebrand," released before the LP. Neither better nor worse than most of the songs on the album. You can get it on some CDs of Aerosol Grey Machine. The actual vinyl single is worth hundreds of dollars though.

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The Aerosol Grey Machine 1969
Another 1969 debut album by a major 1970s progressive rock band which was just okay. Like Yes and Genesis, things would only improve after this. Better than Genesis' first, but not Yes. Nothing on here is really essential, but the LP is of interest to fans and I don't mind it at all.

Peter Hammill – lead vocals, acoustic guitar
Hugh Banton – Farfisa organ, backing vocals, piano, percussion
Keith Ellis – bass
Guy Evans – drums, percussion

Additional personnel
Jeff Peach – flute on "Running Back"
Chris Judge Smith – slide-saxophone and harmony vocals on "People You Were Going To", chorus vocals on "Firebrand"

All tracks are written by Peter Hammill, except as indicated.

1. "Afterwards" 4:55
Spacy organ, thundering bass, acoustic guitar, and the great Peter Hammill begin the first VDGG album. Hippy-dippy lyrics very unrepresentative of the direction these guys would shortly take tell of a relationship about to go on the skids while Banton's saloon-hall piano adds a delicate demeanor to a frankly, pretty weird song. They sound good, but they need better material.

Wiki: "The album was originally intended as a solo album by the band's lead singer and main songwriter, Peter Hammill. When the band signed with Charisma Records, a deal was worked out whereby The Aerosol Grey Machine would be released under the Van der Graaf Generator name, in return for Mercury releasing Hammill from his earlier contract."

2. "Orthenthian St (Parts I & II)" 6:18
Pretty acoustic sounds start slowly as a tale unfolds about the singer wanting to go to the sea without his lover. There's a sense of the isolation and loneliness which will become dominant themes in Hammill's writing henceforth. His ambition is apparent even at this early stage, but this song isn't gonna convert anyone like future endeavors will. Evans almost sounds like Keith Moon towards the six-minute mark.

3. "Running Back" 6:35
Slow and ominous, but the lyrics are about a guy being won over by the love of a woman. Different way to sell a song, I guess. I like the flute played by Jeff Peach.

4. "Into a Game" (Peter Hammill, Hugh Banton, Keith Ellis, Guy Evans) 6:57
The longest cut on side one begins in the usual manner with acoustic guitar and piano and the story starts with the relationship already all but over. There are flashes where you see the Peter Hammill who will shortly emerge, but everything here is too early in their development and the arrangements aren't fully formed either.

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5. "Aerosol Grey Machine" 0:47
Amusing ditty about a death can with a spray you can breath in. Humor wouldn't play too big of a role in their later songs I can tell you...

6. "Black Smoke Yen" (Hugh Banton, Keith Ellis, Guy Evans) 1:26
Short instrumental which isn't too proggy but is interesting. They're treading water until the next track.

7. "Aquarian" 8:22
Longest number on the record starts with slashing acoustic guitar and psych Farfisa. Peter's rumination on the Aquarian age and the hippie counter culture is delivered with seeming tongue-in-cheek. There's even mention of the death breath again (the Aerosol Grey Machine?) and I'm wondering if the image of the great silver tube taking people to the sun is some kind of reference to the idea of young people taking a space ship and leaving the earth behind like in Kantner's Blows Against the Empire (yet to be written). Was this a common conversation at the time?

8. "Necromancer" 3:30
Semi-creepy number where the character is presented as some agent for good, but the guy is also a creature of the occult who knows long-forgotten secrets and such. Few of these tunes really point in the direction the band would take, but the sound is there. Still more psych than prog, really. Bolero drums too.

"The Aerosol Grey Machine was released in September 1969 by Mercury, in the US only. An initial edition contained the song "Giant Squid" on the cover but that was a mis-print (on the record "Necromancer" was featured instead), later pressings corrected the mis-print. This version of the LP was later released in Europe by Fontana Records." - Wikipedia

9. "Octopus" 8:00
We finish things off with a lengthy tune whose title Gentle Giant would use three years later. Actually, this one does remind me of future VDGG songs as Peter's vocals are all over the place. Hugh's organ sound is definitely more '60s than '70s at this point, but the overall effect is fun. The foreboding sense of ominous proceedings is one they'd use many times over from now on. Perhaps a slight Floydian feel?

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The Least We Can Do is Wave to Each Other 1970
Quantum leap forward, much like the difference between From Genesis to Revelation and Trespass. Songs are more fully-developed, arrangements more formed. I just got the new Charisma Years box set containing all the '70s albums so that's what I'm going to be playing from now on when I review these discs. I'm excited to be writing about a band I don't think I've discussed much here before - unless I talked about Pawn Hearts, because that was the first VDGG album I ever heard. Onward into the breach...!

Peter Hammill – acoustic guitar and lead vocals; piano on "Refugees"
David Jackson – tenor and alto saxophone, flute and backing vocals
Hugh Banton – Farfisa organ, piano and backing vocals
Nic Potter – bass guitar and electric guitar
Guy Evans – Drums and percussion

Additional musicians
Mike Hurwitz – cello on "Refugees"
Gerry Salisbury – cornet on "White Hammer"

All songs written by Peter Hammill, except as noted.

1. "Darkness (11/11)" 7:28
Now this is more like it. Ambience and atmosphere to spare, with better production to boot. Who knows what Peter's on about? Darkness, I imagine. Awesome organ solo, propulsive bass, cool tubs. Van Der Graaf as we know them is born. New guy David Jackson's sax makes its entrance and it's a whole new thing in their musical journey. Wiki - "Darkness (11/11)" got its title from being written on 11 November 1968, and was the first piece to feature Jackson's Roland Kirk influenced double horn section, playing alto and tenor saxophone simultaneously."

2. "Refugees" 6:23
"The West is the best" sang Jim Morrison, and Peter seems to believe it here, as there doesn't seem to be any dark element to this song at all. We're all going to migrate to the West and live happily ever after, you dig? Hey, you don't have to tell me - I live in California. Almost a "Whiter Shade of Pale" feel to the chords methinks.

3. "White Hammer" 8:15
Lengthy, organ-drenched number dealing with Malleus Maleficarum and middle ages witchcraft. Powerful, and it gets plenty trippy towards the end.

Wikipedia: The group began rehearsals for a new album in September 1969, practicing every day. Hammill wrote most of the songs and presented them to the band as finished pieces he could play along to, but arrangements were worked out by everyone in the group, particularly organist Hugh Banton and new member, saxophonist David Jackson, and the whole group improvised several pieces together. Banton had a background as a church organist, and he found his enthusiasm for modern French classic music combined well with Hammill's songwriting."

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1. "Whatever Would Robert Have Said?" 6:07
Now this one is proggy. Tricky time signatures abound and while there is still an element of psychedelia, it's obvious they're into a new bag. I'm digging the sax as usual and the organ adds the proper Graafian touch. Nic Potter playing a bit of guitar as well. Heavy. "Whatever Would Robert Have Said?" referred to Robert J. Van de Graaff, the inventor of the Van de Graaff generator that the group took their name from." - Wiki.

2. "Out of My Book" (Peter Hammill, David Jackson) 4:08
Jackson wrote the music to this. Hammill still having issues with women in these lyrics. Well, what did you expect? I'm trying to focus more on the words to these songs in my writing now. I've ignored the lyrics to these prog songs for long enough. Peter is a good enough writer to hold my attention.

3. "After the Flood" 11:27
Oh yes, a nice long one. Cool, funky riff to start things off and we have another apocalyptic song in the manner of Peter Gabriel's "Here Comes the Flood," or Jackson Browne's "After the Deluge" to name but two.

Wikipedia - "The final track, "After the Flood" was a science fiction number that showed the fallout of an apocalyptic flood, and featured a twelve tone figure arranged by Jackson and a variety of different mood and style changes. The lyrics partially quoted Albert Einstein expressing his concern about the arms race between the US and the Soviet Union that led to the Cold War."

Indeed, I think of global warming too, when I read the words.

Some more from Wiki before I sign off:

"François Couture, reviewing the album in AllMusic, described Hammill's distorted delivery of the word "Annihilation" in "After the Flood" to be "one of the scariest moments in the history of British prog rock". Jackson decided not to play "White Hammer" to a friend while his children were present, afraid they would be frightened by the music."

"The album was the first (and only) by the band to reach the top 50 in the UK. Critical reception was favorable. The title is taken from artist John Minton: "We're all awash in a sea of blood, and the least we can do is wave to each other."

"Although this is the second album in the Van der Graaf Generator catalogue, it was the first to be released in the UK, and the band considered it their first proper album."


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Last edited by Matt Wilson on 20 Sep 2021, 14:31, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Van Der Graaf Generator

Postby ConnyOlivetti » 19 Sep 2021, 07:10

Great write up!
Peter Hammill = The Ingmar Bergman of rock!
Matt, do you have the latest remasters and remixes from the box set?
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Re: Van Der Graaf Generator

Postby robertff » 19 Sep 2021, 07:28

Excellent write-up as usual Matt. I saw them at the Greyhound in Croydon once, they were the support for someone else, can't remember who at the time but I could only last a couple of songs before taking my leave. Have got a few of their albums and Hammill's solos but i need to be in the mood.Not an easy listen.


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Re: Van Der Graaf Generator

Postby Walk In My Shadow » 19 Sep 2021, 10:29

My two cents.


I can find nothing wrong with Hammill's voice. Silent Corner remains his best solo album.

Sorry to see Jackson go after so many years but VDGG made some great albums without him.
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Re: Van Der Graaf Generator

Postby OUTPLAY » 19 Sep 2021, 10:42

Matt Wilson wrote:1. "Afterwards" 4:55
Spacy organ, thundering bass, acoustic guitar, and the great Peter Hammill begin the first VDGG album. Hippy-dippy lyrics very unrepresentative of the direction these guys would shortly take tell of a relationship about to go on the skids while Banton's saloon-hall piano adds a delicate demeanor to a frankly, pretty weird song. They sound good, but they need better material.


'better material' my arse! 'Afterwards' is one of the best things they ever did - beautifully languid and melodic, without all the off-putting dramatics that sank a lot of their later work

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Re: Van Der Graaf Generator

Postby ConnyOlivetti » 19 Sep 2021, 11:21

Fav VdGG album for me is "Still Life"
Hammill solo is "A Black Box", "Sitting Target", "Enter K", "The Future Now" and Patience", all of them equal to anything Gabriel did during these years. When Gabriel decided which of Levins takes he should use, Hammill released two albums.
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Re: Van Der Graaf Generator

Postby slightbreeze » 19 Sep 2021, 12:46

Simply a magnificent band. Such a fan that when I got engaged to Mrs SB, I bought her a diamond ring and she bought me a gold ring, "Chameleon in the shadow of night" and "In Camera".

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Re: Van Der Graaf Generator

Postby C » 19 Sep 2021, 12:57

Excellent write up Matt

Yes, The Least We Can Do is a quantum leap forward from an album that started off a Hamill solo venture.

The Least We Can Do [and Still Life] are my fave VdGG albums.

No Sax. No VdGG despite what Conny says!




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slightbreeze wrote:
C wrote:Will Barclay James Harvest feature well.....?

If we get as far as a top 100, I'd certainly consider it

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Re: Van Der Graaf Generator

Postby ConnyOlivetti » 19 Sep 2021, 13:46

C wrote:Excellent write up Matt

Yes, The Least We Can Do is a quantum leap forward from an album that started off a Hamill solo venture.

The Least We Can Do [and Still Life] are my fave VdGG albums.

No Sax. No VdGG despite what Conny says!

.


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Re: Van Der Graaf Generator

Postby C » 19 Sep 2021, 14:34

Matt Wilson wrote:Van Der Graaf Generator are a great prog group that we don't seem to talk about much.


Fully-fledged goons do Matt




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slightbreeze wrote:
C wrote:Will Barclay James Harvest feature well.....?

If we get as far as a top 100, I'd certainly consider it

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Re: Van Der Graaf Generator

Postby C » 19 Sep 2021, 14:34

ConnyOlivetti wrote:
C wrote:Excellent write up Matt

Yes, The Least We Can Do is a quantum leap forward from an album that started off a Hamill solo venture.

The Least We Can Do [and Still Life] are my fave VdGG albums.

No Sax. No VdGG despite what Conny says!

.


In the voice of Inspector Jacques Clouseau ” - Ah, the old Discipline ploy ” :)


:lol:




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slightbreeze wrote:
C wrote:Will Barclay James Harvest feature well.....?

If we get as far as a top 100, I'd certainly consider it

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Re: Van Der Graaf Generator

Postby C » 19 Sep 2021, 14:35

C wrote:
ConnyOlivetti wrote:
C wrote:Excellent write up Matt

Yes, The Least We Can Do is a quantum leap forward from an album that started off a Hamill solo venture.

The Least We Can Do [and Still Life] are my fave VdGG albums.

No Sax. No VdGG despite what Conny says!

.


In the voice of Inspector Jacques Clouseau ” - Ah, the old Discipline ploy ” :)


:lol:




.


Of course that should have read 'Jax'

Bloody auto correct!

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slightbreeze wrote:
C wrote:Will Barclay James Harvest feature well.....?

If we get as far as a top 100, I'd certainly consider it

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Re: Van Der Graaf Generator

Postby Matt Wilson » 19 Sep 2021, 16:28

ConnyOlivetti wrote:Great write up!
Peter Hammill = The Ingmar Bergman of rock!
Matt, do you have the latest remasters and remixes from the box set?


Yeah, he does seem Bergmanesque at that. The box has everything from The Least We Can Do through Vital remastered. And Pawn Hearts through Still Life in 5.1.

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Re: Van Der Graaf Generator

Postby Neil Jung » 19 Sep 2021, 20:03

The Least We Can Do is my favourite of theirs, although I own about 8 of theirs and 7 Hammill solo albums, many more than I really need. I don’t find them particularly enjoyable to listen to, a bit like King Crimson in that I can appreciate what they’re doing but it doesn’t do it for me.
I saw them as Van Der Graaf with the Quiet Zone line up and on the South Bank for a reunion gig.
[indistinct chatter]

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Re: Van Der Graaf Generator

Postby C » 20 Sep 2021, 10:14

Neil Jung wrote:I saw them as Van Der Graaf with the Quiet Zone line up and on the South Bank for a reunion gig.


Mike - didn't you see them with me and Yomp(?) on the Reunion gig (2005) at The Royal Festival Hall?

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I was there. Of course






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slightbreeze wrote:
C wrote:Will Barclay James Harvest feature well.....?

If we get as far as a top 100, I'd certainly consider it

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Re: Van Der Graaf Generator

Postby Walk In My Shadow » 20 Sep 2021, 11:55

If you cloth ears could listen to a Jax-less VDGG (pretend it's a new band) then you would discover some wonderful music.

Personally I'd prefer Jax still being on board but the music without him still holds up as the work of VDGG.
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Re: Van Der Graaf Generator

Postby Rorschach » 20 Sep 2021, 12:00

Neil Jung wrote: I don’t find them particularly enjoyable to listen to, ... it doesn’t do it for me.


:o

I'd always thought of you as a huge fan of theirs! Them and Pavlov's Dogs.

You have rocked the very foundations of my world.
Bugger off.

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Re: Van Der Graaf Generator

Postby Neil Jung » 20 Sep 2021, 15:31

C wrote:
Neil Jung wrote:I saw them as Van Der Graaf with the Quiet Zone line up and on the South Bank for a reunion gig.


Mike - didn't you see them with me and Yomp(?) on the Reunion gig (2005) at The Royal Festival Hall?

Image

I was there. Of course
.


Yes that was it. The RFH is on the South Bank iirc!

I’m not keen on the RFH. VDGG were a bit boring there, Steve Hackett sounded out of tune with his orchestra gig and Low were extremely dull. Steven Wilson was however wonderful.
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Re: Van Der Graaf Generator

Postby Neil Jung » 20 Sep 2021, 15:53

Rorschach wrote:
Neil Jung wrote: I don’t find them particularly enjoyable to listen to, ... it doesn’t do it for me.


:o

I'd always thought of you as a huge fan of theirs! Them and Pavlov's Dogs.

You have rocked the very foundations of my world.


Oh dear. Sorry about that. These days I’m more likely to listen to Taylor Swift than VDGG!
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Re: Van Der Graaf Generator

Postby Rorschach » 21 Sep 2021, 11:33

Neil Jung wrote:
Oh dear. Sorry about that. These days I’m more likely to listen to Taylor Swift than VDGG!


I forgive you. I keep trying to like Taylor Swift but I can't quite get on with her.
Bugger off.