Generally considered to be the product of a chance meeting between Chris Judge Smith, fresh from a summer trip to San Francisco, and fellow Manchester University student Peter Hammill, Van Der Graaf Generator were lucky enough to catch the likes of Cream, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Pink Floyd and The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown – their closest forebears – when they passed through town. Impressed by Brown’s outrageous theatricality, the group often performed as a duo with two female go-go dancers, and a typewriter for percussion. Organist Nick Pearne would then join to strive for the desired Crazy World effect.
On a whim, the group sent an R&B- and jazz-influenced demo to Lou Reizner, the US head of Mercury Records, who offered them a contract (he would later fix David Bowie’s Mercury deal). A visit to London linked the group to trainee BBC engineer and gifted organist Hugh Banton; one Tony Stratton-Smith would then add them to his roster.
A rapid crash course in the professional music business convinced the band members that they needed to up their game. They added guitarist Keith Ellis and drummer Guy Evans to their line-up before releasing their debut single, ‘People You Were Going To’/‘Firebrand’, on Polydor in the New Year of 1969. A sarcastic put-down of doped contemporaries going off to find themselves, it was an auspicious event followed by disaster. Discrepancies in the group’s Mercury/Polydor deal scuppered further recordings for the label and, despite supporting Hendrix at the Royal Albert Hall and making the acquaintance of John Peel, the group disbanded.
Hammill persevered, however, and hired his old friends as session musicians. Van Der Graaf’s debut album, 1969’s The Aerosol Grey Machine, was produced by John Anthony and was somewhat atypical of later releases, with a distinctly psychedelic edge underpinning Hammill’s raw and energetic vocals on ‘Giant Squid’.
While British buyers had to make do with import copies of Aerosol, Stratton-Smith ironed out contract difficulties in time for 1970’s The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other, on which new member David Jackson brought his Roland Kirk-inspired double horns (alto and tenor) to the forefront. The album coincided with the nascent prog rock movement – spearheaded it, some might say – and sales figures were positive. It’s still the only VDGG album to crack the Top 50 in the UK, though tracks such as ‘Refugees’, ‘White Hammer’ and ‘Out Of My Book’ became firm live favourites.
The strangely titled H To He, Who Am the Only One followed that same year and was promoted via the famous Six Bob Tour, which saw Van Der Graaf Generator headline over Lindisfarne and Genesis. Eschewing electric lead guitars for oscillators, various devices and pedals, and a strident avant-garde format, the band had established their future sound. With lyrics drawn from Hammill’s science-fiction obsessions, political dystopia and general weirdness, the group tended to polarise opinion, though the stand-out song, ‘Killer’ (which owed a debt to The Move’s juggernaut ‘Brontosaurus’) was an all-out classic.
Pawn Hearts (1971) was the group’s final collaboration with producer John Anthony and is now seen as an early pinnacle. Long tracks and extreme musical experimentation were order of the day: ‘A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers’ was an extraordinary suite with guitarist Robert Fripp’s cameo, multi-tracked collages, Mellotron, ARP synth and a bright production and engineering veneer that stands up well today and screams for rediscovery.
After a hiatus, the band reconvened for 1975’s Godbluff, whose four cuts are considered to be among their best. Recorded, like the singer’s 1975 solo album Nadir’s Big Chance, at Rockfield Studios in Monmouthshire, Wales, Godbluff was the real signpost to the future, courtesy of Hammill’s use of Hohner Clavinet D6 keyboard. More out there than ever on ‘The Sleepwalkers’ and ‘Scorched Earth’, it was apparent that VDGG weren’t interested in any prevailing trend. The follow-up, 1976’s Still Life, was equally challenging but can be renegotiated via the approachable melodies of ‘My Room (Waiting For Wonderland)’ and ‘Childlike Faith In Childhood’s End’ – very British almost pastoral affairs.
Straddling 1976 and ’77, World Record and The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome changed the overall sonics of the band. Both had the potential to be more commercial than anything they’d done to date, but, even though the group had anticipated the new wave of the late 70s, the albums struggled to make headway. Released in 1978, live recording Vital, compiled by Guy Evans, was a sprawling double-album that closed out the group’s Charisma deal. By now, the band were struggling financially and their much-vaunted democracy imploded.
With no new album in sight, 1982 saw the release of Time Vaults, a compilation of outtakes and rehearsals, before an even lengthier gap gave way to 1994 live collection Maida Vale, which focused on BBC sessions from the 70s.
It wasn’t until 2005 that fans could get their teeth into new studio material, when the classic quarter reunited – and were found on top form – for Present, which was followed by a successful, if fraught, reunion tour. Riding the wings of inspiration, Real Time (2007) and Trisector (2008) were both excellent, though the latter found the group recording as a trio (minus Jackson), while Hammill was as likely as ever to chuck in grunge rock spin and time-signature chicanery.
As so often happens if you stick to your guns, belated acclaim will follow. By the time of 2011’s A Grounding In Numbers and the following year’s ALT they were as obtuse as ever, but also rightfully recognised as pioneers. Repaying close examination, this latter-day period confirms VDGG’s status as unlikely national treasures – the kind you might find buried at the back of the shop.
2015 live outing Merlin Atmos contains favourites such as ‘A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers’ and ‘Gog’, and was swiftly followed by After The Flood: Van Der Graaf Generator At The BBC 1968-1977, covering their classic Charisma years. Both will be as cherished as No Not Disturb, which emerged in September 2016, alongside Hammill’s declaration that it would be the band’s final album.
One of the world’s truly revolutionary groups, VDGG are an acquired taste that becomes an addiction. In some ways they are the kind of band one can discover by sticking a pin anywhere in their discography, but you might try either of the 2000 collections, The Box or An Introduction: From The Least To The Quiet Zone, for overview. And then go back to the beginning. Eventually it all makes sense.
Peter Hammill has always had an abiding interest, it seems, in the blurred boundary between the mystical and the scientific, and between the rational and magical mind; this is certainly evident on the debut Van Der Graaf Generator album, even though Hammill had yet to really begin focusing himself on what it was that was driving him (despite the fact that the band's very name referenced a device that resembles a bastard mix of scientific apparatus and shamanic totem). The Least We Can Do brings those concerns to the fore with ferocity, with time out for a couple of more personal pieces ("Refugees" and "Out of Our Book"). Hammill's lyrics, delivered with all the passion and intent he can muster, reference mysticism, numerology, astrology, various religious pantheons, the Malleus Maleficarum (leading Hammill to conclude, a bit too hopefully, that magic needs to be gray to be balanced), Robert van deGraaf himself (in "Whatever Would Robert Have Said?"), the future of humanity, and surviving ecological catastrophe. This being the start of the 1970s, the hopeful notes are drowned out by the tidal wave of fear, sadness, and despair, despite which, the music does tend to be rather uplifting, thanks to the undercurrent of barely restrained majesty VDGG tended to have (possibly thanks to Hugh Banton, who had been rather used to communicating with God via church and cathedral organs; he brought that expertise to a position more normally occupied by determined B3 thumpers engaged in battle with show-horse guitarists). Words: Steve McDonald
The foreboding crawl of the Hammond organ is what made Van Der Graaf Generator one of the darkest and most engrossing of all the early progressive bands. On H to He Who Am the Only One, the brooding tones of synthesizer and oscillator along with Peter Hammil's distinct and overly ominous voice make it one of this British band's best efforts. Kicking off with the prog classic "Killer," an eight minute synthesized feast of menacing tones and threatening lyrics, the album slowly becomes shadowed with Van Der Graaf's sinister instrumental moodiness. With superb percussion work via Guy Evans, who utilizes the tympani drum to its full extent, tracks like "The Emperor in His War-Room" and "Lost" are embraced with a blackened texture that never fades. The effective use of saxophone (both alto and tenor) and baritone from David Jackson gives the somberness some life without taking away any of the instrumental petulance. H to He is carpeted with a science fiction theme, bolstered by the bleak but extremely compelling use of heavy tones and the absence of rhythms and flighty pulsations. This album, which represents Van Der Graaf in their most illustrious stage, is a pristine example of how dark progressive rock should sound. Words: Mike DeGagne
Van Der Graaf Generator's third album, Pawn Hearts was also its second most popular; at one time this record was a major King Crimson cult item due to the presence of Robert Fripp on guitar, but Pawn Hearts has more to offer than that. The opening track, "Lemmings," calls to mind early Gentle Giant, with its eerie vocal passages (including harmonies) set up against extended sax, keyboard, and guitar-driven instrumental passages, and also with its weird keyboard and percussion interlude, though this band is also much more contemporary in its focus than Gentle Giant. Peter Hammill vocalizes in a more traditional way on "Man-Erg," against shimmering organ swells and Guy Evans' very expressive drumming, before the song goes off on a tangent by way of David Jackson's saxes and some really weird time signatures -- plus some very pretty acoustic and electric guitar work by Hammill himself and Fripp. The monumental "Plague of Lighthouse Keepers," taking up an entire side of the LP, shows the same kind of innovation that characterized Crimson's first two albums, but without the discipline and restraint needed to make the music manageable. The punning titles of the individual sections of this piece (which may have been done for the same reason that Crimson gave those little subtitles to its early extended tracks, to protect the full royalties for the composer) only add to the confusion. As for the piece itself, it features enough virtuoso posturing by everyone (especially drummer Guy Evans) to fill an Emerson, Lake & Palmer album of the same era, with a little more subtlety and some time wasted between the interludes. The 23-minute conceptual work could easily have been trimmed to, say, 18 or 19 minutes without any major sacrifices, which doesn't mean that what's here is bad, just not as concise as it might've been. But the almost operatic intensity of the singing and the overall performance also carries you past the stretches that don't absolutely need to be here. The band was trying for something midway between King Crimson and Genesis, and came out closer to the former, at least instrumentally. Hammill's vocals are impassioned and involving, almost like an acting performance, similar to Peter Gabriel's singing with Genesis, but the lack of any obviously cohesive ideas in the lyrics makes this more obscure and obtuse than any Genesis release. Words: Bruce Eder
Following the release of Pawn Hearts, bandleader Peter Hammill took time out to develop a solo career, choosing to focus his energy on darkly introspective works that seemed to be intended to examine the personal consequences of his life. When it came time for reuniting the members of Van Der Graaf, this change in direction had its effect on the band's post-1975 music. While the musical structures continued to be complex and dense, there seemed to be far less accent on the demonstration of musical skill than had formerly been the case. Indeed, the album opened with daring quietness, with David Jackson's flute echoing across the stereo space, joined by Hammill's voice as he whispered the opening lines. There was sturm und drang to come, but the music had been opened up and the lyrics had developed more focus, often abandoning metaphor in favor of statement. Godbluff was a bravura comeback -- only four cuts, but all were classics. Words: Steven McDonald
VDGG's second step on the mid-'70s comeback trail saw Peter Hammill attempting to meld the introspective and the cosmic throughout, though this did not stop him from taking a dead run at a grandiose concept or two -- the consequences of immortality on the title track, and the grand fate of humanity on the epic "Childlike Faith in Childhood's End." The theme of humane cooperation informs the opening "Pilgrims," while "La Rossa" is an epic tale of desire fulfilled (a story that would be concluded on Hammill's solo album, Over). The true highlight, however, is the beautiful, pensive "My Room (Waiting for Wonderland)," with its echoes of imagination and loss. Hammill did not achieve such a level of painful beauty again until "This Side of the Looking Glass" on Over. Words: Steven McDonald
Somehow this combination made sense: a revised band (with Nic Potter returning on bass and the addition of Graham Smith, formerly of String Driven Thing, on violin) with a shortened name, and an album that was named twice, with different cover art for each name. What also made sense was the focus on shorter songs and a change of musical attitude. While Hammill could never entirely shake off his approach to songwriting, he was able to modify it somewhat. Working with the new band, he was able to generate considerably more energy than on World Record. "Lizard Play" and "Cat's Eye/Yellow Fever (Running)" are wonderfully gymnastic songwriting exercises, yet remain engaging by dint of their forcefulness. Written and performed at the top of Hammill's game, this album is a delight. Words: Steven McDonald
Re-forming no less than 27 years after the band last broke up, Van Der Graaf Generator were never going to put together the usual kind of reunion record. For a start, the reunion itself is largely in the eye of the beholder -- various permutations of the band have played together on a number of occasions over the past three decades, which means that it's their own understanding of what the Van Der Graaf Generator name signifies that dominates this album, rather than any of the motives and moods that normally dictate such affairs. The fact that this understanding dovetails exquisitely with the group's own reputation and legend should not surprise listeners. Messrs. Hammill, Jackson, Banton, and Evans have safeguarded their own chemistry well, and, from the opening swirl of "Every Bloody Emperor," it is clear that the void between "then" and "now" has neither dented nor tarnished the uniqueness of the VDGG sound. It is remarkable that, of all the idols and icons of the '70s whose influence has been spread across the last few years of "new" rock acts, VDGG remain all but untouched by anyone. But it's also true. With all the key ingredients in place -- the dislocation of sax and organ duets, a voice that can travel from zero to banshees in 60 seconds, and percussion that rolls with every punch that is thrown, who else could swing from the low-key loquacity of "On the Beach" to the abrasive swagger of "Abandon Ship!," from the rollicking barrage of "Nutter Alert" to the staccato panic of "In Babelsberg," and then wrap the package up with an entire disc's worth of impromptu improvisations that Evans himself very accurately compared to "being locked in a room with Van Der Graaf Generator." He's right, it is. And, once you remind yourself that their claustrophobia remains one of the most exhilarating sounds in rock history, you'll be throwing the key away yourself. VDGG never made a less than fabulous album in their lives. And they're not about to start now. Words: Dave Thompson