Careering through Sound
Part 1: Going Solo
by Dan Coffey
"And with my head on fire, I wrote this song - I don't know who it's for..." - Peter Hammill, "(In the) Black Room"
The story gets hauled out every few months in the magazines that pander to those trainspotting rock fans that need to know the lineage of every band, the chronology of every oeuvre, and the dropped names that recording artists call influential: Peter Hammill released a groundbreaking album in 1975 that presaged Punk; Johnny Rotten famously cited him as an influence; years later, so did Julian Cope, Marc Almond and Mark E. Smith. More months usually go by between the music journo rehashing of the legendary career of the seminal 1970's prog/not-prog band Van der Graaf Generator, for which Hammill served as guitarist/keyboardist, singer, songwriter, and more often than not, public face. In these articles, Hammill's recording career during the VdGG years is usually given sidebar status. Interviews with Hammill over the years mostly touch on the songwriter's proclivity for writing material that keeps him off the charts. The work from the years 1971-1979, album by album, song by song, has not been given its due. This article attempts to redress that balance, looking at the work on the records, rather than pontificating about Hammill's personality (although, of course, at times, the two are inextricable).
One question that has always been difficult to answer in terms of Hammill's early 1970's body of work is "What separates a solo Hammill album from a Van der Graaf Generator album?" His first solo album, 1971's Fools Mate helps to clarify the difference; while it contains the entire VdGG lineup on almost every track, all the songs were written while Hammill was still very much a teenager, and there is a definite Summer of Love feel throughout the album that stands squarely at odds with the apocalyptic, anti-Aquarian vibe of the contemporary VdGG musical aesthetic. Coming as it did during the first VdGG incarnation's most popular period, following the album H to He Who Am the Only One and the legendary Pawn Hearts, Fools Mate is a throwback to the comparative lightness of the mid to late 1960's. The songs are short, catchy pop gems, although even here, one can see Hammill's tendency to write from a thoughtfully bizarre perspective. Hammill was keen to point out that the songs on Fools Mate "weren't intended to be any kind of statement of my present musical position," and that "the songs... are three to four years old." He also said that, although the songs were played during the very early days of VdGG, "Van der Graaf Generator were never going to record them," and he felt the need to get them down on record, and, in a sense, "exorcise" them.
"Imperial Zeppelin" is the first of a handful of songs throughout Hammill's recording career that would be co-written or solely written by his occasional compositional foil Chris Judge-Smith, who, along with Hammill, founded the original Van der Graaf Generator. "Zeppelin" is a wacky call-to-arms to leave the unpleasantness of Earth behind. "Re-Awakening" and "Sunshine" are paeans to the hippy ethos, shot through with Hammill's refusal to ride the status-quo. Lines like "E-S/M attractions are working behind my thought / I can't help my feelings, the way that my emotions are overwrought" co-exist with the more conventional: "Good morning, sunshine! / You know how sad It makes me to see you unhappy / so smile, spread sunshine all around."
Then there are the love songs, both direct and oblique. Of the former, "Vision" is perhaps the most enduring love song Hammill has written. In a rare occurrence, the piano part was recorded by VdGG bandmate organist Hugh Banton. "Vision," "Child" and "The Birds" share a downbeat, melancholy quality, while "Happy" (written in 1969, while the rest of the songs were from 1967) has a defiantly bubbly character. "The Birds" also features guitar work by Robert Fripp. "Summer Song (in the Autumn)" isn't as much a love song as an observation on the vagaries of time.
"Viking" is a nod to Hammill's teenage interest in Norse mythology. The first and final verses of "Solitude," as Hammill has stated in a compilation CD's liner notes, were "loosely taken from a poem by Hermann Allmers," with the two middle verses added by Hammill. Allmers was a 19th Century German poet, but "Solitude" sounds like a cross between British Lake District Romanticism and (thanks to Hammill's lyrical interjection) American Transcendentalism.
Despite Hammill's proviso that these songs did not represent his then-current musical position, the final track, "I Once Wrote Some Poems," seems to indicates otherwise. The shortest song in the set, it rises from a barely audible whisper to a shouted refrain that is more typical of Hammill's Van der Graaf vocals. Fools Mate, pop and pseudo-pop sensibilities aside, also gives a glimpse into what would become Hammill's love of using pure noise as compositional element as the album is bookended by a bracing onslaught of pure feedback; three tones before "Imperial Zeppelin" and a 30-second long endurance-testing racket into which "Poems" segues. It's the perverse Van der Graaf humor at work - yeah, they're light pop songs, but you have to get through the alienated, tormented soul-shriek first!
Fools Mate was recorded in April 1971 in just four days by Hammill and his bandmates, as well as Fripp and members of Lindisfarne, a band that shared VdGG's record label (Charisma). It was released in July of that year, while Hammill and the other members of VdGG were busy creating their magnum opus, Pawn Hearts.
CHAMELEON IN THE SHADOW OF THE NIGHT
Pawn Hearts proved to be as much of a strain on the band as it was popular, finding its way to number one in the Italian charts, and the subsequent touring pushed the musicians over the edge; they officially split in August 1972. Drummer Guy Evans, sax and flute man David Jackson, and organist Hugh Banton messed around with writing and recording instrumentals as a trio, while Hammill remained committed to pursuing a solo career in music. After the split, he worked with the Italian band Le Orme, translating some of their lyrics into English, and set about recording a passel of songs he had written. The result was Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night, released in May 1973. It was Hammill's first experience with home studio recording, and, Fools Mate notwithstanding, his first true solo album, as it represented his artistic stance in the present, rather than merely committing old songs to record.
To many VdGG fans, this album seemed like a band album without the name. Evans, Jackson, and Banton played on virtually every track, and there was even a long (over 10 minutes) composition that could easily have been a VdGG song. Additionally, a fourth ex-VdGG-er, bassist Nic Potter who had left the band in 1970, contributed to the proceedings.
Chameleon turned out to be a stark, somber album, in some places, almost too serious. The opening track, "German Overalls," is notable for several reasons. Firstly, it exemplifies Hammill's penchant for puns (Overalls / Uber Alles). Secondly, it showcases his tendency to fuse form and content - the lyrics are somewhat illustrated by the sonic effects in the music (heavy vocal manipulation is used to make the lyric "in the presence of acid" sound trippy and psychedelic) - which would become much more subtle further on in his career. The song tells the story of the craziness of VdGG touring in Germany, with all the alienation, boredom and stress that the situation brought upon the band members. "Slender Threads," "What's It Worth," "Dropping the Torch, "In the End" and "Rain 3AM" (the latter was not on the original release but was recorded at the same sessions and included on the 2006 remastered edition of the album) were mostly Hammill accompanying himself on piano or guitar and were lyrically very arch compositions that were by turns self-deprecating and pessimistic in the extreme.
"Slender Threads" recalls a past romantic relationship, and, while noting how different the woman has become, conflates this sense of distance with a need to somehow save her from the path she's on, and meanwhile worries that he might inadvertently be the instrument of her destruction. "In the End" is a manic account of the singer's state of affairs, asking to be forgiven his shortcomings and be given the gift of friendship despite them. It's another song where Hammill's vocal delivery is illustrative of the meaning of the lyrics, and is one of his most hair-raising, unnerving vocal performances in a long career of pushing that particular envelope. "What's It Worth" is a comparatively simple "should I stay or should I go" sort of song, dealing with the pull of fame and desire for solitude. "Dropping the Torch" warns against straying from an ethically correct path, only to finally admit that such a thing is impossible.
The songs that were filled out by band instrumentation made for more engaging listening, particularly the explosive "Rock and Role," but were still gloomy. "Rock and Role" covers much of the same lyrical territory as "Slender Threads." "Easy to Slip Away," a multi-instrumental composition, but much subtler and gentler than "Rock and Role" laments the distance that has grown between the singer and his friends (the same "Mike and Suzy" that were namechecked in the VdGG song "Refugees" - Suzy, a former flatmate, is the actress Susan Penhaligon). The album closes with the aforementioned epic, "(In the) Black Room," a song so Van der Graafian that it would become a staple of VdGG live shows when they reunited in 1975. The climax, where the narrator, possibly in the throes of a monumental acid trip, though the lyrics toward the beginning seem to eschew LSD use, is on the knife edge between enlightenment and annihilation on a cosmic level, is frighteningly intense, going farther than VdGG ever went in their most "out there" moments. Ultimately, "Black Room" brings the listener out the other side of a deliciously hellish zone of chaos and into a hard-won uplifting coda that more than counters the negativity spread throughout the rest of the album. While the next few albums, The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage and In Camera, wouldn't be quite so arch and insufferable, they only got darker and more fascinating.
Also see our 2007 Peter Hammill interview, our Van Der Graaf Generation interview, our VDGG overview and our 2016 Peter Hammill interview
Plus the official Peter Hammill website
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