Van der Graaf Regenerated
Photo courtesy of the Van Der Graaf Geneator site
Special thanks to Phil
by Wilson Neate
To cynics, the reunion of Van der Graaf Generator's classic lineup for its first album and gigs in 28 years might seem like fodder for a dodgy movie along the lines of Spinal Tap or Still Crazy. After all, the idea of reviving the spirit of the pre-punk '70s, when prog rock dinosaurs roamed the earth, isn't exactly the most appetizing musical proposition of 2005. But although the band's most memorable records (The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other , H to He, Who Am the Only One , Pawn Hearts , Godbluff , Still Life  and World Record ) certainly embodied many of prog's quintessential features, the band also stood out from the pack.
Van der Graaf Generator were always unorthodox. They formed in 1967 and split two years later, before the release of their debut album (after going through a handful of lineups and opening for Jimi Hendrix at the Royal Albert Hall). They got back together in late 1969, disbanded again in 1972, reconvened three years later, underwent a major personnel shuffle in 1977 -- shortening their name to Van der Graaf -- and called it quits a year after that. The recently reunited version of the group (1970-1976) eschewed not only guitar (with rare exceptions) but also bass: after the departure of bassist Nic Potter in 1970, organist Hugh Banton employed pedals to cover the bottom end, which was bolstered by drummer Guy Evans. According to sadly apocryphal claims, Banton's effects-laden organ doubled as an infrasound weapon and produced frequencies low enough to knock down walls. While VdGG had no ax hero, they did have a sax (and flute) hero in David Jackson, who blew his electronically enhanced horn (sometimes two of them at the same time) with Hendrixian gusto. And then there was Peter Hammill. Frequently sounding like an inmate escaped from Bedlam on Acid: The Opera, he was one of rock's more distinctive singers. Delivering bleak ruminations on isolation, torment, the duality of good and evil, death, and magick, all couched in quasi-mythic, often apocalyptic words, his voice ranged from deceptively soothing to frighteningly manic (like an aggrieved Dalek) -- sometimes in the same song. Hammill's mad psychodramas and highly idiosyncratic vocals left no room for ambivalence, usually determining whether a first-time listener would ever voluntarily put on a VdGG record again.
In their 1970s context, Van der Graaf Generator were a singular, often perplexing musical presence who suffered guilt by association with those prog rockers who committed very real aesthetic crimes. VdGG didn't entirely fit the prevailing art-rock mold, despite being on Charisma (the über prog label) and sharing some stylistic kinship with various hirsute contemporaries: a hybrid of rock, jazz, and classical music; intricate chord changes; tricky time signatures; epic, multipart songs; virtuoso musicianship; a helping of bombast; an unmistakable Englishness; and cerebral -- some would say pretentious and often absurd -- lyrics referencing William Blake, Hereward the Wake, necromancers, and the Malleus Maleficarum. Nevertheless, keyboard maestro Banton is still dubious about the usefulness of the prog label and emphasizes the heterogeneous nature of VdGG's sound: "I suppose it's inevitable that musical styles get grouped [but] I'm unclear quite where prog rock lies. In any case there is a vast difference between our approach on The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other compared with World Record down at the other end. Allegedly we invented the term 'Godbluff' in '75 to describe our particular mode of music making."
Whereas many of their peers continued on into ignominy after punk's year zero, Van der Graaf Generator were saved from anachronism in part by their essential nature, which was always one of discontinuity: the anarchic energy that made them unique was a double-edged sword, fueling them but also prompting interruptions in their ability to function as a band. According to Banton, "It was never hype to say that in the old days we always played very close to the edge, out on a limb -- musically and mentally -- and therefore also no coincidence that we split up several times . . . it really was very hard to sustain VdGG over long periods." Above all, it was VdGG's uncompromising pursuit of extremes that set them apart, especially live, with their willingness to leap from pastoral tranquility or brooding menace into the abyss of sonic terror (before you could say "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part One"): "We swung away from [prog's] multi-keyboard/acoustic guitar soundwashes and developed a far harder edge," recalls Banton.
That proclivity for cacophony and chaos, as opposed to longevity and commercial reward (they didn't break even until around 1984), and an inability to understand the word "compromise" meant that Van der Graaf Generator had a surprising amount in common with the more interesting members of the subsequent punk and post-punk generations. Punk's rejection of musicianship, artistry, and complexity might have appeared diametrically opposed to VdGG's core characteristics, which were the very things the class of '76 supposedly sought to purge. However, something in their aesthetic definitely resonated with figures like Mark E. Smith, Howard Devoto, John Lydon, and Nick Cave, all of whom have expressed admiration for the band. Most famously, during a July 1977 Capitol Radio show, Lydon treated listeners to some of his favorite tunes: alongside surprising inclusions like Captain Beefheart and Tim Buckley, Lydon included a track from Peter Hammill's 1975 solo album Nadir's Big Chance, recorded with Banton, Jackson and Evans.
In hindsight, Banton is somewhat skeptical, feeling that punk's debt to Van der Graaf Generator "may have got exaggerated following John Lydon's oft-quoted comments." He does acknowledge that "when we weren't being over-clever in counterpoint-and-jazz world, we liked nothing better than to thrash on three or four chords. Still do! There's increasing evidence of this from Peter's Nadir's Big Chance and Godbluff onwards." Interestingly, though, while some punks might have identified with those noisier, anarchic tendencies (as well as with the band's largely overlooked humor), VdGG struck more of a chord with post-punk artists, who began to explore the sort of "over-clever," complex and decidedly un-punk sonic dimensions mentioned by Banton. Indeed, as Simon Reynolds suggests in Rip It Up and Start Again, post-punk -- with its more sophisticated, bohemian pedigree -- was another point on the continuum of 1970s art-rock (along with prog), whereas punk's populist, working-class rock 'n' roll and garage nostalgia was actually an aberration in that trajectory. A striking example of that continuity can be seen in Hammill's vocals and lyrics. There was certainly a lot of Hammill in Lydon's delivery, but stronger resonances could be heard in the more challenging and inventive music following punk. Swerving away from punk's collectivist, non-metaphoric, message-oriented songs, many post-punk lyrics began to sound very different, articulating an individualistic vision, more in line with the sort of complex and allusive, often dark and tormented existential romanticism favored by Hammill. Additionally, while punk singers were for the most part unremarkable, many of their post-punk counterparts had distinctive vocal identities which, like Hammill's, were far from conventional or orthodox.
Hammill's songwriting was crucial to the band's sound, especially its complexity. In Banton's view, "His lyrics are in a league of their own, and hence there are always unique ideas and images to latch on to in every number. Secondly, he often writes incomplete tunes, certainly incomplete arrangements, so we get free rein to musically elaborate. Third, he (inadvertently or deliberately?) writes strange time signatures, asymmetrical meters, etc.; it has often proved very difficult to find the logic and work out how to play certain things -- and equally hard to memorize it at first. And then we perversely set out to make it harder still . . . ."
Hammill, Banton, Jackson, and Evans have occasionally played together since 1976, but their performances have been limited to family parties and surprise appearances at a couple of Hammill's solo concerts. Prospects of a bona fide reunion have always seemed slim, particularly in light of Banton's comment in a 2001 interview that the former bandmates might come to blows were they to reconvene. However, as they began seeing each other with increasing and alarming regularity at ex-roadies' funerals, it began to seem like a good idea to reunite before it was too late. They kicked the possibility around via e-mail and, at a September 2003 meeting, took the decision to move ahead with plans, which were almost thwarted when Hammill suffered a heart attack that December. That further reminder of mortality "increased the imperative," according to Banton. With Hammill fit again, in February 2004 the four lugged their equipment to Pyworthy Rectory in Devon, England where they spent a week seeing if there was still VdGG music to be made.
"We deliberately played absolutely nothing from the old days all week . . . and improvs were very, very much a part of that process," recalls Banton. Any reservations they may have had quickly vanished as it immediately became clear that the band's original chemistry remained intact: "Basically there's a rush of natural communication that we don't seem to get when playing with anyone else," says Banton, "We all knew it would be OK in about one-and-a-half seconds." As for fisticuffs, "older and wiser" is Banton's verdict: "Amazingly we've got on really well, much easier than '76 on the whole." The sessions eventually spawned Present, an album comprising one disc of primarily song-based material and another of improvisations, although the band didn't originally intend to record material for public consumption: "We didn't set out to put out an album at all . . . it was just that we all own recording gear and linked it all up at Pyworthy just to have a record of the event for our own benefit. Crudest conditions -- no soundproofing or separation. It was some weeks later that it seemed that a CD or two might be possible."
Few would expect a band that's been on hiatus for nearly three decades to come up with something that's not horribly embarrassing and legacy-destroying. Present proves that it can be done. The album's strongest numbers sit well alongside earlier work and there's a sense of continuity from World Record. That said, the new material isn't a pastiche version of an older sound, and it's by no means outdated. The very idiosyncrasies that originally made Van der Graaf Generator's music refreshingly out of step with everything else stop Present from sounding anachronistic and produce the album's high points, tracks that re-harness the band's intense energy and its love of extremes: for instance, the low-tempo pastoral freakout "Boleas Panic," the vitriolic Blair-and-Bush-baiting waltz "Every Bloody Emperor," and the no-less vitriolic "Nutter Alert," which ratchets up the energy and finds Hammill at his possessed best. The album's overall feel isn't necessarily contemporary (and what does that mean in rock these days, anyway?) but timeless in the sense that VdGG have always inhabited an odd sphere of their own, out on the margins. Asked to account for the longevity to which Present attests, Banton is modest: "It certainly isn't premeditated and we just reacted to each other's musical input like we always did. So I suppose it's just the result of the 2005 versions of Banton/Jackson/Hammill/Evans interacting."
With Present in the pipeline, the band explored the possibility of gigs and eventually a May 2005 date at London's Royal Festival Hall was announced, selling out almost immediately. The prospect of fans with enormous expectations traveling from 27 different countries (some as far away as Brazil) might have been daunting, but Banton and Co. approached matters pragmatically: "Once we had committed we just had to get on with it and hope people liked the result . . . same as ever. We did a lot of homework, personally and collectively, because one essential thing for us was not to damage the legacy." The RFH date and subsequent performances have drawn a diverse audience, beyond the constituency of "tortured schoolboys," as Banton once described the band's first-generation fans: "Lots of younger people [show up], which is particularly gratifying. Whether they're tortured or not, I can't say! It's fantastic to find that people in their twenties, thirties, and forties have picked up on our stuff since we split up, when there was (apparently) no chance of ever hearing it live."
The majority of Van der Graaf Generator's 2005 concerts have taken place in continental Europe, where the band has always had a strong following. Although at home they never enjoyed the commercial success achieved by the likes of Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson, they've always fared well on the other side of the English Channel -- especially Italy, where Pawn Hearts actually reached #1 in '71 and Present recently made it to #36. Of their music's apparent appeal to mainland Europeans, Banton wryly offers: "There must be a latent Puccini/Verdi/Wagner element in how we sound." The continued support of the group's die-hard fans notwithstanding, Banton and his bandmates have been taken aback by the positive media response to Present and to their gigs, not just in prog-friendly venues but in the broader music press and, most notably, in "serious" British newspapers (e.g., The Guardian, The Independent, and The Times): "The press reaction this time around has surprised us in its uniformity," he says. "Back in the '70s it was always very polarized . . . maybe the world has caught up. Now that could be hype."[Many thanks to Hugh Banton for taking the time to speak with me.]
Also see our previous Peter Hammill interview, Van Der Graaf interview and our article on Hammill's early solo years
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