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By ProgBlog, Aug 28 2016 10:05PM

Sometime in July my wife forwarded me an Amazon recommendation, Peter Hammill and the K Group Live At Rockpalast – Hamburg 1981, a DVD and double CD production available for pre-order. I’ve come to rely on her input for potential new purchases, though their appearance in her Amazon suggestions must irritate her as much as the People You May Know feature on Facebook infuriates me; I don’t know these people and I don’t want to know them, so please stop trying to expand my social network. I can count my Facebook friends just using my fingers and toes. I’m a sociopath. Leave me alone with my music.

I’m a Peter Hammill fan and the K Group’s The Margin (1985) recorded at live shows in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London in 1983 is something of a favourite, with a raw, seat-of-the-pants feel, even though the band had been touring with Hammill’s solo material since 1981, so I ordered it immediately. On Friday 26th August I received an email from Amazon informing me that the item was due for delivery that day and, not knowing how it was packaged and whether or not it would fit through the letterbox, my wife stayed at home to take collection. By the time I got home from work, with a short detour to the shops in Addiscombe, there was still no sign of my parcel. I utilised the tracking facility on Amazon’s email and was informed that it was out for delivery. After dinner, a little before 8pm, I looked again and Amazon reported a ‘delay in delivery due to external factors, Croydon GB’ but didn’t provide any explanation. At 10pm, without any further changes to the message, I contacted Amazon customer services to be told that there was a problem with their system and that they couldn’t check my account. I thought that they may be able to tell me at what point I should give up waiting without going into details; apparently they deliver up to 9.30pm. The package was pushed through my letterbox at around 1.30pm on Saturday, some time after I’d seen announcements of its arrival with other recipients on Twitter, despatched from Burning Shed. It’s a good job that I’ve used Burning Shed for the forthcoming VdGG release Do Not Disturb and King Crimson’s Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind.



In the sleeve notes to Live at Rockpalast, Hammill is quoted as saying of The K Group “I was the boss; it was ‘my’ band. But our human and musical interaction was unimpeachable.” This suggests that it was a band put together to perform his solo material in order to present the material in a way that fully reflected the power of songs from his then most recent album, Sitting Targets (1981), not something that represented a true collective. When I first discovered prog, the genre appeared to me fairly egalitarian, but it may be that my thinking has been influenced by two of the first few albums I heard; the completeness of Close to the Edge is to a great extent down to the balanced roles of the musicians and predecessor Fragile, which appeared after CttE in our house, reinforced that view with its five ‘solo’ spots interspersed with some quite amazing band compositions. The first ‘solo’ album I bought, a joint enterprise with brother Tony, was Rick Wakeman’s Six Wives of Henry VIII (1973), where all the music was written Wakeman and guitar, bass and percussion were provided by guest musicians, gathered together for this one-off release. It was this formulation of the solo album that I regarded as being the archetypal model, one that was repeated by Wakeman’s erstwhile band mates during the Yes hiatus of 1975 – 1977. Solo projects allowed a member of a band to record material that might not have been suitable for their regular work outfit though the circles in which they moved were quite evident from the list of guest musicians; following the example of Wakeman, Steve Howe and Chris Squire borrowed fellow members of Yes, and Steve Hackett utilised Genesis colleagues on his first solo venture, Voyage of the Acolyte (1975). Meanwhile, Alan White, releasing Ramshackled (1976) under his own name despite not writing any of the material, borrowed the vocal and guitar talents of Jon Anderson and Steve Howe respectively for one track. Patrick Moraz chose to release The Story of i (1976) without any members of Yes, so that whereas you could detect the DNA of Yes in Fish Out of Water (1975) and Beginnings (1975) because of the distinctive playing and song writing styles of Squire and Howe, Moraz’s effort was a frenetic jazz rock workout which borrowed from Mainhorse (his first band) and world music without referencing Yes. Anderson’s Olias of Sunhillow (1976) was the only genuine solo effort which may have not sounded particularly like Yes but certainly embodied the spirit of the band.


Even though there was considerable debate about the true solo nature of Olias of Sunhillow, with suggestions that Vangelis had some uncredited physical input (Vangelis having borrowed Jon Anderson for a vocal contribution on So Long Ago, So Clear, from 1975’s Heaven and Hell, another genuine solo album if you discount the vocal and choral parts), there could be no disputing the stand out solo album of the period, even with contributions from Lindsay Cooper on string bass and Jon Field on flutes, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (1973) where one man pushed multi-tracking to the extreme. This brings us back to Hammill, whose second and third solo albums Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night (1973) and The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage (1974) fall between the initial break up and reformation of VdGG but, due to the inclusion of (In The) Black Room/The Tower and A Louse is not a Home, long-form compositions which would have featured on a studio follow-up to Pawn Hearts, the line between solo and group material becomes heavily blurred. In Camera (1974) marks a departure from over-reliance on other members of Van der Graaf Generator (Guy Evans is still on hand to provide some of the drums) but this is the beginning of the Sofa Sound home recordings, utilising extensive multitracking. There were two more Hammill solo venture featuring more than just a couple of the Hammill coterie; the entire cast of Van der Graaf Generator appeared on the pre-reformation, proto-punk Nadir’s Big Chance (1975) and Over (1977) includes members of the somewhat different Van der Graaf. Hammill’s appropriation of the alter ego Rikki Nadir heralded his later adoption of an alternative character, K, leader of the K Group. The pared-back solo outings The Future Now (1978) and pH7 (1979) were the last two releases on Charisma and I regard them as a sort of pair. The only guest musicians are Graham Smith and David Jackson, the songs could be interchangeable and the covers are stylistically similar; I also bought both of them from WH Smith in Streatham from a sale bin.

The next two albums, A Black Box (1980) and Sitting Targets (1981) provide many of the songs played by the K Group. The epic Flight deserves full band treatment but the songs that made up the K Group set list all benefit from a band performance. I’ve seen Hammill perform solo shows and loved them, watching him play on two successive nights in 1984 as I was catching up on his solo records and Van der Graaf. His emotion and projection are quite incredible and there’s always a sense that you’re being taken into uncharted territory, however well you know the material. A good place to start for the uninitiated is the double CD Typical (1999) taken from concerts in 1992).




But where does solo begin and band end? Hammill wrote almost all the material for Van der Graaf Generator but there’s no way you could call VdGG the backing band. I think that the solo artist Hammill is the singer/songwriter performing material primarily sourced outside of VdGG, with or without accompaniment, and whether or not he’s alone with piano and guitar, or has someone like Stuart Gordon on violin helping out or even backed by the full K Group, he’s always interesting to listen to on record and compelling to watch live. Live at Rockpalast is worth buying just for the DVD.






By ProgBlog, May 31 2015 09:06AM

This month marks the the 10th anniversary of the live reunion of Van der Graaf Generator (Friday 6th May 2005.) I’d heard about the event a couple of weeks beforehand but when I checked for availability, the Royal Festival Hall had sold out. Fortunately, one of my work colleagues was something of an expert at getting seats for prestigious concerts with high public demand and advised me that the press were often allocated a job lot of tickets that they didn’t always use and that I should check for returns about 24 hours before the show. I ‘phoned the box office two days beforehand and to my surprise and delight, managed to secure my attendance.

I think it’s fair to say that Van der Graaf Generator are an acquired taste. From being intrigued by the track White Hammer from The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other that I first heard on the Charisma Keyboards sampler LP in 1974 which I found to be an intense, almost frightening piece of music about the Spanish Inquisition, of all things, I’ve been a big fan. As much as I liked The Fountain of Salmacis, the Genesis offering on that album, it was the sheer force of VdGG that impressed me, blowing the twee Genesis track into the dust. Older brother Tony recently thought that he should see what the fuss was about and I directed him to Pawn Hearts as a good representation of the Mark I incarnation and Godbluff from the 1975 formation. He wasn’t over impressed and I think that VdGG inspires adoration and dislike in equal measure. That John Lydon should go on records as being a fan is quite amazing.

Apart from some powerful music, one of the things that I like about VdGG is Peter Hammill’s use of words. There can’t be any other lyricist who utilises the lexicon in the same way, something I put down to his education; from Jesuit public school to studying Liberal Studies in Science at Manchester University. There’s an immense range of material covered that reflected my interest in science and science fiction plus some deeper, philosophical thinking.

Commercially, VdGG were something of a second-division band. They may have been nurtured by Charisma Records owner Tony Stratton-Smith but they didn’t really get too much coverage in the music press at the time. However, I do remember being impressed by the photography on adverts for World Record in Melody Maker when the album was released in 1976 and it was only much, much later that I discovered that they had been successful in Italy.

It wasn’t until 1981 that I bought my first VdGG album, Still Life, from the Streatham branch of WH Smith. I had a choice between that and Godbluff but chose Still Life because I could see the lyrics on the back of the sleeve which looked interesting. I then randomly completed my collection, on vinyl and on cassette, whenever the opportunity presented itself. I included the out-take LP Time Vaults in my collection but I didn’t buy any of the compilation albums until I started to switch from vinyl to CD. I also embarked upon the acquisition of Peter Hammill solo albums, beginning with The Future Now and pH7 (both in a sale from Streatham WH Smith.) I went to see a solo performance by Hammill at the Bloomsbury Theatre in Camden on July 26th 1984 and was so impressed that I went to his show the next night, armed with a camera. I went to the first show not really knowing what to expect; it turned out to be almost entirely solo material but he did include Last Frame from the Van der Graaf album The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome. I seem to recall that, despite playing consecutive nights at the same venue, he still subtly adjusted the set list.

Though I remained reluctant to spend a lot of money on music, I bought the King Crimson 4CD box set The Great Deceiver in when it was released in 1992, thinking that it might represent a decent investment (it worked out at about £14.50 per CD.) When I came across 4CD The Box (2000) on a trip home to Barrow, with its remastered tracks and bonus material from BBC sessions and some unreleased live recordings, it seemed to me that VdGG were having something of a renaissance and I bought it without over-thinking. On reflection, this heralded the remastered 2005 releases and in the mean time, the band had remained friends and even played together at birthday parties. Shortly before the reunion gig they released their first CD of new studio material, Present (April 2005) since the Van der Graaf line-up released The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome in 1977. There used to be a record shop on the north east side of London Bridge, close to Guy’s Hospital, where I went to buy my copy so I’d know any new material that they were due to play.

The reunion gig was the best gig I’ve ever attended. The Royal Festival Hall is comfortable and has amazing acoustics and my seat was in row H of the front stalls, a little way to the left of centre. The choice of material couldn’t really be bettered; I imagine that the assembled audience (from 27 different countries), including me, were really there to hear some old classics but the two new songs that were performed, Every Bloody Emperor and Nutter Alert, were seamlessly integrated into a set comprising the best of VdGG, captured for posterity on the brilliant subsequent release Real Time (2007). The power of the quartet was almost overwhelming; the Hugh Banton bass pedals with their low-frequency punch, the manic horns (and double horns) from David Jackson, Guy Evans’ fluid drums and the urgent vocals from Hammill, delivered with unbrlievable feeling. I loved it all, even though I felt pinned to my chair by a brutal, sonic blitzkrieg. Part of the reason for this reunion was that the band members tended to see each other mainly at the funerals of friends and former roadies and, as Hammill had himself suffered a heart attack in 2003, if they were ever going to play together again, Hammill suggested that it seemed like a good time to start. Under these circumstances, his performance was truly outstanding but the whole band was on incredible form. I didn’t think I’d ever hear VdGG music played live by the original ensemble and I think that’s why it was such a special occasion. Later in 2005 Jim Christopulos and Phil Smart released their excellent Van der Graaf Generator The Book, an in-depth biography of the band that concludes with the 2005 reunion. I had pre-ordered my copy (which cost around £20) but it is no longer available. Second-hand copies on Amazon sell for around £150.

I subsequently went to see the band, sans David Jackson at the Barbican during the Trisector tour in 2007 and again at the Barbican in June 2013; losing the horn player made the performances more unbalanced, raw and awkward and when in full flow the band seemed to be teetering on the ragged edge, dangerous and brilliant. On the latter occasion I thought the 64 year old Hammill looked slightly frail, but he proved he could still belt out songs and Hugh Banton somehow managed to mitigate the loss of saxophone and flute.

I was sorely tempted to attend an intimate evening with VdGG at Metropolis Studios in December 2010, part of a series of gigs by so-called ‘rock legends’. In the end I didn’t feel I could justify the cost and have had to make do with a DVD filmed at the event. I still have some reservations about the post-2005 material even though Hammill’s writing is as clever as ever; I remain stuck in the past and a fan of long-form VdGG flights of fancy.


Postscript:

I saw David Jackson perform with David Cross at The Bedford Arms last week and, in such an intimate venue it became clear how innovative he is. I wasn’t disappointed to see him bedecked his leather cap as he not only played saxes, flute and whistles, he also used the saxophone keys as a form of percussion instrument.



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