Eclectic progressive

Posted on 2007-11-06 11:35:30

Van der Graaf Generator are a british progressive rock band, the first act signed to Charisma Records. The band achieved a considerable amount of success in Italy during the 1970s. In 2005 they embarked on a reunion, which continues to the present day.

The signature sound of Van Der Graaf Generator in the 1970s was a combination of Peter Hammill's distinctive and dynamic voice and David Jackson's electronically-treated saxophones, generally playing over thick chordal keyboard parts (such as Hammond organ and/or clavinet). Van der Graaf Generator albums tended to be darker in atmosphere than many of their prog-rock peers (a trait they shared with King Crimson, whose guitarist Robert Fripp guested on two of their albums), and guitar solos were the exception rather than the rule.

Peter Hammill is the primary songwriter for the band, and the line between music written for his solo career and for the band is often blurred. The group was named after a piece of electric equipment designed to produce static electricity, the Van de Graaff generator. The name was suggested by early member, Chris Judge Smith. The misspelling is accidental.

The band first formed in 1967 while its members were studying at Manchester University. The three-piece was comprised of Peter Hammill (guitar and vocals), Nick Pearne (organ) and Chris Judge Smith (drums and wind instruments). On the basis of a demo, this blues- and jazz-influenced first incarnation were offered a recording contract with Mercury Records, which only the 19-year old Hammill signed.

In 1968, Pearne was replaced by Hugh Banton. The band were able to secure Tony Stratton-Smith as a full-time manager. Through him, the band acquired a bass guitar player, Keith Ian Ellis. Drummer Guy Evans joined not too long afterwards. This line-up recorded a series of demos for Mercury, before releasing a single ("The People You Were Going To" b/w "Firebrand") on Polydor Records. The single was withdrawn under pressure from Mercury, since it violated Hammill's contract as a solo artist.

Although the band performed on BBC Radio 1's Top Gear radio show in November, and was touring successfully, it broke up in early 1969. Pressures leading to this included the theft of the band's gear and transport in London, combined with Mercury's refusal to let Hammill out of his solo contract and the band's unwillingness to sign under the "harsh" terms to which Hammill had agreed.

In July 1969, Hammill went to record his first solo album at Trident Studios. Banton, Evans, and Ellis joined him as session musicians. Through a deal worked out by their manager, Hammill's intended solo album, The Aerosol Grey Machine, was released by Mercury under the band's name in return for releasing Hammill from his solo contract. The album was initially only released in the United States.

Tony Stratton-Smith formed Charisma Records and signed the band as his first act. Before recording their second album, The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other, Ellis left (eventually joining Juicy Lucy and a very brief incarnation of Iron Butterfly) and was replaced by Nic Potter, and David Jackson (saxophone and flute) was added to the line-up.

A new sound was established, leaving behind the psychedelic influence of The Aerosol Grey Machine in favour of darker textures influenced by jazz and classical music. The Least We Can Do... was well received, and was swiftly followed by H to He, Who Am the Only One. Potter left mid-way through that recording, and the band decided to carry on without a bass guitarist, with Banton substituting with the organ's bass pedals. Robert Fripp of King Crimson contributed guitar on the song, "The Emperor in His War-Room".

The Hammill/Banton/Jackson/Evans quartet that resulted from H to He is now considered the 'classic' line-up, and went on to record Pawn Hearts, which is considered by many to be their finest work. It contains just three tracks, "Lemmings", "Man-Erg" and the 23 minute concept piece "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers" very much in keeping with the times. Fripp again provided a cameo appearance on guitar. The album proved highly successful in Italy, topping the chart there for 12 weeks. They toured Italy for a while, but the shows were plagued by different extremist organisations from Red Brigade to neo-fascists. The band toured extensively from 1970 to 1972, but a lack of support from the record company and possibly also financial difficulties caused the band to implode and Hammill left to pursue a solo career. The three remaining members recorded an instrumental album with Nic Potter, Ced Curtis, and Piero Messina, under the name "The Long Hello". Their self-titled album (The Long Hello) was released in 1973.

Hammill's split with the group was amicable, and Banton, Jackson and Evans, among others, all contributed to his solo work at various times. By 1975 the band were ready to work with each other again, and three new albums were recorded in just 12 months. The sessions were produced by the band themselves (all previous VdGG albums had been produced by John Anthony at Trident Studios), and displayed a somewhat tauter, more streamlined sound. Godbluff in particular saw Hammill making significant use of the Hohner clavinet keyboard. Still Life followed within the same year.

Following World Record, first Banton and then Jackson departed. Nic Potter returned, and in a typically eccentric move Banton was replaced by a violinist, Grahame Smith (formerly of Charisma folk-rock band String Driven Thing. This line-up produced the album The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome. The band also shortened its name to Van der Graaf. Charles Dickie then joined the band on cello for live work, documented on the live album Vital. By the time Vital was released, in the summer of 1978, the band had already split.

One album of 'new' material was released after the split. Time Vaults is a collection of out-takes and rehearsal recordings from the 1972-1975 hiatus. The quality of the recordings varies from demo-standard to very poor.

Banton, Jackson and Evans all made occasional appearances on Hammill's solo albums following the 1978 split, and the classic line-up also played occasionally together. In 1991, they played several songs at a fortieth birthday party for David Jackson's wife. In 1996, the quartet appeared on stage during a concert by Hammill and Evans at the Union Chapel in London to perform "Lemmings". In 2003, Banton, Jackson, and Evans joined with Hammill to perform the song "Still Life" at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. Both of these latter appearances were unannounced to the audience in advance.

Following the Queen Elizabeth Hall performance, discussions between the band members led to writing and rehearsal of new material in summer 2004. A double CD, Present, containing this material was released in April 2005. A reunion concert took place at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on 6 May 2005, followed by several European dates in the summer and autumn of 2005. The concert in Leverkusen, Germany on 5 November 2005 was filmed for a TV show ("Rockpalast") and was broadcast on January 15, 2006.

Peter Hammill stated in a December 2005 newsletter that there were no plans for further recordings or performances by the 'classic' VdGG line-up. In September 2006, Hammill announced that the band would be continuing as a trio, for live and studio work, without Jackson.

A live album, Real Time, was released on March 5, 2007 on Hammill's label, Fie! Records. It contains the entirety of the band's 2005 concert at the Royal Festival Hall.

Van Der Graaf Generator Discography

1969 - The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other1969 - Aerosol Grey Machine1970 - H to He, Who Am the Only One1971 - Pawn Hearts1973 - Long Hello1975 - Godbluff1976 - Still Life1976 - World Record1977 - The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome1978 - Reflection1978 - Vital [live]1993 - I Prophesy Disaster2005 - Listen Now! Present2006 - Vital: Van der Graaf Live2007 - Real Time [live]

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