Van der Graaf Generator has always avoided easy options in favour of exploring unfamiliar and often challenging terrain. It’s a course that has not been without its problems. Having split up in 1972 after releasing The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other (1970) He To He Who Am The Only One, (1970), and Pawn Hearts (1971) on the Charisma label, they unexpectedly returned in 1975 with Godbluff and Still Life (1976) World Record (1976) and, with a significant lineup change, The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome (1977) before breaking up in 1978. Their next reunion came in 2005 with the audacious Present. However, the departure of long-standing member David Jackson a year later saw the band evolve into a trio that has successfully released a string of acclaimed albums Trisector (2008), A Grounding In Numbers (2011), ALT (2012), and 2016’s Do Not Disturb. From this rich and varied catalogue here are 15 numbers representing different aspects and perspectives of Van Der Graaf Generator’s unfettered inventiveness.
Although The Aerosol Grey Machine is the first album under the VdGG name released on Mercury Records, it began life initially as a Peter Hammill solo album. As a result, several tracks hail from his youth, including Afterwards, a languid remembrance of love suffused in the warmth of summer light. The line “It’s all too beautiful” is a reminder the song was written in 1967 the year that The Small Faces’ released Itchycoo Park. Hugh Banton’s treated piano interlude recalls the classical-influenced harpsichord-like solo George Martin overdubbed on The Beatles’ In My Life. An important song for the group in that it was the tune that first convinced future Charisma label boss, Tony Stratton Smith, to get behind the band, it would frequently find its way onto Hammill’s setlist decades later.
Although The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other was the second album bearing the band’s name, it’s their Charisma label debut and the first proper gathering of the musical materials from which they would construct their signature sound. With lyrical themes once again pondering occult and esoteric concerns hanging across the album as heavy as incense smoke at a forbidden ritual, Refugees shines through the sepulchral gloom like a long-cherished beacon of hope. Yearning cello, tender flute, and organ lines oozing compassion combine to articulate a heartfelt elegy to a friendship moving on and the bittersweet ache that’s left in its wake.
Most bands in the early days of the 1970s understood the importance of a number in their live set where fans could get their long-haired heads banging up and down in unison. Charisma Records label-mates Genesis and Lindisfarne had The Knife and We Can Swing Together respectively as their particular clarion calls to the faithful. For VdGG, it was Killer. Ostensibly a song about a murderous aquatic leviathan, the bizarre subject matter was nevertheless brutally conveyed in an opening riff possessing the same bulldozing clout as King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man. Hugh Banton’s growling keyboard solo, etched with fire and brimstone and David Jackson’s shrieking sax strafing pulsing staccato beats add a calculated show of shock and awe aiming to make both dedicated fans and casual punters alike sit up and take notice.
Pioneers Over C (1970)
The second VdGG album to be released in 1970, H To He Who Am The Only One comes with a diverse and occasionally unlikely range of topics that includes lethal fish, existential angst, the brutality of war, and, lost love. Perhaps the strangest of the set is also the most adventurous. Located in the far-flung future of 1983, Pioneers Over C chronicles astronauts doomed to become pan-dimensional ghosts after breaking through the speed of light. Taking bold risks with the song structure itself, at times the hapless pioneers’ temporal dislocation is imaginatively evoked by producer John Anthony’s use of reversed vocals and isolating brittle, disjointed sax, echoing the narrator’s faltering and increasingly desperate attempts at communication.
Impressive in both its sonic detail and actual performance for many fans the second track on Pawn Hearts represents everything that makes Van Der Graaf Generator so special and beloved. Within the elaborate passages of a song addressing the duality of the self, hymn-like cadences, abrupt recursive riffing, and airbursts of thorny dissonance combine to produce something that’s outstanding. When Jackson’s rasping saxes chug across the stereo field, they usher a descent into a choppy maelstrom wherein rumbling drums, squalling keyboards, and manic vocals pound and crush. In the calm moments that follow a guesting Robert Fripp adds accompanies the keening sax solo. The tumultuous bone-shaking finale, as angel and killer are reconciled crackles with redemptive, majestic energy.
A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers (1971)
With Pawn Hearts the band pushed themselves to new creative and expressive heights with the flawless Lemmings and Man-Erg on the first side of the record and the side-long A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers occupying the second. Penned initially by Hammill while the band was on tour, once in the studio, the piece grew into something a beast of a concept track whose mood was as malevolent as it was magnificent. A tour de force of uncompromising experimentation, the 23-minute epic unleashes a blizzard of contrasting dynamics and textures with as formal songs, musique concrète-style interludes, barbed experiments, and triumphal, life-affirming anthems, all sailing through alternating fogs of despondent introspection and roaring storm fronts. A high watermark for the band, the shining reputation of this singular achievement remains undimmed after all these years.
This miniature study of emotional highs and numb lows is often overlooked but is a perfect example of their unorthodox approach to song structures. The terse middle section sees the group simply step away from the song and free-fall untethered into vaporous trails of sax and organ, abstract swarms of shifting notes, and clouds of nebulous tonalities. In a bizarre twist within the VdGG story, this odd but strangely beautiful piece was the b-side to VdGG’s rousing cover of George Martin’s Theme One, which, to the band’s surprise and delight, went to number one in the Italian singles hot parade just as Pawn Hearts topped the country’s album charts. Talk about ups and downs!
The Sleepwalkers (1975)
Four years after indifferent UK sales and precarious finances caused them to throw the towel in, they were back with Godbluff, an astonishingly powerful album with two tracks per side and not a slack second on it. Starting with the whisper of The Undercover Man it ends with the demented roar of Sleepwalkers, a typically forceful and unsettling argument that if we don’t wake up we cede control and agency to an external force. As the luckless somnambulists of the song march in lockstep to Guy Evans’ martial beats, Jackson and Banton deliver revolving counterpoints whose dizzying revolutions reinforce the hypnotic design. The unlikely sidestep into cha-cha dance time is a humorous masterstroke, acting as a diversionary tactic prior to the band rocking out with some heavy-duty riffing, astringent sax, and one of Hammill’s best paint-stripping vocal performances. The crowning achievement to a triumphant return.
Still Life (1976)
A disconcerting quality inhabits this sci-fi-based cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of what you wish for. The claustrophobic introduction, with Banton’s cloistered organ and Hammill’s intimate delivery, suggests the creeping unease of an MR James story as the rational gives way to unexpected horror. Gathering momentum, Jackson’s saxes hack and scrape at the fabric of the song revealing the darkness that always lies below the surface. Although all of the group are masters of controlled dynamics and drama, Hammill’s performance, especially the resigned, suffocating loneliness his narrator experiences in the song’s dying seconds, is one of his very best.
Van Der Graaf - Last Frame (1978)
With both Hugh Banton and David Jackson departing after 1976’s World Record, Hammill and Evans shortened the band’s and invited new recruits, ex-String Driven Thing violinist Graham Smith and bassist Nic Potter who had last played with Hammill and Evans in 1970. The studio album, The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome, released in 1977 was a different sound from what had gone before. However, the full extent of just how radical the shorter, spikier material truly was is not so much heard as felt on the double live set, Vital. Here, Last Frame, from The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome, becomes a savage dirge propelled by Potter’s ferociously distorted bass, Smith’s feverish cadenzas, and Hammill’s aggravated howl. Revelling in the thunderous clashes and raw, in-the-red sonority, their dark magic unleashes relentless and elemental forces as only Van Der Graaf Generator can.
Every Bloody Emperor (2005)
Returning after nearly 28 years away, Van Der Graaf Generator’s reunion album, Present, didn’t pull any punches with a sound that was just as tough and acerbic as it always had been. Every Bloody Emperor is an impassioned ‘J’Accuse!’ from Hammill. Always a keen observer of history and the body politic, it seethes with anger and disdain at the direction of travel in liberal democracies undermined by cynical and corrupt politicians. David Jackson’s sax and flute move steadily from stately commentary to snarling asides, trading places with Hugh Banton’s swirling and increasingly dissenting motifs. This slow-burning indictment of a political system in terminal decline sounds just as relevant as when it was first written and recorded. There aren’t too many reunions that hold the same energy and punch as the output of their younger selves but this is one of the best.
Interference Patterns (2008)
In the aftermath of David Jackson’s departure, Trisector stands up as a work of coherent reinvention, refining their sound placing Banton’s organ now well to the fore, aided and abetted Hammill’s electric guitar edging back into the spotlight. Strong and coherent, the new sound is more directed and precise and no more so than on this everyday song about how our reality is a construct of waves and particles. So far, so Van Der Graaf Generator. With Hammill’s multitracked voice colliding into a frenetic lattice of Banton and Guy Evans’ interlocking salvos, the effect is both disorientating and exhilarating. Amid the jolting time signatures and precision-guided percussion, the trio is clearly having the whale of a time.
All That Before (2008)
The vagaries of ageing are brought to book in this fast-moving, high-octane vehicle built from distorted metallic riffing and alliterative organ stabs. In lieu of the saxophone which is used to carry melodies or add punch, Hammill’s fuzzed-up electric guitar embellishes a bold, bracing full-tilt excursion into rocking out in VdGG’s unique way. Simultaneously complex while tapping directly into the animating spirit of rock n’ roll, for a song about how we misplace or lose things as we get older, it’s nevertheless an electrifying example of how Banton, Evans, and Hammill have lost none of their collective firepower.
Mr. Sands (2011)
So much of VdGG’s output has been built on palindromic riffs that loop back on themselves like musical möbius strips and so it is with Mr. Sands, from A Grounding In Numbers. An album underpinned by Hammill’s decades-long fascination with the magical inner life of mathematics, this piece, whose title comes from the code phrase announced over a theatre’s public address system upon the discovery of a fire, deploys its trademark off-kilter bar lengths and rapidly alternating time signatures. That it all makes perfect sense both here and elsewhere in the band’s catalogue is due in no small measure to the studious flow of Guy Evans’ nimble drumming. Such is the agility and athletic fervour of this performance it’s hard to believe it’s the work of a trio all in their 60s.
From Van Der Graaf Generator’s last studio album to date, in some respects, Go represents the perfect bookend to the 1969’s Afterwards. If that song represents the blossoming of youthful innocence, this piece is a coming to terms with a life lived in the teeth of gritty experience. The swell of organ, whispers of a brushed gong, distant atmospherics, and plaintive vocals hover within a liminal, almost sacred zone wherein sound and silence coalesce. If VdGG never releases another note of new music, this brief song operating on the principle that sometimes less really is more is just as informed by the band’s power and deep intensity as any of their raucously demonstrative numbers. When all the ‘Sturm und Drang' has blown over, when all the drama is done, when all players in the game are left standing still, in the end, there’s nothing left to do but to go.