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Cover Story: Peter Hammill - Fool's Mate

Based on the chess game, artist Paul Whitehead had high hopes for album cover. The reality was somewhat different…

Peter Hammill - Fool’s Mate

(Charisma, 1971)

This was the debut solo album from the Van der Graaf Generator frontman. He used the project as an opportunity to record a whole string of songs shorter in style and construction as compared to the more complex compositions which had come to define VdGG. Aside from bandmates Hugh Banton, Guy Evans, Nic Potter and David Jackson, the album also featured Robert Fripp and Lindisfarne’s Rod Clements. Paul Whitehead’s artwork picked up on the chess theme of the album title, and developed it in an idiosyncratic way.

How did you meet Hammill? “I met him when Charisma asked me to work with Van der Graaf Generator on their 1971 album Pawn Hearts. They thought the band needed some help. Peter and I hit it off immediately; we just seemed to have a connection. I found him to be someone who had a lot of interesting ideas, ones I could develop artistically. So when he did Fool’s Mate, it made sense to team up again.”

How did you come up with the idea?

“Well, it came from the album title. I have no clue about chess, but Peter is a keen player, and once he explained the concept behind a fool’s mate move in the game, it gave me the basis from which to create the final artwork.”

Had you heard the music beforehand (and what did you think)?

“Oh yes, Peter played some of the songs he was working on. They sounded really good, and a little quirky, as I would expect from someone as individual as Peter has always been.”

What was the concept?

“Well, it was all based around a fool’s mate, of course. Peter explained to me how this was a chess move to get the opponent in checkmate in the fewest possible moves. So, I got him to set up a chess board exactly as you’d expect it to look when a fool’s mate happened. I then sketched it, and from that created what you see on the cover.

“In addition, I knew that Peter was into the First World War. That gave me the idea of having a bi plane from that era flying over the board with the title trailing behind. I also added in figures to illustrate some of the tracks. The ship, for instance, is because of the song Viking. I won’t give away all the secrets, though. People should spend time to work out the rest for themselves. That was always the intention.

“Getting the finished artwork done took me a long time. It must have been six weeks in all.”

What was the reaction? “Do you know what? I’ve never really had any reaction. I honestly thought the cover would create a stir, and I’d have been inundated with questions over the years from fans about the concept. Nobody, though, has ever asked me about it. Until now. I know Peter liked it, and so did the label. And I suppose no-one has ever complained, so it must have been accepted.”