“Our contemporaries had numbers that got people up on their feet cheering. We didn’t… We wondered if A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers was the way to go. I thought, ‘We can’t even play this!’”: Van der Graaf Generator’s struggle through the 70s

Van Der Graaf Generator in 1974
(Image credit: Getty Images)

As Van der Graaf Generator’s longest- serving keyboard player, Hugh Banton’s distinctive organ lines have underpinned the band’s best-known songs over three key periods of their career. In 2022, he recounted VdGG’s formative years and their reunion in the mid-00s – as explored in that year’s box set, Interference Patterns.

While other keyboard players of the late 1960s and mid-1970s have lugged their instruments about the stage, hurled cutlery at the keys, or appeared as a caped magician encircled by a towering array of technology in a swirl of dry ice, Hugh Banton has sat sphinx-like behind his modest bank of keyboards since beginning his association with Van der Graaf Generator in 1968. He’s been a resolute and unflappable presence, providing much of the instrumental power driving the unorthodox, turbulent sounds crackling from the band.

Having learned piano from the age of 4, Banton grew into an accomplished organist, but left performance behind to become a trainee engineer at the BBC. However, the creative explosion in pop music in the 60s pulled his professional life in a different direction. 

Attracted to complexities and possibilities within Van der Graaf Generator, he had a pivotal role in getting the band noticed by Tony Stratton-Smith, which later led to a crucial signing to the fledgling Charisma label.

With a keen ear for textural detail, Banton’s thoughtful approach music is inextricably woven into the very soul and fabric of the group’s sound; it resonates and resounds throughout a long and eventful career as one of progressive music’s most distinctive acts.

The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other and its follow-up, H To He, Who Am The Only One, both released in 1970, and 1971’s Pawn Hearts, garnered them a cult following – especially in Europe – but a lack of financial support saw them split.

Their dramatic reappearance and delivery of another trio of striking albums between 1975 to 1978, beginning with Godbluff, added to their legendary status, while 2005’s long-awaited return with Present cemented their reputation for continued experimentation and a refusal to indulge in nostalgia. A 14-disc box set, Interference Patterns: The Recordings 2005-2016, presents an overview of the later chapters of the Van der Graaf Generator story. 

When asked what he brings to Van der Graaf, Banton, now aged 73, quickly replies, “Two manuals and bass pedals! It’s what I’ve always done. It’s hard to talk about really. It’s not something I can easily describe because it’s just what I do. I try to get it right and try to be interesting.”

Did you have any reservations about leaving a secure job at the BBC in order to join a rock band?

Yes, but I was also very interested in pop music, as you’d call it then. It was a particular Arthur Brown concert I saw in 1967 and Vincent Crane was playing the Hammond and I thought, ‘That’s what I really want to do.’ 

Vince, who later formed Atomic Rooster, was just a first-rate player. Though he was always full of self-doubt, the speed he could play at was just outrageous. He was one of the best without a doubt. He could give Keith Emerson a run for his money.

So I was pretty set on replacing my BBC job for music. I’d already met Peter Hammill and Chris Judge Smith and done some playing together. When Peter went off back to his folks

I was left with a three-inch tape reel to see if I could find a drummer and a bass player. I’d placed an advert with [radical underground newspaper] International Times and the guy there gave me the telephone numbers of Chris Blackwell of Island Records, John Peel and Tony Stratton-Smith.

VdGG has always been very dynamic and to be able to go from ethereal whisperings to distorted anarchy is what I like

At the time Stratton-Smith shared an office with [Kinks and Who producer] Shel Talmy and so I went there and it was Gail Colson [who later managed Peter Gabriel] who answered the door. When Strat listened to the tape he said, ‘Oh, I think the voice is a gas!’ and the deal was practically done there and then.

It was extraordinary because I’d just got on a payphone and got myself a record deal and support for the band and everything. Can you imagine that nowadays? It was such a stroke of luck.

Strat told me not to quit my job and to stay with it until we could put the band together; and when the time was right he would put us on a retainer, which is what he did. It was £10 a week. I had been earning £50 a month with the BBC before tax, I think, so it was a slight cut but it wasn’t massive. It was enough to live on and we were happy to be doing it, getting into The Speakeasy [in London’s West End], driving around in the Transit van and playing our music.

You’ve mentioned Keith Emerson. Did you ever want to emulate his onstage showmanship?

I suppose in my early days I sort of did. I was a bit wilder then. I don’t even contemplate it now. Showmanship? What’s that? But when you’re young and you’re trying to find your direction and your niche you do think to yourself, ‘Shall I be a mad organist and throw the organ around or do something else?’

What was your keyboard of choice?

Back then there weren’t really many choices. I picked the Farfisa because, although I admired Vince Crane, I didn’t want to sound like everyone else. Also Hammond organs were about twice the price! But that’s another issue. If I could get a good sound out of the Farfisa I was going to do that. Pink Floyd used Farfisa all the time and that appealed to me. Rick Wright’s playing on those early Floyd albums is lovely.

When our bassist Nic Potter left after The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other, I got a Hammond primarily so I could take over his duties via bass pedals. The appeal of having both Farfisa and Hammond was the massive tonal range. VdGG has always been very dynamic and to be able to go from ethereal whisperings to distorted anarchy is what I like.

Pawn Hearts is now an acknowledged masterpiece but the band had a falling out when it came to A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers...

Yes, that’s right. At the time people forget our career was going into a slow decline. We’d had great press reviews of The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other and then slightly less so for H To He, Who Am The Only One. Our contemporaries like Genesis and Lindisfarne all had numbers that would get the people up on their feet cheering. We didn’t have anything like that, really, until Killer and Lost.

I think there was a feeling at the time that we had to have more of these kinds of numbers, otherwise we would lose the meagre audience we’d got. So when A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers was being presented to us, we were wondering if this was quite the way we should be going.

I thought, ‘Urgh, what is this? We can’t even play this thing!’ I think I came round to it because it’s so fascinating. I suppose I must have thought, ‘Hell, I’ll go with it, because Peter’s music is always interesting to get your head around and to work on.’ However, by then we also had Man-Erg so by the time we got to Italy we had a few crowd-pleasers.

Looking back on those early days, despite going down well with audiences the band really struggled on the road, didn’t you?

My primary interest then, as now, is – I have to admit – organs and electronics. Left to my own devices, music takes second place to that.

It was a kind of hand-to-mouth existence and very grim from a financial point of view. In ’72 we were working our socks off. Those Italian tours we did were insane because we were often playing two shows a day and sometimes three. That’s what broke us. It was unbearable. It was always like that.

On the earlier tours in Germany in ’70 or ’71 we were out of funds. Wages that had been sent weren’t turning up and so we’d basically starve. It wasn’t like now where you have a hotel paid for and food backstage. There wasn’t anything like that then. It was a nightmare –  and that’s why when we reformed in 1975 we thought we’d get things properly organised and get our own management.

Given everything you went through the first time, did you have any worries about reforming then?

No, not really. We knew we had a following and we loved doing it. We’d all kept in touch and we’d been playing on Peter’s solo albums, so it was fairly easy. We had the opportunity to put things on a proper footing. Charisma gave us a new advance and although that meant we’d be in debt to them again, we assumed we’d overcome that in time. Charisma, of course, was very keen for us to do it.

How do you rate Godbluff?

The thing about Godbluff was that we’d played a lot of it on the road before we recorded it, so all the tracks were quite well run in. It means you’re pretty confident with what you should play and what you were aiming for.

I mean, putting Lighthouse Keepers together, we didn’t have a clue how it was going to turn out, really. We had plenty of ideas to throw at it, and in the end it sounds quite amazing – but we didn’t know that until we finished it.

With Godbluff we had a pretty good idea what it would be like. I think my favourite of the three albums we did then was Still Life. My Room, Childlike Faith In Childhood’s End and Still Life itself. They’re all great songs.

Why did you quit after World Record?

I just didn’t want to do it any more. I just wasn’t enjoying myself and thought it best to get out – although it was with a heavy heart. I changed my attention very rapidly to being an organ builder. I had a factory job within three months of leaving VdGG and I went on to be technical director of that company, inventing things and designing electronics, which I’ve always loved doing; and I didn’t think about much else.

My primary interest then, as now, is – I have to admit – organs and electronics. That’s what I do. [In 1992 Banton founded his own organ-building company, The Organ Workshop.] Left to my own devices, music takes second place to that.

And yet you returned to the fold in 2005 when the band reformed and released Present...

Well, it’s different now to how it was in the 70s. The great thing about the way we do it now, with eight years between gigs – which is what we’ve just done thanks partly to the pandemic, obviously – but even before that we were only playing for a month a year, or perhaps a case of ‘maybe not this year, we’ll do it next year’, that sort of thing, that was the case all the way through since reforming and it’s no pressure. I could carry on being an organ builder the rest of the time.

After David Jackson’s departure in 2006, you decided to carry on as a trio. How much of a challenge was that?

We were faced with the decision to either stop or bring somebody else into the group, which we didn’t want to do. I was determined not to stop then because I had only just gotten going after 28 years!

It was a case of persuading Peter that it would work. We were all enjoying the reunion. We really wanted to continue it so we thought, ‘Let’s try it as a three-piece.’ It gave Peter a chance to build on his guitar. He soon warmed to it and I’m always evolving my organ system so I worked on that. Doing it as a three-piece after Present was, I suppose, similar to when Nic Potter left and we carried on with me taking over his role on the bass pedals.

The same people have always been available and we always remained friends so it’s always been possible to get together. It’s just a case of whether we wanted to do at any given time

How has the band’s writing approach evolved over the years, particularly since 2005?

It varies. Sometimes Peter comes up with a complete song and we do nothing apart from play it. Other times he comes along with bits. Sometimes he cobbles together bits of things that I’ve sent him. I did go through a period of sending him little snippets. He uses everything! There’s not a single thing I’ve sent to him, however useless, that he hasn’t incorporated into the songs.

I wrote a big chunk of Over The Hill, from 2008’s Trisector album; sort of instrumental tunes and things. Then he elaborates on them, puts lyrics on, and then brings in another bit that he’s written and sticks it on, and out comes Over The Hill, for example.

A number of them are formed like that. Some of them, as I say, he has pretty much correct and they just need playing or might need a solo section or something, but nothing too elaborate. Sometimes he literally needs some help to get from A to B, which we used to do more often in the past.

Peter has evolved phenomenally as a composer. We’ve often sounded different several times, I think. Peter’s voice is going to be pretty distinctive through all of these periods, but I had different organs; the stuff I was playing in the H To He and Pawn Hearts era is different from what I was doing around Godbluff, Still Life and so on.

Once again, it’s different compared to what I’ve been doing since 2005 as well. So it’s always subtly different; same people, but different electronics, different instruments. 

VdGG have this habit of lurking unseen for long periods of time and then suddenly emerging out of the undergrowth...

Yes, I think we’re coming back in 2096! Well, we’ve never parted company, and the fact that the same people have always been available and we always remained friends has meant it has always been possible to get together. It’s just a case of whether we wanted to do it or not at any given time.  After 1976 I sort of came back to it fairly slowly over a period of nearly 30 years.

At some of your gigs it’s not uncommon for audiences to be deeply affected by the music. Does music ever make you cry? 

No, not any more, I don’t think. It may have done once, though. I’ve recorded Elgar’s Nimrod on 100 Up Vol 1 [a classical collection]. That’s a good one for being emotional and there are a couple of Bach pieces that are astounding; but I’m probably just going to be a grumpy old person now.

Of course, music has a huge impact on you as a young person. I can remember when I was starting out in the school choir with Christmas coming up – anything that we were doing like that, without doubt, would get me every time. But at this stage in life, I’m just hypercritical, unfortunately. It’s just something one has to put up as one gets old.

Do you listen to any contemporary bands at all?

Most of my musical input these days comes from listening to the radio – Classic FM – so I just take pot luck with that, as one has to. Funnily enough, when we were on holiday in France, my eldest son, who is 40, was telling me that he doesn’t listen to anything from this decade. He grew up with Muse and Radiohead.

What do your children make of what you do?

I’ve got two sons and the younger son came to see us when we were performing at the Palladium in London earlier this year. The older one has seen us many times before. I imagine they just think it’s what Dad does when he’s not building an organ. I think they find it oddly fascinating.

It’s really the only band I’ve ever been in – and I’m proud it was this one.

Over the years VdGG has developed a reputation as the prog rock band that people who don’t like prog feel it’s cool to like. What’s your take on that?

Prog rock was never a phrase that was used in the 1970s and when we reformed we said, ‘We’re not prog rock’ – but we’ve given way now on that, and we own up as being part of that world, as we always had a progressive outlook.

I always thought prog rock started with Hendrix and the latter Beatles and Floyd. It was a natural evolution that was going on. The label was put on much later. We were just doing our own thing like everyone else was. We never saw ourselves as being prog in that way. We saw ourselves as being unique, as most bands do, I expect.

What does the future hold for VdGG now?

I have no idea. We haven’t really discussed anything since Peter was hospitalised on that last tour in May and we had to cancel the rest of it. He’s fine and fully recovered now, by the way.

As far as playing live again, well, the economics of touring are on a knife edge and, of course, Brexit hasn’t helped, but I see no reason why we shouldn’t record again.

VdGG have been a significant feature of your life for over 50 years. How would you sum it up?

It’s really the only band I’ve ever been in – and I’m proud it was this one.

Sid Smith

Sid's feature articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Prog, Classic Rock, Record Collector, Q, Mojo and Uncut. A full-time freelance writer with hundreds of sleevenotes and essays for both indie and major record labels to his credit, his book, In The Court Of King Crimson, an acclaimed biography of King Crimson, was substantially revised and expanded in 2019 to coincide with the band’s 50th Anniversary. Alongside appearances on radio and TV, he has lectured on jazz and progressive music in the UK and Europe.  

A resident of Whitley Bay in north-east England, he spends far too much time posting photographs of LPs he's listening to on Twitter and Facebook.