“Am I Prog’s Taylor Swift? That’s a debate that could run and run”: why Peter Hammill re-recorded his Enigma-era albums

Peter Hammill
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Van der Graaf Generator lynchpin Peter Hammill has taken inspiration from the unlikely figure of pop colossus Taylor Swift in his decision to re-record two of his Engima Records releases. In A Foreign Town (1998) and Out Of Water (2000) had been unavailable for some time until the new versions arrived on November 24 via Esoteric.

“Earlier last year, I was in the process of sorting out the copyrights that I still owned from Fie! Records,” says Hammill, “and it became clear that there was a dispute about the ownership of these two albums, because they were made for Enigma in the States. It wasn’t clear whether that ownership had passed on to various other people along the way or not. So I decided to take a leaf out of Taylor Swift’s book and do my versions by completely re-recording them.”

Since their original release, both albums have proved divisive among Hammill’s followers, though the consensus contends that the material contained is let down by production techniques, which date the albums in less-than-flattering ways.

“When I made In A Foreign Town, it was the first time I’d begun sequencing for myself,” explains Hammill. “It had sounds that were very much of the time – in particular big snares and all that sort of thing – which cropped up on both albums. For myself, and for a lot of the fans, In A Foreign Town in particular was an album that had not a bad reputation. But it was felt that, of everything that I’d done, that’s the one that, sonically, was a little bit lacking – even though the songs themselves are interesting.”

With the exception of Stuart Gordon’s violin that runs through the melancholy Something About Ysabel’s Dance on Out Of Water, everything was re-recorded from the ground up. Each album took around two months to get into shape at Hammill’s Terra Incognita studio.

And while the contemporary sonic muscularity is evident throughout both, the recording process – especially on Out Of Water – wasn’t without its challenges. Originally recorded with guitarist John Ellis, bassist Nic Potter and saxophonist David Jackson, here Hammill shoulders the musical yoke in his own inimitable style.

“It was a big challenge because I was replacing brilliant musicians,” he admits. “But I guess that’s one of the changes that’s happened in the intervening period: I have become more of a guitarist, but I still wouldn’t put myself up at the John Ellis level.

“But in all cases, I wasn’t trying to replicate exactly what there’d been before. Some things have stayed the same because they’re structurally important in terms of the material, but with other things, I was just trying to do something that echoed, but in my own way, what was already there.”

He continues: “Another aspect is that my voice is so many years different. A song like A Way Out, for instance, I’ve now sung hundreds of times and it’s now infused with both the original meaning of the song, but also the knowledge one has gained through performing it.”

Crucially, for Hammill, it’s all about aesthetics, but it does raise the question: is Peter Hammill the Taylor Swift of prog? “No, I don’t think so!” he laughs. “That’s a debate that could run and run. And I look forward to the polling!”

Julian Marszalek

Julian Marszalek is the former Reviews Editor of The Blues Magazine. He has written about music for Music365, Yahoo! Music, The Quietus, The Guardian, NME and Shindig! among many others. As the Deputy Online News Editor at Xfm he revealed exclusively that Nick Cave’s second novel was on the way. During his two-decade career, he’s interviewed the likes of Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Ozzy Osbourne, and has been ranted at by John Lydon. He’s also in the select group of music journalists to have actually got on with Lou Reed. Marszalek taught music journalism at Middlesex University and co-ran the genre-fluid Stow Festival in Walthamstow for six years.