Van der Graaf Generator brim with gauche intensity on The Charisma Years

Van der Graaf Generator's The Charisma Years box set includes 17 CDs, 3 Blu-rays and many rarities

Van Der Graaf Generator: The Charisma Years album art
(Image: © UMC)

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As a young lad in the early 1970s, I purchased a budget compilation titled Van Der Graaf Generator 68-71 on the assumption that, given their exotic name, VDGG must be a heavy metal combo. 

I was wrong (or was I? Discuss), but nevertheless became a fan for life, enraptured – or perhaps incarcerated – by the band’s tortured music and leader Peter Hammill’s mad poetry. 

Fast-forward to the present and here we have VDGG, super-sized. Dwarfing the single-vinyl 68-71, the CD- and DVD-tastic The Charisma Years is a monster. It comprises 20 discs and covers the band’s entire recorded works for Charisma Records, including previously unreleased tracks and rare live footage that brims with gauche intensity.

Plus there are brand new stereo and surround-sound remixes, along with a 68-page book containing exhaustive notes not seen since yours truly waxed lyrical about Witchfynde, and is more comprehensive than a Grange Hill box set. But one wonders, with some online sharks demanding in excess of £150 for a copy, who is going to buy the thing. 

Back in the day a typical VDGG fan lived in a squat, surviving on a diet of spaghetti hoops and discarded fag-ends. These days they might be right-hand-men to Elon Musk or intergalactic space pioneers, who knows? Anyway, to the music. Must admit I’m not too keen on the remixes of the albums H To He Who Am The Only One, Pawn Hearts, Godbluff and Still Life. Their pristineness jars; one cannot help but yearn for the dense non-production of the originals. Maybe this will change over time.

VDGG also made a rare misstep with The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome in 1977, replacing talismanic saxophonist David Jackson with gnome-like String Driven Thing violinist Grahame Smith. In place of Twirlywoo parps we now had chalk-on-the-blackboard caterwauling. Not a good fit. 

Even now, the big draw remains concept piece A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers (from Pawn Hearts), an insane work so overwhelming in scope it makes Pink Floyd’s The Wall look like a plasterboard partition. It’s also lovely to hear the semi-obscure W again, a morbid love song about a houseplant. Or an anteater. With Peter Hammill, one never really knows.

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton is a British journalist who founded the heavy metal magazine Kerrang! and was an editor of Sounds music magazine. He specialised in covering rock music and helped popularise the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM) after using the term for the first time (after editor Alan Lewis coined it) in the May 1979 issue of Sounds.