ASSAULTING THE BOUNDS OF SPACE AND TIME


Van der Graaf Generator:
The Least We Can Do is Wave to Each Other (1970)
H to He Who Am the Only One (1970)
Pawn Hearts (1971)
Godbluff (1975)
Still Life (1976)

Peter Hammill:
Fool's Mate (1971)

(Remastered re-issues, 2005)

*


It wasn't easy to happen across Van der Graaf Generator. They had no champions on the NME (Geoff Barton of Sounds and Alan 'Fluff' Freeman seemed, in their different ways, rather alarming standard-bearers). So I never lingered over the band's name until, belatedly, in some listless moment I happened to flick through that unpromising publication, the Times Educational Supplement - it was my dad's copy. I was 15 - it was 1973. In those days it was a matter of principle that the quality press never mentioned rock music; in their world, music meant Sadlers Wells and occasionally a bit of jazz. (This would all change a few years later, when Channel 4 had come along, and journalists who had cut their teeth on the NME went on to write for The Independent.) Well, VDGG got a full page write-up in the TES - this was because of 'Plague of Lighthouse Keepers', of course. It was probably the first piece of rock music that English teachers recognized as offering the same sort of spiritual nourishment to our tender minds as Heart of Darkness.

This was an impressive testament, at the same time a disquieting one. The British (or rather, English) progressive rock movement had no first-hand contact with modern art, it didn't have those sexy links to the real art world that rock was managing to forge in other countries (I mean like Andy Warhol's Velvet Underground, or Can with their much-publicized Stockhausen connections). Its social bedrock lay quite clearly in the middle-class, Anglican world of the home counties - as others have since pointed out, a lot of this generation of progressive rock musicians came straight out of the choir and the organ-loft. They inherited the essentially un-modernist aesthetic of the cantata (that beloved English form), and with a bit of Pomp and Circumstance for good measure. This background was dragged into a bizarre hybrid with rock, which then seemed so limitless, and the results were generally dire, or at any rate quite beyond my narrow powers of empathy, which were even narrower in those days.

Beat music aside, the transatlantic form that penetrated furthest into middle-class consciousness was the musical. This was the era of 'rock operas' and the formative days of Andrew Lloyd Webber. I know that VDGG were much better than that, but that's why, I think, you're intended to listen to every word, respond to the puns and internal rhymes, appreciate the cleverness of Peter Hammill putting on a loony voice to sing the word 'madness', or a Black Riders voice to sing the word 'death', or the music dropping out completely while he sings the word 'silence'. It's hugely zestful and confident, but it takes a bit of gritting your teeth now.
Some fucking hippie on Glastonbury Tor yodelling to his hippie friends.... this is doing my head in .... absolute shite... it's giving me a headache. Thus, variously, a few instant responses to my trying out these re-mastered CDs on a new generation. But Peter Hammill's cracked-actor delivery had always been divisive, one reason why the band never made much of a splash in the English-speaking world. 

Anyhow, that's my sociological account of British 'progressive rock' in general; not art-rock, but cod-art-rock, a pastiche of the manner of art as it filtered through, with the usual distancing effects, to the class mentality that is so hard to detach from someone's individual mentality. But then, British rock music always did verge on being cod, or camp, or clod-hopping, a necessary consequence of the crude aping of American forms detached from their cultural origins. It didn't necessarily achieve more when it learnt the moves, learnt to be ashamed. (I'm thinking of The Fall as the essential test case here.)  

As a matter of fact, if Hugh Banton was a (very talented) church organist and Peter Hammill (vocals) a science graduate belatedly preaching secular humanism, on the other hand Guy Evans (drums) and David Jackson (saxophones) were at least serious modern-jazz-ophiles. The creative talent on display was impressive, but the question of whether anything worthwhile could come out of this improbable backwater remains anguished and ever-present in the music; they were having a lot of fun, but if there's a well-merited sense of triumph arising from all this fervent creativity there's also a sense of rage. However, if the English mode of progressive rock could ever transcend its dubious pedigree, then it seemed to me that this was the band. This was the crucible.

The Least We Can Do was the band's second album, their first for Charisma - in the light of what followed it sounds a bit pallid. Things get going with H to He, which it so happens I never got to hear at the time. Listening to it now is a timely reminder of what a new VDGG album used to sound like back then: loud, dissonant, inventive and flamboyant, harsh, ugly, then painfully beautiful in a way you couldn't often share. You wanted to play it alone in your room, and that was in fact the only place you could rely on the audience allowing you to hear the whole song, but you kept worrying about the neighbours. A couple of years later we played punk records and we wanted to annoy the neighbours; British music suddenly became community-aware again. Even if at first that mainly meant shock and offensiveness, it nevertheless showed that we'd become sensitized to where we were living.  

By contrast VDGG were unconscious of the details of our grey 1970s world. This was very directly and unmessily about Man in the long marches of Eternity, or perhaps me alone in the lighthouse of my student bedsit. Here, beset by the existential doubts stimulated by a dog-eared Penguin Modern Classic I subsisted off my grant - it wasn't a loan in those days - and thought about the BIG questions (I mean the ones that preoccupy bright teenagers who don't have to work). Peter Hammill dealt with all of them.  


What was the meaning of existence? ('Childlike Faith in Childhood's End') If no-one knows you exist, do you exist? ('Pioneers over C') Was it worth being alive at all? ('Lemmings') What if you could live for ever? ('Still Life') What would you feel at the moment of death? (Godbluff, passim) If you seemed to be flooded with love-hormones, why did you so often behave hatefully? ('Killer', 'Man-Erg') What would it mean to have sex? ('La Rossa') What would happen if you really had no friends? ('A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers'). 

Pawn Hearts, the band thought at the time, was their definitive record. It still sounds magical - the fearsome machinery of 'Cog', the dead and deader modulations that are finally stamped on at the end of 'Lemmings', the part of 'Man-Erg' when the killer and the angels amaze you by careering around together in celestial/infernal harmony. The whole of side 2 was devoted to 'A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers', an impossibly rich piece of musical narrative. It's a work of the purely English imagination, which means it harks back to the last time that middle-class English culture was untouched by the modern world; this comes from Kipling (pertinently, The Disturber of Traffic) and Vaughan Williams (5th symphony, Sea Symphony). It's overwhelming. Who needs modernism?

Perhaps this is where you should start if you don't know whether you're interested in VDGG. Quite early on there's a sea-picture with foghorns that should sort you out; or if not that, the wonderfully lonely organ-voluntary with its swelling modulations that follows. The hardest thing, now, is to tolerate lyrics that use sword-and-sorcery imagery of the 'camps of panoply and majesty' type. We're basically uncomfortable with English allegory, though we don't have a problem with the American book of legends ('Chestnut Mare', 'That Song About the Midway', 'King Harvest'...); the language of progressive rock is somehow pre-cinematic. As it is we'd prefer 'Lemmings' to drop the  crashing waves and be nakedly about drug culture. That said, there's plenty of things in this magnificent tapestry that do reach out and grab you, though no lower than the throat.

     Mind and machinery box-press our dreams

     I've been the witness, and the seal of death
     lingers in the molten wax that is my head

     Locked in silent monologue, in silent scream

    
Alone, alone, the ghosts all call,
     pinpoint me in the light

     Oceans drifting sideways

Near the end there's an organ-note (or perhaps it's Fripp's guitar) that is not so much a whinny as a racehorse in your face. This is over a whole-tone sequence that is wakeful like a meadow thick with dew, and then the percussion flakes into spume at dawn. To be strictly objective. 


Godbluff (1975) is different, and it now strikes me as even better. The band had split up, then reformed to do this. Much had changed: the epic vertigo, the frank emotionalism had gone, the landscape became flat and mocking. It's split into four tracks, but is clearly a single drama, a Faust-story that, Peter Hammill claimed at the time, occupies about two minutes of real time. There are fewer colours in this sound-world, and compared to Pawn Hearts it seems like chamber music. But it also transcends it. It's not that VDGG threw away their past - in fact there are more hooves and medieval weaponry than ever - but two things advance this music forward. The first is that Hammill multi-layered the script; by inter-relating the songs so thoroughly, he liberates an image which is not defined in any one of them - in fact, he unexpectedly came up with a modernist form. The second is that during their four-year recess someone in the band had learnt funkology. Like Marlowe when he wrote his own Faust-story, Hammill crammed the beginning and end with eloquence, and found himself with a desolate gap in the middle; drama meets its limits in the tick of a clock at one second per second. The interlude, in this case, is filled with a compulsive (funk-based) essay on time and motion, both hyper-ventilating and idling ('Scorched Earth' and 'Arrow' respectively). The album moves from 'you still have time' to 'if I only had time'; the warmth is only in the brilliance of execution, but listening to it you find yourself 'half in love with easeful death'.      

Still Life (1976) hasn't got this concentration but all VDGG fans cherish it. In 'Childlike Faith' Hammill ascends the secular pulpit for one last, crazy attempt to say everything about the Life Force; he more or less succeeds. Hammill disposes of two millennia of Christian apologetic in a couple of lines (characteristically and elaborately rhymed):

     Even if there is a heaven when we die,
     endless bliss would be as meaningless as the lie
     that always comes as answer to the question why
     do we see through the eyes
     of Creation?

Well, if you know how to make a song out of this, then shouldn't you?

But earlier on, body-centered concerns have started to bend this whole awesome monument to left-brain rationalism out of shape, both in that fearful hymn to eternity 'Still Life' ('to couple with her withered body') and in the university-town lust-saga of 'La Rossa', which is very funny and thrilling.

I'm slightly disturbed that I still know all the words by heart. I haven't listened to VDGG for 25 years plus. To go back has not felt nostalgic. In Europe (above all in Italy, where neither theatre nor the language of classical modulations have ever become detached from popular music) VDGG never seemed a problem - just a fantastic, intriguing, intelligent, life-enhancing band. Writing this from an English perspective I find I've become waspish, bad-tempered, engaged in a critique of the inadequacies of my own culture and my own past. I wish you could forget about that and just surrender to the spectacular closing minutes of 'Scorched Earth' and 'La Rossa' - to name but two.

These reissues (following the band's recent re-emergence) take us up to the point in 1976 when VDGG suddenly became irrelevant to my life - or so I liked to think. With that insistent zeitgeist in the offing, listening to VDGG, even their masterpieces, seemed like a furtive pleasure, and I hardly noticed
World Record (1978) and what followed it - I just remember it seemed to fit in with the judgments I then wished to make: distended, ponderous, empty. By the time of World Record the punk mantra of 'I don't care' and 'I don't wanna' seemed a perfectly sufficient response to all those BIG questions.

They've thrown in Peter Hammill's first solo album,
Fool's Mate, which is a very inadequate guide to the wrenching depths of his subsequent solo albums. In it, Peter and the other VDGG boys exhumed some of his older, more poppy material. Inventiveness and skill are plentiful, but in every time and place there have always been inventive and skilful musicians. I can't think of a good reason for listening to this, certainly not a socio-historical one - If you want to tune into Britain in the early seventies, then Cat Stevens' Teaser and the Firecat now seems ten times more revelatory and authoritative - for instance. If you're going to listen to VDGG at all, it's better to go with them doing what they assumed they could do, merely to assault the bounds of space and time. 


          Michael Peverett 2005