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|Van der Graaf Generator|
Van der Graaf Generator on stage in 2009
|Years active||1967–1972, 1975–1978, 2005–present|
|Labels||Mercury, Charisma, Fontana, Vertigo, Probe, Dunhill, Virgin|
|Past members||Chris Judge Smith
Van der Graaf Generator are an English progressive rock band, formed in 1967 in Manchester by singer-songwriter Peter Hammill and Chris Judge Smith and were the first act signed to Charisma Records. They did not experience much commercial success in the UK, but became considerably popular in Italy during the 1970s. In 2005 they embarked on a reunion, which continues to the present day.
The band formed at Manchester University, but settled in London where they signed with Charisma. They went through a number of incarnations in their early years, including a brief split in 1969. When they reformed, they found minor commercial success with The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other, and after the follow-up album, H to He, Who Am the Only One, stabilised around a line-up of Hammill, organist Hugh Banton, saxophonist David Jackson and drummer Guy Evans. The quartet subsequently achieved significant success in Italy with the release of Pawn Hearts in 1971.
After several exhausting tours of Italy, the band split in 1972. They reformed in 1975, releasing Godbluff and frequently touring Italy again, before a major line-up change and a slight rename to Van der Graaf. The band split in 1978. After many years apart, the band finally united at a gig at the Royal Festival Hall and a short tour in 2005. Since then, the band has continued as a trio of Hammill, Banton and Evans, who record and tour regularly in between Hammill's concurrent solo career. Their most recent album, ALT, was released in June 2012.
The group's albums have tended to be both lyrically and musically darker in atmosphere than many of their prog-rock peers (a trait they shared with King Crimson, whose guitarist Robert Fripp guested on two of their albums), and guitar solos were the exception rather than the rule, preferring to use Banton's classically influenced organ, and, until his departure, Jackson's multiple saxophones. While Hammill is the primary songwriter for the band, and its members have contributed to his solo albums, he is keen to stress that the band collectively arranges all its material. Hammill's lyrics frequently covered themes of mortality, due to his love of science fiction writers such as Robert Heinlein and Philip K Dick, along with his self-confessed warped and obsessive nature. His voice has been a distinctive component of the band throughout its career. It has been described as "a male Nico" and would later on be cited as an influence by Goth bands in the 1980s. Though the group have generally been commercially unsuccessful outside of early 1970s Italy, they have inspired several musicians, including John Lydon and Julian Cope.
Formation and early years (1967–1969)
The band formed in 1967 at Manchester University, after Chris Judge Smith returned from a trip to San Francisco inspired by the bands he had seen, and with a list of possible band names. After an unsatisfactory audition they had both attended in response to an advert to form a band, he met fellow student Peter Hammill, who was playing some of his original songs, and they agreed to form a band together. The band name chosen from Smith's list was based on a Van de Graaff generator, a mechanical device that produces static electricity – the misspellings are accidental. Among the bands that regularly played the university, such as Cream, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd, they were particularly impressed by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, and recruited an organist, Nick Pearne, as that was the format of Arthur Brown's band. The line-up was Hammill on guitar and vocals, Smith on drums, wind instruments and vocals, and Pearne on organ, though he did not initially have an instrument. According to Smith, the band initially played as a two-piece, with Smith occasionally using a typewriter as a percussion instrument; their first gig as a three piece was in the student union, which lasted five minutes before the group's amplifiers blew up.
By the start of 1968, the band had managed to record a blues and jazz influenced demo, and sent it to Lou Reizner, then the U.K. head of Mercury Records, who offered the trio of Hammill, Smith and Pearne a recording contract in May. At this point, the band had to make a decision whether to stay on at university, or quit their courses and move to London to turn professional. Pearne was not keen to abandon his studies, so decided to leave the group.
On arrival in London, Hammill and Smith met up with trainee BBC engineer and classically trained organist Hugh Banton, who was a brother of one of their friends back in Manchester. Later that year, they met Tony Stratton-Smith, who agreed to sign a management contract with them in December. Through him, the band acquired a bass guitar player, Keith Ellis, with drummer Guy Evans joining not too long afterwards. This line-up performed on BBC Radio 1's Top Gear radio show in November, and recorded a series of demos for Mercury, before releasing a single ("People You Were Going To" b/w "Firebrand") on Polydor Records in January 1969. Melody Maker said the single was "one of the best records of the week". But the single was quickly withdrawn under pressure from Mercury, since it violated the contract band members Hammill and Smith signed the previous year. Smith, feeling superfluous to requirements, left the band, amicably, shortly after the recording of the single.
Meanwhile, Mercury refused to let the band record, and at the same time Stratton-Smith refused to let the other members of the band sign to Mercury too, as he did not think the deal was fair to the band (only Hammill remained now of the original three who had signed with Mercury). On top of that in late January 1969 the band's van and equipment were stolen. The theft aggravated their financial difficulties. Although the band was touring successfully, which included a concert in February at the Royal Albert Hall in support of Jimi Hendrix, it broke up in June.
In July 1969, Hammill recorded what was intended to be his first solo album at Trident Studios, with Banton, Evans and Ellis as session musicians. However, through a deal worked out by their manager, the album, The Aerosol Grey Machine, was released by Mercury under the band's name in return for releasing the band from their contract. The album was initially only released in the United States with hardly any promotion at all, so sales were minimal, but it did lead to the band reforming. Ellis decided not to continue, and was replaced by Nic Potter. Shortly afterwards, saxophonist and flautist David Jackson, who had previously played in a band called Heebalob with Smith, was invited by Hammill to join the band.
The classic lineup (1969–1972)
A new sound was established, leaving behind the psychedelic influence of The Aerosol Grey Machine in favour of darker textures. Banton, influenced by the effects pedals popularised by Jimi Hendrix, used his electronic skills to modify a Farfisa organ, giving it a wider variety of sounds. Jackson took his jazz influences, particularly Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and began to play multiple saxophones (usually alto and tenor) simultaneously. Hammill, for his part, elected to sing in received pronunciation, exploring the full range of his vocal capabilities. "We were all megalomaniacs," said Banton. "We grabbed our own space as best we could."
Tony Stratton-Smith formed Charisma Records and signed the band as his first act, who recorded their second album, The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other in December 1969. The album made the top 50 in the U.K, and the band started to gig regularly. Potter, however, did not feel he fitted into this increasingly experimental sound the band was developing, and tended to wait until the others had worked out their parts during rehearsals, adding his bass lines on top at the last minute. During the recording of the follow-up, H to He, Who Am the Only One (which featured Robert Fripp of King Crimson contributing guitar on "The Emperor in His War-Room"), he quit the band. After trying unsuccessfully to recruit a suitable replacement at short notice, Banton suggested that he simply upgrade to a Hammond Organ and play the bass parts using its bass pedals. They tried rehearsing as a four piece, and it was successful. Banton later played bass guitar on certain songs, and Hammill expanded his instrumental capabilities on stage to cover piano and keyboards as well as guitar.
The Hammill/Banton/Jackson/Evans quartet that resulted from H to He, Who Am the Only One is now considered the "classic" line-up, and went on to play as part of the "Six Bob Tour" in early 1971 with fellow Charisma labelmates Genesis and Lindisfarne. Despite the complexity of their music, the band were well received on the tour, with Hammill noting "at nearly all the gigs, most of the audience have known most of the songs ... It was like a big family actually, exactly as all of us had pictured it in our wildest dreams."
While on tour, the band started working out compositions between gigs for their next album, which would become Pawn Hearts. The intention was to release a double album, and the band recorded the material; however, for economic reasons, the released recording was a single album containing three tracks – "Lemmings", "Man-Erg" and the 23 minute concept piece "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers". Reflecting on this, Hammill said: "Charisma Records felt that it wasn't appropriate for us to release a double album and they vetoed the live studio recordings and the solo tracks by Guy, David and Hugh.":8 The master tape of the recording sessions has been lost. Fripp again provided a cameo appearance on guitar. While "Man-Erg" had already been performed on stage, "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers" evolved in the studio, recorded in small sections and pieced together during mixing.:9 According to producer John Anthony, the track features a lot more studio experimentation than on previous albums, saying "we pushed the facilities at Trident to the limit and had involved the use of every single tape machine in Trident at some stage." :10 The experiments included tape manipulation and Banton experimenting with Mellotron and synthesizer. According to Jackson, one section of it features the entire band overdubbed 16 times.:11 The album was not a success in the U.K, but proved highly successful in Italy, topping the chart there for 12 weeks. The following single, "Theme One", reached number one in Italy, too. "Theme One" was an instrumental piece, originally written by Beatles producer George Martin as a fanfare for the BBC radio station Radio 1, later to appear on US pressings of Pawn Hearts.
Following commercial success in Italy, the band did a six-week tour there at the start of 1972. The band were apprehensive about touring there, concerned they might be playing to half empty venues, but they were all shocked by the sheer volume of the crowds that came to see them. "Pawn Hearts was seen as the ultimate album by the ultimate band," said Jackson, who at times found it difficult to walk down the street in parts of Italy without being recognised. "The tour was like the prophets have landed ... you couldn't go anywhere without this lunatic 'Generator Mania' breaking out." After the tour, the group was immediately offered another Italian tour, this time doing up to three shows a day. In between the tours, the band made an appearance on Belgian television performing "Theme One" and "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers". Since the studio recording of "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers" was a collage of multiple recordings, impossible to reproduce live in one setting, the band simply filmed individual sections of the song and spliced them together in the editing suite. It is believed to be the only live performance of the song.
By June, the band had performed another Italian tour (the third that year) and wanted to start recording new material (some of which ended up on Hammill's solo album Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night). However, the combination of working for too long without a break, combined with a lack of support from Stratton-Smith and Charisma and continued financial difficulties caused the band to implode, and Hammill left to pursue a solo career in mid-1972.
The three remaining members recorded an instrumental album with Nic Potter, Ced Curtis, and Pietro Messina, under the name "The Long Hello". Their self-titled album (The Long Hello) was released in 1974.
First reunion (1975–1978)
Hammill's split with the group was amicable, and Banton, Jackson and Evans, among others, all contributed to his solo work at various times. By 1975, the members of the band were ready to work with each other again, and they decided to reform the band. All the members were keen on carrying on with new music, with no nostalgia for their previous era, and did not want to play earlier stage favourites such as "Killer" (the opening track on H to He, Who Am the Only One) and "Theme One". "We didn't want to continue as if nothing had happened," said Hammill.
The reformed band worked at a prolific pace, rehearsing and touring France before recording three new albums in just 12 months, beginning with Godbluff. Unlike the earlier work with John Anthony at Trident, the sessions were produced by the band themselves, and both the Melody Maker and Sounds thought they were a tighter and more cohesive unit than previously. The album in particular saw Hammill making significant use of the Hohner clavinet keyboard. Still Life followed within the same year. Banton considers this album one of his favourites by the group.
In the summer of 1975, the band returned to play Italy without incident, but when they returned to tour there in November, the intense political situation the country was going through caught up with them. The opening concert in Padova was marked with clashes with communists delivering political speeches, and the audience started throwing missiles towards the stage. After a gig without incident in Genoa, the third day of the tour at the Palast Sport in Rome, in front of 40,000 people, saw similar confrontations to the Padova gig. A fire broke out at the venue, but was brought under control. The next day, the band learned that most of their gear had been stolen from the tour van, including Hammill's blue Fender Stratocaster, christened "Meurglys". Despite threats from promoters that the band would continue the tour using hired equipment (which Jackson considered impossible given the electronic modifications he had made to his saxophones), they abandoned the tour. Miraculously, all of Jackson's saxophones had survived the theft.
In December 1976, following World Record, Banton quit, quickly followed by Jackson in February 1977. Nic Potter returned to replace Banton, and in a typically eccentric move Jackson was replaced by a violinist, Graham Smith (formerly of Charisma folk-rock band String Driven Thing). This line-up produced the album The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome. The band also shortened its name to Van der Graaf. Charles Dickie then joined the band on cello, documented on the live double-album Vital, which saw a brief reunion with Jackson. By the time Vital was released, in the summer of 1978, the band had already split, because of lack of record company support in the United States and financial difficulties.
Second reunion (2005 to date)
Banton, Jackson and Evans all made occasional appearances on Hammill's solo albums following the 1978 split, and the classic line-up also played occasionally together. In 1996, the quartet appeared on stage during a concert by Hammill and Evans at the Union Chapel in London to perform "Lemmings" (the whole recording was released as The Union Chapel Concert in March 1997). In 2003, Banton, Jackson and Evans joined with Hammill to perform the song "Still Life" at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. Both of these appearances were unannounced to the audience in advance.
Following the Queen Elizabeth Hall performance, discussions between the band members led to writing and rehearsal of new material in mid-2004. A double CD, Present, containing this material was released in April 2005. A reunion concert took place at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on 6 May 2005, followed by several European dates in the summer and autumn of 2005. The concert in Leverkusen, Germany on 5 November 2005 was filmed for a TV show ("Rockpalast") and was broadcast on 15 January 2006. A DVD from that concert had been announced on Hammill's website in 2006. However, so far only one track thereof, "Wondering", has been officially released (on a DVD that came with the Rockpalast anniversary edition of the German magazine Eclipsed in June 2007).
Hammill stated in a December 2005 newsletter that there were no plans for further recordings or performances by the 'classic' Van der Graaf Generator line-up. In September 2006, Hammill announced that the band would be continuing as a trio, for live and studio work, without Jackson. In March 2007 he stated that the reason for Jackson's departure from the band was that he "seemed to have difficulty in understanding what we had mutually agreed and that he was struggling to make the leap of faith which being in this group has always involved. This put him into conflict with us as a unit and as individuals. After an increasingly fractious series of events (which I do *not* propose to detail) it became clear to Guy, Hugh and I that whatever happened in the future we were not going to be able to continue being in a group with David."
A live album, Real Time, was released on 5 March 2007 on Hammill's label, Fie! Records. It contains the entirety of the band's 2005 concert at the Royal Festival Hall.
In April and July 2007 the band played as a trio in different places in Europe. A concert on 14 April 2007 in the Paradiso in Amsterdam was recorded and streamed on the FabChannel website until March 2009, and was released on DVD and CD in June 2009.
The first trio recording, Trisector, was released on 17 March 2008. Live concerts were played in Europe in March and April, and in Japan in June, among them, one at the Gouveia Art Rock Festival. There were further concerts in January 2009 in Europe, and the band played several concerts in Canada and the United States in the summer of 2009, among them performances at NEARfest, in New York City and Toronto, and an outdoor concert at the Quebec City Summer Festival (Festival d'été de Québec). It was the first time Van der Graaf Generator had visited the United States since 1976.
In the spring of 2010 the trio recorded a new album in Devon. A Grounding in Numbers was released on 14 March 2011. Live at Metropolis Studios 2010 was released as a 2CD/1DVD set by Salvo/Union Square Music on 4 June 2012. The band then toured the eastern part of the United States and Canada during June and July 2012, including an appearance at NEARfest Apocalypse in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania on 22 June.
An album of out-takes and in-studio jams, not unlike the second disc of Present, called ALT was released in June 2012. Hammill has stated that he has enjoyed the current reunion, as "the activity has reinvigorated me. Going from one thing to another is an energizing thing."
No one is likely to confuse the savage energy of King Crimson and Van der Graaf Generator in their mid-1970s incarnations with the disinterested density of Gentle Giant or the more pastoral, at times delicate, stylizations of Genesis or Renaissance (or even Yes in their quieter moments)—Edward Macan, 
Due to the time-frame of the original band's career, Van der Graaf Generator have been frequently referred to as a progressive rock band. Writing in Record Collector, Toby Manning said the music was "philosophical, even intellectual, complex .. at times, terrifying". While the music on The Aerosol Grey Machine has a more pastoral, hippie feel, with prominent use of Hammill's acoustic guitar, later work featured more complex instrumentation and arrangements. Hammill thinks the style of the band evolved due to the culture of music in the late 1960s, stating "the whole of music was laid out in front of you ... it was the blues in wonky time signatures." Both Hammill and Banton have stated that Jimi Hendrix was an influence on the band's sound, with Hammill remarking that "there'd been distortion before, but there hadn't been that real out-there attitude to sound in itself". Because of their musical influences and line-up, the band tended to play darker musical themes than other progressive bands, with the possible exception of King Crimson. However, Hammill has stated that the group is still fun to work with, stating "as far as we’re concerned, it’s serious fun, but fun nonetheless."
Hammill's lyrics frequently covered themes of mortality, due to his love of science fiction writers such as Robert Heinlein and Philip K Dick, along with his self-confessed warped and obsessive nature. His voice has been a distinctive component of the band throughout its career. It has been described as "a male Nico" and would later on be cited as an influence by Goth bands in the 1980s.
Unlike several other notable prog rock keyboardists, such as Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson, Banton considers himself primarily an organist, due to his background in classical and church music, and only ever used that instrument on stage, albeit heavily modified with customised electronics and devices. Hammill said that "Hugh is one of the most instinctive, baffling and brilliant people I've known and his intuitive hold on the worlds of music and electronics has always astonished me." Today, in concert, Banton uses clonewheel organs to simulate the sounds of a Hammond.
Although Hammill has written the vast majority of the songs in the band's catalogue, and all of the lyrics, he is keen to stress that the arrangements of the music comes from all the group's members. In 1976, being interviewed for the Melody Maker, he said that "VDGG is a band, a real band ... of course [it] is something special, it releases in individual terms parts of us that wouldn't be aired otherwise. In 2013, he reiterated, "Some people don’t think Van der Graaf is a democracy, but believe me, it’s entirely democratic, with everyone having very vocal and forceful opinions."
Due to being label-mates at Charisma Records, sharing management with Tony Stratton-Smith and performing on the same bill on the "Six Bob Tour", the band have been frequently compared with Genesis, though both Hammill and Banton reject this comparison, with Hammill noting that Genesis were far more driven to be commercially successful, whereas he prefers to release music without interference from record companies. In particular, he has mentioned that while he himself continues to release albums on a regular basis in the 21st century, Peter Gabriel's "average output has been about 0.2 albums a year".
Though the group have generally been commercially unsuccessful outside of early 1970s Italy, they have inspired several notable musicians, including John Lydon, Marc Almond, Graham Coxon, John Frusciante and Julian Cope. Although generally categorised as a progressive rock group, Cope is keen to distance the band from that movement, stating "Their music was like some Brechtian bar band – the opposite of prog rock, really". Mentioning their reputation as something of an acquired taste, Lydon said, "There's a few Van Der Graaf things I like, but I'm not going to recommend anything to anyone. It might not be for them. Music doesn't come with a set of guidelines." Marillion singer Fish thought highly of Hammill, and invited him to be the support on their early tours.
- The Aerosol Grey Machine (1969)
- 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)
- World Record (1976)
- The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome (1977)
- Time Vaults (1982)
- Present (2005)
- Trisector (2008)
- A Grounding in Numbers (2011)
- ALT (2012)
- Jason Ankeny. "Van der Graaf Generator – Music Biography, Credits and Discography : AllMusic". allmusic.com. Retrieved 22 October 2012.
- "Interview with Chris Judge Smith by Jim Christopulos". 14 February 2003. Retrieved 16 August 2012.
- Manchester Independent (7 May 1968). "Progress of a Pop Group". Retrieved 16 August 2012.
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- "Interview with David Jackson by Mick Dillingham". 1990. Retrieved 17 August 2012.
- Christopulos & Smart, 301–302.
- Album notes by Peter Hammill for "Time Vaults", cd (1992). Thunderbolt.
- Robin Eggar (29 May 2005). "In prog they trust". The Sunday Times. Retrieved 21 August 2012.
- "Sofa Sound Newsletter 28/Dec 2005".
- "Sofa Sound Newsletter 31/March 2007".
- "Van der Graaf Generator at the Paradiso, Amsterdam April 14th 2007". Retrieved 21 August 2012.
- "Gouveia Art Rock Festival". Retrieved 5 September 2012.
- "Van der Graaf Generator at NEARfest, Bethlehem, PA, USA". Retrieved 21 August 2012.
- "Interview with Peter Hammill by Anil Prasad". Retrieved 20 March 2013.
- "Latest News". Sofa Sound. Retrieved 2013-01-17.
- Phil Smart. "Stop Press". Retrieved 17 January 2013.
- Macan, Edward (1997). Rocking the Classics : English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199880096 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Toby Manning (August 2011). "Van der laafs Generator". Record Collector. p. 30. Retrieved 18 October 2012.
- "The Aerosol Grey Machine CD reissue notes". Retrieved 18 October 2012.
- Toby Manning (August 2011). "Van der laafs Generator". Record Collector. p. 31. Retrieved 18 October 2012.
- Dodd, Philip (2005). The Book of Rock. Pavilion. p. 471. ISBN 9781862056954 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Peter Hammill. "J.S Bach – The Goldberg Variations – Hugh Banton – organ". Retrieved 18 October 2012.
- Karl Dallas (13 November 1976). "The Generator Game". Melody Maker. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
- Toby Manning (August 2011). "Van der laafs Generator". Record Collector. p. 32. Retrieved 18 October 2012.
- "Run For Your Lives! Van Der Graaf Generator". Mojo. May 2002. Retrieved 17 August 2012.
- "Q Magazine – Cash for Questions". Retrieved 21 August 2012.
- Christopulos, J., & Smart, P. (2005). Van der Graaf Generator, The Book: A History of the Band Van der Graaf Generator 1967 to 1978. Phil and Jim Publishers. ISBN 978-0955-1337 01 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]