Thursday, 22 November 2012

25K/AR58: listen (again)

For a strictly limited time.

Playlist 58, 22 November 2012

Peter Hammill
Nadir's Big Chance
Nadir's Big Chance
Charisma

Peter Hammill
Mr X (Gets Tense)
pH7
Charisma

Peter Hammill
A Motorbike In Afrika
The Future Now
Charisma

Peter Hammill
The Jargon King
A Black Box
S-Type

Peter Hammill
Empress's Clothes
Sitting Targets
Virgin

Peter Hammill
Traintime
Room Temperature Live
Enigma

Peter Hammill
The Great Experiment
Enter K
Naive

Van Der Graaf
Last Frame
Vital - Live
Charisma

Peter Hammill
Sign
The Margin - Live
Foundry

Van Der Graaf Generator
La Rossa
Still Life
Charisma

Peter Hammill
Porton Down
pH7
Charisma

Van Der Graaf
The Sphinx In The Face (Peel Session 24/10/77)
The Box
Virgin

Van Der Graaf Generator
Octopus (live in the studio)
H to He Who Am The Only One (bonus track)
Charisma

Peter Hammill
(No More) The Sub Mariner
In Camera
Charisma

Peter Hammill
Trappings
The Future Now
Charisma

Peter Hammill
The Lie (Bernini's Saint Theresa)
The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage
Charisma

Peter Hammill
Patient
The Margin - Live
Foundry

Peter Hammill
Betrayed
Over
Charisma

Peter Hammill
Again
In Camera
Charisma

Peter Hammill
Faint Heart And The Sermon
In Camera
Charisma

Van Der Graaf Generator
Wondering
World Record
Charisma

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

25K : a quarter century of listening to Peter Hammill and Van Der Graaf Generator


Meanwhile down the passage of Watson Mansions echo the sounds of several more insensitive souls, reacting to the sound of this album by raising a sarcastic chorus of 'Happy Days Are Here Again.'”

Don Watson reviewing “Patience” in NME, 1983

Things have got better in the last ten years but it has never been fashionable to like the music of Peter Hammill and Van Der Graaf Generator. Assumptions are made and cliches exercised around the twin millstones of having been identified with Progressive Rock, with all that implies, and writing lyrics that can sometimes be emotionally confrontational. As an eighteen year old experiencing this music for the first time these were the two things which attracted me, and fired an obsession with Hammill's work which raged for five years or more. But now, twenty-five years almost to the day since I first heard his music1, when my interest in nearly all I was listening to in the late eighties has dwindled to nothing, I still listen to this music regularly and intently. It speaks to me on an emotional and intellectual level as no other catalogue of "rock" music does. Admirable Restraint 58 will consist of a personal selection of Hammill/VdGG music. Below I will try and put into words just some of the reasons why I like it so much.

The juggernaut that was 1975-6 VdGG
The 69-72 version of VdGG now sounds very much of its time. It's a rare occasion when I'll listen to an LP of theirs from that period all the way through and indeed I may struggle to put together one side of a C90 with stuff from that era I would recommend to others2. By the time the band reformed in 1975 all excess had been stripped, all frippery was gone. While the songs may still have wandered into different sections and time signatures it was all with the intention of driving the central idea forward to a logical conclusion. The sound of the band was also more streamlined: no more acoustic guitar fol-de-rol from Hammill, and the battered upright piano had been replaced by one of Stevie Wonder's old electric jobs. Lyrically Hammill was still mining science fiction and personal relationships but his words were more precise, more cutting and more real. "Still Life" sounds like it could have been recorded last week, and "Godbluff" and "World Record3" sound nearly as contemporary.

Losing the Generator - and reaching a Nadir
We tend to remember people the way we first saw them. The world first saw Peter Hammill and VdGG as cheesecloth-wearing, magick-invoking troubadours4 and that's a hard image to shake off. This phase only lasted until their first break-up, in 1972, and was a pretty superficial reading of what they were up to anyway, especially in concert. By 1977 this was definitely not the case, and with the change in line-up5 the music threw off any last waft of patchouli and lived very much in the present, without pandering to the fashion of the day. While the studio album Van Der Graaf produced felt like a dry run, the double LP souvenir of their concerts at the Marquee, "Vital", was unequivocally the real thing. Despite it being (or because it was?) horribly recorded, the sheer power of the bottom-end-heavy new line-up (guitar, viola, cello, bass, drums, plus intermittent keyboard and sax) snarled at anyone daring to consider them irrelevant. That this band never managed to put together another album is a crying shame - the handful of tracks that have emerged over the years from radio sessions and singles hint that it would have been fantastic.

While I'm obliquely talking about the effect of punk on progressive rock "dinosaurs", I believe I'm contractually obliged to mention how much John Lydon and Mark E Smith liked "Nadir's Big Chance", Hammill's 1975 solo album, at the time thought of (by its proponents at least) as a collection of old, uncomplicated songs recorded as a run-up to VdGG reforming but in hindsight seen as an avatar of the punk rock revolution. A note to hipsters: this is the Peter Hammill album it is ok to like.

Hugh Banton
Hugh Banton played the organ in VdGG from their earliest days through until 1976. At first using a Farfisa, later a Hammond, Banton would modify his instruments to create a uniquely immense sound. It was only on seeing the reformed VdGG in 2005 that I realised just how central to the music Banton's contribution was - I'd been distracted by David Jackson's more obvious saxophones and Guy Evans' distinctive drumming. But of all the musicians in the band (and this includes the singer), the one element that defines the band and without which VdGG just isn't VdGG is Hugh Banton. Indeed, when Banton left the band Hammill truncated the band's name to Van Der Graaf. And while VdG were great in their own right, they were not VdGG. In contrast, when David Jackson left the reformed 21st Century version of VdGG, the remaining trio scarcely missed a beat. When you watch footage of the 1972 quartet, it is Banton who sits at the centre of the music, and when Hammill wanders off takes it to another level of intensity. The live-in-the studio version of "Octopus6" and bootleg versions of "Killer"7 give some impression of his unhinged side. In the 1975/6 version of the band his sound is more contained and in service to the forward motion of the song, but no less thrilling.

Between 1976 and 2005 Banton concentrated on organ-building, playing in public only rarely. Legend has it that he lives on a house boat8 on the Bridgewater Canal near Lymm, in Cheshire. One day I must walk along the tow path there and see if any of the boats are fitted with bass pedals.

Coda
Van Der Graaf Generator knew how to finish a song on a note that was both exhilarating and definitively terminal. Try "Darkness (11/11)", "La Rossa", or "Scorched Earth". If you like your intensity to be calmed by a considered fade, how about "The Sleepwalkers" or "Wondering"? And if you want to rescue a dreadful song9 that's meandering towards irrelevance, put in an earth-shattering organ riff that the sax player can use as a starting point for Ayleresque skronking to save the day.

Four- and eight-track recording and the wonders of tape
While some early Seventies solo artists were falling head-first into bowls of cocaine and running up studio bills in the hundreds of thousands, things were different if you were signed to the "famous" Charisma label. Tiny budgets meant a more creative approach to recording, and Hammill decided to record the bulk of his solo output at home, only venturing into professional studios when necessary. Given the limitations of home studio recording at the time, this meant that artistic decisions had to be made with a limited number of options. This gave those Seventies solo albums a unique sound, and often an interesting approach to timekeeping, given that the drums were generally the last instrument recorded (you needed a proper studio for those in 1973). Tape also became, in effect, another instrument, most obviously in the musique concrete epic “Magog (In Bromine Chambers)” from “In Camera” (1974), but also more subtly throughout subsequent solo records.

"The Future Now", "pH7" and "A Black Box" (1978-80) proved the peak of this approach, where technology has improved10 but is still in service to the song. When Hammill returned to solo recording in the mid-eighties the digital revolution had suddenly made a multitude of options available. I don't think it's a coincidence that the studio albums he made from 1985-90 are almost totally without merit. When the options are limitless it's difficult to decide that you have found the best one.

Happy Happy Joy Joy
There are plenty of songs about lost or unattainable love and betrayal in the Hammill canon. It's part of what he does, and at times, such as 1977's rather oppressive LP "Over", it is all he does. But
  1. this is not the only thing he sings about, and even so
  2. it's not always as depressing as it may look on paper.
Taking the second point first, if you look at the lyrics to something like "La Rossa"11 in isolation, it's pretty grim stuff. But get to the end and the subject of the song12 is emotionally released and embraces life. Combine that with the music and it becomes cathartic and uplifting, not self-indulgent and wallowing.

While not wanting to get bogged down in what else Hammill sings about - listen and find out - it's hard not to notice a widening of focus on his late seventies albums, with songs about animal testing, apartheid13, disability14, time, fame, political cronyism and more. Of course there's some sad love songs in there too, but who doesn't need a couple of those once in a while?

Nic Potter's bass
A young Nic Potter was part of VdGG in 1969/70 but left when “the intensity of the vibes surrounding the group” became too much15, half-way through the recording of “H to He Who Am The Only One”. He returned to the fold in 1977, with a distinctive bass sound that would drive the new wave Van Der Graaf and, a little later, The K Group. Punchy, precise, often with a healthy dose of fuzz, Potter's bass underpinned proceedings but was also a prominent voice in the mix. The last time I saw him play was with Hammill at the Royal Northern College of Music in 1992 and during "Traintime" his bass notes appeared to be on the same frequency as my internal organs. I feared for my safety.

K Group - a group for the eighties (with a drum sound to match)
The K Group (Hammill, Potter and Evans with John Ellis of The Vibrators on guitar) only
put out two studio LPs, both of them patchy. But as a live group they came into their own. A classic rock group in formation, they were taut but explosive, considered yet open to abandon. They breathed life into the best songs from their own albums plus Hammill's then-recent back catalogue. And they introduced me to two new sounds: the E-bow and the electronic drum kit. I still like listening to the former being used.

In concert tonight
The most recent selection from a studio LP in the "K25" program is from 1982's "Enter K". Hammill continues to write, record and perform to this day, and there's been plenty of studio releases over the last thirty years, most of which I've heard. However my own interest in Hammill's studio work stops after the K Group's demise in 1985. As previously mentioned, I believe that the digital revolution swamped his decision-making processes, leading to messy albums where what few good songs he was writing in the mid-late eighties were lost in the morass. He got out of the bind a bit in the nineties16 but I find little to engage me in his songwriting during that period and to the present17.

But I will always make an effort to see him in concert. Whatever the format of the show, whether it be a man and his piano, duos, trios, the reformed VdGG, Hammill is a compelling performer, never content to rest on his laurels or play a song the same way twice. The risk of aiming high is that sometimes you can crash and burn, and there are occasions where things don't quite come off. But the highs outweigh the lows. Four particular highs from live albums are in the program, one from Van Der Graaf, two from the K Group, and one in a trio with Nic Potter and Stuart Gordon (violin). Each one takes the original recorded song and makes it better, which surely should be the aim of every live concert. I've recently been working my way through a seven CD box of recordings from Hammill solo concerts in the UK and Japan from 2010. It comprises 46 different songs, most more than once18, from all through his career, rethought and reshaped either for piano or guitar and vocals. Onward, always onward.



1 Friday 20/11/87, according to an old diary. It was “The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other”.Thirteen days after my first ever radio broadcast, coincidentally.
2 Since you ask: "Darkness (11/11)", the last 1'51” of "White Hammer", a bootleg of "Killer" which is (supposedly) from 5/10/71, side one of "Pawn Hearts", "Theme One", "Octopus" live in the studio. Ok, maybe that's a bit over 45 minutes but you get my point.
3 Seven-and-a-half minute white-boy reggae excursion notwithstanding.
4 Which is fair enough when you look at the gatefold sleeve of "The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other", their first proper LP.
5 Banton and Jackson out: Potter back, Smith in, Dickie in later, Jackson turning up again like a lost puppy when it suited him. Do keep up.
6 Recorded for inclusion on the original projected double LP version of "Pawn Hearts" but unreleased until the 21st century reissue of (confusingly) "H to He Who Am The Only One".
7 A song I'm not fond of, but the instrumental sections were unbelievable, especially in concert.
8 Possibly the only thing he has in common with Dave Gilmour.
9 "White Hammer". No song with the first line "In the year 1486" is ever going to turn out well.
10 Hello, the Aphex Aural Exciter.
11 http://sofasound.com/vdgcds/sllyrics.htm#3
12 And we should never confuse song lyrics with autobiography, either the singer's or the listener's...
13 Hammill sang about Steve Biko two years before Peter Gabriel did. Just thought I'd mention it.
14He didn't make such a good job of this.
15Quoted text from the booklet in “The Box” compilation.
16 More or less. For years I thought "Manny Elias" was his pet name for his drum program, not an actual human drummer, such was the dullness of the rhythmical content of the records.
17And let us never talk of his opera based on “The Fall Of The House Of Usher”.
18And three versions of “Stranger Still”...

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Playlist 57, 8 November 2012

Polwechsel
Not Forgetting The Forgetting
3
Durian

Otomo Yoshihide
Modulation #1
Cathode
Tzadik

Stephen Cornford / Jason Kahn / Patrick Farmer
Side 2
Bristol
Pilgrim Talk

Jana Winderen
Side 2
The Noisiest Guys On The Planet
Ash International

Lee Patterson
Egg Fry #2
Egg Fry #2
Cathnor

Philip Julian
A2
Location +
Entr'acte

Greg Dixon / Lasse-Marc Riek / Janek Schaefer
Orford Walk / Forest / Late Night And Far Away
v-p v-f is v-n mix [field] compilation series 
Winds Measure

John Butcher / Mark Wastell
Live at Resonance Studios 31/08/08 Part 3
Audition