Van Der Graaf Generator : Featured Artist

  • Van Der Graaf Generator : Featured Artist


    Van der Graaf Generator are an English progressive rock band, formed in 1967 in Manchester by singer-songwriter Peter Hammill and Chris Judge Smith. They were the first act signed to Charisma Records, and are somewhat unique among prog rock bands to count John Lydon as a fan. They did not experience much commercial success in the U.K., but became considerably popular in Italy during the 1970s. In 2005 they embarked on a reunion, which continues to the present day.

    The band went through a number of incarnations in its early years, including a brief split in 1969. When they reformed, the signature Van der Graaf Generator sound of the 1970s began to develop, which was a combination of Hammill's distinctive and dynamic voice and David Jackson's electronically treated saxophones, generally playing over thick chordal keyboard parts from Hugh Banton's Hammond organ and Hammill's piano or clavinet, and Guy Evans' rolling, jazz-rock-like drumming. The band explored the complete range of phonaesthetics from euphony to cacophony, often within the same song. Van der Graaf Generator albums tended to be 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.

    After several exhausting tours of Italy, following commercial success there, the band split in 1972. They reformed in 1975, frequently touring Italy again, before a major line-up change and a slight rename to Van der Graaf led to a final 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.

    Hammill is the primary songwriter for the band, and the line between music written for his solo career and for the band is sometimes blurred. In interviews, Hammill stated that even though he wrote the majority of VdGG music, its arrangements were always collective, while in the case of his solo recordings, he wrote and arranged all the compositions.


    1 History
    1.1 Formation and early years (1967-1972)
    1.2 First reunion (1975-1978)
    1.3 Second reunion (2005 to date)
    2 Influence
    3 Members
    3.1 Current members
    3.2 Former members
    4 Discography
    5 Video


    Formation and early years (1967-1972)

    Peter Hammill on stage
    with Van der Graaf Generator
    in Ottawa in 2009

    The formation of the band occurred in 1967 at Manchester University, after Chris Judge Smith, a Drama student, answered an advert for anyone wanting to form a band, and amongst the many people at the audition, discovered Peter Hammill, a Liberal Studies student, who played him some of his original songs. Smith was impressed, and decided the two of them should form a band. The pair were influenced by the bands that regularly played the university, such as Cream, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd, but particularly The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. They decided they would model themselves on Brown, with Hammill on guitar and vocals and Smith on drums, wind instruments and vocals, and wanted to recruit an organist. This led to fellow Liberal Studies student Nick Pearne joining the band, though he did not initially have an instrument. The group was named by Smith after a piece of electric equipment designed to produce static electricity, the Van de Graaff generator - the misspellings are accidental. According to Smith, the band's first gig 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 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". The single was 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.

    Although the band performed on BBC Radio 1's Top Gear radio show the previous November, and was touring successfully, it broke up in June 1969. Pressures leading to this included financial difficulties, the theft of the band's gear and transport in London, combined with Mercury's refusal to let the band record and Stratton-Smith's refusal 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).

    In July 1969, Hammill went to record his first solo album at Trident Studios. Banton, Evans, and Ellis joined him as session musicians. Through a deal worked out by their manager, Hammill's intended solo 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.

    Hugh Banton used a Hammond E-112 organ,
    modified with electronics, as a key ingredient
    of the band's early sound

    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 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 original idea was to make a double album, the first containing studio tracks, the latter having a similar concept to Pink Floyd's Ummagumma in having a mixture of solo compositions and live in the studio recordings of tracks regularly featuring in their concert repertoire. Charisma rejected the idea of a double album, and so the final released recording just contained just three tracks - "Lemmings", "Man-Erg" and the 23 minute concept piece "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers". Fripp again provided a cameo appearance on guitar. While Man-Erg had already been performed on stage, "Lighthouse" evolved in the studio, recorded in small sections and pieced together during mixing. The track features a lot more studio experimentation than on previous albums, including tape manipulation and Banton experimenting with Mellotron and synthesizer. According to Jackson, one section of it features the entire band overdubbed 16 times. 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 decided to do 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 "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 Piero Messina, under the name "The Long Hello". Their self-titled album (The Long Hello) was released in 1974.

    First reunion (1975-1978)

    David Jackson played a variety of saxophones,
    often simultaneously, which, combined with his distinctive hat,
    gave him a unique image on stage

    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) and Theme One. "We didn't want to continue as if nothing had happened," said Hammill.

    The reformed band worked at a prolific pace and recorded three new albums in just 12 months. The sessions were produced by the band themselves (all previous Van der Graaf Generator albums had been produced by John Anthony at Trident Studios), and displayed a somewhat tauter, more streamlined sound. Godbluff 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 "Merglys". 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.

    In 1982 a collection of out-takes and rehearsal recordings from the 1972-1975 hiatus was released (initially on cassette only), called Time Vaults. These are not studio-quality recordings.

    Second reunion (2005 to date)

    Peter Hammill playing guitar
    with the band in Amsterdam in 2008

    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."

    Hugh Banton on stage with
    Van der Graaf Generator in 2010

    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 outtakes and in-studio jams, not unlike the second disc of Present, called ALT was released in in June 2012.


    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.


    Current members

    Peter Hammill – guitar, piano/keyboard and vocals (1967–1978, 2005-present)
    Hugh Banton – organ, bass pedals and bass guitar (1968–1976, 2005-present)
    Guy Evans – drums (1968–1978, 2005-present)

    Former members

    Chris Judge Smith – vocals, drums and wind instruments (1967–1968)
    Nick Pearne – organ (1967-1968)
    Keith Ellis – bass guitar (1968-1969; died 1978)
    Nic Potter – bass guitar (1969-1970, 1977–1978)
    David Jackson – saxophone and flute (1969–1977, 1978, 2005-2006)
    Graham Smith – violin (1977–1978)
    Charles Dickie – cello (1978)


    Main article: Van der Graaf Generator discography

    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)
    Vital (1978)
    Time Vaults (1982)
    Present (2005)
    Trisector (2008)
    A Grounding in Numbers (2011)
    ALT (2012)

    Video : Van Der Graaf Generator - Killer

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  • pretty cool band.

    love is all you need! is there anybody alive out there?
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