Peter Hammill and his trusted lieutenants recall the mania and majesty of their finest albums
A No 1 hit in Italy, VdGG’s difficult fourth dabbles in the avant-garde and features just three songs, including the magisterial, side-long “A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers”…
HAMMILL: We always had a complicated attitude to what we were prepared to present in order to achieve fame and success, not entirely born out of rationality.
JACKSON: Our manager Tony Stratton-Smith had a fantastic country house [Luxford House, near Crowborough, East Sussex], and he let us have that for a few weeks to rehearse. We had roadies to look after us, and we just lived like lords.
EVANS: Crowborough Tennis is a game we invented there. It’s like doubles tennis – you simply have to hurl the ball as hard as you can at the table, and one of your opponents has to catch it. And the rule was that you had to return it from where you’d caught it, so there were all sorts of fiendish possibilities. Who were the Crowborough Tennis champions? Whatever side Peter was on. Because he was the most competitive? I didn’t say that…
HAMMILL: Pawn Hearts was one of the first albums that had that extended stuff going on. We were on pretty good, if manic, form by this stage. The chemicals were definitely boiling away. The big thing is “A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers”, that was the ultimate in recording things in different bits. We were sure it was going to work, but we weren’t necessarily sure how it was going to sound until the whole thing was actually put together and mixed.
HUGH BANTON: I do remember having a bit of a struggle with this one, when Peter came up with all these bits and pieces and said we’ll stick them together somehow… I remember the band getting slightly anxious. For a section near the end of “Lighthouse Keepers” we recorded several numbers one after the other, and put them all on top of each other – why not?
HAMMILL: Italy was the place where we first had major success. Things went a bit mad after a while, to the extent of not being able to go into a bar without being recognised, and being pinned in dressing rooms.
BANTON: We were doing two shows a day in Italy, in the middle of summer. The heat, the drugs, the insanity… We weren’t used to having bottles of wine put on the table, but in Italy we were having these big banquet meals, and the wine flowed, so it was rather different. Also, in the motorway services there, you could get a grappa with your coffee… We were getting on each other’s nerves, and Peter was just fed up. There were a lot of arguments, and when we came back, Peter decided very quickly, “I’m not going to do this anymore.”
HAMMILL: With the intensity of the music and the life, and the sense of things juddering off the rails, it’s hard to see where we could have gone and almost retained sanity. Retrospectively, I’d say a split was inevitable. Things had gone wonky.
Reuniting for the first time, Hammill and co create this fiery, brutal, four-song opus
HAMMILL: I’d made several solo albums, the others had worked with other people, and we decided to give it another go. The first time that we all played together again was on my solo record, [1975’s] Nadir’s Big Chance. Compared to Van Der Graaf it was comparatively simple. That fed into the idea that we were going to be a live-playing band, so for the first time ever we played all the material from Godbluff live before we recorded it at Rockfield.
EVANS: They were all straight-through performances, with just a few overdubs added on afterwards. The opening to “Arrow” was a bit of non-directional activity that I started after three or four failed takes. I decided to start the tune in a completely different way, not really imagining that it would really end up as the beginning of the song.
HAMMILL: I began “Arrow” playing lap steel guitar, which is not an instrument associated with Van Der Graaf! I had begun to play a lot more, especially Clavinet and electric guitar, so I was beginning to pull my weight a bit more instrumentally. I was still basically singer and writer, but I was keen to get involved more with playing because it’s fun. I’m grateful to the other chaps for letting me join in, because frankly at that stage my musical capacity was not on a par with theirs. We felt that things weren’t warping out of control as they were in the post-Pawn Hearts time. We were pretty crazy then, but it was ok. This was the start of an absurdly creative period, but also of a massive on-rush of time, space, event, that happened in the next two or three years.
A quieter, sombre outing, featuring the elegiac “Pilgrims” and jazzy “My Room” – rehearsed in the dungeons of Clearwell Castle in the Forest Of Dean
HAMMILL: This was a little bit of a hybrid album, as two of the songs [“Pilgrims” and “La Rossa”] had been recorded in the same sessions as Godbluff.
BANTON: I like this one! I remember rehearsing “Childlike Faith In Childhood’s End” at Clearwell Castle. We moved into the castle for a week or something and lived in the dungeons. There are big cellars, and the rehearsal rooms were down there – it’s a rather wonderful place.
HAMMILL: Then after that, we went back to Rockfield Studios and recorded the rest of Still Life.
EVANS: We returned to Wales to record “Still Life”, “Childlike Faith…” and “In My Room”. They needed a little bit more of the older studio approach that we were a bit fed up with when we did Godbluff pretty live, so it was a wise move to leave them until the next album. I think we just got the balance of live band and studio craft pretty right for that one. This was a time when Peter was pretty happy to allow the band to pull and stretch his songs, and be fairly irreverent with them, to see what we could come up with. He positively delighted in it!
VAN DER GRAAF
THE QUIET ZONE/THE PLEASURE DOME
Generator no more: with a new lineup, Hammill takes inspiration from punk
BANTON: We weren’t getting paid, there was still no money. David Jackson got married, and I got married, but the cheques were bouncing. You look back and think, “Oh, all these great records and gigs”, but being in the middle of it and not getting any money and thinking you’re going nowhere – “I can’t afford to do this, I can’t afford to feed myself” – it can get you down, so I decided I’d had enough by the end of 1976.
EVANS: We were not at all safe financially. Every tour we did was an enormous gamble. Back then, if you wanted to do a tour you had to hire a whole PA and lighting system, plus crew. So that was a big investment.
HAMMILL: Events were quite abrupt – HB decided that he was going to leave. In the intervening period I had made this solo record, Over, which involved [violinist] Graham Smith, who we knew from String Driven Thing. We weren’t interested in getting in an organ player with bass pedals – [i]because there weren’t any![/i] So we thought it would be very interesting to have violin in the band. Nic Potter was up for playing again – we’d remained friends – so the lineup became bass, drums, violin, horns and me. And we began rehearsing, at which point David decided this wasn’t for him either. So all of a sudden, we were a four-piece. Obviously this was ’77, so in-your-face music was a current flavour at the time, and we were definitely happy to go along with that, so what we ended up with was actually a very aggressive four-piece band. I’m very fond of The Quiet Zone…, though it’s a little bit out of the ordinary Van Der Graaf story.