Peter Hammill and his trusted lieutenants recall the mania and majesty of their finest albums

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VAN DER GRAAF
VITAL
CHARISMA, 1978
With John Lydon in attendance, Van Der Graaf run through some distorted new songs and old favourites at the Marquee on one of the most savage live albums ever

EVANS: The whole album was my baby – we were hitting quite a lot of debt and had decided to stop the band for a while. I came up with the idea of recording us live at the Marquee. I had to borrow a 16-track machine and get it trucked in. It’s pretty in-the-red – a lot of it was just trying to get a decent signal-to-noise ratio – but I also think we were just really loud. It was a complete monster to mix, just trying to tame it. Graham Smith was playing his violin through a little phaser device that was very raw, and I think [cellist] Charles Dickie is actually playing through a fuzzbox. I remember John Lydon was backstage, in the little dressing room. There wasn’t a sense that we were going to consciously embrace punk, but because this climate was around, we thought it might give us a bit more scope to be a bit rough around the edges.

HAMMILL: We kind of knew there’d been the odd nod [from punks], and we certainly hadn’t felt threatened by what was incoming, and didn’t feel that we were boring old farts. The idea that you could get into music by getting together with your mates and bashing out songs with a couple of chords was where I had come from – that had seemed to be going by the wayside [with prog], but the fact that that seemed once again possible was utterly laudable and positive.

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PRESENT
CHARISMA, 2005
After 28 years apart – and a serious heart attack for Hammill in 2003 – the classic quartet carried on from where they left off with this improvised double

BANTON: We had bumped into each other periodically and Peter had made 103 albums in the meantime. What was it like getting back together? It was extraordinary, because it was like we’d never stopped. We got together at a place in the West Country, and we didn’t play any old stuff whatsoever.

HAMMILL: Present all dated from our original week of simply getting together to play together. We were fairly sure we’d have a jolly week of working, eating, drinking and playing together, but we weren’t sure at that stage, in early 2004, that we would actually commit to going public with things. So we were away for a week, at a house of a friend of Guy’s down in Devon, and we recorded everything we did in a sellotape and string kind of way. We emerged from that week deciding that yes, we did want to give it a crack, and it turned out once we assembled all the material, that there was an album there. It’s an odd album, as it’s a double, and the second CD is improvisation that we were doing throughout the week. We didn’t want to just be our own tribute band, we wanted to do new material. It came as something of a surprise to people that not only were we playing again, but that we had an album to go with it.

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DO NOT DISTURB
ESOTERIC, 2016
Now a three-piece after the departure of David Jackson, Van Der Graaf still impress with what could be their final LP

BANTON: Peter sent me and Guy a CD of tracks that he thought would work for this album, and I think the final record is the exact same tracks, minus one, in exactly the same order. So he’d obviously thought it out. Then we got together for a week to rehearse it, and then a week to record the backings. And then months overdubbing at home. Famously, that first Beatles album was made in seven hours, and now we take seven months.

HAMMILL: As is now traditional in our modern band, we all had all of the masters and could go off in our own studios and do whatever overdubbing needed to be done. Then I took over most of the mixing. It was quite a long process.

EVANS: A song like “Alpha” felt like quite a hark back to The Least We Can Do… days – a straight song, with a bit of a funny middle!

HAMMILL: None of us are getting any younger, so we had at least the glimmer of a thought that possibly this might be the last studio album that we do. We’re not saying it is the last album, but that consciousness has to be there. A lot of the writing of the stuff, especially lyrically, was informed with that thought. I asked the others if there was anything they thought I should be writing about, or indeed not writing about, and a couple of ideas came back. I’m playing a lot of loud guitar on this – good fun! One of the shifts that happened since we became a trio 10 years ago is that I got a responsibility for actually playing my instrument properly instead of being the feckless singer who’s allowed to play things every now and then. It’s rare that we’ve so nakedly been an ageing heavy metal trio as we are in a couple of places here!

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Uncut: the past, present and future of great music.

 

  1. 1. Introduction
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