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Members include Hugh Banton (left group, 1976), keyboards; Keith Ellis (left group, 1969), bass; Guy Evans, drums; Peter Hammill (born on November 5, 1948, in London, England), guitar, keyboards, vocals; David Jackson (joined group, 1969; left group, 1977), saxophone; Nic Potter (joined group, 1969; left group, 1970; rejoined, 1978), bass; Chris Judge Smith (left group, 1968), drums; Graham Smith (joined group, 1978), violin. Addresses: Website--Van Der Graaf Generator Official Website: http://www.vandergraafgenerator.co.uk/.
In retrospect, it seems highly unlikely that one of the most respected British progressive rock bands of the 1970s would serve as an inspiration for the likes of the Sex Pistols' singer Johnny Rotten, but Van der Graaf Generator is unlike most bands in its category. Formed during the 1967 Summer of Love, the band broke up before recording their first album, but reunited as support musicians for a solo album by lead singer Peter Hammill. The result was an auspicious debut album that inaugurated the British progressive rock boom that included such bands as King Crimson; Yes; Emerson, Lake and Palmer; and Soft Machine. Van der Graaf Generator, however, possessed a sound that differed greatly from their guitar-based progressive rock progeny. Instead, their sound resembled more closely the art-rock experimentations of German bands Can, Faust, and Amon Duul II, with a decidedly more avant-garde orientation bolstered by the drumming of Guy Evans, the atmospheric organ playing of Hugh Banton, the addition of saxophone and flute player David Jackson after the first album, and the edgy vocals and cryptic yet disturbing lyrics of Hammill.
Van der Graaf Generator began as a trio featuring Manchester University students Hammill, drummer Chris "Judge" Smith, and organist Nick Pearne. Smith devised the original concept for the band after visiting the musically vibrant San Francisco of 1967. He gave the band its name from a device that creates static electricity, and drafted Pearne and Hammill as members. They recorded the single "The People You Were Going To" before going their separate ways. Hammill re-formed the group in 1968, with Smith moved to vocals and saxophone, Hugh Banton on organ, and Guy Evans on drums. Smith left before the band finished its debut album, and the band collapsed after his departure. Hammill soldiered on, determined to make a solo album with Banton and Evans. The trio drafted Keith Ellis on bass, recording what eventually became Van der Graaf Generator's first album, The Aerosol Grey Machine.
Once again, the band drifted into dissolution. "Peter was supposedly doing a solo album for Mercury," Evans told ZigZag magazine writer Andy Childs. "We ended up playing on it, and that really gave us the idea to get the band back together again. We decided we wanted another instrumentalist, we didn't know quite who, and were on the verge of getting Nic Potter in the band. Chris Smith had meanwhile formed a band called Heebalob which had Dave Jackson in it. That was just about to break up as we were getting back together, so we asked Dave to join us." For the group's sophomore effort, 1970's The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other, Nic Potter replaced Ellis on bass, and Jackson was added on saxophone. The album produced the group's only legitimate single, "Refugees," an anthem similar to David Bowie's later single "Heroes," in that it called for an emotional connection between individuals on the brink of despair. According to a London International Times review quoted by Childs, "'Refugees' is without doubt one of the most emotive pieces of music ever recorded. It escalates from a patient opening through the vision of freedom the lyrics provide into a nostalgic finale that really is beautiful." The release established the band's subsequent sound and mood---vaguely apocalyptic lyrics with occult overtones sung in Hammill's distinctively anguished style, Banton's swirling organ fills, solid jazzy drumming, and a noticeable absence of lead guitar.
In 1970 the group also released its third album, H to He Who Am the Only One. Nic Potter had by now departed, and was replaced on the album by moonlighting King Crimson lead guitarist Robert Fripp. The album provided the impetus for the group to tour with their Charisma label mates Genesis, who were quickly ascending Great Britain's throne of progressive rock. Fripp also provided guest guitar responsibilities on the 1971 set Pawn Hearts. The album's release faced serious competition from the nearly simultaneous release of Hammill's solo release, Fool's Mate. Predictably, the band broke up before they could tour their latest effort. Hammill continued to employ Van der Graaf Generator personnel and road crew for his burgeoning solo career for the next four years. In the meantime, the group reformed without Hammill to record the instrumental The Long Hello.
In 1975 Hammill returned to the fold, and the group toured France and released Godbluff. The band continued its musical and lyrical explorations while dividing attention equally between the band's instrumental acuity and Hammill's charismatic performances. After two more albums, Still Life and World Record, Jackson and Banton left the group. Replacing them was violinist Graham Smith, who appeared on the group's 1977 release The Quiet Zone: The Pleasure Dome and on 1978's live album, Vital.
Although Van der Graaf Generator called it quits in 1978, public clamor for material continued unabated. For the most part, they were forced to content themselves with Hammill's solo releases. In 1993 a compilation album, I Prophesy Disaster, gathered together much of the group's finest early material. In 1994 a compact disc was released of the group's BBC Radio 1 sessions from the years 1971 through 1976, Maida Vale. The group reunited in the studio to record an unreleased Judge Smith concept album, tentatively titled Curly's Airships. They reunited for an encore at a 2003 Hammill concert. A heart attack suffered by Hammill later that year convinced the band that their opportunities for reuniting might be dwindling. In a press release on the band's website, Hammill explained: "I was getting constant offers regarding a reunion, including one from the South Bank. Until then I had never taken them seriously; but now it seemed as though there might be some interest. We talked and we realised that we met more often at the funerals of former members of our road crew. So if it was to be undertaken, it should be while all four of us were still alive!"
Hammill regrouped with Banton, Evans, and Jackson for the 2005 release Present. According to Uncut critic Nick Hasted, "They sound eerily similar to the last time this quartet recorded, in 1976; this isn't their crunk record. Instead it's a restatement of old strengths, and far from quaint." The double album featured one album of new songs and another of improvisations. The latter album, according to Hasted, "fulfills its function as a once-only insight into the band's inner workings. Not yet quite reaching peak wattage, it's still a worthy return from these peerless English dreamers."
by Bruce Walker
Van der Graaf Generator's Career
Group formed at Manchester University, 1967; released debut album, The Aerosol Grey Machine, 1968; disbanded, 1978; reunited for album Present, 2005.
- Selected discography
- The Aerosol Grey Machine Mercury, 1968.
- The Least We Can Do Is Wave Charisma, 1969.
- H to He Who Am the Only One Charisma, 1970.
- Pawn Hearts Charisma, 1971.
- The Long Hello Charisma, 1973.
- Godbluff Charisma, 1975.
- Still Life Charisma, 1976.
- World Record Charisma, 1976.
- The Quiet Zone Charisma, 1978.
- Vital/Live Charisma, 1978.
- I Prophecy Disaster Virgin, 1993.
- Maida Vale Band of Joy, 1994.
- The Box Virgin, 2000.
- Present Charisma, 2005.
- George-Warren, Holly, and Romanowski, Patricia, The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Fireside, 2001.
- Rock: The Rough Guide, The Rough Guides, 1999.
- Uncut, May 2005.
- ZigZag, February 1976.
- "Van der Graaf Generator," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 14, 2005).
- Van der Graaf Generator Official Web Site, http://www.vandergraafgenerator.co.uk/ (June 21, 2005).
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