Van Der Graaf Generator

Here's the second of 10 albums which I feel have been part of the inspirational makeup of The Tangent over the years. It's not a "best of" or a chart, there is no Number One. The first one featured was UK's first album. Today I'm looking at the darker world of Van Der Graaf Generator. A Dark Metal Goth band if you look at it one way and a full on Progressive Rock Band another way - who used organs and saxes and (on this album) very little guitar at all

It's hard to choose from the output of what, I suppose I must acknowledge as "My Favourite Band Ever". For me Van Der Graaf Generator were Ground Zero in my desire as a teenager to become a musician. Although Yes were and still are similarly placed in my affections, it was VDGG that sowed the seed of "you can do this" in my own mind. Hugh Banton was an Old Boy of the school I was attending - the organ pictured on the inside of the original "The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other" showing Hugh as a boy - is the very same physical instrument I was learning on at the time - even sharing the the same teacher albeit 5 years later. I came across the record which belonged to a sixth former - at the tender age of 12. I became an addict immediately.

I chose "Still Life" though because in the end, that magnificent album specialised in superb SONGS that told stories and posed questions in a slightly more mature way than the earlier example. By the time this was released I WAS the sixth former - and my thirst for musical inspiration was at a high..

From the beautiful, uplifting and indeed stirring refrain of "Pilgrims" which in its way is so fabulously British (perhaps a desire to have a "Theme One" of their own?) - majestic and almost football-terrace-ready, to the darker and more sinister La Rossa, the existentialism of the title track and the foreboding "Childlike Faith In Childhood's End" with that chilling but insidiously optimistic "In The Death Of Mere Humans Life Shall Start!" The album effortlessly combines Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, Johann Sebastian Bach and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown into one glorious goop of creativity and imagination - with that unique voice as a mouthpiece - but weaving melody and formal classical structure into the philosophy and making a gorgeous body of work. The fact that this album had NO bass guitar and hardly any regular guitar of any sort was also a whole game changer - in demonstrating the possibilities of keyboards to a young wannabe. Over the years I learned this craft, and now I'm an old wannabe. But very grateful for the experience.

The use of keyboards in Van Der Graaf was crucial of course - but didn't follow the same development as the other bands in the area. They centred on just two instruments, the piano (or live Pianet) played by Hammill and the Hammond Organ with full pedal board played by Hugh. Although occasionally other instruments like Mellotrons would make subtle guest appearances on the records, the band largely eschewed the synthesiser revolution that was going on and stayed in the "Proto Prog" era regarding keys until - well - the last time I heard them. The piano was never really used as a lead instrument, more of a continuo around which to base a song (Man Erg for example) - and Hugh Banton approached the organ in an entirely different way from his contemporaries, His was a more sepulchral sound much of the time - frequently quite gothic. He manipulated the drawbars more than many, eking many different sounds out of the beast that were missed by others in their time spent on synths. Of course, he was playing the bass too - on those pedals during the second era of VDGG from which this album comes.

When forming The Tangent I knew that the band was going to have to include Saxophone and Flute. Obviously inspired by VDGG who had pressed this from the "Least We Can Do" album onward. Having David Jackson himself for the first album was obviously a bit of a boost!. I was made up - the 43 year old Andy remembering his David Jackson posters on his student wall - and here he was making our debut album, At my house. Wow. But it's Theo who has continued this tradition - a musician I find working with incredibly easy - sufficiently his own man to not just carbon copy Jackson's Role - but knowledgeable enough to be aware of it . We often play "Still Life" together for fun, and he, like I find this album at the very top of our listening favourites.

While being as you all know - a big fan of Yes... Van Der Graaf offered an entirely different lyrical experience. Hammill has over the years covered just about every topic anyone can think of that's worth making a song out of. Like Yes, sometimes their lyrics were abstract (Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers) - but in an altogether more mysterious and shadowed tone than Yes' often blinding optimism. On the other hand they were often highly specific, focused, factual - often highly charged with either anger or pent up emotion - there were politics, unrequited love, social commentary, science fiction, horror, war, songs about Witch Trials, and lost astronauts. What VDGG instilled in me the most was the desire to be able to write about anything that took my fancy - and taught me that songs can have something to say on nearly every aspect of life.

This lineup of VDGG was really the "First Band I Ever Saw" in 1976. The Grand Theatre in Leeds was packed to the rafters - I was only 16 or 17 on the "World Record" tour - and was really pleased that "Still Life" was still very much in the repertoire. I remember my eyes being fixed to start with on my two heroes Banton and Jackson - but throughout that evening I found myself gravitating more and more to Hammill's performance - the beginnings of a musical appreciation which would last many many years. I think the night I walked out of that building - the lucrative jobs I might have had in finance, the law or journalism had gone. The most ultimately costly night of my life made me only interested in one career path.

Since then, I've had the opportunity to spend time with Hugh, talking about our school experiences, back in 1992 Guy Manning and myself coaxed him out of retirement and played a set of VDGG songs in a gig in Peterborough - a night where arguably both Guy and I both began our separate careers in Progressive Rock as opposed to the other things we had been doing.

In 2005 I remember flying back from our headline show at Rosfest - just in time to see VDGG take to the stage for the first time in 30 years at the RFH in London. I cried several times that night. A lot of us did.

The opening of our new song "Slow Rust" is highly influenced by the Generator. Denial would be folly. For some fleeting seconds you could be listening to an out-take from the wonderful album featured here. Over to you......

What We're Listening To...

  • UK
    As we approach the release of "Slow Rust" - here's the first of 10 albums which I feel have been part of the inspirational makeup of The Tangent over the years. It's not a "best of" or a chart, there...

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  • Van Der Graaf Generator
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  • Joni Mitchell
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  • YES
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  • Theo's Choice
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