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retention is often a label given to the progressive rock bands of the early 1970s. Often bands would produce wildly over the top albums (singles were beneath them) using vast arrays of musical instruments with songs that often lasted well over ten minutes. Such songs were usually done as a way of demonstrating the musical virtuosity of the players and the post graduate writing skills of the lyricist. Some even went one step further in that they produced 'concept' albums where the whole of a 45 minute disc was dedicated to one idea.

Thankfully, there were those who managed to stand out of the dirge. Obviously VdGG were one, but there were others.

  • Gentle Giant. Formed around the core of the Shulmann brothers, Gentle Giant played an extremely melodic form of rock interspersed with traditional instruments. Their vocalist, Derek Shulmann has an incredible voice and the group took full advantage with very sophisticated multi layering of the voice tracks. I recommend the first self titled album as the place to start.
  • Gryphon. Formed by friends at the Royal College of Music, Gryphon's first Album contains only traditional, medieval tunes using period instruments of the time in addition modern day. They moved on to a more 'standard' format and even released a dreaded concept album based on a game of chess (and rather fine it is as well.) To be honest, I recommend picking up any of their albums, they're all good, but the first one has all the best tunes for singing to in the car (particularly Three Jolly Butchers.) A rather interesting aside is that Paul Haley (who seems to be getting rather a lot of mentions on this web site) played in a folk band that actually supported Gryphon. Strange but true.
  • Emerson Lake and Palmer. OK, the classic dinosaur rock band that was killed off by the punk movement. Still, Emerson is such a good keyboard player, Lake has such a rich voice (that hasn't altered in 25 years) and Palmer is such a talented drummer that I have to include them. Their Works Volume 1 album, much pilloried by the music press is probably my third favourite album of all time.

But none of the above produced an album called Godbluff, so they don't get their own page.

Van Der Graaf Generator were formed in 1968ish by Chris Judge Smith, Peter Hammill and Nick Pearne. By the usual process of band fluctuations, when they came to record their first album, Smith and Pearne had left and Guy Evans (drums), Hugh Banton (organs and pianos), David Jackson (saxes and flutes) and Keith Ellis (bass) had joined. Peter Hammill (voice, guitars and piano and practically all songwriting) remained.

  • The Aerosol Grey Machine (1969) This was, to all intents and purposes, a Peter Hammill solo album that for contractual reasons had VdGG on the label. It's a nice slice of late sixties psychadelia with a slightly harder bass that the subsequent albums (this was bassist Keith Ellis' only album.)
  • The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other (1970) This is the first 'real' album by the group and clearly defined where they were coming from. Strong lyrics backed up by even stronger music. Very much a wall of sound, or in some cases, noise. The final track, after the flood tells of what the earth would be like after the ice caps have melted and then receded (global warming anyone?) Nic Potter took over on Bass and is evident with a softer role further back in the mix.
  • H To He (Who Am The Only One) (1971) Probably my least favourite album, and the only one that I haven't yet bought as a CD. Nic Potter only plays on half of the tracks before moving on. It has the awful Pioneers over C track that completes the disc; it's a little too like David Bowie's dreadful Major Tom nonsense only slightly longer. Although Lost and House with No Door almost lift it up. I can't say a lot more about it as I rarely listen to it.
  • Pawn Hearts (1972) The classic album of the early period with the immense Plague Of Lighthouse keepers filling the whole of one side. It comes in ten bite sized chunks and tells the story of a lighthouse keeper trying to rationalise his life with the death and destruction he sees in his job. The second portion, Pictures/Lighthouse is a soundscape of ships at sea crashing, sinking to the deep and then the sailors rising up. All this with Saxes, Organs and Drums. Of course, Lemmings (Including Cog) and Man Erg, that comprise the first side are also excellent.

The group took a three year sabbatical

  • Godbluff (1975)Hey, what more can I say about this comeback album, just go out and buy it. I guarantee that you will be listening to it at least once!
  • Still Life (1975) Generally considered to be most VdGG fan's favourite album. Recorded, as with Godbluff and World Record, by Hammill, Jackson, Banton and Evans, this features five excellent songs. From the hymn-like Pilgrims to twenty minutes of Childlike Faith (In Childhood's End.) This being the closest you'll ever get to a philosophy lecture in a song. The title track tells of the horrors of being immortal. Highly recommended.
  • World Record (1976) Not considered as a favourite by many fans, largely due to the track Meurglys III (The Songwriter's Guild) which is a five minute song about writing songs wrapped in an additional fifteen minutes of Organ, sax, guitar and drums nonsense that's wonderful. The whole dub reggae bit at the end where Hammill proves that his guitar playing needs work is great. The other tracks, particularly Masks are also rather good though the album has a slightly looser fee to the two previous.

The group essentially split here as Jackson and Banton left. Potter rejoined along with the violin player Graham Smith and the group name changed to just Van Der Graaf.

  • The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome (1977) Similar in construction to The Aerosol Grey Machine, this was to all intents and purposes a Hammill Solo album. The songs had become short and the structures had altered away from the progressive earlier days. This doesn't stop it from being rather good, though, as there are some very nice tunes and some thought provoking stuff. The first few lines to the Last Frame are particularly good.

Pretty keen.
Yes, my hobby keeps me busy.
And if I talk to myself, well, that's not a crime

It's on the subject of photography, but it could equally apply to the business of web page design...

  • Vital (1979) Record live at the Marquee on London, this is about as rough a live album as you're ever likely to get this side of bootlegs. The band thrash their way through old VdGG classics, Hammill solo songs and three songs that were never released on albums although a studio version of the opening track, Ship of Fools, was on the B side of a single and later released on a compilation CD. The BL Players pantomime site has details of a production called Ship of Fools. We used this track as exit music. The hall cleared in no time!

Well, that's enough waffle, for the moment on VdGG. If you want a more comprehensive round up of the group then there are a number of locations in the more section. Details off some of the output of the driving force behind the group are found here in a page dedicated to Peter Hammill.

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