Monday, October 31, 2005

Prog-Rock Classic, redux

Back around 1977 or so, in one of my forays through discount record bins I encountered a band called Van der Graaf Generator (later shortened to Van der Graaf). Floored by what I heard, I ultimately bought every one of their albums, plus all those of their singer, Peter Hammill. Never more than a cult group in the USA, they are largely forgotten. But back in the day, I thought them the superior of Genesis, ELP or even Yes. In the prog-rock scene, as it's now called, the only groups that seemed their equal or more were King Crimson or Gentle Giant. Van der Graaf's members were not technically better musicians than those of those other bands, but they had a vision and breadth of scope that was unmatched by any other group. While less polished than ELP or Yes, they were less pretentious, seemingly unafraid of failure, and forged their way into realms of dissonance that only King Crimson could duplicate. In their "classic" lineup they boasted a bizarre instrumentation—a lead singer who played electric piano and some basic guitar, a drummer, a saxophonist/flutist who often played alto and tenor saxes simultaneously, and an organist in the truest sense, right down to playing the bass parts on pedals, rather than bass guitar. And not a soloist in the lot—they were a true chamber ensemble. They dispensed with the usual verse-chorus-solo format very early on and favored playing elaborately contrapuntal accompaniments under Hammill's epic lyrics. Among the so-called progressive bands, they were the only one that had any credibilty in the punk world—Johnny Rotten professed to be a fan, and more recently the members of Radiohead have acknowledged VdGG to be a strong influence. And if you've possibly been searching for the missing link between free jazz, rock, and classical genres, look no further.

I also rejoice at the news that this lineup of VdGG has reformed after a 29-year hiatus, and from the reviews that I've read, they sound better than ever. They've recorded a new album, 'Present,' a 2-cd set of which one is comprised of new songs and the other a collection of studio improvisations.

I write this posting in response to re-hearing their masterwork—an album called 'Pawn Hearts,' recorded in 1971. In the rush of events that comprises my life, I hadn't thought about this band for many years, until last winter when staying with my friend Tom Kohn and we played some of their stuff again. I visited one of the websites devoted to the band, and got re-acquainted with their sound and vision. (You know how it goes nowadays—you get a thought about something or other, you do a quick Google search on it, and the next thing you know, you've got a hefty order on the way from Amazon.) Plus, I just turned 47, and so to celebrate, I ordered a copy of 'Pawn Hearts.' I hadn't listened to this album in at least twenty years, but if anything, I appreciate it more now than I did back then.

There are some warts to reckon with: Hammill's lyrics are overwritten, when not downright silly, and his singing is an acquired taste. The recording quality is not great; the technology didn't exist then to capture the sounds that they were going for and the production is dated, to say the least. But the rewards: Guy Evans' magnificent drumming (one of rock's greatest unappreciated timekeepers), Hugh Banton's amazing organ work, and David Jackson's incredible sax playing (a major inspiration to me, and probably the real reason I picked up the saxophone, though I never mastered that trick of playing two at once...). This was a band who sought to compose extended works on a symphonic scale, and succeeded more than most. Banton had a real grasp of organ literature, especially the French school of Widor, Alain and Dupre, as well as the music of Bach (he recently recorded Bach's 'Goldberg Variations' on an organ of his own design). Not as flashy as Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman, he tends to get overlooked. David Jackson was a sort of British version of Rahsaan Roland Kirk combined with late Coltrane. "Gestural brilliance" was how one friend of mine summed up Jackson's strongest virtue as a musician; that and a truly distinctive tone. Guy Evans fluid time-keeeping could make 11/8 sound like 4/4 and then make 4/4 sound like nothing you ever heard in your life. And they played as a genuine ensemble, not a collection of soloists. When they were on, they made a truly glorious racket.

If you're curious, the newly remastered 'Pawn Hearts' is a good place to start. The mix has a clarity and depth that I never experienced from the album in the LP era. Hugh Banton's organ sounds better than ever, and they've added some bonus tracks that are much more than just filler.


Anonymous said...

Glad to see that VDGG isn't forgotten. Good assessment of the band, both good and bad points. I'm glad to see someone who agrees with me that being a virtuoso is not necessarily a good thing if the band does not play like one. H to HE is my favorite in spite of the production.

Gibbons' Bostons said...

are you the same David McIntire from Alfred State College graduated in 1980 and took chorus. If so you were the first one that ever kissed me, Lisa Fraley write back or find me on facebook Lisa Fraley Gibbons one of the triplets that went to alfred you best friend was Wayne Young who married Sue. He is an accountant in our area now in Jamestown, NY where I live. or email me at You listened to progressive music at that time. and had a beautiful voice. very interested to hear from you. Lisa