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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR The Barbican, London, April 16th 2007
I’m sorry Serge, but I have to confess that sometimes even I get it wrong. I rushed at these tickets as soon as the gig was announced. Van der Graaf Generator! Wow! And there in my mind was this hazy memory of student parties and yet another fairly pleasing ELP meets King Crimson prog rock band, useful gatefold sleeve albums and all. And I had a striking image of Peter Hammill, long curly locks, that slightly effeminate boyish look, cheesecloth shirt, and a voice from paradise. And I’m sure he did nice folky stuff after the band split, or between their several manifestations in the seventies – and didn’t he have a sweet-lipped and sweet-singing sister Claire Hammill, sweeping Indian print cotton skirts, coy in fields of daisies and wildflowers, who teamed up with Mike Oldfield on Tubular Bells and all of that stuff? And for what it’s worth the Photographer was sure she met one time band member Charles Dickie at some hippy hangout in Oxford. Yep - it was all pretty clear to me and my expectations apparent as we arrived at the Barbican for this rare London appearance.
From 1967 to 1978 the band went through various line ups and had the usual break-ups before calling it a day. Front man Hammill pursued a prodigious solo career. Then in 2005 the band reformed with Hammill, saxophonist David Jackson, keyboards man Guy Evans and drummer Hugh Banton. A new album, Present, was released and the band toured with a major show at the Royal Festival Hall, available in its entirety on CD as Real Time. Following this, Jackson departed from the fray once more, taking with him the most distinctive element of the Van der Graaf sound, but the threesome returned to tour in 2007.
Peter and Phill
Peter Hammill (right) with Demis Roussos
in 1977. Sorry, I mean with Phill Collins
Did I mention that, like the Fat Ladies, they’ve just come back from Limbourg (“a weird place” as someone described it on Hammill’s bulletin board) – that should have told me something. So should the audience – many of whom (without wishing to be rude Serge) would not have been out of place at one of your whisky shows. And in fact I had a serious double take when I bumped into one who must have been Serge’s twin brother – so everyone can tell what they looked like. Or at least the relatively normal ones. There are a lot of single guys here – arms tightly folded, trousers too short, bodies slightly rocking with the haunted eyes of deserted East European orphans in some dreadful children’s home. Some of them are too close – remember, keep an eye on them whatever happens.
Van der Graaf     They take the stage fifteen minutes late. How can I describe what happened next? Ok – let the black notebook speak: ”singing flat”; “Johnny Rotten”; “echo pedal”; “Spinal Tap lyrics”; “organist bass pedals”; “delicate high-hat cymbal”; “can they really have been this bad”; “man across aisle rocking violently and dribbling”;” strained strangulated and often painfully out of tune vocals”. You see, Serge I just hadn’t done my research and didn’t realise they were really supposed to sound like that.
No wonder the Photographer – as deluded as I was - was nearly lynched when she surmised loudly halfway through Hammill’s opening vocal efforts, “Christ, he’s really lost it hasn’t he?”. So I suppose it was a love it or hate it moment – and to be frank Hammill’s vocal delivery is so extreme and (until J. Rotten produced a fairly good pastiche of it) unique, that it’s pretty hard to love it at the first hearing. In fact, perhaps I’d excised it from my memory. And whilst I could forgive the voice I still can’t find it in my heart to be so charitable about the lyrics, sometimes described as Hammill’s “anguished poetry”.
I mean I know we all sang along to Pete Sinfield’s ‘Court of the Crimson King’ and stuff like that back in the good old 1970s, but that was because we had to make our own entertainment then, and frankly I’d be embarrassed to own up to it now (oops!). So it’s one of those moments when you either shake your head solemnly at the profundity of it all, or simple giggle uncomfortably. Sorry VdGG fans – but I took the giggle route. Take the opener, ‘Childlike faith in childhood’s end’: “As anti-matter sucks and pulses periodically the bud unfolds, the bloom is dead, all space is living history”. Well possibly, but then think of this from ‘Every bloody emperor’, “Unto nations nations speak in the language of the gutter; trading primetime insults the imperial impulse extends across the screen”. Pretty gloomy schoolboy radicalism wouldn’t you say? And certainly not for me. No – we’ll draw a veil over the rest, apart from the moment when Hammill sang “Am I really here?” – at that point my empathy was complete.
Of course the fans (in other words everyone else in the Barbican apart from the Photographer and yours truly) loved every minute of it, and possibly quite rightly so. Guy Evans was astonishing on keyboards and bass pedals (even though he couldn’t help it sounding like, well … ELP meets King Crimson), and Banton’s ability to move swiftly from sublime delicacy to driving rhythms was outstanding. And of course Mr Hammill is an accomplished guitarist. Love it or hate it, take it or leave it. So we left as ‘Man-erg’ came to a close (“The killer lives inside me; yes, I can feel him move”), which was just as well. As I looked back and encore ‘Still life’ began I could see the rocking wraiths rising from their seats like an army of Nosferatus. We closed and barred the door behind us, and made a run for it – “somnolent muster - now the dancing dead forsake the shelter of their secure beds, awaken to a slumber whose depths they dread…” Blimey, that’s enough! Van Der Graaf

Oh, and by the way, if you’re interested, Van der Graaf Generator is a spelling mistake. - Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Kate)

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