One of the most mysterious, challenging & cerebral of the bands. VDGG developed a cult following their early days who have long remained loyal to their memory. Although revered by their devoted fans & praised by discerning critics, it was never an easy ride for the band led by singer/songwriter Peter Hammill. Despite the growth of the so-called progressive rock, it was harder for this experimental outfit to find a place in the rock mainstream than more flamboyant bands like King Crimson or ELP. The late 60s was a time for a time for free thini9mhg and is now view as a golden age for rock music development. Even then the pressures of the record industry remained strong & hit records were considered the key to success. The band managed to make the kind of music it believed in most strongly, had its moments of glory & also recorded a succession of well-received albums.
One of VdG's greatest champions was the late Tony Stratton-Smith, founder of Charisma Records, who put them on tour, lured journalists to their studios & sung their praises at every available opportunity. While they were unable to win over hearts like other Charisma acts Genesis & The Nice, Hammill's group soon began to create a buzz at festivals & on the outer fringes of the pop charts.
The experimental group was formed by Hammill while he was at Manchester University, way back in 1967. Their unwieldy name was the suggestion of their first drummer Chris Judge-Smith & was taken from a piece of technical equipment. A Van der Graaf generator is a device for producing high electrostatic potentials up to 15m volts. It consists of a hollow metal sphere on which a charge is accumulated from a continuous moving belt of insulating material & is used in particle acceleration. It is named after the U.S. physicist R.J. Van der Graaf. (The band used to tell reporters they were named after equipment used to make their albums!)
The original line-up included Hammill (guitar, vocals), Nick Pearne (organ), & Smith (drums). This short-lived version was quickly replaced by Hammill with Hugh Banton (organ), Keith Ellis (bass) & Guy Evans (drums). Banton had been a church organist & was an electronics expert. Ellis had previously been with The Koobas, a group managed by Stratton-Smith. They recorded a single 'People You Were Going To' coupled with 'Firebrand', which was released on Polydor in December 1968, & is included as a bonus item on this CD. After the single came out the band promptly broke up, doubtless due to the pressures of the music business & the inner problems of developing a young band, Hammill planned a solo album, but as his career was not quite ready for the big league, & it was decided to convert the work into what became the first VdGG album - Aerosol Grey Machine (Mercury) released in 1968.
Peter had developed his own very distinctive vocal style, quite precise & at times almost manic in its delivery. His lyrics had a fatalistic quality that reflected the confused era of the late 60s when flower power had been stubbed out & the Vietnam War was raging unchecked. Peter's 'lyrical affinities seemed to be with American composers like Leonard Cohen & David Actes, while the music reflected the moods of the songs with sensitive use of dynamics & frequent tempo changes.
On the album Hammill worked again with Hugh Banton & Guy Evans. Dave Jackson (sax & woodwinds), & Nick Potter (bass) were co-opted into the group. Nick had previously been with Glenn Campbell in the Misunderstood. This ensemble later joined Charisma Records & working with producer John Anthony made the 'Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other' (1969) the first of several albums for Stratton-Smith. This was hotly pursued by 'He to H Who Am The Only One' (1970). Nick Potter left during the recording of this album & went to do some demos with singing drummer Mark Ashton.
The band meanwhile set off on a Charisma tour supporting Lindisfarne & Genesis & played a blinding set at the 1970 Jazz & Blues Festival, held that year on Plumpton race
Course. Dave Jackson created quite a stir with his performance & on the track 'Plague of Lighthouse Keepers' from their third Charisma album 'Pawn Hearts' (1971).
The group grew more popular, particularly in Europe, & in the UK the band even made it the front pages of the Melody Maker, the weekly music bible. But their music was growing increasingly complex & in 1972 the band split up for the second time. Hammill launched his solo career & recorded five more albums. Ultimately he would have some 35 albums released over the next couple of decades.
Responding to the urgent call for a French tour, VdGG powered up & reformed in 1975 with Hammill up front, backed by Banton, Jackson & Evans. The same year saw a new album 'Godbluff' followed by 'Still Life' (1976), 'World Record' (1976), 'The Quiet Zone' (1977) & the live double album 'Vital' (1978) which was to be their final release before breaking up the same year. Peter Hammill, who lives in the West Country not far from his old friend Peter Gabriel, continues to work as a solo artist for different labels & can attract legion fans to major concert halls in Britain & the States.
Whether with VdGG or on his own, Hammill's work has a moving quality that can easily induce tears. His mentor Stratton-Smith was particularly fond of a piece called 'Refugees' that was often a highlight of the band's nightly performances. A version of 'Refugees' was issued as a single together with 'The Boat Of Million Years'. Surprisingly even John Lydon (aka 'Johnny Rotten') was a big fan of the unique singer & particularly liked Hammill's 'Rikki Nadir'.
VdGG performances on 'Afterwards' & 'Necromancer' that appear on 'Aerosol Grey Machine' have a pastoral feel about them, which show traces of the scented blossoms of the hippie Summer of '67 stiff floating in the air. No wonder that underground DJ John Peel was also a great champion of the group. Despite heavy promotion from trusted allies, VdG still couldn't sell albums in enough bulk to break into the rock super league.
Glen Cotson, who was A&R & Promotions executive at Charisma, recalls the daunting statistics: 'They got to a stage when they could sell out a 1,500 seater venue & sell 15 to 20,000 albums, but they could get no further & that's an awkward position for a record company, because they're at the limit of expenditure. If you're gonna spend L15,000 on an album you've gotta sell 30,000 to get it back. So they were always on the edge of breaking even. They could tour because they were big in countries like Italy, & they were well respected & had hard-core fans. I remember them doing a gig at the Beacon Theatre in New York in 1976, which Strat (Stratton-Smith) sent me over to promote. The American record company said they didn't believe they could do a gig over there & said bluntly: 'No, we don't want them'. Strat said, 'you're having them!'
Eventually the gig sold out & fans came from all over America to see VdGG play. They went down a storm & played five encores. Strat threw a huge wobbler at the gig & grabbed hold of the top guy at the U.S. record company who'd come back stage to congratulate them. Strat said: 'I'd told you we'd sell this gig out. Now piss off!' He'd never give up on VdG because he loved the group so much. They did some terrific songs like 'Killer' which was about sharks, & they also did a version of 'Theme One' which was the BBC Radio One theme tune written by George Martin. That became quite collectible. They had a limited appeal because they were just a bit too weird. But Peter Hammill is a lovely guy & a great artist & he can still tour the world.'
Weird or not, you can hear still influence of VdGG on many of today's more off-the-watt bands. Even if they never sold a million, nobody can ever say they sold out their artistic beliefs.