Not many people are lucky enough to meet or speak to their heroes, but in my first ever ‘proper’ job, working for a Manchester newspaper back in the early Nineties, I somehow managed to persuade a fairly liberal-minded editor (my job role wasn’t even writing at the time) to let me interview Peter Hammill prior to him going on the road with his excellent ‘Fireships’ album. The justification as far as the newspaper ‘Up Town’ was concerned that the venue hosting him, the Royal Northern College of Music, would put a small advert in the publication (which was entirely funded through advertisements) if we backed it up with an interview. The irony of course was that the revenue generated by the advert (£50 or so) I managed to fritter away with an extended phone call to, I think, Austria, where Peter was on tour. Not that I cared one jot! The article itself, entitled ‘Prince of Angst’, which Peter’s publicists tittered at, is long lost, but the audio transcript remains in my files somewhere, terminated with an exultant slamming of the table as I put the phone down. Things don’t get much better as a budding, wet behind the ears early twentysomething prog fan…
I’ve written elsewhere that I might have started a Hammill/VdGG fanzine in 1989 had someone else not got in there first … hence indirectly the launch of Facelift. Then of course the Canterbury scene, with all its tentacles, entrapped me. But in a lovely moment of symmetry, last year, thanks to Van der Graaf biographer Jim Christopoulos I was given drummer Guy Evans’ email address and I made a tentative enquiry about what he could remember about sessions at Oxes Cross in Devon in 1981 with Mother Gong, alongside Harry Williamson, Didier Malherbe, Gilli Smyth and Hugh Hopper, this for ongoing research for the Hugh Hopper biography ‘Dedicated To You But You Weren’t Listening’. Within 24 hours he’d despatched a page of detailed and humorous recollections about the event, which will be used in the book. He was charming, friendly and erudite.
And so here we are, 30 years on from ‘Fireships’, in another even grander classical music venue, the Bridgewater Hall, home of the Halle Orchestra, watching an oft postponed and pared down Van der Graaf Generator gig. My 12 year old son (who should know better), on finding out that I was going to see the band (it was a last minute decision) asked if the guy who played 2 saxophones at once (David Jackson) would be performing. Sadly that particular ship has sailed, the band have long been reduced to a trio, with Hugh Banton joining Hammill and Evans for three quarters (or three fifths, depending on your viewpoint) of the classic Seventies line-up.
The hair might be white (or gone for good) but the frames are trim and the characteristics are unmistakable: Hammill, dressed from head to toe in linen white, with straight arms scratching out a riff on the electric guitar, Hugh Banton head slightly cocked to the left, weaving his way dexterously through the arrangements on keyboards, and Guy Evans, beady eyed, furtively looking through his drum stands towards Banton, tapping out razor sharp rhythms. Van der Graaf, as is the case with Peter Hammill’s solo tours, regard all of their repertoire as fair game, there is no favouritism, the whole canon is appropriated. If one was to look at relative set lists, I would probably have picked the previous night’s gig in Birmingham purely on reputation: ‘Man Erg’, ‘Still Life’, ‘La Rossa’ are all fairly essential. But tonight, they performed, for me, the unlikeliest pieces from Still Life and World Record, namely ‘Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End’ and an admittedly excellent ‘Masks’, alongside the magnificently brooding ‘Scorched Earth’ from Godbluff.
The night actually opened up with “In the Black Room”, which could have been (and probably was) a VdGG piece at its inception, with Hammill slowly finding his vocal range, which he had achieved magnificently by the end of the first set with an unexpected and utterly chilling rendition of ‘Gog/MaGog’, also originally a solo piece. This was mercifully shorter than the (almost) side long original, but retaining all the best parts of the main theme with enough free wig-out to follow to cleanse the palette. This was the best possible platform for the menacing Hammill growl, showcased in its full magnificence here.
Other highlights were the supremely abrasive ‘Nutter Alert’, and by contrast the beautifully pared down ‘Go’, but it was the intricate ‘Over The Hill’, something of an elongated masterpiece from ‘Trisector’ that unexpectedly became the centrepiece of the performance with Guy Evans directing the convoluted stop go sections from behind his kit.
I’d expected Hugh Banton to dominate the sound, as he takes on the role these days of not just bass pedals, but also the gaps left by the absence of David Jackson. But unexpectedly it was the piano, razorsharp and dominating the themes, which nearly always set the tone, with the intricacy of the trademark ‘galumphing’ sessions (read David Shaw-Parker’s ‘The Lemming Chronicles’ if you don’t understand the terminology!) emanating from Hammill, whilst Banton continued to weave his web. ‘Refugees’ was the encore, Hammill largely hitting the high notes with keyboards beautifully re-creating the flute lines. One wag in amongst a largely respectful audience had shouted ‘Welcome Home!’ at the start of the performance – a nod to the band’s inception at Manchester University in the late Sixties: COVID bubbles meant that there were no merchandise stalls and no opportunity to chat with band members afterwards. Will there be a next time? One never knows… On the way out I met photographer Sean Kelly who was 2 dates into a 5 stop tour following the band around the UK. I was tempted to hitch a ride…