Peter Hammill & The K Group
Live At Rockpalast - Hamburg 1981
(DVD-V + CD)

Forty years after the events, the sheets of spit and howls shot towards Prog as "Pompous Music" seem to have been replaced by a calmer, more peaceful, money-driven attitude. Sure, here we could argue at length about Prog's "true identity", given the fact that a notion of "Prog" that manages to put both Genesis Apocalypse In 9/8 and Land Of Confusion under the same umbrella appears in serious danger of collapsing due to its excessive intra-categorial variability.

But far from being exclusive to it, Punk's attitude towards Prog - which was impossible to ignore, due to the noise it made - can be easily linked to those anti-intellectual currents which were active on both sides of the Atlantic and which anticipated Punk in many respects. "Yes, it's fine music. But is it Rock?". This was the question asked at the time when King Crimson's first album was released (1969). A question that didn't necessarily entail an unfavourable judgment. We could picture both attitudes as embedded in different artifacts created by the same person in two different moments in time: the "experimental" John Lennon of I Am The Walrus, and the "let's rock" John Lennon of Come Together.

There's a moment when the way an artist is regarded finally comes to the fore: their obituary. I have to say that, though both Keith Emerson and Greg Lake had their share of laurels, I was quite surprised to see that the death of John Wetton received no mention whatsoever in the pages of The Guardian. This, compared to the two or three pieces written about the death of Can drummer, Jaki Liebezeit.

(I refuse to believe that the "obituary" section of The Guardian has a "quota" system, and that - having already reached the allotted maximum for the year in the Prog category with the death of both Emerson and Lake - the only possible exception could have been Carl Palmer's death.)

I don't want any misunderstanding to arise. I bought Tago Mago fresh off the presses when I was still in my short pants, and for years I had to quarrel about the music of the group, which was regarded as "obsessive", where the volume of the drums was "excessive", and which was "totally devoid of melody". (Later, I had to quarrel about its "lack of melody" as seen as a positive feature, but this is a story for another day.)

In the United States, John Wetton is mostly known for being a member of "Prog supergroup" Asia, and, to a lesser degree, for the time he spent in King Crimson; since in the former United Kingdom Asia are regarded as a "tacky" group, I was ready for a feature to put a spotlight on, say, the bridge to Exiles (Larks' Tongues In Aspic, 1973), composed and performed by Wetton on piano but uncredited on the original album; or to trace the similarity that links the "symphony for saxophone-like basses" that's a close relative to a few Hopper pages that appears on Fallen Angel (Red, 1974) to the melody for two guitars featured on Between Blue And Me, opening track to Fearless (1971) by Family, a group which also featured Wetton. For those who like different walks of life there's Diamond Head (1975), an album by Phil Manzanera where Wetton plays on material that's a bit unusual for him - just check Same Time Next Week, co-penned with Manzanera, whose structure is a quite personal "Prog" version of a "Soul ballad".

Quite paradoxically, sometimes commercial success is achieved via the most difficult material, a notion which should stimulate a new reflection on the notion of "commercial". I was quite surprised to see in the booklet featured in the new, expanded edition of Pawn Hearts (1972, 2005) by Van Der Graaf Generator, a few articles featuring fine colour pictures which originally appeared in the Italian weekly Ciao 2001. The same being true for many pictures featured in the box set released under the title The Box. One thing missing was an article I still remember quite clearly, forty-four years later: "The Generator has no more charge left".

From the outside, the group splitting up did not make any sense, and the excellent solo albums released by Peter Hammill were no consolation. Under a very peculiar astral conjunction, such tracks as Lemmings, Man Erg (a radio hit!) and the suite A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers managed to "dilute" the tension of which Hammill is a master while dressing it with instrumental colours, climates and atmospheres that on paper should only have made the music sound more abstruse.

On August 30th, 1975 I attended one of the first concerts played in England by a reformed Van Der Graaf Generator, who on that tour played most material off Godbluff, an album that was still unreleased at the time. "The group shamelessly exploits its legend", was one of the acrid comments from Italy. A worthless comment, but which speaks volumes about the climate of that year.

Sure, three albums in about one year were a bit much, and even more so when one takes into consideration the fact that on the album World Record the group appeared to try a "vérité" approach that was definitely not the best possible one for those particular musicians and instrumentation. My calmly unfavourable opinion of World Record was maybe the best possible precondition for my enthusiastically greeting of The Quiet Zone - The Pleasure Dome (1977), an album which saw the group say goodbye to the organ, get a violin in place of the saxophone, and get back a bass guitar, now sporting a tasty - and sometimes, nasty - fuzz.

Press clippings of the time talk about "extreme" concerts. Being on the same label made the group do joint tours with Hawkwind, a pairing that only a few years earlier would have sounded totally incongruous. A double live album, Vital (1978), with an added member on cello and synthesizer, is a good witness to the brutal "rock" aesthetic as formulated by the new band.

With the press now looking elsewhere - he's not "2000 Bob Dylan" anymore - Hammill went on releasing solo albums that - from Over (1976) to Patience (1983) - form a corpus of fresh melodic inventions coupled with an increasingly experimental studio dimension.

After the release of the excellent Sitting Targets (1981), Hammill assembled a quartet in order to play on stage material off his most recent solo albums, Sitting Targets and A Black Box, released the previous year. Two former members of Van Der Graaf Generator - Nic Potter and Guy Evans - sat on bass and drums, with John Ellis on guitar and background vocals, the leader on piano, guitar and lead vocals.

At the close of the chapter, the double LP The Margin (1985) showed what happened on stage in the 1983 concerts. The expanded edition - a double CD - released in 2002 under the title The Margin + (2002) added more concerts from 1982. It also featured very detailed liner notes by Hammill himself, revealing an extremely precarious financial condition (much worse than I'd thought at the time), which made it impossible for the group to continue.

This mini-box - a DVD-V and two CD - features material that would have been interesting anyway, but which is quite brilliant indeed. Shot on stage in front of an audience for a "rock tv" program, the quartet shows great empathy and fine versatility when dealing with quite diverse material. Three encores, for a total duration of 1h. 45', split on the two CDs.

In a rock quartet having the right drummer makes all the difference, and here Guy Evans is the group's "secret weapon". This is "rock" music in both timbre and "push", but those interlocking riffs, those tempos, the ever-changing subsections, those curve balls, everything is closely related to the music of Van Der Graaf Generator.

While Hammil's guitar works as a foundation, Potter's bass plays "around" the chords. Playing solos that are never "heroic", nor "rhetorical", also with the help of an e-bow, Ellis also plays a fine chordal counterpoint role. Pay attention to the way his guitar - a Stratocaster though a Roland Jazz Chorus - has practically no mids, so as not to mask Hammil's chords, or vocals. Young listeners will encounter two curious: a (seldom employed) synth, and a synth-drum, a Synare, both played by Evans.

Opening track, the majestic-sounding The Future Now, features piano, e-bow, and a "psychedelic" guitar solo. Then, Losing Faith In Words, with an odd time signature. Sounding at first serene, then tense, Stranger Still has a fine interlude with a luminous guitar. Sign sounds almost "funky", featuring two guitars and a fine solo. My Experience sports a "Balkanic"-sounding riff.

A classic from Hammill's discography, Modern is perfectly rendered. The Second Hand "Rocks!", and has a fine drum coda. Interlocking riffs for Sitting Targets, with drums propelling a guitar solo. The Sphinx In The Face has an enormous punch.

Flight, the suite that originally filled Side Two of A Black Box, gets a new arrangement, and it's the only track that - due to its length - could maybe prove to be "too much of a good thing" for those who are not among the group's hottest fans.

Central Hotel is the first encore, with a fine rhythmic figure on the snare drum. The Spirit and Door are the second encore, two rock tunes with "Arabic"-sounding riffs. The concert's last track features solo Hammill on piano: My Room, a really special moment off very fine album Still Life (1976).

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2017 | Feb. 16, 2017