was about three years ago that I first read about a new Van Der Graaf
Generator box set - called The Box - that was about to be released.
So I got in touch with Peter Hammill - the man who had composed (and
sung!) the largest part of the group's repertoire - to see whether he
was interested in a conversation about the group's career. He agreed
to do an interview after finishing a tour of Italy and Holland. Back
home on October 28 - "bask (but not
yet rested...)", the interview
was conducted (by e-mail) during the
days of October 30, 31 and November 1.
I had already interviewed Peter Hammill, by phone, on February 25,
1991 for a radio program that I hosted. On that occasion I had restrained
myself from asking him any questions about his old group, concentrating
my attention on his solo career. While Van Der Graaf Generator were
still active Hammill had released very good albums such as Chameleon
In The Shadow Of The Night, The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage, Nadir's
Big Chance and Over, which are a de facto part of the group's history.
But as required listening I'd also suggest later solo titles such as
The Future Now, PH7, Sitting Targets, and those albums recorded with
the K Group (Enter K, Patience, The Margin), adding the (bass and violin)
live trio of Roomtemperaturelive for good measure.
(A little biographical data: Hammill was about twenty when the group
started, twenty-two when masterpieces such as H To He, Who Am The Only
One and Pawn Hearts were released, thirty when Van Der Graaf Generator
split. Of more or less the same age were people like Jimi Hendrix, Robert
Wyatt, Nick Drake, Robert Fripp, Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton, John Martyn,
Van Der Graaf Generator had been quite a famous group in Italy during
the early '70s - can you picture their long pieces being broadcast on
National Public Radio at 4.00 in the afternoon? I was more than a bit
puzzled while reading the profile/interview that appeared in Mojo at
about the same time of this interview (which, by the way, appeared in
Italian in Blow Up # 32, January 2001, but
is published here in English for the first time), the UK mag suggesting
that the music in question was very good indeed, but... well, pretty
difficult. Well, I beg to differ, Sir.
of my questions here are maybe a bit too long. Please consider that:
a) I wanted to simulate the "feel" of a live interview; b)
I wanted to give readers - who for the most part had not been present
at the time when those things happened - the most complete picture I
The first VDGG track that I heard was Darkness, off The Least
We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other - the album had been released not long
before. It came out of my tiny transistor radio: the sound of the wind,
the voices, the rhythm section, then your vocals... By the time of the
organ solo I was completely sold: it was so strange! Very beautiful,
but pretty peculiar - up to that point, most organ solos I'd heard had
been in a decidedly gospel/jazz/blues vein - Jimmy Smith, Brian Auger,
The Doors' Ray Manzarek Chicago roots... The players in VDGG seemed
to come from very diverse musical backgrounds, which was not so uncommon
in those days - I'm thinking about, for in., Soft Machine or King Crimson,
i.e. groups whose goal was to create something original which was definitely
more than the sum of its part... Would you mind talking about your -
and the other group members' - influences and about your expectations
at the time when the band was formed?
You're quite right to mention Soft Machine and King Crimson. All
three bands were going prior to 1970, or whenever "Progressive"
became the catch-all tag; initially we were known as "underground"
Briefly our influences were:
Jaxon: mainly Jazz, particularly Shepp and Coltrane. But he'd also
played in a few soul groups, as part of horn sections rather than soloing,
I believe, and had played in the national youth jazz orchestra.
Evans: his father had a big band and he was also into jazz. He had
a wide knowledge of US psychedelic groups as well as a pretty catholic
acquaintance with anything in the rock (left-field) vein.
Banton: classically trained organist, of course. Also into the harder
end of rock/pop and soul music.
PH: Blues, r&b, british beat groups (esp. Who, Kinks, Animals)
and, again, soul music.
We were all into the Beatles and Hendrix. As time went by our interests
cross-pollinated, both in enthusiasms of listening and playing and we
arrived at a coalescence of taste, which also included classical music
in its early, romantic, symphonic and experimental/avant-garde forms.
We had no more expectation, nor drive, than to try to make an original
music which built upon our differences as much as our similarities.
And to explore and make extreme sounds!
The Least... was recorded in four days: were you happy with the
way the album came out? I see that in The Box you've included some alternate
versions of some tracks that appeared on the album...
At the time, we thought four days was a luxury! So, as with all the
albums, we did it to the best of our ability at the time and are therefore
happy with the results.
The alternate versions are from live radio sessions, of course.
At first, I thought VDGG was a group from Holland! Where did the
name come from?
It was Chris Judge Smith (who founded the group with me at Manchester
University) who came up with the name. Robert VdG was an american scientist
who invented the piece of (electrostatic charging and storing) equipment.
The largest one in the world is in the museum of science in Boston.
References to hard sciences in rock groups were not common...
I'm thinking about the Albert Einstein quote in After The Flood (The
Least...), the formula that appeared on the cover of H To He, Who Am
The Only One (and, of course, the album title), a song title like Man-Erg
(Pawn Hearts), the story in The Pioneers Over C... Ha! W, of course.
Where did this interest in sciences come from? And what were your motivations
in exploring this topic?
Well, in my university days I was a student of "Liberal Studies
in Science". I had then and still retain an interest in science
for its own sake and as a metaphor for our current lives. Being used
to scientific terminology and theory it was always natural for me to
push this stuff into songs. If I'd finished my studies I should have
been someone who understood enough about science to communicate it to
society and vice versa. Maybe I've done a little bit of that anyway...
VDGG studio albums from this period were very carefully produced,
but you've said that the live band was a very different (and unpredictable)
animal. (Robert Fripp has said exactly the same thing about the '69-'71
King Crimson and he has tried to redress the balance by releasing live
tapes from that period.) Being of an age at which one was not considered
old enough to travel alone, I never saw the '70/'71 VDGG live. Would
you mind talking about the group's attitude with regards to live playing?
Very wild indeed. WE never played the same set and each song changed
radically from night to night. We also very loud! No one ever knew what
to expect, which was an attraction for us as players and people. We
definitely did NOT try to recreate the studio sound on stage. In this
we were, perhaps, liberated by our line-up. Again, we were going for
H To He... was the first VDGG album of which I tried to translate
the lyrics, my impression being that all the characters portrayed in
the songs were placed in situations of very deep loneliness (an oversimplification,
I know...). There's a lot of variety in the music; the songs are pretty
complex, and things change, sometimes quite drastically, within the
course of the same song: a trait that was (almost) taken for granted
at the time, while nowadays, at least judging from my personal experience,
most music listeners seem to prefer albums that are more "stable"
and homogeneous from start to finish, and whose songs don't have much
internal variety. Your opinion? And: am I painting too rosy a picture
of the past?
Certainly more experimentation was allowed or demanded in the past
by both musicians and audiences. But music meant something different
then, I think. It was "owned" by its audience, rather than
being furniture in their lives, as seems to be the case today.
I continue to believe, contrary to the given wisdom, that it's more
interesting to have an album - or, indeed, an individual song - which
has variety rather than homogeneity...
At the time it came out, I found Pawn Hearts to be an album of
almost intimidating complexity, though after quite a few spins it became
my favourite one (in this respect, albums were almost like books, a
place where one would return to revisit one's impressions). In the appendix
to your book Killers, Angels, Refugees, talking about A Plague Of Lighthouse-Keepers,
you wrote: "I will, therefore, let it speak for its clandestine
self, save only to say that it is a cinematic presentation of 'self'
in several possible matrices". Now - and the point I'm aiming at
is much broader than this particular reference - this is the kind of
scope that in the years since has very often been ridiculed as being
"pretentious" and "too intellectual". Meanwhile,
I think that this "ambitious" approach, though it can sometimes
backfire on you, would be very welcome in today's "rock scene"
of severely diminished expectations - and I'm not talking about Britney
Um, and the question? Seriously, these days I tend to shut up in
terms of external analysis and DO try to let things speak for themselves,
while still trying to get some depth into them. Now, as then, I believe
that something of real worth, in whatever sphere normally will require
a degree of work in order to be fully appreciated... or "got"...
or to become, as you say, effectively, a part of their lives. But generally,
hey, Big Mac thinking rules, no?
After Pawn Hearts the group split up, causing much consternation
in Italy - where it was assumed (maybe a bit too optimistically) that
VDGG was destined to get "big". But all the other members
of the group contributed to the solo albums you recorded after the split.
What had happened?
Life, stuff, madness. Reasonably documented in The Box, I think.
We remained (remain) friends, though, of course and with the level of
personal and musical understanding between us it was natural that we
should continue to play together. In the case of my solo albums/tours
it was always clear between us that we were VdGG musicians but this
was NOT VdGG work.
Additionally none of us were in it for stardom per se. We wanted
the music to be successful, of course, but didn't particularly want
the trappings of fame for ourselves.
More or less in that period there were singers that explored -
each in his own, personal way - the voice and what could be done in
that area: off the top of my head I'd say Robert Wyatt and Jack Bruce
in his post-Cream solo mode. Were there any singers whose work you regarded
as being distinctive?
Clearly those two. It's a long way back now. Personally I was absolutely
trying to stretch what could be done with my voice. A lifelong search.
Many singers from the folk direction also explored things, in a different
way. You have to include Bowie as well, of course. Maybe a big distinction
is that at around that time a number of people started to sing in English
rather than American. A trend which has sadly reversed today.
The only time I saw the group live was in London, in 1975: I attended
the New Victoria Theatre gig on August 30th. I definitely remember that
the first song was The Undercover Man, from the yet-to-be-released Goodbluff,
and that besides old favourites like Lemmings and Man-Erg the group
played some songs from your solo albums (Forsaken Gardens, In The Black
Room and A Louse Is Not A Home, if I remember correctly) that were in
effect "VDGG songs". Why did the group decide to re-start
Again, life, stuff, madness. This aspect is, again, documented in
The Box. Briefly, though, the time was and we as people were right to
re-enter VdGG world. When we did so we had no intention of looking backwards,
or of trying to pick up from where we'd left off. Therefore when we
voted on the songs we were going to play (apart from the new ones) the
old faves didn't get any votes but "solo" ones (including
Black Room and Louse which we HAD played in the last days of Mk I) got
the thumbs up... to be done, of course, in a VdGG way.
In my opinion, the albums recorded in that period and produced
by the group - Godbluff, Still Life and World Record - tried to bridge
the gap between the "studio" and the "live" dimensions
that had previously existed: they are more direct, more "streamlined"
(I'm not too happy about my choice of word here) though no less ambitious
for this. Is my impression basically correct?
I think we felt that "Prog" was getting a bit convoluted
at best and pompous at worst. We therefore wanted to use our skills
to show that we were a playing group rather than one dictated to by
time signatures and complexity and tapped, once again, our roots in
soul, jazz, and r&b. In general, by this time, if we were playing
something complex we wanted to make it sound like 4/4... and vice versa.
Of the three albums I just mentioned Still Life is the one I like
the most, the title track being one of my favourite songs ever (I remember
when I finished translating the lyrics: was I scared!). World Record
is the album I like the least, Meurglys III being the only song by the
group that I consider being "too long". So, in a sense, I
was not surprised when the group split again. What happened?
The usual, but more so. Hugh and David didn't feel capable of continuing
and, again, things had got mad (see The Box as usual). Van der Graaf,
with G Smith and the return of a Potter, was a logical, if different,
route to take. World Record was, even in the cases of overdubs, very
much a demonstration of this-is-the-sound-of-the-live-group, albeit
in the semi-controlled arena of the studio.
In general, by this time we were approaching the end of the natural
lifespan of the group(s). I regard it as a highly positive thing that
we never compromised or did anything which would discredit the past
work which we'd achieved. The record stands...
The first time the group split was at the time of the "glam
rock craze". The second time, it was on the eve of punk. According
to Rolling Stone (so it must be true...) "Hammill's relentlessly
bleak visions were later cited by some members (e.g. Johnny Rotten)
of Britain's late-Seventies punk-rock movement as their inspiration,
and in fact Hammill created a "Rikki Nadir" persona for a
solo album that presaged punk". Would you mind talking about that
period - and that album? (... for which I have no lyrics yet - and I
still have to understand the spoken segment at the beginning of Two
Or Three Spectres which ends with "... Little Stevie Wonder",
followed by laughter.)
Well, to be fair I think "one of the inspirations" would
be more accurate for JR among others (Mark EW Smith of the Fall, f'rinstance...).
Nadir was recorded, in fact, before the 77 thing got under way and received
something of a critical bashing at the time. It was the first time Hugh,
Guy, David and myself went into the studio having already decided to
reform VdGG and doubtless the directness with which we played on Nadir
had an influence on what followed (see answers above). Since VdGG WAS
about to reform I didn't want to do anything close to it and so the
songs were pretty simple and (mostly) quite old.
One of the main things I wanted to do was express that 16-year-old
"I just want to play the 3 chords I know on my electric guitar
very loud!" spirit which I still try to conserve in my 51-year
old self in some way. Essentially, that's the punk spirit (before punk
got hijacked by The Bizniss). So I, for one, didn't feel alienated by
what happened in 77. Also, as I've said before, there was a lot of pomp
around at the time, as if to say "no, you can't go and form a band
with your mates in a garage. Well, you can!
btw Hugh says, at the start of "2 or 3", a propos of how
I'd been trying to get him to play, "why didn't you say, more Stevie
Wonder!" Again, I don't suppose S. Wonder would be a reference
point that most people would think we/I might use.
I'd like to ask you about Nic Potter. I don't know whether I can
trust my memory here, since the only time I heard this conversation
was one night in (1972?) when the band - minus Potter - was interviewed
on the Italian National Radio. After a broadcast of Darkness there were
some comments about the bass parts for the song not being that good.
Potter was not part of the band until The Quiet Zone - The Pleasure
Dome, though he played on your solo albums. Imagine my surprise when
I saw the new line-up in '77 and I noticed he was in! That record was
much more rhythmically "grounded", and there were songs (for
in., The Sphinx In The Face and Chemical World) when he sported an "almost-Hugh
Hopper" fuzzy tone. You produced the album, so I imagine you called
(most of) the shots. What changed with regards to your concept of the
The interview sounds more than a tad unfair on Nic and I suspect
that we were larking about just a bit!
Nic was in the band for The Least... and half of H to He. He left
somewhat mysteriously, and now says (this, after the various interviews
we did for The Box) that it was because he was still very young (absolutely,
17 when he joined) and couldn't handle what he saw as the ever-increasing
madness and obsession surrounding us. Hugh thinks the building of an
extra bass output on the organ might not have helped, either.
Anyway, at the outset he was probably bang in that blues bass player
mould, having played with Paul Kossof and The Misunderstood (with Guy).
By the time VdG came round he and we were looking for something else
from the bottom end - space having been freed up by the absence of organ
and the shift of soloing into violin territory. Again, to be fair, he
found and embraced the aggressive sounds, albeit with a measure of encouragement!
And this band was in the wake of 77 and we felt, perhaps, that we could
apply some of the aggro of punk together with some more developed music
than just those 3 chords.
Nothing could have prepared me for the harsh, brutal sound of
Vital, starting with Ship Of Fools. A new line-up, that in the liner
notes to Maida Vaile you described as being "atypical". A
lot of unreleased material. Then?
Sorry, I seem to have covered most of this one in the last answer.
I meant atypical in terms of the VdGG history, obviously, since we'd
swung completely away from what we were known for, sonically. At one
point Jaxon was going to stay in, making it a 5-piece with more continuity,
but eventually decided to leave as well. So Guy and I, particularly,
felt it incumbent upon ourselves to push forward and continue the story
in true VdGG spirit. Hence this version. Not much extra recorded though!
To close this conversation I'd like to touch on a few more general
topics. As you well know, the so-called "progressive" period
has been subjected to pretty heavy scorn - Robert Fripp has written
many times about this in the liner notes of his releases (Ha! I have
not asked you about his contributions to the band albums! And your contribution
to Exposure!). I saw Genesis live at the time of their Selling England
By The Pound tour and they played the record exactly as it was. For
me, groups like Genesis, EL&P or Yes lacked the exploratory spirit,
the complexity, the not-playing-it-safe factor that was so integral
to VDGG, King Crimson and, later, Henry Cow and Hatfield & The North.
So I'd like to ask you about your point of view on "Progressive".
I think some of my attitude on this one has been running throughout
this interview... i.e an "underground" rather than "progressive"
group & c. To my mind, particularly moving into the mid-seventies,
there was an air of pretentiousness about many/most Prog bands and a
faux artistic intellectual veil. That would have been ok in itself but
it was accompanied by a "this is the only way to go" attitude
Naturally, insofar as we were tagged as being a thing it was as a
Progressive group - that was the easy label. But I think we were more
chaotic and anarchic than that, playing more in a (admittedly white,
english, middle class) rock/jazz spirit. Alas, where most Prog took
its classical inspiration from Romantic and showy stuff, we were more
likely to refer to Messiaen, Ligeti or Stockhausen.
Hey ho, people will call you what they want anyway...
During our previous interview (about your solo career: February
25th, 1991) I asked you about the topic of "lyrics interpretation",
having as a starting point the misunderstanding concerning the song
Four Pails. I had asked you if you thought people's willingness to "understand"
a lyric had diminished since the VDGG days. During the preparation of
this interview I listened to the old VDGG albums again, and a strange
thought came to my mind: right now, in many countries in the world,
there's a TV program called Big Brother. Many comments I've read refer
to the Orwellian aspect and the voyeuristic side, but what strikes me
as peculiar is the fact that so many people are willing to watch "themselves",
so to speak, doing basically "nothing". To me, the "essence"
of Art (literature, cinema, music) is its being "larger than life":
transcendent. In this respect, VDGG albums are definitely "Art".
But I suspect we're getting more and more used to regard our "everyday
life" in its "raw form" as an untranscendable "norm",
and that our horizons are shrinking. Do you think we're still willing
to walk the "extra mile" to "get" a work of Art?
Actually I think Art lies in both directions - the broad strokes,
big picture but on the other hand the minute examination of the apparently
mundane. Seeing the whole world in a grain of sand, that kind of thing.
The crucial question one comes back to is the examination; without that
experience is meaningless. And I think it's true that society is becoming
more and more passive, less and less fired up with enthusiasm, in many
spheres. So much of life is now to do with "badging" oneself
with purchases and enthusiasms, rather than getting really passionate
I said something about the "extra mile" earlier, I think,
even before we got to this question?
On October 31st, a deal was announced between the giant entertainment
conglomerate Bertelsmann and the file-sharing service firm Napster.
When VDGG started the group was signed to an indie label, Charisma -
I remember that after the death of Tony Stratton-Smith, the label's
owner, you dedicated to him the song Time To Burn. Having seen the music
business undergo very dramatic changes during the previous three decades
how do you see today's situation with regards to the odds new groups
have to produce innovative, non conventional music the way VDGG did?
When we started the Music Business was just that, based around a
few streets, bars, pubs and clubs in Soho. Now, of course, it's a global
industry. This makes things very difficult for people coming in now
and trying to innovate (from the business end as well as the musical).
It costs so much to promote something these days that almost always
safety is the preferred option, reference back to things which have
been successful in the past. Also, people are simply not given the time
to develop and find themselves and their audience as we were.
Nonetheless, some people achieve mainstream success with innovative
stuff - Björk would certainly be an example, Radiohead as well.
But it's harder and harder and I suspect requires more willpower than
ever. If you had any kind of success in our idea it was its own thing.
Now if you have a hit you're immediately responsible for about a thousand
jobs and probably several office blocks in LA!
Anyway, much, much more difficult these days. I and we were lucky
guys to start when we did. These days we wouldn't even get a foot in
Is there anything you'd like to say to somebody who has never
heard any of the music in The Box?
I guess it's just here it was, there it went. As I've said before,
some of it may be a bit flawed (in retrospect) but everything was done
to the limits of our abilities and intentions at the time. So I stand
by it all.
Beppe Colli 2000 - 2003
| July 29, 2003