"What would be your initial impression of the creator of a couple of songs, presented, and written in a 'rock' idiom, if this person screamed declamatorily at you from your speakers, "I herald Apocalypse anyway!", and "in the death of mere humans life shall start??".
Perhaps your immediate classification of things would be either "arrogant poseur", or "deluded egomaniac mini-Nietzsche". Well I can now reveal that behind the spinning challenging imagery of Peter Hammill's lyrics, behind the often unusual time signatures and surprising key and tonal changes of the music he composes for Van der Graaf there stands an extremely sensitive and unassumingly honest individual.
Perhaps "individual" should be key word to any appreciation of Van der Graaf as a live act, or as a collection of albums (eight of them to be precise), for, Peter told me, all his songs deal with the topic of individuality and this is certainly an individual band.

The theatre is in the music
On stage, I suggested to Peter, and many of you who have seen the band may agree, doesn't project himself to the audience in the way that say a Freddie Mercury figure does - there seems to be a gap between audience and performers. This seems odd, given the declamatory nature of some of the songs (But not, I hasten to add, in a "we are the champions" sense). Over to Peter - "I regard what happens on stage more, perhaps, as a performance in a theatrical sense but the theatre is in the music.

I generally regarded myself as being fairly unimportant to the moment except at certain points when it is - "stand-out". Peter isn't into personal projection, personally going out, partly because in Van der Graaf Generator's days as a foursome, with an organ, drums, sax/flute, voice line up, he feels that it might have led to a "Peter Hammill plus backing band" situation, especially as he was, and still is, writing virtually all the material himself. He was eager to point out though that Van der Graaf are neither into "just recreating the albums on stage" (as Pink Floyd do for example) nor "just personal projection".
"What is important about live gigs is the degree of power that's always been there with the band, and the degree of danger and change that's there. We go out to create that one and a half hours that is, then".

He's not even interested in applause as such. More important to Hammill is the after effect, the discussion on the train going home. It must be said, sadly, that commercially this after effect is more important.
However, Hammill and Van der Graaf do very little bowing to commercial conventions. Their music has remained creatively individual, (as well as stylistically individual) since 1968 through many 'rock' music trend changes. That takes a great deal of conviction and talent.

You may be surprised that Van der Graaf, although only of "semi-name" status here, are a huge "name band" (to use the jargon of the rock biz) in Europe, especially Italy, where there album Pawn Hearts was number one for five weeks. This seems paradoxical to me, since, for me at least 70% of my enjoyment of the songs comes from the philosophically challenging, or at least interesting nature of their lyrics. Wasn't the language barrier a problem at all? "In Europe especially, a high proportion of our audience are either students or soon will be or just have been, and it's likely that a high proportion of that high proportion will have at some time learnt English. For them our stuff is often the first area of words which relate directly to their experiences after they've been through the "Shakespeare-Bronte" etc. literary thing and they work quite hard at making some sort of sense of my words. Of course, they occasionally get it wrong, although of course there is no get it wrong, - there's usually a multiplicity of meanings to anything.

The Quiet Zone...
Van der Graaf have recently finished a successful English tour, where they were playing amongst old favourites, their latest album "The Quiet Zone / The Pleasure Dome". The album marks a change from both Hammill's solo work, and previous Van der Graaf albums. Instrumentally, they've lost their organ and sax, but have gained a violinist (Graham Smith ex-"String Driven Thing"), a cellist (Charles Dickie), a bassist (Nic Potter, old friend of the band) and an electric guitarist (Peter Hammill). It's perhaps a more conventional album in some senses, but is still in no way mainstream rock. Peter told me quite candidly that he's been using more conversational, less 'absurdly literary' (his words not mine) language, in order to appeal to a wider range of people. However try to make some linear sense out of these lines:
".....I'd cleaned out my pockets for some luck to show.... really looking like a hopeless case
I found in my hand, it was the Angry Ace".
"I was a prime believer in the faith of 'I'; yellow fever in the cat's eye".
To put all this into some sort of perspective let's consider that "Godbluff" an earlier album was a "concept" album which Hammill admitted to having a theme somewhat similar to Samuel Beckett's plays. Without going into Beckett now, I mused that the "Pleasure Dome" in the new album's title must bear some relation to Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" and will perhaps explain what "concept" if any, is behind the album.

Hammill explained - "A lot of past work was fairly literary and complex on the surface but with one pretty simple concept behind it, one which could be traced on a line. Most of it was superstructure. What I'm trying to do in this little phase is to reverse that out - use simple conversational language but have several more complex and more convoluted concepts running along behind. It's a non linear concept album - if you get above it and look at it as a map there are little flashes in a couple of songs - I mean to say the most obvious and immediate connection, one which came to me after I had written it, is between the "Siren Song" and Ulysses bursting in there, and the Sphinx."

...The Pleasure Dome
The song from which I quoted above was apparently (very lucidly, now it's explained) about "freedom and craziness) and as Peter put it "the foolishness of believing in the strength of the "I" in it's magnificent solitude, to charge through adversity, through excess". Other parts of the album refer to a sort of Buddhism - hence the "Quiet Zone / Pleasure Dome dichotomy and the possibility of arriving at a state of, perhaps stasis, perhaps "nothingness" in order to be in a state of potentiality for action. But Peter went on there's also the "Pleasure Dome" aspect of "doing a spiritual thing" hence the self mockery own up line. "I'm still possessed by the promise of the pleasure dome," although "I've got a steady vocation for the quiet zone". Heady stuff. As for influences, Hammill admits to Coleridge, and to Pincheon's "Gravity Rainbow" the Anubis in that work, precisely. Archivists, get to it, I don't know it!

Interestingly enough Peter Hammill has published a book of short stories and poems titled "Killers, Angels, Refugees" (now unobtainable) and has a large number of short stories which he hopes to get published one day, including one called "In Xanadu" where the Pleasure Dome is also a Horror Dome.

In conclusion, remember the band, especially watch out for the album. I guess I ought to make the headline seem at least tangentially relevant (!) so I'll leave the last words to Peter Hammill - "Well I can't say anything with any certainty at all but if you can say this it becomes positive again when you say "Oh this may be terribly naive and innocent but, fuck it, I'm going to say it anyway!" A la votre, Mr. Hammill, a lot of us here feel that way to.

The Warwick Boar
(became "Bor" for this issue)
Warwick University student paper
7th December 1977

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