Tag Archives: Van der Graaf Generator

The Best Bands You’ve Never Heard of: Van Der Graaf Generator: “Camps of Panolply and Majesty-Meet Tortured Soul and Refugee”

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Van der Graaf Generator is another band that is criminally unknown is the common era. Even among neo-prog twenty somethings, their name usually elicits blank stares. It isn’t until you hit rock kids that are tipping in at the late forties early fifties end of the spectrum will you be greeted with knowing nods and slow smiles. Because those people still know what has now become a bit of a secret-Van der Graaf Generator were one of the most challenging and influential bands in the world in the early and mid 1970’s. One of the big ones. But they seem to be slipping from the zeitgeist of musical gatekeepers. This needs to be addressed.

Name checked by a wide variety of artists (John Lydon of the Sex Pistol/PIL, Marc Almond of Soft Cell, Graham Coxon of Blur,Mark Smith of the Fall, John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden and Julian Cope of general psychedelic fame. Even Geddy Lee of Rush mentions them briefly in an interview) Van der Graaf made an imprint on rock in four very short years from 1969-1972 that is still reverberating through music today. How could a band this unknown have influenced such a wide variety of bands, and how have they seemed to have flown under everyone’s radar?

One reason is the lineup– having no guitar player in a rock band in the late sixties or early seventies was not something that would play to your benefit. Electric guitar is the heart of rock, right? How about no bass player AND no guitarist? Unthinkable. So the line up of the classic quartet of Peter Hammill, Guy Evans, Hugh Banton and David Jackson? Piano, drums, organ and sax.  What? But the people who were watching music closely (ya know, the folks who could correctly tell you King Crimson was a much more advanced proposition than Yes or Genesis, and why) could tell you that this band was something special.

Iconoclasts in philosophical bent, lyrical bent and certainly in musical ideas-Van der Graaf was a loose collective of ever changing musicians trying something new in a field of musicians currently defining what new was. Rock was really changing big time in early 1967 London-Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Cream, Traffic? You could walk into clubs and see them playing to crowds of a hundred or so. A Beatle or a Rolling Stone or two might be in that crowd. Pop fluff was being scattered to the winds, and an intellectual wave of literature, philosophy, drugs, mysticism, ufo investigation and science fiction imagery had bubbled into rock. The Hammill led band proceeded in an organ driven Arthur Brown vein, but the next two years saw them shuffling line ups, guitarists, bassists, hiring session men who would become band members, getting signed to Charisma (future home of Genesis), and putting out a solo Peter Hammill album out as a Van der Graaf Generator lp…they stopped to assess things in 1969. Band equipment stolen, contract hassles with labels (Mercury, Charisma, Polydor)-things needed to settle. With the departure in 1970 of Nic Potter, Banton began bashing away on bass with both feet on organ pedals while using both hands to create most of the meat of the song-saxophone and drums barking in reeling consonance.

Image result for pawn hearts inner sleeve

Image result for pawn hearts sleeve

The quartet era of the band from 1970-1972 is the stuff of legends. (their 1975 reunion is also worthy as is their work up until this day). Their master piece, Pawn Hearts in 1972 is the quiet cousin  of King Crimson’s better work. Fripp actually dips in for some of his most inventive session work in his career for these guys The inner sleeve of Pawn Hearts was something I didn’t see for a while (the US version wasn’t gatefold), and it is unsettling in a dada-esque tableaux. An unsettling vocal jazz version of a King Crimson-esque approach to music supported by drums, organ and sax is an unlikely combination for a band that could inspire riotous fan behavior, but this band certainly did, especially in Italy in 1972, where three tours supported this album. Hugh Banton playing bass with his feet on organ pedals upon Nic Potter’s departure, Peter Hammill a genius of vocal histrionics, and able to twist the throat of a phrase and make it spit out some truth was worthy of the poets of a brit century ago, hey stir in some eloquent piano and slashing acoustic guitar as well.

A good introduction to the band is with their last work with their bass player Nic Potter in 1970, Pioneers Over C, all 12 minutes of it:

 Van der Graaf Generator are also one of the big finalists in the ‘best side long song ever’ -prog rock is usually understood here-among the best of the best. Close to the Edge? Supper’s Ready?
The third choice is usually A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers, side two of Pawn Hearts. Never performed live (except once in pieces and repieced for Belgian TV right before they broke up). Below is that Belgian appearance of Plague (I urge you to watch this in its 24 minute entirety to understand how this song is one of the big ones-
Nice epitaph to a civilization teetering on the edge of breakthrough from 45 years ago in Manchester. These guys are one of the best of the best, yet somehow have slipped through many cracks. You like Yes? King Crimson? Magma? ELP? Genesis? Area? PFM? Freaky pre-goth vocals okay? I might have your band right here. Lyrically, there’s more angst in a single Van der Graaf song than two full Nirvana albums. This is an overload of powerful psychic outburst that might fry the fragile subwirings of delicate millenials, yet showed up in 75% of their core stuff. Insanely essential rock band, one of the best of the early seventies by a long shot.
Get all three of those albums, immediately. If King Crimson scared the Moody Blues out of signing them to their label in 1969 as reported, then this is the only band that could scare King Crimson.
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Image result for van der graaf generator live  Image result for van der graaf generator live  Image result for van der graaf generator live https://carwreckdebangs.files.wordpress.com/2016/12/34eb0-van2bder2bgraaf2bgenerator.jpg?w=604

This is the stuff of legends, legends that some now haven’t even heard of, which is disturbing. One more time:  grab all THREE of these albums right now. Sure, there was a 1975 reunion, with Godbluff and Still life in 1975 and 1976 respectively nearing the bar set so high in 1972. But this article is about the big three from 1970-1972.  More angst than how many Nirvana albums? In a field of bands that are almost literally undefinable in sound, this band defies description. You up for a challenge in your listening diet? This kind of band is what happens when you actually pay attention to everything that has come before, a quantum leap in creativity can create a break with the predecessors.

Camps of panoply and majesty, what is Freedom of Choice?
Where do I stand in the pageantry…whose is my voice?
It doesn’t feel so very bad now: I think the end is the start.
Begin to feel very glad now:
ALL THINGS ARE A PART
ALL THINGS ARE APART
ALL THINGS ARE A PART.

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The Best Band You Have Never Heard Of: Unraveling ‘the’ Cardiacs

cardiacs early color cardiacs

If there is one band that needs translating for Americans, it is the Cardiacs. (technically just ‘Cardiacs’ for those in the know).  Too decidedly ‘British’ for most ears on this side of the pond,  Cardiacs are hands down one of the best but most unknown bands for most music fans in America– that they deserve large accolades for a career of unending achievement, creativity and downright absurdity is a huge understatement. Sounding like a an unholy mating of Gentle Giant, Madness, Frank Zappa, Van der Graaf Generator, Marillion, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, The Stranglers, Devo, the Damned and King Crimson, the Cardiacs created their own mythology and ran with it. Ran far.  Stir in with their self created mythology a theatrical stage show, make up and costumes, heart stopping rhythms, and a whimsical carnival atmosphere and you begin to get close to the edge of their peculiar brand of madness.

The band had its origins in 1977 as Cardiac Arrest, a punky and choppy rhythmed burst of maniacal energy. Founding brothers Tim and Jim Smith were the mainstays. Tim wrote nearly all of the music and lyrics, diabolically complex on both fronts, (sometimes surpassing Frank Zappa’s level of genius in composition). But it wasn’t until the arrival in 1983 of the gifted William Drake on keyboards that the classic lineup of the band took form. With Tim on lead guitar and lead vocals, brother Jim on bass and vocals, William on keyboards, Sarah Cutts (later Smith) on saxophone, Tim Quy on percussion and Dominic Luckman on drums the band took on a new life. Gone were the rougher punk edges, arrangements became more musically spastic, and the insanity quotient was upped considerably.

At first they had a decidedly limited appeal, mainly because they were so utterly unclassifiable. In the early to mid 80’s, bands in the UK were sorted into nice little slots-punk, metal, ska, Northern Soul, pop, the occasional anorak progger, but these guys defied description. They were dubbed early on as ‘pronk’, a hybrid of prog and punk, and were the sole member of this unique genre.

coonssultant consultant

They dropped the Arrest in 1981 and became just ‘Cardiacs’, with the self released cassette Toy World showing their pronk style starting to really flower. But by 1983, the pieces were in place to conquer… not the world exactly but pieces of London one step at a time. Their stage show was a maelstrom of uninterrupted madness. Well, sometimes interrupted. Their label, the Alphabet Business Concern (their own creation) sent in a semi fictional ‘suit’ to keep the band in line-The Consultant. Accompanied by his secretary Miss Swift, The Consultant would show up in the middle of a concert to berate band members and generally complain about the band’s lack of commercial appeal and slovenly make up jobs and costumes. Brother Jim was a frequent target for abuse from The Consultant and Tim as well, coming in for a good dressing down at least once a show. Occasionally Jim would burst into tears as a result of the torrent of abuse. What the hell was going on here? Is this real? Is it theater? Audience members not clued in were extremely puzzled and sometimes annoyed at the intrusions during the set by these management types. Others recognized the Dada approach the band had woven so seamlessly into a ‘rock show’. Issues were further clouded when Sarah married Tim. With the last name Smith, she and Tim announced they were brother and sister. Then would make out furiously in front of the startled press corps when interviewed.  Their image in the UK was one of ‘what the hell is going on with these guys?’ on every level, with incest now added to the equation. A late 1984 slot opening for Marillion was met with regular peltings with thrown objects and beer. Apparently their appeal was a bit selective, though Marillion were huge fans.

seaside seaside2

My personal favorite is the 1984 self released cassette, The Seaside. Whimsical and unsettling, like being dosed on a merry go round without being told, most of their core tunes are here. Gina Lollabridgida, R.E.S., Nurses Whispering Verses, Gibber and Twitch (that one sums their whole ethos in one tune), A Little Man and a House, and their eventual lone hit, Is This the Life? This is the one to start with, and is the single best encapsulation of their unique sound. I could listen to this album every day for the rest of my life, risking a stoning from anyone in earshot. Try to find the cassette version if possible, as the CD reissue omits 4 key songs. (Update 2016: the Seaside cassette is currently on sale from the band in its original form as a 2lp vinyl version, a cd version, and a deluxe version of LP, CD, cassette and raft of memorabilia in a box. Get it now, it won’t last.) Their first vinyl releases were the Big Ship EP and a rough live album, The Rude Bootleg in 1986. Both are hard to find, but contain strong examples of what they could accomplish in studio and on stage. Jazz, ska, punk, prog rock and music hall stylings collide, usually in the same song. Their first release proper came in 1988 with A Little Man, a House and the Whole World Window. It featured some rerecorded versions of the key songs from The Seaside cassette, and is considered their most famous album. It contains their only single to chart, a blast of un-Cardiac like pop in the vein of the Cure, Is This The Life?

The band began to fracture in 1989 with the departure of of saxophonist Smith. She was replaced by Christian ‘Bic’ Hayes, a guitarist of some renown. Tim Quy left in 1990. The loss of the sax and tuned percussionist altered the band sound significantly. Nevertheless, Tim and Jim soldiered on, until in 1992 their new label Rough Trade folded during the pre release of Heaven Born and Ever Bright, putting the band in significant debt. The future looked dim.

sing to god

But the band had some tricks up their sleeve still. 1995’s sprawling double album, Sing to God is considered by some fans to be their finest hour. It certainly is the strongest release of their 90’s era, and contains some classic songs-“Dog Like Sparky”, “Eat It Up Worms Hero” and others resonated with the power of their early 80’s work, deflating the opinion that the band was past its prime. The line up changes continued as the band settled down as a quartet. Guns, released in 1999 was their last studio album proper. A tad more commercial than anything previously released, it still retained the original imprint of the bands trademark sound. The band toured intermittently until 2007.

After releasing a single in 2007, things were picking up. But in 2008 disaster struck. After getting off a bus, Tim Smith was mugged by an assailant. During the mugging, Tim had a heart attack. The aghast mugger called for help on Tim’s phone before departing, likely saving his life. At hospital, Tim had a stroke, further worsening his condition. The long rehab process restored Tim’s mind, but sadly his body has not yet responded. At this point he is immobile and unable to play.

stoenhenge

My first exposure to the band was at the 1984 Stonehenge Free Festival. I had flown over to England with my roommate to witness the starship Hawkwind in all their mighty glory, having given up all hope that they would ever come back to America. After a lengthy Hawkwind set the first night of arrival, the wee hours of the morning beckoned. Taking to the main stage at about 2 am were a band unknown to me. Looking like a twisted Eddie Munster, the leader of the band gyrated, ranted and chanted his way through utter musical insanity. ( a comment heard on site said “this is like that choppy shit your RIO friend likes so much-Art Zoyd, Univers Zero, Zamla Mammaz Manna). And choppy shit it was! Childish poems interrupted songs. “I stepped on a worm and I didn’t care, I picked it up and I said there there”. Saxophones, synth and guitars clashed in what seemed to be almost musical chaos, yet a thread of continuity wove the stops and starts together in some form of recognizable tune. Throughout it all, a repeating mantra was chanted, with every line ending in “but that’s the way we all go…” I was stunned at the end of their show. What the hell had I just witnessed? Were they fighting onstage? Why were they dressed like acid damaged ghouls? Did I even like what I had just seen? So I filed them away. Unfortunately I hadn’t quite caught the band name. Cardi-actors was what I thought someone say. But they had planted a seed in me, waiting for the right time to burst. The line ‘that’s the way we all go’ stuck with me somehow.

I continued to try to find out who I had seen, but clues were few in the pre internet days. A vague space rock influenced band called Levitation on Capitol Records crossed my path in 1992, and someone seemed to know a bit about them and said one of their members was from the Cardiacs. Aha! That was it! I now had the name of the band that had tattooed my brain so permanently and succinctly in 1984. But a search for any of their music in any store in the New England area was fruitless. Fast forward to this past year: I had the privilege of attending several My Bloody Valentine shows with backstage passes to all shows. My Magma shirt caught the attention of one of their guitar techs. We had a long chin wag about that bizarre band, Hawkwind and festival life in the 80’s UK. As a parting remark, I asked if he knew of the band the Cardiacs. He paused, rushed over to hug me, pointed to his older guitar tech partner and said “that is Bic, former guitarist of the Cardiacs, my mate and also one of my all time favorite bands in the world!!” Needless to say, we became fast friends as he had never encountered a Yank who had heard of them, never mind actually seen them. His enthusiasm was a catalyst to make me seek out their music.  I finally located most of their long out of print CDs (their albums can go for over 75 bucks on eBay) and started to infect my friends. Their reactions vacillated between consternation and delight when exposed to them. One comment from a first time listener: “their songs are like treasure maps, how do they find their way back to the starting point?” But a three decade long search was finally completed. The seed planted so long ago had bloomed in a spectacular fashion.

In retrospect, the Cardiacs approach updates the Kinks on The Village Green Preservation Society-preserving the long tradition of British Music Hall sounds that rang through every UK generation since World War 1, a sound very peculiar to American ears, but familiar to pretty much every single person in Blighty.

Few bands in my life have had to power to make me openly weep for sheer joy at hearing such music. They can do this to me regularly. To borrow a phrase, this is truly a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. A band this talented and inventive and nobody in America knows about them? Go out and fix that folks!

A final spin around the block with Gina Lollabridgida…