England - Full Moon 51 - 12/11/00
Van der Graaf Generator
Now where did I recently read that Van der Graaf Generator was the only true
progressive band along with King Crimson of 1972-73 to come out of the progressive
rock era? Maybe it was in The Box itself? Well, it can't be too far from the
truth. They kept to their changing time signatures, improved the sax-organ formula
until the organist and saxophone player had left by early 1977 and the name was
shortened to Van der Graaf. "You must play what you have to play," protégé Graham
Bond told them at an early stage, and they did. Vocalist, lyricist and main composer
Peter Hammill never succumbed to write Tolkien inspired lyrics and the band never
transformed into a pompous sympho-rock combo like contemporaries such as Yes and
Genesis. It was way too few compromises when a friend of mine and myself first heard
VdGG as tender teenagers. I thought it was howling vocals and screaming saxes all
over the record and kept at a safe distance for some years afterwards. We had in
fact heard parts of VdGG's greatest epic, A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers
(included in The Box, of course), from the album I've come to love the most,
Apart from the debut album that originally only was released by Mercury in the USA,
all VdGG albums were released on the (famous) Charisma label that their first manager
Tony Stratton Smith set up after the Mercury incident. It's quite ironic that Virgin,
the company Hammill disliked the most later on, bought Charisma in the 1980s and has
had the rights to most VdGG and early Hammill solo recordings ever since. And here we
are, Virgin has finally found out it's time to introduce and sum up the life (1967-78
with two split-ups in between) and career (nine albums, a few singles, numerous radio
session and tours) of Van der Graaf with and without the Generator. Which is no easy
The Box includes four CDs of gloomy progressive rock, some pop or rock "ballads"
and quite a bit of rock mayhem. But I wonder who it's made for. Die-hard fans (or whatever)
will buy any VdGG-release that includes previously unreleased material. And here are
several previously unreleased versions from BBC-sessions, live recordings and even a
studio recording of a song (Door) that's only been available on a live album earlier.
On the other hand there's still lots of BBC recordings left in the vaults and there are
better live recordings of the band than the 50 minutes from a gig in Rimini, Italy
(where they were huge stars and their presence caused riots in 1972 and 75) included here.
Well, the playing on the latter is superb and fierce, but modern sound improving techniques
cannot hide the fact that this is a bootleg recording. Not at all.
For those unfamiliar with the band, about half the contents of The Box are remastered
versions of well-known songs off every VdGG album except the first. It's about time we got
some remastered VdGG material on CD; Virgin didn't put a lot of prestige into the budget
priced CDs of the original albums that have been available for several years. The selection
of songs in The Box is not bad; the only one I really miss is The Undercover Man
off Godbluff. To me the sound is great throughout, though I've heard some complaints
about tape hisses. It might seem a bit dull for the ones who is well into the VdGG music to
notice that the third CD only includes remastered versions off the studio albums except one
live song. But the high quality sound of Sleepwalkers, Pilgrims, Still Life
etc. really saved the day for me when I heard them one dark and rainy November morning. And the
improved Childlike Faith In Childhood's End was a real eye-opener to me.
The booklet of The Box includes lots of previously unpublished photos and a gig
list with fond memories and articles of the four most involved band members and a few others
that is great. I bought my copy of the album from Nic Potter who played bass from 1969-70 and
1977-78 and he had not been invited to contribute neither to the booklet nor the song selection
or sound improvements. The booklet could've been even better if more people like him (he was
only 16 when he first joined the band!), other musicians and maybe manager at one stage Gordian
Troeller (who played piano in the very first line-up in 1967) had been involved.
So where are we then? The Box seems to be a bigger compromise than its musical
contents. For the die-hards it would've been better with a Box of the complete John Peel and
other BBC sessions. At this time of the year, the inclusion of the hilarious An Epidemic Of
Father Christmases would've been especially welcomed. I wouldn't say no to a remastered
version of the very first VdGG single People You Were Going To/Firebrand that was
withdrawn after a week, recordings for the film Eyewitness in 1970 or the songs that
were left when the double live LP Vital was transformed into a single CD either. And the
soundtrack of the Belgian tv-special of the entire Godbluff album played live in 1975
might have been a better idea than the Rimini recordings of the same year. For newcomers,
The Box probably includes too much dodgy radio sessions and bootleg sound. Along with
The Box Virgin released a single CD called An Introduction with one remastered
studio song off every album except the first one and a couple of single A-sides. I guess both
The Box and An Introduction will leave everyone that's fascinated by the music,
hungry for more. Maybe that's the point? Let's hope remastered versions of all albums with the
inclusion of bonus tracks are the next in line.
All in all The Box and the efforts to complete it are very welcomed, but the task of
summing up Van der Graaf Generator onto four discs to everyone's satisfaction seems impossible.
If I'd tried to do it myself, it wouldn't fare better than this one.
Copyright © 2000 JP