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Music / Van der Graaf Generator

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Not your average band.

"Here, at the glass, all the usual problems, all the habitual farce
You ask in uncertain voice, what you should do- as if there were a choice
But to carry on, miming the song
And hope that it all turns out right"
—"The Undercover Man", from Godbluff

Van der Graaf Generator (sic) is an English Progressive Rock band (although they would deny that) originating in the late 1960s. They operated in four distinct periods and are currently in their fifth, all featuring Peter Hammill, who is the primary songwriter. Their name is often shortened to VdGG.

Van der Graaf Generator are an unusual Progressive Rock band in that they focus on dark, dreary themes (such as the invasion by the Spanish Inquisition or isolation atop a lighthouse with Cosmic Horror Story undertones) and feature very little guitar/electric guitar in their music. Instead, the sound is dominated by ominous organ work, frenetic screeching saxophones, frenzied jazz drumming and dynamic singing ranging from crooning whispers to a death metal-esque scream.

For some reason this was the recipe for massive success in Italy.

1967-1969: Band Formation and Psychedelic Era

Peter Hammill, Guitar & Vocals
Nick Pearne, Organ ('67-'68)
Hugh Banton, Organ ('68-)
Keith Ellis, Bass Guitar ('68-'69)
Chris Judge Smith, Drums & Wind Instruments ('67-'68)
Guy Evans, Drums ('68-)

One album released (The Aerosol Grey Machine), it was meant to be a Peter Hammill solo record but contractual obligations meant that it had to be released under the VdGG name. They were a typical psychedelic band during this era.

1970-1972: Original Sound and Initial Success

Peter Hammill, Vocals & Piano
David Jackson, Saxophones & Flutes
Hugh Banton, Organ
Nic Potter, Bass Guitar ('70)
Guy Evans, Drums & Percussion

Three albums; The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other, H to He Who Am the Only One and Pawn Hearts. In 1970 they began to forge their original sound and garner significant attention. Pawn Hearts is one of two albums most frequently cited as the band's best. Problematic European touring, especially in Italy, caused considerable stress (due to things like neo-fascist organisations turning up at their concerts) and eventually the band decided to temporarily split in order to prevent lasting damage.

1975-1976: First Reunion & Second Period of Success

Peter Hammill, Vocals, Clavinet & Piano
David Jackson, Saxophones & Flutes
Hugh Banton, Organ & Bass Guitar
Guy Evans, Drums & Percussion

Three more albums; Godbluff (second contender for best album) Still Life and World Record. This period featured a re-emergence of the previous sound. This era was marked by the début of a slightly more accessible and aggressive sound, and the departure of Jackson & Banton at the era's closing.

1977-1978: New Wave Experimentation

Peter Hammill, Vocals & Guitar
Graham Smith, Violin
David Jackson, Saxophones ('78)
Charles Dickie, Cello, Electric Piano, Synthesizer ('78)
Nic Potter, Bass Guitar
Guy Evans, Drums & Percussion

Two albums; The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome & the live album Vital.This period was a marked departure to VdGG's established style and a sound that wouldn't really be revisited by the band. The saxophones & organ were replaced by violins, prominent guitar and other electronic gimmickry. After the band split this time, they became dormant for over two decades.

2003-present: Second Reunion and Beyond

Peter Hammill, Vocals & Keyboards
David Jackson, Saxophones ('04-'05)
Hugh Banton, Organ & Bass Guitar
Guy Evans, Drums & Percussion

The classic lineup reunited on stage duing a Peter Hammill solo concert in 2003 for a one-off performance, in 2004 they began recording in studio and then released a new album of all-new material in 2005, Present. Soon after Jackson quit, and VdGG continued on without him, releasing the live album Real Time in 2007 and the studio albums Trisector in 2008 , A Grounding In Numbers in 2011, Alt in 2012 and Do Not Disturb in 2016. They continue to tour.

Tropes in VDGG's music:

  • AcCENT upon the Wrong SylLABle: Intentional - Peter Hammill's singing has to be heard to be believed.
  • And I Must Scream: The fate of the astronauts in "Pioneers Over C":
    Doomed to vanish in the flickering light
    disappearing to a darker night
    doomed to vanish in a living death
    living antimatter, anti-breath
  • The Band Minus the Face: The members of VdGG (minus Hammill, of course) got together to record an album of instrumental music titled "The Long Hello" in 1973. This was followed up in 1981 by "The Long Hello Volume Two", in 1982 with "Long Hello Volume Three" and then "Long Hello Volume Four" in 1983. The album Gentlemen Prefer Blues (Jackson, Banton, Evans, 1985) is sometimes regarded as a sort of Long Hello Volume Five.
  • Breakup Breakout: partially averted in that the members of VdGG regularly play on Peter Hammill's solo albums; often the entire lineup will play on a Hammill solo album, blurring the line between band and solo artist.
  • BSoD Song: Oh boy... A fair portion of VdGG's material, especially the epic "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers", which fits this trope to a tee. The song "House with No Door" is about a mental patient who desperately wants to be cured, but just can't no matter how hard he tries.
  • Careful with That Axe: Not always solely due to Hammill's singing.
  • Concept Album: Averted, funnily enough. All VdGG albums have common themes, such as despair on Pawn Hearts, but they've never explicitly tackled a concept album.
    • Pah! Who needs a concept album when you have 23-minute concept tracks like the much-talked-about "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers"
  • Cosmic Horror Story: "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers" can be interpreted as having elements of this.
  • Cover Version: VdGG recorded a cover of a BBC theme. Holy Hell.
  • Darker and Edgier: moreso than any other band of their time, except perhaps Black Sabbath and King Crimson (whose Robert Fripp actually contributed a few guitar parts to H to He and Pawn Hearts).
  • Death by Childbirth: "Killer" is (partially) about a shark whose mother expired this way.
    On a black day in a black month at the black bottom of the sea
    Your mother gave birth to you and died immediately
    'Cos you can't have two killers living in the same pad
    And when your mother knew that her time had come
    She was really rather glad
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: "The Sleepwalkers" sounds a lot like it's about some kind of zombie apocalypse, even though Word of God says it really is about sleepwalking.
  • Driven to Suicide: The narrator of "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers". Possibly.
  • Epic Rocking: Each of the classic VdGG albums had at least two, but everything on Pawn Hearts and Godbluff qualifies.
  • Go Mad from the Isolation: More or less the subject of "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers".
  • Greatest Hits Album: Compilation releases First Generation and Second Generation.
  • Grief Song
  • Hyperspace Is a Scary Place: The subject of "Pioneers Over C.".
  • Improv: Disc 2 of Present (2005) is all improvs.
  • Incredibly Long Note: Hammill is capable of impressive sustain, showcased on songs like "Killer", "After the Flood", "The Undercover Man", "Arrow" and many more.
  • Indecipherable Lyrics: Naturally, considering the strange timekeeping and Hammill's penchant for oddly phrased words and aforementioned syllabic rhythm placements, the lyrics can get... somewhat muddled. Deciphering the lyrics for "The Sleepwalkers" by ear is considered to be virtually impossible.
  • Last Note Nightmare: At least once per album. Particularly well done in the middle of "After the Flood", when Peter Hammill suddenly goes Dalek and the music descends into complete dissonance before restarting.
    • "White Hammer" deals with the rise and fall of the Inquisition, and though its influence wanes, the marching feedback at the end suggests that something like it still exists in the modern age.
  • Large Ham: If you don't "get" them, they will most likely come off as this. Possibly even if you do... (arguably it's a large factor in their appeal).
  • Larynx Dissonance: A lot of songs have Hammill singing with a feminine tone at one point of another, including "Afterwards", "Refugees", "House with No Door", "Pioneers over C", "Lemmings" and "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers".
  • Lighthouse Point: "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers".
  • List Song: "The House with No Door", aka "The House with No Door/Roof/Bell/Sound/Light".
  • Lonely Piano Piece: "Man-Erg". At least, to begin with...
    • Hammill has performed some VdGG songs as a Lonely Piano Piece on his solo shows to great effect. "My Room" and "House With No Door" are good examples of this.
      • "House with No Door" was kind of an example in its original form anyway.
  • Loudness War: The remasters got hit with this pretty bad, as they are audibly clipped. Strangely, though, the bonus tracks are often immune. This is also a case of Keep Circulating the Tapes as the original issues of the albums (on both vinyl and CD) aren't clipped at all.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: Averted.
    • Played with in the opening of "Man-Erg" - sad music set to disturbing lyrics.
  • Metal Scream: Hammill made treading the fine line between song and scream an art form, but the best example of a full-on Hammill scream is, well, most of "Arrow". No wonder Johnny Rotten was a fan...
  • Minimalistic Cover Art: Godbluff & World Record being the most obvious.
  • Mind Screw: A given for a band like this, but some ambiguous moments certainly stand out as this. For example, in "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers", it is left deliberately unclear as to whether the protagonist is Driven to Suicide after all the deaths he's experienced, or if he learns to live with it. And that's without all the undertones of a Cosmic Horror Story.
  • Myspeld Rökband: Van der Graaf Generator is a misspelling (Only in a one-letter sense) of Van de Graaff Generator, the static electricity machine that is often used in schools to make people's hair stand on end.
  • New Sound Album: The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome wasn't well received by die-hard fans of the classic VdGG sound.
  • Non-Appearing Title: "Man-Erg". Also, the name of the album rarely crops up in any of their songs, and, except for "The Aerosol Grey Machine" and "Still Life", there's never been a 'title track'.
  • Our Founder: "Pioneers Over C" contains the line "We are the ones they're going to build a statue for, 10 centuries ago..."
  • Progressive Rock: Although they don't think so, everybody else does.
  • Sanity Slippage Song: "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers" is probably the best example of this ever recorded.
  • Soprano and Gravel: Hammill pulls this off all by himself.
  • Spoonerism: Pawn Hearts owes its name to a spoonerism Steve Jackson once made in the studio, referring to recording "porn harts" instead of "horn parts".
  • Stop and Go
  • Surprisingly Gentle Song: "Refugees", "House with No Door", "Out of My Book".
    • "My Room (Waiting for Wonderland)" was this in its studio incarnation, but when Peter Hammill performs it live as a Lonely Piano Piece, it has a surprising tendency to be a bit... louder.
  • The Spanish Inquisition: The subject of "White Hammer".
  • Uncommon Time: Since they're a prog rock band, this appears all the time.

I am the one who pressed through space
Or stayed where I was
Or didn't exist in the first place.....