“you wake up one morning…w”

strangely, today, I find myself working on audio mixes, not that that in itself is strange, but in this case, it’s audio mixes of live performances of a song that I never, ever dreamed that I would perform in any context, anywhere – but there it is:  my second attempt, too – I’d tried it out originally, during the recording session of 20150222, but couldn’t get a take that I was happy with, so I let it go for a while – until april 19th, to be exact – when I sat down specifically to record a little-known, rare Van Der Graaf Generator b-side entitled “W”.

I had only just re-discovered this track, when I was working on other acoustic Hammill songs, it suddenly struck me during the February sessions, I should see if I can capture one of my strange renderings of this song – so I did try.  And while some of the takes were close, none were good enough to properly do justice to this rather unusual song.

hence – trying again later, which in this case, is a dedicated session to “W” – twelve takes in all, about an hour and ten minutes of session time, doing live take after take, working out the arrangement, working on the vocal – and just trying to get to a version that would indeed, do justice to the song, at least, as well as I can with my strangely gentle, twangy California accent – hardly the accent to tackle the Peter Hammill canon, but – that’s what I do – I spent many years, learning many, many Hammill and Van Der Graaf songs, and now, I find, I’d like to record them – all of them, although the amount of relearning needed my be prohibitive in some cases, while age lowering my voice might make others impossible…who knows??

but for whatever reason – I found myself trying to do this song, live, with one acoustic guitar – or rather, with  an acoustic guitar substitute, which is my roland gr-55 guitar synth.  because my real acoustic guitar is unhappy, I had to use the synth instead, which, admittedly, does look a bit odd, in the video, but it had to be – and it does a reasonable job, I have to say – not bad.  It certainly sounds acoustic on playback, and of course, I can’t resist giving it a bit of “sparkly”, by using the Waves Reel ADT plug in on it – give it some Beatles chorus or flanging – which is about the right era, “W” might have been written in the late 60s, I don’t really know, in fact, I only have two versions of it – one is the live version (from 1971) that I “grew up with”, which, oddly enough, has only just recently been released officially, on the new Van Der Graaf Generator CD “After The Flood” – At The BBC 1968 – 1977 – that live version,which is to me, an absolute Van Der Graaf rarity, coming from a rare 1971 John Peel concert, which had only previously been available on bootleg – which is where I had heard it.

years later, I also acquired the “studio” version, which again, isn’t that easy to find, but it’s out there, and of course, I had to have it – beyond that, I don’t know if there are a lot of other live versions out there, I doubt that they played it much after 1971, I am not sure about the song’s history, but I am sure of one thing:  the effect it had on me, as a young Peter Hammill fan, I just think it is an amazing performance, led initially by Dave Jackson’s amazing horn playing, and it’s odd and wonderful to hear Hammill singing and playing live on acoustic guitar – with the rest of the band, playing in a subtle and wonderful way, Hugh Banton coaxing some of the oddest and most wonderful harmonics from his Hammond drawbars – I love the organ playing on that live version, I love everything about it – it’s just one of those odd tracks that sticks in your head for some reason- I really loved that particular bootleg – it had the first three Van Der Graaf songs I ever heard on it, in this order:

1) Killer

2) W

3) Man-Erg

Which is actually reverse order from the real session, but that’s just bootlegs for you (in this case, “Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace” – what a title!).

And while all three tracks were absolutely mind-blowing to this young man, who was just discovering this remarkable band, over time, it’s “W” that has stuck with me the most – although “Man-Erg” is a close second – I just love these performances, it’s a great session, and it’s really great to have it officially released at LAST – thank you.  That is not to downplay “Killer”, but I can’t perform “Killer”, although I can play the main riff – the connection is, over the years, I have learned, practised, and performed both “Man-Erg” and W – while with “Killer”, I can only sit and listen in astonishment – especially when David Jackson takes THAT solo – wow.  Amazing stuff.

So – at a session meant to capture “acoustic guitar songs” by Peter Hammill, where I’d performed both “Shingle Song” and “Again” – it suddenly struck me – hey, you could play “W” !!! Or – could I?

My first attempts were spirited, but flawed, mostly, it’s the guitar playing that got me, although the vocal does present certain challenges….so I abandoned the 20150222 takes (reluctantly) and am now currently embracing the 20150419 takes – which give us a completely different story – more of an embarrassment of riches, than anything else.

By this time, after about three warm-up takes, both the guitar arrangement, and the carefully designed vocal part (where I have to omit at least one high note that I can ALMOST hit, but I don’t want to risk – so I have made a slight change to the melody in one place, so as not to embarrass myself every time) have come together pretty well, they are both reasonably well developed – and starting with take four, and going on through take 12 – the takes are all good!!  With tiny variances, very difficult to note, and making it very, very difficult to “choose” between takes, when they are mostly all, so very good.  Basically, there are 8 good takes out of 12, with five of those being near perfect or with only very slight faults, and the other three, only slightly less perfect.

Every take has something of merit, so I have really had my work cut out for me here:  how do you, when you have eight out of twelve good takes, make any decisions at all – how to know which one is “the” take.  The answer:  listening.  Of course…once you start really listening, all of the tiniest errors find their way to the surface – which, allows you to cast out more and more takes for more and more small reasons – until you are left with what is, truly, “best”.

You have to listen and listen, perhaps focusing in on one aspect of the performance each time – for example, it was important to me that the guitar take contain a clean four bars of introduction, and that the same four bars, when repeated later as an instrumental “solo” of sorts, that those are also as flawless as possible – and also, the ending is important, I’d added on this crazy “Fripp”-chord as the final ending, and the quality of it varied on every track – with a few most excellent, others, just OK, and then, of course, I wanted a take with a really good vocal…luckily for me, there isn’t as much variation between the vocal takes – so in the end, it was really about where the best, most consistent, guitar playing was, and it had to be a whole take, obviously – with one exception – I could, potentially, since there is a silence while I sing the last line of the song – I could potentially “swap out” the ending chord, if for example, I had a great take (like Take 11, for example) but the ending chord was a bit better, a bit cleaner, on Take 12 – then, maybe, I might take a slight liberty and improve the audio, by having a better, cleaner chord – which of course, I would tell my listeners (if I decide not to use an entirely live take, then I would say “live performance of take 11 – except for the final chord – which was borrowed from take 12” – or whatever I had done) – or maybe, I would just decide to keep whatever ending the “best” over all take had – it depended on what sounded best.

I wanted what sounds best, so I really have to trust my ears, and say ” this take, this one is it” – and then stick by that decision – then, do everything in my power as both producer, and as engineer, to make this take sound as humanly good as possible – or as humanly possible.  At this point in time, during my second or third re-assessment of the 12 takes, I believe that Take 11 is the master – I can’t find much fault with it, but, I do tend to like the end chord of Take 12, very much indeed – and, Take 11 itself is not bad – so I need to decide between these two, I think.

I get to this point, and then I think – yes, but, what about those early takes, where I was a bit unprepared, but maybe there is a bit more spontaneity, maybe…so I find myself back again, listening to take four, take five, and so on – trying to rule these “earlier” takes out for one reason or another – but it’s difficult, because they are good.  I begin to wonder if I shouldn’t produce two or three of these – and that is a distinct possibility, it’s definitely do-able, because these takes are so uniformly good – it’s strange, because I had such a struggle playing the song on February 22, 2015, but on April 19th, I had no such issues, and every take from take four onwards, has a life and a feel of it’s own.  Heck – maybe I should produce ALL of them, warts and all…it’s such a temptation, it really is.  But I really want to pick just one, and I really need to narrow it down – so I just keep doing the only thing a good producer can do – listen, listen, and then, listen again.

After a long afternoon of listening, and then listening again, I was forced to exclude the majority of the earliest takes – 4 through 9, basically – because the guitar intros and solo sections were too imperfect.  Even take 11, which is closer to perfect, is still imperfect, but, it’s so much better than takes 4 through 9, that it makes enough of a difference – it’s a good take!  So now, it’s pretty much going to be a race between Take 11 and Take 12…

Finally then, some full on tests, with levels properly set, limiter on, and the final, finishing touch – my beautiful Waves Reel ADT Plug-Ins – a stereo one for the vocal, and another stereo one for the guitar – and just adding those on, makes such a huge difference to the sound – it’s just remarkable.

And what this meant was, that, the imperfections in Take 11, seemed worse, while the relative perfection of Take 12 – seemed apparent, so adding the Reel ADT plug in, made it possible finally, to choose between the two “best” takes – and 12 – the very last take of the session – has it all, at least, to the extent that anyone can “cover” such an unusual song with one guitar synth, set to “acoustic guitar”, and a shure sm-58 vocal mike !!

Not that it’s particularly difficult to play, the chords are easy enough – but the lyrics certainly are not.  “double you” – seeing yourself from another perspective, as other things occur to the other “you” – is a strange point of view for a song; you wake up one morning, and there are two of you, which makes you twice as unhappy (as it would, if you were unhappy) a strange tale told of this man, immobilised, almost, only able to look out the window, and see the smoke “billowing across the lawn” or only able to drag himself downstairs, to specifically find out that “you are gone…!”.

At the end of the song, you wake up (again) – look to your left, but you see no reassuring head – you then stayed in bed all day, when, at six o’clock, you realised – that you’re dead.  A short, unhappy tale, with a strange atmosphere, strange lyrics – definitely one of the oddest of all Peter Hammill-penned songs.  But at the same time – a strangely compelling one.

A very strange perspective, the classic sort of “seeing yourself laid out on the table”, and realising that it’s you, it’s YOU that are dead – that’s very odd, and it’s no wonder the band didn’t perform this often, what with it’s somewhat cheerless lyrics – not the most cheerful tune ever written by the sometimes-unusually-morbid Hammill (as he could be, back then) – who, while known for tackling difficult, or uncomfortable subjects, rarely tackles a subject like this one, in such an inflammatory way, too – practically a primer for how to leave your body, which some might view as the ultimate “suicide” song – I don’t, I view it as a man having the odd experience of seeing his own body, suspended in space, whilst realising that the body is dead – not having realised it earlier in the day.  more metaphysical than death wish, if you know what I mean. but I think each listener has to decide for himself or herself, what the song means – because even though I am singing it here – I absolutely do not know.

So the sort of day-long purgatory of trudging around the house, knowing something is wrong, dragging yourself downstairs – and finding that you are gone…that longest day finally ends in the sudden realisation that there is a very specific reason that there are two of you, that you have woken up and it’s a “double you” situation – “W” – because, you have passed away, of course!

The rate that our hero realises at, well it take a few minutes, which gives the song time enough to get through it’s purgatory phase – and then, it’s all over, in a blinding flash of  – well, in the real live version, it’s a wonderful, sonically crushing organ chord and bass note, accompanied by a crashing horn note from David Jackson – which I have chosen, for unknown reasons only known to the other half of me, to represent in this version with a very long, loud, dissonant “Fripp” chord – that was the only thing I could do, safely, on an acoustic guitar, that might work as a facsimile organ/sax ending – and I suppose, sonically, it could be worse – it’s a decent choice.  originally, back in February, I wasn’t returning on the guitar at the end, after the final two words – I was just letting the last two words, be the last thing you heard in the song – but I think the frantic, crazy guitar chord is just the ticket, and it was an absolute joy to try to play – even though, I only got it “right” about once in every 12 attempts 🙂

I was as happy as I could be with the guitar arrangement, and the vocal arrangement, and then, it was just down to the playing – and luck – and in the end, “practice made perfect” or at least, practice made it bearable…and I finally stayed with Take 12, and started working with the track – until I got a sound I liked, and was happy enough with – I mean, it is live, and it’s only as good as it’s two simple components, so there is not much you can do to improve the performance itself – it is what it is.

I think you can tell that I love this song, that I love to sing it – I hope that comes across in the video, it was an incredible surprise to me, that I could actually play it, and I so much enjoyed singing and playing it, it was a real pleasure – and I am really glad that I did learn this song so many years ago, because at least it came back pretty quickly – which is great.  What a nice surprise, to have an old friend like this turn up out of nowhere – and still be unchanged, as familiar as when I first knew them – a good, good surprise!

In the end, it took me almost two full days of work, and four attempts at getting the right sound, before I could produce an audio track of “W“, completely live (I decided, in the end, that the completely live take 12 was the best bet, no messing about – warts and all – not quite perfect – but, not too bad!) that I am happy enough with, and now, I am assembling not just the video for “W” live, but also, a strange special bonus video – what happened directly AFTER the end of the successful take.

so I’ve produced two audio tracks, and am working on two videos, one for the live version of “W“, using the whole of take 12 as it’s master, and the second, which I am calling “improv on a theme – stone free (james marshall hendrix) – live – post take 12” which is approximately one minute worth of digital recording time directly following the final “Fripp” chord that ends take 12 of “W” – for the first time ever, I’ve decided to release some “non-song” footage, featuring a spontaneous jam on “stone free” by jimi hendrix – notably, a song that I have never played, never learned, and have no idea how it goes!!

it’s only really “on theme” for about the first 17 seconds, and it then wanders off into random imaginary hendrix octave playing – and then dissolves completely into a fatigue-driven crazy, climbing riff of uncertain description – remember, I’d just spent an hour and ten minutes filming, and recording, no less than 12 complete or near complete takes of “W” by peter hammill – so I was pretty tired.  but the hendrix tune just sounds so good with that odd, acoustic guitar tone, and having the whammy available on the “acoustic” sound is so strange, too – so I just thought – why not?

so for the very first time anywhere, about 54 seconds of “what happened after the last take” has been included, which, I should warn you, some pretty lame guitar playing at the end – I plead fatigue, and I wasn’t really trying to play anything – this Hendrix thing appeared – and then just as quickly – disappeared – leaving me with nowhere to go but out.  I just thought it was OK, an interesting glimpse, an epilogue if you will, to the best live take of “W“, and it shows a little bit about how my mind works – or maybe – doesn’t work – I am working on a serious Peter Hammill song, and yet, during the break – I jump into “Stone Free” by Jimi Hendrix.

I begin to think that it’s been far, far too long since I was in a band.

🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Return Of The Dinosaurs (but then…were they ever really gone?)

The beginning of 2015 has been a real treasure-trove of live releases from the inarguably, the two most influential, powerful and long-lasting of the progressive rock bands: the mighty King Crimson (whose current ranks, in the 2014/2015 incarnation of the band, have swelled to seven thanks to a front line of three drummers) and the stripped-down-to-a-trio but just as powerful, just as dark, and just as technically proficient, Van Der Graaf Generator.

January saw the release of a sort of “taster” live King Crimson album, entitled “Live At The Orpheum” recorded at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles, California, on September 30 and October 1 during the band’s 2014 US tour – their first tour in this seven-man configuration.

While the album is almost frustratingly brief, clocking in at about 41 minutes, it may be an intentional Fripp-ploy, or Fripp-plot as my keyboard seemed to prefer, so I will allow it to say that, to leave us tantalised and wanting more.  And that – it does.  I recently read a full set list of a 2014 King Crimson show (see “HollywoodReporter.com” to view this setlist), and it was about double or more in length (at least) to what this live album contains.  But – what the album contains – is surely one of the most extraordinary and most unexpected things in the universe – King Crimson, with their “front line” of three drummers (Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison, Bill Rieflin – who also plays a bit of mellotron), and a “back line” of four musicians including founder Robert Fripp, is delving deep into…it’s back catalogue.

And that – well, we had hopes – we knew that Mel Collins was back in the band, and we also knew that his fellow 21st Century Schizoid Band alumnus Jakko Jakszyk, over time, had mastered most of the classic King Crimson repertoire from the “first four” albums – “In The Court Of The Crimson King”, “In The Wake Of Poseidon”, “Lizard”, and the less well known and under-appreciated “Islands” on guitar, and on lead vocals (plus, other tracks from “Red” too) – quite a feat in itself, but, also making him the perfect new lead vocalist / spare Fripp-type guitarist, too, for this new King Crimson.  Much to my personal astonishment, we get not one, but two tracks from the much-derided and often undervalued “Islands” (1971), which over time, has actually become my personal favourite out of the “first four” classic King Crimson albums.

The two tracks they cover from “Islands” (“The Letters” and “Sailor’s Tale”), are at the same time, perfect re-creations musically and yet, edgy, new and sparkling from having “re-invented” drum parts, in three perfectly-arranged sections (Gavin Harrison, drum arranger), from the three drummers; who take these songs as seriously as any of the classic tracks on offer here, as well as what is probably Jakko’s best vocal on the album, on the wonderfully melodramatic “The Letters” – an absolutely beautiful vocal rendition.  Perfect – and chillingly accurate – “impaled on nails of ice…and raked with emerald fire…” – Peter Sinfield‘s lyrics still forming a huge part of the ethos of King Crimson, some forty plus years since they were penned in 1971 – and that was Sinfield’s last King Crimson album as lyricist – “Islands”.  For me, the lyrics from “Islands” are probably my favourite of all of Sinfield‘s lyrics on any album by any band, including the remarkable debut from King Crimson, 1969’s “In The Court Of The Crimson King” – there is something about “Islands” that just resonates with me, and much of it is in the beautiful words that the departing Sinfield graced the record with.

The back catalogue represented here on this short, but amazing live album, also extends to two tracks from the “Red” album, fast forward now from 1971, to 1974, where the second major incarnation of King Crimson, that started out in 1973 as a quintet, quickly became a quartet when percussionist Jamie Muir, left the band, leaving poor Bill Bruford on drums to handle all of the drums and percussion from there on out.  David Cross was the next to go, driven out by the world’s loudest (and best) rhythm section – John Wetton and Bill Bruford, and it was Wetton, Bruford and Fripp that remained long enough, after the extensive touring just prior to the making of their last studio album, as a trio now – so in two years, from a quintet to a trio; the ninth of the “first ten” – (counting Earthbound as no. 5 and USA as no. 10) – two songs were included: the never-before performed “One More Red Nightmare” (this time, sporting the drummers having a go at bettering one of original drummer Bill Bruford’s most difficult and well known drum parts – and doing a GREAT job of it, by the way) and as the album closer, the beautiful, extended “Starless” – with Fripp playing that signature thick, distorted lead guitar melody (the one that breaks your heart all over again when you hear it), as Mel Collins reprises both his own and Ian McDonald‘s horn parts – McDonald was a guest on the 1974 “Red” sessions – as was Collins.

Forty four years has elapsed since Robert Fripp and Mel Collins toured together in 1971, and worked on the difficult fourth Crimson album, “Islands” together with then drummer Ian Wallace, and singer/Fripp-trained bassist Boz Burrell (both of who have by now, passed on), and some 41 years have elapsed since the “Red” album – the final studio album from the “first ten” which was completed in 1974 – so it’s more than a lot of water under a lot of different bridges – but, for me, for this reviewer, it’s absolutely fantastic to hear Mel Collins and Robert Fripp playing these songs again, and showing us anew how powerful, unique, and in many cases, under-appreciated they were at the time – especially the wonderful “The Letters” with it’s incredible story of unfaithfulness and purity, and the awesome , powerful instrumental track, “Sailor’s Tale” where Jakko and Fripp re-create the double fuzz tone attack solos that underpin one of Mel Collins’s most well-known and insanely wonderful sax solos – and we now have TWO perfectly-aligned, fuzz guitars duetting with Collins now on this unbelievably cool piece of music, driven now by three drummers plus the as-ever-note-perfect Tony Levin on bass – it is simply astonishing – a great version of a great song – really powerful stuff.

In fact, besides the obvious brilliance of Tony Levin on bass / stick, the multitasking Jakko’ on vocals, guitars and possibly keyboards, and Robert Fripp himself playing what can only be called “regular guitar” (as these older pieces demanded) instead of soundscapes and, “regular guitar” from Fripp, is both a surprise and a revelation – he is as competent as ever, a stellar player – and not to be trivialised;  however, it’s really the presence of the remarkable Mel Collins that makes this live outing astonishing, beautiful, shiver-inducing and reminiscent all at once – he is able to either re-create his original parts, or, create improved, modernised versions of them, that still capture the beauty of the originals – effortlessly, and there are some very innovative uses of Mel’s abilities on this record – my favourite being during “The ConstucKtion Of Light” (the sole track from the 2000s represented on this record) when it comes time in the song where Adrian Belew is meant to sing – instead of a Jakko vocal to replace the missing Belew…we get a beautifully understated jazz flute solo from Mel Collins!

So that just knocks my socks off – a word-perfect rendition of the track, with Jakko and Fripp playing the interlocking guitar parts with precision and grace – and then here comes Mel, replacing the now-departed Adrian Belew with an amazing piece of live jazz flute – simply brilliant!

The only place where the album maybe lets us down a tiny bit, is in the almost-complete absence of any new music – it contains a short introductory piece, and an equally short percussion showcase written by Harrison – teasers, tiny bits of new Crimson.  But that tiny point does not bother me in the slightest, because the quality of the takes, the amazing versions of classic tracks on this truly astonishing mini-live album, captured from just two random nights on the tour – are of such a high quality that I can wait a bit longer to hear new King Crimson songs in 2015.

The track list is as follows:

1. Walk On: Monk Morph Chamber Music

2. One More Red Nightmare

3. Banshee Legs Bell Hassle

4. The ConstruKction of Light

5. The Letters

6. Sailor’s Tale

7. Starless

If you enjoy the music of King Crimson, you cannot go wrong with this incredibly well-played, beautiful-sounding live record – which now joins a remarkable collection of live King Crimson recordings that begins with “Epitaph”, which documents the eleven months of the original 1969 band – remarkable performanecs! – then, moves through “The Great Deceiver”, “The Road To Red”, “Starless” (covering 1973-1974 and all points in between) and many, many more – and at the moment, ends here – in 2015, to commemorate the 46th anniversary of the band’s formation back in January, 1969 – this live release, released in January, 2015 – 46 years later.

More shows are planned for Great Britain and Europe in September 2015, and I am happy to report that we’ll be travelling to both Birmingham (September 14th) and Edinburgh (September 17th) in the UK, to see the band, something we’ve never, ever done before, as well as, one date in Utrecht, Holland (September 24th)  – just for the sheer fun of it – a week later – so, I am actually ecstatic because we are going to see the new King Crimson not once, not twice – but THREE times!!  – well, maybe, once before, in 1975, when I saw Led Zeppelin twice in one week – but that was because a second show was added at the last minute – this is a deliberate tracking of the band from one city to another and then to another continent…how very exciting!!!  I’ve seen King Crimson before – a few times (1981, 1982, 1984, and in 1995) but this is King Crimson with MEL COLLINS – come on, and that is why we’re going to see them three times in one year!!! ☺.

 

Then – February arrived, and the special two-disc version of “Merlin Atmos – 2013 Live Performances” by Van Der Graaf Generator, arrived along with it.  Now, I had been lucky enough to read about and pre-order this record, because, for those that pre-ordered, a limited edition of 5000 would contain a second disc of live material, which is called “Bonus Atmos”…and I would always rather have a double-live Van Der Graaf Generator CD instead of a single-disc Van Der Graaf Generator CD – any day of the week, month or year!!

On the day the discs were due to arrive, the vendor wrote to explain that they had been short-shipped, and that there had been a serious shortage of the two disc version of the CD – and that some unfortunate customers might have to wait for more to be pressed.

I was not one of those unfortunate souls, two days after that email, my copy of the double CD arrived – and I have to say, for my money, it’s the best live Van Der Graaf Generator album YET – even if you just count the first disc. If you consider both discs – then it’s absolutely the best – the range of tracks on offer, from classic to modern, is astonishing, and of course, it contains not one but BOTH of the “behemoths” – the two “giant” live tracks that this dedicated trio have re-learned: “Flight”, taken from the tenth Peter Hammill solo album, “A Black Box” (my personal favourite), as well as a classic Van Der Graaf Generator track reworked for the 2010s – “A Plague Of Lighthouse-Keepers” originally from the VDGG “Pawn Hearts” album of 1974.  We were fortunate enough to see the band at this time, in 2013, and the setlist did include both of these tracks – and, they also both appear on disc one of the new CD, “Merlin Atmos – 2013 Live Performances” – so for those two tracks alone, it’s worth the price of admission.  You cannot go wrong!

Most people know the story of the reformation of Van Der Graaf Generator, when the “classic” line-up got back together for a show, in 2005, and then a tour, and then another tour…and originally, this included fourth member David Jackson, on saxes and flute, along with founding member Peter Hammill, organist/bassist Hugh Banton, and the remarkable Guy Evans on drums – this quartet made a new studio album, went out and played it – and then at some point, David Jackson had had enough – and much to the horror of the fans, who were loving this re-united band – he quit after the 2005 tour.

We all held our collective breaths, wondering what on earth would happen next – how could this band go on without the very distinctive flute and sax contributions of the remarkable soloist David Jackson?? – the man who plays two saxophones at once, and was a huge, huge part of some of the songs – an integral part, you would think.  An irreplaceable part…

Think again – the remaining trio of HammillBanton and Evans voted to go on as a trio – and produced an even more remarkable album, called “Trisector” in 2008, followed by tours and another wonderful studio album called “A Grounding In Numbers” in 2011, plus an experimental record called “ALT” in 2012 – so this gave the this well-rehearsed trio of veteran musicians a huge and diverse back catalogue – or two – drawing upon the classic tracks from the 1970s, or, the tracks from the current four studio albums, starting with “Present” (which was a double – so it’s really five studio albums) made with Jackson, three, beginning with Trisector – without.

One other live album, the most excellent double “real time” (with David Jackson) was also released in 2007, so this band has been very, very busy in its new incarnation(s), “Merlin Atmos” (without David Jackson) being the second full length live document of the band in the last decade – and I don’t really care how many Van Der Graaf Generator live discs get made – they are always good, and always welcome – because this is a band that actually just gets better and better as time goes on, and has become astonishingly able on the stage – almost telepathic in their ability to support the wonderful songs of Peter Hammill, as well as other tracks written by various band members over time – “HammillBanton and Evans” compositions probably to the fore, and why not?

Many of we fans have actually come to feel that the trio is somehow – better – purer, and able to improvise more freely, and it has in particular really allowed Hugh Banton to come forward, and take every single Jackson solo or part, and make it his own – beautifully.  It’s strange to vocalise this, but – I like the trio better, than I like the reformed classic quartet!  Sacrilege to some, truth to me.  I think a lot of VDGG fans will know exactly what I mean by this – especially if you have been fortunate to see the trio version play live, as I’ve been lucky enough to witness a few times.

And – this band, this oddest of power trios – drums, organ/bass pedals, and piano/guitar/vox from Peter Hammill – has dared to take on repertoire that the reformed quartet, with Jackson, would not have DREAMED of attempting.  Like the final track on CD one – the amazing “Gog” – an obscure Peter Hammill track from 1974’s “In Camera” album, that this trio plays as if on fire – a terrifying lyric and vocal, accompanied by church / nightmare / drum solo lead guitar music such as you have never heard – an extremely strange track, but – played with a wonderful, overwhelming sense of the now.  Truly powerful, unbelievably strange music – but, also truly wonderful, and I was lucky enough on one occasion to see the trio version of VDGG play “Gog”, and it pretty much frosted my socks, to coin a phrase.  I will never forget the power of that performance “will you not come to me? – and love me for one more night?” – the roar of Peter Hammill‘s voice is undiminished by time, and the anguish in the lyrics of a song like “Gog” does not lessen with time.

I did see the quartet version of the band early on; they were great, really, really good, and seeing David Jackson reprise his original solos was amazing and unforgettable, but, seeing the trio perhaps three times since then, I’ve come to absolutely love the stripped down, “can-we-really-pull-this-track-off-with-just- the-three-of-us?” (answer: yes, always) version of the band.

This 2013 double live CD is absolutely a must have, as far as I am concerned, first, so you can own the “official” live versions of both “Flight”, with it’s wonderful new intro and outro, and the re-worked, modernised but absolutely fantastical “A Plague Of Lighthouse-Keepers” (upon which one “Robert Fripp” played a bit of electric guitar, back in 1974, on the original studio version thereof) – those two tracks are astonishing, but – the rest of the tracks are of equal lineage, and the “new” tracks taken from the last few albums, sit perfectly with the older material – it no longer, in fact, “matters” from whence a song comes – it’s the Voice of Van Der Graaf Generator – and that voice is undoubtedly the voice of Peter Hammill – back healthy and hale from a heart attack scare several years back – and the music just flows from track to track and you find yourself not caring when a song was first recorded, but just listening in the moment, to a band of consummate musicians, playing a large quantity of some of the best highlights of one of the best progressive rock catalogues ever built – an amazing band.

The set list is as follows:

Disc One – Merlin Atmos

  1. Flight
  2. Lifetime
  3. All That Before
  4. Bunsho
  5. A Plague Of Lighthouse-Keepers
  6. Gog

 

Disc Two – Bonus Atmos

 

  1. Interference Patterns
  2. Over The Hill
  3. Your Time Starts Now
  4. Scorched Earth
  5. Meurglys III, The Songwriter’s Guild
  6. Man-Erg
  7. Childlike Faith In Childhood’s End

 

The band took an interesting tactic when it came to preparing this disc, that I found very refreshing – the three of them, split up the work like this:

 

  • When you lift up Disc One, it says underneath it “mixed by HB at the Organ Workshop”.
  • When you lift up Disc One, it says underneath it “balanced and arranged by PH at Terra Incognita”
  • Guy Evans wrote the liner notes, which talk about the two long pieces they learned and how that came about.

 

I thought that was really, really fair and “meet”, and when you listen to the whole disc, both discs, I mean, in order, they sound like one cohesive concert, so the way that “HB” and “PH” “hear” the band in terms of the live mix, are clearly quite similar – it’s as if they were one person, but each mixing half of the show – very odd, but – effective.  In fact, I’ve just re-listened to the transition from “Gog” to “Interference Patterns” in the play list containing all 13 tracks – and it’s just like the next track begins, there is no audible change that would indicate the hand of PH at the mixing desk, or any way to denote the handing off of the mixing task from Hugh to Peter at this point – it just flows…brilliant!

 

For me – a deeply satisfying concert, and hearing these familiar songs once again, now that the trio has been playing for a number of years, hearing the small changes and improvements – it’s just fantastic, they are growing, and, the quality of equipment, the quality of current technology, actually means that they sound better now, than they originally did in concert – back in the 1970s, underpowered and distorted PA systems, and generally bad stage sound plagued the band (as various bootlegs will attest) while all of the live material from the reunion onwards is of such a great quality – it’s fantastic, and I am so pleased for them, because it’s as if they are getting a second chance to be Van Der Graaf Generator, but, with the advantage of age, wisdom, experience, skill – and they can apply those in equal measure, on a stage that is MIDI compliant, and where microphones are not feeding back, and everything sounds really, really good – so it’s win, win, win for the new Van Der Graaf Generator – I hope they continue as long as possible, I love this band, and I can’t believe that I’ve now managed to see them four times – when I really thought I would never, ever see them play live.

I was fortunate enough to see some solo Peter Hammill shows in the 1980s, but at that time, Van Der Graaf Generator was a distant memory, and no one dreamed that they would eventually reform – and thank God that they did!  What a great band, and another great live record with another great, no, amazing set list – 2013 was a good year for this band.

 

 

So here are two bands that were instrumental in starting out what became “progressive rock” – King Crimson in January 1969, and Van Der Graaf Generator originally in 1968 – both, now, alive and well in the 2010s, and making extraordinary music live on stage – still – and long may they play.  Robert Fripp and Peter Hammill are two very different people, two very different “bandleaders” (Fripp would possibly deny being the bandleader, but never mind) but, what they do share is determination, determination that…the music shall be heard.  Fripp endured legal battles that kept him away from music and the stage, Hammill had a heart attack and overcame his health issues, to go on to start making amazing albums like “Trisector”” – and one of the tracks from that album, “Interference Patterns”, starts Disc Two of the new set, and it’s an amazing, amazing performance – a really, really tricky song – and they play it amazingly well – a fantastic version of a now-classic song from a now classic album – “Trisector”.

And rumours are abounding that King Crimson is working on new material, so it may be that they are at the start of a new run of compositions that will rival the post-reunion output of Van Der Graaf Generator – I certainly hope so, that would be fantastic, and I remain hopeful that during the September tour, that King Crimson might reveal some new works from an upcoming album – who knows?

Meanwhile, you could do worse than to start your year with either or both of these extremely high quality live releases – I highly recommend them both to progressive rock fans, and the curious, everywhere.

 

 

 

all the very best

 

dave 🙂 🙂

 

 

playing peter hammill

I’ve been thinking lately, about my long, long association with the music of peter hammill (and of course, his band, van der graaf generator), and I am finding it a bit difficult to comprehend just what an effect his music had on me back in the day, and how it still resonates so very strongly with me, now, many, many years later.

it all started with a “bootleg” – a live vinyl recording of van der graaf generator called “fellow travelers (all watched over by machines of loving grace)”, a band I’d heard about, but hadn’t ever heard.  this was a strange bootleg, with just three long live van der graaf tracks on it, and then some  rarities or what were rarities at the time: “firebrand” – a very early van der graaf generator single from about 1968 and also it’s “b side”, “people to you were going to”.  sandwiched in between those two songs, are three live or possibly “live at the bbc” peter hammill solo tracks, “rubycon/a louse is not a home” and “red shift” – live; with david jackson on some or all of those 1974 tracks.

but the songs that were on this record – wow.  “man-erg”, “w”, and “killer”.  that’s all I remember really, I played side one of that record over and over and over…  I set out to learn “man-erg” on the piano, and many, many days or possibly weeks, I am not quite sure – later, I could actually play it.  that’s a track that I do intend to re-work, and I have done rehearsal versions of it quite recently…but it is not an easy one, I can tell you that much for free.  I do have it written out, chords and lyrics, but having it written down is one thing; being able to play and sing it live – is quite another!

those three live tracks had a huge effect on me, so I immediately went out and bought a studio lp – which was “h to he who am the only one” (because I wanted to hear the studio version of “killer”, mainly…).  this album, then, did not leave my turntable for many months, and I very quickly acquired all of the other van der graaf albums as well.  where I could – I tried to learn or teach myself how to play the songs.  “man-erg” was probably the first van der graaf song I ever attempted, followed by “w”.

following that, I remember tackling the songs from “still life” – including the rather difficult to sing title track, and the rather difficult to sing “my room (waiting for wonderland)”.  I learned those, then, “the undercover man”, which I spent quite some time trying to make a decent recording of (playing real piano, real hammond organ, and singing) and then finally, I got up the nerve to try something really difficult…

much, much later, perhaps a year or two later, I approached “the siren song”, a song which haunts me on two levels, no, three levels – one, it’s a very, very difficult piece of music to play and sing, perhaps the single most difficult of any ph or van der graaf generator songs that I have attempted…two, it’s personally haunting, musically and lyrically, and three, it haunts me because so far, well I am not quite sure, because the last session may have yielded a take, but this is a song that has proven very, very elusive in terms of getting a live take.  then…and now.

in fact, many if not most peter hammill and van der graaf generator songs are very difficult to perform unless you are peter hammill – that’s all there is to it.  I am the first to admit that I am not particularly good at it, however, I love these songs, I spent a lot of time learning them, and I am determined, after all that work, to try and capture live performances of at least some of them.

I’m happy to say that I’ve recently re-recorded three tracks from the ph/vdgg canon, which were “flying blind”, “my room (waiting for wonderland)” and most recently, “vision”.  two peter hammill tracks and one by van der graaf generator.

I am currently rehearsing three van der graaf songs: “the siren song”, “man-erg”, and “still life”.  these are all extremely difficult, and I may rehearse for many months and still never get a decent take.  in some cases, I may eventually be forced to record the piano on it’s own, and then record the vocal live – so far, I’ve avoided that, but there may come a day.  right now, my feeling is that if I can just get through one take of “the siren song” (from 1977’s “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” album – a re-jigged van der graaf without the “generator” in their name – stripped down and with graham smith absolutely wailing on massed electric violins) where nothing goes disastrously wrong, I will be very, very pleased.

why is that song (“the siren song”) so difficult?  well, I don’t really know, it’s not in an “easy key” for one thing – so I am not really used to playing in d flat (or c sharp, I don’t actually know which it is – only peter hammill knows for sure), so it’s physically challenging on the fingers – and of course, it has quite a few “odd chords” i.e. chords that have an unusual bass note – a third or a fifth in the bass, and that takes some getting used to (strangely, todd rundgren also uses this musical device a lot, many chords where the bass note is NEVER the root note of the chord – always something else! – so I do have some experience with this, but it’s still very awkward and often quite tricky to execute these special chords) and then there is that “solo section” which is just bloody difficult!  I have now (after MUCH rehearsal!) got it down to a science, but of course, if I play through the solo section correctly (something I do about one in ten tries, if I am honest!), invariably, I mess up the final verse – you know how it is.

I do have one more day’s worth of takes to listen through, having already been through two or three “siren song” sessions and found all the takes wanting in one way or another…some are close, but none close enough for my demanding ear – so, it’s once again, back to the drawing board…and, I insist on a completely live performance, so that really leaves no margin for error – it has to be right, vocal and piano.  and for that song – well, let’s just say, I am really struggling to achieve that!

but – I persist, and as I persist, and, luckily, my knowledge of the song increases with each rehearsal (I feel I actually understand it much, much better than I ever have before – in my head, I “know” how it goes!), and eventually, I will win.  I hope 🙂

now – in sitting down to reflect on the music of peter hammill, and his amazing group, van der graaf generator – I know that the start was that live bootleg, but now, after some 30 – 35 years of listening to this man’s music – what songs did I learn, and which ones can I still play – I am not even sure, so I am going to attempt to document this now – just so I can see where I am with this remarkable body of music – one of the most unusual and varied I’ve ever heard, from any artist.

figuring out the songs I’ve learned from the van der graaf generator part of my peter hammill repertoire will probably be the easier task (as opposed to the solo canon! which is massive…) so I will tackle that first.

from the first van der graaf generator album, and the second album, just one track each, and then, none from the third (although I did used to play parts of “house with no door” and “lost”, and even a few bits of the remarkable “pioneers over C” on the piano, but I never learned a whole song from “h to he” unfortunately – possibly because they are all bloody impossible to play!).

from “pawn hearts” – just one, although you could call it two as “w”, a single, is roughly from that period  – so approximately one song per album seems to be the pattern.  I also learned a few portions of “a plague of lighthouse keepers” but of course, not enough to play through even a fraction of the whole piece.

honourable mention:  from “the quiet zone/the pleasure zone” I did learn how to play “last frame”, but not well enough to consider it complete, so I’ve left that off – unfortunately, since I really love that song – a classic!  I learned fragments of songs like “patient”, and I also worked on “lifetime” from “trisector” – the only “late” period van der graaf I have ever attempted, but I never finished learning it so that’s another one I started, but can’t really claim, as I never did finish learning it 😉

I was quite certain that the van der graaf list will end up to be considerably shorter than the peter hammill list; and indeed, it did – here is the van der graaf generator list (in chronological order, of course!):

  1. afterwards
  2. out of my book
  3. refugees (added to this list on 20130101)
  4. man-erg
  5. w
  6. the undercover man
  7. still life
  8. my room (waiting for wonderland)
  9. the siren song

remarkably short, really, but then, these are not easy – I sometimes think peter saved up his most devilishly impossible-to-play songs for van der graaf, keeping the “easier” ones for his solo catalogue – but that’s probably a fallacy – I am sure that some of his solo pieces are just as difficult as the most difficult van der graaf generator piece.

here is the peter hammill list (in chronological order, of course!):

  1. vision
  2. the birds
  3. the lie (bernini’s saint theresa)
  4. forsaken gardens
  5. again
  6. been alone so long (chris judge smith)
  7. shingle song
  8. airport
  9. crying wolf
  10. time heals
  11. the mousetrap (caught in)
  12. if I could
  13. mirror images
  14. flying blind (being a portion of “flight”)
  15. stranger still (added to this list on 20130101)

I think that’s it – I seemed to have just stopped at the tenth album – which will roughly hold true for van der graaf, too, I stopped with “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” which will be just short of the tenth van der graaf album (it’s the eighth, apparently)…although you could argue that since that album is really a different band, “van der graaf” that it’s the first of two – it, and “vital” – but, a moot point, in any case, no matter how you argue it; with the release of “vital”, in 1978, the band stopped playing for a long, long time!

I’ve never done this before, sat down and tried to figure out what peter hammill songs I’ve learned in total, this is the very first time I’ve attempted to compile a complete list – which turns out to be, in the end, well, this number keeps changing, so I will give you the current figure here: twenty four tracks, nine van der graaf and fifteen solo peter hammill works – all learned when I was a young man, from perhaps age 20 to age 30 – which for me, is the decade between 1978 and 1988.

for many years after that, I was without a piano and without any 88-key keyboard, until very recently (february 2012) so for many years, I didn’t really play the piano – which meant, I did not play these songs.  in some cases, not since I first learned them.  not playing really, really complex pieces of music for thirty years – well, I can tell you – re-learning them in some cases is almost as difficult as learning them the first time – it wasn’t easy then, and it’s not easy now!

so at this point in time, I would say that from the above list, that I can still perform the following (so far):

van der graaf generator songs:

man-erg

still life

my room (waiting for wonderland)

the siren song

peter hammill songs:

vision

the birds

again

shingle song

airport

time heals

if I could

mirror images

flying blind

…so thirteen of the twenty-four have survived the passage of time, and if I were to sit down and work at it, I am sure I could relearn most of the others.  however, for some songs, in some cases, I am no longer sure that my voice can hit the high notes any more, particularly in pieces like “the undercover man” where even when I was young, I could not hit the high notes, so it would be impossible now – even if I could relearn the keyboard part.

so I would probably leave “the undercover man” out, which is unfortunate; because I really love it…I love all of these songs, they are like old friends that comforted me then, and they still comfort me now, but in a different way…they are a link to an emotional kind of song writing that I personally never really embraced in my own musical career, I opted for guitar craft, the ebow, and years of looping, and more lately, to rock and prog guitar with the release of “gone native” – so sitting down at the piano or acoustic guitar and “writing songs” is actually a fairly alien process for me – I can do it, but I really don’t do it – or at least, not often.

being able to sit down then, and bash out a peter hammill song on the piano, is a great, cathartic, experience, and I can happily re-live all the feelings and emotion of these songs from a place of maturity and relative calm – at the time, when you are young, things are a bit tumultuous and turbulent in your life, and these songs helped me through many a dark night – but I needed them then, now, I merely want them, just to remember, really.  and they do bring back a wealth of amazing memories, each time I play them.

of course, I might well decide to learn some “new” van der graaf or peter hammill songs, there are so, so many I would love to tackle, including some very unusual ones, like “the jargon king” – I’ve often performed this a cappella, but I am mentally preparing some kind of live version involving heavily treated vocals, loops and I am not sure what else.  it may never come to pass, but I’d love to do some version of it – in fact, I’d really like to learn as much as possible from “a black box”, the tenth peter hammill solo album, from 1980, which might be my single most favourite peter hammill solo album…and I had made tentative starts to learning “golden promises” and “the spirit” – two fabulous songs from that period.

then there is the question of “arrangement” – when you go to perform a peter hammill or van der graaf song – what “model” do you use to arrange the piece?  the studio version?  the live version?  the bootleg live versions?  alternate versions?  your own arrangement?  I think the answer is clearly, “all of the above”.

early on in my musical life, I worked very, very hard at very literally, “imitating” the music of others – I felt that if I was going to play a piece of music by anyone, that it “should be” “just like the record”.  that works sometimes, but other times, it can be a disaster, and part of learning to be a better musician was letting go of ideas like this, learning that actually, it doesn’t have to be “just like the record” at all – in fact, sometimes, that’s the worst thing you can do.

so if we listen to early recordings of my peter hammill covers, they sound very much like his versions, as much as possible given the modest gear I have compared to what he has available…I can remember recording “airport” using a borrowed steel string acoustic guitar – something I couldn’t afford until a decade later.  to my eternal shame, I didn’t know the words, so I just sort of made them up – incorrectly, it turns out – but, oh well, live and learn.  I didn’t have a sax and couldn’t play a horn part, so I used an organ horn stop with a chorus pedal to emulate a horn part.  it’s actually quite a spiffing version of “airport”, considering the limitations of my gear and experience.

back to arrangements – I feel I am very, very fortunate here, because not only do I have the records, and the live records, and even a few live recordings of peter hammill and van der graaf, I am also lucky enough to have seen/heard peter play in many, many situations, from solo guitar / piano performances at the roxy in los angeles, in the late 70s/early 80s, or performances with nic potter on bass and the amazing stuart gordon on violin, and later still, with the reformed van der graaf generator – so I’ve been very fortunate in hearing many, many different arrangements and techniques – many possibilities – for arranging these songs.

and the way I play them, is a total hybrid – part studio, part live, part made up – I tend to play the piano in my own strange style, so some of my idiosyncrasies creep in, too, so you get “dave stafford” flourishes and arpeggios thrown in where they really do not belong, or silences, or bass notes that “aren’t on the studio version” – some through design, some, probably through accident, because, perhaps, I don’t totally understand a certain chord or passage (bear in mind, that with no peter hammill songbook, that I’ve learned every one of these 24 songs “by ear” – and with songs as complex as these…well, it’s not straightforward much of the time!) – although now, I do try to make sure I am at least playing the right chords and the right bass notes, regardless of flourishes, embellishments, and mad arpeggios.

speaking of arpeggios, they form a huge part of my odd arrangement of “vision”, the track I just completed a few weeks ago, at the end of november, 2012, and released on the “ablackboxhd” channel on youtube, and I really worked hard on that arrangement – I could have played it safe, with a very minimal piano part, but I wanted to do something creative with the piano part, while leaving the basic structure (hopefully) intact.  so that’s a case where I play fast and loose with the arrangement, whereas on other tracks, for example, “the siren song”, I keep such changes to a minimum, well, maybe not a minimum, but with that song, it’s hard enough just to play it through unembellished, much less play it with additional, difficult piano parts added – well, either way, to be truthful, it’s just bloody difficult.

what was required there, though, was rehearsal, and lots of it – and now, after two months of practice, I can play it fairly well – and I may have captured it in my last session, I can’t wait to find out.  if I did not – well, it’s well-embedded in my memory now, so I can sit down and perform it again with no problem now – I am sure I will “get it” eventually, through repetition and rehearsal, if none of the takes from the other day are any good.

unlike many artists, who publish song books of their music, there is no “101 peter hammill classics” for me to refer to, so of course, the only way for me, is to use my ear, and teach myself each song, chord by chord, note by note, using only my ear as a guide.  I wish there was a song book, but maybe I should publish one, since I already have “24 smash hits by peter hammill” learned – which I could “write down” courtesy of the notation view in sonar – if I can capture a decent performance of each one, I suppose I could publish a ph songbook – what a strange idea !!!

other artists whose songs I learned, I was fortunate enough to find an actual song book – so I learned a lot of todd rundgren songs from my “best of todd rundgren” song book, including many I might not have taken the time to learn by ear, so I am very thankful I had that book – but it gives me an unfortunate advantage, and having song books for todd, roxy music, steely dan, and even artists as unusual as allan holdsworth – remarkably, there is an allan holdsworth song book (believe it or not!) – although I could only learn tiny bits of songs, never a whole song – from that one! having those books was a real help and a real blessing…but when it came to van der graaf generator or peter hammill songs…I was totally, totally on my own.

I can remember, too, the titanic struggle, the hours and hours of patiently writing out chord charts, again and again, the agonising work of trying to understand and get written down, for example, the bizarre and strange series of chords at the very end of “man-erg” – that really took some work and a lot of patience. it’s amazing how patient I was, how endlessly willing I was to spend unlimited time working on these songs, just so I could play them, not for any other reason but my own enjoyment of them.

nowadays, I wouldn’t take that much time, I can’t imagine spending not just hours, but actual days of work on one song, trying to work out what those odd bass notes are, or how a linking section works, or what on earth is that melody – and songs like “man-erg” were so, so hard to work out, because part of me wanted to play the piano part, another part of me, the hammond organ, that beautiful organ part; and another part of me still thought I was david jackson, playing the beautiful horns in between the verses…so my arrangement is actually part piano, part organ, part horn…because I tried to get the whole band into my arrangement, to get it to sound like the song the way they played it on that live recording.  and not really succeeding, except in the most rudimentary way.

“the undercover man” also gave me a lot of grief, now, in that case, I was, at the time, actually making a four-track multitrack recording of it (on my TEAC 3340-S 1/4 inch reel to reel deck, of course!), with piano, organ and vocal – so I first had to play the piano part correctly, and then go back and overdub an organ part, and when I say “an” organ part, I mean that literally, I couldn’t really play what hugh played, I am sure, so I just did the best I could with the skill I had at that age (mid twenties, perhaps).  working out the chords, working out how the piano and organ worked together, was both fascinating and very, very difficult – but very rewarding in the end, because I did learn it, I could play it all the way through…and I did get it recorded, although that was one where my vocal range just could not quite cope with one of hammill’s amazing vocal performances – I just couldn’t quite hit the notes in one part of the song, which is such a shame.  but the music was enormous fun to learn, practice, arrange and record – what a beautiful song!

“still life” is the third in the “very impossible” category, I loved this song from the moment I first heard it, and I was determined to learn it, and learn it I did – every word, every chord, every screaming emotion – a raw, passionate poem of questioning, questioning – demanding an end to all things of infinity.  this song, perhaps, has the best hammill lyric ever – it asks so many important questions, questions that I still want answers to today – and will never get answers to.  it’s such an amazing musical observation – and one of peter’s most emotional and most amazing songs, ever.  I love performing “still life”, despite how difficult it is to play.

as with “man-erg” and “the undercoverman”, “still life” took an enormous amount of time, and effort, to learn, it was really a challenge, but eventually, I worked it all out.

“my room” while perhaps a little bit “easier” than “man-erg”, “still life” or “the siren song” was nonetheless not easy to learn, not easy to sing, and I immediately put it into the “quite difficult” category with the other four difficult pieces I decided to attempt.

so those four, plus the very difficult “the siren song” were the most difficult to learn, meaning that these five, then…

man-erg

the undercover man

still life

my room (waiting for wonderland)

the siren song

…made the other four that I learned “seem easy” by comparison:

afterwards

out of my book

refugees

w

although to be fair, really, only “afterwards” is “easy” – and that’s because it’s a very, very early song, when peter had only strummed a few chords, although his development on piano and guitar over those first few albums is absolutely astonishing to witness – so I would expect “afterwards”, from the very first van der graaf record, to be “easy” (relatively) – but for example, despite being from a quite early period (1970-ish) “out of my book” is actually very difficult in it’s own way, the vocal is not easy, and it’s one of those that seems simple, but when you try to play and sing it, you find out it’s actually not that simple…

conversely, the fifteen peter hammill “solo” songs that I learned, were relatively uncomplicated (of course, with a few exceptions) when compared, in general, to the selections from the van der graaf generator canon, those exceptions being “the lie” (which I’ve forgotten almost completely by this time), “forsaken gardens” (many, many chord changes, none difficult in themselves, but getting through the whole piece is a real challenge – I’ve also, unfortunately, lost my ability to play this – although I have it written down) – and, for me, a rare guitar song, “if I could” – that’s fairly tricky, and also, of course, “flying blind” – very, very challenging indeed, approaching “van der graaf” level of complexity.

the rest of the ph songs I have learned are relatively simple, but really, none of peter’s songs are that simple – it’s just relative.  after the hellish progression that is “the siren song” – well, if I then sit down to play “vision” – well, it does seem easy by comparison!

I have noted that the majority of these 24 songs are “piano songs”, with just a few being “guitar songs” and I was wondering why that was, and I just don’t have an answer.  I think possibly, for me, it’s simply comfort – I am quite comfortable just sitting down at the piano and singing a song, whereas, I am not quite as used to singing while playing guitar – sure, I can do it, but, normally, I always played lead guitar, and when you are playing lead guitar, it’s not always easy to sing at the same time, so that may go some way towards explaining why I didn’t learn more peter hammill “guitar” songs.

two out of nine of my van der graaf generator covers, “out of my book”, and “w” are guitar songs, while a more respectable six peter hammill solo pieces are guitar songs:

“again”

“been alone so long” (which is really not a peter hammill song, but a chris judge smith song)

“shingle song”

“airport”

“crying wolf”

and the exquisitely beautiful “if I could”

…are guitar songs, leaving a remarkable nine as piano songs – that’s a lot!!

in total then, for all 24 ph/vdgg pieces learned, 8 are on guitar and 16 are on piano – so my repertoire is seriously biased in favour of the piano songs – that’s just the way it’s worked out.

maybe that’s telling me that I should learn more peter hammill guitar songs 🙂

moving back now to the question of arrangements, in thinking about the way I approach the performance of these songs now, I think it’s a really good thing that I’ve totally “let go” of that early view that the song should be as much like the studio version as possible, and I’ve instead, embraced a very free and very unusual style of performance with these pieces – which in a lot of cases, is more about my memory of the song, my impression, my emotional take on the song – rather than re-creating every single note, nuance and vocal twist – I just try to sing and play these songs with the kind of passion and beauty that they deserve.

I think in the end, that’s all you really can do, and if you are just true to what you know, what you know you can play, and what makes you feel good about the song – if I play this a certain way, if I leave a long silence here, if I sing this note here instead of here…that your own flourishes, embellishments, and changes actually make the performance better, because you are taking a good song, and making minor changes that hopefully enhance and grow the song, making it more than it would be if left “exactly the way it is on the album” – there would just be no point in that!

also, if I sit down and do a very serious, analytical “comparison” of my version to peter’s version – well, it’s immediately hopeless – my versions are so incorrect, they are just impressions…I didn’t write these songs, so I can’t possibly play them like peter does – so they are dave stafford impressions of peter hammill songs, rather than really good copies of peter hammill or vdgg songs – I will leave that task to someone else !!

I look back at my career of learning, performing and recording many van der graaf generator and peter hammill songs, as quite strange – it has almost nothing to do with any and all of the other music that I play and record.  yes, I am a bit diversified, what with the many different types of guitar I play, and the various synthesizer, application and kaoss pad pieces too, and all the hybrid combinations thereof – somehow, this catalogue of vocal and piano, or vocal and guitar, pieces by the amazing peter hammill, sits in there too, as part of the basic dave stafford musical dna.

for me, after initially being caught up first by the music of yes, and then, by early (peter gabriel period) genesis – I then found van der graaf generator, and their music was unlike any I had ever heard, and in a way, classing it in with “progressive rock” didn’t make a lot of sense, but I suppose it was closer to “prog” than many other forms of music.  but it turned my head around, it wasn’t “nice” or comfortable, at all, it was edgy, uneasy, uncomfortable – but, at the same time, brutally honest in a way that yes and genesis possibly were not.  and I found that very attractive, and that changed me, it brought a more dissonant playing style to me on the keyboard and guitar, and a more dissonant vocal style too – peter hammill did things with his voice that were like nothing I’d ever heard any singer do – so that also had a profound effect on me.

but, curiously…it didn’t really make me want to write songs that sounded like van der graaf or peter hammill, I just wanted to play those 21 peter hammilll songs (and one chris judge smith song), because I loved them, along with the other piano/vocal and guitar/vocal songs I knew from other artists, such as todd rundgren, steely dan, genesis, bill nelson, roxy music, roy harper, nick harper, peter gabriel, beatles, and many, many others – but out of all of the “covers” I’ve done, it’s the peter hammill/vdgg catalogue that has had the most unique effect on me, because it’s such a remarkable canon of very, very special and extraordinary music.

when I did finally get a decent keyboard again, and “had back” the full scale piano (but now, it’s a sampled grand piano, not a tired old out of tune upright) I began the slow, slow process of re-learning the first few hammill pieces – of which I’ve managed to complete three in less than six months, and a couple more are very close to being “good enough” to publish.

I will continue with this process (of attempting to capture live performances of van der graaf generator and peter hammill songs) until I reach the point where I feel that I’ve done the songs justice.

back in the day, I couldn’t always record, so some of these were never, ever recorded, while some of these do have existing tracks from back then (usually recorded under the worst sonic conditions imaginable, using the most primitive equipment imaginable, I am afraid); some useable, some, probably not – so eventually, I will publish the “old versions” too, for comparison – which will be odd – to hear first, the 1979 or 1980 dave stafford cover of a peter hammill song, and then, the 2012 dave stafford cover of the same song – that will be very, very strange!

that will demonstrate something interesting, though, the effect of aging thirty-three years in an instant; the effects of age, the effects of maturity as a musician and as a pianist (certainly, my skill now must exceed my skill then, on the piano?), my ability as a vocalist (questionable at all times, which is why I play instrumental music in the here and now) – all of these will factor into the “33-year test” that I am apparently (unconsciously) conducting.

I am not sure just how many songs, or which songs, I have recordings of (certainly, “out of my book”, “airport”, “the undercover man” and a few others), from “back then”, and how many I would/will also be able to play and record in the “here and now” – so it may be a very short-lived experiment, but even if I can’t do a direct comparison of certain songs, at least we can compare over all…

I look forward to seeing where things go with my 24 piece catalogue of peter hammill songs in the coming years, and I am hopeful that perhaps some of the “new versions” that I manage to capture (and any “old versions” I also put up for comparison purposes), will be enjoyable to fans of peter hammill’s music – I am sure they are, as the videos of the ph songs I’ve done so far have done quite well over a very short time, as enjoyable as playing and singing them again has been to me – I love these songs, and I am hopeful that my affection for them will be self-evident from viewing and hearing the performances – these are good songs, meaningful songs, songs that endure, and by playing them, I am stating that, I am saying “this work has value, please listen to it” – meaning, the songs of one peter hammill – which have had such a strong and lasting impact on my musical life and even my personal life, and very nearly sent me onto a whole new musical course…but, luckily for the world, I opted to be an ambient loop guitarist instead of a prog rock/singer/songwriter/pianist/guitarist like peter hammill.

that’s very probably, a very good thing 🙂

you can hear the latest dave stafford “cover version” of a peter hammill song here, in this instance, “vision”, originally from “fool’s mate”, 1971, peter’s first solo album, which also happens to feature one very young robert fripp as guest lead guitarist on a few tracks.

what we’re listening to – the quiet zone / the pleasure zone – van der graaf

1977 was such a pivotal year in music, sure, in ’76, we had the beginnings of punk, the uncertain rumblings that said “this is gonna change…” and, soon enough, it did all change.

but the established artists of the day just kept working on music, and let the punk tide wash over them and around them – but, critically, importantly – just kept going.

that’s exactly what young peter hammill did – he kept going.  the classic four-man organ-based van der graaf generator had broken up for good after a series of disasters, including a disastrous yet successful “tour” of north america and canada, but hammill, as standard-bearer, decided to reinvent the band – completely.

with guy evans still present on drums, [always present thank god], hammill proceeded to and managed to completely change van der graaf’s sound; he even removed the “generator” to give the band a more stripped down identity in this year of great change: they would henceforth be known as “van der graaf” – no longer  “van der graaf generator”.

with the organ, bass and horns slots all empty, hammill started from scratch: bass player – he retrieved van der graaf’s original bassist, nic potter, so that was sorted; he brought in graham smith on violin, from string driven thing – and immediately, that became the core of the new van der graaf.

so suddenly, those beautiful church organs were gone, and hammill’s stark piano and acoustic guitar songs were now framed by violin solos, strings, real bass – fuzz bass! and these changes completely altered the fabric of van der graaf’s sound.  in a very, very good way…

a new year; a new band; a new album “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” by the new, string-driven, stripped-down van der graaf.  this one…rocks!

the album’s opener, “lizard play”, an acoustic guitar-driven vocal and violin extravaganza, sets the scene for the entire album – a supremely well organised sound, fantastic and very complete vocal overdubs – a great bass’n’drums rhythm section with snapping hi-hats, slithering bass, tight drum rolls, fabulous drum fills…and peter’s voice begging, begging “will you dance with me…?” – and then the secret weapon appears – david Jackson, the on-again off-again member, makes an appearance in the very last moments of this song on sax – so really, you have three of the original “classic lineup” – but the presence of potter and smith manage to change the sound of the band so completely, you would almost never know – so, a very similar band, a very different band – but – a really completely unusual, unique album in the hammill canon, unlike ANY other – I am adamant about that.

we move on to “the habit of the broken heart” – a listless, sad violin accompanies a lonely acoustic guitar, but then guy comes in with a steady drumbeat, and nic joins in with a very accurately repeated sequence – the perfect background for hammill’s vocal, and, on this tune in particular, I think it is lyrically really cool “I’m so sorry that he hurt you, but don’t throw yourself away”…and “you’re so special, such sadness seems a shame” – a straight ahead little rocker, with a central solo section of banshee-wail-smith-violin, just to make sure you are still with us…the violins are used then after the solo, as a sort of drone to build and build tension, the drums go mad at the end, guy is breathtaking on this piece – it’s worth it just to hear the drum part!

“the siren song” is next, and is, perhaps, the most beautiful song here, an epic poem, with fantastic nautical allusions, “lashed to the mast” – done only as hammill can do, but, utterly sincere, utterly heartfelt, and very, very beautiful indeed – I spent many, many hours teaching myself to play this song, and I will tell you, as an amateur pianist of no mean skill – this song is really, really difficult to play and sing – it’s very, very well written.  I love every word, every chord, every sound in this song – I could play “the siren song” over and over and over again, because it has an absolutely unique “feeling” unlike any other song I know – and that’s the genius of peter hammill at work.  the vocal – half-whispered at first, then, stronger and stronger and more and more full of agonised passion – “laughter – in the backbone – laughter – impossibly wise – that same laughter that always comes, every time I flash, on that look in your eyes…” that is brilliant!

“and time, will smash every theory I devise” – “nothing really matters, NO, nothing really matters very much….” – shivers.

then, oddly, a fast section, a lovely little piano bit with a nice, clean violin solo on top, this shouldn’t really work but it works really well, it doesn’t seem likely, but there it is, a nice length, a full run-through of a nice long chord sequence, ending up in a great little electric guitar riff (those AMAZING flangers again) and then … somehow, back to the original song’s theme, back to an almost dead stop, and a final, heartbreaking verse, with tinkling electric piano and more passionate violin helping it along until the very, very end.

it helps that these songs are good, really good, some of ph’s best – like “the siren song” – sure, that helps, but the band – they just sound fantastic.  guy is totally on form, underpinning the songs with his powerful, yet musically rich and complex drum parts, there is no other drummer that could have done these songs justice – it had to be guy.

and it’s on the rocking numbers that guy comes to the fore, propelling the songs forward – “last frame” is the first track that’s wholly electric in nature, featuring some beautiful distorted, thick-sounding lead guitars from hammill – but it’s guy’s drumming that draws me back to this song over and over again – nic’s contribution on distorted bass is awesome, and then hammill and smith handle all of the totally insane soloing necessary (the extended solo section, with it’s multiple overdubbed violins and multiple lead guitar melodies, is a true masterpiece of prog heaviosity – it’s a must-hear solo section).

“last frame” is a real sleeper, you don’t really notice it’s power, but then weeks and months later, you find it’s in your head – a really, really powerful song, using the idea of photography as an analog to a relationship, with hammill in various stages of alienation and grief, “hanging back from that last frame…in case it doesn’t show you, the way I used to know you…” – in hindsight, one of the best tunes on this record, but as I say, you tend to take it for granted.  “there you are – your eyes laced with secret pleasure – saying that you’re on the way – to change – devouring, in inordinate measure, every diversion that’s arranged….”.

The final allusion to photography “but then, I only have a negative of you…” gives way to a great descending coda, that quickly fades away into the distance…

smith is quite a furious player, and on this record, he mostly demonstrates a very powerful, very loud, very electric style of violin playing – which is fabulous – except when suddenly, he reaches deep and produces clean string parts of startling beauty – such as the violins within “the siren song” (perhaps my personal favourite track from the album) or the string parts for “the wave” – so not a one-trick pony, sure, the manic, mad, crazy, insane high speed distorted violin solos on this record are brilliant, but I tend to like the quiet songs even more, and smith does a brilliant job of switching between these two totally opposite styles – impressive.

if we hark back to the vinyl version, “last frame”, track four on our CD, would have been the end of “side one” of our vinyl, meaning that track five of our CD is track one on “side two” of our vinyl, and that is the very, very beautiful “the wave” – which never used to knock me out for the longest time, it seemed perhaps too obvious, but now – I consider this to be a hugely important track, with amazing violin overdubs filling out all the spaces of this piano ballad – and a heartbreaking, truly beautiful vocal from hammill – the drama of his lyrics brought into technicolour presence by smith’s amazing, shuddering overdubbed violins – sudden burst of acoustic piano filter through, and in the background, as always, nic and guy pinning this remarkable little piece of music down into a final form.

on both the “loud” songs and the “quiet” songs, the tension built up by the use of the violin (as opposed to the beautiful, melodic organ playing of the now-departed hugh banton) is stunning, and hammill uses the instrument to make these hard-hitting songs pack even more weight than they do as “just songs” – the arrangements on this album, to me, are just top notch, he’s taken everything he learned in the previous incarnations of the band – and distilled them into this remarkable album.

the other standout rocker on this song, is the absolutely amazing “cat’s eye/yellow fever” – a fantastic piece of distorted guitar/fuzz bass/string section that has to be heard to be believed.  hammill’s super flanged electric guitar is balanced by nics crazed fuzz bass octave parts, while guy is flying across the skins at an absolutely impossible speed…then hammill layers on the background vocals creating an incredibly lush and complex vocal arrangement that stems from his angry, powerful lead vocal – it bounces between the power and the glory, all the while, graham smith is sawing away, soloing, building and releasing the musical tension – then, a quiet, minor key section appears, multiple, heartbreaking gypsy solo violins appear as the chord progression is carried forward mostly by nic (guy stops completely to allow this serious piece of music play out) which slowly winds down to the end…this song, out of all the songs on this record, is such a powerful piece of music, and I think it’s one of hammill’s best songs of all time – bar none.

“the sphinx in the face” has long been one of my very favourite hammill/van der graaf songs, in part because of this fantastic lyric “I’m gonna head to the island when the summer’s out, I’m gonna do all the stuff that I can – drink like a fish in a waterspout…” – that’s genius! beginning with an awkward but cool guitar riff, when the rhythm section enters, with nic potter’s fuzz bass full of confidence, ploughing on through – I love that sound! this is one of those songs that just gets stuck in your head for days.  it has a heavily overdubbed vocal chorus, which hammill uses later in the reprise version “the sphinx returns” – as “the sphinx in the face” fades out, the instruments gradually disappear, leaving the multilayered falsetto led vocal harmonies – a great effect.  and they then begin the reprise version, giving us really good sense of continuity, despite being separated by “the chemical world”, it’s as if this song were playing the whole time in the background.

“the chemical world” – this is one of the strangest songs hammill has ever done, and it takes a while to warm to.  it’s quite…odd, and it also contains a fast section with some very, very heavily warped vocal effects, which makes it end up sounding like a lost transmission from the planet klingon during that section.  But over time, I’ve realised that it’s a really, really well done piece of music, with a great acoustic guitar/gypsy violin part that recurs – and then there are those strange, strange vocals! Weird as green milk, but really, nothing else would suit – and then when the “normal “ vocal returns it sounds awesome – a great back and forth between the totally alien and the relatively normal J  it’s a chemical world … after all.  and it’s gonna blow up in your face…  graham smith is extremely excellent on this with some otherworldly violin playing and effects, this song is so effects laden that it’s not funny, but they are done in a tasteful and wonderfully experimental way – there is no other song on earth like this one!  none.  it’s just the drug … it doesn’t last.

the aforementioned “the sphinx returns” as noted, begins where “the sphinx in the face” left off – in reverse, beginning with the naked vocal harmonies, the band comes back in, but this time, at a furious pace with an insanely beautiful, screaming david jackson sax solo – it is phenomenal! Jaxon is only on this record in a few places, but I think even hammill realised the importance of keeping just a little bit of the “signature” van der graaf generator “sound” in his new generator-less “van der graaf” – and including jaxon here, particularly on this song – is an inspired act of genius, because he takes this piece to another level – it already rocks, just because when you have multiple overdubbed peter hammills, vocals and guitars, on top of that very powerful rhythm section, nic and guy; when you add jaxon to that equation – it really just ROCKS – that’s the only way I can explain it – this is just a very brief reprise, with sax, of one of the very best tunes on the record – no wonder hammill decided to put it on twice!

the remastered CD then brings us an absolutely delightful rarity: the studio version of “door”, a song we’d only ever previously heard on 1978’s live album “vital” – and one of the few studio tracks featuring what was to have been the next incarnation of van der graaf – “vital”, and this track, and the studio version of “ship of fools” – that’s most of what is available from the expanded band, which included synthesizer wizard charles dickie (and his work on both “vital” and on the two aforementioned singles has to be heard to be believed – it’s brilliant) as well as an expanded string section.  it’s such a shame that they didn’t go on, and in 1978, van der graaf ceased to exist after only a two-year run, producing exactly one studio album and one live album.

“door” in the studio is absolutely fantastic, it has a very similar heavy feel to it as does the “ship of fools” single – which sounds like proto-metal to my ears – I love the direction this band was going in when it suddenly disappeared.  stay away from the door…

the penultimate track on the re-master is an alternate version of “the wave” – with no vocal, and stripping away the layers of vocal reveals a remarkable sensitive and beautiful basic track, with a great, great peter hammill piano part, and then there are those strings…another graham smith masterpiece if you ask me. “the wave” has always been a dark horse, the song that I never thought that much of – until you hear it like this – it’s truly, truly one of the most beautiful songs on the album, in either incarnation.

finally then, we come to the holy of holies, the studio version of “ship of fools” – this song very nearly leaves me speechless, you just have to hear it to believe it, an impossible, convoluted but incredibly powerful guitar riff is central, that goes without saying, but you have never, ever heard hammill play – or sing – like this…he is on fire! – it’s just out there,  the vocal and lyric is incredibly powerful – a bizarre slapback echo on the drums, the best bass part nic potter ever played – and hammill, hammill, hammill finally coming into his own as a shockingly powerful rock rhythm guitarist and a surprisingly good lead guitarist too – sure, we’d heard the live version of this on “vital”, which is really, really good – it opens that record – but this, this is a song that I can’t get enough of – “dispensing platitudes and junk”…”there’s no rules”.

no rules.

this then, in 1978, out rocks, out punks, most of what punk itself was putting forward.  we all know the story about how john lydon idolises peter hammill – well, this song is one reason why he probably does – “ship of fools”, live or studio, is the perfect blueprint to start a punk revolution from – just copy this, or any of the similarly punk-like songs on hammill’s fifth solo album, “nadir’s big chance” – and you got yourselves a musical movement.

this song is a powerful argument for the concept that it was really peter hammill, not john lydon, who started the punk revolution – although it was via lydon – who loved the music of van der graaf and peter hammill – he just channelled hammill in his own way – and a genre was born!  when you hear “ship of fools” – you will know exactly what I mean J

it’s rare that a bonus track becomes my favourite song on an album, but in this case, it’s probably a draw between the remarkable “cat’s eye/yellow fever” and this stunning, last-gasp-of-this-van-der-graaf single, “ship of fools” – these songs rock hard, have brilliant lyrics and vocals, heavy, heavy guitars – everything a boy or girl needs to have fun.

1978 was a bad, bad year for prog rock – but by 1977, with the release of “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” hammill showed us, over two years, two albums, and these amazing singles – that not only had he already moved on, but he was creating a startling, new, heavy kind of music that possibly was key as an influence on none other than johnny rotten – that’s quite an accomplishment for someone who would have been classed by those self-same punks as a “prog rock dinosaur” – hammill shed that skin, and grew a brand new one – and walked away unscathed from the punk revolution – one of the very, very few proggers to survive it.

it’s a ship of fools.  (there’s no rules!!)

“I was looking for something good, clean, straight – but instead I found – the bunker wall – and gate”.