3 Still Life.. Van Der Graff Generator

New music is just music you haven’t heard before. By 1979, my life was full of new music, despite rock (and roll) being just over 20 years old there was plenty I hadn’t heard yet and every week there was a whole load of new stuff that was absolutely great.

That was the year of power pop, Blondie, Buzzcocks, The Undertones,The Police, even Elvis Costello was pop that year, Two Tone was about to explode it was a busy busy time for anyone who had even a passing interest in popular music. I was living in a block with 10 boy/men at Trent Polytechnic, out of that number a couple had virtually no interest in music at all but the rest of us, including the ones who would go on to become accountants and quantity surveyors had some record collection. At the extreme end was myself and my best Poly friend Al. Al by virtue of some semblance of a Protestant work ethic had acquired more records than me. He had initially specialized in the interesting end of prog including a number of releases on the fledgling Virgin record label, his head had been turned a little by punk and new wave but his favorite band was about to become a special band to me as well thanks to Al’s generosity in sharing his collection.

Van Der Graff Generator (or VDGG as us ‘heads’ would call them) had been around since the late 60’s and by the time I was listening they were no more. The band had 3 seventies phases. The first one saw them at their hippiest, there were acoustic guitars and pianos to soften some of the brain splitting riffs. The band hit some sort of meltdown, today they would just take a break but in the 70’s no one expected a band to last much more than 5 years so they split up. After a bit of solo careering main man Peter Hammill regrouped the band. Having jettisoned their bass player a couple of LP’s ago the core of the band was organ, drums and saxophones, not even close to the expected rock line up. Hammill now decided to play the electric guitar but manage to avoid ever sounding like Eric Clapton or indeed like anyone else.

The first VDGG I ever listen to was World Record, widely considered not to be their best but its got some pretty crunchy tunes on side one and even when the band relaxed into a bit of a jam, which appeared slightly necessary to fill side two, they were the antithesis for the Allman Brothers, veering toward scratchy texture rather than grandstanding. Keyboard player Hugh Banton was an organist pure and simple, no fancy synth twiddling for Hugh although he allegedly used the Mellotron occasionally. With the energy he saved from synth fiddling he covered the bass parts as well, usually on the bass pedals of his organ. Guy Evans was a versatile and powerful drummer, like just about everyone from the 60’s he could play jazz. The main reason he’s not regarded as one of the all time greats is because he was the drummer for VDGG.

I’ve covered the great David Jackson elsewhere, he was the soul of the band’s weirdness, could sound like a marching band or a bunch of crows in a church tower. He could play lots of saxophones and flutes, sometimes at the same time.


However the reason for the inclusion of ‘Still Life’ is down to Hamill’s lyric over everything else. I’ve never been a lyric’s person, there’s a whole load of songs where I have no idea what they are about, in fact I’m prone to mishearing lyrics and I’ve been happy to live with that for decades. I like the sound of music (literally, not the film), I like the odd lyrical phrase but it really irks me when people talk of rock lyrics as being poetry. Simon Armitage has the same view and he’s a proper poet so I’m right here- no arguing!

Still life is off the Mk2 bands second LP called Still Life. The first record Godbluff escaped my attention in 1979 but to be fair I did have an entire back catalogue to listen too, but Still Life is very much more of the same, side two features an epic which allows them to do a bit of prog noodling and goes on a bit but side one is the band at their very best. La Rossa is about requited love/lust which made an impact on me as a 19 year old listening in my polytechnic cell. Pilgrims is about pilgrims, or something, as I’ve explained I’m not great with lyrics it does feature a great Evan’s drum fill which is something I do understand.

Sandwiched between the two is still life a meditation on what it might be like if we were to live forever, all the elements of the band are present musically, Hammill has a lovely voice if he wants but you’re never far from from some tonsil shredding, possibly the main thing that put the casual listener off, but again that could be the weird saxophone or the tricky time signatures or the gothic organ or the fact that tracks last at least five minutes.

Anyway, it’s not bloody poetry but it is bloody amazing lyrically.

Citadel reverberates to a thousand voices, now dumb:
What have we become? What have we chosen to be?
Now, all history is reduced to the syllables of our name –
Nothing can ever be the same now the Immortals are here.
At the time, it seemed a reasonable course
To harness all the force of life without the threat of death,
But soon we found
That boredom and inertia are not negative,
But all the law we know
And dead are Will and words like survival.Arrival at immunity from all age, all fear and all end…
Why do I pretend? Our essence is distilled
And all familiar taste is now drained
And though purity is maintained it leaves us sterile,
Living through the millions of years,
A laugh as close as any tear…
Living, if you claim that all that entails is
Breathing, eating, defecating, screwing, drinking,
Spewing, sleeping, sinking ever down and down
And ultimately passing away time
Which no longer has any meaning.Take away the threat of death
And all you’re left with is a round of make-believe;
Marshal every sullen breath
And though you’re ultimately bored by endless ecstasy
That’s still the ring by which you hope to be engaged
To marry the girl who will give you forever –
That’s crazy, and plainly
It simply is not enough.What is the dullest and bluntest of pains,
Such that my eyes never close without feeling it there?
What abject despair demands an end to all things of infinity?
If we have gained, how do we now meet the cost?
What have we bargained, and what have we lost?
What have we relinquished, never even knowing it was there?What chance now of holding fast the line,
Defying death and time
When everything we had is gone?
Everything we laboured for and favoured more
Than earthly things reveals the hollow ring
Of false hope and of false deliverance.But now the nuptial bed is made,
The dowry has been paid;
The toothless, haggard features of Eternity
Now welcome me between the sheets
To couple with her withered body – my wife.Hers forever,
Hers forever,
Hers forever
In still life.

Whenever I think I might not want to die someday all I have to do is revisit still life and realize the alternative is far far worse.

Hugh Banton left the band after a couple of years , rather unsurprisingly he became a church organist and built church organs (that guy sure loved his organs). It’s Banton who provides the core backing throughout Still Life, creating the church vibe at the beginning and morphing into the 60’s prog as the song progresses

Mark 3 VDGG brought in a violinist to replace Jackson and re-introducing ex bass player Nic Potter. They were pretty good but very different as as punk had happened were doomed to failure after one LP. After decades apart they reformed and are still a going concern, although Jackson bailed out after a couple of years. Three old men who are free to play pretty much as they please, Hamill has had a heart attack they all know that every gig or recording could well be their last.

But hopefully they know the alternative is far worse…

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