Van Der Graaf Generator

“For if the sky is seeded death / what is the point in catching breath? / Expel it.”

Album Year Rating
The Aerosol Grey Machine 1969 2.18/pi
The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other 1970 2.52/pi
H to He Who Am the Only One 1970 2.88/pi
Fool’s Mate by Peter Hammill 1971 2.42/pi
Pawn Hearts 1971 2.84/pi
Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night by Peter Hammill 1973 2.49/pi
The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage by Peter Hammill 1974 3.01/pi
In Camera by Peter Hammill 1974 2.47/pi
Nadir’s Big Chance by Peter Hammill 1975 2.61/pi

Van Der Graaf Generator. Simultaneously the Orson Welles and Ed Wood of rock—if their wailing sax/rumbling organ anti-soul dirges can be shunted into that genre. They are usually considered a prog band, but in spite of their long, winding songs, they don’t really fit the symphonic rock label. Sympathetic critics have tried to cast them as proto-punks, thanks to Peter Hammill’s nihilistic lyrics and the group’s penchant for noisy avant-rock jamming rather than delicate keyboard solos. Oh, and of course, Johnny Rotten’s famous admiration for the group—which at least made them the only prog band to survive the rise of punk with their cred (such as it was) intact.

But whether you think of them as punks or proggers (Hell, you can think of them as a hip hop crew if you really want), whether you abhor Hammill’s self-absorbed drivel or hail him as a raving gothic poet laureate, you can’t help but admit that the band represents something quite unique. In fact, you could say that Hammill is rock’s Godfather of Self-Absorbed Drivel.

Personally, I take a sympathetic approach. Like many songwriters, he has often been subjected to the false notion that the writer is directly bearing his soul to you through his music—something he actually addresses on the song “Energy Vampires”, about his obsessive fans. In spite of his reputation for being deadly serious, the man has clearly got a sense of humor about what he’s doing, and he has always maintained that his songs are meant to be taken, first and foremost, as fun. This is a notion which I endorse wholeheartedly.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s all just an act. Whatever the myriad contradictions and self-deprecating impulses and German expressionist influences inside his addled brain, you know that he is not simply mouthing words or targeting a demographic. Hammill clearly does care about the stuff he sings about; and if his singleminded pursuit of his muse sometimes violates the laws of “good taste”…well, they deserve it.

A note about the organization of this page: I have decided, after centuries of deliberation, to include Hammill’s solo career together with his group work. This does not mean to imply that the two are the same. Van Der Graaf Generator is clearly more than just Peter and the Hammillettes. But there is so much interaction between those two career arcs that I feel they should be smooshed together.

Main lineup: Peter Hammill: guitars, piano, vocals. Hugh Banton: keyboards, 1968–1976. David Jackson: sax, flute, 1969–1976. Guy Evans: drums.

Other personnel: Chris Judge-Smith: co-founder, appears (on drums) only on the band’s 1968 debut single. Keith Ellis: bass, 1968–69. Nic Potter: bass, 1969–70 and 78. Graham Smith: violin, 1978. On top of all these, every one of these characters (and numerous others) have appeared sporadically on Hammill’s vast quantity of solo albums.


1969; Rating: 2.18/pi

Composition: + / Lyrics: − / Production: − / Innovation: +

  • 01 Afterwards [A−]
  • 02 Orthenthian St [A]
  • 03 Running Back [B+]
  • 04 Into a Game [A−]
  • 05 Aerosol Grey Machine [i]
  • 06 Black Smoke Yen [A−]
  • 07 Aquarian [B+]
  • 08 Necromancer [B+]
  • 09 Octopus [B−]

This odd little record was actually recorded as a Peter Hammill solo album. The original Generator broke up after only recording a single single in 1968, whose sides are included as bonus tracks on some CD editions. The A-side, “People You Were Going To”, is a cute little lonesome pop song that would pop up again years later on Nadir. “Firebrand” features Chris Judge Smith singing like Dracula, and demonstrates Hammill’s early and soon wisely abandoned obsession with magic and mythology.

But on to the album! There was enough buzz about the band by this point that Mercury convinced Hammill to rebrand Aerosol as a Van Der Graaf joint; in exchange, he was able to get out of his unfortunate contract with them. The band blew through the recording in twelve hours (all the studio time they could afford!) The result is a suprisingly strong record that slides in neatly in front of the “real” debut, in spite of the conspicuous lack of David Jackson’s sax.

Opener “Afterwards” was the band’s second single, and it’s a very fine ballad with an “In My Life” piano solo. B-side “Necromancer” is one of the catchiest songs, and features such mind-boggling couplets as “Yes, I live in the black woods where you dare not even speak my name / If there is evil in your heart and you come near me, you will lose your sane.”

The highlight may be the six minute “Orthenthian St”, perhaps the hardest-rocking thing here, with a martial bassline and almost Keith Moon-esque drumming. Though there’s also the rather similar “Into the Game”. The closing epic “Octopus” drags things down slightly. Those harsh organ stabs are amusing, but it never really generates enough steam to justify its eight minutes. Indeed, it is here, as the band most closely predicts their future style, that Jackson’s absence becomes truly painful; it’s very easy to imagine the track with some catchy sax riff pulling it along, but we can only listen for it in vain.

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1970; Rating: 2.52/pi

Composition: + / Lyrics: + / Production: ~ / Innovation: +

  • 01 Darkness 11/11 [A−]
  • 02 Refugees [A+]
  • 03 White Hammer [B]
  • 04 Whatever Would Robert Have Said? [A−]
  • 05 Out of My Book [A]
  • 06 After the Flood [A−]

Bonus tracks:

  • 07 Boat of Millions of Years [B−]
  • 08 Refugees (7" version) [A+]

Recorded only a few months after Aerosol, this album is a huge step forward. Not only does it feature new arrivals Nic Potter on bass and David Jackson on sax and flute—the shadow of King Crimson’s recent debut hangs over this album like a curtain of glooooooooooooom.

Did you know that glooooooooooooom is spelled with precisely 13 o’s? That’s how you know it’s evil. Q: How do you weave a curtain of glooooooooooooom?

A: On a looooooooooooom. Oh man I’m hilarious.

Really, there isn’t any fundamental difference between this and the last record, just as In the Court of the Crimson King did not truly invent prog; it just made it big. And this, creepy 40 year-old men posing as teenage girls and gentlemen, is a big album. “Refugees” is clearly Hammill’s “Epitaph”-killer—a stupendous bittersweet megaballad. But unlike most British bands, VDGG followed Crimson’s avant-noise side more than their gushing classicist side. This results in doom-rock epics like “Darkness 11/11” and “After the Flood”. Unfortunately, the young band still doesn’t really have the chops to pull it all off; on the latter especially, they still sound more like a garage band with big ideas than a well-oiled prog-rock machine. Multi-part songs are sloppily edited together from fragments, sound effects are applied willy-nilly, and Hammill’s lyrics are probably still best undiscussed.

Still, there’s a certain charm to these songs, a sense of reckless abandon that the group would only equal again on Pawn Hearts. They were young, it was 1969, and the world was their oyster! After all, they’re apparently the only ones who survived the Flood.

The 2005 reissue of the album features drastically improved sound, and two bonus tracks: the 7" version of “Refugees”, which is both better and worse than the album version in small ways, and its rather forgettable b-side “Boat of Millions of Years”.

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1970; Rating: 2.88/pi

Composition: + / Lyrics: ++ / Production: + / Innovation: ++

  • 01 Killer [A]
  • 02 House with No Door [A]
  • 03 The Emperor in His War-Room [A]
  • 04 Lost [A]
  • 05 Pioneers over c [A]

Bonus tracks:

  • 06 Squid 1 / Squid 2 / Octopus [A−]
  • 07 The Emperor in His War-Room (early take) [A−]

Finding time in 1970 to put out another record, the Graafsters finally explode from their cocoon with this tongue-twistingly titled release. After the youthful stab at Crimsoid grandeur of the last LP, this one finds the band cutting away some of the pomp even as Mr Fripp stops by in the studio to lay down a slick guitar solo for “The Pimperor in His Whore-Room”. On the whole, the album is miles more mature and less dated than its predecessor, with Hammill stretching out his considerable vocal skill and his songcraft rather than his bag of gimmicks. This time, all five tracks have been lovingly drooled over and burnished to perfection. There are no more cringeworthy moments like the bizarre Jack Chick-baiting occultism of “White Hammer”.

Of course, that’s all assuming you accept the basic premise of the band, which may still be a bit of a stretch. But you must admit that they’ve found their style. Each of these five long tracks is a crawling goth epic. As spiky saxes battle creaky organs, Hammill tells dark tales of lost astronauts, empty houses, hideous deep-sea fish, tyrants, and lovers.

“Killer” is often pointed to as the highlight, perhaps because despite its 8-minute running time, it comes closest to a conventional nut-punching hard rock number. As much as I like it, I feel it was only really perfected in live form. “Lost”, on the other hand, isn’t such a brilliant piece of songwriting but it’s handled perfectly, with Hammill bringing us his best vocal performance yet. Thankfully, at this point he was gradually moving away from his falsetto-drenched early singing, and embracing the depths of his fine baritone.

Nic Potter left halfway through the sessions, and was replaced by organist Hugh Banton’s magical feet, thus inaugerating the classic standard edition Generator lineup. The band would continue to grow and even improve in many ways, but they never truly topped this album.

The 2005 reissue of the album features a couple bonus tracks: an early version of “Emperor” and a live-in-the-studio runthrough of oldie “Octopus”, which is a big improvement on the original album version.

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by Peter Hammill; 1971; Rating: 2.42/pi

Composition: + / Lyrics: + / Production: + / Innovation: +

  • 01 Imperial Zeppelin [A]
  • 02 Candle [A−]
  • 03 Happy [A]
  • 04 Solitude [B+]
  • 05 Vision [A]
  • 06 Re-Awakening [A]
  • 07 Sunshine [A]
  • 08 Child [B+]
  • 09 Summer Song (In the Autumn) [A−]
  • 10 Viking [A−]
  • 11 The Birds [A−]
  • 12 I Once Wrote Some Poems [B+]

This is an interesting album in Vammill history. It contains several songs dating back as far as 1967, including two written with VDGG co-founder Chris Judge Smith. These are slipped in amongst the more recent songs, which are themselves rather more subdued and poppy than anything that was coming out of the band by 1971. Rather than spoil the unending apocalyptic mood of Pawn Hearts or H to He with a bunch of simple pop tunes, he decided to record them as a solo album. The band is around to help him out in the studio, but they don’t have too much impact on the sound of things. Even the newer songs are a throwback to the band’s early sound, albeit more professionally crafted.

In a way, it’s actually a pretty nice gesture that this album even exists. It clearly represents the direction Hammill was moving away from at the time, but rather than simply toss this sort of material in the dumpster of history as most artists do, he decided to give it its own little home. Thanks, man!

“Sunshine” is one of those aforementioned ’67 vintage songs, and it’s a great pop-rock song, given a manic, jazzy reading that quite suits it (and easily bests the demo version from four years prior.) Plus it gives Hammill the chance to thumb his nose at his critics, with lines like “I can’t help my feelings, the way that my emotions are overwrought—oh!”

Another excellent early song he rescues is “Re-Awakening”, which comes off as a sort of proto-“Refugees”—but many of the new songs are excellent as well, though they are usually on the less energetic side. The delirious “Imperial Zeppelin” and the gently bouncy “Happy” deserve props. But really, there’s nothing seriously wrong with anything here. Who’d’ve guessed Hammy had it in him to make a nice, almost normal pop album?

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1971; Rating: 2.84/pi

Composition: + / Lyrics: ++ / Production: − / Innovation: ++

  • 01 Lemmings (including Cog) [A−]
  • 02 Man-Erg [A]
  • 03 A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers [A]


  • a. Eyewitness [A]
  • b. Pictures/Lighthouse [C+]
  • c. Eyewitness (reprise) [A]
  • d. SHM [B+]
  • e. Presence of the Night [A]
  • f. Kosmos Tours [A]
  • g. (Custard’s) Last Stand [A]
  • h. The Clot Thickens [A−]
  • i. Land’s End (Sineline) [A]
  • j. We Go Now [A]

Ah yes. One of the most controversial albums since sliced bread. It was my first purchase by the and, and when I first heard it, I was ready to side with its detractors. There are just three hugely complex drug-soaked prog epics here, and the lyrics…let’s just say for now that they don’t go out of their way to sound sensible. Soon that would be an everyday occurrence, of course, but in 1971 Mr. Hammill and his buddies were on the absolute cutting edge of the prog arms race, giving us an album with fewer songs than anyone had previously imagined possible.

Are they good songs? Yes—but you may have to examine them very closely before you notice. “Lemmings” is slightly longer than it needs to be, but it’s based around a killer riff, so I don’t mind at all. Peter brings things way over the top with the noisy “Cog” section, as the band unloads the first of many apocalyptic sound effect volleys. “Man-Erg” ratchets things up to a whole new level of melodramatic intensity, and succeeds admirably. Unlike “Lemmings” it manages to justify its entire length, and it features a ferocious middle section that may be the highlight of the whole disc, followed by one of Jackson’s prettiest sax solos ever.

The infamous side 2, of course, is the 23-minute “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers”, which is…quite good. Unfortunately, Hammill spent most of his time on the lyrics. The actual music is a wee bit unfocused. The opening section, “Eyewitness”, is lovely, but it’s interrupted by a moody, minimalist instrumental passage that goes on for way too long.

After the second part of “Eyewitness”, things pick up, but the music remains a series of vignettes that aren’t particularly well connected. There is no grand, unifying musical theme to really hold things together. It just keeps going off in different directions until it ends. Then again, “Plague” is primarily a lyrical affair, with its structures and moods defined by the flow of the story rather than the considerations of musical composition.

Thankfully, the lyrics are Hammill’s best yet. When I actually sat down and tried to piece things story together, I found it to be surprisingly lucid, an entertaining and imaginative portrait of a man reaching the end of his rope, full of juicy existential angst, hilariously mixed metaphors, and Hammill hamming it up like only he can. It may take several listens before it starts to make sense, but suspend your disbelief, cut up your credit cards, and jump in!

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by Peter Hammill; 1973; Rating: 2.49/pi

Composition: ~ / Lyrics: ++ / Production: + / Innovation: +

  • 01 German Overalls [B+]
  • 02 Slender Threads [B+]
  • 03 Rock and Role [A−]
  • 04 In the End [A−]
  • 05 What’s It Worth? [A−]
  • 06 Easy to Slip Away [A]
  • 07 Dropping the Torch [B−]
  • 08 In the Black Room [A]

In some ways this is Hammill’s first real solo album, since it was written (with one notable exception) after the death of VDGG, and it establishes the “true” direction of Hammill’s solo career, as opposed to the odd detour that was Fool’s Mate.

“German Overalls” kicks things off, and it sets the scene for the album: minimalistic to tha xtreem. It’s just Hammill and the occasional psychedelic sound effect here, describing some nightmarish journey through Deutschland. Oh yeah, and there’s an organ break, but it’s just a cat-sitting-on-the-keys kind of deal. Some of the guitar chords here seem borrowed from “The Institute of Mental Health, Burning”, don’t they? But then, that song had not yet been released at this point, so it’s not exactly cheating.

Anyway, this stuff is not exactly the most music-oriented of Hammill’s material. Fully half of the album is just Hamogram all alone with a piano or acoustic guitar. This is musical theater, with the instruments as background and emphasis for Hammill’s singing and lyrics (both of which are getting noticeably better with every new album at this point.) Which isn’t to say that there’re no points of musical interest on the album. There are chord progressions and even riffs and melodies on here, but the songs abandon the pop format more thoroughly than ever before. This is freeform music, and it gives no quarter to normal ideas of accessibility. There was always a strain of that in Van Der Graaf Generator, but the contributions of the band kept things anchored to a certain kind of warped pop foundation. Only half of the songs here have that foundation: “Rock and Role”, “Easy to Slip Away”, “What’s It Worth?”, and “In the Black Room” find members of the band stopping by the studio to flesh out Hammill’s ravings, and I can’t help but declare them the highlights. The latter, especially, is very noticeably a band tune, and in fact was pulled straight out of Van Der Graaf Generator’s stage set.

If the remaining tracks are analogous to anything, it might almost be old school blues. Not that Hamson sounds remotely like Robert Johnson. In fact, at a time when so many British musicians were jizzing all over Johnson’s grave, it’s rather charming to see a guy doing stuff that is totally, unabashedly white—I mean, it’s like he lives in his own tiny universe—and yet in some ways it’s not really so foreign to the spirit of the blues, which is more than I can say for Led Zeppelin. But enough babbling.

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by Peter Hammill; 1974; Rating: 3.01/pi

Composition: + / Lyrics: ++ / Production: + / Innovation: +

  • 01 Modern [A−]
  • 02 Wilhelmina [A]
  • 03 The Lie (Bernini’s St Theresa) [A−]
  • 04 Forsaken Gardens [A]
  • 05 Red Shift [A]
  • 06 Rubicon [B+]
  • 07 A Louse Is Not a Home [A+]

By now VDGG had been out of commission for over two years, and I guess Pete felt a little nostalgic, cause his third solo album finds his prog-rock past creeping back in in a big way. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing, because, hey, I’m a pop man, and I don’t think anyone would dispute that this is a hookier album than its predecessor.

“Modern” is the opener, and it recalls “After the Flood” somewhat, both in sound and in its imagery of a doomed, decadent Atlantis. “Red Shift” is a dark, spacy cosmic meditation that could have easily fit on H to He, with a great multitracked guitar solo, all manner of psychedelic effects, and —get this—even something resembling a chorus. “Wilhelmina” and “Forsaken Gardens” are both very nicely contructed ballads (each with some rock relief in the middle) that recall band material like “A House with No Door”.

“The Lie (Bernini’s St Theresa)”, besides being one big brilliant art geek reference, is a hilariously over-the-top jab at his Jesuit choirboy upbringing, opening with the couplet “Genuflection / erection in church” and plunging on inexorably from there.

The indisputable overlord of the album, however, is “A Louse Is Not a Home”, which pretty much distills everything that was ever right about Van Der Graaf Generator into a single 12 minute gothgasm, the Gormenghast of pop songs. It is impossible to overstate how brilliantly produced and sung this track is, and Hammo drops some of his sharpest melodies. By the time he comes to the climactic chorus of “SOOOOMETIIIIIIIIMES IIIIT’s VEEERY SCAAARY HERE!” I’m peeing my Depends with pure joy. If you’ve ever had the feeling (and lord knows I have) that Hammill’s whole discography is just one big bloated pile of crap, give “Louse” a spin. It’s simply one of the best songs of the entire progressive rock era.

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by Peter Hammill; 1974; Rating: 2.47/pi

Composition: + / Lyrics: ++ / Production: + / Innovation: +

  • 01 Ferret and Featherbird [B+]
  • 02 (No More) The Sub-Mariner [A−]
  • 03 Tapeworm [A−]
  • 04 Again [A−]
  • 05 The Faint-Heart and the Sermon [A−]
  • 06 The Comet, The Course, The Tail [A−]
  • 07 Gog [A]
  • 08 Magog (In Bromine Chambers) [C]

Funny cover shot. Hammill mocking his image as a dark prophet who sits around brooding in an obsidian tower?

Hammill had always been a bit of an electronic experimentor, but he really dives into that arena for the first time here…or at least dips an entire leg into it. Most of the songs are electroid to some degree, but the obvious one is “Magog (In Bromine Chambers)”, the 10 minute musique concrète piece that closes the album. There’s some cool sounding stuff in there, but certainly not 10 minutes of it. Then again, its placement at the end casts it as something of a “bonus track” for the very patient, or perhaps a psychedelic surprise like the inner groove of Sgt. Pepper. Normal people can just switch off the album at the end of “Gog” and still feel that they’ve had their allotted 40 minutes of fun.

“(No More) The Sub-Mariner” ought to be the highlight, with catchy synthesizer riffs, smart lyrics, and all the usual Hammillisms. It’s structured as loosely as one of those free-form “guy flipping out on his acoustic” tracks from Chameleon, but it’s built as a heavily arranged (yet drumless) synth-pop number. As a result, it drifts between captivating and slightly stilted. “Gog”, on the other hand, is gloriously stilted, a track that is always on the point of collapsing but stays aloft through sheer force of psychosis. It recalls the most violent moments on Pawn Hearts, and features some suprisingly non-crappy-sounding vocal processing. Hammill takes on the identity of a sort of universal quasi-Satanic creature. “Will you not come to me / and love me for ONE MORE NIGHT?”

Nothing else rules quite so hard, but “Tapeworm” is the one of the better ones, a rock tune with a solid piano riff and an unexpected Gentle Giant-esque a cappella break. Hammill’s guitar squawks sound damn cool (why doesn’t he pull out the electric more often?) but I still feel like it’s missing just a little something that could have turned it into a classic. And that may be true of the album as a whole, too. Too much “Magog”, not enough “Gog”, I guess.

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by Peter Hammill; 1975; Rating: 2.61/pi

Composition: ++ / Lyrics: + / Production: + / Innovation: ++

  • 01 Nadir’s Big Chance [A]
  • 02 The Institute of Mental Health, Burning [A−]
  • 03 Open Your Eyes [A]
  • 04 Nobody’s Business [A−]
  • 05 Been Alone So Long [B+]
  • 06 Pompeii [A−]
  • 07 Shingle Song [A]
  • 07 Airport [A−]
  • 08 People You Were Going To [A−]
  • 09 Birthday Special [A]
  • 07 Two or Three Spectres [A−]

Now this was unexpected. Though not as entirely unexpected as it has sometimes been portrayed. It’s an honest to God punk rock album, at least in spirit. And why not? Hammill was always on the underground side of the prog movement, and his music has a low budget, uncompromising aesthetic that was never all that incompatible with punk. So all he really had to do for this album is: simplify. The songs are given less room to sprawl, both musically and lyrically, and so they wind up like little Hammill bonsai trees.

Okay, so that’s not all he did. For one thing, he got himself an alter ego. As the Hamster writes in the liner notes, “crashing his way though distorted three-chord wonders…[t]he anarchic presence of Nadir—this loud, aggressive, perpetual sixteen-year-old—has temporary though complete dominion, and I can only submit, gladly, and play his music—the beefy punk songs, the weepy ballads, the soul struts.”

And so, in December 1974, he collected the old Van Der Graaf Generator lineup…wait, does that mean he recorded three albums in 1974? Man, how did he write yet a whole nother set of songs so quickly?? Well, actually, he didn’t. In keeping with the whole “snotty 16 year old” theme, he resurrected a few old forgotten songs from the earliest days of the band, including a fine re-recording of debut single “People You Were Going To”. Returning to his roots indeed!

Still, the meat of the album is the new stuff. Nadir may be a punk, but he’s no slouch in the songwriting department. The title track is his manifesto: “Look at all the jerks in their tinsel glitter suits / pansying around / … / I’m gonna stamp on the stardust and scream til I’m ill / … / We’re more than mere morons / perpetually conned / so come on everybody / smash the system with a song!”

Not every track is in the same vein. “Pompeii” is typical Hammill doomsday weirdness, and “Airport” is standard pop my-girlfriend-is-going-away balladry. The other eight songs, then, cover various points in between. “Birthday Special”, the single, is sort of a slightly catchier version of the title track, rewritten into a swaggering love song. “Open Your Eyes” is a more sax-based rocker with some nice soloing from Jackson. Closer “Two or Three Spectres” is in a similar vein, and it’s the only track Hamball allows to meander in his usual non-format, stretching out past 6 minutes to accommodate Nadir’s long, sordid rant against the music industry.

At his worst, Rikki Nadir can seem like a poor compromise between Iggy Pop and Peter Hammill, and it’s tempting to write off the album as unconvincingly visceral. Still, whatever the coulda-beens, the entertainment value here is undeniable.

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