Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Peter Hammill—
Chameleon In The Shadow Of The Night


Released 1973 on Charisma
The Seth Man, May 2004ce
It could be argued that Peter Hammill’s first half dozen solo releases were in essence Van der Graaf Generator with a name change. Think about it: the supporting evidence isn’t difficult to track as most of Hammill’s initial period of solo records released during VdGG’s interregnum of 1972-1975 continued by and large to utilise the backing musical imbroglios of VdGG (not only Hugh Banton, David Jackson and Guy Evans but also the long-departed Nic Potter); they are not dissimilar to VdGG proper (especially since VdGG’s first album “Aerosol Grey Machine” began life as a Hammill solo album) and during this period of VdGG inactivity from “Pawn Hearts” until “Godbluff” Hammill’s series of albums had a burning intent not unlike “Pawn Hearts” -- namely, how Hammill’s expressions of personal transfiguration would rise from the ashes over and over again to constantly create and reassemble past themes into entirely new editions of his vision. (It may be enough at this point, but didja ever notice that “Pawn Hearts” and Peter Hammill share the same initials?)

Although Hammill’s first solo album “Fool’s Mate” was released prior to VdGG’s “Pawn Hearts,” this latter-named album would be a strong influence and chart the course for Hammill’s successive four albums, based as they were upon the same set of dark, brooding musical complexities already aligned and hardwired directly into Hammill’s lyrics and vision. And this set of thematic relating is apparent with his second solo album, “Chameleon In The Shadow Of The Night” as it explicitly illustrates the exhaustive psychic aftermath felt in the wake of “Pawn Hearts.” For “Chameleon” displayed a continuation of Hammill’s inward-bound penetrations now forced to delve even deeper into stark and darkly witnessed personal apocalypses as he spun them trance-like into lyrics that wove across entire gatefolds and lyric sheets in spidery calligraphy with obsessively cryptic liner notes. Here ballads become personal outpourings of sentiments left to wriggle raw and alive in the open air from plaintive wails, violent despair and psychotic raging to the sentimental though no less emotionally painful travails of relationships lost. In fact, the only major difference between solo Hammill and Van der Graaf albums proper was in the appearance of -- at least, by VdGG standards -- far shorter songs. But even at their briefer lengths they still wove cocoons so mental that merely attempting to keep abreast with processing their lyrics and fitful deliveries as they surge forward through their equally unpredictable musical measures are enough to keep me spellbound every time because even when Hammill’s singing about his own observations or feelings of alienation -- no matter how mundane -- he’s able to imbue it with such a proportion of passionate self-renewal, it feels as though some timeless myth is being re-enacted. Which for ANY record (not least of all a record issued on Charisma in 1973) was no mean feat, indeed.

The album begins with the brusquely strummed acoustic ballad, “German Overalls” as electronically altered background vocals insinuate and weave in unreal whisperings behind the lead voice’s thrusts of cut and paste imagery of the routine, hand-to-mouth and rushed trudge of life on the road with VdGG while dealing with the creeping suspicions of “can this be real/or am I becoming a performing seal?” It is all harsh busking but for the entry of calming harmonium against the imagery of foreign cathedrals towards the end of the track where he admits for the first of many times throughout the record, “I think I don’t know what is real.” But the piece ends as unresolved as both Hammill’s own doubts and doubts and the freaky electronics that skitter frontward and backwards to end the piece with ultimate dis-ease; as if in reminder of how the acid-fuelled mental residence of VdGG had finally cracked apart at the seams. A gentle acoustic enters with the romantic musings of “Slender Threads” where an encounter with an ex-girlfriend’s photo in a magazine that passes in front of him becomes a full blown obsessive reflection on what was, what could be and what would happen ‘if.’ But the sounds then turn to rougher measures that pre-date the stripped down sensibilities Hammill would wind up fully exploring three albums later on his unexpected rant’n’roll departure, “Nadir’s Big Chance.” Against rhythm e-guitar unswervingly downstroking down and downer as over-recorded bass, squawking Jaxon sax and Guy Evans’ clatterfest drumming, Hammill lashes out at the image-obsession and marketing in rock’n’roll with a straightforward and for all appearances one-take rock’n’roll barbed missive. As though to offer time to reflect on Hammill’s heated words, it wends its way into a wayward jam to cool off...for the time being. The elongated “In The End” is Hammill singing and playing the piano which mutates into a building series of hoarse outcries of self-recrimination and doubt accompanied by banging the keys down as though to assert his will over his many doubts as once more he states he is “trying hard to make it all real.” (I swear, if he tried any harder then my vinyl copy of “Chameleon In The Shadow Of The Night” would have assumed the form of a talking board eons ago.)

Side two opens with “What’s It Worth” and it’s as though one weight has heaved off his heart, while another begins to develop as Hammill’s acoustic guitar and flute dance peaceably through scenarios of possible futures at once both whimsical and grim. Switching to minor chord piano is “Easy To Slip Away” with Hammill returning to the subject of VdGG’s “Refugees” as he name-checks his old pals Mike and Susie and laments the ever-widening gaps between his once close friendships growing ever wider. Once the delicately sung “Dropping The Torch” slips into silence with the final line of “life gets more lonely and less reeeeal...” all is then curtly interrupted by those strident and distinctly VdGG footsteps tramping down all tranquility with disjointed, violent cadences that surge into the heavily distended two-part finale, “(In The) Black Room” which surrounds “The Tower” fore and aft like a raging moat at emotional high tide white-capped with the swollen anticipation of the dam of all sanity and sense about to let loose in a big way. And since it’s been creaking under the weight of Hammill freaking out with all the “thinking about thinking” for the past half an hour, it has no other choice but to do so and forthwith. For the final time he re-states the veritable theme of the album, “It’s all unreal/the way I feel” opening up a conveyer belt of Pandora’s boxes with crazy dynamisms in the music and Hammill’s own vocal exorcisms that range from whispery quietude to vein-popping, blood curdling screams that combine into vertiginous fun house passages that is “(In The) Black Room”/“The Tower” -- For here Hammill’s vocals become “tesseraschizoid warblings,” Guy Evans’ drums are the Thundering Horsemen of the Darkest Dawn, David Jackson produces screams in the night and icy waterfalls while Hugh Banton’s customized organ is The Rack it’s all placed upon.

“Chameleon In The Shadow Of The Night” ends on an intense but weirdly unresolved endgame much in the way the coda to “Pawn Hearts” is an equally open-ended finale representing symbolic death, rebirth or both. And although haunted by a constant plague of the unreal, loss and guaranteed undoing Peter Hammill had already staked his claim as a true artist and visionary poet who followed his muse to the very edge of Land’s End and beyond...and survived.