Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Peter Hammill—
Nadir's Big Chance


Released 1975 on Charisma
The Seth Man, August 2008ce
Although the anomaly of Hammill’s first batch of solo albums on the Charisma label, “Nadir’s Big Chance” was just as articulate and intense as the four that preceded it. But for the first time, Hammill wound up committing to vinyl an injection of inspiration gleaned from reflections as a musician, singer and songwriter looking forward through a backwards glance that revealed to him how Rock’n’Roll was when it first turned him on: In smaller circuits and small venues an equal amount of high energy, excitement and innocence. Tearing it up. Going nuts. Leaping about. Swinging from the rafters. Unselfconsciously letting one go.

Early days.

‘Some of today’s violence is innocence defending itself’ ran the memorable headline in a 1970 advertisement for Van der Graaf Generator’s “Refugees” single and it’s one that also suits “Nadir’s.” The album’s violence (one born out of the frustration passing out from youthful optimism to create, not to destroy) was directed at those for whom experience failed in its higher purpose of transcendence by merely coagulating into cynicism by hardening their hearts, clogging their arteries with the plaque of greed and making their minds hidebound with indifference. The maintenance of innocence against the grind of experience is essential in life to health, happiness and may also go a long way to promoting longevity (This isn’t somebody else’s quote, I just thought it as “Nadir’s Big Chance” came blowing out of the loudspeakers because I’m fucked up that way.) It’s probably also true that it’s a big factor that has contributed mightily to Rock’n’Roll’s enduring power for over a half a century (and still going awn.)

But what definitely is true is that the above sentiments are at the core of the double-valved heart of “Nadir’s” -- Dealing with early life experiences, passion, and attitudes of rock’n’roll, and keeping all those things real all at once. Its other foundation is the painful awakening that accompanies the angst-riddled reflections on friends, lovers and time passing by while leaving its wake awash with dark ruminations that linger forever.

“Nadir’s” can be viewed as a culmination of a small collection of ideas whose germination lay in Hammill’s earliest solo works. His first album, “Fool’s Mate” was, as he stated himself in the liner notes, a return to roots. With a conspicuous dearth of epics replaced by a programme consisting of far shorter songs, several originals written in the sixties and its many references to the past, the same elements also landed squarely in place on “Nadir’s Big Chance.” (Although regarding the sonic textures, arrangements and performances, the two albums couldn’t be further apart: There were no session players, mandolins or flutes present on “Nadir’s” while Peter Hammill’s own production of the album limited its palette to create a forthright sound and a durable balance between his voice and the music.)

In the period between “Fool’s Mate” and “Nadir’s Big Chance,” an earlier and smaller chance of proto-Nadir first materialised on “Rock And Rôle” from his second album, “Chameleon In The Shadow of Night.” The lyrics hark forward to the front cover imagery and arrangement of “Nadir’s” with its line of “emotion picture/re-run at single frame” while VdGG woodwindsmith David Jackson was credited as ‘Randolph (a), The Honker’: a reference not only to Jackson’s own blaring stylings, but framing it with the author of the rambunctious rock’n’roll instrumental, “Yakety Sax.” The approach and sentiment of this isolated, raucous track would sprawl throughout “Nadir’s” as similarly stripped-down performances were also forthcoming from Hugh Banton, Guy Evans and most of all: Hammill himself. Perhaps it was their two-year layover as a group, for the now reformed Van der Graaf Generator (re-assembled by Hammill for the “Nadir’s sessions”) had shedding all previous motivations and gained a solidly unified and economical sound in the process. Jackson unleashed waves of satyristic sax, Guy Evans’ drumming was brutal spartan purity itself as Banton reigned o’er and reined in his customised organ while switching between bass and clavinet whenever Hammill (besides singing and shouting or brandishing electric and acoustic guitars) felt the need to play the other.

Hammill also played another ‘other’ by assuming the identity of one Rikki Nadir, an eternal sixteen-year-old doyen of punk mysterioso wielding a bad attitude and ice blue Fender Stratocaster in all-black gear and mirror shades whose Rock’n’Roll approach was exciting, direct and passionate: Namely, by banging his heart and head against the walls while simultaneously bouncing off them as he told you simply and clearly what you need -- not want -- to hear. Like Nadir and his uncompromising teen-angst worldview, the sleeve was entirely monochromatic and for the first time, lyrics were not reproduced (Nadir don’t need you to know if you can’t feel ‘em and besides, all those words would make it too much like school or sumpin’ and you should be too busy stompin’ along with your feet, goin’ all nuts’n’stuff, anyway.)

This was all a far cry from Hammill’s previous cheesecloth-clad presentation accompanied by surrealistic sleeve designs, colour gatefolds and printed lyrics. The musical content matched the sleeve in its stripped down qualities, featuring many rant’n’roll flashpoints that were unlike anything else he (or his three cohorts, for that matter) had ever released. Up to this point, his material was almost evenly split between a dark miscellany of his own reflections (via unadulterated Van der Graaf Generatorian complexities) or mused through lovelorn ballads performed on acoustic guitar and/or piano. Although “Nadir’s” does lull in those latter realms for about half its duration, the rest of the time Hammill’s usual sense of incisive clarity, now refracted through Nadir’s blowtorch, burned white hot. From the very first song comes a ballistic tantrum backed by Stratocaster buzzsawing kicking up a series of squalls with a set of burnished brass balls to sweep aside all previous protracted VdGG-styled illuminations. Unidentifiable until Hammill acknowledged it as such in the liners to last year’s CD reissue of “Nadir’s Big Chance” is his use of lap steel over-amplified to great tilt-a-whirl effect (I always figured on it being tape-manipulated, customised organ runs by Banton, but there you go.) It’s as if Hammill took a blast from the past (one of many that pass throughout the album) cue from Glenn Ross Campbell, via Guy Evans’ former, short-lived stint in the latter-day Misunderstood because the bridge where the steel trades off with the rhythm guitar while a third guitar throws rude accents in between is the nearest thing to “Children of The Sun” recorded anywhere in 1974.

The album’s first vocals aren’t even lyrics, but a count off and an immediate indication that Hammill’s not going to be launching into a pent-up psychodrama. Nope: here on the title track of “Nadir’s Big Chance” it’s a place where he’s rearing his head back with open mouth pointing upwards directly atop his spine going “AHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!” letting loose the tempest in his mind with a quiverful of burning lyrics just like those arrows with ‘fire at both ends and burning at the centre’ he first fired on VdGG’s (even then) ancient ’68 B-side, “Firebrand.” But like said arrows, he doesn’t dispatch them to their usual placement at album’s end as cumulative catharsis but lets ‘em fly loose at both start and finish so that “Nadir’s” itself has a ‘fire at both ends’ fore and aft a wide swath of five songs. These remain as a desolate landscape poisoned by loss and heartache that bear little relation to those psychotic reactions it flanks. As zone of reflection, it spans both album sides while gathering together themes into a travelogue of Hammill’s heart where long-departed friends, lovers and places are met at points of departure...where they inevitably vanish.

“Institute of Mental Health, Burning’” is the singularity of a very singular album. It doesn’t fit in, but...it does. As a collaborative song of ‘outsanity’ by Hammill and earliest VdGG cohort Chris Judge-Smith, it’s lighthearted, absurd and plain sinister but somehow maintains its mysterious unresolved qualities by being all those at once. Located somewhere between “Moribund the Burgomeister” by Peter Gabriel and “Surreal Estate” by Be-Bop Deluxe, it’s far less overdone with no Ezrin session men descending chords or multi-tracked whistling but more inexplicable than psychobabble by letting the psychosis bubble and rise to the surface in uneasy pools while burblings from unknown instrumentation permeate the background. The coda of incessant “Burning, burning, burning, burning, burning, burning, burning...” goes on way too long for comfort like the sped-up laughter on “Bike” does. It dips and rises in key until a sudden echo effect explodes upon the vocals to halt and explode the whole thing in its tracks.

Just when you think now is the time when the first ballad enters, “Open Your Eyes” begins instead. With a fade-in on the tail end of a blaring Ram Jam brand soul blow, Hammill switching from a crazed soul deejay (“Open your eyes, baby! Yeah, OK, baby! OK! Alright! Alright!”) into an inordinately proper: “One, two, three, four.” Hahahahaha...Even the music matches the switch into the calm count-off with a mournful, sole organ placement...only for everything to step up into a monstrous soul beating bearing down on banked turns at full speed. Fragmented details of a half-told story about an incident at an early concert, Hammill and company blow right through the roof while Banton filigrees an amazingly detailed yet tempestuous organ. The whole band is blowing down with this big assed soul-stomper, and it would be exhausting enough in it own right if it weren’t just before the storm hits that is...

“Nobody’s Business.”

Now THIS is one disorienting track, and the mind-manifesting apex of the entire album. Was this really recorded in December, 1974 by an artist signed to the famous Charisma label? With the same line-up responsible for “Pawn Hearts”? Yup, and even now I’m still nonplussed as to HOW exactly. “Nobody’s Business” is THE fucking business. An uneasy lurch, Banton unleashes hugely doubled-up bass clusters against careening Stratocaster noises, and “Nobody’s Business” commences. Its subject may be the same model friend he first sang of on “Chameleon In The Shadow of Night” in the song “Slender Threads.” But whereas then he asked, “Jenny, a penny for your thoughts,” he’s now discarding all connections to her while disorienting echo upon his double-tracked vocals casts his words into violent shifting. The song tilts, Hammill rages, and that tempest in his mind’s now at a fever pitch. Darkened echo casts further shadows upon his vocals to make them shudder even more venomously over his passing friendship as her fading looks and newspaper clippings are left to bleach and wither in the light of the ever-present moment of now as the door slams shut on its bellowing psychosis...

...and another opens with an acoustic strum and Hammill’s fine, fragile-toned voicing of the title, “Been Alone So Long.” Whew. This signals the point where once Nadir’s aggression has been brought forward and wrung dry (for the time being), now comes the soothing but painful afterglow of plaintive reflection. Beginning a loose-knit succession of five songs, Hammill’s taking some time off to reflect and...It’s a series of bummers. He’s thinking about ex-girlfriends, has extensive pining reveries, bouts of alienation and even reflects on the death of an ancient city with the slow fade-in into the arid climes of “Pompeii.” With a set of buffeting drums resounding in hypnotically measured syncopation, the slow tempo’d backing from Jackson and Banton keeps the low and mournful resonance paired equally with Hammill’s Coleridge-like reflections on that snuffed-out city as he compares it fore and aft Vesuvius turned it into a souvenir ashtray. This track and the preceding one are rendered more in the established style of Hammill’s balladeering with acoustic guitar/piano/both to the fore than the previous Rikki Nadir tracks, and this spills over into side two with “Shingle Song.” Here, the sombre mood is retained, sustained and becomes deeper still with its twin ballad, “Airport.” Although describing two very different places -- the terminus of an overcast beach and an airport runway -- both hold horizontal planes that coincidence with Hammill’s observations of effects extending beyond his reach into their respective vanishing points of sand and sea or runway and sky. Whether strand or observation deck, he’s observing the love passing from his future life in the vast emptiness he sees before him. And that same vastness sounds as if it’s now taken a permanent hold in his heart.

Things get upbeat with “People You Were Going To,” but only relatively so, as the lyrics deal yet again with lost love. Far less arch than it was in 1968 as the A-side of VdGG’s debut single, it’s revisited here in a fresh update that seems to act as a summary of all the people and things that for the past four tracks of lovelorn passage “have left/gone far away.”

After this, the record reprises into the much-needed shift into hormoaning, high gear of the previous side’s rant’n’roll with “Birthday Special.” Here, Jackson’s having a wild weekend on honkin’ sax, Evans triples up with resoundingly thudding tom-tom fills, Hugh Banton fills in on rumbling bass clusters while Hammill’s introductory guitar razoring gets the blood flowing in exactly the same amassed, flurry-out-of-nowhereness as Keith Levene’s opening split silver headstock’d guitar buzzsaw on “Public Image.” Hammill’s vocals are at their fiercest as they draw out single syllables forever describing a party where half the guests got loaded, threw up in the bathroom and fell over in the sitting room. The ones that didn’t left hours ago, which leaves only Rikki Nadir (who at most only downed a pair of brandies but his vision is clear and his inner game has been peaking with each passing moment) alone with guest of honour: the birthday girl herself. Only she’s no girl (she’s a lady) and she’s currently gazing directly back at him through the hazy blur of the late night kitchen with its table and countertops littered with dishes, glasses, drained bottles and torn gift wraps. Rikki is randy even without the brandy (cos he’s feeling fucking dandy) and is extending to her his invite d’amour in plain English and unspoken visual cues in the form of a big pressie wrapped in leather and mirror shades...Him! He’s not even all over her and she’s already smiling herself into a dreamy surrender cos after all: he’s the only motherfucker of the party with enough class to remain standing on his own two feet. Result!

Hot on the heels of an abrupt cease and desist, the four piece band launch into the final tirade that is “Two Or Three Spectres.” Verbally railing against “all the propagated lies/‘bout what the whole thing’s for” in Rock’n’Roll and musically nailing it like Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” minus the constipated duck, the cumulative effect is sharp-cornered and made to snap at attention while pushing drinks off the nightclub tables where the aforementioned spectres sit on indolent seats. Nadir’s radar vehemently hones in on the music biz via a few specific spectres blipping most prominently on his screen: the record company executives, the pop music press and stadium concertgoers. All are exposed at great length with chainsaw surgical expertise AND with all the gusto of one who’s had it, can’t take it anymore and seeks to tear down the curtain of knowing smiles, wiles, denials and expose it all like Peter Finch did in “Network” -- but only if he was in a Rock band and not some loose cannon television anchor rockin’ the boat. Banton’s few notes of descending clavinet hang lightly above Evans’ thud drums, Jaxon’s whiz-bang sax, Hammill’s profundo bass but all are nearly drowned out by his vocal agitations (There’s even a string of verbiage expelled at great length and speed that never even made it to the first publication of the album’s lyrics in Hammill’s 1982 collection, “Mirrors, Dreams And Miracles.” After referring to the ‘gentlemen of the press,’ he sputters out in brain-beating acceleration: ‘NowIjustthoughtthatwasahardlinetosingaboutthemanywayitsmaddening…!’)

A live audience tape erupts out of nowhere to pair with Hammill’s final, über-echo-drenched verse about mass audiences as a pointed backdrop to what rock’n’roll had finally become: a soulless spectator sport of Nuremberg Rally proportions bereft of the exuberance of the recent past. With a delivery of ten thousand words in a spectacular display of controlled vitriol that belies its simplicity, the album fades out on the mass crowd enthusiastically responding to the entry of the sax. ‘Ten thousand peace signs/they look different from the back...’

Luckily, it didn’t ALL stay that way. But a statement like “Nadir’s Big Chance” addressed it, along with two or three other concerns, openly and very succinctly.

- Dedicated to Julian Cope, because he knows.