Julian Cope’s Album of the Month

Van Der Graaf Generator - Pawn Hearts

Van Der Graaf Generator
Pawn Hearts

AOTM #36, May 2003ce
Released 1971 on Charisma Records
  1. Lemmings (11.39)
  2. Man-erg (10.21)
  3. A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers (23.00)

Note: “I know I’m not a killer, but I hope that I’m not DAMNED!!!” When Peter Hammill sung these words on 1972’s PAWN HEARTS, I believed he sung them directly to me. It was a theme that was to surface throughout my first twenty-five years on this planet, during my teenage years, but especially through the experimental LSD times spent in the manipulative hands of Bill Drummond and Dave Balfe, both of whom regularly called me evil to my tripping face. However, unlike Hammill, this speak tore down my self-belief and, furthermore, helped to replace it with the kind of teflon-coated heathenism that exists to this day. Peter Hammill appears to speak to everyone he touches with the same level of cosmic power. Those who don’t plug in, well he ain’t no evangelist so screw ya! But if it’s soft-hearted hard-voiced CS Lewis-baiting pastoralism you need from your rock’n’roll, look to Pete Hammill as the Ult – a weird psychic combination of Bruce Lee and Bruce Easily.

A Kelt in a Krautrock Style

First time I ever heard PAWN HEARTS was in a shitty Torquay hotel where I was working in summer 1972. I was drunk on QC sherry and freaking out an 18-year-old girl called Karen, who was acid tripping and convinced that I was bringing her down. I was 15 and didn’t know what that meant, but the music was such a cack-off cacophony that I had to inform her “It ain’t me, babe!” It was the first time I’d thought what a racket progressive rock could be. Yet I already knew Faust and early Magma, so this lot (British too, so they shoulda known better) were surely just trying to be cantankerous. How I adored this record. However, thirty-one years and a coupla hundred spins later, I’m still genuinely disorientated by this extremely everything LP, and even more in Shock’n’awe of Peter Hammill than I was all those ye-hars ago. For one thing, I now know the technology he had at his group’s disposal and STILL it sound fucking well weird. Dear me, Pete, you were on the famous Charisma label with good old Lindisfarne and Genesis and the Nice and Audience - couldn’t you have tried a bit harder to fit in?

PAWN HEARTS is progressive rock the way the East Germans played it. Not even the West Germans really managed such truly minging combinations of Brecht and primal scream therapy. This was rock’n’roll only because no other category would fit, and rock’n’roll was slack enough to accommodate this mongrel gang of weaners whose only common ground was that everyone hated them all. Peter Hammill sounds so posh you almost think he’s a council kid putting it on to wind up everybody. He played the same funky Hohner Clavinet that Sly Stone wa’d into Stonkerville, but Hammill reduces it to a damp and tortured Scando-Germanic post-folk harpsichord reminiscent of one of P.V. Glob’s strangled Iron Age bog victims. David Jackson doesn’t play sax for Van Der Graaf Generator, he plays saxophone and two of them simultaneously and extremely well. His melodies play the Mainman riffs usually reserved for fuzz guitars and contained no blues notes whatsoever. Jakson – as he was occasionally known - was like Chris Wood on JOHN BARLEYCORN MUST DIE as played by Derek Guyler. Unfunkeh! Hugh Banton looked like and WAS an ex-choir boy, but his Godspell backing band attire and pouty gob belied his total immersion in undermining everything achieved by the sum total of all other prog keyboard players. Guy Evans had been in the later (and shit) version of the Misunderstood, but he was the best bassless drummer this side of John Densmore and played with the freedom of one who knows that the bass – what there is – will have to be added later in the session, and always around him. Ain’t no bass sucker gonna follow this rollathon, says Guy, coming in on the 7th beat. Indeed, half the time, the bass was supplied either by Hugh Banton’s low organ notes, or the occasional plucked Fender bass. In many ways, Van Der Graaf Generator bore the same relationship to other prog groups of the early 1970s as the Doors did to contemporary garage and psychedelic bands of the mid-1960s. In other words, not a lot.

My Prog/Gnosis

Van Der Graaf Generator were punks in a prog-rock style1. They had a visionary leader who wrote umpteen songs per week and released new LPs without even telling his record company. But Hammill had no idea when he was good or bad, and the first few releases were patchy dry runs for this remarkable statement called PAWN HEARTS. Indeed, the big surprise about Van Der Graaf is not that they were shit when they failed to come up with the goods. No no, more suprisingly they were just bland and a bit dismissable. Their first LP AEROSOL GREY MACHINE looks great and makes all the right moves, then you take it off and never listen ever again. Their second LP THE LEAST WE CAN DO IS WAVE TO EACH OTHER again looks great and contains one great song called ‘White Hammer’, which is portentous psycho-drama of the first order. However, the rest is self-immersed drywank with only the occasional deeply embarrassingly twee moment thrown in for listeners to gnash their teeth over (“West is Mike and Suzie”, anyone?). Their third LP was the mysteriously-titled H TO HE WHO AM THE ONLY ONE, which looks just fabberoo and even opens with the ‘struthly mossive “Killer”, which is the kind of bedsit prog Marc Almond shoulda covered instead of that obvious stuff by Sydney Barrett. But the rest is contemptible window dressing that comes and goes without ever coming at all. Dammit, they even managed to release a 45 called “Theme One” written for them by George Martin, the Beatles Guy. Shite Attack? U-Betcha! Not a hit? Rather! Nowadays available only on some rare US edition LP? Correctamundo! Y?

Becozz they woz shitty shit shit until PAWN HEARTS and then they became great. Great? They become mega-nificent on this LP. Reet youth, so it were plain sailing from here? Nope, then they split up… Hammill goes on to make reems and reems of deeply weird solo LPs and they get back together in 1975 and… they’z even better! Yup, they are probably the only band to re-form and be better than when they went away. However, as they’d only got a 25% score from the first 4LPs that’s not too hard.

But Van Der Graaf Generator returned with a dry new sound that took that long drawn out LOW SPARK OF HIGH HEEL BOYS meets SHOOT OUT AT THE FANTASY FACTORY-period Traffic stuff (the 14-minutes of “Rollright Stones”, the 7-minutes of “Sometimes I Feel So Uninspired”, and the 12-minute title song “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys”), and Hammill trotted it out on to the Western Iranian plain and played Zarathustra with it. Suddenly, that morbid self-absorption that Stevie’s hollering becomes, in Hammill’s gonzo’d brain, the lone voice of the deserted shaman taking on the Bronze Age chariot-boys from Hell. It’s so damned magnificent I’m convinced Peter Hammill got close to THE TRUTH sometime around that period. Like a Neolithic ridgeway walker who grasps the sky and discovers that it’s actually a false-ceiling just 18 inches above his head, Hammill pushed through the soft barely-coagulated 3-minute egg that separates us from Heaven, and managed to (at least temporarily) live in both places at the same time. The comeback LP was GODBLUFF and it was faultless. Even nowadays, it exists on an entirely different plain to other music. STILL LIFE followed and was just as ruddy out there and unjudgeable. By WORLD RECORD, even I was getting wall-eyed by such 20-minute long titles as “Murglys 3 The Songwriter’s Guild”. But listening now it was me who never got it and Hammill who was just getting going.

PAWN HEARTS Inner gatefold.

The Stone Things are Broken!

But enough, let’s get back to the Album of the Month action. After all, the decision was made to shine the spotlight on this sucker. So just what is it that makes PAWN HEARTS so amazing? Well listen and see what you think. For a start, it’s the beginning of Peter Hammill’s bizarre but successful artistic co-habitation with himself. He’s not singing about anyone else but himself, yet the duets he does with himself actually sound like there’s a bunch of other singers in there too. When Hammill talks about waiting for his saviour, he seems to mean the castrated Attis as much as Jesus the Pastor. His Goddess seems to be both Cybele AND the Virgin. He’s like a newly Christianised Saxon: still willing to invoke Woden when he has to make the journey but content with the shiny guy for 90% of the daytime. Hammill’s a river traveller and a pastoralist, a bringer and a revealer, a giant and a flea AND the most misunderstood man in rock’n’roll – a Kim Fowleyan Loki bound by his accent and an inability rather than a refusal to change it. Look at the gatefold sleeve and that about sums it up. Four make-shift fascistic footballers in black shirts and white ties, in a post-psychedelic super-realist Narnia (Give C.S. a kick from me while you’re there, Pete, will ya?)

“Lemmings” opens the LP drifting in on sweet-voiced acoustics and Mellotron 400 flutes, before a sarcastic Utnapishtim saxophone tells you it’s the fucking Epic of Gilgamesh, and those fucking stone things are BROKEN!!! Ararat is submerged and the last temples of Urartu will never see another fire ritual. The difference between this LP and their previous ‘effort’ is the difference between THE WORLD OF DAVID BOWIE and ZIGGY STARDUST, without any of the graduations in between. In one fell swoop, Hammill has leap-frogged several stages of humanity and clawed, nay bestrode his way up on to Jahve’s own volcano and dumped his own hand-scribed tablets of demands down the God’s own smoke stack.

Also remember when you hear this stuff that Peter Hammill is, on this recording, only about 24 years old though getting decades older by the hour. “Man-erg” was probably the first example of Hammill’s soon-coming tendency to appropriate religious themes to his own ends, paganise them, and send them back-at-ya with such Victorian mawkishness that U-Cannot-fail to blart your head off. Then, the Hammill formula deems thou must cop as un-R&B a saxophone lick as never did roam this planet and play it strident and bavarian with a small ‘b’. Soon, Hammill’s clanking his clavinet as VDGG summon up some o’ that old thyme Brechtian soul from the Nederland Plain. Now, he’s John Hurt as John Merrick screaming “I’m just a man”. I think not, Peter. Where’s the evidence, even amongst your contemporaries, for your being ‘Just A Man’? Yooz a hooligan cleric, a tonsured Viking, a Daft Vader with the voice of Todd Rundgren, David Bowie, Hall & Oates, John Inman, Quatermass and Pet Shop Boy all rolled into one.

Remember the first time you heard “The Soft Parade” title track and wondered when it was all gonna kick in, only it never did? Well, here, instead of berating your earhole sergeant-major-like all the way through (as Hammill is well wont to do), “A Plague of Lighthouse keepers” drifts in and out of control for 23-minutes of standing-on-the-verge-of-getting-it-on-ness, occasionally unleashing ridiculous stentorian extremes, then backing right off into passages of near meditational drift. It should also be noted that this lot use Mellotrons 400 and Mark 2 like they SHOULD be used. Sound FX, train choogles, stampeding elephants, bain’t nowt too gimmicky for our boys. If it was guaranteed to invoke the ancient Gods, then they’d even steep the ARP synthesizer in tea.

PAWN HEARTS is a masterpiece in the old-fashioned sense of the word, that is: it is a musical blueprint on which to build in the future and has as sensibly structured an anti-structure as you could wish for. It is in turns beautiful, ridiculous, foul, overwhelming, irritating, mutating and magnificent. So don’t use this LP to irritate the wanker neighbours when you go out or you may return to find them clad in saffron robes, on a mission both to befriend you and to help you co-host evenings of Mellotron 400-based Pan-Eurasian re-constituted fire festivities. Be forewarned!

  1. Punk and prog don’t mix? Think again, and think hard. And if so, then how come Mark Smith auditioned for Henry Cow, and was still so hurt by their rejection that he called them anti-New Wave snobs in a 1978 letter to me? And how come Howard Devoto and John Rotten ripped Peter Hammill vocal inflections off note-for-note not just in Magazine and PIL but even in the early Buzzcocks and Pistols days? Prog wasn’t all Genesis and Gentle Giant, baby. Ever heard ‘Close to the Edge’ in isolation? Without the wide-eyed George Formby-isms of ‘And you and I’, it’s a massive (though horrible) stun attack clawing and yammering its barbarian way to some kind of enlightenment. It’s Magma’s fascinatingly bad 2nd LP 1001 DEGREES CENTIGRADE mercifully de-loused of all the Blood, Sweat & Tears jazz. Chris Squire never lost his psychedelic roots even if Bill Bruford never gained them, and there’s plenny more out there without having to resort to the kind of Canterbury cup-of-tea Gong/Caravan/Hatfield tosspottery beloved of so many.