Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Van der Graaf Generator - World Record

Van der Graaf Generator
World Record

Released 1976 on Charisma
Reviewed by Fitter Stoke, 17/06/2003ce

‘World Record’ is the final album by the classic Hammill/Banton/Jackson/Evans line up of Van der Graaf Generator and the last part of the almighty (unintended) trilogy that the band released upon a criminally indifferent world following its reformation in 1975. It seems amazing in this age of one album every three years that a band could create three masterpieces like ‘Godbluff’, ‘Still Life’ and ‘World Record’ inside eighteen months, notwithstanding the two radically different albums (‘Nadir’s Big Chance’ and ‘Over’) conceived by their principal creative force within the same period.

To the unwary, ‘World Record’ has all the appearance of one of those albums that punk was meant to belittle and destroy. Just five tracks, with the two on its second side alone lasting almost as long as the whole of the roughly contemporaneous first Damned LP, on the same label as Genesis fergawdsakes, and with only the lack of a gatefold sleeve to rescue its outward credibility. All assembled by a bunch of university graduates headed by a pompous sounding Michael Palin lookalike. Not encouraging. But, but, but…you pass this over at your peril. For ‘World Record’ ROCKS, not in any conventional way, but within every one of its fifty-odd (and often VERY odd) minutes. It’s simultaneously as far away from punk on the one hand and po-faced prog on the other as its possible to go.

For example, how many prog bands of that or any other time would end a song (or “piece”…ugh) with a seven minute reggae jam? That’s what happens at the close of ‘Meurglys III (The Songwriter’s Guild)’, Hammill’s epic paean to the guitar he has miraculously discovered after seven albums of almost axeless VdGG activity. And the biggest surprise of all is the rather agreeable racket he makes upon it, following on perfectly from the alternate fits and sobs of his typically manic and operatic show in the track’s preceding 14 minutes. It’s a stunner of a song, built around what sounds like a deconstructed Sparks ‘Kimono’-period non-riff, over which Hammill “mainly just talks to plants and dogs” and is “acting God in (his) own universe”, while the band rock like sin. And of course, the patent Hammill/VdGG contrasting quiet and introspective bits are there to give full dramatic weight and value. At his best, as here, the man veers between the lowest lows and highest highs almost at a whim. But it’s never forced, he always sounds real, even when letting rip his most mental anguish-fests as the crazed, multitracked “Talking in tongues is easy”section eight and a half minutes in. It’s one of the album’s most arresting and powerful moments, and forms the song’s emotional apex where Van der Graaf rock like no-one else. At times like this, and on earlier belters like ‘Still Life’s ‘La Rossa’, ‘Pawn Hearts’ ‘Man Erg’ and ‘H To He’s’ ‘Killer’, you realise that there’s been no more powerful band from this sceptered isle before or since. And I’m not talking Motorhead volume-related power here – hell, any bastard can do that – but power born of dynamics, of subtlety, of contrast, and most of all, real emotiveness. It’s there in the album’s mighty opener ‘When She Comes’ as well, a song with more changes of time signature than the collective works of Anton Webern, not that you’d ever notice. Every time change, every shift of tempo, volume, mood – has a reason and a meaning. How many Genesis “pieces” can boast that?

‘World Record’ also features two of Hammill’s most emotive and beautiful songs, ‘Wondering’ and ‘Masks’, the former a natural partner to ‘Still Life’s awesome ‘Pilgrims’ in its grand hymn-like feel and big, BIG closing refrain with a chord sequence that will bring all but the most ardent Skrewdriver fan to complete tears. It’s one hell of an end to one hell of an album, but its bettered further still by its partner at the end of Side One. A deceptively simple sounding song, with an almost laughably complicated middle section (with another Hammill trademark, too many words for the music around it), ‘Masks’ is the best song you could ever play to exhibit the Larry Olivier of rock and roll at his peak. Check this out:
“He’s a man, of the parrrsssttt
And ooooooooone arrrrrrrve the present
A maaan
Who hides behind a marrsssk
Behind a maaaaaaAAAAARRRRRRRSK
Be-leeeeeeeeeeeeeeiving.. it COOL..to be…
Or that the game
Is all about who larrrrfffs…
The laaaaarrst…”
Of course, this isn’t how the lyrics are set out in the accompanying lyric sheet. But this is how they come across. It’s our Peter at his most exaggerated and melodramatic best, almost self-parody in fact, and its damn well perfect. And the end will pin you to the wall:
…possibly the longest held note in rock vocal history? You decide.

That leaves only ‘A Place To Survive’, where VdGG almost get funky. But not for long. Any even accidendal attempt at a groovy commercial sound is trashed to pieces by the track’s decent into avant garde at its end. You’ll tap your feet and tear your hair out inside ten cool minutes.

The common generalisation that rock music had disappeared up its own pretentious backside in the immediate period before the Rotten one burst upon us gives no credit to one of that icon’s own heroes, who ploughed a rare furrow of creativity, vitality and total individuality throughout the 1970’s. Indeed, the clever RCA adverts that boasted “There’s old wave, new wave and there’s David Bowie” could even more appropriately have been applied to the great unsung English genius that was (and at times still is) Peter Hammill. ‘World Record’ saw Hammill at the peak of his powers, at just the moment when ‘Anarchy In The UK’ blew apart a largely stagnant rock scene. I put it to all of you discerning heads out there that ‘World Record’ was, and is, every bit as corrosive, addictive and absolutely essential.

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