Van Der Graaf Generator - Vital

Van Der Graaf Generator

Released 1978 on Charisma
Reviewed by Jim Tones, 01/04/2004ce

"From the Most Extreme Live Band in The World - The Most Extreme Live Album"

The above statement was the the full page advert seen in the music weeklies that hit you in the face in that fair summer of 1978.
Maybe it should have added in brackets "(well, in a dark-prog sense!)".......

From 1967 to 1972, VDGG carved out a niche in the music underground and attained a sizeable cult following.
Their sound was an impressive barrage which utilised Hugh Banton's modified Organ sound and Dave Jackson's Electric Reeds wired through a custom-built pedalboard, not to mention the flailed drumwork by Guy Evans and all topped with Peter Hammill's deep lyrics delivered with those extraordinary vocals.
The undoubted high-point of this era was the "Pawn Hearts" album, then....they split up.

Hammill then recorded a couple more of his solo albums, all the while using some of the former VDGG members.
In 1974 he recorded his most talked about album- "Nadir's Big Chance" which was released in Feb.1975- then out of the blue- VDGG re-formed- followed by headlines in the music press and coming forth with statements saying that they "were waiting for the rest of the world to catch up".

In true unexpected style, this only lasted a couple of years, as Banton and Jackson left, not before leaving a trio of great albums in "Godbluff", "Still Life" and "World Record".
Hammill and Drummer Guy Evans brought along former Bass Guitarist Nic Potter, who left, apparently, as he was spooked out with Hammill's delving into the occult, although this probably meant that PH was reading a few books rather than practicing any rituals!
Hammill was a close friend of 'tragic magus' and R&B stalwart- Graham Bond, who gave Hammill much encouragement circa 1968, when he was starting out.

The other new members were Violinist Graham Smith, formerley with fellow Charisma label outfit String Driven Thing and later Charles Dickie who added Cello, Electric Piano and Synthesizer.

NB- The 'Generator' tag was now dropped...

"Vital" was recorded at London's Marquee Club on January 16th 1978 in front of a heaving throng of devotees, this night was advertised in the gig guides as a "special live recording".....and I had the 'flu.....damn!

Dave Jackson also put in an appearance (he was working as a van driver at the time).

I've heard people describe this as "like trying to swim in a sea of molasses", "utterly detestable" and "criminal".
I think it's a masterpiece of a live album, it contains brand new material, recent material and some 'old faves' and yet they are all played with a dark, malignant air hanging around them.

Guy Evans did a masterful job on the sound, especially as he rescued Dave Jackson's contribution after some of the channels on the live mobile recording unit had conked out.

Hammill straps on an Electric Guitar, cranks it up and gives a few chipped scratches and we're on board "Ship Of Fools".
'Swimming through molasses?' Nope, not to me, nor to a few more VDGG listeners out there, but it's the album which would provoke instant reactions with opposite poles of opinion in the hearts of many followers.

"...those sad sweet's a ship of fools" spits out Hammill while the ensemble add to the story- I think every player here delivers a blinding performance- Guy Evans is one of the greatest UK Drummers around, Nic Potter's distorted Bass adds some steel balls, while Smith's Violin soars across the scene like an odd hybrid somewhere between Urban Blitz and Jean Luc Ponty, but without the pomposity of a proms gathering.

If you are getting married, or are married and feeling a bit down with your lot- DO NOT listen to "Still Life", this was from their 1976 album of the same name and was a potent version in it's original form- but here - it's as if the paranoia, restfulness and final resigned state of the song's subjects have exploded asunder - certainly not one to spin at a wedding reception while auntie betty chomps on a chicken drumstick by your side. The last few lines of this song are incredible with the vision that unfolds in your head.

"Last Frame" is from the recent (as was then of course) "Quiet Zone" album, delivered in a mood expertly suited to the lyric, giving a description of the loner in the darkroom "dealing in space and time".
Hammill then addresses Charles Dickie for the Electric Piano intro to "Mirror Images" by letting loose a swagger of "Monsieur....S'il Vous Plait!!"
Dave Jackson's fragile Flute adds a 'quiet' moment to the only frail segment on this album.

A great tapestry of Piano, Violin and treated Cello takes us into a version of a section (or two) of "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers".
Here Hammill puts more woompf into his delivery- "...and if I talk...I'll...I'll...I'll CRACK THE GLASS!!"
Probably the only vocalist who can sound like a choirboy one moment then a rabid heretic the next.

After sliding into "The Sleepwalkers", we're back in time to "Pioneers Over C" from 1970's "He To He" album and never has an 'old classic' been given such a boot up the arse. A stormer of a version.
Then there was Nic Potter's flanged Bass Guitar, sounding like things to come via Barry Adamson in Magazine- who were freshly formed at this moment in time.

Another 'new' number next- "Sci-Finance"- and with lines like "Jobs for the boys and dole for the shop floor" and "Clever money-computers chatting privately"- if this was uttered by anyone from the 'new-wave' ranks at the time, they would have been hailed a genius. Hell, PH was only 'pushing thirty' at this time.

Hammill's Voice and lyrics are barbed in more ways than one, as once they hook into you, they never really leave.
The sound of Hammill's polite voice to introduce the track "Door" is a suprise when you've just heard the sounds spewing out of his mouth a few minutes before- that said- I saw them live in late 1976 and he was far from polite with the audience which I thought was great.
While members of the audience shouted for them to play their desired request, Hammill snorted-"Look! we KNOW what we are going to play...Okay?!!".... Still, this IS a special live recording after all, must be on your best behaviour!

Another newie- "Urban" slides into the one everyone used to shout for, the magnificent "Killer"- again, a great reminder of Evans' work in getting Jackson's Reed work to come to the fore.

Ah now, the encore being the title track from the landmark Hammill solo LP-"Nadir's Big Chance".....
As is always paraded out in conversation when people discuss the 'prog to punk time' - John Lydon was invited on to London's Capitol Radio in 1977 to play some of his favourite music.
Everyone had expected him to play the NY Dolls, Stooges etc. to add to the drummed up (non-)myth that the press tried to weave (whilst many journalists got their mums to 'take their flares in' on the sewing machine!), instead he plays a few good Reggae toons, Tim Buckley, and "Institute of Mental Health is Burning" from the 'Nadir' album...I digress.....

This is a blistering version of that title track and interesting that part of the original lyric being "...Look at all the JERKS their tinsel glitter suits..." (1974)... has been changed on this outing to "...look at all the JERKS their leather bondage suits...."

It comes as no suprise that Messers Lydon and (The Fall mainman) Mark E Smith are big VDGG / Hammill fans.
VDGG were an 'outsiders' group and dealt with the human condition and weren't afraid to open up the carbuncles (and not the windmills) of your mind and have a thorough snoop inside.

Most VDGG fans have heard this album.
Newcomers and people who like delving into past 'influential' or cult musics, be it prog, psyche or whatever, just may find this LP has a certain pull that's irresistable.

Within a matter of months it was all over.
I wonder what the next album would have been like?
Banton and Jackson may have come back and they could've had a seven-piece line up!!
Ho hum...Per chance to dream.
So a summing up of this jigsaw piece in the whole of the VDGG story. I would say it's.....well.....Vital!

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