The Charisma Years: 1970-1978 by Van der Graaf Generator

Release date: September 3, 2021
Label: UMC / Virgin EMI

In the very first season of the premiere episode of the Turner Classic Movies podcast The Plot Thickens, host Ben Mankiewicz asks filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich on why there were so many presumptions about him. His was response was simple; “I became successful, famous early on that irritates people. Some people. Jealousy, envy, irritation, maybe they don’t like my pictures. I certainly have self-confidence to a degree which scares people sometimes.

For Van der Graaf Generator’s music, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Whether it’s the distortions, blaring Saxes, or Hammill’s vocal styles, they are often one of the most misunderstood bands to come out of the genre of what is known as Progressive Rock. This is a band that just broke the rule book and created their own terrifying beauty that would send shivers down your spine.

Among followers from Marc Almond, Mark E. Smith, David Bowie, Julian Cope, Bruce Dickinson, Marillion’s Fish, and John Lydon, they have praised their music for many, many years. In an interview that Jim Christopulous who not only co-authored the book about the band in 2005, but talked to the Soft Cell member for an interview on the Trouser Press website on June 8th of last year. Almond described their music as “waves of haunting organ and treated saxophone that made your hair stand on end.”

Whether you get it or not, the arrangements are quite the roller-coaster ride. After the release of their 1969 debut The Aerosol Grey Machine which was only released in the States from the Mercury label, the band would later be released from their contract after Tony Stratton-Smith had cut a deal later to have the band join their management company.

Tony founded Charisma Records and signed the band because no other label wanted to sign them. And this 17-CD / 3 Blu-Ray box set consists of the band’s history with the pink scrolling / mad hatter label by releasing eight albums from 1970 to 1978. And it’s not just both the legacy and their music that is on the box set, but paying tribute to Tony, Nic Potter, and the late great John Peel.

The remixes on the four albums from H to He Who Am the Only One, Pawn Hearts, Godbluff, and Still Life are done by mixing engineer, Stephen W. Tayler. He added the sonic spaces to give their music more opened areas by breaking all the rules with more creativity that he brought to the mixes.

For Tayler, I can imagine it was like being a kid at a candy store to unearth those 16-track tapes. In an interview from the VDGG website, Jim asked Tayler on how he operated the remixes, “When I received the multitrack transfers of the Trident sessions, I instantly understood what had been done in the recordings. More importantly when I listened to the original mixes, I recognized a lot of the particular treatments that had been used in the mix, as you can imagine there were a lot of them.

I wasn’t too sure when I was getting ready to put my earphones and listen to Stephen’s mixes of the classic four. I had felt the same way on how the 1999 remixes was handled for The Beatles Yellow Submarine Songtrack the day the classic film was re-released on both VHS and DVD. It was remixed on a maximum volume that was way too loud. But here, Stephen’s new mixes on the four albums, have been brought to life. You can feel the sound going from one corner to another on your earphones.

The Charisma Years: 1970-1978 is probably going to be on the wish lists between Christmas and Hanukkah this December. The Least We Can Do is Wave to Each Other was the band’s second and their true first “proper” album where the group had total control on what they were going to do, how they were going to do it, and the direction they were going to take.

What Peter Hammill, Guy Evans, Nic Potter, David Jackson, and Hugh Banton brought to the table with their second album was something not just terrifying, but something that was beyond what ELP and Yes were doing. Recorded in four days, pre-Christmas in December of 1969 and released in February 1970, Van der Graaf took the aspects of Albert Einstein, dodecaphony, and Henrich Kramer rolled into one.

‘Refugees’ is a romantic flashback at the time of reflecting the good days when Peter was flat mates with Mike McLean and actress Susan Penhaligon. ‘White Hammer’ which was based on witchcraft in the middle-ages from a book called, Malleus Maleficarum – Hammer of Witches.

There are three sections that cover the subject. The first one deals with clergy – refute denying witchcraft, the second one tackling the actual forms, and the third and final subject to assist judges to confront and combatting the term. You have Garry Salisbury and David Jackson tackling their own taste of the fanfare sections before the climatic eruptive explosion of Banton’s heavy Farfisa organ and David’s nuclear sax creating a mushroom cloud scenario.

‘Whatever would Robert Have Said’ features not only these battling textures and Bowie-sque lyrics in which Hammill’s acoustic guitar goes in for the attack. While Potter plays well on his bass, he can play a mean guitar solo. He adds the boiling level to increase the temperatures more and more by giving the band members more electrical juice to keep up with the pace.

Whenever you read Peter’s lyrics, you can see not only just a songwriter, but a storyteller, script-writer, and a novelist brought to life. He would capture these visual structures that can be weird, surreal, and supernatural. And not only it can be very scary, but it would shivers down your spine.

‘After the Flood’ which closes the album is the beginnings of Nuclear War. Not only there is a post-apocalyptic nightmare thanks to the inspiration of Hauer’s twelve-tone figures that Jackson would play, but the inspiration of the speech that Einstein gave in 1950 entitled, “Peace in the Atomic Era”. As Hammill sings before going into this Dalek-sque scenario, “Every step appears to be the unavoidable consequence of the proceeding one. In the end, beckons more and more clearly total ANNIHILATION!

Third album H to He Who Am the Only One released in the same year in time before Christmas, was one of the band’s heavier albums inspired by two things; Hash and Tequila. Around the time of the album’s recording, Nic left the band. He felt not only he wasn’t ready for a tour schedule, but he was in a bad state during that time frame. So for Banton, he would step to the plate by using his organ bass pedals, and playing bass guitar also.

Tayler’s mix on ‘Killer’ sounds fresh from the blaring introductions that Banton and Jackson created for the killing shark ready to eat its next prey. He brings the midsection clear for Hammill’s double-tracking vocals in the midsection before David’s flute and sax goes in for the punch to let Hugh bring all the rapid firing textures throughout.

‘The Emperor in his War Room’ is a story about a tyrant who not only tortures his victims, but the past and present of the ghostly voices haunts him for all the damage he has caused. And the revelation isn’t pretty.

It has similarities between Edgar Allen Poe and Robert Altman’s 1984 unsung drama on former president Richard Nixon’s one-man show, Secret Honor. The vocalizing reverbs are torturing the Emperor in the middle part of the story as he goes into a frenzy smashing up his own Xanadu thanks to Robert Fripp’s exhilarating guitar work as he along with Evans and Jackson sets up the scenario.

When Hammill screams, “As the impartial knife sinks in your SCREAMING FLESH!” you can hear reprises of ‘Darkness (11/11)’ thrown in before the Emperor takes his own life as he lays lifeless for the sun to come up to see the destruction of his own castle. ‘House with No Door’ is Peter’s nod to David Bowie’s Hunky Dory-era and pre-‘Lady Stardust’.

The struggle on forming friendships and trying to fit in, makes it difficult while ‘Pioneers Over C’ sees Banton playing this cavernous organ intro that is similar to the introduction of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s surreal 1970’s western, El Topo. You can hear the fanfare sections very clear as they add more fuel to the fire as Hammill’s high-praising vocals sets the jump for light-speed.

While Banton and Jackson lend Peter a helping hand on the backing vocals, Hugh can play some mean grooves on his Bass Guitar while Peter takes his guitar by a calming of the storm to let the astronauts regain conscious. As this is going on, David does some beast-like improvisations that channels both John Coltrane and Magma’s own Teddy Larsy before heading back in to the hallucinated swirl between piano and Guy’s exercise on his drum kit.

The oscillating effects adds more of the tension as our heroes become doomed at the very end as the band channel the Zeuhl mastering gods of Magma’s sole self-titled 1970 debut. Now we come to their magnum opus with their fourth studio release that is now 50 years old. Pawn Hearts is perhaps one of the band’s crowning achievement.

Considered in Classic Rock Magazine’s Top 20 Maddest Prog Albums, and championed by Julian Cope who wrote in his May 2003 album of the month on the Head Heritage website that Pawn Hearts is “Progressive Rock the way the East Germans played it. This was rock ‘n’ roll only because no other category would fit.”

For me, it’s more than just a game-changer and your typical prog-rock opus, it is like an alternate score to the 1939 novel of Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust. Mad, insane, weird, avant-garde, and mind-blowing, the new mixes here on Pawn Hearts are quite the ultimate trip.

I was on the edge of my seat preparing to hear what Stephen had done to arguably one of the band’s classic albums. It was very familiar for me when I had listened to Steven Wilson’s mix of King Crimson’s 1970 release, Lizard back in 2010. But with Pawn Hearts, Van Der Graaf’s masterpiece is now reborn for the 21st century.

From the moment of the intensive guitar introduction on ‘Lemmings (Including Cogs)’ begins, you can hear swirling noises from the wah-wah saxes and thumping bass guitar noises that make it sound like a tidal waving destruction. With double-tracking vocals coming forward with wailing Saxes by giving David more carte blanche, it’s Peter’s vocals shining through the new mixes.

And while Stephen has cleared enough room by giving Hammill more sweating bullets to shoot throughout the rampaging fires, he lets out some heavy screaming by envisioning the climatic finale of Tod Hackett’s portrait of the Burning of Los Angeles. Thanks to the volcanic eruptions between sax and organ, it becomes hell on earth.

‘Man-Erg’ gives Peter a chance to do his sermon inside a church. Throughout his piano and Banton’s church-like organ, it becomes a sonic calmness between good and evil as everything goes chaotic in the midsection.

The nightmare has been unleashed as the screaming lines of “HOW CAN I BE FREE?!/HOW CAN I GET HELP?!/AM I REALLY ME?!/AM I SOMEONE ELSE?!” we feel Hammill’s sympathy as the rioters have taken over Los Angeles as he imagines Tod being doomed while suffering from a mental breakdown throughout the destruction in the city of angels.

If you think ‘Supper’s Ready’ was Genesis’ 22-minute epic story, then ‘A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers’ is one those climatic imaginative operatic movies that has been brought to life before our very eyes. Written during the German tour, Hammill envisioned the horror, visions, guilt, and cliffhanger momentum on what is to come. And what Tayler has done, he brought the multi-tracks to the forefront.

He has given more unity for what is happening in the 23-minute epic. It has never sounded so tempting. The organ with its Olivier Messiaen-sque twist that comes out of the crashing sea, it blaring out these dooming chords whilst returning back to the main character with melodic cries of “So I think on how it might have been/locked in silent monologue in silent SCREAM!

The ghostly-organ and sax go from one area to another in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean as you can imagine the lighthouse keeper has gone off the rails, pleading with the voices to stop their abusive words inside his head. Onto the mixes between Godbluff and Still Life released from 1975 and 1976 as the band had reformed to give it another shot.

‘Scorched Earth’ is a nod to Rush’s pre-Moving Pictures period. It has pre-instrumental takes for the synthesizers that is quite similar to the introduction that was done on ‘The Camera Eye’. I always imagine Geddy, Alex, and Neil took some of those inspirations of the band’s music by showing how much the trio have taken a lot of appreciation for what VDGG were doing in 1975.

Leaning into a militant drove, the aftermath of Earth’s ruins, and getting caught in the leader’s trap with no escape from Hammill’s reverbing vocals, it becomes a ticking time-bomb before the sounds of Bach’s ‘Fugue in D Minor’ for a split second to come crawling for the character’s demise at the end.

‘The Sleepwalkers’ has more clearer textures in Hammill’s vocals as his screaming is more in front of the left and right throughout your earphones. They also have a sense of humor that Banton, Evans, and Jackson do with a carousel cha-cha-cha groove with a bossa-nova vibe.

Before it goes in for the attack for the walking dead attacking the next city, Peter channels the voice of Jim Morrison in the mid-sequence as he screams “Wake up!” three times as he orders the undead to go in for the kill. Both the title-track’ and the opener ‘Pilgrims’ are almost recorded inside a gothic cathedral as Peter returns to do another sermon once more.

Banton’s melodic-organ follows Peter’s guide to fill in the sunlit sky for a brand new chapter to reflect the good memories of childhood and friendship. Hugh rises his organ to reflect on the afterlife before returning to the rhythm section reprise of ‘The Sleepwalkers’.

‘La Rossa’ sees VDGG working together as a team. The climatic finale is Evans drumming up more ignition to get the temperatures up-and-running. Peter’s dooming guitar melody has some creative boom for a suicidal ending chant with a pumping rocker to push the envelope. The closer, ‘Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End’ is the powers that be that Earth is now in crumbles from the Mellotronic flute intro.

It is a continuation of where ‘La Rossa’ had left off with Jackson and Hammill dueling it out in a boxing ring in a futuristic midsection with some sadness. Not only it leads us into the 25th century, but it is a crying out to the gods and returning back to their H to He and Godbluff sections from Jackson’s looping sax.

As it ends in this Kurt Weill-sque structure for Peter’s return into the spotlight, I can imagine he’s fighting back tears by singing the last section, “Is the cosmos compared to the dust of the past/In the death of mere humans life shall start!” The bonus tracks include two live shows between the L’Altro Mondo in Rimini, Italy on August 9, 1975 and at the Maison De La Mutualite in Paris on December 6, 1976 during the band’s reformation between that time period they were promoting Godbluff and World Record.

And these recordings are quite a treat. Despite the low quality from the Rimini performance which had been issued before in the 2005 reissue of Godbluff, it is not the complete live set along with the Paris set, but it gives some empowering vibes to hear the band’s fiery performance between their compositions and Peter’s solo work from The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage, In Camera, and Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night.

The Maison recording, on the other hand, it has this incredible sound quality. Recorded from a French Radio broadcast, you can imagine yourself at the venue supporting the band as they bring songs like ‘When She Comes’, ‘Gog’, ‘Meurglys III (The Songwriters Guild)’, ‘Masks’, and ‘The Sleepwalkers’ to a crowd-pleasing audience.

And let’s not forget the late great John Peel. Who was not only just a Radio DJ that played real and bizarre music, but a true champion of the band’s music. Since he followed their music by name checking them in a November 2nd article from Disc and Music Echo, for in his ABC of Beauty name-check in 1968, Peel saw the harsh vibes that was beyond other progressive rock bands were doing.

Most of the sessions had recently appeared in a 2015 2-CD set entitled, After the Flood: At the BBC 1968-1977. The qualities from those sessions are rough, but it is very important to show how much Peel’s taste of VDGG’s music can attract his ears throughout their music. Whether it’s David Jackson or String Driven Thing’s violinist Graham Smith who would later join the band for their eighth and final studio album, The Quiet Zone / The Pleasure Dome in 1977, you can expect the unexpected.

You have the thumping new-wave punk attitude of ‘Cat’s Eye / Yellow Fever’, the AOR rocker textures of ‘The Sphinx in the Face’, Peter’s tip of the hat to Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks on ‘The Sphinx Returns’, and the swirling vibes on ‘Lizard Play’. For Graham’s violin work, he is more than just a folk rocker, but giving the band more punches like Muhammad Ali going up against George Foreman at the Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa, Zaire.

There’s also on the fourth disc of sessions from the Pawn Hearts recordings. It was originally conceived as a 2-LP set. Taking inspiration from Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, it was planned to be a mixture of the original album, personal compositions, and live recordings for the second half of the album.

Unfortunately, Charisma felt it wasn’t right for the band to be releasing a double album set. Four of those tracks including David’s Free-Jazz take channeling more between Larsy’s improvisation and Bernie Living from Manfred Mann’s Chapter Three on a musique-concrete awakening for the ‘Angle of Incidents’, Thelonious Monk-sque fast-sped Bebop Jazz tempos for ‘Ponker’s Theme’, and Banton channeling his Krautrock vibes on ‘Dimunitions’.

I imagine Hugh was listening to a lot of what was happening in Germany during that time frame by admiring both Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze. From Alpha Centauri, Zeit, and Irrlicht, Banton tips his toes in the water to channel those electronic textures by taking it a step further.

Mark Powell, founder of Esoteric Recordings, who not only worked on the 2005 reissues of both VDGG and Peter Hammill’s solo catalog from the Charisma years, his revamped liner notes gives more insight on what was happening around that time frame in the box set. It is like going through an old scrapbook that hasn’t been seen for a long, long time.

After they split for the second and final time in 1978 following their first 2-LP live album, Vital, it was because of a lack of support from the record company and financial problems. The band members would lend Peter a helping hand on his solo albums until reuniting in 2005 with their comeback album, Present. After David left the band, the group became a trio since 2008’s Trisector release. It is a trip down memory lane to see how much they were ahead of their time from their pink scrolling/mad hattering years.

For them to be put in the term of Progressive Rock, VDGG were never comfortable being considered “Prog”. In a 2005 article from Volume 1, Issue 5 from MOJO Magazine’s story of the genre, Martin Aston, who wrote about the band, describes that VDGG were, “still in habit a very dark space entirely their own. If Yes were Tolkien and Genesis were Lewis Carroll, then VDGG were Kieregaard crossed with Edgar Allen Poe.

They are their own genre with these brutal-like forces. Going through eight of their albums, John Peel’s BBC sessions, two live recordings, and the Pawn Hearts sessions, it is time to give Van der Graaf Generator the recognition they deserve.

And as I’ve mentioned earlier, the band’s music is now reborn for the 21st century. The spark of electricity is still there. And for VDGG, who what they will think of next by entering the studio with some strange experiments that they’re cooking. The Charisma Years is an incredible box set of a band that never got the recognition they deserve. And now, it is time to raise our Sherries and raise a toast to the Sleepwalking Man-Erg Pioneers of Lighthouse Killers!

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