October 10, 2023

Some months ago the book Decades: Van Der Graaf Generator In The 1970s was published by Velvet Thunder writer Steve Pilkington via Sonicbond Publishing, telling the eventful take of the band’s first decade in existence. We present here an exclusive sample chapter of the book for anyone to get a feel for what it contains.

The chapter chosen is the one covering the eventful year of 1975, with the band reforming after three years or so apart, recording the Godbluff album, and encountering some stranger-than-fiction touring situations…

Chapter Seven: 1975 – The Undercover Men

Nadir’s Big Chance (Peter Hammill)
Personnel:
Peter Hammill: vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, piano, clavinet, harmonium, bass guitar
Hugh Banton: organ, piano, bass guitar
Guy Evans: drums, percussion
David Jackson: saxophone
Recorded at Trident Studios, London and Rockfield Studios, Monmouth, December 1974
Produced by Peter Hammill
Release date: 1 February 1975 (Charisma)
Highest chart places: Did not chart
Running Time: 48:24
Tracklisting:
1. ‘Nadir’s Big Chance’ (Hammill) 3.27, 2. ‘The Institute Of Mental Health, Burning’ (Hammill, Smith) 3.50, 3. ‘Open Your Eyes’ (Hammill) 5.10, 4. ‘Nobody’s Business’ (Hammill) 4.15, 5. ‘Been Alone So Long’ (Smith) 4.20, 6. ‘Pompeii’ (Hammill) 4.50, 7. ‘Shingle Song’ (Hammill) 4.10, 8. ‘Airport’ (Hammill) 3.02, 9. ‘People You Were Going To’ (Hammill) 5.10, 10. ‘Birthday Special’ (Hammill) 3.40, 11. ‘Two Or Three Spectres’ (Hammill) 6.20

Godbluff
Personnel:
Peter Hammill: vocals, piano, clavinet, electric guitar
David Jackson: saxophone, flute
Hugh Banton: organ, bass pedals, bass guitar
Guy Evans: drums and percussion
Recorded at Rockfield Studios, June 1975
Produced by Van der Graaf Generator
Released: 10 October 1975 (UK: Charisma, US: Mercury)
Highest chart places: Did not chart
Running time: 37:44
Tracklisting:
1. ‘The Undercover Man’ (Hammill) 7.32, 2. ‘Scorched Earth’ (Hammill, Jackson) 9.44, 3. ‘Arrow’ (Hammill, Banton, Evans, Jackson) 9.48, 4. The Sleepwalkers (Hammill) 10.40

Come the dawn of 1975, the four members of Van der Graaf Generator were officially together again – or perhaps that should be ‘unofficially’, as the world at large were not going to be let into the secret for some time yet. The first activity for the year was the release of the Hammill solo album on which they had all contributed, and on this occasion, it was a rather different offering to In Camera – or indeed, either of the two preceding ones. It could be said to have more in common with Fool’s Mate, but even then, only in terms of the more concise songs (and more of them) rather than the actual sound of the record.

   The album title was Nadir’s Big Chance, coming from the fact that the concept of the record was that it was allowing Peter’s ‘alter-ego’ Ricky Nadir to take over and have his way with the material. In a startlingly prescient manner for early 1975, Ricky Nadir was, effectively, a punk. He wielded an ice-blue Stratocaster (Hammill’s own latest acquisition), and specialised in short, sharp, direct songs laden with attitude and swagger – at least, for the most part anyway. The album consisted of 11 tracks, of which only two reached the five-minute mark, with much of the material being defiantly guitar-driven rock. The title track, in particular, is punk before the template had even been properly drawn up, and rails against the music business in its upfront and confrontational lyrical content. I think it’s fair to say that lines such as ‘If the guitars don’t get you, the drums will’ is quite a departure from ‘Easy To Slip Away’, ‘ Forsaken Gardens’ or ‘A Louse Is Not A Home’.

   Several other songs (such as the single ‘Birthday Special’) continued that proto-punk energy, but there are also delicate ballads (albeit concise ones) to provide the balance. ‘Shingle Song’ in particular is one of Hammill’s finest short pieces, but there are even a couple of trips back to the archives for unexpected additions. The quickly withdrawn 1969 single ‘People You Were Going To’ gets a resurrection here, which would have surely amazed people, had they realised that it had even existed back then, which relatively few at the time would have. Judge Smith’s song ‘Been Alone So Long’ is another which we would not have put bets on Peter turning his hand to, but he does so in a brilliantly expressive and fragile manner which teases the very best out of the piece. Another Smith contribution – this time a co-write with Hammill – is the dramatic and intense ‘The Institute Of Mental Health, Burning’, which so impressed the young John Lydon / Johnny Rotten that when he appeared on the radio in his Sex Pistols guise, he waxed lyrical about his admiration for Peter Hammill in general, and actually played that song to illustrate his praise. If that surprises some, however, it actually shouldn’t – as Van der Graaf were always the one ‘prog’ band above all others who were respected by the more discerning punk listeners, as they always possessed an abrasive attitude and anarchistic musical bent which set them apart from their more mellifluously symphonic brethren, should we say. Let’s face it, you couldn’t get more ‘punk’ in spirit than Peter Hammill howling his lyrics like a soul in torment while a manic-looking figure in a leather hat played two massively overdriven and distorted electric saxophones at the same time. ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ or ‘Close To The Edge’, this was not.

   The album came in a package which reflected the concept and contents, with a front cover design made up of a series of monochrome ‘contact’ photo prints. The back cover featured some handwritten notes by Peter himself about the album, explaining the whole concept and idea of ‘Nadir’ himself, together with the track listing and credits and a blurry photo of the man himself. It’s all monochrome, in white on black, and the overall effect, while it does undeniably fit in with the concept of the record, is a little underwhelming. Of course, that was intentionally so, and thus it’s hard to complain about!

   As soon as the album was released, the band decamped to a building in Hertfordshire called Norton Canon Rectory, with a view to rehearsing and preparing for their big return. Or at least, three of them did. Hugh Banton remained behind in London with the unwieldy carcass of the HB1 organ project, still frantically working on it whenever the time permitted – which was a lot of it. He had moved the instrument-in-progress out of Chalk Farm Studios a couple of weeks earlier, after giving his notice to leave Seventh Wave, but he had managed to secure a new base of operations for his work. Guy had been going out with an actress named Gennie Nevinson, and as fortune would have it, her mother had a spare room in her house near Hampstead Heath, and Hugh was able to move HB1 in there lock, stock and bass pedals, so to speak. In fact, he had already done some design work there with David Jackson on the latter’s sax set-up, so the timing was rather convenient. He worked there on the organ for a short while, before Peter Hammill and Gordian Troeller paid him a visit on 26 February, asking whether he could join them at Norton Canon. They were finding that rehearsals without such a critical element of the band’s sound was proving difficult and frustrating, and so they persuaded Hugh to move the great organ carcass once again, over to Norton Canon where a spare room was available for him to continue the construction work, while also allowing some full band rehearsals to take place.

   As it happened, this relocation proved only partially successful at first since, while some full band rehearsals did take place, most of Hugh’s time was spent tinkering ‘under the hood’ as it were on the still-not-complete HB1, in its new lair in a spare room of the rectory. Eventually, at the beginning of April, when it became clear that no end was in imminent sight to the construction work, a Hammond C3 was rented for the purpose of continuing the rehearsals full-time and uninterrupted. At the same time, David Jackson had been doing his own crazy construction project as, along with John Goodman, he produced two odd creations nicknamed ‘the Creda’ and ‘the Rizla’. The Creda was so named because of the inspiration Jackson took from his oven, near to which he was working on[IG1] , with this black steel construction containing ‘the rings’ (a Gibson Maestro with octaves up and down, tone controls and mighty distortion, all operated by a foot controller), ‘the grill’ (a Copycat Echo tape loop), and ‘the oven’ (a combination power supply and pre-amp, designed by Hugh and christened MR2, or Mad Robert Two). The Rizla, meanwhile, was a rectangular steel case housing pedals and the like, which was so named because it was the same shape as a giant Rizla cigarette paper packet, and also the exact height of said packet stood on its end. This behemoth housed an array including foot switches, volume and echo pedals using a light-sensoring device, wah-wah and chorus pedals, and finally, three brass organ pistons. Jackson explained in the later compilation The Box that these pistons were intended for some upcoming technological breakthrough which never quite arrived and ended up being used as ‘rather therapeutic springy foot-rests, often misinterpreted as stunning footwork by fans!’

   To make things even more impressive, this entire array of technical wizardry was cabled together and could be controlled from Jackson’s ‘utility belt’, which contained a routing box and several switches, one of which was operated by his elbow. With this battery of effects at his beck and call, and a long belt lead in place, he could stalk the stage while not only playing two saxophones in a holder at the same time, but also controlling them in a way not unlike manhandling a set of belt-housed bagpipes. As far as the traditional ‘horn section’ went, Van der Graaf Generator were most assuredly not even in the vicinity of Kansas any more…

   One thing which was in plentiful supply during these sessions was new material to work on, as Peter Hammill had been astonishingly prolific over the previous six months since the decision to re-form. According to his recollection, the composition of three out of four of the Godbluff songs were finished prior to rehearsals (only ‘The Undercover Man’ had yet to be completed), as well as the whole of the Still Life album and ‘Masks’ from the following World Record. It is believed that the song ‘Urban’, which only ever surfaced on the Vital live recording, was also written at this time. The Banton-less trio recorded a further two tracks, which would only appear in the following decade on the odds-and-sods compilation Time Vaults, these being ‘Rift Valley’ and ‘Coil Night’. Gordian Troeller was doubling up his management duties with those of head chef at the time, as he took his mission to keep the band fed seriously – to the extent that, planning ahead in terms of meat supplies, he bought a cow. A whole one. It was stored at the local butcher’s (in his freezer, we assume, rather than roaming the shop!), until some part of it was ready for consumption, at which point Gordian the Masterchef would collect the cut in question. He also bought a number of pigeons and a hare at a local pub one day, so there was a varied diet on offer at least!

   On the business side of things, the band realised that they had to steer clear of the trap of any management affairs being handled by the record company again, after the Charisma management of the earlier incarnation proved to be less than ideal. To this end, they set up a company called Static Enterprises to handle all of that. Gordian Troeller was made an equal partner in the company, with a five-way split (to give him ‘added incentive’, as David Jackson put it), but things did retain a little of the old quirkiness with the company stationery featuring a small, and rather charming, cartoon drawing of the four musicians at work just above the list of directors! As Guy Evans recalls of that process now:

We were pretty excited about being back, and we were firing on all four cylinders as far as the music went, but we had to get the business side right. We went with Charisma as the record company again, but we didn’t want them managing us again as well – it’s a very good idea to keep those things separate. We’d built up a sort of amorphous debt over the years, which it was quite difficult to find out exact details about as to what it was made up of. We had to repay that, so we set up a situation we could control, with a manager in place whom we had chosen and had faith in, and a company set up to look after things. We also had a deal with Charisma that we could at least work with – it was a bit of a tussle between ‘yes, they do need to be paid back’ but also ‘we need enough cash to operate’. It was quite exciting having that set-up, we had our own offices in Portobello Road, and we were able to make decisions about what tours we would do and so on.

The news of the band’s reunion was also finally officially disseminated at this point, with Gordian sending out a newsletter of sorts to fans, containing the announcement as well as touring and recording plans.

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As April drew to a close, work was also brought to a close for a short while again, but on this occasion for a planned endeavour: Hugh Banton was getting married to Sue on the 25th (also his birthday, of which she has said – quite wisely – that it would provide a ‘good prompt for remembering anniversaries’). They were married in Sale Town Hall, Cheshire, quite near to Timperley where Sue’s parents lived. A quick weekend’s honeymoon preceded a move back to London and their home in Cricklewood, on the rather splendidly named Shoot Up Hill, before the band also returned from Norton Canon, and work recommenced in earnest. Needing to do some rehearsing in what simulated an actual stage environment, they had four days booked at the start of May at Shepperton Studios, an old film studio which Led Zeppelin had used to film some fill-in ‘concert’ footage for their film The Song Remains The Same and where The Who would go on to film some live footage for their own movie The Kids Are Alright. Tony Stratton-Smith even dropped by during the time at Shepperton, at the same time that Geoff Barton was reporting on proceedings for Sounds, and Strat provided Barton with the rather wonderful quote that ‘Time has proved the lasting quality of Van der Graaf Generator’s work, and in my opinion, the lay-off was necessary to let the rest of the world catch up.’ Quite, sir!

   Once this stage practice had been undertaken, the next logical step was a little actual low-key live work to get the feel of an audience situation again, and Wales was chosen as the location for two ‘secret’ gigs at Lampeter University and Theatr Gwynedd in Bangor, on 9 and 10 May respectively. Word inevitably got around the fan grapevine and, despite the supposedly secret nature of these shows, the small venues were packed, and despite some reported teething troubles the shows were apparently extremely good.

   With these test shows out of the way, the band were confident to embark on their first run of serious live work since getting back together, with a tour of France, along with a couple of diversions to Switzerland and Belgium, taking up most of May. One problem at this juncture was that Hugh Banton was now having notable problems with his teeth, and by the time he saw a dentist about the toothache, he was told he would need a series of appointments to fix it, but with the French trip coming up the treatment had to be put on hold for a month. He was, therefore, in some discomfort throughout the French tour, and was prescribed some strong painkillers to manage things, though while countering the pain these also had the side effect of compromising his appetite and generally making him feel more than a little out of sorts. By the time of the final show in Liege on 1 June, Gordian Troeller (in the compilation The Box) claimed that they had to carry him onstage to his keyboard, but Hugh refutes this now, insisting it never quite got that bad:

No, I’m sure I didn’t have to be carried onstage, some memories must be getting mixed up there. I had toothache, certainly, and painkillers, but that was it. I know there have been claims that I was self-medicating with alcohol, and even that I was drinking a bottle of vodka a day, but that wasn’t the case at all. Can you even drink that much? I know I couldn’t. The thing was, at that time we had started getting backstage riders, whereby you asked for whatever food and drink you wanted and it would be supplied. Peter liked tequila, so he asked for that, and I said, ‘Vodka.’ And lo and behold, a full bottle would arrive backstage at every show. I’d open it and just have a sip or whatever, and that would be about it. Occasionally I’d take the bottle back to the hotel in case I wanted a drink later, but that was it. Whoever drank all the vodka, it certainly wasn’t me!

The shows, for the most part, went quite smoothly, with the band very much on form, but of course, it wouldn’t be Van der Graaf without a couple of disasters derailing things, and this was no exception. At a show in Montpellier, a theft of equipment forced the gig to be cancelled at almost the last minute, with David Jackson the thief’s victim. As well as his regular flight cases, he had a smaller bag, similar to a briefcase, which contained small but essential items, including the harness and slings which held the two saxophones in place as he played, and also some vital electronics and effects which were pivotal to his playing. The suspicion was that whoever the thief was, he had mistaken the briefcase-looking item for a similar one filled with money and simply taken it in an opportune manner. If so, he must have been disappointed to find a stash of bespoke saxophone equipment which was useless to him, but that was small consolation to David or the band, as they simply couldn’t play. Different methods of securing the instruments in place were tried unsuccessfully, but even if they had proved feasible, the lack of the electronic gadgetry rendered it impossible to put on a show which could even attempt to create the VdGG sound, such was their individuality by this time. John Goodman hastily rushed back to London to get replacements, even having to remake several of the items in his workshop, as they were bespoke one-off affairs, and the tour was able to continue.

   A rather different set of circumstances happened when the band were set to play the Villerupt Festival early in the tour. Villerupt was (and presumably still is) actually a very small town – basically a glorified village – tucked away in the middle of nowhere on the way to Luxembourg, and the festival was a one-day affair organised by the local Communist Party, featuring Van der Graaf headlining over Ducks Deluxe and the openers, Dr Feelgood. Sean Tyla, from Ducks Deluxe, and later to front his own band, The Tyla Gang, remembers that Van der Graaf had to go on after them being the headliners, which was fine until the mighty Ducks broke down in Belgium when their hired Triumph 2000 decided it was going to travel no further, and a mechanic had to be called. Unable to restart the stricken Triumph, he took them to the festival site in a Mercedes, which would appear to have at least partially saved the day. Dr Feelgood, he says, had been holding the fort manfully for a lot longer than they were supposed to play, but they headed for the stage to relieve them, and the Ducks went on albeit somewhat later than planned. Unfortunately, at this very moment, owing to the Communist-backed nature of the event, a local fascist group were busy phoning the local police to inform them that they had planted a rather large bomb. Again, according to Tyla’s account, they had been playing for around 15 minutes when the stage was invaded from the rear by what they at first took to be locals in fancy dress. In fact, they were actually real firemen searching for a bomb which might at any moment blow the stage sky-high. Cue the end of a rather truncated set, as the entire festival audience, and bands, were evacuated, only for it to transpire, unsurprisingly, that the call had been a hoax and there was no bomb. Everyone duly trooped back in again so that things could resume, but by now, things were running critically late, and Van der Graaf ended up playing a shortened set of around 45 minutes, though this was still around three times as long as Ducks Deluxe had managed.

   When the band headed over to Switzerland for a show in St Gallen on 26 May, Guy Evans was surprised, to say the least, when he saw a poster advertising the show. The reason for this surprise was the wording ‘Van der Graaf Generator, featuring Peter Hammill (piano/guitar/vocal), Hugh Banton (keyboards/bass), David Jackson (saxophone/flute) and Chris Judge Smith (drums). The discovery that Judge Smith had made a triumphant if unexpected return to the band mid-tour after six years would indeed have been a startling one, but thankfully news of Guy’s sacking was exaggerated, and the poster a rather amusing error. Guy made sure to get hold of one of the posters, and gave it to Judge after the tour finished!

   When it came to the final French shows in Paris, the band were very unusually booked to play at the Salle Wagram, which had the distinction of having been featured prominently in the film Last Tango in Paris, and rarely hosted rock bands. The reason for this came from a remark Guy had made to Gordian when they were arranging the tour dates, when he said that he really didn’t care for the Olympia, which was the planned, and more usual, venue. He simply made a comment that somewhere with a different vibe to it ‘such as the ballroom from Last Tango in Paris’ would be a great alternative. Taking this as a challenge, Gordian simply went away, without telling anyone, and booked this sumptuously appointed Napoleonic ballroom for the show.

   The band returned to England on 2 June and, after a week in which Hugh finally got his teeth attended to, they headed to Rockfield Studios on the 9th to begin recording the comeback album, which would be titled Godbluff. These sessions went extremely smoothly, and the album was completed in three weeks, wrapping up on the 29th. In fact, even more was completed as, in addition to the four tracks which would eventually make up the album, two additional songs were recorded as well. These two (‘Pilgrims’ and ‘La Rossa’) would be used for the following album Still Life, the next year. The four used were ‘The Undercover Man’, ‘Scorched Earth’, ‘Arrow’ and ‘The Sleepwalkers’. Guy Evans remembers making the final decision on the album’s tracklisting, which was agreed by all four members:

Well, we all agreed on the running order and the track selection, but I do remember this thing about sitting at the table with pieces of paper with track names and timings on them, just shuffling them around and trying different combinations. When I looked at that list of those four tracks as it ended up, I was just sure that was the one. It wasn’t everybody’s favourite at first because it was a pretty uncompromising selection – I think that taking those six tracks, including ‘Pilgrims’ and ‘La Rossa’, you could have possibly made a slightly more conventional, listener-friendly album out of them. If you wanted to get as far ‘out there’ as you could, those four would be it, but everyone ultimately agreed on that.

The album would be released later in the year, but for now, with the recording complete, it was time for more live work. Following a BBC session, recorded on 3 July and broadcast a week later, in which the band played ‘Scorched Earth’ and ‘The Sleepwalkers’ from the forthcoming album, and a one-off gig in France on the 22nd, it was time for the first show in England. The band appeared at the Victoria Palace in London on 27 July. This being in the pre-internet days, which seem increasingly like another lifetime now, many fans were still completely unaware that the band had even re-formed when the show was announced, and the resulting scramble for tickets brought an echo of the scenes of Italian madness in 1972, with one newspaper report claiming that up to a thousand fans were locked out, trying in vain to gain entry. People had travelled from all over Europe (and even further afield), and many of those locked out of the show were reportedly Italian fans who had travelled – so at least being locked outside might have made them feel at home one might say! The show itself was a triumph, with almost all reports overwhelmingly enthusiastic. The band played all of the new album, of course, along with ‘La Rossa’, ‘Man-Erg’, ‘Lemmings’ and even four from Hammill’s solo albums in the shape of ‘Black Room’, ‘A Louse Is Not A Home’, ‘Forsaken Gardens’ and ‘Faint-Heart And The Sermon’. The encore consisted of ‘Urban’ mixed with a snippet of ‘Nadir’s Big Chance’ followed by ‘Pilgrims’, which seems a very odd choice for a crowd-pleasing encore, since not only had the songs not yet been released, but in fact they were not even to be included on the forthcoming record. Such was (and still is) the dedicated nature of the VdGG fan base, however, that they were able to do this with scarcely a murmur of discontent.

   The band were keen to get back to Italy to play, following their previous triumphant reception there, and also with The Long Hello having been released over there only (at that time), maintaining their connection with the country. This time out, however, they would find things a little trickier as Italy had become something of a lawless place, if reports are to be believed, with widespread political unrest between the Communist Party and the far right – not to mention the fact that many youths had begun to regard rock concerts as displays of capitalist greed, and consequently believed that they had the right to enter for nothing, as the music should be free. The police, of course, had other ideas about this concept of a Unitarian utopia, and would take every opportunity to display this fact. Full-scale riots had recently broken out at a Lou Reed gig (not the least confrontational of artists, of course, but even so…), and the storm clouds seemed to be gathering even before the band got to their first gig. Which was promptly cancelled anyway. This was a different Italy to the one only three years earlier, but in the end, most of the shows went off without major incident – notwithstanding power problems at a show near Rimini and the misfortune of Hugh Banton managing to injure his right hand in almost Spinal Tap fashion while go-karting. The band deemed this fairly low-key jaunt around smaller, lower-profile venues to be a reasonable success, and thus made plans to return later in the year to some larger venues, which would not go quite as smoothly, to say the least…

   For now, however, it was time to consider the UK again. A full tour was planned for October, but before that, a repeat show at the Victoria Palace was arranged for 30 August, partly to accommodate the overspill of the thousand or so disappointed fans who were locked out of the previous show – presumably they weren’t still there mind you. The show was by most accounts not quite as good as the first one, but even though some reviews were decidedly mixed, none took a hammer to the performance with quite the gusto of a decidedly un-rock-and-roll-sounding journalist named Antony Thorncroft in the unlikely pages of the Financial Times. Opening with a description of the music as ‘irritatingly tedious’ in its ‘complete absence of melody or consistent rhythm’, the possibly-suit-wearing Thorncroft turned his derision on the audience who, he concluded, may well have been ‘too drugged to care’. By now warming to his task, he painted a bleak picture of these ticket-holding denizens of the nearest opium den as having ‘passively accepted a single encore and drifted out like lost souls into the night’, but did conclude with a positive spin: it was, he trumpeted, a happy eventuality that this music was in the hands of such a ‘strange and youthful minority’, as it ensured a musical barrier ‘which keeps out the trivial and the commercial, but also most of the threads that make for a worthwhile musical experience’. Well, that’s all right then. It may help the appreciation of the above by imagining it printed on a nice pink shade of paper, nestled next to a report about an exciting rise in the share price of soybeans and cattle feed.

   Another UK show in the rock and roll hotbed of Bracknell Sports Centre was followed by a few European gigs in Holland, Belgium and Switzerland, with a classic ‘only in the world of Van der Graaf’ accident happening on the short flight to Amsterdam, when a thermos flask was taken on board, as Hugh Banton recalled in The Book, ‘and somebody had failed to realise that at 10,000 feet things boil. Someone opened the thermos and it went off.’ Hugh received burns to his right shoulder, was met by the Red Cross at the show and remembers playing the gig bandaged up. A happier incident was at a gig in Charleroi, Belgium, which was filmed for Belgian TV. The film of the show featured all of the Godbluff tracks (though not the rest of the set, frustratingly), and was later widely released on video and DVD, often with the earlier film of ‘A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers’ also included.

   October was to be an important month, with the UK tour finally taking place, with 20 shows (at 20 different venues, unlike the double-show Italian dates) between 5 October in Liverpool and, back to almost the same place, Manchester on 2 November. That first show in Liverpool was the cause of more technical gremlins as, shortly after beginning the opening song, a power surge took out the lights and the sound and rendered Hugh Banton’s organ completely inoperative. After a bizarre interlude in which the other three fought to keep the crowd entertained with 45 minutes of improvisational jamming, the show was able to finally get back underway. Also, in October, Godbluff was finally released to an expectant fan base. And they received it enthusiastically.

   The album, consisting of just two tracks on each side of vinyl originally, is a dynamically live-sounding piece of work. For this precise reason, Guy Evans names it as his favourite VdGG album, with the more organic feel of the record being closer in spirit to how they played live as a band. Opening (as the shows would do that year) with ‘The Undercover Man’, the album enters on a quietly contemplative note before the band kick in with some thrilling ensemble playing in a piece which develops brilliantly between its component parts. When it ends on a powerful note, that momentum is maintained into ‘Scorched Earth’, as one piece flows straight from the other. The latter song ups the intensity with some astoundingly intense vocal delivery from Peter Hammill. It’s an astonishing side of music to re-enter the arena with, and things don’t let up on the second half of the album. ‘Arrow’ opens with some almost free-form introductory sax and drum work which sounds improvised – and partially it is. In fact, Guy Evans’ free-jazz drumming in this section came about entirely by accident. The sessions had become long and protracted, and he was getting frustrated with playing the planned drum part to the section, so out of frustration, he played a completely different part which he essentially made up on the spot. Everyone liked it, and so it stayed. Another powerful song, ‘Arrow’ leads into what many regard as the real main course of the album, the epic, over-ten-minute ‘The Sleepwalkers’, which features some of Hammill’s finest lyrics to date, combining a meditation on the world of dreams and sleeping with the analogy of man as a species ‘sleepwalking’ through life even when awake. Are we ever truly awake, he seems to be asking, and if not, what is the nature of our existential dream state? Musically the song goes all over the map, with one startling section suddenly cutting disorientatingly into a quirky, tea-dance cha-cha-cha interlude which somehow, against all of the rules of conventional musicality, manages to work perfectly – or at least once the listener’s initially shell-shocked brain can process it! Lyrically, a whole chapter could be taken up by an examination of Hammill’s lyrics on this album. Dense, profound and yet deliberately obfuscated to just the right degree to encourage individual interpretation of the words, the progress here from the already excellent yet still occasionally clumsy couplets of five years previously is astonishing. This is the point at which the lines between Peter Hammill, the songwriter, and Peter Hammill the poet, begin to blur into almost invisibility.

   The cover of the album was deliberately designed in a stark, functional way. The front and back covers (no gatefold here) are both black, with the rear bearing four photos of the individual members and the front a new band logo, clearly inspired by the optical-illusionary artwork of M.C. Escher. Also on the front is the title in red, diagonally beneath the band name as if rubber-stamped onto it in the manner of a visa in a passport. The inner sleeve contains the lyrics, but there is nothing remotely sumptuous here – entirely by design, as they wanted to keep it stripped back and basic. The title is an intriguing one, but there is a story behind it, as Guy explains:

It was a sort of a wry comment, I suppose you might say. We were known for being a little bit obscure, and perhaps a bit verbose, when we were being interviewed. It always used to be particularly notable in Germany for some reason; we always seemed to face these interviews, which tended to be deep and at length. There was always a question along the lines of ‘how would you describe your music?’, and where some people would say ‘prog’ or ‘rock’ or whatever, we couldn’t really do that as we were pretty much self-defining! So to stump them a bit, when they asked the question, expecting at least about half an hour of earnest stuff coming out of us, we would just say ‘Oh, it’s godbluff!’ as a bit of an in-joke. So the phrase was around at that time, and the whole sound of the record fed into the nature of the sleeve design as well. I can remember being very taken with the stripped-back idea of the sound being a reflection of how we played rather than the studio, and that sparse black-and-silver design seemed to fit that rather well. I think I came up with the idea of the rubber stamp effect of the title, sort of ‘File Under Godbluff’ if you like.

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Following the album’s release and the end of the UK tour, the band headed back over to Europe again. Following a few shows in France, they headed back to Italy, where, following the relatively successful nature of the earlier shows there, they planned a tour of slightly bigger and grander venues. This time, however, it was all going to end up in a scenario which even this most chaotic of bands could never have envisioned.

   The first gig began reasonably, but before very long, the stage and the backstage area were invaded by the political protesters who had been feared at the earlier shows. The venue in question was a large glass and metal building with a prefabricated stage, and the band’s truck was actually being used as the dressing room, kitted out with tables and refreshments etc., and backed up to the side of the stage area, so that the band could simply walk out of the back of the truck and on to the stage. Not long after they had started playing, they were alarmed, to say the least, at the sight of a large number of people wearing stocking masks and carrying batons, who headed for the stage and climbed into the lighting rig, hurling nuts and bolts, and even bricks, which were raining down onto the stage. Guy:

There was, in fact, a little more to it than that, as we later had it confirmed to us that these people were actually paid to riot and disrupt the show as a political gesture, as we were seen to be broadly aligned with the left wing and so it was organised to sabotage the gig. In fact, I think we left the stage once and then tried again – they invaded the backstage area first, but when that was repelled, we went back and tried to continue, but when the debris started flying, we had to run for our own safety to the truck.

Having got into the relative safety of the mobile dressing room, however, things were far from over. The driver of the truck – possibly because he just wanted to get the band out of there, or perhaps because he was being attacked himself, according to Guy – was in no mood to hang around. The doors, however, which were made of glass set into a glass wall, remained resolutely closed, and so in the manner of a scene you might more reasonably expect to find in a TV drama, he took matters into his own hands and simply floored the accelerator. The truck was, of course, stronger and heavier than the glass, and so it simply crashed through the wall and kept going, with the hapless musicians in the back, able to see the glass raining down through the translucent roof of the back area. The road crew, by this time, had armed themselves with coshes made from gaffer tape, but by all accounts, most of the violence ceased at the spectacle of a ten-ton truck driving straight through the wall, and the equipment was intact and able to be collected later.

   In the meantime, the band were utterly disoriented by where they now were, and both Gordian and Guy maintain that when the truck came to a stop, they believed that they might well have simply driven round to the other side of the venue and still be in the thick of the trouble. For some reason which probably made sense at the time, they had all dressed in matching blue boiler suits for the show, and when they came to a stop, and heard voices outside, Gordian and Guy both remember picking up anything they could to defend themselves (Guy recalls having a cymbal stand), and when the back doors were opened they leapt out prepared for a fight. In actual fact, the driver had made his way to the car park of a nearby cinema, and when the middle-aged people quietly queueing for a film saw four boiler-suited men leap from the back of a truck, they apparently scattered in understandable alarm!

   Hugh Banton remembers this slightly differently, though agrees on the main points:

We certainly crashed through the wall, but I am sure we must have known we were away from the venue by the time we stopped, and I certainly don’t remember any weapons being grabbed exactly. Mind you, I do remember having fallen to the floor of the truck, seeing David’s flute flying straight for me and grabbing it exactly in the manner of a Star Wars lightsaber! It was a cinema, though, that’s quite true, and I suppose looking back at it, four men in boiler suits emerging from the back of a truck covered in glass and debris must have seemed a little bit intimidating!

The last word on that particular incident must go to the promoter who, as Gordian has recounted it, was memorably unfazed by the whole experience. As he stated in The Book, ‘I dropped the band off and went back… I was shaking like a leaf, I didn’t know whether the building had collapsed or what I might find… Everyone was all right, but there was smashed glass everywhere. I asked the promoter what we should do… and he just said to me, “I must get that door sign-posted better!”’

   One would have expected that to be enough excitement for one tour, but that was going to be far from the case. The next two shows, both in Genoa, went ahead without incident, but unsurprisingly the road crew, in particular, were in a far from relaxed mood, and there was an edgy atmosphere, to say the least. The following day there was a show at the Palasport stadium in Rome, a venue which had been the scene of a lot of trouble not too long before when Lou Reed had appeared, and everybody was very wary, especially when the 5,000 ticket-holders expected turned into 16,000, and there was a heavy police presence, but all went off without notable incident. The band went for a meal after the show and returned to the hotel, with the truck parked nearby for the road crew to leave in early the next morning for the long drive to the next show up in Bologna. Come the morning, the roadies headed out to where the truck had been parked, only to find that there was no truck, simply a space where it had been left with all of the band’s gear locked inside.

   The driver informed Gordian what had happened, who then passed the word on to the band, and everyone was momentarily taken aback as to what they should do. Not for long, however, as very soon, a phone call came in. The truck had been taken and was being held to ransom, with a demand for a figure variously remembered as £10,000 or £20,000 for its return. No matter what the figure, they didn’t have it, and the matter was immediately put in the hands of the police. After a while, however, it was taken back out of their hands, as they didn’t appear to be doing anything to actually progress the investigation. Frustrated, Gordian took matters upon himself and began organising search parties, with him and the road crew going out in cars to scour the city, communicating with each other via walkie-talkies.

   After failing to locate the missing vehicle, an idea struck Gordian. He suddenly remembered – as you do, or in most cases, absolutely don’t – that he had an ex-girlfriend in London who happened to know a rather high-ranking mafia figure in the USA, so he promptly phoned her up and asked her if she could call her friend and just enquire as to whether he knew anything about it, and whether it had any mob connection. That’s friends in high places for you, I suppose! Anyway, sure enough, he got a call back in the middle of the night from a man with a strong New York accent who informed him that it was nothing to do with them, but that it was in fact, ‘amateurs’. He went on to suggest that they should look north of Rome, and more or less provided the location of where the truck might be.

   Armed with this information, he went to the police and they offered to lead him to where the truck was said to be. He followed them onto the motorway, whereupon they immediately roared away at high speed and tried to lose him! He managed to keep up with them by dint of some desperate and probably rather hazardous driving, and followed them to a pound-cum-scrap yard where the truck was indeed locked up. He maintains that the police were in on the whole thing, as he claims that while he spoke Italian, they did not realise that, and he overheard the police saying to the man in charge of the pound that ‘you really screwed up this time’, which does sound rather incriminatory in all fairness. Once again, Guy Evans has his own memory of this:

That all ties in, you see, to the slightly uneasy relationship that existed, certainly at the time, between the Carabinieri, who are the sort of paramilitary police, and the Vigili, who are the regular police as we know them. What we were given to understand is that there were effectively ‘bent’ Carabinieri who would arrange for vehicles to be stolen, which would then be taken to this sort of breaker’s yard where they would be stripped of all saleable assets and contents, whereupon the owners would then be informed that what was left of it had ‘miraculously’ been found. When our truck was found, unfortunately, Peter’s guitar and my drum kit had disappeared, never to return.

Sure enough, the police claimed that the VdGG truck had actually been found earlier, but owing to a failure in communication, nobody had been informed, and that they were as surprised as the band were that it was at that particular location. It isn’t known for sure, but let us just say that suspicions remained extremely high. The roadies returned the following day with another battery (that had been stripped out, of course), and one of them happened to look under a nearby pile of tyres, only to find a missing transformer there. Before he could retrieve it, he was spotted by the workers at the pound, and they were chased away from their own truck by a mob armed with iron bars.

   At this point, there was something of a delay as the VdGG contingent were unable to get to the truck, so they had no alternative but to rely on the police again, who, by now, of course had no choice to help whether they wanted to or not. They tried to get back there themselves, only to find the place guarded by a group of leather-jacketed ‘heavies’ preventing anyone going in. What was happening, it would seem, is that the mysteriously tyre-hidden transformer was being returned to the vehicle, as by the time the police arrived to arrange for the truck to be returned, it had mysteriously been replaced together with some other ‘liberated’ accessories, and all concerned were coming across as bewildered innocents in the whole affair. Peter’s beloved ice-blue Stratocaster and Guy’s treasured walnut Gretsch drum kit were never seen again, however, though there was one almost unbelievable stroke of luck. David Jackson had an enormous flight case which was nicknamed the ‘Van Gogh’, containing all of his saxophones, his electrical devices, and even his trademark hats, and the contents were an absolute dream for opportunist thieves. However, owing to the size and appearance of it, it had been mistaken for one of the PA cabinets (which were too unwieldy to be worth stealing), and had therefore been left there untouched the whole time. It may have been a silver lining only, but it was certainly something.

   By this time, the events had been reported at home in England. In fact, they had even been reported on the Radio 1 news bulletin, which Hugh Banton’s wife Sue had been listening to. Unfortunately, the report got its wires crossed somewhat and dramatically announced that the members of Van der Graaf Generator had been kidnapped in Italy and were being held to ransom! Having been married for only around six months, this naturally alarmed Sue Banton to the extent that frantic transcontinental telephone calls were required for Hugh to reassure her that, no, they had not been kidnapped and were quite safe, even if the truck was not.

   Of course, the rest of the tour was cancelled. Absurdly, attempts were made to persuade the band to fulfil the remaining shows using hired equipment, but this was never going to happen. For one thing, their equipment was entirely geared to their own specifications, but even apart from that, the trauma from those three shows must have been immense. When they left, they were given a police escort out of Rome, with it being left in no doubt that they should get out of the city immediately, and they were accompanied to leave nothing open to chance. On the drive back, the truck driver was reportedly so stressed and strung out that he refused to drive at all unless they were in a convoy, with the roadies in front of him in one car and the band with Gordian in another behind him. They eventually arrived home on 8 December, a week after the theft.

   That would be enough for anyone to deal with, one would imagine, but then again, this is a story about Van der Graaf Generator, and there is always one more cosmic punch for the universe to deliver. Peter Hammill, already reeling from the loss of his guitar and the whole week-long nightmare, returned home to discover that his long-time partner Alice had left him in the meantime and gone off with someone who was a former roadie for the band. This final blow stunned him so much that he was in a rather dark place for some time, and he would go on to channel the experience into his next solo album, Over, which would function as a cathartic exorcism of the end of the relationship. In fact, in the wake of all of this, the band members were keeping their distance from each other as any interaction was understandably raking up the whole thing in their minds. Unbelievably, however, they did play one more show before the end of the year, in Hemel Hempstead on 18 December, and while they remembered it less than fondly (in particular David Jackson who recalled it as being ‘appalling’), the appearance of a recording of the show revealed it, even to the band themselves, to have actually been astonishingly powerful, with all manner of demons being forcibly driven out through the intensity of the music. It may have been a great show, but at what cost!

   With the year coming to a close, the reunion, which had seemed set fair for avoidance of all of the old pitfalls from the earlier incarnation of the band, had ended up immeasurably more traumatic than anything that had gone before. The music had continued to be exceptional, perhaps better than ever, but would that be enough as the band limped into 1976, licking their collective wounds?


All band photos from the book courtesy of the Pawn Hearts Society Archive