Saturday, 16 February 2008

David Jackson and the story of Van Der Graaf Generator




July 1990 - I'm sitting in the charming family home of David Jackson, unobtrusively watching him listening to the home demo tapes he's playing me of his new one-man musical venture "Tonewall", an achievement which marks his re-emergence back into music after nearly a decade spent teaching mathematics. There's a burning passion in David's eyes as he listens to the fruits of his creative labours. His hands occasionally lift from his knees to snatch a punched riff from the air or to follow a certain melody, his fingers dancing in perfect time to the instrumental music which fills our ears. The music is everything you'd expect from this man, chock-full of integrity and invention, one moment unleashing the sheer power of a double sax riff and the next rending the heart with a melody line that bears all the unmistakable hallmarks of the man who's producing it. Vital and beautiful music to look forward to in what is increasingly looking like the dawn of a new underground renaissance for this new decade. And yet I'm not primarily here to look forward with Mr. Jackson but to look back at what has gone before. Behind him, on the wall behind his home studio, hangs a large black and white photograph which depicts one of the definitive images of British music. It's of his stage persona 'Jaxon', clad all in black with that peculiar Germanic train driver's hat perched on his head, swathed in saxophones and flutes and stalking centre stage with his beloved Generator. Van der Graaf Generator were undoubtedly one of the greatest bands this grey and septic isle has ever produced. A perfect gestalt, four equally important individuals - David Jackson, Peter Hammill, Guy Evans and Hugh Banton - who together produced music of unerring beauty and unholy power. Only King Crimson could match the evil hammer-force of the Generator in full swing, smashing audiences flat before effortlessly picking them up again with butterfly gentleness in the very next breath. Like so many bands, Van der Graaf Generator are benefiting hugely from the arrival of CD's both financially and in terms of following, and whilst a reformation of the original band seems remote at present, the appearance of archive material in the form of radio sessions and other live works looks a strong possibility and in the meantime, we have Peter Hammill's continuing solo career to enjoy and shortly the arrival of Jaxon's "Tonewall" album and live dates to look forward to. And so here I sit on this gloriously timeless July afternoon imbibing the delights of Jaxon's creativity and preparing to relive the good times and bad of the much cherished Van der Graaf Generator. Let's go back to the beginning. Once upon a time...




Jaxon - When I was five years old I used to play these bamboo pipes my brother had made at school, while listening to trad jazz on the radio. That's a real infant memory for you. After I went to boarding school I really wanted to play the flute, so when I was about nine I stopped having piano lessons and started flute lessons instead. After about four years I was considered to be an up-and-coming star of the school orchestra, destined to be lead flautist (or so the school believed). My older brother had already left school by then and was playing saxophone. I was very impressed with this instrument, and one Christmas he gave me his saxophone and I just fell in love with it. I would be up in my study, possessed with this clapped out old instrument and when I wasn't honking and squawking on it I'd be listening to all this wonderful music on a crystal radio set I'd built.I was absorbing all these influences, and after a while I started buying records and building a collection. I had my first experience of being an out-cast at this time, there I was making as much noise as possible on what was considered to be the 'Devil's instrument' - and at the same time I was refusing to take up my destined post as head flautist in the all-important school orchestra. More and more I was being treated as a rebel and in the end I became one. The school finally wrote to my parents saying "the boy must take the saxophone away, we can't have him making these noises and disturbing the peace". My parents created an absolute stink over this - they insisted that I should be allowed to pursue the saxophone. They could see the commitment in me, it became a matter of great principle to them and in the end we won. I started to play in bands and be influenced by key friends. I think growing up to be a musician is all about finding these friends to play with, who feed you revelations about music ("have you heard this album" or "have you heard this musician") and you'd be doing the same back. You'd suddenly meet a new friend or a new musician to play with and your whole life would change. One of the key people I met after school, at a barge party. A bass player who was also a saxophonist, an incredible musician and also an incredible thinker. Maxwell Hutchinson, who went on to become head of the Architectural Association who are always in the news these days having arguments with Prince Charles over this building or that. Max ultimately led me to joining Van der Graaf Generator, because he had been at school with Chris Judge Smith. I went on to university in Dundee and Max also went to university in Scotland and even though we were sixty miles apart, it didn't stop us playing together whenever we got the chance. I had a residency four nights a week in a local pub. My drummer at the time was a brilliant 14 year old called Robbie McIntosh who went on to be in the Average White Band. Even though the underground scene had only just vague echoes up in Scotland in '67 and most of the bands were still grounded in soul music, I had already become interested in rock music so we were playing a kind of hard jazz rock. I played in lots of different bands around the Aberdeen circuit with Max, and made lots of contacts.



I remember vividly 'Sgt Pepper' coming out - there was this incredible buzz of sheer disbelief. Wherever you went, people would be playing it. Suddenly, with this astonishing music anything seemed possible. At the end of '67 - the year John Coltrane died - I was in a Glaswegian soul band doing a gig in Arran which is an island off the west coast of Scotland. Bands there would be booked for ten weeks and do two gigs a day. The band were called 'Hadrian's Wall' but the core members were all from another band called 'The Poor Souls' who were a very important Scottish band at the time.I suppose I was quite hot property being a rock saxophone player - there weren't that many around. That year a day didn't go by when I wasn't playing somewhere or other, and yet behind it all was a struggle with my parents who wanted me to settle down and get a proper job. I had to give up the residency to concentrate on university work, otherwise I would have flunked my degree. I found myself at the start of '68 working in London for a company in the City. I was playing with this band in Oxford , 'Bernard Reich', and commuting between the two all the while. After two months I just cracked up under the strain. I jacked in the London job, which seemed like the end of the world to my parents, and moved up to Oxford to concentrate on the band and leaving lots of heavily burnt bridges behind me. The band had so much going for it, but after 6 months or so still weren't progressing. Then one day out of the blue I got a call from Max Hutchinson asking me to come down to London to be in this band, 'Heebalob', with Max, Chris Judge Smith and a few other people.


The first VDGG

The band were playing much more interesting music than the Georgie Fame type jazz blues pop of 'Bernard Reich' and I was much more of an important member with them than I had been in Bernard Reich. Chris wrote a lot of Heebalob's material, weird songs with jazzy arrangements but with a power rock rhythm section.We played Plumpton and did a demo for Polydor with George Gomelsky. He was very interested in the band and got us gigs at the Marquee and various places. During the Summer of '69 we had a big house in Hampstead laid on - it was a luxury, but we had to be self-sufficient by the Autumn or else. The band was being taken seriously and financed, we had gigs and record company interest. Lots of people would come round and listen to the 25-minute Heebalob demo tape; I remember Jon Anderson of Yes coming over for instance. He didn't like the tape at all! One strange, curly-headed bloke came over to listen to the tape and asked particularly who the sax player was. He'd been in a band with Chris Judge Smith at Manchester University - his name was Peter Hammill.


VDGG2

In 1968 Peter Hammill andChris Judge Smith left Manchester University to concentrate on their band Van der Graaf Generator. The original keyboard player Nick Pearne soon left to be replaced by Hugh Banton. This 3-piece lasted into the Autumn, when Smith left to be replaced by drummer Guy Evans and ex-Koobas bassist Keith Ellis. The band recorded one single for Polydor, 'People you were going to'/'Firebrand' in December 1968.





They then signed a management deal with Tony Stratton-Smith. Four days after they bought brand new equipment with an advance, the lot was stolen. The band split in 1969 after a particularly aggressive Marquee set. Evans then went on to join the Misunderstood where he met bassist Nic Potter; Keith Ellis went on to join Juicy Lucy and latterly Boxer. He sadly died in 1978. At the end of July 1969, Hammill recorded a solo album 'The Aerosol Grey Machine' with help from various ex-Van der Graafers.



The album was eventually released in the States and on the Continent only, under the Van der Graaf Generator name.The start of VDGG - At the end of that summer the Heebalob deal fell through and the band broke up. The bass player had got the Scientology bug, the flat had to be given back and I was really at my wit's end. I'd already got to know Peter a bit by this time. He came round with his guitar once, sat there and did 'Afterwards' thrashing his head around - I'd never heard anything like it. Later he said to me 'Look, I know you haven't got anywhere to live - I'm trying to reform Van der Graaf Generator, do you want to be involved and do you want somewhere to live?' I jumped at the chance and moved in with Peter. Actually, he needed help with the rent!



VDGG3

Peter already had the other members, Guy Evans, Hugh Banton and Nic Potter, so I had an 'audition' for them just to make sure I fitted in. I just happened to be around at the right moment and have the qualities Peter was looking for. At the end of December '69 we recorded the first VdGG album proper, 'The Least we Can Do Is Wave To Each Other'.



I had already started writing music myself while up in Oxford, and because we shared this flat the whole day would be taken up with music.There were various ways of writing, but slotting in our various bits and pieces to form a whole was one of the easiest and most successful. It was really quite exciting, meetings in West End offices, recording in London studios - it seemed like the high life. We knew we only had four days to record the album so we practiced like mad the whole Autumn with the idea of doing the album live in the studio. When we finally recorded it we did it so fast we found we had all this spare time to do some overdubbing with John Anthony - the Charisma in-house producer. He was a very nice guy, he made it such fun and was so encouraging. If you had ideas he'd willingly try them and would take risks. He opened all our eyes to electronics, which we had never considered before.In 1970 we started touring heavily to promote the album. 'Melody Maker' made it their Album of the Month. It was a great period, we were happy, and comparatively well-off compared to what had gone before. All the guys in the band could play their instruments so we were constantly pushing at the boundaries of what we could play. I'd come up with a 12-tone riff that Peter didn't even know could exist and he'd write a song around it confident that each member of the band was capable and willing to play it. All these years later, I can still pick up a saxophone and play an hour of all those various and complex VdGG riffs that are burnt into my hands from constantly having to practice them just to learn them, a sort of touch-memory.



We played everywhere that year and were happy to do it. We used to play with the Soft Machine quite a lot - that was always interesting, watching bands like that at the Lyceum and places; it was a great time to be playing. At this time we met one Cubby Broccoli via Tony Stratton-Smith. He asked us to perform the soundtrack to his film 'Eye Witness' (also called 'Sudden Terror') which starred Susan George. We went into a very flash film studio and recorded loads of stuff, most of which was considered "too sinister" and wasn't used as far as I can remember. A couple of short instrumentals remained, and some abstract bits like some screaming sax mouth piece stuff as one hapless man gets a hatpin through the neck.....




In December 1970 the band were given short breaks from our constant touring to go into the studio to record our second album, 'H to He, Who Am The Only One. We'd already had a rehearsal break, things went well and we were all totally committed to the band. None of us had wives or children, some of us had girlfriends but they didn't make any demands other than that you be brilliant musicians and go off and do brilliant musicianing so we could disappear off to somewhere nice and rehearse. The ideas were already there, it was just a question of knitting it all together and finding various themes.
More and more though the music was getting too weird for Nic Potter. I don't know why he decided to leave, but he was never deeply involved in arranging the music like the rest of us were. It was more like letting us sort it all out and when it was finished he would do a really good bass part under it which would hold the thing together. He has a gift for intuition, he can play superb bass over something he's never heard before and knows where it is going, even with VdGG material. But, he took a step back from all the hassling in the band, he'd just sit around in the background until eventually he decided to fade away altogether. He left at a very awkward time, half way through recording the album. It was all very disjointed, we were given two days here and two days there in between all this touring.So we had gig commitments, we were writing and we were recording and we had no bass player.


The forth and most classic line up

We were great mates with the band Brinsley Schwartz, they had a big house and we used to hang out there socially a lot. One of their mates, Dave Anderson, was a bass player and we had a week-long rehearsal with him, but it all proved too much for him - the music was too impenetrable. At that point we realised that finding a replacement was not going to be easy. We'd already committed a week to Dave, we had no time left and loads of touring commitments and the chance of finding a bass player who could handle Van der Graaf's material in the next week seemed remote. By then though I'd got a big electrical system built around myself for live work, and Hugh was the same with his keyboards, so suddenly it seemed feasible that just the four of us could go out on the road with myself and Hugh covering the bass parts between us. So we booked ourselves another rehearsal session and tried it, and by golly we did it! We were quite excited about that, especially since it meant the four of us could now fit into one car. For quite some time afterwards it was like that, just the four of us in some hired car around Europe - we really had some great times.




In 1971 we did the now legendary 'six-bob tour' - three Charisma bands for 30p. We topped the bill, Lindisfarne next and Genesis at the bottom. The tour really helped break Lindisfarne in this country, while ironically Van der Graaf Generator with it's less commercial sound were starting to ceiling out. We had to look to the Continent for support more and more.



We recorded our third album, 'Pawn Hearts', again with Robert Fripp guesting on guitar (as he did on 'H to He'). There had been a feeling within the band that for recording purposes a guitar was needed at points. Hugh and I didn't feel this, but Guy certainly did. Nic had a done a bit of guitarring on 'H to He', but the argument went out of the window when the chance came not to have 'some' guitar on the album but Fripp! I remember hearing 'Court of the Crimson King' while I was in 'Heebalob' and the music was unbelievable, it had the same impact as 'Sgt Pepper' had before.


Robert Fripp

The possibilities it opened, especially in the direction I was going, were amazing. At that time Fripp was seen as an innovator and it certainly gave us massive credibility having him on there. But when you actually met the guy and saw him work, it was something magical. I can remember him coming down to Trident (Studios), setting all his pedals up and plugging his guitar in, putting his headphones on although he'd never heard the track before, he recorded this amazing solo on it first take - and that first take was the best, he didn't improve on it. He actually ended up rejecting it, there were a couple of off notes because he didn't know where the track was going at points, but there was a spirit about that first take which was supreme and we were all awestruck.



With 'Pawn Hearts' the band became even more interested in studio techniques, particularly editing - this was how the side-long 'Plague of Lighthouse Keepers' came into being. We actually conceived that piece of music, and the story, in nine sections. On 'H to He' we had already started recording tracks in sections because of the very nature of those recording sessions. We also invented the 'crossover', where half the band would be playing one piece against the other half playing another so there would be all these currents and sweeping effects.We were really good at it and the effect was tremendous, but it was too difficult to re-create live at that time. We mastered live crossovers later on Meurglys III. 'Pioneers over C' from 'H to He' was beyond the pail - it was impossible to do live, and as for 'Plague of Lighthouse Keepers', well it could never be done. Whenever we played Europe there were always offers to do TV shows - there was one time that we turned up at some Belgian TV station and they said to us "Ah, you are now ready to do 'Lighthouse Keepers'. We have the candles and sparklers, everything is ready." We just panicked - nobody had warned us, but there seemed no way out of it so we did it in sections and edited it together. I'm glad we did - I've only seen it once and I was very moved by it. But then it wasn't really live and Van der Graaf live and Van der Graaf recording remain two separate entities.




We had mixed feelings about 'Pawn Hearts' because we'd recorded a double album and it had been decided that it was not 'prudent' to release a double LP at that time, so it had to come out as a single album. There was a track called 'Archimedes Agnostic' I think, and Guy had a backwards drum piece. The other titles are lost to oblivion though, as is the master tape. It's the biggest mystery of all: what happened to the lost half of 'Pawn Hearts'? We put a lot of work and ideas into it, one time we went into the studio and set up everything and then played a Van der Graaf song live straight off, recording it in mono and putting it onto one track of the 24 - then we did the same thing on the second track with a totally different song and so-on until at the end of the day, we had twenty four Van der Graaf Generators all playing simultaneously. We mixed it all together and used a section of it on 'Lighthouse Keepers' near to the line '...maelstrom of my memory' although to be frank, hearing it back now it hardly seems worth the effort. (N.B. Other sources indicate that the missing side 3 of 'Pawns' included live-in-the-studio versions of 'Killer' and 'Darkness' and that side 4 included a track called 'Iceberg')Theme One - 'Pawn Hearts' came out at the end of 1971, just after Peter's first solo album, 'Fool's Mate', which we all played on.



Peter was so creative, and always wrote far more songs than the band could possibly use, so solo albums became the outlet for all this material. Our next release was the 'Theme One' single. A lot of our time was spent driving up and down to and from University gigs in the North of England, and the high spot of these overnight drives would be when Radio One started at 6am with this specially-written George Martin piece, 'Theme One'.



So we started playing it at soundchecks - the melody was easy but the organ bit was phenomenally difficult. But Hugh worked it all out, and Guy just picked up the drum pattern and it became a roadie favourite! They were always demanding it and one night in Munich, we performed it as a second encore and the audience just went wild. People from the record company were there, and they immediately put us into the studio to record it and the B-side 'W'. I absolutely love 'W'. I think it's a really poignant song - the antithesis of the A-side. The single was real commodity, people had to have it and it sold by the thousand on the Continent. We seemed to be moving to a different level sales-wise because of it. But, it was a dual-edged sword because being instrumental, Peter wasn't on it. Our most successful record so far, and he didn't play a note on it - the irony of it! It became part of our live set and Peter would just go crazy during it, running and jumping like a maniac. It was good theatre, with us storming through the piece while Peter just went berserk, but he was probably going berserk in his head as well.



We went to Italy for the first time at the beginning of '72. We thought this 6 week tour was a bit risky, and we weren't getting paid much for doing it - maybe £150 a gig. We had visions of playing to half-empty halls. When we got off the 'plane there was a sizeable crowd of people waving. "Who are they waving at?" we asked. "You" replied the promoter. "Why?" "Because you're Van der Graaf Generator!".On the way to our first concert, which was in a big theatre in Milan, the cars got caught up in this massive crowd. The army were there and the police were trying to control all these thousands of people. We thought it was some massive civil unrest or something, and we realised the gig was probably cancelled. Smoke bombs were being thrown by soldiers into the crowd. "What's happening here?" we asked, "It's because Van der Graaf Generator are here", came the reply. And it went on like this for the whole six weeks. We were doing two concerts a day, and always more than sold out. 'Pawn Hearts' went to Number One in the Italian charts for 12 weeks, and was seen as the ultimate album by the ultimate band. The tour was like the prophets have landed. All this and we were still getting £150 a gig! After six weeks we arrived back in England absolutely exhausted, but almost immediately we had all these Italian promoters outbidding each other in trying to get us to do another tour. With the increased money on offer, we couldn't resist going back again.



So we went back and did another tour, this time doing three gigs a day! And then after we arrived home from that another promoter got in contact so we went back a third time doing four gigs a day... it was like a love story - us and Italy. You'd been doing this music and you'd reached a ceiling in England, and then you'd flogged yourselves around Europe and reached a ceiling there. And then you'd suddenly step out of a car at 6 o'clock in the morning somewhere in Italy and somebody walking along the street would immediately recognise you and start going mad, shouting "Jaxon! Jaxon!". You couldn't go anywhere without this lunatic 'Generator mania' breaking out.We had done far too many gigs in too much heat without a break, and by the end of June we were overdue recording the next album. We'd already had a break for rehearsals during the second and third Italian tours, we rehearsed stuff for the new album (that eventually turned up on Peter's second solo album instead, 'Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night') and even played some of it on that last Italian tour, but we'd overdone it all and when we arrived home after that tour, Peter left the band.




All the constant work, three years without any spare time and never any space between us, always recording or touring, and we were burnt out. Peter said he'd had enough, and resigned from the band.Randy California and The Lemon Hemispheres - All through that Summer and Autumn of '72 the 'phone would ring; another Italian promoter offering me even more Lire to reform Van der Graaf Generator around myself to tour Italy. I could have taken any old band there, as long as it was under the same name - it had the Midas touch in Italy. Neither Hugh nor Guy or myself could possibly contemplate such a thing though. The idea of Van der Graaf Generator existing without any one of the four of us was utterly ludicrous, unthinkable. So when Peter resigned, it was the end of the band. After three years of no rest at all, we then had two years of nothing but rest. Peter made more solo albums and we all played on them, and at various times we played live with him.





On 'Silent Corner and the Empty Stage', Randy California played on one track - 'Red Shift'. At the recording session in Notting Hill he was extremely quiet and withdrawn; he knew no-one. Apart from his guitar playing, one thing was striking in rehearsal: I remember he had a large brown paper bag full of about two dozen lemons. Frequently he would take a knife, cut one in two and devour the insides as one might an orange. It made our teeth go on edge every time he did this (unsurprisingly!) and at the end of the session the bag was empty and the bin was full of lemon hemispheres. He told us that he needed vitamin C and that he lived on lemons - he certainly was extremely delicate looking!!



By 1973 my money had run out. I had got married and now considered there were more important things in life than Van der Graaf Generator. And yet funnily enough, just before I got married I was offered yet another tour of Italy, just myself and Peter this time, so soon after my wedding I was off to Italy at three in the morning. I did session work for a while after we got back, but we needed regular money so I got a job as a van driver which lasted for almost a year. At the end of 1973 I had enough money to do a private-press album, 'The Long Hello', which featured all of us. 1974 was more of the same; I did a tour as a soloist for some Italian star, more gigs with Peter, and more van driving. Towards the end of that year all four of us played live together in an Italian stadium as Peter Hammill's backing band - the promoters rather naughtily billed us as Van der Graaf Generator even though we weren't playing VdGG material as such. The situation sparked something in us though, for despite that not being a Van der Graaf gig, it could have been one. Everybody wanted it to happen, but if it was to happen, it had to be done properly.The deal was signed in January 1975. We knew it was going to happen because there was such a strong feeling between the four of us. We'd done this Hammill gig in Italy and had been outraged that we'd been billed as "Van der Graaf Generator", but I think that had done the trick. It could have been VdGG - God, we could show them! In that Autumn of 1974 we recorded 'Nadir's Big Chance' - it was typical of Peter, lyrically and spiritually, that he came up with the right music at the right time and as 'Rikki Nadir and The Pits' we recorded Peter's album. We had all dropped any other commitments we had and the vibe between us was really positive. It wasn't just the four of us by this time though, I was married by then for example and it became a more extended Van der Graaf Generator family. We signed a good deal with Charisma, and agreed on what the original debts were that we'd left behind us.



We went down to a place called Norton Cannon and Hugh started building his infamous organ. I dreamed up this incredible electronic saxophone system for live work and had this customised packing-case made to house all my 'Jaxon' equipment in one place when touring. I christened it the 'Vangogh'. The Old Rectory became like a factory for making gear and making sounds, it was the classic 'place in the country' where bands could 'get their heads together'. We started out at the sort of level we had achieved when we had split up and in that first year got a lot of well-paid work - we even had a private 'plane for a while.




It was an extravagant lifestyle - no more Universities or Civic Halls for us, it was major gigs and major tours. We had a 12-man road crew and our own management structure. Charisma no longer managed us, they just released our albums.We had a fifth member of the band: Gordian Troeller, who was the manager - he took care of all the business side of things, but for all intents and purposes VdGG were a five-piece.



After this very extended rehearsal period, we went into Rockfield (studios) and prepared to record just one album. Between the 9th and 29th of June 1975 we recorded the four tracks that became 'Godbluff', plus 'La Rossa' which surfaced on 'Still Life' and other pieces that turned up later on the 'Time Vaults' out-takes compilation in 1983. We toured England and the rest of Europe for the rest of 1975. We couldn't play in Italy, the political situation there meant nobody played Italy in 1975. We knew how important it was to get back there to play again though.



In January 1976 we recorded 'Still Life', and then finally somebody came up with a deal to play Italy that we checked out - everything seemed to be alright, and so on the back of this massive European tour VdGG finally returned to Italy for a three-week tour at a very, very high level.



No British band had played Italy for a year or so and suddenly what the Italians considered to be the British band were coming back - you can imagine the stir it caused. Now I'm no expert in Italian politics, but I do know that the Communists were not supposed to hold rallies. They got round this by putting on rock concerts, and before the band came on they would invariably set up a rostrum and do speeches - and then the trouble would start. Things had got so out of hand that no foreign bands would play Italy. Our first concert was in Padova in this enormous enclosed market, with high glass sides - a spectacular building. They had built this huge stage for us at one end with a line of barricades along the path to our tour truck which on this occasion had to double as our dressing room. So the four of us were in this truck and we suddenly became aware that we had been double-crossed, because from the stage the Communists had started up with political speeches. We went berserk, shouting at the promoter, telling him that he had betrayed us. We eventually started to play and suddenly became aware in the darkness that this enormous phalanx of people had come in through the far entrance and had swept in behind the crowd.There was an unpalatable taste of tension and fear in the air. We carried on playing and then a few missiles started coming towards the stage. Something nearly hit me, another one whizzed past Guy and then Peter staggered as one found its target. Freakout! We stopped. We left the stage and went back to the van. The promoters went down on their knees, begging us to return, so we went back on stage and carried on playing while the fighting in the audience became more and more wild. A brick missed me by half an inch, the stage was stoned and that was the end, we stopped again and ran back to the van. We had just pulled the back down when the van suddenly started up. The driver had been on the mixing desk, vainly trying to protect it from the surrounding sea of madness, and he'd got a bit too rough with one particular person so the mob had decided to 'see to him'. He'd run through the crowd with these people in hot pursuit and had locked himself in the cab of our erstwhile dressing room. Unaware that we were in the back, he just took off when a crow-bar or two was brandished by the bloodthirsty mob.He drove through the masses with people diving out of the way and us rolling around in the back screaming as our instruments and equipment crashed about our ears. He ploughed straight through the glass side of the building with a massive crash and kept on driving until he eventually stopped. I've never been so frightened in all my life as I was in the back of that truck.
That night we went into hiding in various friends' houses, for we knew that returning to the hotel was not the wisest of moves.



The next day was OK - we did two concerts in Genoa and there wasn't any trouble at all. The third day was the 'Palast Sport' in Rome, a gigantic concert - 40,000 people. It was awe-inspiring, standing on that stage looking at this endless sea of faces that were there to see Van der Graaf Generator. But then the heavy political speeches started up from the stage... there were hundreds of heavily armed policemen, very aggressive, gathering in the crowd during the concert. A fire broke out but was quickly brought under control. The day didn't turn out as we thought it would, but things still weren't right and we seemed powerless to stop the political speeches.The next day was a day off and we had all gathered at breakfast to decide what to do about the situation when a roadie arrived with the news that our truck, along with all our equipment, had been stolen. Everything was in that truck, every single thing we had - including the Second (Hammill's guitar).



(Historical note: a 'phone call to Peter Hammill in December 1990 elicited the following invaluable information. 'Meurglys I' was a black Hargstrom guitar that pre-dated Van der Graaf Generator. 'Meurglys II' was an ice-blue Stratocaster with extra Gibson pickup and a whammy bar, and was used to record 'Nadir's Big Chance' in 1974 and seen on the cover of the same. It was stolen from the truck in the Rome 1975 fiasco, and is still "greatly missed". 'Meurglys III' as seen on the 'Over' cover, featured on 'World Record' and subsequent recordings).



The promoters turned up and demanded that we carry on with the tour using hired equipment. An impossibility - it couldn't be done - but the truck containing our equipment had seemingly disappeared off the face of the planet. Our road crew were out desperately trying to find a trace of it. The promoter got very, very upset and we got very, very nervous looking at the gun-shaped bulge in his pocket. He was desperate, but we said we would NOT play with rented equipment. After three days of fruitless searching we received word that a lorry had been taken to a wrecker's yard outside Rome. When the roadcrew arrived to check it out they were met by men with crowbars. The local police showed a strange reluctance to help us, and it wasn't until we found out that the yard actually belonged to the police that things began to fall into place. We were eventually allowed to quickly see the lorry - the tail-lift had been sawn off, somebody had taken away the batteries and it was half-empty. 'The Pig', a massively heavy transformer, was found by chance hidden under a pile of tyres nearby. We couldn't take it back, it was too heavy and needed special equipment to move it, so we just had to leave it behind. It was our conjecture that the police had towed away the lorry to the dump and someone had stolen most of the equipment - and that this had been done officially to kill the tour. Which it did...A minor miracle happened when we got back; they were unloading what remained of our equipment when it was suddenly realised that what had been mistaken for one of the P.A. cabinets was in fact 'Vangogh', my customised packing case containing everything that was Jaxon. There it all was, my saxophones with their customised keys, the electrical pickups, even my hats - all safe and sound. But still the band had been shaken to the very core - this three week high-level tour of Italy, the biggest tour ever undertaken in that country by anyone, had collapsed after only three days. The promoter threatened us very heavily when we pulled out and things got very sinister for a while - we certainly didn't dare show our faces in Italy. We were freaked out beyond belief, and it did permanent damage to the band.



When we got home we had no work lined up, no money, and we owed £30,000 to the people we'd hired the lighting rig and P.A. from for all that stuff which had gone missing. The insurance deal fell through for some small-print reason or another and the equipment wasn't replaced. We were having to do scratch gigs - Hemel Hempstead, that sort of thing - using hired equipment. Everybody was very upset, especially Peter who wouldn't talk to anyone for a long time. His whole world had been taken away, including his beloved guitar Meurglys II. It's absence symbolised everything Peter and the band had lost in that disastrous time in Italy. The spirit of the band had been completely broken.I remember playing that Hemel Hempstead gig and it seemed one of the worst gigs we'd ever done. I could barely stand having to play this music any more - despair seemed paramount and the evening seemed like a disaster. I heard a tape of the gig later and it's simply awe-inspiring - magnificent, but dripping despair with every note through sheer feeling and passion. Strange how that happened - many of the concerts from that time are equally powerful to hear on tape later, but at the time it seemed like the pits. (Gig review)That year passed and things got better. In 1976 we re-equipped, and did a big tour of Northern Europe with Alexis Korner - I remember that tour because he was such a wonderful bloke to talk to. He supported us on a French tour and we watched every gig - that doesn't happen very often, that you want to always watch the band that's supporting you.



We recorded our last album, 'World Record', during the Summer and it was decided to try and crack North America with it.
In October we did a tour of Canada, and because we were big in France we were automatically big in Canada. Then we played New York. It was a sell-out concert, but then out of the blue the record company decided that it wasn't going to let us play the rest of the US tour. They pulled out all support from under 'World Record' and the band and although we had gigs on the East and West coast lined up we had no money to get to them.



Then when we arrived back in England we found that the expected profits from the Canadian tour had been sidetracked away from us somehow, so we lost money on the whole thing.I remember just before Christmas somewhere in Germany, we were given backstage passes shaped like big yellow triangles - really quite striking - and on them it said 'VdGG - Farewell'... the support band were called 'Farewell'. I thought, how strange! This would be a weird last gig to do in, in Stuttgart! I've still got the pass in a box somewhere because it did turn out to be just that, the last Van der Graaf Generator gig I ever did.




VDG

Just after Christmas Hugh left the band. We brought in Graham Smith (ex-violinist with String Driven Thing) and Nic Potter came back on bass, we spent a week rehearsing but I found the situation insurmountable. I just couldn't see how it could work. At the end of that week I resigned. I thought if I left now it would help the reformation, me being there with a broken heart would not help it. My spirit had gone, the two years and all the problems had wiped it away. I didn't want to be away from home. I had a little baby, 9 months spent touring that year didn't seem to be a thing I wanted to do.They dropped the 'Generator' at that point which was a nice gesture, and toured very successfully for 18 months or so as Van der Graaf. They put out one album, 'The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome', which is excellent. I was working as a driver when I got a call from them to guest at two Marquee gigs to be recorded as a live album, by this time they had brought in Charles Dickie on cello. The finished album, 'Vital', is a personal disaster for me, I can't bear to hear it. Usually I would have wanted 4 tracks of the 24 track mobile they set up, 2 because of the stereo nature of my saxophone set-up and two for the effects pedal etc. on each channel. What I got was one track - worse still, when Guy Evans came to mix the tapes he found that the mobile had been faulty and there was just total silence on my track. What he had to do was go through the other tracks looking for where my sax would have bled onto a track, like the vocal track, and then take out my sax and boost it up and clean it - and that's what you hear on the record.Van der Graaf split in July and Peter went on to do solo shows,



I became more and more involved with my children, eventually becoming a teacher at their school. I carried on playing one-off gigs with Peter, guesting on his albums and doing radio sessions with him. Back in 1973 various Van der Graaf Generator members recorded an instrumental album called 'The Long Hello', Guy Evans and Nic Potter did a 'Volume 2' and in '81 I had Volume 3 all to myself under the name 'Tonewall'. About this time Peter appeared on the Children's T.V. show 'Playaway' and I was called on to overdub some soprano on a track he'd especially written about King Arthur - he appeared as Arthur's minstrel seen singing at Tintagel castle. In 1983 I played four live dates with Peter in Tel Aviv (Israel). We had a wonderful time, people came from all over the Middle East to see him, the audiences were just magical. I never enjoyed a tour so much as that, it was almost a biblical experience. And that's about it really - I did some soundtrack music for a Channel 4 show about the Mafia and last year I did the music for a play by Christopher Hampton called 'Savages' of which an 84 minute tape is available by mail-order.At the start of 1990 I decided to get back into music full time with my Tonewall one-man show. I've got a fortnightly residency in Reading. I've been preparing for the new Tonewall album all Summer. The last time all four of Van der Graaf Generator were all together was a while back, here in Wokingham on the occasion of my 40th birthday. There came a point in the evening when the four of us, Peter, Hugh, Guy and myself were finally alone, for the first time in years, and we looked around at each other and shared a few memories. It was never really a serious contender that Van der Graaf Generator would be reforming though. Hugh's got his organ firm, he always was into inventing electronics; Peter's got his solo thing and Guy's got his own things going. We've just got too many commitments, there's no way the band would just reform for a one-off gig. If it was to happen, it would have to be total commitment, new material, the lot. I can't see it happening in the forseeable future.



15 years later Van Der Graaf Generator reformed in 2005. David Jackson left them again the following year.


VVDG 2005
Article originally run in Ptolemaic Terrascope

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

VDGG is a mythical group, I love their music. They are one of the main actors who made what pop music is, together with The Beatles, King Crimson, Led Zep, etc.
I appreciated reading these lines, thank you.