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Van der Graaf Generator

Entry updated 21 August 2012. Tagged: Music.

UK prog-rock band comprising Peter Hammill, Hugh Robert Banton (1949-    ) and Guy Evans (1947-    ). Highly regarded in the narrow world of English prog, the group released a series of musically soursweet and ornately complex albums whose obscure lyrics trace out fantastical versions of ordinary life that shade, often, into a more structured fabulation. The first album, The Aerosol Grey Machine (1969), though not the group's best, has an arresting, quasi-surreal New Wave sf flavour. Better is The least we can do is wave to each other (1970), a meditation on the porous boundaries between hard science and alchemical mysticism that manages notable sophistication and nuance. Best of all is H to He, Who Am the Only One (1970); a loose concept album that takes the nuclear fusion of hydrogen to helium (the "H to He" of the title) as a starting point for an articulation of the dialectic of science, as both destructive ("The Emperor in his War Room") and as future-possibility, figured here as a spaceship with Faster Than Light capability (the last track, "Pioneers Over c", ambitiously dates this eventuality to "1983"). Pawn Hearts (1971) again richly complex and non-standard, focuses on earthbound subjects and, in its 23-minute final track "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers", strays into structural sagginess.

None of these releases achieved commercial success (except, for some reason, in Italy) and this fact combined with various other pressures brought about the group's break-up in 1972, with Hammill pursuing a solo career. A reunion in 1975 resulted in several new releases, amongst them Godbluff (1975), and Still Life (1976), which included a lengthy song inspired by Arthur C Clarke, "Childlike Faith in Childhood's End". But subsequent albums, World Record (1976) and The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome (1977) did not scale the heights of earlier work, and the band broke up once again in 1978. A second reunion, and an unremarkable album (Present, 2005) seem directed towards the nostalgia of long-term followers of the group rather than any pressing desire to say anything new.

Fans, schooled in reading intricate hidden meanings into every detail of the group's releases, have purported to find arcane significance in the band-name's misspelling of the Van de Graaff static electricity generator, although Hammill has always insisted it was a simple mistake. [AR]


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