England - Full Moon 231 - 07/02/15
Van der Graaf Generator
After The Flood - At The BBC 1968-1977
Virgin Records/Universal Music Company
A double CD filled with nearly 160 minutes of BBC-sessions by our favourite progressive act of the original progressive rock era. That's really something! The saying goes that the embryonic VdGG in the spring of 1968, at the time reduced to the duo Peter Hammill and Chris Judge Smith, went to London and sought out John Peel at his home. When he opened the door they said: 'We're Van der Graaf Generator.' He replied 'Come in Van der Graaf Generator!' and they sat down and played their songs on his living room floor only armed with acoustic guitar and drums. Peel was amused and that might be the reason why the band as early as in mid-November the same year, by now augmented to a quartet without Judge Smith, got the chance at Peel's Top Gear even before the debut single had been released. The last session took place nine years later, around the time their last studio album in about 28 years was released in the autumn 1977.
The album includes 20 songs, one instrumental and one medley. Of the 22 tracks, eight were released on a single disc in the mid 1990s called Maida Vale, whereas nine others can be found on the four CD compilation The Box from 2000. This means the new compilation includes four songs and a medley that are released officially for the first time. The diehards, of course, could've wished for more, in addition a Symonds on Sunday session with two songs from August 1969, a BBC In Concert with four or five songs a year later, a Top Gear Session from the Playhouse Theatre in October 1970 and four or five more tracks to complete sessions represented here. Of the latter, most notably the medleys "Theme One"/"March Of The Dambusters" and "An Epidemic Of Father Christmases" from sessions in September and December 1971 are the ones most sadly missed. "March Of The Dambusters" is a short instrumental taken from the soundtrack of the famous British war movie The Dam Busters from 1955 only played live by VdGG a few times. (It was later in the decade also played live by Jethro Tull, but that's another story.) "An Epidemic Of Father Christmases" saw VdGG reunited with Judge Smith for the first and last time. It's a hilarious combination of "Silent Night", "Rudof The Red-Nosed Reindeer" and a Judge Smith composition about the troubles of Christmas with a humorous nod to the band's LP-sidelong epic "A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers" that had been the released on the LP Pawn Hearts earlier that autumn. The reasons why these recordings are not here, is probably that they don't exist at all anymore or only can be found in inferior sound quality recorded by fans at home in front of their radio sets when they were broadcasted. You can find dubious copies of the two medleys on the Net, though, if you search thoroughly, and probably others that are missing here, too.
Enough of what's not included in this compilation and on to what we're dealing with ... Let's first look at the tracks that are premiered here officially for the first time. Head on to track 8 of disc one and we find "Vision" recorded at a Sound Of The Seventies session in June 1971. This is a beautiful piano ballad released the following moonth on Peter Hammill's first solo album Fool's Mate. I guess this is the only band version of the song, but only on paper as it only contains piano and Hammill's voice. A great version, indeed. One might wonder if it is Hammill or the band's keyboard wizard Hugh Banton who plays the piano. I go for the Hugh, who also played on the album version. Disc 1 finishes with three songs from a John Peel In Concert show three moonths later, a completely live recording in front of an audience. It includes "Man Erg", "W" and "Killer". The former is relatively faithful to the version that by this time had been recorded but not yet released on VdGG's grand opus album Pawn Hearts. Well, Hammill's screaming vocals in the loud parts are maybe a little wilder than in the studio. "W" was released as the B-side of a single in 1972. The band had the entire song sorted out here. It's not their strongest of the era, due to hard competition, but well worth a listen. A quiet part with flute, organ and drums might be the closest VdGG ever got to the first incarnation of King Crimson. "Killer" is the tour de force from the third album H To He Who Am The Only One from late 1970. A true audience favourite and probably the closest the band ever came to relatively straight hard rock during this era. The missing medley "Theme One"/"March Of The Dambusters" mentioned above was performed at this session, too. Maybe omitted due to weak sound quality. The sound of the three tracks from this session is not quite up to par and probably stem from a home recording and not the BBC vaults. A pity, but it's far better than the quality of your average bootleg recording. Then on to the very last track of disc 2 from October 1977 and "(Fragments Of) A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers/Sleepwalkers", taken from the 23 minutes plus suite from Pawn Hearts (1971) and the song that finishes off Godbluff (1975). This combination was also played live at the time and has only been available on the live album Vital (1978) earlier. The BBC take is the closest we get to a studio recording of this. And here it is in all its glory with drama and gloom, incorporating violin and cello in the line-up. A highlight!
Of the previously released highlights I have to mention "Man Erg" from the same Sound Of The Seventies session in June 1971 as "Vision", recorded before the album version. Besides being one of VdGG's strongest numbers demonstrating the range from silk-soft ballad (angels) to roaring outbursts (killers), from pompous drama (dictators) to pure sincerity (refugees), it differs quite a bit in the instrumental parts. Particularly the sax of David Jackson that is more playful and exploring than ever. Here's even something close to a pure sax solo. A rare event. The sound quality of this show is very good and we might also enjoy the entertaining "Theme One" (a rendition of the George Martin instrumental that used to open and close BBC Radio One's transmissions in the mornings and evenings in the early days) and another tour de force and live favourite "Darkness" from the second studio album in early 1970.
I also have a weak spot for the charm of the November 1968 session with a version of the A-side of the first single "People You Were Going To" and "Afterwards" that reverberate the summer of love of the previous year to some extent. The latter is allegedly about an acid trip, before that sort of thing went out of control. This session also includes "Necromancer" from the debut album recorded later, in the summer 1969, an organ-driven partly hard rock number not entirely different from the sound of the early Black Sabbath. (It might be mentioned that VdGG shared stage with Earth a few moonths after this session, in March 1969. Earth soon after changed the name to, yes, Black Sabbath.) The playing and sound quality of the two tracks "Darkness" (again) and "After The Flood" from the second album The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other from a Peel session in January 1970, shortly before the album was released, are also impeccable. And of course the tracks "Scorched Earth" and "Sleepwalkers" off Godbluff (1975) and "Still Life" and "La Rossa" off Still Life (1976) after the band had reunited, are great. They're a little rougher in the edges than their studio counterparts, closer to real live versions, not least a scream during the otherwise quite quiet title track of the latter album. I'm not that wild about the two songs "When She Comes" and "Masks" from the last studio album World Record by the classic line-up of (Hammill, Banton, Jackson and drummer Guy Evans). They're ok, but don't stand out compared to the ones from the two previous albums. In this respect I prefer the adrenaline-filled "Cat's Eye/Yellow Fever (Running)" and "The Sphinx In The Face" off 1977's The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome (plus the aforementioned previously unreleased medley). Hammill had dealt with punk ethos earlier and here the signs of the new times are evident despite violin and cello in the line-up. Especially newcomer Graham Smith's effect-laden violin is a furious weapon in between.
So there we are, all tracks mentioned, I think, apart from "Refugees" from the December 1971 Peel Session that also included the missing "An Epidemic Of Father Christmases". "Refugees" is probably the band's greatest ballad, but lacks something here due to less than perfect sound. A great compilation for the VdGG aficionados. It might even serve as a usable introduction to newcomers. And the very thick booklet with lots of photos gives a great overview of the history of the band. I could maybe have wished more information and stories about the specific BBC recordings included here, but that's a minor objection. A most welcomed release. And I wouldn't say no to a re-launch in some years' time expanded to a triple disc compilation with the missing songs included no matter if the sound quality of the remaining tracks are inferior.
Copyright © 2015 JP