England - Full Moon 235 - 10/27/15
From head to heart
Van der Graaf Generator's Godbluff
Following our retroscope series going on for several years, here we go again. Yes, for one more year! Here's ...
Speakers' corner's cousin; From head to heart. Luna Kafé's
focused eye on great events, fantastic happenings, absolute milestones, or other curious incidents from the historic shelves'n'vaults of pop'n'rock. Blowing our ears and our head, punching
our chest and shaking our heart, or simply tapping our shoulder. Making us go sentimental, but not slaphappy. This moonth we present a 40-year-old platter - their 5th. No, it's not Ludvig
van, but some other Van. They were pioneering progressive travelers in space/time (space-void, time-void), in their aerosol grey machine while waving to each other (that was the least they
could do). They explored H to HE - the only one - with their pawn hearts. 'They were the kind of band who might have invented stereo had it not existed already' (Al Clark). Dive into 'the
sound of the mid-Seventies: uncomfortable, coherent, unremitting, courageous... Experience more than immediately meets the eye or ear' (Melody Maker). Go see 'a cloud as big as a man's
Van der Graaf Generator
Here at the glass -
all the usual problems, all the habitual farce.
You ask, in uncertain voice,
what you should do,
as if there were a choice but to carry on
miming the song
and hope that it all works out right.
The start of the first song of the first album after the second reformation of Van der Graaf Generator. The ballad of the album, sort of. It starts in a whisper, very hushed down, and gains strength along the way. This was also the first song performed live by the band when they reformed for the third time, in 2005. Another ten years has passed and this very moonth it's 40 years since Godbluff was released. But neither then, nor now, were there any time to mime ...
The band had collapsed in 1972 due to too much touring and pressure to tour even more, especially in Italy were the previous album, Pawn Hearts, released in 1971, had reached no. 1 in the charts. The band members had kept in touch during the hiatus and all of them had participated on main songwriter, vocalist, guitarist and pianist Peter Hammill's solo albums and to some degree in concert, too, during the intervening years. By autumn 1974 they had decided it was due time to get the band vessel started again. First there was a contractual obligation solo album by Hammill to be finished and all four band members joined in. One of Johnny Rotten's/Lydon's favourite albums back in the heydays, Nadir's Big Chance, was recorded in a week in early December that year. (Hammill wrote about three chord wonders and beefy punk songs on the sleeve. Listen to the title track to find out where Sex Pistols found their sound.) By the new year the band members were ready for rehearsals and writing new songs.
The band started to gig in May and the album was recorded the following moonth. It seems to be a most creative period. Apart from heavy touring with grievous episodes on the road, the band recorded three albums in less than a year. I guess I heard a Van der Graaf Generator album for the first time in 1975 or 76. It was Pawn Hearts and I just couldn't stand those howling saxes and roaring vocals. Too much for a tender teenager. I hesitatingly approached the band again around 1977. A friend of mine had bought Godbluff and I copied it onto cassette. (My friend later sold his entire record collection, except one album no one wanted to buy, namely Godbluff. He has been happy about that for several decades by now and built his new record collection with Godbluff as its foundation ...) After toiling with the album for some moonths, it slowly grew and I had to admit that the band had something going. It has continued to grow and it is my favourite album by one of my favourite bands. Listening to the album today, I still find it a bit hard to deal with, hard to describe. It's dense in a way and I still haven't fathomed the mysteries of the lyrics, or title for that matter. The saying goes that when the band had just finished the recordings, they looked at each other and exclaimed: Godbluff! The band might be one of the great British representatives of the first wave of progressive rock of the 1970s. But here are no wishy-washy elfish fairy tale lyrics or musicians playing long and tedious solos. The flutes and saxes of David Jaxon, the organ of Hugh Banton and Peter Hammill's Hohner Clavinet D6 electromechanical keyboard bought the previous year, a sort of electric piano, I guess, intertwine most of the time. This is no band to expose soloists. It's the totality that counts.
The lyrics deal with dark and bleak matters, either at the battlefield:
We are all on the run, on our knees;
the sundial draws a line upon eternity
across every number.
How long the time seems, how dark the shadow,
how straight the eagle flies, how straight towards his arrow.
or soon after:
Scorched earth, that's all that's left when he's done;
or more personal matters. Both lyrics and the harsher parts of the music, which means about two thirds, lies closer to heavy metal of the day, even pre-punk occasionally, than your average prog rock album of the mid-1970s. I guess the band only resembles the, at the time, defunct King Crimson in this respect. Both bands included elements of jazz and heavy metal in their personal uncompromising musical visions. There's seldom any overt humor in Van der Graaf's music, though the members states that there's a lot internal humor in the band. But in the final track "The Sleepwalker" there's a hilarious interlude, the soundtrack to the 'cryptic dance', see the lyrics below, with cheesy fun-fair Hammond and sleazy sax before the full band burst out again with their normal compressed full scale sound. Btw., check the playful sax and drums particularly in the first half of this track. The lyrics of this song in particular still puzzle me. Do they deal with zombies, people who glide - or dance - through life without questioning anything, or what? Judge for yourselves:
holding nothing but beholden to no-one.
At night, this mindless army, ranks unbroken by dissent,
Senses dimmed in semi-sentience, only wheeling through this plane,
is moved into action and their pace does not relent.
In step, with great precision, these dancers of the night
advance against the darkness - how implacable their might!
Eyes undulled by moon, their arms and legs akimbo,
they walk and live, hoping soon to surface from this limbo.
Their minds, anticipating the dawn of the day,
shall never know what's waiting mere insight away
- too far, too soon.
only seeing fragmented images, prematurely curtailed by the brain,
but breathing, living, knowing in some measure at least
the soul which roots the matter of both Beauty and the Beast.
From what tooth or claw does murder spring,
from what flesh and blood does passion?
Both cut through the air with the pendulum's swing
in deadly but delicate fashion.
And every range of feeling is there in the dream
and every logic's reeling in the force of the scream;
the senses sting.
And though I may be dreaming and reality stalls
I only know the meaning of sight and that's all
and that's nothing.
The columns of the night advance,
infectiously, their cryptic dance
gathers converts to the fold -
in time the whole raw world will pace these same steps
on into the same bitter end.
Somnolent muster - now the dancing dead
forsake the shelter of their secure beds,
awaken to a slumber whose depths they dread,
as if the ground they tread would give way
beneath the solemn weight of their conception.
I'd search the hidden corners of all this world,
make reason of the sensory whorl
if I only had time,
but soon the dream is ended.
Tonight, before you lay down to the sweetness of your sleep
do you question your surrender to the drop from Lover's Leap
or does the anaesthetic darkness take hold on its very own?
Does your body rise in service with not one dissenting groan?
These waking dreams of life and death
in the mirror are twisted and buckled
lashes flicker, a catch of breath,
skin whitening at the knuckles.
The army of sleepwalkers shake their limbs and are loose
and though I am a talker, I can phrase no excuse
not to rise again.
In the chorus of the night-time I belong
and I, like you, must dance to that moonlight song
and in the end I, too, must pay the cost of this life.
If all is lost none is known
and how could we lose what we've never owned?
Oh, I'd search out every knowledge that I could find,
unravel all the mysteries of mind,
if I only had time,
if I only had time,
but soon my time is ended.
Godbluff is an album that will continue to intrigue me, probably for the rest of my life ...
Copyright © 2015 JP