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Van der Graaf Generator
The Box
Virgin

Now where did I recently read that Van der Graaf Generator was the only true progressive band along with King Crimson of 1972-73 to come out of the progressive rock era? Maybe it was in The Box itself? Well, it can't be too far from the truth. They kept to their changing time signatures, improved the sax-organ formula until the organist and saxophone player had left by early 1977 and the name was shortened to Van der Graaf. "You must play what you have to play," protégé Graham Bond told them at an early stage, and they did. Vocalist, lyricist and main composer Peter Hammill never succumbed to write Tolkien inspired lyrics and the band never transformed into a pompous sympho-rock combo like contemporaries such as Yes and Genesis. It was way too few compromises when a friend of mine and myself first heard VdGG as tender teenagers. I thought it was howling vocals and screaming saxes all over the record and kept at a safe distance for some years afterwards. We had in fact heard parts of VdGG's greatest epic, A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers (included in The Box, of course), from the album I've come to love the most, Pawn Hearts.

Apart from the debut album that originally only was released by Mercury in the USA, all VdGG albums were released on the (famous) Charisma label that their first manager Tony Stratton Smith set up after the Mercury incident. It's quite ironic that Virgin, the company Hammill disliked the most later on, bought Charisma in the 1980s and has had the rights to most VdGG and early Hammill solo recordings ever since. And here we are, Virgin has finally found out it's time to introduce and sum up the life (1967-78 with two split-ups in between) and career (nine albums, a few singles, numerous radio session and tours) of Van der Graaf with and without the Generator. Which is no easy task.

The Box includes four CDs of gloomy progressive rock, some pop or rock "ballads" and quite a bit of rock mayhem. But I wonder who it's made for. Die-hard fans (or whatever) will buy any VdGG-release that includes previously unreleased material. And here are several previously unreleased versions from BBC-sessions, live recordings and even a studio recording of a song (Door) that's only been available on a live album earlier. On the other hand there's still lots of BBC recordings left in the vaults and there are better live recordings of the band than the 50 minutes from a gig in Rimini, Italy (where they were huge stars and their presence caused riots in 1972 and 75) included here. Well, the playing on the latter is superb and fierce, but modern sound improving techniques cannot hide the fact that this is a bootleg recording. Not at all.

For those unfamiliar with the band, about half the contents of The Box are remastered versions of well-known songs off every VdGG album except the first. It's about time we got some remastered VdGG material on CD; Virgin didn't put a lot of prestige into the budget priced CDs of the original albums that have been available for several years. The selection of songs in The Box is not bad; the only one I really miss is The Undercover Man off Godbluff. To me the sound is great throughout, though I've heard some complaints about tape hisses. It might seem a bit dull for the ones who is well into the VdGG music to notice that the third CD only includes remastered versions off the studio albums except one live song. But the high quality sound of Sleepwalkers, Pilgrims, Still Life etc. really saved the day for me when I heard them one dark and rainy November morning. And the improved Childlike Faith In Childhood's End was a real eye-opener to me.

The booklet of The Box includes lots of previously unpublished photos and a gig list with fond memories and articles of the four most involved band members and a few others that is great. I bought my copy of the album from Nic Potter who played bass from 1969-70 and 1977-78 and he had not been invited to contribute neither to the booklet nor the song selection or sound improvements. The booklet could've been even better if more people like him (he was only 16 when he first joined the band!), other musicians and maybe manager at one stage Gordian Troeller (who played piano in the very first line-up in 1967) had been involved.

So where are we then? The Box seems to be a bigger compromise than its musical contents. For the die-hards it would've been better with a Box of the complete John Peel and other BBC sessions. At this time of the year, the inclusion of the hilarious An Epidemic Of Father Christmases would've been especially welcomed. I wouldn't say no to a remastered version of the very first VdGG single People You Were Going To/Firebrand that was withdrawn after a week, recordings for the film Eyewitness in 1970 or the songs that were left when the double live LP Vital was transformed into a single CD either. And the soundtrack of the Belgian tv-special of the entire Godbluff album played live in 1975 might have been a better idea than the Rimini recordings of the same year. For newcomers, The Box probably includes too much dodgy radio sessions and bootleg sound. Along with The Box Virgin released a single CD called An Introduction with one remastered studio song off every album except the first one and a couple of single A-sides. I guess both The Box and An Introduction will leave everyone that's fascinated by the music, hungry for more. Maybe that's the point? Let's hope remastered versions of all albums with the inclusion of bonus tracks are the next in line.

All in all The Box and the efforts to complete it are very welcomed, but the task of summing up Van der Graaf Generator onto four discs to everyone's satisfaction seems impossible. If I'd tried to do it myself, it wouldn't fare better than this one.

Copyright © 2000 JP e-mail address

You may also want to check out our Van der Graaf Generator articles/reviews: Merlin Atmos - Live Performances 2013, ALT, After The Flood - At The BBC 1968-1977, Do Not Disturb, Godbluff, Present, Real Time, Still Life, The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other + H To He Who Am The Only One + Pawn Hearts.

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