Van Der Graaf Generator, wrote the editors of the “New Musical Express Book Of Rock” in 1975, “failed to make much of an impression on [the] British public. However they managed to accrue a small, but dedicated cult following for their heavy, doomy music.”
It was not much of an epitaph for what that same small cult following would have declared was one of the most ambitious, adventurous and, above all, challenging rock bands of the early 1970s. But VDGG had broken up a full three years earlier, and anybody still mourning the group’s demise was at least left with frontman Peter Hammill’s dogged pursuit of similar musical ends.
In fact, what was then his most recent album, 1975’s Nadir’s Big Chance, included a reprise of the very first song the band ever released, the 1968 single “People You Were Going To,” in whose lyrics could be found a virtual template for every critic’s own perception of the group:
“The people in the downstairs flat
are no longer there now because they left
the gas tap on, they’re all dead.
So you’ve no-one left to talk to….”
And that was the band’s first single. By the time they reached the end, four years and four albums later, they had more or less set to music every conceivable method of extinguishing life, hope and existence that you could dream of. The final words of the final track of that final album were “all things are apart.” Weeks later, the group split up.
They would return. No sooner had the “Book of Rock” gone to press than the group was back with a new LP and a blistering rebirth that threw up another four albums (plus a live souvenir). More recently, in 2005, Van Der Graaf regenerated again, and with two new studio albums already behind them (and a third on the way), the band is currently preparing for their first American concerts since a New York date in October 1976 — which, in turn, was the band’s first U.S. concert ever. At the time of writing, only one date, at Nearfest on June 19, has been confirmed. But Peter Hammill assures fans that “the plan is to do a few more shows while we’re over there. I suspect they may be East Coast/Canada only, but we’ll see what emerges in due course …”
For anybody seeking an introduction to Van Der Graaf Generator, a host of compilations have been released over the decades, both on vinyl and CD. Most simply concentrate on the band’s best-known material. But there’s a few that go beyond, with the first, 1972’s budget-priced 68-71, rounding up several single-only sides that were already fetching high prices among collectors. Repeat Performance, later in the decade, amplified that same exercise; Time Vaults in 1984 scraped up various outtakes and doodles recorded during the group’s 1972-1975 hiatus, while the entire career was exquisitely profiled on the four-CD The Box in 2000. But still there were omissions, from these and every other set, beginning with that first VDGG single.
Neither “People You Were Going To” nor its flip, “Firebrand,” would ever appear on album, and it would be 1997 before they even made it onto CD. Neither did the band members mourn their unavailability; Hammill was most definitely not speaking as a collector when he warned, in 1995, that the single “is emphatically not worth the £250 it’s been reported to be going for.”
As an artefact, it’s fascinating. But as a musical experience, it could be a different band — or, as a review in Melody Maker put it, “here is the group people say are going to replace the Beatles, Stones, BeeGees … at the top. Mind you, the person wh