Van Der Graaf Generator


Summer 1975: I was in London when I happened to read about one of my favourite groups ever, Van Der Graaf Generator, having reformed in their original line-up. And not only that, they were also playing on the Continent. Imagine my surprise when I read that, precisely at that very moment, the group was busy doing some dates in... Italy! (And since we're talking about timing: that summer was the only time that Henry Cow played in my hometown - while I was away...) I tried (in vain) to overcome my disappointment. Sure, on the surface this reformation appeared to be more than a bit strange - just like when practically everybody had been caught by surprise by the news of the group splitting up, three years earlier: right at a time when a dedicated following, hot live dates and a brilliant progression of excellent studio albums - The Least We Can Do Is Wave At Each Other ('70), H To He, Who Am The Only One ('70) and Pawn Hearts ('71) - all seemed to announce that the group was about to break big.

In the end, I was lucky: I attended the (London) New Victoria Theatre gig on August 30th. Definitely known for their not playing by the rules, the group started the concert in almost complete darkness, with just a lone, thin flute playing the intro to The Undercover Man, the opening track of the yet-to-be-released new album, Godbluff. If I remember correctly, the new album was performed in its entirety, with just a few old favourites like Lemmings and Man-Erg being performed; while the group also played a few songs (Forsaken Gardens, In The Black Room and A Louse Is Not A Home) from Peter Hammill's solo albums.

Godbluff was released in October '75. Attentive listening showed that the group had changed considerably, abandoning the aesthetic of their earlier albums - which had been characterized by a meticulous production work with tons of overdubs - in favour of a more direct, streamlined, "live" approach where the musicians' roots in soul, jazz and r&b easily showed. Which didn't mean that the music was now more palatable or commercial; quite the opposite, in fact; and there was a new sense of urgency, a nervous, harder surface.

Godbluff proved to be my favourite Van Der Graaf Generator album from that period (though quite good on its own terms, the 1977 The Quite Zone, The Pleasure Dome is a different album by a very different band). It still is, by the way: 'cause while Still Life ('76) had higher highs, it also had lower lows (my opinion, of course); while Godbluff's four long tracks - The Undercover Man, Scorched Earth, Arrow, The Sleepwalkers - showed a unity of inspiration and appeared as having been cut from the same cloth.

I decided to purchase the new, digitally remastered edition of Godbluff. I'm usually disappointed by digitally remastered editions: too many high frequencies, not enough bass, no "warmth", a terrible, fatiguing sound where cymbal hits threaten to damage one's hearing. I'm quite pleased I can say that the album sounds very good - much better, I'd say, than the tracks that appeared a few years ago on the group's 4 CD box set called The Box. There's nothing really "new" here, but the bass pedals on The Undercover Man, the clavinet work on Scorched Earth and Arrow, the bass guitar on The Sleepwalkers can be more easily appreciated, while cymbals never go "fi-zz...". Two brutal-sounding (and officially unreleased) live tracks from that period - Forsaken Gardens and A Louse Is Not A Home - complete the set.

Listening to Godbluff - an album that I know from memory, and that I hadn't listened to in a long time - I thought about how in those days this kind of quality, this concept of "song-stretching", were taken for granted. While now Godbluff sounds like the precursor to a music that never came. Funny, or what?

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2005 | Aug. 23, 2005