Van Der Graaf Generator - Biography

Van der Graaf Generator got its start during the British psychedelic explosion of the late-sixties, but their far out, experimental sounds led them to be one of the founding fathers of the progressive rock movement.


After a trip to San Francisco in 1967, drummer Chris Judge Smith returned to his studies at Manchester University in England but was determined to start a band that would incorporate the magic of the San Franciscan psychedelic counter culture. Judge Smith recruited two fellow students, organist Nick Pearne and singer-songwriter-guitarist Peter Hammill, to his burgeoning band. In this early incarnation, the group had a blues and jazz-influenced sound similar to many other psych bands of the time. After nearly naming themselves Zeiss Manifold and the Shrieking Plasma Exudation, the band settled on the slightly less confusing Van der Graaf Generator — misspelled after an electrical generating device invented by physicist Robert J. Van de Graaff.


Pearne left the fold after one gig, but the remaining duo of Hammill and Judge Smith opened for Tyrannosaurus Rex in Manchester and then set about recording a demo. The demo caught the attention of Mercury Records and the duo was invited to record some songs for the label in London. Only Hammill signed what was later described as a “restrictive” contract with Mercury. During this time, Hammill and Judge Smith had met a classical, cathedral-trained organist named Hugh Banton and added him to the line-up. The band also secured Tony Stratton-Smith as their full-time manager and through him met bassist Keith Ellis. This four-piece version of the band cut a single for Mercury, “People You Were Going To” backed with “Firebrand.” “People You Were Going To” is a fairly typical psych-era ballad, but the b-side is a rousing number concerning Norse mythology. The single didn't make much of a ripple commercially, but it did get the attention of up-and-coming BBC radio DJ John Peel. Van der Graaf Generator was invited to record a session for Peel’s radio show Top Gear in November of 1968. Just before this session, the band added drummer Guy Evans. Judge Smith quit the band after the Peel session and the remaining quartet continued to gig around England, opening for the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac, and Pink Floyd. Unfortunately, the band experienced difficulties on the road and, after having almost all of its musical equipment stolen, decided to break up in June of 1969.


Hammill was still technically a solo artist signed to Mercury and was therefore expected to deliver a solo debut album to the label. Who better to have as his backing band than the members of his former band? Hammill, Ellis, Evans, and Banton reconvened in London and recorded what, after legal wrangling with Mercury, became the first Van der Graaf Generator album, The Aerosol Grey Machine (1969 Mercury). The album serves as a bridge between what the band started out as — a jazz and blues-inflected psychedelic combo — and what the band would become — a darkly compelling progressive rock band. Hammill's melodramatic vocalization of bizarre lyrics and Banton's masterful organ work especially stands out on their debut.


After the album was released, Ellis quit the band and was replaced by 17-year-old bassist Nic Potter. The band also added saxophone player David Jackson. While Van der Graaf Generator had been recording their first album, their manager Stratton-Smith had been setting up his own record label named Charisma, and so it was decided the revived band's next effort would be on the new label (as much from lack of interest from other labels as from expediency). Charisma became known over the years as one of prog rock's great labels, releasing albums by Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Lindisfarne, and Brand X, just to name a few.


The new five-piece version of the band headed to Trident Studios in London in December of 1969 and recorded the album The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other (1970 Charisma), which was released a couple of months later in 1970. At the time, Trident Studios was considered one of the most advanced studios in the world. The band took full advantage of the technology by recording most of the album on the new 8-track reel-to-reel machines. However, “After The Flood” was recorded on the brand new, state of the art Ampex 16-track machine. Van der Graaf Generator's sound had changed considerably since the first album, becoming much darker with longer song structures and unusual time signatures. Hammill's voice is ever more eccentric, and his lyrical preoccupations run the gamut from ancient English history to worldwide destruction. Jackson's distorted sax tone and Banton's increasingly weird organ contributions helped to establish a new signature sound for the group. 


Van der Graaf Generator finally seemed to have found some level of continuity and a unique sound. The band took advantage of their momentum and quickly went back into the studio to record their next album, H To He Who Am The Only One (1970 Charisma), which was released in the same year as The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other. During the recording of the new album, bassist Potter quit and Banton filled in for him on the remainder of the album. For future recording and live dates, the band didn't recruit another bassist but rather had Banton play the organ’s bass pedals to give the bottom end an even heavier feel. The new album proved to be even more far out than the previous album, using varying time signatures in their long songs and heavy allusions to classical and jazz music. Van der Graaf Generator differed from their emerging prog rock brethren in that they had a theatrical, almost gothic vision and sound but could also rock with a proto punk energy. It should be noted that contrary to most groups of the time (especially prog rock bands), Van der Graaf Generator was still without a lead guitar. However, on the track “The Emperor In His War Room” special guest guitarist Robert Fripp (King Crimson) filled in on lead guitar.


After spending the early part of 1971 touring with Charisma label mates Genesis and Lindisfarne, Van der Graaf Generator recorded 1971's Pawn Hearts (Charisma). The band was now at the height of their powers — their music was becoming more heavy and visceral, the lyrics becoming even stranger and more cerebral, the freaking out becoming more freaky. Pawn Hearts contains just three tracks, the longest being the 23-minute suite “A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers.” Though later considered to be something of a prog rock masterpiece, the album failed to register in all markets save for Italy, where it stayed in the charts for 12 weeks. The band spent the rest of 1971 and 1972 on tour, but they were not getting much support from Charisma. Van der Graaf Generator split up again at the end of 1972.


Hammill went on to a very prolific solo career. The remaining three former members joined again with Nic Potter and with new partners Ced Curtis and Piero Messina to form the instrumental combo The Long Hello. The former members of Van der Graaf Generator continued to play on Hammill's solo records. After all former members reunited on Hammill's 1975 album Nadir's Big Chance (Charisma), the decision was made to resurrect Van der Graaf once again. After staging a comeback tour in 1975, the band entered the studio.


In the now-typical frenetic Van der Graaf Generator style, three albums were recorded in just 12 months. The first, Godbluff (1975 Charisma), was more streamlined and stripped down than the excess of their previous Pawn Hearts. Hammill also started using a Clavinet keyboard as his main instrument around the time of the recording. Another album followed in 1976, Still Life (Charisma), which contained several songs that were recorded at the Godbluff sessions. Just a month after the release of Still Life, the band returned to the studio and recorded World Record (1976 Charisma). By this point, the momentum and creativity of the reunion was starting to run thin and the album seemed to be pitched towards trying to get a hit rather than pleasing the band's faithful following. Internal tensions were building again within the band and, after the release of World Record, both Banton and Jackson left.


Hammill and Evans decided to carry on, shortening the name of the band to just Van der Graaf. Instead of replacing the departed members, they moved on to something a bit different. The duo lured bassist Potter back into the fold and recruited violinist Graham Smith. Hammill also took the chance to step-up his guitar playing, cranking up the volume and playing with more confidence and energy. With the new line-up, recording quickly resumed and a new album, The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome (Charisma), was released in late 1977. The album isn’t quite as heavy as its predecessors but shows more energy, possibly due to the influence of the emerging punk movement. The band took its new sound on the road, augmented by cellist Charles Dickie and returning former member David Jackson on sax and flute. The band at this point was every bit as loud and assaultive as a punk band, but remained aggressively prog in their song structures and instrumentation. Van der Graaf released a live album of the tour, Vital (Charisma) in 1978. Just as the band seemed to hit another creative peak, tensions within the band heated up and the band broke up for the third time later in 1978.


Peter Hammill continued with his solo career, including various members of Van der Graaf on his albums. The classic line-up of Hammill, Jackson, Banton, and Evans played a birthday party for Jackson’s wife in the early 1990's and again for just one song (“Lemmings”) at a London concert in 1996. In 2003, Jackson, Banton, and Evans made a surprise appearance at a Peter Hammill concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London to perform the song “Still Life.” After Hammill suffered a heart attack in 2004, discussions were held about possibly resurrecting Van der Graaf again. The band members were getting older, but still enjoyed playing together and wanted to work on new material. The band wrote and rehearsed through late 2004, and released a double album of new material called Present (EMI) in 2005. The first disk contains formal songs, while the second disk is packed with studio improvisations. The album was hailed as a musically-relevant return by the elder statesmen of prog rock, and the group set out on a limited but well-received tour in 2005. Real Time (Fie!), a live album of the tour, was released in 2007.


After the tour, it was announced that Jackson was leaving the band, but the three remaining members would carry on. The graying but vital Hammill, Banton, and Evans continued on and released a new album, Trisector (EMI) in 2008.


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