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Peter Hammill

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  • Chameleon In The Shadow Of The Night

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    Peter Hammill

    Fools Mate ( 1971 )
    Imperial Zeppelin / Candle / Happy / Solitude / Vision / Re-Awakening / Sunshine / Child / Summer Song (in the Autumn) / Viking / The Birds / I Once Wrote Some Poems

    Peter Hammill of Van Der Graaf Generator put together 'Fools Mate' as a solo project. These were older, 'orphaned' songs he'd written which he felt didn't quite fit the direction Van Der Graaf Generator were moving towards. Having said that, all of Van Der Graaf Generator play on the album at some stage, Robert Fripp of King Crimson plays guitar and a couple of members of label-mates Lindisfarne appear. On the face of it, this is a project rooted in vanity - bunch of old knock-offs released under the name Peter Hammill rather than Van Der Graaf Generator? Dig deeper though and you realise the dubious roots of this project are utterly transcended. In short, this is a unique album and a shining testament to the talents of not only Peter Hammill, but the marvellous incarnation of Van Der Graaf Generator he'd assembled at the time.

    The following LP proper, Van Der Graaf's 'Pawn Hearts' could not be more different to this debut Hammill 'solo' LP. There is no overriding theme here, the songs are short, usually upbeat and relatively simple. Thing is though, absolutely nobody was making solo albums like this back in 1970. It wasn't the done thing, perhaps only David Bowie really came close to Hammill for vision and originality? Even though the second half of 'Fool's Mate' isn't a patch on the first half, this is still an LP of rare quality, a quality only a fraction of younger artists around today can even imagine. If all of this paragraph feels like i'm a Peter Hammill cheerleader completely lacking in subjectivity, then perhaps I am. Music that strikes a particular emotional chord within oneself cannot always be easily explained away in very objective, scientific terms.

    The lyrics have attracted certain critiscm, certainly when compared to latter Hammill lyrics, for their simplicity and at times, naviety. Having said this, I quite disagree with that assessment myself. Take the following "Doesn't that sound simply super, Zeppelin visions of the future?" - we really should take this in the context of an upbeat, jumping and pounding full band playing piano, brass and speed, squealing with delight. We also need to be mindful of the deliriously chanted "Imperial Zeppelin, Imperial Zeppelin, Imperial Zeppelin!" hook line. What does it all mean? Well, it doesn't I imagine refer to Led Zeppelin, since these lyrics were written in 1967. Read the lyrics yourself, dissect them by all means. I'm more concerned with the images painted, with the vocal tones and emotions expressed. 'Vision' for instance has lyrics which seem a little like sixth form poetry yet when you think about this a little longer you realise that today's artists still struggle to match such sincere poetics. Well, it's a love song after all and it's a love song that works. Hammill himself has a special place in his heart for 'Vision', still singing it in concerts today.

    'Re-Awakening' is my pick of the bunch here alongside 'Vision', 'Imperial Zeppelin' and perhaps 'Summer Song'. I like the line 'Re-awakening isn't easy when you're tired' and I like the grand, sweeping sounds the musicians create. You could record a wholly orchestral version of this and it would sound great. Hammill could also just as easily play it straight by himself, on Piano or Guitar and still get his points across. David Bowie had 'Changes' and 'Life On Mars' to propel him towards stardom, easily assimilated songs that dared to dream. Hammill dared to dream, as 'Vision' and 'Re-awakening' demonstrate but for some reason didn't connect with a wider public. Still, I like the fact that there are murky, largely un-noticed corners of the 'rock/pop' canon still awaiting wider exploration, even in this century of 'always on, everything instantly accessible, even Leonard Cohen is a household name' musical melting pot.

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    Chameleon In The Shadow Of The Night 9 ( 1973 )
    German Overalls / Slender Threads / Rock and Rôle / In the End / What's It Worth / Easy to Slip Away / Dropping the Torch / (In The) Black Room-The Tower

    Van Der Graaf Generator had split up, demoralised and broke. The boundaries between group and solo work continually get blurred with these guys however, at least a third of this album could be considered as being, essentially, Van Der Graaf Generator. The rest is Peter Hammill backed by acoustic guitar among very sparse arrangements. Often, that's all you get, his voice and an acoustic stumming not particularly memorably. Yet, Peter Hammill is awkward at the best of times and often it's difficult to get into the place he seemingly wants you to be in to best enjoy his art. This is one such album and occasion, the lyrics and personal and introspective visions of cryptic clues, painting pictures yet you're never quite sure what of. Well, 'German Overalls' seems to be about the latter days of Van Der Graaf Generator before they split for the first time. There is no resolution to this seven minute song, perhaps because there was no real-life resolution. Some of the lyrics are quite hard hitting and others seemingly utterly desperate. Half way through Peter plays some kind of harmonium/organ and the track turns - the previous minutes had managed to be aggressive without the usual Van Der Graaf hard-hitting messy orchestra of attack. You did and do get the balance between dark and light in all Hammill material and the more I listen to this 'seemingly' tuneless dirge, the more the lyrics make sense of the music. The more and more I listen the more 'German Overalls' utterly obsesses me. Recorded mostly on four track, at home. Did he have the curtains closed and record in utter blackness?

    'Slender Threads' somewhat pales in comparison to the mighty 'German Overalls' and then, welcomingly, comes something resembling the Van Der Graaf Generator sound with 'Rock And Role', the sax and bass and everything return, although this is a more mellow beast than much VDGG work. That doesn't mean it's not funky and not special - it's musical chemistry writ large. Essentially, they get 'in the zone' to the point where the instrumental backing is arguing the best part of the song. VDG light? Possibly, quite possibly. I know some fans absolutely prefer the band tracks here but for me, 'In The End' cements my love of Peter alone. Backed by his own Piano playing, again we get treated to an emotional outpouring, both lyrically and vocally. Some of the melody lines are quite intricate and lovely, too. 'I can't remember my lines' he screams in anguish at one stage, 'All the pages are thin'. It's hugely impassioned and a stunning vocal performance. 'The Tower' closes the record, all Van Der Graaf noise and fury indeed. Well, it builds and switches and Hammill disguishes his voice and comes back in again, etc, etc. Epic in the best Van Der Graaf way and isn't that Sax a delight to hear?

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    this page last updated 10/04/11

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