Singer, songwriter, guitarist, pianist
Singer, songwriter, guitarist, and pianist Peter Ham-mill is a veteran of the rock genre, recording in excess of 40 albums both alone and as a band leader for more than 30 years. A frequent collaborator and friend of Peter Gabriel, Hammill achieved high regard in his native Great Britain and across Europe. Hammill and Gabriel played an important role in the development of progressive rock, leading the art-prog-rock bands Van der Graaf Generator and Genesis respectively and singing in a theatrical, wordy, typically English style. After the dissolution of Van der Graaf Generator, Hammill embarked on a solo career, maintaining a prolific output ever since. However, the quality of his work, rather than the quantity, ensured that fellow rock artists time and again would return to Hammill for inspiration. Contemporary musicians such as Gabriel, Nick Cave, Marc Almond, David Bowie, Mark E. Smith of the Fall, and John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) of the Sex Pistols and Public Image Limited count among his many admirers.
The various stages of Hammill’s career include progressive rock in the late 1960s and early 1970s with Van der Graaf Generator, lo-fi pre-punk as a solo artist in the 1970s, particularly 1975’s Nadir’s Big Chance, and subsequently quieter, experimental work, as well as love songs and furious, confessional rock. In addition, Hammill wrote pieces for ballets and composed an opera version of the Edgar Allan Poe poem “The Fall of the House of Usher.” He achieved a commendable level of autonomy in his work, owning his own studio and label, Fie! Records, and released some of his most exciting and interesting work in the 1990s.
Throughout the years, Hammill remained true to his artistic vision in the real sense of the term, composing music that takes risks, explores diverse themes and genres, and strikes an emotional chord. Furthermore, he realized the importance finding new musical territory to explore. Hammill, a forward-thinking musician, notes that the progressive genre itself has ended up “a long way from where we started,” as quoted by Boston Globe writer Jim Sullivan. “One of my main objectives,” Hammill added,” is to avoid being boring to myself… on the principle that if it is boring to myself, then I might last another year doing this boring stuff, but sooner or later the audience will be bored as well.”
Peter Hammill was born on November 5, 1948 in Ealing, London, England, and attended Manchester University, where he focused on studies in liberal science. In 1967, he formed the band Van der Graaf Generator with college friends. The group collapsed without making any recordings, but in 1968, Van der Graaf Generator re-grouped, and Hammill bailed out of his courses to devote himself entirely to music. From the onset, he intended to release a solo album as well as a record with the band, but Van der Graaf Generator seized on his material, resulting in the celebrated 1969 album The Aerosol Grey Machine. Finding great success especially in Europe, Van der Graaf Generator went on to release four more albums, including the acclaimed 1970 albums H to He, Who Am the Only One and The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other, before breaking up for a second time in 1972.
Thus, Hammill jumped on the opportunity to resume a solo career. His early albums, including Fool’s Mate (1971), Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night (1973), and The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage (1974), all continued down the same musical path as Van der Graaf Generator. Featuring old band members, as well as a guest appearance by label mate Robert Fripp on Fool’s Mate, these records revealed the melodramatic, emotionally charged tone of vintage progressive rock. But In Camera, released later in 1974, signaled a change in musical direction. With this album, Hammill reworked his poetic anguish into a soundscape of tape loops and sampled effects, at the time an entirely new approach in production.
In 1975, he departed even further with Nadir’s Big Change, a song cycle of punk songs, soul struts, and ballads that found Hammill’s cerebral sound giving way to that of a hard-rocking alter ego named Rikki Nadir. “I do have several alter egos,” he admitted, as quoted in a 1975 biography by his former label, Charisma Records. “Nadir, a later arrival, is my pop component, and he is the perpetual 16 year old who loves smashing guitars—but there’s very much a place for him. It’s not such a serious side as In Camera, but there’s the same heart and soul—I mean, there are songs on the previous albums that could easily have been on Nadir’s album. It’s just lighter that’s all.”
Born on November 5, 1948, in Ealing, London, England. Education: Studied at Manchester University.
Member of progressive rock band Van der Graaf Generator, 1967, 1968-72, 1975-77; released prog-rock solo albums, early-1970s; released lo-fi pre-punk solo albums in the 1970s, particularly with Nadir’s Big Chance, 1975; released The Future Is Now, 1978; released the ambitious A Black Box, 1980; member of the K-Group, 1981-83; released experimental album Loops and Reels, 1983; released furious rock album Skin, 1986; released rock opera The Fall of the House of Usher, based on the Edgar Allan Poe poem, 1991; released some of his most exciting and interesting work in the mid- to late-1990s, including X My Heart, 1996, and This, 1998.
Addresses: Record company —Fie! Records, http://www.artist-shop.com/fie/.
Following a brief reunion with Van der Graaf Generator, Hammill returned to solo work again with 1977’s Over, a soul-baring album detailing the breakup of his marriage. The writing and recording of Over obviously helped Hammill move forward musically as well as personally, for his next release, 1978’s The Future Is Now, was his best outing thus far. Favoring minimalism and short, bare-boned songs over his previous lush and layered arrangements, Hammill played almost all instrumental parts and used tape loops and synthesized rhythm tracks to back up his vocals. Adam Kimmel in Rock: The Rough Guide referred to the effect as “flawless.” Hammill likewise dismissed the angst-ridden lyrics of Over, replacing them with words that addressed issues such as age, futility, and, in a rare venture into politics, apartheid.
Hammill revisited the maturing, stark feel of The Future Is Now in 1979 with pH7, then took time off to serve as a guest vocalist on Fripp’s Exposure album before returning in 1980 with a bleak, ambitious work entitled A Black Box. Although by now punk rock had overshadowed many of his contemporaries, Hammill maintained a committed following for his musical integrity and lyrical intelligence. Unlike fans of most other rock stars, Hammill’s loyal followers usually owned the musician’s entire catalog.
In 1981 Hammill, along with drummer Guy Evans and bassist Nic Potter, both former members of Van der Graaf Generator, as well as former Vibrator guitarist John Ellis, formed the K-Group and released the awe-inspiring Sitting Targets, regarded as his best with a “band.” The foursome’s follow-ups, while intriguing, were inevitably less admirable. These included Enter K, released in 1982, and Patience, released in 1983. In the meantime, Hammill also recorded another solo album, 1983’s Loops and Reels, comprised primarily of instrumental and experimental music. Following the solo outing The Margin (1985), Hammill arrived with an album that his fans had been waiting for. Skin, released in 1986, was a furious, rock-oriented confessional featuring Hammill on vocals, guitar, and keyboards. The next album, 1986’s And Close As This, returned again to Hammill’s quieter side.
Hammill continued to record throughout the remainder of the 1980s and the 1990s, releasing many albums through his own Fie! label. Although he toured less regularly, he did make sporadic live appearances, performing solo as well as with former Van der Graaf Generator cohorts Ellis, Potter, and saxophonist/flautist David Jackson. In the fall of 1999, he embarked upon his first American tour since 1990, accompanying himself on keyboards alongside frequent partner Stuart Gordon, a violinist and guitarist. His studio recordings, too, became less predictable for a few years. Two albums from 1989, In a Foreign Town and Out of Water simply covered old territory. Hammill’s brave attempt at reviving the rock opera with the 1991 release The Fall of the House of Usher and his 1992 album Fireships received mixed reviews.
However, Hammill reclaimed critical admiration thereafter, producing some of his best work later in his career. 1993’s The Noise displayed Hammill’s fire and malicious wit, a songwriting tone he returned to for 1994’s Roaring Forties. His next album X My Heart, released in 1996, was described by Kimmel as a “real stunner” and “his best outing in 15 years.” Centering on Hammill’s personal side, X My Heart saw the musician passionately venting his skewed rage. He followed this with two more successes: Everyone You Hold, released in 1997, and This, released in 1998. In 1999, Hammill released the studio album This and a live double-album recorded in 1992 entitled Typical, both of which revealed a singer-songwriter still operating in peak form. In 2000, he maintained the same authority with None of the Above, featuring Hammill playing most of the instruments himself.
“When I am actually working on the material, either writing it or recording it,” Hammill says he does so, as he explained to Sullivan,” without being egotistical, without a reference to the audience. I think one of the characteristics of my audience, small as it is, is a lot of them expect change from song to song, from album to album, and they are prepared to go along with what [another person] might seem to think are unpromising trails, in the hope there will be something interesting at the end of it.” The fact that he has been able to pursue his music as a career, Hammill continued, “remains a fantastic privilege. I get to do what makes sense to me—the hour-and-a-half of performing live or the fun of making a record is something that doesn’t come into most people’s lives. To do a job where you’re grappling with your demons or obsessions or what have you, but it’s the grappling with them that makes some degree of sense of things. It’s enormously uplifting.”
Fool’s Mate, Charisma, 1971.
Chameleon In the Shadow of the Night, Charisma, 1973.
In Camera, Charisma, 1974.
The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage, Charisma, 1974.
Nadir’s Big Chance, Charisma, 1975.
Over, Charisma, 1977.
The Future Now, Charisma, 1978.
Vision, Charisma, 1978.
pH7, Charisma, 1979.
A Black Box, S-Type, 1980.
Repeat Performance, Charisma, 1980.
Loops and Reels, Sofa Sound, 1983; reissued, Fie!, 1993.
The Love Songs, Charisma, 1984.
The Margin (double-album), Foundry, 1985.
And Close As This, Virgin, 1986.
Skin, Foundry, 1986.
(With Guy Evans) Spur of the Moment, Red Hot, 1988.
In a Foreign Town, Enigma, 1989; reissued Fie!, 1995.
Out of Water, Enigma, 1989, reissued Fie!, 1995.
Room Temperature Live (double-album), Enigma, 1990; reissued Fie!, 1995.
The Fall of the House of Usher, Some Bizarre, 1991; reissued Fie!, 1999.
A Fix on the Mix, Golden Hind, 1992.
Fireships, Fie!, 1992.
Offensichtlich Goldfisch, Golden Hind, 1993.
The Noise, Fie!, 1993.
The Calm (After the Storm), Virgin Universal, 1993.
The Storm (Before the Calm), Virgin Universal, 1993.
There Goes the Daylight, Fie!, 1993.
Roaring Forties, Fie!, 1994.
The Peel Sessions, Strange Fruit, 1995.
After the Show, Virgin, 1996.
X My Heart, Fie!, 1996.
Tides, Sine, 1996.
Past Go, Fie!, 1996.
Sonix, Fie!, 1996.
(With Guy Evans) The Union Chapel Concert (double-album), Fie!, 1996.
Everyone You Hold, Fie!, 1997.
This, Fie!, 1998.
Typical (double-album), Fie!, 1999.
(With Roger Eno) The Appointed Hour, Fie!, 1999.
None of the Above, Fie!, 2000.
Van Der Graaf Generator
The Aerosol Grey Machine, Mercury, 1969; reissued, Fie!, 1997.
H to He, Who Am the Only One, Charisma, 1970.
The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other, Charisma/Probe, 1970.
Pawn Hearts, Charisma, 1971.
68-71, Charisma, 1972.
Godbluff, Charisma, 1975.
Still Life, Charisma, 1976.
World Record, Charisma, 1976.
The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome, Charisma, 1977.
Time Vaults, Sofa Sound, 1981; reissued, Demi Monde, 1985.
First Generation (Scenes from 1969-1971), Virgin, 1986.
Second Generation (Scenes from 1975-1977), Virgin, 1986.
I Prophesy Disaster, Virgin Universal, 1993.
Maida Vale, Band of Joy, 1994.
The Masters, Eagle, 1998.
Sitting Targets, Virgin, 1981.
Enter K, Naïve, 1982; reissued, Fie!, 1991.
Patience, Naïve, 1983; reissued, Fie!, 1991.
Enter K/Patience (double-album), Spartan, 1986.
Killers, Angels, Refugees, Charisma, 1974; reissued, Sofa Sound, 1980.
Mirrors, Dreams, and Miracles, Sofa Sound, 1982.
Buckley, Jonathan and others, editors, Rock: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 1999.
Boston Globe, October 29, 1999.
Los Angeles Times, September 30, 1996.
Washington Post, November 8, 1999.
Peter Hammill, http://www.vandergraafgenerator.co.uk/peter.htm (August 17, 2000).
Peter Hammill Discography, http://www.pretentious.netThe_Edge/discographies/hammill.htm (August 17, 2000).
Peter Hammill’s Fie! Records, http://www.artist-shop.com/fie/ (August 17, 2000).
Sonicnet, http://www.sonicnet.com (August 17, 2000).
Van der Graaf Generator
Van der Graaf Generator
In retrospect, it seems highly unlikely that one of the most respected British progressive rock bands of the 1970s would serve as an inspiration for the likes of the Sex Pistols' singer Johnny Rotten, but Van der Graaf Generator is unlike most bands in its category. Formed during the 1967 Summer of Love, the band broke up before recording their first album, but reunited as support musicians for a solo album by lead singer Peter Hammill. The result was an auspicious debut album that inaugurated the British progressive rock boom that included such bands as King Crimson; Yes; Emerson, Lake and Palmer; and Soft Machine. Van der Graaf Generator, however, possessed a sound that differed greatly from their guitar-based progressive rock progeny. Instead, their sound resembled more closely the art-rock experimentations of German bands Can, Faust, and Amon Duul II, with a decidedly more avantgarde orientation bolstered by the drumming of Guy Evans, the atmospheric organ playing of Hugh Banton, the addition of saxophone and flute player David Jackson after the first album, and the edgy vocals and cryptic yet disturbing lyrics of Hammill.
Van der Graaf Generator began as a trio featuring Manchester University students Hammill, drummer Chris "Judge" Smith, and organist Nick Pearne. Smith devised the original concept for the band after visiting the musically vibrant San Francisco of 1967. He gave the band its name from a device that creates static electricity, and drafted Pearne and Hammill as members. They recorded the single "The People You Were Going To" before going their separate ways. Hammill re-formed the group in 1968, with Smith moved to vocals and saxophone, Hugh Banton on organ, and Guy Evans on drums. Smith left before the band finished its debut album, and the band collapsed after his departure. Hammill soldiered on, determined to make a solo album with Banton and Evans. The trio drafted Keith Ellis on bass, recording what eventually became Van der Graaf Generator's first album, The Aerosol Grey Machine.
Once again, the band drifted into dissolution. "Peter was supposedly doing a solo album for Mercury," Evans told ZigZag magazine writer Andy Childs. "We ended up playing on it, and that really gave us the idea to get the band back together again. We decided we wanted another instrumentalist, we didn't know quite who, and were on the verge of getting Nic Potter in the band. Chris Smith had meanwhile formed a band called Heebalob which had Dave Jackson in it. That was just about to break up as we were getting back together, so we asked Dave to join us." For the group's sophomore effort, 1970's The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other, Nic Potter replaced Ellis on bass, and Jackson was added on saxophone. The album produced the group's only legitimate single, "Refugees," an anthem similar to David Bowie's later single "Heroes," in that it called for an emotional connection between individuals on the brink of despair. According to a London International Times review quoted by Childs, "'Refugees' is without doubt one of the most emotive pieces of music ever recorded. It escalates from a patient opening through the vision of freedom the lyrics provide into a nostalgic finale that really is beautiful." The release established the band's subsequent sound and mood—vaguely apocalyptic lyrics with occult overtones sung in Hammill's distinctively anguished style, Banton's swirling organ fills, solid jazzy drumming, and a noticeable absence of lead guitar.
In 1970 the group also released its third album, HtoHe Who Am the Only One. Nic Potter had by now departed, and was replaced on the album by moonlighting King Crimson lead guitarist Robert Fripp. The album provided the impetus for the group to tour with their Charisma label mates Genesis, who were quickly ascending Great Britain's throne of progressive rock. Fripp also provided guest guitar responsibilities on the 1971 set Pawn Hearts. The album's release faced serious competition from the nearly simultaneous release of Hammill's solo release, Fool's Mate. Predictably, the band broke up before they could tour their latest effort. Hammill continued to employ Van der Graaf Generator personnel and road crew for his burgeoning solo career for the next four years. In the meantime, the group reformed without Hammill to record the instrumental The Long Hello.
In 1975 Hammill returned to the fold, and the group toured France and released Godbluff. The band continued its musical and lyrical explorations while dividing attention equally between the band's instrumental acuity and Hammill's charismatic performances. After two more albums, Still Life and World Record, Jackson and Banton left the group. Replacing them was violinist Graham Smith, who appeared on the group's 1977 release The Quiet Zone: The Pleasure Dome and on 1978's live album, Vital.
Although Van der Graaf Generator called it quits in 1978, public clamor for material continued unabated. For the most part, they were forced to content themselves with Hammill's solo releases. In 1993 a compilation album, I Prophesy Disaster, gathered together much of the group's finest early material. In 1994 a compact disc was released of the group's BBC Radio 1 sessions from the years 1971 through 1976, Maida Vale. The group reunited in the studio to record an unreleased Judge Smith concept album, tentatively titled Curly's Airships. They reunited for an encore at a 2003 Hammill concert. A heart attack suffered by Hammill later that year convinced the band that their opportunities for reuniting might be dwindling. In a press release on the band's website, Hammill explained: "I was getting constant offers regarding a reunion, including one from the South Bank. Until then I had never taken them seriously; but now it seemed as though there might be some interest. We talked and we realised that we met more often at the funerals of former members of our road crew. So if it was to be undertaken, it should be while all four of us were still alive!"
Hammill regrouped with Banton, Evans, and Jackson for the 2005 release Present. According to Uncut critic Nick Hasted, "They sound eerily similar to the last time this quartet recorded, in 1976; this isn't their crunk record. Instead it's a restatement of old strengths, and far from quaint." The double album featured one album of new songs and another of improvisations. The latter album, according to Hasted, "fulfills its function as a once-only insight into the band's inner workings. Not yet quite reaching peak wattage, it's still a worthy return from these peerless English dreamers."
For the Record . . .
Members include Hugh Banton (left group, 1976), keyboards; Keith Ellis (left group, 1969), bass; Guy Evans , drums; Peter Hammill (born on November 5, 1948, in London, England), guitar, keyboards, vocals; David Jackson (joined group, 1969; left group, 1977), saxophone; Nic Pot ter (joined group, 1969; left group, 1970; rejoined, 1978), bass; Chris Judge Smith (left group, 1968), drums; Graham Smith (joined group, 1978), violin.
Group formed at Manchester University, 1967; released debut album, The Aerosol Grey Machine, 1968; dis banded, 1978; reunited for album Present, 2005.
Addresses: Website—Van Der Graaf Generator Official Website: http://www.vandergraafgenerator.co.uk/.
The Aerosol Grey Machine, Mercury, 1968.
The Least We Can Do Is Wave, Charisma, 1969.
H to He Who Am the Only One, Charisma, 1970.
Pawn Hearts, Charisma, 1971.
The Long Hello, Charisma, 1973.
Godbluff, Charisma, 1975.
Still Life, Charisma, 1976.
World Record, Charisma, 1976.
The Quiet Zone, Charisma, 1978.
Vital/Live, Charisma, 1978.
I Prophecy Disaster, Virgin, 1993.
Maida Vale, Band of Joy, 1994.
The Box, Virgin, 2000.
Present, Charisma, 2005.
George-Warren, Holly, and Romanowski, Patricia, The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Fireside, 2001.
Rock: The Rough Guide, The Rough Guides, 1999.
Uncut, May 2005.
ZigZag, February 1976.
"Van der Graaf Generator," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (June 14, 2005).
Van der Graaf Generator Official Web Site, http://www.vandergraafgenerator.co.uk/ (June 21, 2005).