Welcome back my friends to the next edition of Notes (I remember back in the day, when these got handwritten and scribed before being snuck through an office photocopier, with the mag being assembled in Martins dining room before we retired to the local hostelry for a beer or two) I never thought I’d be back writing Notes from the Edge for you, and I am so glad you’ve rejoined me on my musical journey.
In a brief diversion from looking at the here and now, I am taking a look at an absolute classic of an album, reissued in deluxe form, and one of the most underated albums in this bands ouvre.
I am of course talking about the luxurious 50th Anniversary boxed set of Van der Graaf Generators Aerosol Grey Machine reissued by our good friends over at Esoteric Recordings. Last year they put together one of the finest single album boxed sets in existence, a deluxe edition of Chris Squires Fish out of Water (with a remastered Vinyl of the album, replica 7″ singles, plenty of background and a 5.1 remix as well as the album) rightly so, collectors snapped up this edition, and now they give VdGG similar treatment.
This box features the album on vinyl, a 7″ single of Firebrand, and 2CD’s, including the album remastered, contemparanious BBC live performances and alternative versions, this brings the febrile days of VdGG in the late 60’s to life. There is a long backstory to this album (tl/dr basically the band had split up, Peter Hammill had signed a terrible deal with Mercury records, before being managed by Tony Strattton-Smith, in the interim VdGG had reformed, and this was the contractually obligated album to get him out of that deal, so they could record for Charisma) and as such it has always been slightly on it’s own in their catalogue, neither fish nor flesh.
Yet, despite that, this album has a lot of charm (& it’s one I’ve always been a fan of, having had the Fie records reissue CD for a while) this renders any previous CD issues redundant, the remastering is sublime, the package superb (cleverly the CD’s are housed in a replica 12″ gatefold sleeve of the album art, whilst the vinyl is housed in previously unused, but wonderfully evocative late 60’s artwork- original slevenotes intact) and the in depth sleeve notes, including an interview with Peter Hammill, who, as ever, is always eloquent and honest. Curated by one of the countries experts in remasters Mark Powell, whilst this set doesn’t include a 5.1 mix (I am sure it’s not to everyones taste, and there’s probably legimate reasons why technologically this wasn’t possible) it’s still a fantastic compilation. Covering all markets with the vinyl and the CD’s appears to be the way forward for landmark albums like this.
Now let’s move on to what the album sounds like, with these songs being a collection of some of the first songs written by Peter Hammill, and before the band evolved into the classic VdGG sound, the music is a mixture of solo Hammill and embryonic VdGG as we know them. This has always, ironically been one of my favourite albums of theirs, with songs like the snippet that is the title track (the briefest of moments at 46 seconds, reminiscent of the music hall element that bands like the Move and the Kinks were also fond of) to the longer workouts that showed their musical chops and the directions they were going in like the brilliant Orthenthian St, the sublime Necromancer, which always sends shivers down my spine and showcases Hammills majestic vocals off.
The line up of Peter Hammill, Hugh Banton (whose piano and organ work is so integral to the bands sound) Keith Ellis on bass and Guy Evans on drums are absolutely all over this record that was recorded in a crazy 12 hours, and is brimming with the energy and enthusiasm of youth, the optimism and sheer power of the group pours out of these recordings, and their ambitions are pulled together into the epic closing Octopus. The bonus CD is also full of gems, the previously unreleased 1967 demos of Firebrand and Sunshine, a wonderfully energetic BBC session from November 1968 and their wonderful debut single People You were Going to, which is an absolutely wonderful piece of in the moment nostalgia, and is still a stand out track from their massive repertoire for me. Considering that Peter Hammill was 20 when this was recorded, his imagery and lyrical wistfulness beleid his years, and crucially this box pulls together tracks that Judge Smith, founder member of VdGG plays on (departing the band after the release) so it really does tell the whole story of the early days.
The attention to detail here is superb, and the music crisply remastered and sounding fresh and exciting despite being 50 years old (hope I’m doing just as well at 50!).
Mind you I was reading about comedian James Acasters new book where he argues that 2016 was the best year for new music, although as he states quite early on that it’s just his opinion, and he his aim is for everyone to discover their perfect year.
Talking about this album, Abbey Road, Court of the Crimson King, Nice, Led Zeppelin II, Deep Purple, Liege & Lief, Stand Up, Yes and Arthur there is a strong case to be argued that 1969 was also a pretty good year.
Then, tho’ the end of the 60’s were when record labels were throwing money at exciting bands and allowing them to grow and develop and create, and whilst I would argue that some of the most exciting progressive music is being made today, there’s no harm whatsoever in celebrating where it began.
After all every house is built on strong foundations, and this is one hell of an opening statement for a band who defined their own career, their own sound, and never followed convention. VdGG had an almost punk ethos before punk, and were always the cool kids amongst their peers, and this is driven by Hammills vision, songwriting and ambition.
Alongside Richard Thompson, I would argue that Peter Hammill is one of the finest songwriters this country has ever produced, and this fantastic album is part of my defence. This is well worth the price of admission, and I would recomend this to anyone who hasn’t heard it.
The Aerosol Grey Machine is available from https://www.cherryred.co.uk/product/van-der-graaf-generator-the-aerosol-grey-machine-50th-anniversary-edition-2cd-gatefold-180-gram-lp-7-inch-single-limited-edition-deluxe-boxset/
Re: the James Acaster book. David Hepworth also wrote a book where he claimed 1971 was the best year for popular music.
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