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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Van der Graaf Generator

Rock’s ultimate alternative

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In colleges around the world, 1967 felt for the whole year like the first week of spring. Green with promise, the spirit of possibility was everywhere. In 1967 psychedelia blossomed and a new breed of rock bands aspired to art and poetry. One of them, formed in the United Kingdom by Manchester University students, adopted the trippy-sounding handle of Van der Graaf Generator.

Unlike most of their contemporaries, Van der Graaf evolved with integrity intact. Selling out was never in the cards for an idiosyncratic band forever below the radar of pop culture and beyond what came to be called alternative, even if their music is one of rock's ultimate alternatives. The county fair circuit was never an option for a band that played only once in the United States, a 1976 concert in New York, before abandoning all hope of cracking the American market. They were categorized in the '70s as progressive rock, surely the most fitting description, but made awkward company with the likes of Yes and ELP.

Three decades later, Van der Graaf Generator has belatedly embarked on the group's first American tour. They perform at Shank Hall this weekend as a trio, with Hugh Banton (keyboards, bass), Guy Evans (drums) and Peter Hammill (voice, guitar, keyboards).

Hammill, the band's original member, focal point and center of one of rock's most exclusive cult followings, has toured the states as a soloist, a logistically easier venture than crossing the continent with a band. "The idea about breaking America seemed to be endless touring, which to be honest, even in my youth, was not that appealing a prospect," he says. "It seems to be important, in order to make music, to actually not be living a life that was only about making music."

Like Robert Fripp, an occasional guest guitarist on Van der Graaf albums, Hammill was about more than the usual, routine slog of sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll. His lyrics were always thoughtful and often oblique. Like the band itself, Hammill's songs weren't instantly accessible. An aura of heady mystery clung to Van der Graaf, captivating to a tiny fandom that worked hard to discover them and harder to understand them. Even the credits on their LP jackets were rife with dryly humorous, obscure references.

In many ways a forerunner to today's indie bands, Van der Graaf Generator released a steady stream of music to small knots of devoted fans around the world with little hope of building a major career. "Way back in the '70s, I sort of realized that the music business possibly was not going to have need of my services because I never sold that many records, and at a certain point, you're politely shown the door," Hammill says.

After outgrowing the dreamy psychedelia of their earliest recordings, the classic Van der Graaf sound became a dark and epic journey, rhythmically complex, powered by keyboards and punctuated by saxophone. Hammill's hectoring and astringent vocals, often reproachful if not angry and sardonic, occasionally rose in metallic banshee howls. What does Van der Graaf sound like? Despite faint and infrequent echoes of organ combo jazz and classical fugues, they sound like no one but themselves.

Hammill played in a universe parallel to the rest of rock, influencing the wider world only once, with his 1975 solo album Nadir's Big Chance, A Clockwork Orange fantasy of three-chord, punk-rock bash. The boy who soon called himself Johnny Rotten devoured the recording.

The respect Hammill continues to enjoy is inverse to the number of records he's sold. "I'd like to think that the respect is for the work rather than for me," he says. "Because that, to be honest, that's been the motivation. The thing I'd been interested in from year one is actually doing the work and hoping that the work gets out and makes some sense to people."

Van der Graaf Generator and The Strawbs perform June 27 at Shank Hall.

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