I've been playing quite a bit of Van Der Graaf Generator lately, especially stuff from the mid-seventies, after the first hiatus involving the classic Hammill/Banton/Jaxon/Evans line-up. Acquiring a copy of Still Life has been the stimulus behind my exploration of this period - and, of course, it's always good to listen to Godbluff (which is probably my favourite VDGG album, though the competition is strong.) By the end of the week I'd developed major and welcome ear-worms, in the form of segments of Pilgrims, La Rossa and Childhood's End - quite a good way to get through a day at work, by the by.
It's astonishing to me that the band actually dropped out of sight for me back in the '70s. What was I thinking? Isn't it obvious that just as instrumentalists three of the four have to be seen as operating at the peak of achievement in rock music? Indeed, I suspect if forced to name my all time favourite drummer it might well be Guy Evans, who just can't do wrong. He swings when he needs to, can get down dirty and funky, and has an impeccable sense of the dramatic.
I suppose I'd lost faith - foolishly - in the kind of writer and performer Peter Hammill embodies, and since he's at the centre of everything the band does, despite being the most limited of the players, that affects all possible responses. Yes, he's not just over-the-top but sailing miles above the planet. But once you see him in the tradition he really belongs to I think what he's doing can be seen as down to earth in its gloriously flamboyant way. He isn't a rock singer at all; he's the star performer in a Musical, but he gets to play all the parts. And these are not rock songs: they are extended arias in the operatic sense.
I suspect it's the way that groups like VDGG drew upon ways of making music outside the straightforward rock'n'roll, jazz, blues tradition that defines the much-abused notion of progressive rock. I don't know what accident of history made that a distinctly English phenomenon, but in retrospect it's so obvious now that it was - possibly with its roots in The Beatles themselves.