Publication date: April 2014
The Art of the Existential Crisis: The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage
Peter Hammill is one of the most influential and fascinating figures to emerge from the tumultuous early years of the British psych/prog scene. In a voice halfway between benign necromancer and stentorian headmaster, he delivers unapologetically literate lyrics full of both heartfelt passion and apocalyptic portents that demand the listener’s attention. While much of the music of his prog contemporaries can seem mannered and overly polite from a present day perspective, his band Van Der Graaf Generator produced some of the darkest and most challenging material of that period, much of which still retains its power to terrify and seduce.
Little wonder then that he’s had a major impact on such cultural icons as David Bowie and John Lydon (in many ways an unlikely heir to Hammill’s vocal style), as well as the generations of avant rock and neo-prog bands that have followed in his wake.
Yet both Hammill and VDGG haven’t always received due recognition for their achievements, particularly in their homeland, where even at the height of their success in the early 70s they found themselves cast in the role of underground heroes while the likes of Genesis, Yes and ELP went off to (politely) conquer the world. Partly, this may have been due to VDGG’s unusual line-up, where the dominant instrumentation of David Jackson’s saxophones (he often played two at once) and Hugh Banton’s organ flew in the face of the virtuoso guitar and synth model worshipped by prog fans. But it was perhaps the sheer density of the VDGG sound and Hammill’s uncompromising vocal delivery that meant they were never really destined to attract a mainstream audience (the exception being Italy, where the band’s operatic intensity and ambition clearly chimed with the national character, and saw them score a number one album there with ‘Pawn Hearts’).
Physically exhausted and on the verge of mental collapse, VDGG split in 1972. After a brief period of recuperation, Hammill embarked on a solo career that would see him navigate both calmer and stormier waters than VDGG (who would themselves reform – twice – and exist in parallel), experimenting with a wide variety of music forms that saw him anticipate both the garage thrash of punk (‘Nadir’s Big Chance’) and the paranoid angularity of post-punk (‘The Future Now’/’pH7’).
But perhaps most significantly, Hammill was instrumental in redefining what the singer/songwriter in rock music could achieve. He’d already released his first solo album – ‘Fool’s Mate’ – while still a member of VDGG phase 1, and that record reflected more traditional ideas of what the medium was about: acoustic guitars and pianos, alternately playful and confessional lyrics, a less theatrical persona. But over the course of the next few years, Hammill would build on these base elements to create a body of work that combined a strong personal vision with an adventurous sonic palette that didn’t just view the music as mere window dressing for the words.
Of course, there were plenty of solo artists who had previously produced works that were both lyrically and musically satisfying – but more often than not, these ‘solo artists’ were either de facto band leaders (David Bowie, Neil Young etc) or blessed with talented session players (Van Morrison, Lou Reed etc). Hammill’s innovation was to create a basic home studio (Sofa Sound) that he would use not just for demoing material, but for producing finished tracks. While Hammill did use other musicians on his recordings (mainly his VDGG compatriots), the space and time he was afforded by working outside of the constraints of the traditional studio system allowed him to explore and finesse instrumentation and arrangements, and ultimately come up with a sound that was truly his own.
This approach really started to bear fruit in 1974 with the release of his third album, ‘The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage’. Densely detailed but also expansive and tonally varied, ‘Silent Corner’ is a three-dimensional psychic maelstrom that grips the listener from the first frantic notes of guitar right through to the final organ chord. And despite the solipsistic (and none-more-prog) ring to the title, it also marks Hammill’s first explicit engagement with subject matter beyond the turmoil of the human condition (often his own) and the sci-fi/occult-informed narratives of yore.
Lead track “Modern” is an astonishing verbal and sonic attack on the senses, and a key example of the surprisingly maximalist sound that Hammill achieves on these home-recorded songs. It fades up on a fast-strummed mesh of guitar which quickly resolves into what sounds like the tolling of church bells. Hammill’s perfectly-enunciated, very English snarl of a voice delivers the oblique opening line, “Jericho's strange, throbbing with life at its heart,” that final word emphasised by a dirty blast of processed guitar noise, before Hammill completes the couplet with, “People are drawn together, simultaneously torn apart.” Interpreting the downfall of previous civilisations as a warning to our own modern society, Hammill’s vocal delivery matches the violence of the lyrics, lines such as “Look around before your life is overgrown with concrete slabs on your back!” spat out with both fury and relish. Then, with a final proclamation of “All the citizens are contagiously insaaaaaannnnnnnee!”, the track drops away into a moment of organ-led pastoral calm. It doesn’t last for long – a staccato fuzz bass looms over the horizon before a tectonic explosion of Fripp-esque guitar obliterates the landscape. It’s a brilliantly conceived collage of contrasting sounds that’s reminiscent of same period King Crimson, but without the frills or virtuosity, just prog as pure elemental force.
In contrast to the scorched earth devastation of “Modern”, “Wilhelmina” begins as a pretty and thoughtful piano ballad, with Hammill offering advice to a young girl at the start of her life. But in typical Hammill style, it’s not long before he’s thumping the keys and railing against humanity’s cruelty and stupidity – “Hey Jude” it’s not. Hammill is sometimes criticised for being over-wrought and self-indulgent, and this song certainly teeters on the brink of that abyss. But there’s something winningly honest about the way that even a crib-side chat can plunge Hammill into an existential crisis, revealing him as a man genuinely racked by life’s big questions.
The song that follows tackles perhaps the biggest existential crisis that any person can face: the loss of faith. Hammill of course tackles it head on with all the force he can muster. “The Lie (Bernini's Saint Theresa)” starts with a gradual swelling of piano, a series of foreboding chords stabbed over the top. Drenched in reverb, an organ fills out the sound and suddenly we’re inside the massive space of a gothic cathedral, a place of darkened alcoves and lingering incense. And then the opening line, uncomfortably close and personal: “Genuflection, erection in church”. Hammill was brought up as a Catholic and attended a Jesuit school, and this may be where his interest in the sepulchral and arcane comes from – but it’s fair to say that by this point in his life, any belief in a Christian god had withered away to be replaced by a combination of anger and sorrow at what was lost and for what was never there.
Framing the words of “The Lie” around Bernini’s famous sculpture the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa makes sense of that goadingly profane first line, with both works inviting comparison between extreme religious devotion and sexual arousal. Hammill pounds upon the piano in defiance of the “fictional fear” suffered by his younger self, the “ice-cold statue” representing the betrayal of his innocence – “unconscious eyes, the open mouth, the wound of love, the Lie!” Hammill’s powerful voice holds that final note like an avenging presence as the song pivots on a bold magisterial melody that fills up the vast space he’s created with just the sparest of instrumentation. Climaxing with a crescendo of echoing vocals rising up to the vaulted ceiling above, shifting in pitch from angelic to demonic, “The Lie” leaves the listener both exhilarated and exhausted, and is one of Hammill’s most formidable compositions.
After the excoriating experience of the previous track, “Forsaken Gardens” starts with just a plaintive unaccompanied vocal – “Where are all the joys of yesterday?” But from this simple start, the song operates as a masterclass in musical narrative and metaphor. A piano builds on Hammill’s melody, then flute and sax creep in like fast-growing ivy around the edges. In fact, this song could easily be from his former band’s catalogue, which is unsurprising as it features all VDGG personnel, including Guy Evans on drums… And suddenly it dawns on you that, up until this point, the album has been completely percussion-free. The track builds nicely against the backbeat, the players finding a looser, more rocking groove than on previous albums together, though we hear the ‘classic’ gnarly VDGG sound in full flight for just a few moments. Then Hammill strips the sound back again, before the song ends against the backdrop of a wordless, forlorn choir.
Opening with Hammill talking in a reverie as though recently awoken from suspended animation, “Red Shift” continues with the more propulsive vibe. Driven along by a spiky but melodic sax riff and a skittering jazzy beat, this track returns to the apocalyptic sci-fi themes of VDGG albums (the term ‘red shift’ alludes to the heat death of the universe) and is the one pure example of space rock in Hammill’s back catalogue. In contrast to the dense, sometimes claustrophobic, feel to the other songs on the album, “Red Shift” stretches out towards the void, with Hammill wandering through the deserted decks of a starship only to discover that no one’s at the helm and that he is alone. Quelling his anxiety, he breathes out the chorus in a trance before continuing his journey into the silent heart of the ship. As his words tumble over themselves in revelation, he concludes that “maybe it’s all been a dream”, and the ship slips into the rotating maw of a black hole to the ‘pulsating lead guitar’ (according to the sleeve notes) of Spirit’s Randy California… This was actually released as a single (albeit just in Italy!).
After the Tarkovsky-esque head trip of “Red Shift”, Hammill takes us back in time with “Rubicon”, which sounds like a medieval love poem set to music. A bleaker version of the acoustic material on ‘Fool’s Mate’ – “It takes so long to drown, it takes so very long to choke” – this is Hammill at his most subdued, the sound only leavened by a wandering bassline and the occasional tortured cry of a distant sax in the background.
And then it’s time for the grand finale. With its confident opening of heraldic horns, you know that “A Louse is Not a Home” is going to take you somewhere interesting. It’s not long before we’re treated to a quintessential Hammill piano riff, the jagged rhythm of the keys and sudden outpouring of words highlighting his gift for off-beat, but maddeningly catchy vocal melodies. Like a condensed version of the side-long “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” – VDGG’s most famous track – “Louse” is a demented tract on the multiple personalities we all have inside ourselves, and an amazing showcase for Hammill’s fertile, febrile imagination. Like moving through the rooms of an impossibly proportioned house designed by M.C. Escher, it features a crazy arrangement that shouldn’t work, but does, Hammill dragging us along in his slipstream and parading his nervous breakdown for our entertainment – “People are imaginary, nothing else exists, except the room I'm sitting in, and of course, the all-pervading mist”. It’s also notable that, like “Modern” and “Red Shift”, “Louse” builds towards a centre of silence before demolishing it, on this occasion with a chugging train of organ and sax that comes crashing through the walls. The track and album ends with Hammill stumbling out of the wreckage, murmuring “I? I? I? I?” in wide-eyed wonder or perhaps final derangement of the senses.
‘The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage’ was the start of an incredible period of creative activity for Hammill. From 1974 to 77, he would release two albums a year encompassing both his ongoing solo career and as part of the reformed VDGG. Not only that, but the diversity and quality of the material he was producing would remain remarkably high. From the musique concrète experiments of ‘In Camera’ (his other 1974 album) and the brash rock’n’roll of ‘Nadir’s Big Chance’ to the triumphant return of a leaner and meaner VDGG on ‘Godbluff’ and their re-invention as a punchy guitar and violin-led combo on ‘The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome’, this was the work of a fiercely intelligent, restless man driven to communicate his vision to the world, whether they liked it or not.
Because even if Hammill remains a divisive figure among the music cognoscenti, there can be no argument that, while many of this 70s contemporaries were grandstanding and play-acting, this is an artist who always really meant it. He used his voice and his words in the same way that a guitarist uses riffs and licks to capture and excite both the head and the heart of his audience. And the way he tears into and attacks his songs is in stark contrast to the pompous neo-classical sensibilities that progressive rock has come to be associated with. ‘The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage’ is a monument to Hammill’s unique vision and singular way of doing things, and 40 years on, still retains its power to shock, confound and delight.
From Silent Corners to Other Worlds…
Even today, Peter Hammill’s work rate – as both a member of VDGG (who reformed for a second time in 2005) and solo – is still incredibly high. His latest album is a collaboration with avant rock guitarist Gary Lucas – an ex-member of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band who also worked closely with Jeff Buckley – entitled ‘Otherworld’. I asked Peter about the making of ‘The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage’ and his most recent work:
JB: What was your mindset going into this album compared to your previous work?
PH: It was a particularly intense period of life, I think, and that showed in the writing and recording...
JB: There’s quite a pessimistic, almost apocalyptic, bent to many of the lyrics on this album – what was your view at the time of how society was changing?
PH: To be honest, I was pretty much off in my own little world at the time and though paying attention to what was happening in the world to a certain degree, it didn't really feed into the songs.
JB: Parts of the finished album were recorded at your home studio, which was still quite unusual for the time – how did this affect your creative process and the music you recorded?
PH: Yes, about half the album was done in my home studio, also known as the spare bedroom at the time! I think it produced some quite interesting sonic stuff and in particular helped me to learn playing and arranging instruments without having to get into a “show your chops” contest with myself or anyone else. Of course, if I hadn't started down the home studio route at this time (*very* early, as you say), I almost certainly wouldn't have been able to carry on making music.
JB: You once said that you aspired to be the “Jimi Hendrix of the voice” – how close did you get to achieving that on this album?
PH: That was a bit of idle chit-chat ;-). But I was keen on trying to do some fairly extreme things with the voice and some of them are indeed on this record.
JB: 40 years on, do you still recognise and relate to the artist that made ‘Silent Corner’?
PH: I recognise him but I don't think he inhabits me that much these days. Sometimes he does, though. In particular, I still love the recording process and the magic of discovery.
JB: What does an opportunity like your recent collaboration with Gary Lucas allow you to do beyond your role as a solo artist and member of VDGG?
PH: It lets me go somewhere else, use certain aspects of writing, playing, singing which I know about, but which don't normally get an airing. The disc with Gary is a mix of outrageous sonic landscapes and assaults, together with some very simple songs, the like of which I haven't really approached of late. It's pretty interesting, I think, and is a genuine collaboration.
Every album, every bit of work takes something from the past and informs something in the future, I'd like to think. That applies to ‘Otherworld’, of course. But to ‘The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage’, it does in spades!!