Peter Hammill: Rikki Don't Lose That Number...
Van der Graaf Generator’s Peter Hammill reflects on his groundbreaking solo album Nadir’s Big Chance, 40 years old this year.
Sitting in the upstairs lounge of a reassuringly old school boozer on a squally, rainy Thursday in a post-new year London, 2012 Prog Awards Visionary Peter Hammill is clearly not suffering the January blues. Quaffing his Guinness, one would never spot that he had a major heart attack 12 years ago. Rather than sending him into a peaceful, prolonged convalescence tending his sizeable archive, Hammill reformed Van der Graaf Generator in 2005 (more in next month’s issue), going on to release four studio and two live albums, as well as four of his own albums, plus Other World, his acclaimed collaboration with Gary Lucas.
Prog is here to talk about his new record, the three-CD box set …all that might have been… and to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his remarkable album Nadir’s Big Chance.
The invention of alter ego Rikki Nadir and the album Nadir’s Big Chance took the absolute opposite of the painstaking approach that Hammill has taken with …all that might have been… An artist who frequently compartmentalises his work, the significant and discrete strain of his ‘three-chord trick’ blasts are, if not always his most satisfying, certainly his most direct. From his 1975 birth, for the next decade, Nadir heavily influenced Hammill’s work.
“It was a pretty manic, pretty productive period,” Hammill marvels today. “Often the restriction on making records is not having the material, but it was churning out, so I made the records.”
The idea for a quick and dirty album came at the end of 1974 after Hammill had delivered arguably his densest work, In Camera. He, Hugh Banton, Guy Evans and David Jackson had decided to reform Van der Graaf Generator, who had split two years earlier. Hammill had a body of songs gathered over the past decade that he wanted to get out of his system, so he asked the band to help him.
“In my mind, Nadir is paired with [1971’s] Fool’s Mate, in that they were older songs,” Hammill says. “Fool’s Mate was loosely a pop record, and so was this. I had the enthusiasm of starting again and it was made in the knowledge that we were going to be reforming. It had a significant effect on the way we were afterwards.”
What prompted such a change in direction from the cape-wearing Sturm und Drang meister of In Camera? “We knew we were going to be doing the Van der Graaf Generator recordings, so anything we did on this had to be a long way away from that. The three-chord trick is the foundation of everything, really. What you can get out of D, A and G is wonderful, alchemical stuff – just set it up, belt it out.”
The album was recorded in the first week of December 1974 at Rockfield Studios on the Welsh borders. “It was a residential studio, but not many of them had herds of cows passing by your window first thing in the morning. It was very necessary for the project. We recorded sitting in the room together, swapping instruments in places. At times I’m playing bass, Hugh [Banton] is playing clavinet; an old school recording.”
Nadir’s Big Chance was released in early February 1975, with John Peel playing tracks from the album on his show on February 6. Hammill’s sleevenotes made it plain: “The anarchic presence of Nadir – the loud, aggressive, perpetual 16-year-old – had temporary though complete dominion, and I can only submit, gladly, and play his music – the beefy punk songs, the weepy ballads, the soul struts.”
The album certainly has an abundance of all three. The prescient title track, Birthday Special and Nobody’s Business take care of punk; old friend and former VdGG member Chris Judge Smith’s Been Alone So Long and Hammill’s Shingle Song provide the tears; and Open Your Eyes nods to the soul struts and Hammill’s spiritual home, the Derby Locarno. The album closes with the astonishing rail against the music business, Two Or Three Spectres, which Hammill today calls “horribly prophetic”.
Wasn’t your label Charisma supposed to be the antithesis of this? “Charisma also had to be a business and it had to survive,” Hammill explains. “That idealistic root remained there, but if the numbers didn’t add up, nobody would be making records. I was a very idealistic young man when I came in: a lot of it, I regret, had to be beaten out of me.”
Would you say that Two Or Three Spectres was almost your resignation letter from being a pop star? “Kind of, yes,” he admits. “Which is odd considering Van der Graaf were about to start again.”
Nadir helped Hammill survive the punk wars, though. “We would have survived in any case,” Hammill reckons, “but Nadir was enough of a marker to show clearly that side of me.”
In July 1977, John Lydon went on Capital Radio and selected his favourite records. Among the selections from Augustus Pablo, Can and Nico were two tracks from Nadir’s Big Chance: The Institute Of Mental Health, Burning and Nobody’s Business. Lydon was sincere in his appraisal: “Peter Hammill is great… I’m damn sure Bowie copied a lot out of that geezer. The credit he deserves just has not been given to him. I love all his stuff.”
What does Hammill make of that now? “John has probably regretted it as much as me over the years!”
It certainly gave Hammill a seal of approval that many of his peers did not have: he was flattered but not necessarily surprised. “I could see the appeal of just belting things out. Things had become ludicrously over‑keyboarded and over-staged. I wouldn’t say that I or VdGG influenced Lydon, aside from being kindred spirits. As with criticism, you have to take praise with a pinch of salt.”
Van der Graaf took up the remainder of 1977 and early ’78, but Nadir reappeared on the opening track of Hammill’s first post VdGG album, The Future Now. The song Pushing Thirty again assesses the mores of the music scene of the time, ending with Hammill screaming that he can ‘still be Nadir’. Pushing boundaries, Hammill was now being mentioned in the same breath as the new wave crowd and established left-field heroes such as Brian Eno and David Bowie.
There was one curious, final sighting of Nadir. In 1979, around the time of the release of pH7, one of Hammill’s densest, darkest albums, and his fabulously deranged guest appearance on Robert Fripp’s Exposure, came the only release credited to Rikki Nadir himself. The flippant, jaunty The Polaroid was released on seven-inch. Sung in mockney, it was as if Nadir had been possessed by Ian Dury; a little more Chas’n’Dave than Eno’n’Dave.
“The Polaroid was pretty throwaway. I’d done it, and I let Charisma put it out. It’s a bit of an idiocy. I don’t think it’s part of my mainstream oeuvre. I don’t want to delve too deeply into that,” he laughs.
Nadir may have gone, but his spirit lived on when Hammill formed the K Group in the early 80s with John Ellis, Guy Evans and Nic Potter: “He warped a bit more into the K personality. The K Group were a genuine beat group, and I fulfilled that part of my personality through them. Nadir was this struggling, raging person that I hope I don’t have any more, whereas K was a bit more of the grown-up Nadir.”
Rikki Nadir assisted in some ways in making Hammill a true solo artist. “By the time of pH7, I realised that this was what I was going to be doing in the future, so I had better get used to it and not be able to rely on the comfort of being in a group, and to start pushing yourself as well. They were immediate, simple songs. I still like it, and I certainly can’t guarantee that I won’t head in that direction sometime soon, actually!”
If The Guitar Don’t Get You, The Drums Will
Van der Graaf Generator’s Peter Hammill discusses …all that might have been…, his 35th solo album.
Words: Daryl Easlea Image: Will Ireland
In 2004, Peter Hammill told The Independent: “The music world has gone IKEA – one size. And I’m a bespoke furniture-maker. Not selling many, and only to people who find me.”
The analogy has been taken to its furthest degree with his latest release …all that might have been…, one of the most complex, intricate and layered works of his near 50-year career. The main album of this three-CD box is the Ciné disc, which contains 21 fragments of the 10 full-length songs elsewhere in the set, arranged into a continuous, if non-linear, narrative by Hammill; a quietly unsettling sound collage. The third disc, Retro, is an instrumental assemblage of the material. …all that might have been… is an ambitious work, although that wasn’t his initial intent. “It’s the longest I’ve ever spent making a record and the complexity dawned on me in the later stages.”
What galvanized the process was that Hammill had little to work with. The sheer volume of his output in recent years left him bereft of his usual stockpile of ideas. But instead of sitting down with his guitar in a silent corner with an empty page, he went into his studio every day for a month, creating “sonic architecture” on guitar and synthesizer. “I ended up with 60 ideas that engaged me enough to pursue them,” he says.
In order to assess this three-and-a-half hour block of sound, he took a trip to Japan. “I thought I should go somewhere to listen to it as an impartial observer. I go to Japan a lot so am used to being alien there. I shut myself in a hotel room and listened to it all.”
From this, Hammill arrived at 10 instrumentals that were to form the basis of the Songs disc of the set. “I came back with this stuff and went to work in the normal way, writing and recording.”
When starting to think about the lyrics, Hammill had an idea that was to change the album’s direction: “I remembered I had notes from years of touring – on napkins, in books, on scraps of paper, written on planes, in garages, by the sea, all in that crazy on-the-road mentality, that I’d kept in a folder. Some of these fitted into the tenor of the music, and all of the songs here have elements taken from them. Some, like Piper Smile, go back to the 70s.”
Hammill continued recording, still with the thought of an album of songs ahead of him. In September 2013, he returned to Japan, this time on a solo tour. To commemorate this, he created a 40-minute work-in-progress instrumental CD, which took his ideas on a more cinematic turn.
“I had guitars that were a bit Duane Eddy, crushed beats and very slow developments. I came back and realised I could chop up these songs to fit this. I had all of the lyrics printed on pieces of paper. I cut them, arranging them on the floor, making the characters move from one scene, one song, to another.”
And from this process, the Ciné disc emerged. “It’s not intended to be a movie in itself or a soundtrack, but it is intended to be what happens in movies, where you move between scenes and timeframes without any explanation and people accept it. I decided that the Ciné version is the real version – the songs may be where they come from, but that is the true story.”
Hammill has always been a genuine square‑peg artist, unwilling to pander to the demands of a record company or to external suggestions, and …all that might have been… is hardly one of his entry-level releases. Instead, it’s challenging, extreme, questioning and unlike anything else.
“I don’t think anyone else has done anything quite like this,” he says. “There’s a narrative going on, but I’m not entirely sure what happens. In the same way if I see a movie I like, I come out thinking, ‘What happened there? What was that time shift? What is this story?’”
Even though he’s singing on virtually every second of the 40-minute work, Hammill’s presence is discreet. His vocals don’t stand in the way of the story. “I’m pushing myself forward in a directorial sense rather than as the protagonist. It is all ‘he’ and ‘she’ rather than ‘I’. I’m definitely in there, but not in the way I would be in a normal, ‘I’m singing the song, look at me’ way.”
There’s no doubt that …all that might have been… is a remarkable addition to Hammill’s impressive catalogue. “It doesn’t fit into any norm. It’s not really marketable – it needs an audience who are prepared to go with it. I’m at the stage of life where I don’t care – it’s what I have to do.”
Hammill is clearly relishing this freedom. “I don’t have any constraints,” he says. “I’m not going to be a global superstar, yet I won’t entirely slip off the map. I don’t have the option to carry on making the same album because I’ve never made the same album, so it’s a plateau that’s more challenging than before. There’s not ambition to do In Camera On Ice. I wouldn’t want to be doing it if I didn’t think I was doing good work.”
With that, he lets out a chuckle: “Besides, I’d be hellish if I stopped doing anything.”