Is Do Not Disturb really going to be Van der Graaf Generator's final album?
Van der Graaf Generator talk to Prog about their ever-evolving sound, Italian superstar status, and whether Do Not Disturb really is their last release
A strange thing happened to Van der Graaf Generator in 1971: they became superstars. In Italy. To the amazement of everyone involved, their fourth album, Pawn Hearts, reached the top of the Italian charts at the back end of that year, where it refused to budge for three months.
A tour was hastily arranged for February ’72, the band’s arrival greeted with front-page headlines of Beatles-like import. Fan frenzy was so great that there were army blockades in the streets and soldiers with tear gas outside concert halls. “We’d had some success in places before, but we hadn’t had hysteria,” recalls bandleader Peter Hammill. “Not many people had toured Italy for quite some time, so there was an audience that was eager and primed. And one that wanted the grand gesture, musically. The madness hit, and things were not the same thereafter.”
“I don’t think we ever seriously entertained the idea that we were going to be wildly popular rock gods,” adds drummer Guy Evans. “So to suddenly have riot police at our first Italian gig, at a pretty large venue, and not be able to walk out into the street was great and scary at the same time. All of our time in Italy was totally over the top. It was a complete surprise for us.”
The band made three visits to Italy that year, each one accompanied by scenes of Van der-mania. With British and American audiences proving harder to crack on a commercial scale, it was as famous as they ever got.
This Italian experience plugs into one of the standout songs on VdGG’s latest release, Do Not Disturb. Alfa Berlina references the classic car in which they were driven from one show to the next by local promoter Maurizio Salvadori. “He also happened to be a rally driver,” says Evans. “Maurizio would be trying to sort logistics for our next gigs while driving at 100 miles an hour on the hard shoulder, with me basically clinging to the dashboard. Being in that car was a very vivid movie for all of us.”
The relatively stately pace of Alfa Berlina is counterweighted by the song’s central lyrical thrust of youthful freedom and being recklessly alive. Like many things on Do Not Disturb, the latest chapter of a stop-start career that began almost 50 years ago, it finds the prog legends reflecting on their own past.
I don’t think we ever seriously entertained the idea that we were going to be wildly popular rock gods.
“It is a bit self-reverential, in terms of our memory and experience,” explains Hammill of their 13th album. “As usual with Van der Graaf, it was a case of me finding what the songs were about during the rehearsal and recording process. But a certain consciousness did grow up about the fact that I was kind of writing about us. It’s by us and it’s about us.”
If this suggests that Van der Graaf are growing wistful and mellow in their advanced years, think again. Do Not Disturb is as busily exacting as anything in the band’s back catalogue, constantly switching between moods and time signatures in a tumult of controlled chaos. As eruptive as it is esoteric, it’s heartening to discover the band still raging into the fading light.