Jan-Simon : MIG Records has become the owner of a goose that lays golden eggs when it got the license to commercially exploit the archives of the legendary German tv programme Rockpalast. Starting in 1974, the German WDR has broadcasted live shows of almost every band thinkable at mostly impossible times. Most of the time, these were unique recordings which are now, little by little, released on dvd and cd. An import question becomes what to choose from the thousands of hours of tapes? Does one concentrate on the big names and easy success, with bands like The Police, Golden Earring, Rainbow or David Bowie, to name just a few, or the relatively unknown but not necessarily less interesting smaller bands? MIG obviously takes the latter approach. Perhaps it is also easier to get permission from artists like Mitch Ryder, Edgar Broughton Band or Van der Graaf Generator than from the mentioned rock giants.
With Van der Graaf Generator, obviously a very special jewel has been lifted from the treasure chest. The British art rock (or is it prog rock after all?) pioneers are a league of their own. Their music is everything but easy listeners and has as much fans as pure haters. Legend has it that bands like VdGG caused punk rock. When I put cd 1 of the rather predictably and boringly called ‘Live At Rockpalast’ album in the player, it did not take long before I got remarks like this was definitely music made by people who don’t know how to play music. Hmm… the tone was set, it was headphones time.
This simple remark made clear once more that although Peter Hammill et al. are often mentioned along with Yes, Gentle Giant, Soft Machine, Jethro Tull and Rush, VdGG is more of a musician’s band. The type of band that turns out to be more of an influence to other rock musicians than that they reached a wider audience with their complex songs characterized by the interaction between David Jackson’s saxophone and the organ sounds created by Hugh Banton, over which frontman Peter Hammill’s instantly recognizable voice can be heard singing moody and often incomprehensible lyrics. Both organ and vocals seem completely out of touch with normal rock tradition. Bach, Gergorian, atonal avant garde, musique concrete: you name it. With fans as diverse (and unlikely) as Bruce Dickinson, John Lydon, Marc Almond and Mark E. Smith, Van der Graaf Generator has become more of a reference point than a band that is actually listened to. This integral reproduction of the band’s Leverkusen show recorded at 5 November 2005 offers the opportunity to judge if this is justified. Over two cd’s and one dvd the more than 100 minutes long concert has been laid down in perfect sound quality – often a must in this genre. Eleven long tracks show this is not a band on the way down, even though the band’s heyday was in the early seventies and the band had just reunited after an almost thirty year hiatus, to the fans’ jubilation. Yes, this is music that had become a bit cheesy in 2005 and has become even more old fashioned thirteen years on, but the progressive rock fan simply cannot ignore VdGG.
As the show progresses, it gets more and more clear how this band served as an inspiration for much better known bands like Marillion. It also gets obvious why VdGG has never been a great commercial success. Too wayward, too difficult, too different. But often that is nice. Especially during live performances there is hardly anything better than seeing a band who has not come to please the crowd, but just wants to do what they like best and do that on a high level. When we look at the setlist of this show, we see it is hardly any different from the show that was recorded and issued as ‘Real Time’ more than ten years ago. Not that strange when we consider both shows were from the same reunion tour. So this time the focus is also on ‘Godbluff’, the album those who seem to know regard as the band’s best. Looking at their discography it is notable many VdGG live albums have been issued recently, so it remains to be seen what ‘Live At Rockpalast’ adds to that. For this reason, this latest addition to the list of Van der Graaf Generator albums may not reach high sales volumes. That’s a pity but there is not much one can do about it. Pearls before swine etc. Let the Van der Graaf Generator fans enjoy this album and perhaps other prog rock fanatics will discover it as well. That would only be fair.