Book Reviews

The On Track series: Book Review

Two more from the On Track bookshelf from Sonicbond. American AOR giants Kansas go under the microscope as does the output of the cult of Van Der Graaf Generator and their leading man, Peter Hammill .

Musician and writer (and progressive rock nerd) Kevin Cummins focuses his thoughts on Kansas

There’s no doubting the conviction of the On Track authors when it comes to enthusing over their subjects. A while back, in his Toto book, Jacob Holm-Lupo talked of their legacy being up with The Beatles and Michael Jackson.

Of course, Kansas are cut from a similar cloth, definitely a bit more ‘proggy’ but like Toto, a polished product and of course everybody knows their ‘hit’. Sorry – ‘hitS’ as in the midst of carrying on with my wayward son, I forgot to add Dust In The Wind. Kansas were the band that wrote prog songs that had radio appeal.

At their peak, they held the distinction of having two 4x platinum albums in the mid-Seventies (Leftoverture and Point Of Know Return – best not mention the ‘Point Of No Return’ ‘correction’ on a couple of occasions…). They could even get away with stage costumes that involved shorts and tube socks. These were the two albums that saw Kerry Livgren coming of age and stepping up to the mark when the band needed him and hitting a purple (or possibly platinum) patch of songwriting.

Punctuating the text are seven ‘interludes’ that cover various live albums. A whole bunch come in the noughties when the band took a sixteen-year break from doing any studio work. 1984’s Best Of gets its own chapter rather than a perfunctory mention amongst the several compilations and odds and ends that appear to fill a few pages at the end.

Cummings manages to present a case for Steve Walsh being one of the most underrated musicians as a singer and keyboard player. It’s all set against the comings and goings in the shape-shifting line-up although the song essentially remained the same. Walsh (who eventually gets to retire) and Livgren are in and out of the band, Steve Morse joins for a while and the band also get through a hefty audition schedule to recruit John Elefante to sing on a couple of albums. David Ragsdale also does a stint on the trademark Kansas violin.

As well as a brief period when Livgren’s work had a more spiritual focus, the concept album is covered – they are ‘prog’ after all so it’s a given. In The Spirit Of Things might not be a full-blown prog concept per se but more in line with the sort of storytelling in the vein of Neil Young’s Greendale.

To their credit, Kansas has remained a going concern, continuing to work and their most recent albums, The Prelude Implicit and The Absence Of Presence (not to mention a live album celebrating forty years of Leftoverture) have been impressive efforts. There may have been a sixteen-year gap, but those two albums (and a live Leftoverture & Beyond remain very much in the spirit of Kansas. It certainly sounds like Kansas despite the absence of Livgren and Walsh and if Pihl Ehart and Rags are still in there, with the enthusiastic presence of Tom Brislin, there’s life in the old dog yet.

Dan Coffey from Iowa chronicles the two periods of activity of Van Der Graaf Generator plus the mis period of solo activity from main man Peter Hammill.

From a personal point of view, VDGG were one of those band I stumbled across by proxy, being a Genesis fan and knowing the two bands were often billed together being labelmates at Charisma.

Not really a progressive rock band in the sense that their seventies peers – Genesis, ELP, YES – were. They probably fit more with the quirky Gentle Giant while building on a frame of Crimson style avant-garde-ness. Not always an easy experience. A band who liked to provide a challenge. ‘Serious fun’ they termed it as they swayed from pastoral acoustic pieces to the weird and wonderful.

Peter Hammill himself is a musician who’s admired greatly by the contemporary groundbreakers, Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness. He often gets a mention in their The Album Years podcast alongside the names of Gabriel, Fripp and Bowie. On the other hand, I recall seeing him supporting Marillion back in 1983 and getting a raw deal probably from those who didn’t appreciate who he was. Interesting really, as the Godfather of Punk could well have been applied considering his anarchic approach – see Nadir’s Big Chance (not listed in the contents btw, nor is Fool’s Mate although both albums are included).

But back to VdGG whose output achieved some critical acclaim. The significant fourth album (think Led Zep IV, Foxtrot, Fragile, The Seldom Seen Kid…) 1971’s Pawn Hearts and the huge A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers is perhaps the pick of the bunch. The latter getting a full four pages of detailed analysis. A track that I’m guessing had more impact on Fish’s similarly sprawling A Plague Of Ghosts rather than the series of children’s books about lighthouse keeper Mr Grinling.

Already, Hammill’s solo work was appearing and bleeding seamlessly into the VdGG catalogue. Fool’s Mate had preceded Pawn Hearts and singled out are some of Hammill’s fabulous solo albums. In particular, the 1974 pairing of In Camera (check the explanation of the title – not as it seems) and The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage elevated him to iconic status. If he wasn’t there already.

So the first era of Van Der Graaf Generator/Van Der Graaf lasted up till the late seventies. Signing off with a live album Vital showcased their improvisational live show and their refusal to simply reproduce the recorded work. Not something they wanted to do, viewing live performance as being special for those who were there. although financially, the Vital album made sense and turned out to be a best-seller.

The return over thirty years later (with the double album/CD Present) leaves us to deal with the startling revelation that the ‘current’ incarnation has been active longer than the acclaimed Seventies version. 2016’s Do Not Disturb might be a suitable phrase for the VdGG tombstone and an apt one as it’s declared a record “with a howl, not a whimper” into the abyss. And fascinating to place next to Pawn Hearts or Fool’s mate to actually see how much in common they still have. (Something you’d struggle to do with, say, Foxtrot and Invisible Touch…).

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