Peter Hammill: Prog Rock's Unsung Hero Musician Peter Hammill isn't a household name, and his music isn't necessarily for the household. As a founding member of the British progressive rock scene in the early '70s, Hammill reaches beyond the pretension of prog rock and into the fury of punk.
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Peter Hammill: Prog Rock's Unsung Hero

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Peter Hammill: Prog Rock's Unsung Hero

Peter Hammill: Prog Rock's Unsung Hero

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Finally this hour, to the world of progressive rock music. Think, the early days of bands such as Genesis and Yes. Peter Hammill is a founding member of the British progressive rock scene of the early 1970s. His band, Van der Graaf Generator, never reached the wide audience that some of those some other groups did. As Chris Boros of member station WKSU reports, Peter Hammill did manage to reach an unexpected group of fans.

CHRIS BOROS: In 1973, the epic sounds of progressive rock were king.

(Soundbite of rock music)

BOROS: Sitting on the thrones were Genesis, Yes, and ELP. But there were a lot of bands slaving in the fields like Van der Graaf Generator. Its leader and singer Peter Hammill is not a big fan of the label prog rock.

Mr. PETER HAMMILL (Singer, Van der Graaf Generator): It began to seem that in order to be in a successful group you had to have 23 banks of keyboards and a zillion lights and all that sort of thing.

(Soundbite of rock music)

BOROS: Progressive rock replaced rock 'n' roll's blues-based approach with the classical virtuosity. But according to Jason Pettigrew, editor in chief of "Alternative Press," that virtuosity left many people scratching their heads.

Mr. JASON PETTIGREW (Editor in Chief, "Alternative Press"): It got to the point where it seemed that the rock music in one of the aspects were more about you know, just look home many notes I can play, you know it's not writing, it's typing, it's just dexterity. Prog rock was just too smart for its own audience.

BOROS: Still, bands like Yes and ELP got famous while Van der Graaf Generator managed a niche audience at best. Many argue it was the lesser known band that really understood the genre.

Mr. PETTIGREW: Somehow, listening to Jon Anderson of Yes talk about the marvels of the world just didn't really cut it. And I think Van der Graaf were the ones that got it right because they understood that you can do tension with a big old roar or with a quiet whisper.

(Soundbite of song "The Undercover Man")

VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR: (Singing) Out of control, Out of control, Greasy machinery slides on the rails, Young minds and bodies on steel.

BOROS: Music geeks made up a large portion of the progressive rock audience, but Van der Graaf Generator was gathering attention from a unexpected place. In 1977, punk pioneer Johnny Rotten, from the Sex Pistols, played guest DJ on a British radio show. He called Peter Hammill a true original saying quote, if you listen to him, I'm sure Bowie copied a lot. Jason Pettigrew says the show became legendary.

Mr. PETTIGREW: He played two tracks from Hammill's Nadir's "Big Chance" record. That record was very much an influence on him. And when you consider what he did with public image limited, that whole type of reductionist thinking, I think a lot of that has to do with Van der Graaf and Peter Hammill.

BOROS: Hammill's influence on Rotten is intriguing. Punk was the antithesis of Prog rock. It was about immediacy, and not caring if you could play your instrument well, yet Peter Hammill insists, it shouldn't be a surprise that what was assumed to be a brainy overload of pretension, actually had a broader appeal.

Mr. HAMMILL: Mark Smith from The Fall was quoted as saying you know, people think that to go and see Van der Graaf you need to be, you know, university student or what have you, but he knew lots of people from Salford Docks who went down to see us just because it was, yey.

(Soundbite of song "The Future Now")

VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR: (Singing) Would you catch the final words of mine? Would you catch my words? I know that there's no time. I know that there's no rhyme. What's the point? I don't want to hate, I just want to go. Why can't I let me live and be free but I definitely slowly alone.

Mr. HAMMILL: Part of the drive was just for it to be visceral, immediate, active. And actually, I think, yeah, we picked up quite lot of audience at that time who wouldn't have remotely dreamed of to going to see ELP or Yes for instance.

BOROS: Hammill's managed to hold on to his fans. His released over 30 solo albums and still fronts Van der Graaf Generator. Sure he say his music can be complex with dramatic shifts and tempo and oblique lyrics but it still gives the boys down in the docks something to hang on to.

Mr. HAMMILL: There's a lot of kind of good old straight ADG rock chords, there's a lot of kind of not schmaltzy exactly, but stuff that's directly about boy meets girl and what have you. At least there's an element of joy at times.

(Soundbite of song "The Undercover Man")

VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR: (Singing) That took a drag on your cigarette, That well-known face in the fire. It could be someone you can't forget. Someone you've learned to admire, And it's strange how the feeling goes. All change down the river of filial gold.

BOROS: Peter Hammill knows he's not Peter Gabriel, and he's fine with that.

Mr. HAMMILL: Not everything I've done has been touched with absolute fairy dust. It's not easy listening and it's not meant to be. I'm not Neil Diamond.

BOROS: Hammill understands that his experimentation will keep him off the charts but it still keeps him busy. Van der Graaf Generator released a new album this year and the band still tours the world. For NPR News, I'm Chris Boros.

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