When Peter Hammill collapsed in the street with a sudden heart attack last year, it didn't make the papers. The one-time singer of the group Van Der Graaf Generator is hardly a household name, but if his obituary had been written that day, the line of figures queuing up to pay tribute would have been starry. Those who have acknowledged his influence include David Bowie, John Lydon, Mark E Smith (of The Fall), Nick Cave, Graham Coxon and Luke Haines, of Black Box Recorder and The Auteurs. It's a list of some of rock's most bloody-minded, maverick talents. In a career now spanning 36 years, Hammill has been, in Haines's words, "consistently undiscovered". He is one of British pop's last buried treasures.
It's his singing that always gets talked about first. Hammill once aspired to be "the Hendrix of the voice" and to that end in the late Sixties he blew out amplifiers as if on a mission. John Lydon admitted partly basing his punk howl on him. If Van Der Graaf Generator are now largely remembered as a "prog rock" band, Hammill's lyrics - a heady brew of science fiction, existential longing and nostalgia - and the band's lengthy, complex songs are to blame. In the era of Led Zeppelin, they preferred saxophones and organs to lead guitars and structured their tunes as if they were small symphonies.
But unlike such contemporaries as Yes, Van Der Graaf's boundary-breaking ambitions for rock still sound exciting, rather than merely pretentious; one reason, perhaps, that this forgotten band's retrospective box-set The Box surprised everyone four years ago by selling 10,000 copies. When the group split in 1978, Hammill had quietly retreated from the record industry to Bath, where he built his own studio and label. This month sees him release his 49th album, Incoherence - a 42-minute song-suite on the subject of "the collapse of language", completed two days before his heart attack.
When I meet him, we indulge in a little telling miscommunication ourselves. Hammill, 55 and largely healthy again, has asked not to be interviewed at home which, I am under the impression, is in Bath. So we meet in nearby Bradford-on-Avon. There, he marches me up near-vertical lanes at a heart-pounding clip (doctor's orders) to a pub. When the pub closes unexpectedly after a single round of Guinnesses, Hammill leads me without explanation to a spacious, soberly decorated house nearby. In a glass refectory looking out over a picturesque English garden, he leans forward to chat animatedly. Only when the interview is over do I realise this is Hammill's home, and that the woman who opened the door to us is his wife.
This mixture of guardedness and sudden, total openness should come as no surprise. Hammill is a reserved middle-class Englishman vigorously schooled by Jesuits; a rock star who once caused riots across Europe; an obsessive fan of Bath rugby club with a framed Aussie newspaper bemoaning their World Cup defeat (which Peter travelled to watch) in his loo; intensely garrulous then suddenly aloof - he is a tight mesh of contradictions.
"I do flip between being chatty and argumentative - and being a psycho-loner werewolf," he concedes in a posh but not plummy voice. His face is almost worryingly gaunt - "The Thin Man" is an old nickname - beneath a shock of white hair. He puts the contradictions in his nature down to a rootless early life. Born in Ealing, he moved a dozen times as a child, before being sent to boarding school. He never called anywhere home - or felt the need to. "My mother was from West Bromwich, my grandfather was Pakistani. I had an aunt who started trying to trace the family tree, and stopped, when she saw what turned up."
Hammill's boarding school was Jesuit. This may help explain the near-monastic stringency which balances his flights of passion, in conversation and music. The Brothers schooled him from the age of nine until he was 18, and left their mark. "I'm not sure that Jesuits ever produce faithful Catholics," he says. "Because they're too fierce. It is Sturm und Drang, and it is guilt - it is all that battlefield stuff. It's the SAS of Catholicism. So even when they're teaching you a Latin verb declension, it's because you might need to know how to decline a Latin verb some day, because the devil will be tempting you. They were all inspirational in their obsession. They were all driven people. And they were interested in getting the process of questioning going. I think it went in. I'm not remotely a Catholic. But my daughters have all gone to Catholic schools, partly because they'll have that questioning too."
When I ask him if this intellectual hellfire left him with the usual Catholic guilt, he rejects the notion with the sort of fierce rigour of which the Brothers would approve. "I think Catholic guilt is vastly over-played," he says. "Sometimes Caths and ex-Caths will parody themselves, to get out of talking about what they really mean - 'Don't worry, it's just my Catholic guilt'. But guilt is easy. It's like Donald Rumsfeld saying he's 'sorry' over Iraq - all that modern, psychobabble crap. Guilt is not something that's just there in a box. If it's anything, it's: where did you go wrong? If you regard rightness as being a natural state, that can induce guilt. But it's not. People screw up. That's the fun. You've got to scrape your knuckles, hit and be hit, in order to learn."
The Jesuits' blandishments were balanced by the equally fierce pull of pop, playing nightly in the clubs of 1960s Derby, where Hammill's family moved when he was 12. "The things that really fired me up were British beat groups, R&B and soul," he remembers. "It was a life-choice then to like that stuff. In the East Midlands triangle, that mod signification lasted longer than anywhere else, and had a particular dancehall relevance, and was about being... in with the in-crowd. So the Derby Meccano, the Clouds Club, the whole mod scene - I was there. The bloke who couldn't dance and talked funny. That was the exciting stuff. And that was what being in a group was all about."
Hammill formed Van Der Graaf Generator with friends, including Chris "Judge" Smith in 1967, at Manchester University. He remembers it as a time of militant student protest - "Che posters, clenched fists, but not much joined-up thought". The leap from mods at the Meccano to Van Der Graaf's lofty aspirations was similarly haphazard.
"It was Judge Smith who was visionary about what a band could be. I just wanted to be a singer and have everyone love me. In '68, it was still a world of beat groups and pop hits. There wasn't anything else. The whole idea of doing music for more than three or four years was out of order. I had a vision of myself as a novelist, because that was where I could be serious. I couldn't with music. I don't know why I started writing about other things. There was a lot of science fiction involved, read in conjunction with dope and psychedelics. And then there was Hendrix. And that was like science fiction and social excitement and drama. Everything was there - this is what's happening, in this hour, on stage! The exciting thing - this is happening now!"
Did Hammill see Hendrix ? "Oh yeah! Van Der Graaf supported him, at the Albert Hall in '69. Obviously we're English middle-class chaps - there's not much voodoo chile about us. But we were looking for that serious laugh. That's still what I get from Hendrix ... There's a bit of syncopation where he's dead serious, but with a wink, a glimmer. That is what we were aiming for. The best accolade we could give to anything we did, including the most scary moments, would be: 'That's very funny'."
Van Der Graaf briefly found themselves fashionable in the new underground rock scene, based around the Marquee and the Reading and Windsor Festivals, and peopled by "seasoned beat group members, public-school boys and art-school students" such as The Soft Machine and Pink Floyd, who "wanted to be marginally more serious, do more than make singles all wearing the same suits". This patchwork movement, applying musical ambition and psychedelic perceptions to pop, had congealed into prog's pompous virtuosity by the 1970s; a suit of clothes which punk then tore to shreds.
In fact, Hammill's raw solo album Nadir's Big Chance (1975) came to be a secret punk touchstone, and the harshness and anger his band were capable of achieving kept them safe from punk's commissars, even before Johnny Rotten named his sources. They had anyway found a home in Italy where, in a way hard to imagine for a pop group now, their tours were magnets for riots, revolutionaries, criminals and extremists. A 1976 Rome engagement brought the madness to a head.
"Our equipment was held for ransom after a show," Hammill remembers. "It was normally people who were held to ransom, and normally their fingers or ears that were returned as proof - which worried us. We'd done a show where the Left were the promoters. But the more I think about this, I don't think I understand what happened in Italy. I don't think anyone did. There was some degree of organised crime, an element of police corruption, some kind of Fascist involvement. Maybe this was the point at which we realised we are just a group, and we're chasing after an urgent human laugh at the absurdity of everything, and trying to be very scary. But that was when we seriously ran up against bigger things."
Hammill effectively exiled himself from such tumult when he disappeared into the West Country in 1978. He had tried leaving London before, perversely moving to "the only place in the country where the trains ran all night and I could get home": Gatwick. It would appear that his quarter-century away from the music industry has given him the equilibrium and independence to pursue his undimmed ambitions.
"The music world has gone IKEA - one size," he says. "And I'm a bespoke furniture-maker. Not selling many, and only to people who find me."
Hammill's separation from commercial concerns and continued drive to create helps explain why he remains potently unpredictable. Incoherence is intricate and relevant (it was partly inspired by Blair's Iraq double-speak), shot through with passages of lush beauty. It's a continuous piece. Its synthesisers and violins clash then cohere; its lyrics grapple with the impossibility of true communication. Sung with mature control by Hammill, it is a major work, challenging pop's conventional limits yet again.
The heart attack that felled Hammill 40 hours after its completion, however, challenged him far more profoundly. "I had a bad ache," he remembers. "I was blacking out, I had to sit down. When paramedics start calling you by the wrong name, and you realise they're doing that so that I will bloody well stay awake to tell them, 'No, it's Peter' ... That's... the bit. Life becomes very, very simple, if you know that your only job for the next two hours is to stay awake. It does also finally knock on the head the possibility that I might be the one who's immortal."
Beliefs were tested, as Hammill struggled to breathe. "I didn't have any conversion or recantation of the stuff I've been banging on about for years - religion, the wish to change things, free will, predestination. The values held. But of course, I didn't die. So I didn't reach the final test. If I had, I'd probably have been under too much morphine to know."
The shock waves of Hammill's collapse are still rippling through his system. "Time does very, very funny things," he says. "You are acutely aware of now, and exactly how you feel. You know that time has gone fluid on you. And to be honest, it's still pretty fluid with me. I have a tendency to go off in a ruminative state. Drifting. It is good to just rest and take the longer view, without necessarily making that view cogent."
As the interview finishes, one of Hammill's daughters returns from school, and the shutters around this private man start to close back down. But the intense independence which has let him survive artistically for so long, and secretly inspire so many, may yet be softening into something else.
"The sense in which I think I was a heart attack candidate was obviously the way I obsess about things, and scrabble at them," he says. "But that's just wasting time in a different way. So it will be interesting to see exactly what emerges."
'Incoherence' is out now on Fie! RecordsReuse content