West is where all days will someday end
February 2, 2020 2:52 AM   Subscribe

Refugees is track #2 on British classic progrock band Van der Graaf Generator's 1970 studio album The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other, which came out half a century ago this month -- arguably the first "proper" Van der Graaf album, albeit officially the second. Refugees was to became one of VdGG's signature songs. Versions of it have since appeared on at least 5 of their albums, and over the past five decades it was performed live time and again, both by VdGG in its several incarnations and by frontman and singer/songwriter Peter Hammill in solo performances.

To explain some of the lyrics (like, who the hell are Mike and Susie?), Hammill wrote: "For six months I shared a flat with Mike and Susie, who are among my oldest friends. When the time for departure came, I was washed with the melancholia which normally attends moving from 'home' [...] In the writing, however, the song developed a life of its own (as is always the best way), and the hope becomes much more than that for reunion with my friends. We are all refugees, and there is no home but hope."

But over the years, the relative serenity of "hope" turned to the frantic angst of "all days will someday end": For an even deeper dive, youtube also houses:
  • the somewhat overproduced single version (April 1970; 2005 remaster);
  • this imperfectly restored 1970 promo video; and
  • this uneven PH solo bootleg, presumably from the early 00's. He needs a minute to warm up, but he gets there. The uncredited violinist, not visible in the video, is probably Stuart Gordon. And then
  • this 2013 live cover by the Italian modern progrock act the Alex Carpani Band, but featuring VdGG's own David 'Jaxon' Jackson on flute.
Ready for the headier stuff? Check out the uncompromising Pawn Hearts (1971; 2005 remaster). With Robert Fripp as guest performer.
Side A
Lemmings (including Cog)
Man Erg
Side B
A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers

Prefer a PH solo album? From among his massive catalogue (51 albums and counting, and that's in addition to his VdGG work), perhaps a good choice to start off with is Nadir's Big Chance[YT playlist] (1975; 2006 remaster). It's a solo album but, not uncharacteristically, with contributions of all the other members of the VdGG lineup. Sometimes considered a punk precursor.

For further reading, there's PH's "official website" and the VdGG fan website (worth a visit just for the phantasmagorical web 1.0 design).
And for some serious bean counting: if, like Peter Hammill, you speak Italian, you may find the Peter Hammill and VdGG Study Group of interest.
posted by bleston hamilton station (6 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
VdGG were maybe the only prog band the UK punk scene had any time for. Probably because, like everyone else, they were vaguely scared of Peter Hamill.
A huge influence on Killing Joke I think and John Lydon was a fan.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 7:58 AM on February 2 [1 favorite]

Don't forget the "new" stuff, either. Having got into VdGG years after they called it a day, but 20 years before they got back together, it was a joy to hear Every Bloody Emperor, the opening track on the 2005 comeback album, Presence. Still pissed off, still squonky.

Van der Graaf Generator Is For Everyone.
posted by ceiriog at 9:02 AM on February 2

Peter Hammill -- aka The Jesus of Angst. A friend once called him the single greatest chewer of sonic scenery mankind has ever known ... but in a good way.

also ... Darkness ... and A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers - Live 1972
posted by philip-random at 9:17 AM on February 2

I caught hin on a solo tour in the late 80s. Never seen a player attack a piano quite that hard.
posted by inpHilltr8r at 4:28 PM on February 2

Fripp said Hammill was to singing what Hendrix was to the guitar, which might be going a bit far, but very few other singers - certainly male singers, especially white, English male singers - have had the whatever to make such an unhinged, snarling, screaming, soaring, diving noise with their voices with such unflinching authority as Hammill did and does. Most singers would rather be more... decorous.

My introduction to VdGG and Hammill was - as with a lot of 70s Rock - via Tommy Vance's Friday Rock Show. I taped some of the repeated BBC sessions from that show. Then Fripp's Exposure album, where he stands in for Darryl Hall.

My favourite PH is the late seventies, early eighties sequence - A Black Box, Sitting Targets, Patience, Enter K. Difficult troubadour music, more Brel than anything else. Oh, look it's a video of him doing Happy Hour from a couple of years ago.

I'm amazed to realise it was thirty years ago when I regularly used to go and see him play. Although his gigs were a bit archaeological even at that point, he was still introducing amazing songs like His Best Girl or Something About Ysabel's Dance.
posted by Grangousier at 5:56 PM on February 2 [1 favorite]

early eighties sequence - A Black Box, Sitting Targets, Patience, Enter K. Difficult troubadour music, more Brel than anything else.

saw him doing a solo gig then. This nails it. Brel by way of Artaud.
posted by philip-random at 11:35 PM on February 2

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