An Audience with Van Der Graaf


THIS week I am fondly revisiting two bands with much in common. Both were unorthodox additions to the British progressive rock scene in the early Seventies, both were on the Charisma label, both had highly individualistic lead singers and both featured a strong dose of the saxophone. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Audience and Van Der Graaf Generator.

Audience comprised Howard Werth on vocals and acoustic guitar, Keith Gemmell on saxes, clarinet and flute, Tony Connor on drums and Trevor Williams on bass. All were born in the late 1940s in East London, apart from Williams, who was from Hereford. Werth, Gemmell and Williams were in a soul band named, for some reason, The Lloyd Alexander Real Estate. They issued one single, Gonna Live Again/Watcha’ Gonna Do (When Your Baby Leaves You) which found some traction within the Mod community but failed to trouble the charts.

Connor had failed an audition for the group when the drummer left to join the Rubettes, but was invited to join when the other three formed Audience.

The new band got off to a flying start with a residency at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club, a recording contract with Polydor and a deal to provide the soundtrack for Bronco Bullfrog, a film about young tearaways in the East End. Their eponymous debut album came out in 1969 and fell between several stools, being a mixture of pop, folk, soul and jazz, often in the same song. It worked occasionally, for example on the track House On the Hill,  carried by Gemmell’s sax and flute. Audience became unhappy at Polydor’s lack of promotional effort and signed up with Charisma Records after owner Tony Stratton-Smith spotted them supporting Led Zep.

In 1970 came Friend’s Friend’s Friend, a much more satisfying record to my ears. The successful American pop producer Shel Talmy was lined up but the band did not get on with him and decided to handle things themselves. They made a good job of it, a proper rock album which introduces the authentic Audience English wall of sound, with pounding drums and throbbing bass underpinning Werth’s reedy voice and Gemmell’s brilliant sax. Track one, Nothing You Do, gets it off to a ripping start. Belladonna Moonshine, 

a more commercial proposition, was released as a single and got the band on to Top of the Pops in an edition which also featured Mungo Jerry’s In The Summertime and a young lass called Shirley Bassey singing Something. The final track on Side One, Raid, is about Vikings and gets cracking shortly before the three-minute mark when Gemmill really gives his money’s worth. Highlights of side two are Ebony Variationsa rock interpretation of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto which makes my better half’s blood boil, and the whimsical title track. 

The House On The Hill  returns in longer form in 1971 as the title track of album Number Three, produced by Gus Dudgeon. It opens in powerful fashion with Jackdaw and You’re Not Smiling, the latter of which was released as a single. Raviole, a classical pastiche, features the London Symphony Orchestra and an arrangement by Robert Kirby, who collaborated with Nick Drake to great effect on his first two albums. Another song, Indian Summer, was released separately as a single and enjoyed moderate success in the US. It was included in later CD releases.

Audience had been working incessantly ever since signing with Charisma and tensions within the band came to a head during a US tour with The Faces and Cactus. Gemmell walked out in January 1972 halfway through recording of their fourth album, Lunch. The Rolling Stones’ brass section of Jim Price and Bobby Keyes were drafted in but the damage was done. Audience without Keith Gemmell was like Little Feat sans Lowell George or Schweppes tonic without Gordon’s Export Strength gin. Lunch is an insipid record, in my view, totally lacking the brooding intensity of the band’s best work.

Williams, the main songwriter, was next to leave, joining the Nashville Teens. Connor ended up in the pop band Hot Chocolate. Gemmell spent some time with Stackridge before teaming up with the Pasadena Roof Orchestra. Werth made a solo album, King Brilliant, which allegedly got its title when one of the musicians was asked what the record was like and replied: ‘It’s ’king brilliant.’ Bizarrely, Werth was then approached to sing with the Doors as a replacement for the late sex symbol and self exposeur Jim Morrison. He travelled to the US but unsurprisingly the deal did not come off and he worked for a while with members of the Magic Band before returning home. There were sporadic attempts at an Audience reunion in the 21st century but Gemmell was struck down by cancer and died in 2016. He left two solo albums, The Windhover and the amusingly titled Unsafe Sax.


BACK to 1967, and the formation at Manchester University of Van Der Graaf Generator, a misspelling of the device invented by the American physicist Robert Van de Graaff which sent out lightning-style flashes of static electricity. The two original members were both 19 – singer Peter Hammill and Chris Judge Smith, who played wind instruments plus percussion on devices including a typewriter. They recruited an organist, Nick Pearne, and played their debut gig at the student union bar. Their amplifiers exploded after five minutes.

A demo tape made by the trio persuaded Lou Reizner, UK head of Mercury Records, to offer them a recording contract. Pearne was reluctant to abandon his studies so Hammill and Smith left him in Manchester and headed for the Smoke. There they joined forces with Hugh Banton, an organist and trainee BBC engineer, bass player Keith Ellis and drummer Guy Evans. They signed a management contract with Tony Stratton-Smith. Chris Judge Smith soon realised he was something of a spare part and left amicably to form a jazz-rock group, Heebalob. The remaining quartet recorded a session for John Peel’s Top Gear radio programme and an LP, The Aerosol Grey Machine, which was released by Mercury in September 1969 in the US but not the UK. It had started life as a Hammill solo album but Stratton-Smith persuaded Mercury to put it out under the Van Der Graaf name in a deal which freed the band from their contract. Ellis left to join Juicy Lucy and was replaced by Nic Potter, who had played with Evans in a band called The Misunderstood. The line-up was completed by David Jackson, who played sax and flute and had briefly been a member of Heebalob. 

This is where VDG really got going. Signed to Charisma by Stratton-Smith as his first band on the label, they rehearsed frantically, Banton experimenting with effects pedals on his keyboards and Jackson, heavily influenced by Raahsaan Roland Kirk, blowing tenor and alto sax simultaneously. In February 1970 they released their first UK LP, The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other, which sent the critics into raptures. It opens with electronic breezes which introduce the song Darkness (11/11) so-called because it was written on November 11, 1968. This is a great noise, with Hammill’s vocals (does anyone else hear Richard E Grant as Withnail in there?) backed by Jackson’s double sax and Banton’s swirling organ. 

Refugees is a tribute to Hammill’s former flatmates Mike McLean and the actress Susan Penhaligon – ‘West is Mike and Susie; West is where I love, West is refugees’ home.’ There isn’t a dud track here but a particular favourite is Out of My Book

The final song, After The Flood,  is an apocalyptic effort which prompted one reviewer to describe Hammill’s delivery of the word ‘annihilation’ as ‘one of the scariest moments in the history of prog rock’. The album’s name, by the way, is taken from a quote by the English painter John Minton, who killed himself in 1957: ‘We’re all awash in a sea of blood, and the least we can do is wave to each other’. It was VDG’s only LP to feature in the Top 50.

The band’s next work was on the soundtrack to Eyewitness, a movie about a boy who sees a murder, but the music was rejected as being too scary. Then it was back into the studio for their second album of 1970, He to He, Who Am the Only One. According to a note for reviewers, ‘H to He refers to the fusion of hydrogen nuclei to form helium nuclei, a basic exothermic reaction between the sun and stars.’ No, me neither.

Track one is Killer, based on a riff by Banton which he said was based on the Move’s Brontosaurus. It’s about a shark who becomes lonely as he swims through the ocean because he’s munched all the other creatures. House With No Door  is a beauty and it is followed by The Emperor in his War Room, which features guitar by the brilliant Robert Fripp of King Crimson.

Half way through recording, VDG broke off to play some festivals around Europe and it all became too much for Nic Potter, who walked out. Rather than replace him, Banton took over on bass guitar, which he was already familiar with, and for live shows played the relevant parts on the bass pedals of his organ. To promote H to He, VDG went on tour with fellow Charisma acts Genesis and Lindisfarne, topping the bill because they had been on the label longest. Which reminds me, Charisma’s top three prog acts, Genesis, VDG and Audience, all had their first albums released unsuccessfully on major labels (From Genesis to Revelation was on Decca) before joining up with Tony Stratton-Smith and finding fame. 

The now-four-piece band toured incessantly in 1971 before moving into Lexford House, Stratton-Smith’s country home near Crowborough, Sussex, to prepare for the LP Pawn Hearts. (Some years later half of Bert Jansch’s classic album LA Turnaround  was recorded at the house.) There were only three tracks on the original Pawn Hearts, including the excellent Man-Erg and the 23-minute A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers, with more great guest work from Fripp, but over the years it has come to be seen by many as the best VDG album of all. If you’re wondering about the title, it came from Dave Jackson, who announced he was going to the studio to dub some horn parts, but inadvertently used a Spoonerism instead. Pawn Hearts was not a hit in the UK but went to No 1 in prog-loving Italy, where the band became household names playing to huge audiences. There were three tours there in the first half of 1972, which proved so exhausting that VDG fell apart. They remained friends, however, with the others playing on Peter Hammill’s subsequent solo records, and in 1975 reformed to make the album Godbluff. The musician Julian Cope would later write a review for Mojo magazine in which he said: ‘It was the best re-formation ever. Godbluff was every inch a classic. It conjured up vast tracts of heathland, the burning huts of herdsmen, hordes of chariot maniacs trashing farmsteads, heads on javelins stuck in. And Hammill standing amidst all this, Zoroaster-like and mystified, searching desperately and eloquently for some semblance of moral where there was none.’

There was quite a lot more to come from VDG but I have to confess that by this time prog had been supplanted in my emotions by other genres and I am unable to guide you honestly through their later work, although here is a clip that does.

However they remain officially together as a three-piece, Hammill saying that Banton and Evans are still great to work with. ‘As far as we’re concerned, it’s serious fun, but fun nonetheless.’


3 Replies to “An Audience with Van Der Graaf”

  1. Fabbo! I like both groups. Dunno that much about Audience but I have a few records by VDGG. My favourites are “Killer”, “Darkness” and “Afterwards”.

    There’s also “Necromancer” which is Spinal Tap-ish!

    VDGG’s music takes me back to the Manchester University district of the 1970s, which I would pass through occasionally as a youngster, and which was full of strange long haired students, who on the one hand would talk about weird music and on the other would talk about basic exothermic reactions and the like. University students aren’t like that now, it’s all media studies and such.

    It was simply “weird” music in those days; I don’t recall the term “progressive” being used at the time, only retrospectively, but that’s just my experience.

  2. Re. the saxophone: There was a group called Morphine in the 1990s who used a lot of sax, and I thought their sound was influenced by VDGG. I was impressed by a set of theirs at Glastonbury which was shown on the BBC at the time. I never followed them up though; too many other things were competing for my attention.

  3. Not to forget the great single “Theme One”, used as incidental music on many a TV and radio show.

    Originally produced by George Martin. This is a live performance of it, VDGG in all their full mad glory. The drummer is great:

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