"Pawn Hearts" is considered the opus magnum of one of the greatest prog bands of the 70s. It was a groundbreaking album in many respects - with its mixture of melodiousness and aggression, a long track covering an entire LP side, dark, psychedelic passages and, last but not least, Peter Hammill's expressive vocals, which still fascinate, but also disturb music lovers worldwide. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the work, eclipsed spoke with the musician about an exciting but also exhausting time in the history of England's most uncompromising prog formation.
In the thriving prog scene of the early 1970s, Van der Graaf Generator had a reputation for not making things easy for their fans. The band around charismatic frontman Peter Hammill had finally found themselves after reshuffling and contractual squabbles surrounding their (still somewhat half-baked) debut album "The Aerosol Grey Machine" and released their third work "H To He, Who Am The Only One" in December 1970 with their new line-up, which included Hammill (vocals, guitar and piano), organist Hugh Banton, David Jackson playing various wind instruments and drummer Guy Evans. The very name of this record shows that Van der Graaf Generator presented their listeners with great challenges. Lyrically as well as musically, the band presented themselves as unwieldy and overall conveyed a bleak, pessimistic image. Who else wrote songs about killer fish that kill all the other sea creatures around them, including their own mother, to metaphorically describe the desolate state of the human species?
Nevertheless, Tony Stratton-Smith, head of their new label Charisma Records, tried to bring the group out in a big way. Along with his other two growths Genesis and the not-quite-matching Lindisfarne, he sent them on the legendary "Six Bob Tour" across the UK in early 1971, where the threesome wowed audiences for a mere 30 pence (6 shillings). Although the tour was quite glorified in retrospect, Peter Hammill doesn't have unreservedly positive memories of it: "At the first gig in London, Hugh's bass pedal broke. Luckily our ex-bass player Nic Potter was in the audience and was able to help out. Then at the second gig the PA system broke down." As the audience initially didn't want to warm up to the band's sometimes brute sound anyway, they fell a little behind compared to the other two. But that didn't deter Van der Graaf Generator from playing almost 50 shows in the first five months of that year - including a tour of Germany with Charisma acts Audience and Jackson Heights - and also from recording a solo work by their frontman, on which he collected lighter-weight songs from previous years that had been left behind, as a kind of finger exercise for the band's next album. "The songs on my solo album 'Fool's Mate' were never intended to be VdGG songs, it wouldn't have fit. Still, the guys helped me record them; we did it in a couple of days, it was more like a little holiday."
While on tour, the band had already started to develop ideas for new songs, even though the musicians were pretty exhausted at this point and the signs for exuberant creativity were thus not exactly good. So in June, between tours, they set up shop at Stratton-Smith's house in Crowborough to hone their ideas, and finally, in July, after more UK gigs, went into London's Trident Studios. That their greatest work would be created under these stressful conditions was probably not foreseeable for the band themselves - especially since "Pawn Hearts" was initially planned as a double album. There were two different concepts for it: Those songs that later formed the album were to be supplemented either by a few instrumental tracks by the various members or by current live versions of older songs that differed considerably from the studio originals. However, both plans were thwarted by the label, who did not want to produce a double album. However, the instrumentals were recorded anyway and later released on the 2005 reissue of "Pawn Hearts". On it you can also find the track "Theme One" (a composition by George Martin, which served as the theme tune of BBC radio stations 1 and 2), which was only included on the US and Canadian editions of the album at that time and was released as a single in February 1972, as well as the B-side "W", a short, rather catchy track which did not fit to those of "Pawn Hearts" ...