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Red Wine in a Plastic Cup

It's very unusual for me to go so often to concerts as I have in recent months. The reason for this is tripartite - first, I live in rural seclusion and quixotically combine distance-from-cities with reliance-on-trains. (I'm a whimsical so-and-so.) Second, I'm picky about music. Only a very few things really please me, or please me well enough to send me out-of-doors after dark to stand-or-sit in a room with 'em. Thirdly, the musical personages I do like are often (a) semi-retired, (b) permanently retired to the Sussex Downs or (c) irrevocably retired to the Next Life. This makes that rare beast the concert-I-want-to-go-to a Special Occasion indeed.

I wasn't sure when I started listening to Van der Graaf Generator whether I'd get an opportunity to hear them (or just Mr Hammill) play live. They had done the whole getting-back-together thing in triumphant fashion, even weathering a personnel change and sending out new albums into the aether - pretty well-received new albums, too (haven't heard these yet myself, but people seem to like 'em), which is quite unusual amongst reconstituted prog rock* formations.

[*Oh, yes,well, 'prog rock' is not a very apt phrase when considering VdGG; they put all their flamboyance into the music, rather than the costumes/personal demeanour - and the lyrics, unlike those of some of their contemporaries, definitely bear scrutiny. Also, there aren't rafts of grammarless solos - they're excellent musicians, but never immodestly so. This is long-form (side-of-an-lp) composition with none of the flab that you get with some bands of the prog persuasion. They know exactly when to reel it in, how to leave you wanting more, not checking your watch or fast-forwarding to the 'good bit'. And they do seem like actual human beings, personality-wise, which attribute can be somewhat lacking in those touched with talent and/or fame. Some bands make great music but you'd rather walk than have to endure a journey with them in their private jet. VdGG - they're not private jet people. You'd have a jolly time, though, if they stopped to give you a lift in their van! (I'm thinking it's definitely a van, their transport of choice-or-necessity, and it probably has a name, too. Ermenegilda, perhaps.) Anyway... 'prog rock' is as ever a nebulous concept (it's what people didn't want to be before they didn't want to be hipsters) but that's the heading under which you'll find them in the record shop... so there it is!]

Aarghh, digression-au-go-go. Well, as I was saying, it didn't seem unlikely that they might wind operations down as regards touring etc. But then... an announcement! Live dates! June/July! The Barbican on 30th June - a few days before my birthday - well, that there's the Universe telling me "If you don't buy a ticket, dummy, then I wash my hands of you!" Meek as ever in the face of the Universe and its nagging ways, I bought a ticket.

On this visit to London I had the pleasure of the dear David's company. We decided to stay a couple of nights in order to Experience London in some way or another. We stayed here - I've slept at this hotel several times, it's not picturesque but it's fairly cheap-for-London, your nice cooked breakfast (and it really is quite nice) is included, and it's clean, friendly, conveniently-situated, etc. Next time I'll probably plump for the Fleet River Bakery again, as it's a bit more fun and comfortable, but at the time of booking this trip I hadn't had my night at the Bakery yet. Therefore, I erred on the side of caution/known-devilry. It was extremely hot in our hotel room - and we were at the front, at street level, so there was noise at intervals. But there's not much to be done about the weather and town planning, even by complaining to the hotel management, so I shrugged and accepted it.

On Saturday afternoon, having arrived and got rid of bags, we decided to look at record shops. I don't know why I've never thought of looking at record shops in London before (this time it was the David's idea, no credit to me!). There seemed to be a number of these establishments in Berwick Street so that's where we went. On our way we realised, by cleverly observing the large number of rainbow flags, sloganned stickers, marshals in fluorescent tabards, distant sounds of music/announcements, and extremely happy people everywhere, that Pride* was in full swing. London (well, anywhere) can be a drab, moody old place at times - sometimes you feel Hostility, rather than June, is Busting Out All Over. But this was such a contrast - such a forceful, tangible air of positivity and safety. It was ok to look your fellow human being in the eye and smile. Human contact was a link, not a challenge. It would be fantastic, wondrous and lovely if the world could feel like that every day!

[*There seemed to be several reasons to be Proud going on - Gay Pride obviously, but there was also a sign saying 'Black Pride - Ticket-holders Only'. I had to giggle; of course, we can all be proud of one another, whatever race or persuasion we are, but in a way one is born with a ticket or without one...]

Later we looked at some online news headlines, and the main story reported happy times at the Gay Pride event, with revellers 'including a pink dog'. It just seemed a rather... odd headline, somehow. Out of all the things to highlight, they pick... a pink dog?! (And just the one...? Surely there will have been an entire pastel pack...) I conclude: Journalism is Weird. ;-)

Anyway, we got to Berwick Street and had a browse in Sister Ray Records first of all. This felt like a very tidy and professional and well-laid-out cave - a bit like HMV in the good old days! We had a good rootle around - they had a lot of 180g reissue stuff, there can't be much left that hasn't been given this treatment. Nothing I wished to buy, though. Next we wandered round Reckless Records - very diverse selection of stock in here. There were a few things in the racks that I owned already, but at a palpitation-inducing London price. My £20 copy of Beefheart's LMDOB began to seem like an even tastier bargain!! So did my £10 VdGG compilation. These would have been £50 and £30 respectively at London retail rates! ...This may be why I'd never thought to look at London record shops before.

Finally we headed for Music & Video Exchange. And, well... the thing I've learnt not to expect... Happened! Sitting right there in the front of the rack... a Magma lp. A good 'un, too - 'Köhntarkösz'. The cover was quite worn, but the disc was VG. This to me says, here's a record that someone has carried around everywhere, it's been in and out of its sleeve countless times, and though it's been played it's been looked after. This must have been someone's favourite record for a while. That's exactly what I like to see! I was, as you can imagine, Very Satisfied with this find. Then, further back - 'Live/Hhaï' as well!! Again the sleeve was in a well-pawed state (complete with old sellotape, which should I think fall off fairly readily, and I'll mend it properly with paper and glue), but the two round things (it's a double live lp) were VG. The price was right, too - I picked up both albums for £26 all in. It may seem like nothing really, to find what you want in a record shop and buy it for a non-stupid price, but... it was kind of surreal to walk in and be stared in the face by something I'd thought I'd have to buy online. These aren't super-rare items, but they are not often seen on this side of the channel-or-sleeve. That said, I suppose everything ends up in London eventually. I imagine both these albums must have belonged to the same person originally... I wonder who that was, and why they got rid of them...? Well, whoever you are, worry not: they've found a good home now.

I liked this shop best out of the three we visited - and not just because I found something to buy! It reminded me very much of a shop I used to frequent in Park Street, Bristol - Rayners, I think it was - and I think they only sold CDs. But the layout and the floor and the lighting and the wooden racks and the general atmosphere were very similar. In seeking to remind myself of the name of this establishment I found out that it's now defunct, along with several other independent music shops that used to be nearby. RIP, I guess... or RPM (Religiously Play Music...)!

Davey didn't buy anything - his main area of musical collectomanie is Vangelis, and anything of that ilk which you are like to find in a retail situation is going to be "Yep, got that... got that... got that, and the picture disc version too..." ;-) They did have an original lp of '666' by Aphrodite's Child on the wall. I pointed it out to him... "Yep, got that!" - well, bien sûr! (I'm pretty sure almost no-one other than Davey has a more comprehensive haul of Vangelis's back catalogue, except for Mr V. himself!!)

After a leisurely stroll around the area we ate our dinner at a lovely Japanese restaurant. Somehow I managed to apply my chopsticks to a bowlful of udon noodles without dousing all about me with the broth! After this we stopped by a Lebanese confectioner's and shared some baklawa. We were served by a proprietor who fully embodied all one's assumptions about the ideal Middle Eastern male - from the artfully coiffed hair, via the enormous gold jewellery and emergent chest hair, to the tight trews and Cuban heeled boots. It was a tiny shop, hardly wide enough to accommodate so much testosterone!!

On Sunday we looked at the National Gallery for a while. I'm going to report on that in a separate post, because as ever I find myself able to ramble profligately about art history in a way that may be dull to persons seeking impressions of a Van der Graaf Generator concert (or indeed to all-comers...). ;-)

After a bit more wandering (including a meander through Chinatown and a brief nose around some bookshops in Charing Cross Road - none of which could beat my own dear Oxfam for variety and price!!) we had an early supper at the Barbican Lounge. This worked pretty well - it's one of those 'small plates' affairs, so you can match your order to your appetite, and be as indecisive as you please. We were so early that the waiters had nothing much to focus on except us, so they kept sidling over and refilling our water-glasses with imploring looks on their faces. ;-) The food was good, and it was nice not to be in a crowded space that echoed with other people's smalltalk - I never find that conducive to good dining, personally, and people do tend to make the assumption that the only response to other people's noise is to BE EVEN NOISIER, whereas if everyone turned the volume down a notch, that would work just as well... Introvert's observation: time was, when restaurants were designed with lots of soft textures - carpet, upholstery, etc. - but nowadays they are customarily equipped with wall-to-wall hard surfaces. This is doubtless easier to maintain hygienically, but it's a bit like eating yer dinner in the resonating chamber of some kind of percussion instrument. The resultant clangour can cause an uncomfortable out-of-body experience in those not equipped to withstand such cacophonies. (You can chalk this remark up to dramatic irony, uttered as it is by Your Correspondent, who is - all incongruously - delighted by weird and loud music...)

Having enjoyed our leisurely repast, we moseyed on down to the hall. There seemed to be nothing for sale (shame! I really would have liked a souvenir!), but a goodly number of people were gathered there. It was the usual sea of black t-shirts (and a few other colours too). I did my wilful best, still channelling yer Renaissance prince in a patterned silk-mix tunic and leggings, various morsels of jewellery, and blue shoes. Every concert crowd is different. There are always brigades of black t-shirts, but at a Magma concert, for example, you'll also get bizarre birds of paradise in velvet cloaks (...sometimes that's me...); Sparks tempts out the shy wearer of nylon slacks, along with ladies who have adored Russell Mael forever and named their first-born after him; the Magic Band has very chatty fans who automatically make a fuss of you if don't happen to be middle-aged and male; and, as posited in previous ramblings, fans of the Residents are just plain odd. But the VdGG cohort seemed to me very civilised, down to earth and personable. Not there to show off, just there, and very... respectful. That's all I can report, really, because I didn't seek out conversation and was not sought out myself (maybe another time, if I'm brave...).

After Davey left me (I wasn't going to make him sit through the concert!), I took my seat - C27. That was the second row. The Barbican Hall, as I've mentioned before, is laid out so that the front rows are right up next to the stage. The very front is, therefore, not the best place to be, but a row or two back gets you close without neckache or an enforced view of the singer's bunions. ;-) I had an excellent view of Hugh Banton, the organ-player, and his equipment. It really must be a full-body workout - this line-up does not include a bass guitar, so it's organ-pedals on bass duty. That gives a distinctive, treacly sound, a sort of ecclesiastical gravitas, to the music. Once again I'm impressed by how unpretentious this band is - when you think of some of the big keyboard players of the 70s, you think of serried ranks of Moogs, festooned with electrical flex, knobs being twiddled, jack-knifes inserted into manuals, capes, hip-thrusts and god knows what-all, but here perched a self-contained and wholly modest musician, with minimal kit, making a Big, Complicated Noise. Mr Banton resembled a spider in its web - you'd swear there were eight limbs darting here and there at times - and of course, it's the smallest, most discreet spiders that are often the most deadly. ;-) (Let's face it, if Rick Wakeman was a spider, he'd be a nice cuddly Pink Kneed Tarantula... Mr B is probably more your Brown Recluse. ;-P)

Guy Evans, yon drummer, is pretty much however-many-feet of MUSCLE. He glowers amidst the drums, walloping them with venomous precision, like some kind of Titan in Tartarus. Yet again here's unostentatious kit being pushed to its limit by someone who really knows what they're doing. There is a tendency for certain famous drummers to be gear-obsessed - you'll have seen those pictures of some smug so-and-so beaming from within a rococo surfeit of glistering cymbals - and I always feel subtly cross when I see this. My favourite drummers haul around a selection of beat-up bits and bobs (or if not that, have a fairly basic set-up without needless fol-de-rols) and manage to thrill and scare and punish and electrify without needing an entire truck and/or reinforced stage to accommodate all their accoutrements and appurtenances.

And finally, singing, playing keyboard and occasional guitar, of course there was Peter Hammill. I've got to say, he might be the scruffiest frontman ever (feel free to correct me with scruffier examples!). Sticking up hair, the sort of trousers your husband wears when mowing the lawn, an incongruous patterned shirt, slip-on shoes... this is about as far as it gets from sequins and tight pants, without coming back round again. Whereas Mr B suppresses a smile and holds his elbows in, and Mr E scowls and zaps at the skins like a chamaeleon lashes a tongue at flies, Mr H bounces, twinkles and flutters. (The musicianly personage I was most reminded of was David Willcocks - when I was in the school choir, we took part in a multi-choir concert conducted by that gentleman, and I remember being most impressed by how jolly and bouncy he was!) Mr Hammill is as skinny and sprightly as a Quentin Blake illustration incarnated. He's not one of these old stagers who can't sing properly any more, either. Now and again he would go for a high note and you'd think "Oh dear - please make it!" - and he would, with a power that belied the almost papery look of his physical body. (Advice to would-be singers: Wagnerian girth not required, but do work that diaphragm! ;-P) He had a plastic cup of something dark on the go - I couldn't tell whether it was Coke or red wine, but red wine seems more probable.

One of the things that is most charming and oddly reassuring about Mr H is that... he's not perfect. Sometimes he gets in a muddle (well, don't we all!). He has the lyrics on bits of paper close at hand (I wonder if he keeps them in a plastic carrier bag, in the traditional manner of the dithery genius?). Certain songs require a deep breath and an exchange of knowing looks amongst the trio before embarking on their tricky trajectories. Even I (inexpert novice that I am!) could detect the occasional bum note (VERY occasional, I hasten to add...). I like this for purely selfish reasons, because generally, when it comes to Genius Musicians, there's an air of unreachable distance, of Olympian irrelevancy, to yer own scratchings and strivings. You kind of think... oh, there's no point even trying to get there. It's too far away. But Peter Hammill is both brilliant and human. He's an Ideas Man, and his ideas come off with a little help from his friends. Without it ever being half-assed or underdone, with his work you can sort of glimpse the calculations, get a sense of the effort as well as the inspiration. (I'm sure that's part of the reason punks didn't hate VdGG - you totally get a sense of 'let's have a go and see what we can make with our hands', the DIY spirit, reaching down-to-earth in order to get celestial.)

Basically, anyone who has ever sat at the piano thinking "Ah, now, here comes the Hard Bit..." - anyone who has ever apologised in advance for the possibility of forgetting the words (even though you wrote the blessed things!) - anyone who seeks to combine the gung-ho have-a-go spirit with a total inability to take themselves seriously - you and I and all of us can't help but feel solidarity with this way of doing things!

There was not much in the way of asides to the audience, but when uttered, these were exactly what you'd expect if you were in Mr H's house sitting next to him on the duet stool. Everything said with a twinkle and a shrug. If he'd gone "After this one we'll put the kettle on," it wouldn't have seemed odd! And yet he does have that irrepressible frontman twitch - the arch of the back, the stalking gait, the straight neck - sort of like, that person at your party whom you'd never guess was an amazing dancer until the music starts playing. Some people can appreciate music from outside their bodies but they have no idea what their hips are for. Others, whilst outwardly still (they would never clap along to the Radetzky March, for example!), have metronome hearts, their cells divide in seven-eight time, they can experience every rattling train journey as an improvised percussion suite... These are the people who can unleash The Strut with no warning, who are the dark horses in any karaoke bar, and who make the best and most surprising front men and women.

The concert passed so quickly. I was conscious of the seepage of moments in a way that I never normally am during live performances - sometimes, you're so mazed by the very idea of being three feet away from whoever-it-is that your brain almost rejects the experience and has you thinking about your shopping list or wondering where you left your blue cardigan. (Tip: it's probably right where you left it, on the chair, under that pair of jeans...) But this time I was very there. Mr H did say that there were to be seven songs, which I suppose concentrated the mind. Seven sounds like very few, but several of these were long 'uns.

Here's the setlist:

Over The Hill*
All That Before*
A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers

Encore: Childlike Faith in Childhood's End

The ones I've asterisked are ones I hadn't heard before. (...I'm still very new at this!!) Usually it's hard to appreciate unfamiliar songs in a live setting, but there was nothing here that went over my head or bored me or annoyed me. It seems that 'Bunsho' is a song not much liked by PH/VdGG aficionados, but I didn't hate it on first listen! 'All That Before' stood out as one I want to listen to again, a song of flailing rancour and blistering energy. (Ok, here begins the muso-burble, by the looks of it!) 'Flight' came alive in a way that it hadn't for me before (the recorded version feels kind of episodic, and I don't think I've listened to it with enough focus up till now). I listened to it on my ipod on the way home and found all sorts of nuances in there that I'd not appreciated before.

There was a tangible frisson as 'Man-Erg' struck up - this is one of those miraculous songs that is really almost too good to be taken seriously. In one way it's absolutely a young person's song - who, at some or other formative moment, hasn't posed the reflexive question, Who Am I? - asked it a million times, trying on all available masks, ever-conscious of the polymorphous cast of creatures underneath? (...Or maybe that's just me... uh... ;-P) The alternately cherubic and possessed vocals on the original recorded version take full advantage of the young PH's trademark innocence-with-a-hint-of-demonry - it doesn't feel like the sort of thing a laid-back, mature person would hand out. But I sat there, tingingly aware that every single person in the audience probably thought that song was about them. (Eat your heart out, Carly Simon!) It couldn't matter whether you were eighteen or eighty, it couldn't matter what you had or hadn't done in your life, whether you'd never squashed a fly or returned a library book past the deadline - you'd feel it somehow, resonate it with that uncomfortable sensation of your insides inflating against your outsides - an indigestion of the soul. At the sound of a song like this, the entire roomful of people becomes a Theremin of the emotions. I hadn't expected to hear them perform this song, so it was a lovely gift.

'A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers' had been trailed with much fanfare as a piece that had not been properly attempted live before this tour. It seems it was considered too tricky somehow - and it's such a favourite piece, I suppose after a while of avoiding playing it the pressure to do it justice must have put them off trying, until now. I can't really say anything about it other than Fantastic, Good Job - there was nothing plodding or tentative in how they brought it off. Here is a good point to say that it was really a treat to be able to watch the three of them communicating whilst playing. You see some bands whose members seem to go into a sort of individual fugue state whilst playing - they don't look at each other at all. But it's always more involving when you see an exchange of glances, especially when these are accompanied by grins (...were there even winks on occasion, or am I imagining that?!) - here was a flow of what I can only call Respondification that cycled from one to the other, around their triangle formation. That came across powerfully - a mutual balance.

Having done the usual dutiful 'file off stage, wait demurely whilst audience hoots for encore' routine, the three of them returned to give us 'Childlike Faith in Childhood's End'. I had really rather hoped for 'Gog' as an encore (it had had more than one airing on previous nights of this tour, and that was the song I fell for in a big way when first trying this music). But this was so good that I wasn't really disappointed! Quite a show of stamina to play a fairly long, not to mention heavy and complex, song as an encore - tradition would dictate something short and bouncy! Well, it had the crowd spellbound, and it is one of those songs with An Ending - a good way to finish off a wonderful performance.

There was a happy, mutually-thankful feeling as the chaps accepted their due ration of applause. I felt all through that the audience were quietly rooting for the band - we had none of that annoying sarcasm that you sometimes have to endure from concert-going smart-alecks! My feeling is that you wouldn't get smart-alecks or semi-professional hecklers at a VdGG concert. I can characterise fans of this band as thoughtful people who don't push themselves forward. (I'll tactfully exclude myself from that description!)

As the three amigos left the stage, Mr Hammill... skipped. <3 I have nothing to add to that - speaks fer itself, dunnit?!

I didn't hang around after the concert - hastened to rejoin my dear Davey. I love it when you are on the Tube after a concert and spot your fellow audience members. I sat opposite a self-contained looking chap wearing his 'A Grounding in Numbers' shirt under a smart black jacket. An absolutely stunningly beautiful girl with the most amazing long natural-blonde dreadlocks was over by the door with a guy who I failed to observe (her radiance dimmed all around her!). And I think there were a couple of others too. I wondered what they were all thinking about. They all looked very happy.

To sum up... 'Red wine in a plastic cup' pretty much sums up Hammill/Van der Graaf Generator. The trappings are not what matters, it's what's inside that counts. Some bands are all too 'Coca-Cola in a Baccarat goblet'. That's not for me - and if you agree, let's all of us raise our disposable beakers of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in a celebratory toast. Here's to you, Mr H, Mr B and Mr E; long may you howl and skirl and clang!

On Monday, before our train home, we ambled round the Natural History Museum. Saying hello to the Ichthyosaurs, marvelling at the Giant Sloth, remarking the incongruous juxtaposition of birds from different continents who could only really get into that predicament after having been stuffed. Some of the birds were off display - the sign said they were 'visiting the cold storage area' or something like that, as if it was a little holiday! The sign also acknowledged (with guileless solemnity) that this treatment was not ideal for any bugs that may have chosen to infest the specimens, but that the birds would benefit from it. How very sentimental - and patronising! Do the curators think that passing vegans will swoon if confronted with the realities of preserving dead birds...? I dunno...!

Anyway, that brought to an end our trip. My closing homily shall be that Van der Graaf Generator are very much not extinct - no dinosaurs of rock here. Still evolving!

If you read all this right to the end, I bestow upon you Theoretical Strawberries and Notional Crème Chantilly - and how about a glass of Madeira to go with them. <3


( 11 confidences — Confide in me... )
Jul. 2nd, 2013 07:27 pm (UTC)
It sounds like you had a good time!
Jul. 3rd, 2013 09:31 pm (UTC)
It does, and I did - thanks! :-)
Scott Telles
Jul. 3rd, 2013 04:15 am (UTC)
redwine, plasticupped
what a great piece of writing! loved it, and now officially have a crush on you!
Jul. 3rd, 2013 09:33 pm (UTC)
Re: redwine, plasticupped
Phew, now I'm blushing!! Thank you, I'm glad you liked it and me. ;-)
Jul. 3rd, 2013 05:15 am (UTC)
Notional crème chantilly is my favourite kind!

And, by the way, HAPPY BIRTHDAY!
Jul. 3rd, 2013 09:36 pm (UTC)
Well, it's fat-and-guilt free, which is always good!

Thank you Jen, I'll raise a glass on your behalf! :-)
Jul. 3rd, 2013 08:26 am (UTC)
I was so briefly very excited to read "There seemed to be a number of these establishments in Berwick" until I realised it continued onto the next line and was in fact "There seemed to be a number of these establishments in Berwick Street". But you never know, perhaps next time I'm on my way to Morrisons I'll find the route adorned with record shops!
Jul. 3rd, 2013 09:39 pm (UTC)
I'm sorry to have got your hopes up! Maybe you should look in Duns, by all accounts the local pet shop or fishmonger will have a 2nd hand music dept! ;-)
Jul. 4th, 2013 08:20 am (UTC)
Actually, on my last trip down there I discovered a stash of vinyl in the charity shop and came out with an armful of records... you can always rely on Duns!
Jul. 8th, 2013 05:16 pm (UTC)
Well, there you are then! :-)

Not-really-related-but... I saw this the other day (when looking up info on Hans B), and thought of you:


Quite fascinating, the range of artists who've ended up on metal album covers.
Jul. 10th, 2013 01:29 pm (UTC)
( 11 confidences — Confide in me... )

Eavesdrop, snoop, and sigh with yearning...

This journal is not a private diary, it is more like an occasional, imaginary column. Therefore, much of it is on public display. However, if you want to read my occasional attempts at creative writing, my Caution Elf tells me I should only show that stuff to my friends. You know what to do. :-)

NB: If you add me in an unsolicited fashion, please introduce yourself. Otherwise I will probably ignore you.

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