Graded on a Curve:
Van der Graaf Generator, Pawn Hearts

The kids I knew growing up wouldn’t have known what to make of the name Van der Graaf Generator. Seriously, what the fuck was that all about? Boston made sense. Ditto Grand Funk Railroad and Bad Company. But Van der Graaf Generator? It sounded like something you’d use to recharge a Dutchman.

Van der Graaf Generator were an English progressive rock band, which is to say a fustian group of musical blowhards I’d love to see flattened by a massive chunk of flaming space junk. And I listened to their 1971 LP Pawn Hearts only to strengthen my conviction that progressive rock is the worst creation in human history. People will cite thousands of more insidious inventions, but progressive rock is the only one capable of making smart people stupid that doesn’t involve a rock to the head.

But a strange thing happened as I listened to Pawn Hearts, preparatory to consigning it to the cut-out bins in Hell. It matched every feature in my progressive rock identikit, yet I found myself compelled, like a mad ship captain irresistibly drawn to the rocky shoals of wrack and ruin, to listen to it. I cannot describe how demoralizing this was. Would I soon find myself listening with pleasure to ELP’s Pictures at an Exhibition? Would my family be reduced to locking me in the attic, a musical Elephant Man they dare not allow in public lest my horrible tastes in music be a disgrace to them all?

Don’t get me wrong; there’s plenty to dislike about Pawn Hearts. Hugh Banton’s neo-classical organ brings to mind the Phantom of the Opera on an off-day. Peter Hammill emotes like a bad Shakespearean actor. David Jackson’s pastoral flute should be put out to pasture. In short, there are parts galore when the band sounds like some kind of mutant sea creature that has dragged itself from the sea of pretension to devour rock and roll whole.

So what do I like about Pawn Hearts? Just this. Its best moments have an almost improvisational feel. Unlike the songs of such prog bands as ELP and Yes, on which every note is in its mathematically calculated place, Pawn Hearts has an open, almost free-wheeling feel that gives the musicians space to move around in. In a genre that takes its cues from scored classical music, Pawn Hearts sounds positively experimental.

And the players, excellent all, have the skills to pull it off. Jackson’s saxophone wails, stutters, and shores up the melody on “Lemmings,” takes off on “Man-Erg,” and lends foghorn muscle to the early parts of “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers.” If Keith Emerson doppelganger Hugh Benton’s organ noodling is insufferable, his piano work on songs like “Lemmings” brings to mind Mike Garson at his unhinged best. And to be fair to the man, his organ part on “Man-Erg” has the same majestic resonance as Matthew Fisher’s immortal Bach-like melody on Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

You would think the presence of guest guitarist Robert Fripp at the sessions would have added pyrotechnics to the LP, but for the most part he’s content to protect his anonymity by playing musical wallflower. Which isn’t to say he never makes his presence known; he conjures up a brief electrical storm on “Lemmings,” and imitates a telegraph ticker on “Man-Erg,”

The lyrics on Pawn Hearts are every bit as overwrought as Hamill’s vocals. I never fail to giggle in amazement at the lines in “Man-Erg” that go, “But stalking in my cloisters hang the acolytes of doom,” as if stalking and hanging aren’t mutually exclusive activities. While none of the LP’s remaining lyrics quite live up to that exacting standard, I’m also impressed by the lines “The maelstrom of my memory/Is a vampire and it feeds on me” and “Like a dog in the night/I have run to a manger.” The lyrics on Pawn Hearts seem to have been dictated by Satan himself, solely for the amusement of hellbound cynics like me.

Ultimately it’s Benton’s stylistic similarities to that High Priest of Pomp Keith Emerson that do Pawn Hearts in. But what set Van Der Graaf Generator apart from most of the prog pack was their willingness to take chances—they seemed more interested in breaking new ground than sales records. Van der Graaf Generator had all the faults of a progressive rock band, but there are plenty of moments on Pawn Hearts when they go off-script. And isn’t that what that “progressive” in progressive rock is all about?

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C-

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