As luck would have it, just before I was told about the review download of the 50th anniversary reissue of the first album to bear the name Van der Graaf Generator becoming available, I had commenced on a trip through that band’s stellar discography, something I revisit once in a blood red moon, along with the back catalogues of a very few other bands that have remained essential listening for me over the years. I started this trip with The Least We Can Do…, as I always regarded Aerosol… as something separate from the rest of VdGG’s output. This sumptuous reissue gives me a chance to reappraise its place in the grand scheme of VdGG things.
Wanting to do something special to commemorate half a century passing since his iconic group’s first LP was released, Peter Hammill and Esoteric Recordings have done the album proud with this lovingly compiled box, comprising a double CD with a remastered version of the album, and a second CD with all the extras, a book with an essay by the inimitable Sid Smith, featuring an interview with Peter Hammill, a 1968 poster designed by Hammill, and the real draw, a 180gm LP of the original album housed in the withdrawn gatefold sleeve originally intended for the U.K. market, and a 7” single of People You Were Going To / Firebrand.
The first thing I notice from the .pdf reproduction of the book contained therein is that the tracks White Hammer and Darkness (11/11) from The Least We Can Do… hail from the Aerosol era, so there is more of a connection to what even Peter Hammill referred to in his liner notes for the 1997 single CD reissue as the “proper” Van der Graaf Generator than I had realised.
For all that, a series of misadventures involving naive contract signatures, and stolen equipment meant that by the time VdGG, by now consisting of Hammill, Hugh Banton (organ), Guy Evans (drums), and Keith Ellis (ex-Koobas, bass), with Jeff Peach on occasional flute, recorded Aerosol, only Hammill remained tied to the no doubt appalling contract that he, Chris Judge Smith, and Nick Peach had signed as Van der Graaf Generator earlier in the Year of our Lord 1968. The band had developed a small following by constantly gigging, but were unwilling to record due to the aforementioned terrible contract tying Hammill to American label Mercury Records. The band’s new manager, Tony Stratton-Smith, negotiated with Mercury that by recording Aerosol as a VdGG album, the legalities were fulfilled and Hammill would be free to fly off to pastures charismatic with his bandmates. Therefore in most respects – only two of the songs on the original LP were compositions by the group that eventually recorded the album – Aerosol was essentially a Hammill solo album. Bizarrely, Mercury then only released the album in their native U.S.A., a place where the band had never played and were completely unknown, so it sold less than diddly squat.
Hammill’s songwriting on Aerosol is surprisingly well-formed, and along with his singing belies his tender age. The majority of the songs focus on the personal in preference to the fantastical, and for this we have to be thankful, as the supremely daft Necromancer doesn’t bear expanding upon. Hammill’s emerging darker thought processes were influenced by a connection with the somewhat troubled Graham Bond, whose occultist interests were well-known. Bond gave Hammill the sage advice “Look, it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you believe in what you’re doing”, a path The Thin Man has followed throughout his 60 or so albums as both band member and wilfully non-commercial solo artist.
As was nearly always the case back in those heady days, the recording and mixing sessions for the album lasted hours, not days or weeks, or longer, and the resulting vitality in these virtual grooves has not diminished with age. A fifth member of the team is producer John Anthony, who quickly became a vital cog in the VdGG sonic machinery.
As far as the extras go, perhaps the most interesting is a version of the crazed and propulsive Octopus from a 1968 BBC Session, and a track that was an early live favourite, and remained in the set for years afterwards. A version was recorded at the end of 1970, originally intended as part of a second LP of older songs previously only played live, to be released with Pawn Hearts as part of an intended double LP package. The song perfectly reflects the manic nature of this iconic band’s early existence, and indeed the volatile and rapidly changing nature of the outside world in the late 1960s.
This sumptuous box is a marker for the birth of the career of one of the most important bands that came to fall under the progressive rock banner. It is a package that in comparison to a fair few monster box sets weighing down the shelves of late middle-aged men all over the first world, maybe somewhat modest, but what it lacks in excessive size it more than makes up for in quality.
CD – Disc One: The Aerosol Grey Machine
02. Orthentian Street (Parts 1 & 2)
03. Running Back
04. Into A Game
05. Ferret AndFeatherbird
06. Aerosol Grey Machine
07. Black Smoke Yen
09. Giant Squid
CD – Disc Two: Extras
01. Sunshine (1967 Demo) (Previously Unreleased)
02. Firebrand (1967 Demo) (Previously Unreleased)
03. People You Were Going To (BBC Session – November 1968)
04. Afterwards (BBC Session – November 1968)
05. Necromancer (BBC Session – November 1968)
06. Octopus (BBC Session – November 1968) (Previously Unreleased)
07. People You Were Going To (Single Version)
08. Firebrand (Single Version)
LP – Disc Three: The Aerosol Grey Machine – 180 Gram Gatefold LP (in unissued U.K. Sleeve)
02. Orthenthian Street
03. Running Back
04. Into A Game
01. Aerosol Grey Machine
02. Black Smoke Yen
Disc Four – 7-Inch Single
Side A – People You Were Going To
Side B – Firebrand
Peter Hammill – Vocals, Acoustic Guitar
Hugh Banton – Organ, Piano, Percussion, Backing Vocals
Keith Ellis – Bass
Guy Evans – Drums, Percussion
Jeff Peach – Flute (Running Back)
Chris Judge Smith – Slide-Saxophone, Backing Vocal (People You Were Going To & Firebrand)