The Aerosol Grey Machine CD Sleeve Notes
"A pretty pass in the rear-view mirror,
It's coming on the overtake;
I've got to stop panicking, got to stay cool,
got to learn to live with my mistakes....."
(from "What I did"...later)
Listening to this stuff again, in the course of the remastering and preparation for this release, all the waves of time, tide and emotion swept over me. If the circumstances surrounding the recording of "The Aerosol Grey Machine" had been any different they could scarcely have been less strange; if they had been other than they were then many lives (principally my own) would have gone off on diverse courses. This collection of recordings, therefore "far off" - as they are - "in time and space", is essential in terms of any subsequent story or adventure, musical or otherwise, in which VdGG or I became involved. The seeds of everything else were sown here or hereabouts. As far as i know, the whole of the following tale has never been told, at least publicly, before now....
What follows is to the best of my recollection. It's not totally reliable and the chronology may be somewhat fluid, but you should get some flavour of the times....
1968. You have to bear in mind that this was a fundamentally different planet. Turmoil in hearts and minds, Vietnam still in full swing, nuclear annihilation still an imminent possibility, riots in the streets, the possibility of absolute change an aspiration on the wind... Music still The Thing. I was in my first year as a Liberal Studies in Science student at Manchester, running around with the Drama Department and the Left... and with Chris Judge Smith and Nick Pearne. These two and I constituted the VdGG of this era. If memory serves, we only actually performed as a trio once, when we were bottled off stage (by medical students, of course); we had already lost our bass player, Maggie, who departed in shards of screams during a dress rehearsal at the moment when Judge emerged from behind his drum kit in full costume/Latex mask/blood capsule effect, looming towards her at the climax of a Werewolf tune. I suspect that Nick also began to question his commitment to the cause at this stage. Judge and I, however, were committed. We continued as a duo. We played at the magic village (prop: Roger Eagle, later of Eric's), supporting Tyrannosaurus (later, T) Rex among others. The general view seemed to be that we were permanently tripping. (Whether this was to do with the fact that Judge was using a manual typewriter as percussion for a significant part of the set ... takka-takka-ding!.... is a matter for conjecture in another universe.) We did contrive to acquire a manager: enter Caleb Bradley, a fellow student. Perhaps we would have been wise to take a deep breath when we saw the sign adorning the door of his bed sit: "Void is All". It was 1968... we didn't. We only wanted to Do Music.
Caleb did not get to do much for us, but has an essential part to play in this story. He promised us some recording time. This turned out to be a mono session recorded at his parents' house (while they were away) somewhere on the South Coast. The guitar amp I'd been assured would be there turned out to be a TV set. I had to play in the garden to minimise the buzz. I don't have a copy of the resultant tape, but I'm fairly convinced it would have been unconvincing. Armed with it, however, Bradley managed to bend the ear of Lou Reizner (RIP), then the representative of Mercury Records in the happening-if-hard-to-understand-from-a-US-perspective UK. A Contract was in the offing.
Probably it was not just the tape. Judge and I had spent some time in London after our demo experience with Caleb and somehow or other ended up at John Peel's flat regaling him with a song or so. I'm not sure if the typewriter was present or not at this stage. Some time later he entered us in his "A to Z of the Perfumed Garden" as being a (possibly the only) "V" item of interest. I guess that was enough to swing it for Lou.... As I say, the UK and London was hard to understand on that other, 1968, planet.
Somewhere around this time, Judge and I began, not before time, to have our doubts about Caleb Bradley. We did not want to be signed to him, or for him to sign us up to somebody else. Cue Lawyers? Heavies? A gentle word? Tantrums? In fact, cue the two of us rushing down to London, avec amps, avec drum kit, avec Latex mask, up the stairs of the Knightsbridge block, into the office and...play. To Lou, behind his desk. Demo tapes? Promo videos? Marketing packages? Not in those days. Lou must have been somewhat taken aback, but this escapade clinched The Deal.
So it came to pass that the Mercury contract was directly with us; the nineteen-year-old (under-age), legally unrepresented, eager Van der Graaf Generator, Judge and I. A good contract? Good points? Publishing involved as well? Erm... It was a contract; a 1968 contract. For all that, we thought, we were going to make records. Lou took us to the Playboy Club for a Spanky and Our Gang reception. The club didn't take to kindly to my voluminous candy-pink flares and skimpy top, but they let us in... provided I wore the proffered tie. Big Time, yes?
On a positive note, we were shortly also going to be a bit more of a group. Hugh Banton, the brother of a friend of ours from Manchester, agreed to join us as organist. He - as violently opposed to Judge and I as you like - was a Real Musician. From our first meeting in his flat above an Ice Cream Parlour in North End Road, West Ken, we were an increased unit. We didn't do a lot of rehearsal but made lots of plans. We were sent - at Mercury's expense - to Bournemouth for a photo session. Infrared film. HB dressed as Beethoven. Judge somewhere in Transylvania. Myself in the aforementioned flares and some kind of feather-headress. All (we thought) fairly normal stuff for the times....
I must digress from the main thrust at this point. Somewhere around this time, or perhaps earlier, I had also met Graham Bond (RIP); he had been brought in by Lou on some kind of A&R gig at Mercury as well as being signed himself. He was the first Real Musician I had met and had a fundamental effect on me. Our first meeting was on the top floor of a disused warehouse in Knightsbridge; I walked into a room with lights flashing at the ends of paper streamers running from floor to ceiling, with a Hammond Organ and with a bare-footed Graham... "to be in touch with the earth" - five floors up in London. Graham had a true, shining heart which beat music. I was a weedy sprog, but he gave me his full attention and the best, the only true, advice I've ever had in music, which was simply that you Have to do what you Have to do. Apart from the gifts of his advice and his uncomplicated/complicated friendship and avuncular gleam he also let me play his Hammond when he wasn't there. "Open your eyes" (a song which later appeared on "Nadir's Big Chance") was written on that beaten-up instrument in that beaten-up warehouse. I mean to say by all this that Graham showed me life would, in the future, be complicated... but that one had to retain some kind of inner strength in order for it to make sense, or to be worthwhile. This is - even if it has been something of a digression - my long-overdue public thank you to him. It is boundless. If I had not met Graham and, through him, been connected to Pure Music I very much doubt that I would have retained my (still current) enthusiasm, interest, committment, whatever to or for Doing Stuff. In my brighter moments I like to think that Graham recognised (in the precocious brat he encountered in that Knightsbridge warehouse) someone to whom he could pass on a flame which was, in a way, becoming too burdensome for him to carry any longer. I have to say that i'm still doing my best; and that, if it was indeed passed on to me from Graham, that it goes A Long Way Back... and forward.
Quincy Jones was in the picture too. Didn't I say that this was a different planet? I've only recently discovered that Mr. Jones - another man with the Right Stuff - was actually on a flying visit from Chicago as Lou's boss in a brief corporate dip out from his more creative lives. He dropped in on a session by the Eyes of Blue at which I was present. The Eyes of Blue were Lou's great hope, the big signing which he understood and which he thought would make his fortune. I suppose VdGG were regarded as some kind of long-odds covering bet. So was another Mr. Jones who was the only other artist on the roster at that time: David Bowie. Neither he nor we were getting any serious backing from the company at all.
So (eventually, I know) I've come back to the main thrust. No backing. What we needed , we felt was i) a bit more of a group - like, drums and bass, since it had been decided that Judge and I would henceforth be The Singers (possibly with occasional guitar - or typewriter - intervention) and ii) Management. Hugh drew the short straw in terms of finding both i) and ii). Judge was about to head off to the States for various adventures, including among other things upturned VWs and Country Joe and the Fish; I was going back to Derby and the writing of a (we will not hear of this again) cod-icelandic Saga. Before we left the two of us headed down the Old Kent Road to record a demo tape of 40-odd songs with which HB was to do his best in punt-a-career land. I remember - just- recording the things in an incipient fog of flu... and then we were gone, to wait.
All credit to HB; eventually he wrote (on the Hendrix notepaper) to say that he had put an ad in the International Times. London had An Underground Newspaper in those days, of course. "Bassist, drummer and manager wanted for Underground Group". Somehow as a result of this Hugh ran into Tony Stratton Smith (RIP). He was fired up by the tape and suddenly we had a Real Manager. I came down to meet Strat in La Chasse, a Wardour Street drinking club. Soho, now, not Knightsbridge - things were definitely getting more real by the minute. Along with Strat, in something of a free transfer - the first of several, as it was to turn out - came Keith Ellis (RIP). Keith had played in The Koobas, a late-era Liverpool group with some track record of success... albeit in Switzerland. They had recently disbanded and Keith - with, I suspect (in retrospect) some mistrust, but egged on by Strat - joined us. Hands up again: I do owe Keith a lot. He was not, perhaps, the greatest musician; he was, however, the one who taught all of us the teeth-gritting it takes along with the open laughs; what the life of a musician is. He was, in short, a Pro, and although only a year or so older than the rest of us he was streets ahead in his life experience. I don't know what he made of us at all at first... but he bore with it. Still, though, we needed a drummer. Guy Evans, through some arcane connection with International Times and at a loose end before he was due to head off for a year-out, post-graduation, sojourn in Morocco agreed to a mutual audition. It took place in Hugh's flat. As far as we were concerned, we did not pass. Nonetheless, somehow he joined the group, and we were five. Under Strat's aegis we went into the studio: "People you were going to/Firebrand" were recorded in Marquee studios, produced by Don Brand (?); for Tetragrammation Records (deal c/o Strat). In the way of things (then) it was out within weeks of the recording. In the long-run of things, it was deleted within a week. An injunction had winged its way in, because VdGG - as in Judge and myself - was a group signed up to Mercury. No-one else could release our records. The five of us were already running hard to stand still.
We continued rehearsing. It soon became clear that of the two lead vocalists (Judge and myself) one (myself) was getting the lion's share of the vocals. Probably this was on the age-old principle of "It's my song so I'm going to sing it". Judge left the group.
The four-piece VdGG was by now a professional outfit with a stable line-up, a manager, and a recording contract. As if. By now we're moving into the dog days of 1968. Through Strat we had an agent. Through the agent we had gigs. That's what you did, then (too right!): played live. We played all over the UK, we did Beat Club in Bremen, we supported Hendrix at the Royal Albert Hall (YES!!!). We even went back into the studio, more in hope than in true expectation of release (in both legal and record senses), I suppose and cut "Afterwards" and "Necromancer". This, then, was the group of which I wrote in the original liner notes (see over) "...the old band", I guess. But we were stuck.
No possibility of recording. No equipment with which to perform. Ever come across the phrase "No future"? We did one final show with borrowed gear at Notts County football ground, supporting Fleetwood Mac and Status Quo and that, apparently, was that. Strat was in the States with Nice. I was off to work as a porter at Fenwick's in Bond Street, moonlighting with a solo slot at the Lyceum all-nighters. Nobody knew what - if anything - was to come....
Now, though, at least, there was no reason NOT to record for Mercury, at least as a solo artist. When Strat returned the necessary "i"s and "t"s were dotted and crossed and arrangements made for us to go into Trident under the productorial hand of John Anthony - who had been another one lurking in the dark wings of the Knightsbridge office attempting to inform Lou of what exactly was happening here... but you don't know what it is.
So what it came down to is what this is. (The silver disc which may already be on its way in your player!) We had, as the liner notes state, only six hours' worth of rehearsal and we went in to do the album in precisely twelve hours of recording time, six hours of mixing. It all went down more or less as stated overleaf.
This was not of course the album that the original VdGG would have made. Admittedly, the Latex Masks and the feather head dresses had long since disappeared, but yours truly, the writer, had gone headlong into a G. Bond -inspired Land of Magick in planning the proposed first VdGG effort. The original band LP, in short, would have been comprised of elements of what is here- "Aquarian", "Necromancer", "Octopus" - and other stuff, like "White Hammer", which was later to appear on the first absolute-official VdGG release, "The Least we can do".
Since it began its life as a solo album, "Aerosol" has (thankfully?) more of a twist towards the neo-love songs, rather than the neo-naff mystical. It was clear, though, that the band spirit and the will to be a band were both rekindled in the course of its making.
And what of the music herein? Well, it's an 8-track recording, so it's virtually live, of course. I suppose I sound... well, I was... very young, or naive, or dumb, or whatever. Nonetheless, I discern a certain will-to-make-something-real here. I still find it all strangely listenable and interesting. In their nascent forms, there are already present here the fascinations for pure noise, for simple/complex song structure which have informed those of us who've played together over the years. A nod to Mingus? A tad of musique concrete? A bit of a serious laugh? All present and correct, sir! Underground Music! (Shall we, especially since, chronologically, it has not yet even begun to raise its potentially poisoned little head, not mention Progressive at all herein?)
And yet, even though I have explained much, if not everything, so far, you will have noted that the CD is credited to Van der Graaf Generator rather than to myself; after all the above you will be entitled to ask "How come?".
At long last the final deal; my name in itself was, then as now, comparatively useless in commercial terms; VdGG had a certain clout. Somehow it was agreed between Strat and Mercury that I would be released from my contract if "The Aerosol Grey Machine" could be put out under the VdGG name. And so it was. In a triumph of marketing, only in the States - where we'd never played and were completely unknown. Guess what? It sold nothing. Later, it would be released in Europe and sold quite a few. I don't know what happened to the royalties....
Strat, after all the grief, decided to start Charisma records and sign us up himself rather than go through it all again. Cue Lindisfarne, cue Genesis among others.
One has to view it all with equanimity. Insofar as I remember the sessions themselves I do so with fondness. The sheer adversity faced in order to produce the music fired me and the others up to do the rest of the stuff. It therefore follows that without this there would be nothing. I would not have attitude if I had not had to get through this. I'll be honest with you; there are moments on these recordings when I now sound to myself like a real twenty-year-old, know-it-all, know-nothing prat. I was so. But those moments are blips along the track of attempting to make music; that's nothing I can bring myself to feel embarrassed about.
"I am the Necromancer"? Not quite... nonetheless, I'd like to give myself, If I may, a break. This was the start of trying to do something, anything, that would be for the good. You have to do what you have to do. In the long run-up, the longer follow-up to these recordings I learned stuff that I've never forgotten. As I say, though, I learned it and lived it on a different planet.
Peter Hammill Bath 1997.