The Judge Smith Interview
Judge Smith, founder member with Peter Hammill, of Van der Graaf Generator, talks to Jim Christopulos via a U.S. to U.K. phone hook-up. The interview took place on February 14 2003, and covered the very early period of Judgeís prolific career as an artist Ė mainly, the Van Der Graaf Generator era.
JC: The first thing I want to ask is how you got interested in music, what was your upbringing regarding that?
JS: Well, I went to a public school, a single sex all-boys public school in England. So there was a built-in audience for anything because there was nothing to do. If you had a band, there would be people to listen to it, to play in it. If you did shows thereíd be people to come and see it.
JC: Just because there was nothing happening. I mean, you werenít scoping out chicks... [laughs]
JS: There were no girls, girls were absolutely verboten! And of course this was the mid-sixties, music was kind of very happening at the time. We all loved R&B, we all had big record collections. So it was a very obvious thing to try it ourselves and put bands together. Different sorts of bands, different sorts of music (most of it rubbish). Bands like the Shadows, bands trying to be like the Rolling Stones. [laughs] Thatís how I got into it.
JC: What kind of stuff were you into at that time, what were you listening to?
JS: The first Manfred Mann album, the first Animals album Ė all the first albums of the great British R&B acts. Of course I liked proper blues, I liked jazz. I used to go to Ronnie Scottís club a lot. Folk music as well, the early Bob Dylan stuff, early Simon & Garfunkel. And just the regular chart pop records, Ďcos there was some great stuff, absolutely amazing records.
JC: I think thatís something that guys my age and younger canít really appreciate, the whole social "happening" aspect of it. It was something new. I can read about [the sixties] but I didnít live it, it must have been an extraordinary time.
JS: There was a huge buzz and of course at an institution like my school, it was heavily frowned on. But the times were liberal enough so that you werenít actually beaten for doing rock & roll, you were just disapproved of. Eyebrows were raised but you werenít physically punished as you were for some things. It was perfect, there was just enough repression to bring out your creativity.
JC: And with the "raised eyebrow"...itís no fun without a little rebellion anyway.
|JS: Oh yeah, it was a definitely rebellious thing but it wasnít hardcore. You werenít risking your life, you were just unpopular with the authorities Ė and thereís nothing nicer than that!
JC: Were you playing drums then? JS: Yes, and singing. But I could never really do either!
JS: Yes, and singing. But I could never really do either!
Judge in 1968
|JC: I was gonna say that you at least had the singing part down because Iíve heard that and I like your singing! Anyway, I know you had a trip to the States around this time...
JS: Well, that was after leaving school. Music wasn't all I was interested in. I wrote poetry seriously, but I never combined the two ideas into writing songs seriously. You did standards, you didnít do original material. This was the ethos. For serious expression, you wrote poetry. It didnít occur to me until after school to put the two together and write my own stuff. As times changed and you get toward the end of the sixties, we start to get psychedelia, Sgt. Pepper, and these possibilities start coming together. Anyway, I went with a guy from school [to the States], we both had a year before we could go to University so thereís like a gap year. We got unlimited Greyhound Bus tickets Ė ninety-nine days for ninety-nine dollars. We crossed the Atlantic on a small Irish steamer, an extraordinary experience! Thatís how we got to the States and we went around America in a big circle for three months on a Greyhound. We got to San Francisco, got off the bus in the middle of the night, didnít know where we were, wandered around and went into a cafeteria. Then a whole bunch of people came in with long hair, sandals, lots of beads, mustaches and stuff, and we thought "Whoa! Hippies!" We were short-haired nice young British public schoolboys. [JC laughing] We looked a little travel-worn and beat, I suppose. So they sat down at our table and started talking. We explained that weíd just come and asked them what they did. They said "Weíre a band." And we said, "Oh, thatís great! Thatís what weíve come here to do, hear the music! What band are you?" And they said, "You wonít have heard of us, weíre very new. Weíre called Country Joe & The Fish."
So they fixed us up with somewhere to stay, a San Francisco house-on-the-hill with two amazing girls. It was great! They took us around to concerts, it was amazing.
JC: Do you remember some of the shows you saw?
JS: Who didnít I see? I didnít see Janis Joplin. I saw the Doors at the Fillmore and it was...uh...well, I didnít realize Iíd seen The Doors until later because I was not very impressed. First was Quicksilver Messenger Service and then this other band came on and I lost interest at once. [laughs] I thought they were called the Doers, because of the [emceeís] accent! "The Doers!" Those who do!
JC: [laughing] Theyíre proactive!
JS: Exactly! And we thought, "What an unsuitable name because these guys were just nodding off onstage! [both laughing] Thatís one band we wonít hear from again..." So, we actually flew back home from the States, we didnít have to come back on the cargo boat. And on the plane back, I made a list of possible band names and it included Van Der Graaf Generator.
JC: Iíve also heard that Zeiss Manifold And The Shrieking Plasma was one of the names!
JS: Oh yes! That was probably my favourite, completely made up!
JC: [laughing] Do you remember any other names?
JS: Iíve got the list! I kept it, itís pretty dog eared but I found the piece of paper. Oddly enough thereís a half-dozen names on it that have been used since.
JC: Well, the machine and the guyís name, Robert J. Van de Graaff, are spelt differently than the bandís name. Was that by design?
JS: Iím sure that every time I wrote it for the first ten years I wrote it differently... Iíd no idea at all, I wasnít a science buff. That was more Peterís department. I think there was at some point in the early professional career of the band that I probably wasnít involved with, there was some sort of objection like "why is this band using our family name?" Whether it was couched in legal terms, I donít know. Possibly that lead to it being spelt differently but, really, I have absolutely no light I can throw on that at all. Iíve never been able to spell!
JC: Well, itís good youíre writing a book then! [Judge is currently working on a book he calls a rock'n'role guide to spirituality]
JS: Yeah, thank heaven for spell check!
JC: So you came back from the States all fired up.
JS: Yes, I thought "Well, Iím going to start a band and write weird music like I heard in the States. And itís going to be wonderful and weíll have flowers in our hair." [laughing]
JC: Which is so not Van Der Graaf!
JS: So I went to Manchester University to read Drama and I answered an advert on the student unionís notice board for anyone wanting to form a band. I went to that and about thirty people showed up. There was some desultory playing and jamming, nothing of any interest at all. But after the thing was over I saw this young guy sitting and strumming a guitar, singing a song. I listened and thought, "Boy, thatís good." But I didnít recognize it so I asked him who the song was by. He said, "Itís one of mine." I thought, Blimey! This is professional stuff, this is good. So I asked him if he had anymore. And he said "Oh, about 150!" [laughs] I canít remember exactly what he said, but it was a substantial number. And I thought, "Oh ho! I must get to know this person!" So I introduced myself and that was Peter Hammill. So we decided to put a band together. I would drum and he would write songs and weíd both sing a bit. We needed other musicians, but we didnít know quite what to do. Well, it was at this juncture that we saw Crazy World Of Arthur Brown for the first time at the student union. The bands we used to see at the student union were fantastic: Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder... But the most impressive, far and away, was Arthur Brown. An unbelievable experience, we were completely gobsmacked. It influenced us to the extent that we decided we wanted to get an organist because that band was just organ, bass, drums. Just organ and drums the night we saw them.
JC: Youíve been friends with Arthur for years, does he know that story about you and Hammill seeing him and being influenced?
JS: Oh yeah, yeah. He really was extremely influential, to a lot of people.
JC: Youíve been friends with Arthur for years, does he know that story about you and Hammill seeing him and being influenced?
JS: Oh yeah, yeah. He really was extremely influential, to a lot of people.
JS: Oh yeah, yeah. He really was extremely influential, to a lot of people.
Pearne, Hammill, Judge
|So we found an organ player, Nick Pearne, but he didnít have an instrument so we werenít able to do that much music with him. So Peter and I started writing together and working out things just the two of us could do because we didnít have the equipment to do it as a three-piece. We ended up with an act a little bit like Tyrannosaurus Rex, which was T. Rex before they went electric, with Marc Bolan strumming a guitar and some guy doing percussion.|
JC: Which in your case would have been a typewriter?
JS: Yeah, this typewriter thing! Everyone seems to latch onto that. Yeah, I did have a typewriter I played on a couple of songs, itís perfectly true! Anyway, if we played together as a three piece, with Nick Pearne the organist, it must have been only once or twice. Well, actually, our first formal gig was as a three-piece at a frightful event in a student union building, billed as a "happening", but nothing happened except us. And our equipment blew up after about five minutes with a loud BANG and our amplifiers were no more, whereupon the student audience turned very ugly and started throwing bottles at us! [both laughing]
JC: And this is your big public debut as Van Der Graaf Generator?
JS: Yeah, our big public debut. We had two girl dancers in ethereal kind of robes! [laughing]
|JC: Very beautiful, peace, hippy...
JS: Absolutely! Huge eye-lashes, fringe...dodging bottles. This wonít mean anything to you, but itíll mean something to people over here [in Britain], but we looked like a band called Doctor And The Medics, who had a novelty hit here and featured hippy dancers and guys with beads and bell-bottoms.
Dr and the Medics
|JC: I heard that you had flaming drumsticks. Were you trying to play with flaming drumsticks while these bottles were being thrown at you? [laughing]
JS: Well, it didnít make much difference with the rubbish I was able to play! But, yes, flaming drumsticks Iím afraid are absolutely true. I had drums draped in black, like a funeral procession. And a black cloak like Count Dracula. [both laughing profusely!] And a werewolf mask!
JC: Thatís beautiful. Hey, I wanted to ask... In Hammillís CD liner notes to Aerosol Grey Machine, he talks about a bass player named Maggie. Is this the never-discussed original bass player for Van Der Graaf Generator?
JS: She was one of the two dancers, but she could have been getting private bass tuition from Peter, for all I know! [laughing] It would not surprise me in the slightest.
JC: So whatís with the werewolf mask?
JS: I donít know if we ever got to do that number. Itís in my mind as being a lost Hammill number. He actually wrote a werewolf song, and whether it became something else like Necromancer or one of the others, I donít really remember. Youíd have to ask him. I remember it being very good, hence my werewolf theatricals. All of which came of course from watching Arthur Brown. So we were influenced in two directions. Firstly, letís have an organ-based band. And, secondly, letís have theatricals.
JC: I know it was thirty-five years ago, but over this whole thirty-five year period have you ever heard anything about Nick Pearne again, or did he just fall off the face of the planet?
JS: No, no. Iíve got no idea at all what became of him. Peter may have heard, I havenít.
JC: Itís amazing that once the band became successful or somewhat well-known that he never surfaced. "I used to be in that band," you know?
JS: Yeah, well maybe he was thoroughly embarrassed! [laughs] So, anyway, we made a demo tape (with Nick playing on it). A guy called Caleb Bradley recorded us in Manchester outside in the open air. He was a boffin handyman, an electronics bloke and it was recorded through a combination of television sets that were involved in the amplification process, and we all had to play outdoors for acoustic reasons. I would love to hear that tape again. As far as we know it doesnít exist which is a shame because it was pretty good. There were only two or three numbers on it but it must have been pretty good because it got us a record contract.
JC: What tunes would have been on there, stuff from Fool's Mate?
JS: Yes, stuff youíd know from Fool's Mate. What it was I canít tell you. And that went off to Mercury Records and lo, we got a record contract.
JC: Wow. That could so not happen today.
JS: But unfortunately I donít have a copy of that tape. Peter doesnít have a copy as far as I know. Youíll have to ask Caleb Bradley!
JC: Who I know so well! [laughs] So he brought that tape to Lou Reizner at Mercury and got the deal? So then what?
|JS: We recruited Hugh Banton. He was the brother of a friend of ours at Manchester. We told him we were leaving Manchester because weíd been offered this recording contract and Nick was staying here so weíre going to have to find an organist. And this guy said "My younger brother is an organist. Heís working as a BBC Television cameraman." And so we met this guy and he was fantastic. Absolutely astonishing. Peter and I just looked at each other. He was better than Vincent Crane! That similar psychedelic, gothic...||
Hugh Banton and friend
|JC: Even then already, wow. I love Hughís chord combinations, theyíre like nobody elseís.
JS: No, heís totally unique. It has a historical background, it was a genre of playing. You got Procol Harum, Jon Lord of Deep Purple, Arthur Brown of course, guys who were real classical players, so they could do far more interesting things with chords than the average R&B organist. I mean, I love good R&B organists, but these guys were classical musicians.
JC: And I think maybe thatís what set Hugh apart because he had that style ingrained in him. Later when the 70s hit, he didnít need twelve synthesizers around him like Wakeman or Banks, and his playing has way more personality to it. I just think Bantonís brilliant.
JS: And he remains brilliant! And he remains radical in his playing. Heís a wild man, yíknow? Heís a respectable middle-aged businessman, a good family man, but you stick him behind an organ...
JC: And itís like the nineteen year old Hugh again.
JS: Yeah! And a very radical, wild musical personality comes out, itís fascinating. I think heís a genius, I really do.
JC: So you got your genius organist... Is this around the time Graham Bond got involved?
JS: This is when Mercury put us into the studio, me, Hugh and Peter, without much effect. Thatís when Quincy Jones came in, listened and scratched his head. [laughs] We were introduced to him and he said, "Judge? How the fuck did you get a name like that?" [both laugh] So me and Peter were hauled into the Mercury office and a rather nervous Lou Reizner said "Oh hi, guys, Iíd like you to meet Graham Bond, your new musical director." And Iíd been seeing Graham Bond play for years, a wonderful performer. But the figure before us was pretty bizarre. He was a big fat unshaven man, had long hair that was covered in red poster paint, and he was wearing a psychedelic mini-dress and tights! [both laughing] And he was surrounded by about fifty or sixty paper carrier bags with the Viet Cong flag on them with his belongings in them. Heíd just gotten out of prison apparently and was coming off heroin. Snot was pouring out of him. He was signed to Mercury at the time, but I think Lou just wanted to get him out of his office. So Graham took us off in a taxi, first insisting on taking us to a satanic cult! [mucho laughter] They were called "The Process" and they ran a tea shop in London. They were guys in black polo necks and black cloaks. Graham was involved with them to a certain extent, so we bought him tea in this satanic cult.
JC: So were you and Peter like, "What the fuck"?
JS: Exactly!! We certainly were "What the fuck?!" The job that Lou had sent us out to do was to look at some premises for rehearsal spaces. So we went to this empty warehouse with Graham, and he said, "Well, this is alright. I think Iíll stay here." And we said, "Graham, weíre not sure thatís what Lou" And he cut us off, "No, no, Iím going to stay here" [laughing] He started making some calls and as we were leaving, we were passed on the street by a psychedelic Rolls Royce belonging to a group called The Fool, on their way to visit him. They were designers who designed for Apple and The Beatles. A couple of days later, we got another call from Lou who said, "Whatís going on, we didnít get the keys back for the warehouse and weíve had calls that there are strange things going on there. Would you go and see whatís going on?" So we went down there again. Graham wasnít there, but heíd moved in. There were sleeping bags, lit candles, pentagrams painted on the wall, incense. [laughing] We reported back, "Well, Lou, it looks like heís moved in and heís definitely living there." I thought Iíd made all this up, or embellished it [over the years] but I found a biography where his long-suffering wife, who I had the great pleasure of meeting recently, writes about that and itís exactly the same thing with the mini-dress and his hair painted red. And also there was another group called the Eyes Of Blue signed to Mercury, and in this book I read about them rehearsing with Graham Bond in his black magic warehouse!
JC: Werenít Van Der Graaf and David Bowie signed to Mercury at the same time?
JS: We never met Bowie at that time. Later, the band were recording H to HE, Who Am The Only One and I popped along just to see how the sessions were going along, and Bowie was in visiting, just hanging out.
JC: Iíd always heard Bowie was a Hammill fan.
JS: He certainly was pleased enough to come and hang out at those recording sessions. Anyway, I was still trying to play drums and it became increasingly obvious that I was never going to be able to cut it. At least I realized it, so I was quite happy with the idea of getting another drummer. Lou Reizner put us into the studio and it became obvious that we needed a lot more time, a lot more work and another drummer.
JC: I know youíre leading up to Guy Evans joining. Now, I remember reading an interview with Guy and I always thought that what he said was pretty funny. He said, "I went for an audition, failed, thought the band were terrible, but somehow ended up joining." I mean, he failed the audition and thought the band sucked, but still became a member. For the life of me, I just donít understand how that would happen!
JS: People didnít think he was a very good drummer! But once he started, it became clear that he was going to be able to do something original and special. But Stratton-Smith didnít think he was any good at all to start with.
JC: Hughís brilliant, but I think Guyís equally brilliant on the drums. What I love about him is that he has the balls of a rock player, but still has this tasteful jazz thing happening.
JS: I agree, and heís equally original as well. Heís one of the very few drummers I know who you could hear four bars of and say, "Ah, thatís Guy Evans."
JC: So how did you guys hook up with Tony Stratton-Smith [eventual founder/owner of Charisma Records and PH/VDGGís original manager]?
JS: I went back to the States to see a girl Iíd met the first time I went there. While I was away, Hugh Banton located Tony Stratton-Smith. So when I got back I went to see Stratton-Smith with some photos that Gordian [Troeller] had taken of us. I think it was the ones with Hugh dressed up like Beethoven. I think I was the first person to actually meet him, it was in this Soho drinking club La Chasse. He looked at me with a jaundiced eye but when I got the photographs out and he realized that the rest of the band were quite good looking [laughs] he began to see that there might be possibilities! A very bizarre character. You know Spinal Tap, their manager? The same kind of character! But you know, Peter owes him a lot and has been very loyal to his memory. Strat got the band going. When he liked something, he put his money there.
JC: So anyway, itís you, Peter, Hugh and Guy. Did Stratton-Smith suggest Keith Ellis?
JS: He did, yeah.
JC: So up to that time, you had no bass player?
JS: Hugh was playing bass pedals.
JC: Even then? I knew he did the pedals when Nic Potter left in í70, but...
JS: No, heís always done pedals and wants to do the bass himself. His idea of a band is one with no bass in it. It sort of conflicted once we got a bass guitarist. But we all loved Keith because he was a great guy, he was an experienced pro and had toured a lot with The Koobas. He looked like a rock star. Heíd been around, so he taught the band a lot about the rock life. I liked him. I thought he was really nice, an easy-going, fun-loving guy who really liked playing and doing his best. I remember Peter saying that heíd been influenced by Keithís ethos Ė you do the gig, you give it everything. Thatís why youíre up there, to give it 110 percent. And he was like that, a really lovely guy.
The Five-piece in 1968
|JC: So you had the five-piece and I personally have always considered that the original Van Der Graaf Generator. I mean you had the Nick Pearne thing, the trio with Hugh, but this is the one that actually recorded professionally.
JS: Yeah, absolutely. I agree.
|JC: Do any tapes of that five-piece just rehearsing exist?
JS: I donít remember stuff being taped, but it was very exciting to listen to. We rehearsed at the Bermondsey Boys club. It was a place in Bermondsey, which is a rough working-class area in south London. So, anyway, we recorded the single [People You Were Going To / Firebrand] and it was exciting, but I was starting to come to the conclusion then that there wasnít a great deal for me to do because, remember, I wasnít playing drums anymore. I could wave a tambourine, I could play a recorder, but it was starting to be a heavy sound Ė bass, drums, and psychedelic organ. Little kind of hippy nose flutes, typewriters and stuff were definitely not on the agenda. And so my role was really reduced to being a harmony singer, which would have been fine. Of course Peterís writing was developing incredibly fast, he was such a mature writer even when I met him. There was really no mileage in me trying to write with him, because he was writing classic, magnificent songs all by himself. What would he want to write with me for? I wasnít made to feel superfluous at all, but I felt that I wasnít pulling my weight. I didnít have enough to do.
JC: So you were still like one of the brothers, they were being cool with you?
JS: Oh yeah! They were absolutely fine. It was entirely me, I was an overly sensitive young man and decided that I should go. But it was all very amicable, there wasnít any sort of row. The band was wonderful and I thought, "What can I add to this, what can I bring to the party?" And the answer was, quite frankly, not a lot. I give myself points for recognizing that.
JC: On the "Firebrand" single, thatís you singing the chorus part "He rides an icy stallion..."
JS: Urgh, yes Iím afraid so! As you can see, the Arthur Brown influence could be destructive as well as creative! I was trying to sing like Arthur Brown. Iíve now had the benefit of singing lessons from Arthur and I can tell you thereís no way I could ever sing like him. I didnít have the technical chops to do it. And of course the way it was mixed... Iím supposed to be this demon witch rider. They mixed me dry with no reverb, and they mixed Peter with this sweet... errrr... echo chamber on his voice! [jc laughing] So it sounded kind of ridiculous when I came in doing my spooky stuff. But, it was crap singing Ė that was another nail in my coffin. I thought, "Wow, I canít do too many bum things like that."
JC: I donít know. You may not like it, but I always thought that was kind of a fun single. I liked your singing on it, I just thought it was kind of fun.
JS: Well, "People You Were Going To" was better. On that I played slide-saxophone, one of my novelty instruments. Itís a very rare Victorian instrument, a cross between a saxophone and a swanee whistle! (I actually lent it once to Roland Kirk, my great sax hero) I also sang harmony vocals on 'People' and it was a much better effort.
JC: I read an interview conducted in the seventies for Zig Zag, I think, where Peterís talking about how you left the band when all of your ocarinas fell out of the back of the van...
JS: Right, Iíd dropped my ocarinas out of the van and was very distraught. Now, this is fanciful! Amusing, but fanciful! [both laughing] That's not why I left, but anyway, eventually I left them to it.
JC: Before you left, did you ever get to the point of doing any gigs with that five-piece?
|JS: No, they were getting ready to do their first gigs and that was what precipitated it. I thought that there was no point in me hanging on, they were really better off without me. And itís better to do it now than them trying to shoehorn me in and give me stuff to do. So I went and started up Heebalob.
JC: How did that start up?
Max and Judge
|JS: Iíd done some gigs with a band called Cousin Mary as a guest vocalist. They were a student band in Aberdeen in the far north of Scotland. A friend of mine from school was studying architecture and he had this band of architecture students that I did some gigs with. I invited two of them to come down and start a band, Heebalob. One of them was Max Hutchinson who later became president of the Royal Institute of British Architects. A true media figure! So we got a bass player and we recruited a guy called David Jackson to play sax. Max had met David at a summer music school.
JC: Was Jaxon playing two saxes at once back then?
JS: No, he hadnít started that yet. He was mainly interested in jazz, so we had to give him a sort of crash-course in what rock music could be like and we played him a lot of Frank Zappa albums. He enjoyed this very much, and of course he really became very good at it.
Heebalob played a successful set at the Plumpton Jazz Festival in 1969, catching the attention of Giorgio Gomelsky (famous R&B producer who had managed the Rolling Stones). Gomelsky had the group do some demos and was ready to sign them to Marmalade, his label. When the band showed up at his offices ready to sign, they saw everything being carted away Ė heíd gone broke. Heebalob split up, whereupon Jackson joined Van Der Graaf Generator and Judge embarked on an artistic career which has seen him produce and work on many fascinating projects that have kept him busy to the present day.
(Thanks to Kristen McKulski for her help in getting this interview together)