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Killers, Angels, Refugees

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Charisma, London, 1974
(price: 80p; 192 pages)

dedication: For Guy, Hugh, David and Chris Judge Smith

The blurb on the back:

This is a collection of old and new, imagination and intuition - the compleat Peter Hammill. For the first time ever, we have gathered together the lyrics to all the songs ever recorded by Van Der Graaf Generator and Peter Hammill. But this is only the beginning - there are also poems, the lyrics to a few newer songs and six short stories, plus explanatory notes to some of the lyrics and a complete discography. All in all, a collection that reflects the changes and developments Peter has been through over the last four years.
Peter's talent as a lyricist has long been recognised, but this collection of his written work reveals wholly new dimensions. He is not
just a musician turned writer, he is a musician and a writer. The two facets of his talent both complement and highlight each other and though neither derives anything from the other, thy are mutual both in source and effect. Here, surely, is the answer to all those cynics who dismiss the rock world as brash, ephemeral and devoid of any real meaning - musical, literary or spiritual.

Now I love the music of Van Der Graaf Generator as much as the next person. Admittedly, that's only because the person sitting next to me has never heard of Van Der Graaf Generator, but even so they were one of the more interesting rock bands to emerge in Britain in that sad period between psychedelia and punk. They looked like long-haired prog-types, but the attack and attitude was often closer to Kraut rock. Which is presumably why John Lydon used to name-check them even in the days of the Sex Pistols.

Peter Hammill was the main - indeed the only constant - member of the band, as well as its principal songwriter, and this collection was clearly intended to capitalise on the small but very dedicated following that the band had acquired. Despite the defensive tone of the sleeve-notes, it's hard to believe that Charisma really thought they were going to get a wider audience interested: otherwise they would surely have focussed entirely on the poetry. Instead the catch-all nature of the book suggests that no one was quite sure what to do with Hammill's undoubted talent, but then that was true of much of his career.

So on the one hand we have a set of lyrics and poems that register many more misses than hits. Here's one of the shorter ones, for example:


Sands toiled.
Steel shards.
Black-clack needles strike the hour.

Something scrapes on her spine.
Something opens her lacy eye.

The sudden dry flood.
Palpitations of the partly dead.


Close the silent fountain and the vacant tap.

Decomposing already.

I don't know. What do you make of it? I kinda like the 'Palpitations of the partly dead' but the rest I can live without. A curate's egg, you see.

On the other hand, there are a couple of short prose pieces that are much more successful on paper - fables and tales that are suffused with the kind of bitter-sweet wry humour that you associate with the quieter end of English rock, without the tweeness. There are a few pen-and-ink drawings that are quite sweet. And best of all, there are Hammill's notes on his own songs.

In short, an essential period-piece and a little bit more.

Mr Hammill
Peter Hammill


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