Thursday, March 06, 2014

A comparison between King Crimson and Van der Graaf Generator

Following is an interchange of letters on the Hammill mailing list -

Opening statement
I read somewhere that VdGG were called King Crimson's "little brother band" and i disagree totally. THEY SOUND NOTHING ALIKE and VdGG is far better than Crimso ever were.
To which someone replied
I think this is a wrong way to put it, that one of them is better. Both are highly idiosyncratic and with a strong intellectual emphasis (remember Fripp's parallel to head, heart and hips in music). However Crimson's music is more structured, composed, 'written' if you like, more impersonal, less chaotic than Van der Graaf. Academically inclined composers tend to appreciate Crimson for that reason. (F.ex in the liner notes of "Flux" (ECM 1999) by Erkki-Sven Tüür one can read: "Erkki-Sven Tüür doesn't disavow his background and will turn to the CD player and listen to King Crimson".) Thus Crimson is much closer to the new academical music. Its hard to imagine about most of the VDGG's music being played by someone else than PH & Co. It's too expressive, personal, verbal. Too much here and now. VDGG & PH seem to prioritize the message, getting the spirit through, not so much instrument playing skills, singing, "right" sound nor compositional perfection. This, of course, is a rather schematic way to put it.

Here's my answer
This is a very interesting subject: I've been listening to both bands for over 40 years (although I didn't listen much to either during the '80s) and have often thought about comparisons. I'm only going to compare the 69-78 VdGG and 69-74 KC. Following are some conclusions -
  1. Both had an early, "light", album (Aerosol gray machine, GG&F), neither of which hinted at what was to come.
  2. After that early album, both added a saxophonist (Jackson, McDonald) which both changed the sound and made it much deeper (some might say "heavier").
  3. Both were capable of playing first a heavy song followed by a "pretty" ballad (VdGG: Darkness/Refugees, Killer/House, La Rossa/My room; KC: 21stCSM/I talk to the wind, Pictures of a city/Cadence and Cascade, Cirkus/Lady of dancing waters, Lark's tongue/Book of Saturdays).
  4. Both bands eschewed the blues
  5. Both showed a propensity for songs with multiple time signatures (Lark's tongue, Scorched earth), although both had the majority of songs in simple 4/4. At the moment, I can't think of a song in either band's repertoire played in 3/4.
But more importantly, the things which aren't similar:
  1. Line-up stability: VdGG had an almost unchanging line-up whereas KC was more a "revolving door", partially through circumstance and partially through design
  2. Guitar vs Organ, obviously
  3. KC were almost always short of written material whereas VdGG always had a surfeit.
  4. As a result, there are lengthy passages of improvisation scattered all around the KC catalogue whereas VdGG didn't release their improvisations (apart from the coda to 'Lemmings' and the lengthy instrumental part of 'Meurglys'. There are also the guitar led instrumentals ('Sailors tale', 'Larks tongue', 'Fracture', 'Red') which VdGG didn't need.
  5. Vocalists! Whilst Greg Lake and John Wetton could match Hammill on the ballad side, none of them could "bare their tonsils to the world" in the same way that Hammill frequently did.
I think that the most important difference was that VdGG had the epic songs composed by Hammill and arranged by everyone. The actual songs as performed by KC tended to be simple affairs (the vocal sections of 21stCSM are the ultimate in simplicity) and the arrangements - at least, for three albums - were totally defined by one person. KC were much better when they played as a band (first album, fifth-seventh) than when they were part players (second-fourth albums).
The most VdGG-like song played by KC is probably 'Cirkus', but even that ranks unfavourably to 'Darkness'.
[SO: 3387; 2, 12, 30]
[MP&P: 356; 0, 0, 4]

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