Sofa Sound  Newsletter 19/November 2000

Boxed in


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I've just returned from two weeks of shows in Italy and the Netherlands...all most enjoyable.

As the floodwater rises around me it's time for another missive; the bulk of the subject matter this time is absolutely the bleedin' obvious.

For all that I'm talking about the past in the main here, I do have a lot of music on the go and anticipate that the next Fie! release - in whatever form it finally takes - will be early next year.

I'll also be touring again then. Germany & Austria are planned for January, with other shows to follow.

Until later, as always...thanks for listening.


So here, so gone

So many years ago....

As has been rumoured for some considerable time - and confirmed at the website a while ago - Virgin are about to release a 4-CD Van der Graaf Box set. It'll be out on November 13th and is a major retrospective piece of work.

Virgin/EMI own all the VdGG back catalogue as well as all my solo stuff from Charisma days and have not always had the most consistent attitude in keeping CDs available. I have to say, though, that, apart from a few budgetary considerations and constraints, they have been fully supportive of and committed to the project of "The Box".

The initial stimulus for the collection came from Glen Colson (brother of Gail, who's still my manager) and Paul Russell; they had been involved with Virgin in previous boxed sets - which to be frank, had sales far in excess of anything that might be expected from this effort (no names, no pack-drill) - and therefore had the ears of the decision-makers.

Armed with a provisional track listing and something of a brief from Virgin they got in touch with me and I, in turn, with all the other ex-members of the group(s). At this point we (the ex-es) had some immediate decisions to make. We could either let things proceed upon the normal corporate-world path, with some minimal contributions from ourselves...or could have a more active involvement in the process. The first route would, we felt, have led to a "product" of some interest but possibly not of historical accuracy; the second would be as comprehensive a retrospective statement as we could manage. With some measure of trepidation (this was, after all, the very corporate world of which we've always been deeply suspicious) we decided to commit our enthusiasm to the project. As a result, we believe that in audio terms alone the result gives a fair and balanced picture of a fairly unbalanced career.

The entire Van der Graaf history is represented, from the 4-piece with Keith Ellis to the final "Vital" line-up. Among many considerations, the desire to present an all-round picture, with rarities as well as well-known pieces, was paramount. Research revealed some things in the Virgin vaults and many more in those of the BBC. (Some of these I'd forgotten about myself.) As we all know, various bootleg recordings - with typical bootleg sonic quality & standards of quality control - have been around for some time. Since these represent the real live playing of the group in a way which, for instance, performances in the semi-controlled environment of BBC sessions do not it seemed appropriate to include these, if they could be pulled into some kind of shape and sound appropriate to a major label release.

Someone had to do the pulling together. Perhaps someone with 100% studio access and full knowledge of the material. Yes, reader, I nominated myself to master, remaster & recover the whole thing...the only conditional factor in this was that I would do so in full consultation with Guy, Hugh and David at each stage of proceedings. In the end, naturally, the work was much greater than I'd originally imagined, particularly in the bootleg recovery; but it was welcome labour nonetheless.

What we're left with is a mix of BBC sessions (from '68-'78), none of which have been available commercially before; bootlegs brought into the fold - all from a Rimini concert at the height of the '75 band's powers; remastered versions of the original album tracks and a balance of "b" sides and vaults stuff. A total of over four and a half hours of music, alpha to omega.

Disc One:
People You were Going to; Afterwards; Necromancer; Refugees; Darkness; After the Flood (all BBC sessions); White Hammer; House with no door; Killer; Lost (all remastered studio versions).

Disc Two:
Theme One (BBC); w ("b" side); A Plague of Lighthouse-Keepers (studio); (In the ) Black Room; Lemmings; Man-Erg (all live in Rimini).

Disc Three:
La Rossa; Arrow; Still Life; My Room; The Sleepwalkers; Pilgrims; Childlike Faith (all studio); Scorched Earth (Rimini).

Disc Four:
Masks; Meurglys III; When she comes; Wondering; The Wave (all studio); Cat's Eye/Yellow Fever (BBC); Chemical World (studio); Door (studio vaults); Sci-finance (from "Vital"); The Sphinx in the Face (BBC).

It may be a bit much for anyone to listen to the thing all the way through in its entirety (although HB did so in the final checking session) but each hour's worth of music on an individual CD is a rewarding, coherent and consistent listen.

In the remastering I did not attempt to be too radical; however it was a delight to get to grips with some of the stuff that has previously been out on CD in a straight from vinyl form. I hope that I've enhanced without altering the essence. As far as the Rimini stuff goes the songs still sound diamond rough, lighting buzzes, hums, stereo swings and all...but that's exactly what it was like in 1975!

There are a couple of edits: the intro of "Arrow" and the fade of "My Room", if I recall correctly. These were made so that disc three could fall within the "Red Book" standard of 74 minutes. (If one goes over that then things get potentially hairy in CD-land.) The major (and more creative) editing came on "Meurglys III", the tail of which has been considerably reduced. To my mind it's fine in the context of "World Record" itself - even if The Guitarist is at times working it out rather than working out - but in this collection would have disturbed the rhythm overmuch at its original length.

Working on the music (for, inevitably, a considerable time) was a fantastic experience. I found myself singing/shouting along, exhorting the solos as they arrived, laughing and crying at it all by turns. Very emotional.

Needless to say the Box comes as a full package, designed by Ridout (after some heavy lobbying of The Company, I have to say). All of us opened what remains of our archives, photographic, documentary and mental. Hugh writes a piece about the development of his various organs, David a similar one on electric horns; my contribution in this area is a comment on what it was like to write for the group. Guy drew the short straw for an overall introduction.

In addition to this there's a history of the group written by Paul Russell and interspersed with quotes from us. For this purpose we were interviewed in different locations and combinations, The most significant of these was an entire day spent at Terra with Guy, Hugh, David and myself chewing the fat and picking/laughing over the past for, I think, the first time ever. For all of us I think that acknowledging what - and how mad - our lives had been between the ages of 18 and 28 or so was quite a profound experience.

In raking over the past we were able to refer to a list (as complete and correct as is currently known) of all the shows we ever played. This is also included in the booklet and came courtesy of Ian Laycock (and, in turn, other contributors), who had something of a Phantom of the Opera role in the project and also contributes a "fan's eye view" memoir.

So, all in all, diaries were dug up, old date sheets consulted...even old contracts and accounts (which we'd happily long forgotten) had the dust blown off them. A highly emotional experience, as I've said, for all of us. It simply is not normal to have so much of one's youth documented so densely, in all forms...but particularly in the music. And that, of course, as the life, was decidedly not normal.

We believe that The Box is, in the end, a worthwhile and true representation of our history and as such, expensive as it is, represents good value.

Already (naturally) some people have asked whether there is an implication that Virgin will release individual CDs in a remastered/repackaged form. I simply don't know; their decisions will be based entirely on budgetary may well be that this is the only time remastering will be done....

Incidentally, a single CD is also being released as "An Introduction to....". This contains remastered studio versions of: Darkness, Refugees, Killer, Theme 1, Man-Erg, Sleepwalkers, Still Life, When she comes and The Sphinx.

A last word:"The Box" was a concept that we always hated in be put into it, to be categorised or hemmed in in any way. (Hence..."What kind of music do you play?" "Godbluff!") As will be obvious , I suppose, we spent years trying to avoid it's pretty funny that that's where our history has ended up. But then, all the other potential titles we came up with were frankly pretty silly. And we can't have silliness getting in the way of serious fun, can we?

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The Miscellany

Chris Judge Smith's "Curly's Airships" has now been released. This mammoth, sprawling work (2 CDs, over two hours of music) is a "songstory" detailing the events leading up to and including the fatal crash of the R101 airship in 1930, interwoven with stories of love, lust and spiritualism.

Chris has worked on this project for six years or more. I sing one of the parts (the bastard of the piece, naturally!) and other vocalists include Arthur Brown and Paul Roberts. The bulk of the vocals, naturally, are Judge's own.

The instrumental backing - apart from Judge's own input - is built firmly around Hugh Banton's organ and John (Fury) Ellis's guitar. Jaxon, too, makes an appearance or so, along with David Shaw-Parker ("The Lemming Chronicles") among others .

The whole thing was mixed by David Lord at Terra Incognita over a considerable period of time.

Now I'm sure that those of you who have encountered his work before will know that Judge is an idiosyncratic writer and performer. This piece conforms absolutely with his ideals, though the instrumental sound is somewhat more "rock" than is his norm. It's a work which resolutely defies categorisation; as is customary with Judge, it comes with full documentation...two booklets' worth! An expensive package, but unique .

You can find out much more about all of this, by the way, at Judge's website:

As for me...

As I've said - and as is usual - I've been writing and recording away over the last months, since finishing the VdGG mastering. At present I'm at the stage of reviewing the assembled material and deciding what to continue working on and what to leave for the other words, determining exactly what shape the next release will take. In any case, I expect to release a new PH cd some time early next year.

I will, as I've said, also be touring in 2001 but as of now have no confirmed dates.

In response to many requests we have some new T-shirts. They're simple, unobtrusive Fie! logo ones, in the style of the old Monogram shirts. Sweatshirts will probably follow, but for these you'll have to check the website, which is, of course Naturally, news of live dates will be posted there as well.

A propos of websites, no, is still not up and running, but remains under active consideration. All these things take time and, to be honest, I think my time is best spent currently working on the music....

Over and out.