Lost and Found: Rediscovering the Music of Peter Hammill
Words By Paul Ruta
My favorite kind of pornography is on websites that sell real estate in England. I’m especially excited by the stuff I can’t afford, which is most of it. I call it PoorHub. I visit daily. One particularly provocative property that I found recently was in Bradford-on-Avon. How could an aging Anglophile like me resist a renovated stone cottage overlooking an ancient churchyard in a quaint hyphenated village on Shakespeare’s river?
Wikipedia’s list of “notable people” in the village includes the musician Peter Hammill. He’s second on the list, in fact, trailing a former ambassador to Portugal but ahead of Henry Shrapnel, inventor of . . . wait for it . . . shrapnel. Quick research made it evident that Hammill wasn’t born in Bradford-on-Avon, so perhaps he lives there now. That eventuality led me to indulge in a fantasy (my first and only Peter Hammill-centered fantasy, it must be said) in which I buy that cottage and then regularly bump into old Pete down at the local pub where he’s ever so keen to hear how much his album Over used to mean to me—and still means, forty-something years later.
One problem with that fantasy is that I have no clear mental image of what Peter Hammill looks like these days. I could easily belly up to the bar next to him with a pint of ale and a packet of crisps and have no idea.
Another problem is found in a verse from his song “Energy Vampires” from Over’s follow-up album The Future Now:
Excuse me while I suck your blood
Excuse me when I phone you
I’ve got every one of your records, man
Doesn’t that mean that I own you?
Okay, the man likes his privacy. Got it. That’s one reason you move to a seventeenth-century village in the west of England where the total population is less than the attendance figure of a typical rock concert.
Although he’d been around professionally for nearly a decade when it was released, Peter Hammill’s 1977 solo album Over was my introduction to his music. And that’s lucky for me—if I’d been familiar with his previous work beforehand I probably wouldn’t have bothered removing this record from its sleeve in the first place.
Before hearing Over, I had never listened to Hammill’s earlier solo work or his former band, Van Der Graaf Generator—I didn’t even know he was in that band, much less its leader. I’d heard their name but dismissed them on the assumption they were another ponderous and dreary Dutch prog-rock group. I was wrong about that. I later learned they were another ponderous and dreary English prog-rock group. When I finally got around to listening to them, I found that my assumptions were mostly correct, as they lacked the sparkle of contemporaries such as Yes, Gentle Giant, and King Crimson. Wasn’t my cup of tea then and still isn’t.
So I had no idea who this Peter Hammill guy was when I borrowed a copy of Over from a friend—perma-borrowed as it turned out. For a start, I was attracted to the album cover. There’s a backlit shot of Hammill, the moody country squire with tousled locks and a cool Guild guitar, with a frightfully English pastoral scene visible through a rain-mottled window. Move over, Nick Drake. The promise of that photograph is fulfilled by the music within, which is steeped in ennui and introspection.
Over came along at the right moment. At the time, I’d been vicariously slitting my wrists through daily listenings of Lou Reed’s Berlin album and loving every excruciating moment of it. Like many nineteen-year-old hormone-infested introverts, I had an unlimited capacity for darkness and despair—provided that it was someone else’s darkness and despair that I could check-in and out of at my convenience. Little did I know that this was just the start: in a couple more years I would discover a whole new breed of articulate, vitriolic post-punk artists from Magazine to Graham Parker, then spiral deeper into the abyss with Bauhaus, Killing Joke, and Joy Division.
In other words, if Peter Hammill was selling an exciting new flavor of darkness and despair, I was buying. The album title refers to the sad end of a long relationship, presumably a marriage. Though I was too young to truly identify with the anguish being described on virtually every track, this collection of songs offered a startling glimpse into the world of complicated adults. I wondered where grownups found the energy to indulge in these harrowing emotional shit-storms, when for me it was traumatic enough to submit a Sociology essay on time.
On one hand, Over is singer-songwriter stuff but with jagged edges not easily found in other albums of the day, outside the punk realm. It’s intimate and engrossing, best listened to alone and in darkness or with one tiny light on, to follow the lyrics printed on the inner sleeve. Let’s just say you don’t invite the lads round to drink beer and play Peter Hammill records real loud. And you don’t play this while doing dishes. It’s an album for when you’re doing nothing other than listening to the album.
Over is a forty-six-minute movie for the ears, a documentary feature intended for an audience of one. It is raw in emotion yet produced with a high degree of artistry. Musical performances range from guttural to orchestral—and that’s just in the first two songs—with Hammill playing all the instruments but bass, drums, and strings. From there the album swerves between moments of rage and tenderness until the very end of the last track, “Lost and Found,” where his final words are “everything’s going to be alright” —except Hammill sounds unsure about that and poses it as a question.
The song that has always jumped out for me is “(On Tuesdays She Used to Do) Yoga,” the shortest and best-titled song. Its impact is large because it encapsulates the album’s thematic core and confessional nature. It describes the self-pity of a man drained of talent and ambition, who insists that he is somehow still an artist when in fact he squanders time, waiting for his muse to return. He feels his partner slipping away, too—at first only once a week but soon, given the past tense of the title, she is gone for good.
Modern listeners of “(On Tuesdays She Used to Do) Yoga” may cringe at the overwrought echo and reverb, backward guitars, and melodramatic flourishes. And that’s okay. It can sound a bit hokey—and it’s not as if those were groundbreaking studio effects even in the day. Listeners may also balk at Hammill’s strident vocal delivery and imperious tone. Partly for those reasons, I don’t count him among my favorite singers. And maybe that helps explain why Peter Hammill never earned the wider acclaim of, say, Peter Gabriel, an artist of similar vintage who made a similar journey from prog rock to world music to electronica. But when you hear Hammill’s body of work, you get the sense he couldn’t care less about any of that.
So why, with all its flaws, am I still drawn to Over? Is it because it transports me back to footloose days when I had hair and tucked in my shirts? No, hundreds of albums do that for me, including Berlin, which I cannot bring myself to listen to anymore. One reason may be that my hipster self enjoys the buzz of a relatively unknown album by a relatively unknown artist—unknown, despite the fact that Peter Hammill is among the most prolific recording artists on the planet. He has released more than fifty studio albums over the course of the last half-century and he’s still actively creating music today.
Other 1977 albums are Television’s Marquee Moon, Bowie’s Low, Wire’s Pink Flag, and debuts by Elvis Costello, The Clash, and Talking Heads. It was a year of blockbusters from Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel, and Steely Dan. An eccentric, personal work like Over was bound to get buried in all that mega-dust. Maybe I just want to do my part to keep this gem of an album polished, to keep a little light shining through. It’s a fascinating relic of its time as well as an enduring work that demands to be visited and examined and admired again and again.
I’ll continue to ponder this as I return to my property porn websites. Just up the road from Bradford-on-Avon I found another charming Wiltshire village called Box. Maybe they have affordable cottages for sale, perhaps something dripping in wisteria and within earshot of softly bleating sheep. Peter Gabriel, speak of the devil, lives in that area. So does Midge Ure from Ultravox, Hugh Cornwall from the Stranglers, and the producer Rupert Hine. I wonder which pub they go to.