Van Der Graaf Generator – Pawn Hearts (Charisma/UMC) – A newly remastered three disc version of the classic album, where to start? Actually four classic Van Der Graaf Generator albums reissued. If you already know the chances are you’ve treasured these albums for years, if you don’t know then where where where to start? Is Pawn Hearts too far into the deep end? It is the album that first really truly grabbed me and well, why not dive right in off the top of the tallest lighthouse you can find. You see, if you already know then there really is little point in reading about it here, you already know! This Organ thing has always been about new bands (or sometimes old treasure that might have been missed), about those things that don’t get covered, it isn’t about preaching to the converted and we’re really not here to analyse the different mixes and how details have been coxed out in a rather beautiful yet very respectful way, we’re here to tell those who haven’t been lucky enough to encounter Van Der Graaf yet just what they’ve been missing.
Pawn Hearts is the album that really opened the whole treasure chest that is Van Der Graaf Generator for me, and for the forty years since I first heard it and the fifty years since it first came out, it and they, both as an album and as a band, and indeed as solo artists, have never stopped rewarding. There are other bands I hold right up there, it really is impossible to part Cardiacs and Van Der Graaf/Peter Hammill up there at the very top of the musical tree and Pawn Hearts probably just about is the album. I had heard bits of things here and there, I’d bought World Record out of a bargain bin for 99p, I loved Theme One on a Friday night of course, but somewhere right at the start of the 80’s Pawn Hearts got me totally hooked and took me beyond Supper’s Ready and The Lamb and everything else that I thought surely had to be the best thing ever
Actually this new mix brings out a lot more detail, it sounds contemporary, it sounds very now, it is respectful, it sounds crisp but not too crisp, it sounds future proofed. I’m still way to familiar with our original crackly vinyl that’s still on the shelf, or at least listening the lazy convenience of the original CD version that never did sound quite right without those beautiful crackles to me. This new version does sound right though, this sounds so so right, I think we described these new mixes, during a previous piece on the recently released box set, as being like a painting taken to the restorer to have all colour you never quite knew about, yet suspected was there revealed as the dirt was cleverly cleaned off.
And there it goes, straight into Plague without you having to get up to turn it over, that still doesn’t feel right either – actually, you almost need a break and a chance to catch breath after climbing the mountain that is Man Erg, surely a break to take in view before turning the vinyl over and the mightiest piece of them all? Actually it was a bootleg VHS video of that amazing candlelit Belgium TV performance of Plague of Lighthouse Keepers bought at a record fair that really won me over or hooked me in and now I find it hard to fault anything Van Der Graaf Generator or frontman Peter Hammill have done or continue to do (we are looking forward to a new Van Der Graaf album sometime after a 2022 Spring tour, they do keep on rewarding, Peter Hammill’s latest solo album released earlier this year was a highlight). It is hard to be objective, I am happy to admit I’m a rabid fanboy now.
So these reissues, four three disc sets, we’ll explore Godbluff, H to He and Still Life later – actually it is hard to really argue that Pawn Hearts is better than any of them, it really is just that this is the album that came first for me. And I really can’t be doing with bonus tracks tagged on to the same disc of a reissue, nothing can really follow Plague and as fine as this refreshed version of Theme One sounds (I’m almost checking the TDK C-90 is in place as we wait for Tommy Vance!) it really isn’t quite right mere seconds after Plague – it is a bugbear of mine when a bonus track is just tagged on to a body of work that was originally intended to be the album. I guess we should say the three discs here come with three different versions of the original album – the original stereo mix remastered, the new stereo mix and a high resolution 5.1 surround sound mix, each disc comes with bonus tracks added after the original album tracks. There’s a beautifully clear version of W and some excellent radio session tracks.
Oh look, Pawn Hearts, one of the best albums ever released by anyone, and I know it really is impossible to go check out all these old things that boring old people like me drone on about but if you do only ever go check out one thing then let it be this album and let yourself get lost in the weave of of the why, the where and the we are of Lemmings – what choice is there left but to do so? It is almost impossible to take in these versions of Lemmings, Man Erg and then straight into Plague of Lighthouse Keepers all on the same side of a disc all in one go (and I certainly can’t be listening to it too many times just for the sake of a review, these things need too be paced or rationed, these things are precious, they can’t be over played. These three glorious pieces of music cannot be put on repeat, they’re way way too precious for that, they do live inside and it is hard to follow dictators, savours, refugees with Plague straight away, some things are very very special.
This detail revealed is wonderful. Has the ending of Man Erg been tightened up? This doesn’t sound like a remix for the sake of it, it does sound like a respectful labour of love rather than someone imposing their own ego on a classic album, Stephen W Tayler has done a fine fine job. This album, Pawn Hearts, originally released in October 1971 – what must it have it been like when they first stood back and listened to the majesty of what they had just created? They must have known they had made something rather special? Artists are usually their own harshest critics but inside they surely must have been glowing?
This reissue come with some great sleeve notes and photographs, those first four months on 1971 sound ridiculous. Right now while I write this (kind of) review, I’m listening to tonight’s edition of our Other Rock Show on London’s rather unique arts radio station Resonance 104.4FM (where sometimes you can catch Van Der Graaf drummer Guy Evans broadcasting), we’re about half way through the twenty three minutes and four seconds of a broadcast of Plague of Lighthouse Keepers, we’re celebrating 35 years of the Organ this weekend by playing it (alongside IQ, Cardiacs, KayoDot, Sky Creature, Ring and a few more), the point in playing it and indeed in writing this (kind of) review is that hopefully these tracks and this very special album reaches a few new ears. Would you catch my words? If you want an in-depth critique of the mixes or a trainspotter-like analysis of it all this really isn’t the place.
Who was or were Dog That Bit People? Were the tracks on Fools Mate demoed by the band first and were the final recordings for what was Peter Hammill’s first solo albums really laid down in two days?! There’s so much powerful emotion in this album, in these pieces – their emotion, our emotion, the emotion in the piano at the end of Plague as the oceans drift sideways, these things can’t be expressed in mere words banged out on computer – begin to feel very glad now, all things are apart. if you’ve never heard of Van Der Graaf Generator then just watch that footage of them in Belgium in 1971 (the sleeve notes say it was 1971), if that doesn’t make you want to check out this album (and everything else they’ve ever done) then I don’t know what will. If you are already a fan or you already have this album, then yes it is most definitely worth getting this new version and yes, these new mixes and these bonus tracks that we’ve probably all had on bootleg tapes or on not so lovingly produced reissue releases, yes it is worth getting hold of, getting hold of it for the excellent sleeve notes and well, hell, your choice, we can but put up the signposts for these things, the links and such, the rest of it really is up to you. Pawn Hearts is one of the finest albums ever made by one of the finest bands ever to exist, it was progressive, in the real sense of the term back then, it still sounds progressive now, it still sounds fresh, it still sounds vital. (sw)
For all the details of this and the other three releases go here – ORGAN THING: Van Der Graaf Generator updated UK dates and re-issue special editions news including Pawn Hearts on its 50th anniversary, oh and The Osiris Club…
That TV footage that first really hooked me…
The Other Rock Show, 5th December 2021….
That version of W that appears on this reissue