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Peter Hammill in lockdown

Some time in the future, academics will pore over the ways people found to make music despite the restrictions imposed during the various lockdowns. But there are things that don’t need the benefit of time to provide perspective. The knowledge that Peter Hammill’s In Translation was created in cruel and unusual circumstances may increase his listeners’ admiration, but its quality transcends such considerations.

Coming 50 years after the release of his first solo release, Fool’s Mate, in the summer of 1971, this is Hammill’s covers album, with a difference. Only three of the songs — “The Folks Who Live on the Hill”, “This Nearly Was Mine” and “I (Who Have Nothing)” — are likely to be well known to the Anglophone audience. The remainder are either Italian pop songs or melodies by classical composers with lyrics translated by Hammill. It’s the measure of the strength of his artistic character that the whole thing has the unity of a song cycle.

Working in his Wiltshire studio, he weaves his own guitars and keyboards together with samples to create orchestrations that are full of interesting textures — complementary and contrasting — while retaining a sense of economy and intimacy, finding common ground between material plucked from seemingly divergent sources. Perhaps the best way of putting it is that he creates a emotional microclimate within which songs as different as “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” and Gustav Mahler’s “Lost to the World” can thrive together.

Hammill’s vocal style, with its clear diction, complete absence of blues inflections and occasional use of a pronounced vibrato, has always emphasised the closeness of his music’s spirit to that of European art song, from the Weimar cabaret music of Kurt Weill to the chanson of Jacques Brel, filtered through the sensibility of British musicians who served their apprenticeships in the second half of the 1960s. You can hear this tendency at its most declamatory on “Ballad for My Death”, whose melody is by the tango master Astor Piazzolla but could easily be by Brel. Hammill dials back the drama on other songs, such as Fabrizio de Andre’s “Hotel Supramonte” and Gabriel Fauré’s “After a Dream”, that might have been submerged by similar treatment.

“The Folks” and “This Nearly” are songs he grew up with, so he’s not going to poke fun at their 1950s sentiments. He takes them seriously, delivering them in his ardent English semi-croon, relishing their shapely contours and allowing listeners to make up their own minds about what the lyrics represent. “I (Who Have Nothing)” comes with drama built in: you either sing it that way or you don’t sing it at all, and Hammill’s version adds a shadow second vocal to emphasise what he calls the song’s “somewhat creepy nature”, as well as the hallucinatory sound of a mellotron (I think) and a paranoid electric guitar.

Perhaps the most striking arrangement of all is provided for Piero Ciampi’s “Il Vino”, a late-night drinking song that sways to synthesised strings, a cheap organ and glockenspiel. Its finale reminded Hammill of Nino Rota and thus of a “Fellini-esque aesthetic” which, he thinks, suffuses the whole project.

In Translation is an exceptional album: warm, approachable, and betraying no sense of the isolation in which it was created. Rather the reverse, as Hammill suggests when, in his notes, he remarks that, as well as the coronovirus, he had Brexit on his mind while he was making it. “Now the free travel around Europe which has been such a feature, pleasure and education in my adult life has ended,” he writes, “and all the benefits of cultural exchange are gone with it. I wouldn’t have been able to approach or understand many of these songs without that experience and to lose it is piteous.” It’s hard to believe that one day, when our corner of the world has come to its senses, those borders will not be open again.

* Peter Hammill’s In Translation is released today on the Fie! label: The photograph is from the album cover and was taken by James Sharrock.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Michael Patrick O'Leary #

    I once lived under the same roof as Peter Hammill. The Tower, Owens Park, Manchester University. Another neighbour at that address was Alastair Banton whose brother Hugh joined Peter in Van der Graaf Generator. I went to one of their recording sessions. I was chatting with Alastair only yesterday.

    May 7, 2021
  2. Great review, spot on about Peters music. As teenager in 70s Newcastle, Peter and Van der Graaf, were quite a cult. I was aware of them long before I bought my first VDGG album, a kid in my chemistry class had his haversac painted with Peters name and astrological sign.
    I’ve seen Peter solo, last time in 2018 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and with Van der Graaf Generator. His voice is totally unique, poweful and criminally underappreciated (as is his songwriting) . I’m looking forward to the resheduled VDGG February 2022 gig – a light at the end of the lockdown tunnel !

    May 7, 2021
  3. F & J RHUMEUR #

    I saw this guy in Brest, Brittany 48 years ago with his band, VDGG. “Good times”, good music, good souvenirs… “When I was young”…

    Just remember : Eric Burdon will be 80 years old on the 11th of may !!!!!

    Le ven. 7 mai 2021 à 18:01, a écrit :

    > Richard Williams posted: ” Some time in the future, academics will pore > over the ways people found to make music despite the restrictions imposed > during the various lockdowns. But there are things that don’t need the > benefit of time to provide perspective. The knowledge that P” >

    May 7, 2021
  4. Tim Adkin #

    Sounds a must. Your review of ‘The Least We Can Do….’ in the MM over 50 years ago introduced me to the world of PH and VDGG – worlds I’ve drifted in and out of over the years. That may have been the same review that Nick Hornby may have once reprimanded you about?
    One minor carp: ‘Gustav Faure’ ??
    Keep up the very good work

    May 8, 2021
    • Good spot. Thanks. Now corrected. One Gustav per piece is quite enough.

      May 8, 2021
      • Tim Adkin #

        Richard,you’re very welcome. I meant to say (on the subject of Gustavs) that there is a disc with a similar ‘microclimate’ which also includes the Mahler song (sung by Dame Janet Baker). That is the OST album to Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Coffee and Cigarettes’ where it nestles alongside The Stooges, Funkadelic and ‘Crimson and Clover’ yet somehow works!
        PH was born to sing ‘I (Who Have Nothing)’

        May 8, 2021
      • The Mahler is the perfect ending not only to the soundtrack album but also to the movie. Taylor Mead and Bill Rice savouring old age, memories, music and champagne.

        May 8, 2021
  5. Am very intrigued by this covers album, Richard. Being a Van Der Graaf fan, I bought Fool’s Mate when it came out (and came to London for his solo concert at the Wigmore Hall, my first ever visit there), then followed Hammill’s career for a decade or so. Then pretty much lost touch (apart from the later collaborations with Fripp) until last year’s revisiting of old rock albums – when I found I was still impressed. So thanks for this latest update; as I write I am listening to Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night, which stands up very well, so I’ll check out the the new one. Apart from anything else, I have always, since nipperhood, loved The Folks Who Live on the Hill!

    May 8, 2021
    • Paul Crowe #

      “The Folks Who ….” , a big favourite of the late John Peel also.

      May 9, 2021
  6. Sedat Nemli #

    I had the good fortune of seeing Peter Hammill live – alas, only once – at the Theatre de l’Empire in Paris (which no longer exists) in May 1979. Curiously, I also remember seeing the Average White Band around that time at the very same venue. Might it have been the same concert, with Hammill opening? I would be grateful if someone could confirm this! Thank you.

    May 13, 2021
    • Keith Knight #

      I can’t confirm this but there are links between Average White Band and Van Der Graaf. Both David Jackson and Nic Potter played with members of AWB at various times according to Van der Graaf Generator: The Book by Jim Christopulos and Phil Smart.

      May 16, 2021
      • Sedat Nemli #

        Thank you!

        July 5, 2021
  7. Thanks for this bloog post

    October 14, 2021

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