Musical Archaeology (part 8) – Peter Hammill

Apart from being a Tweeter extraordinaire, and from the less sophisticated part of my home region, David Atkinson is an ex-CPO, and now a consultant, trainer and lecturer. He's that unusual blend of someone who has "been there and done that" in big procurement jobs yet retains a real intellectual curiosity about our profession..  And he owns 10 times as many CDs as me. Rumour is that he had to have an extension built to house his music collection.. 

Has the word ‘stentorian’ ever been used outside of a review of a Peter Hammill record or live show?  If it has, I’ve never seen it.  Reviewers always draw attention to Hammill’s astonishing voice; powerful as any you’ll hear, then falling to a whisper in an instant. It’s an incredible instrument and totally unique, yet it remains beautiful and highly listenable. It’s further enhanced by his penchant for multi-tracking his vocals, giving his voice an ‘other-worldly’ feel.

Music lovers of a certain vintage may have spotted Hammill as the big cheese in Van der Graaf Generator, the dark proggers from the early-to-mid seventies.  They’re still going after reforming in 2005, but that’s another story.

Peter Hammill has recorded and performed almost constantly since those early years, producing a vast catalogue of albums.  His solo style started as a mixture of acoustic ballads, then with a progressive twist came several long and complex compositions.

Beyond the seventies his style became, and has remained, much more personal with often sparse instrumentation highlighting that voice and the most intelligent lyrics you’ll ever read and hear.  In fact, Hammill is arguably the only singer you’ll listen to, where your IQ will be higher at the end of the record than it was before you took the LP out of its sleeve.  Described by a bandmate as having ‘a brain the size of a planet’, you’ll be impressed by his insight into relationships, philosophy and the world we live in.

He’s often cited as being an influence on John Lydon (confirmed by Lydon himself) Listen to ‘Nadir’s Big Chance’; punk before punk came out, but most of his later albums have a delicacy and are required late night listening.

One further thing about the voice; on record it’s under tight control, but live, it can become ragged so a live show is only recommended for converts.

The best place to start is the nineties album ‘Fireships’ which is simply gorgeous, and maybe ‘Thin Air’ from a couple of years ago.  If you secretly love prog, then dive straight into ‘The Silent Corner & the Empty Stage’.

Here’s one from ‘Fireships’; a live version of ‘His Best Girl’, a warning to a ‘trophy wife’.

This second clip is audio only of ‘Sleep Now’, a lullaby to his baby daughter from the album ‘And Close As This’, which is a must-hear for dads, both moving and full of understanding.


Peter Hammill isn’t always easy listening but, he’ll repay your investment if you stick with him.


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Voices (2)

  1. David Atkinson:

    Brilliant Ilan. A fellow Hammillian! Was feeling lonely for a while there.

    Must add that Mark Webb at Future Purchasing is another of our rare breed.

  2. Ilan:

    Right there with you. Hammill is unique. I listen to his later works with as much emtional focus as I did 30 years ago. I burst into tears after I first listened to Thin Air. I owe this exllent musician, poet and thinker a lot..

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