Tentative Review #28

Peter Hammill
Nadir's Big Chance

(released 1975)

1. Nadir's Big Chance***1/2
2. The Institute Of Mental Health, Burning****
3. Open Your Eyes****
4. Nobody's Business***1/2
5. Been Alone So Long****
6. Pompeii****1/2
7. Shingle Song****1/2
8. Airport***1/2
9. People You Were Going To****
10. Birthday Special***
11. Two Or Three Spectres***1/2



All tracks by Peter Hammill except for "Been Alone So Long" (Judge Smith) and "The Institute Of Mental Health, Burning" (Hammill/Smith)


Nadir's Big Chance is perhaps the only album to occupy an unusual place in both the histories of British progressive music and the early punk scene. Various sources have listed this work as an influence to the early punks of the London scene -- even John Lydon claims to have been inspired by the album. The music, despite featuring the de facto reunion of Van Der Graaf Generator, is substantially simpler than most music produced by the ensemble, and much more "aggressive" in parts. The "concept" of this album concerns the life of Rikki Nadir, memorably described in the All-Music Guide as a "dumb garage rocker", as he attempts to break into the music business armed only with loud guitars and an attitude. Coming two years before the punk explosion, the very idea of VdGG members recording an album of this sort must be seen as highly unusual.

There are some factors which temper this mythological interpretation, however. To begin with, Hammill, unlike most punks, was "in character" for most of the album, and was hence capable of giving an added touch of irony to the project which most punk works sadly lacked. Second, only a few songs on the album can properly be considered "punk" -- the title track and "Nobody's Business" are the only ones that definitely belong in this category, with "Open Your Eyes", "Birthday Girl", and perhaps "Two Or Three Spectres" coming close. Still, it's the hype that matters in the world of punk, and the mere assocation of this album with the "spirit of punk" (whatever...) has secured its footnote status in some of the more well-researched anthologies of the age.

None of this has anything to do with the music, which is generally of a fairly high level (whether "punk" or not).

The album begins with the anthemic title track, an "in-your-face" explosion from the Nadir persona as he tries to make his presence known in the music world. The track commences with heavy guitars and drums, followed by the slightly absurd interpolation of an equally simple saxophone line from Jaxon. The vocals sound unbelievably nasty, and its difficult to believe that Hammill wasn't engaging in a bit of self-conscious reflections in his character's criticism of "all these jerks ... pansying around" in the music industry. Later parts of the song resemble a much more simplified version of King Crimson in their heaviness. The track doesn't entirely succeed by its own standards -- it's a bit unfocused, and one can only parody dumbed-down rock for so long before one ends up falling into its trappings. Nonetheless, its a credible performance, especially given the artists involved, and deserves a few extra points for sheer bravado.

"The Institute Of Mental Health, Burning" is something entirely different. Beginning with a eerie backmasked section, this work proceeds to a haunting vocal line articulately depicting the titular event with disturbingly minimal musical accompaniment (the gently strummed guitar makes for a rather morbid effect). Hammill's voice seems far more in tune with some modern Brit-pop than anything even vaguely punk-related (which certainly isn't a problem). A triumph.

"Open Your Eyes" may be the long-sought merger of punk-prog stylings (as regards their original incarnation, at least). The track begins with a return to the heavy bass/drums/guitar essence of the original track, yet transports itself to an organ solo (courtesy Banton) before too long (switching back and forth a few more times before the song ends). Hammill's vocal shiftings are equally impressive, as he strings together this tale of underground romance.

"Nobody's Business" is a return to punkish ethos of the original track, with a chorus that could easily have fit into a Sex Pistols song only a few years later. The only real surprise involving Hammill's voice is the fact that he begins his part in a quiet tone before shifting to a more "violent" level. Jackson provides some good saxophone work to improve a track that eventually gets a bit too carried away in its "dumbed down" parodic nature.

"Been Along So Long" is an inexplicable choice for the next song, given that it's a quiet ballad (albeit a good one) which features cello and acoustic guitar as the lead instruments. It's extremely out of place at this juncture in the album -- judged on its own merits, though, its hard to find fault with it. The singing is incredible, with a few vaguely folkish leanings; the somewhat tired lyrical theme is at least given a good performance here.

If "Been Along So Long"'s lament of isolation at least gives it some role within the greater context of this work, the same cannot really be said of "Pompeii", which is (i) about as profoundly un-punkish as a track from this age could be, musically speaking, and (ii) has little direct connection to the Nadir story line, if any. Perhaps the entire idea of a volcano exploding on a staid community was deemed appropriate enough to tie it into the story line, but this strikes me as a bit of a stretch (though as a general reference to punk's advent-to-be, it might work). Musically, the track is extremely good. The odd drum beat and foreboding bass line which begin the piece set the tone of inevitable destruction extremely well; the haunting guitar line suggests a deceptive seduction to avoid the impending doom. The lyrics suggest, in an extremely elaborate manner, the manner of life in the city before the fall. The manner in which the instruments suddenly shift with the second verse in a warning of the coming storm, only to shift back again, was an extremely nice touch.

"Shingle Song" is a bit of a shift from the previous piece thematically, and once again has very little to do with the story line per se. This work takes the form of a seaside lament for a departed love, with fairly elaborate development and good saxophone and piano parts Hammill's voice carries the role extremely well, and the setting of the track provides a vaguely Celtic feel to the entire arrangement. Musically speaking, this may be the best track on the album.

The next two tracks seem to take the theme of the previous song and apply it to the more prosaic life of the character in question. In "Airport", Nadir sees his loved one depart on a jet plane rather than a ship, and stands from a tall building rather than a cliffside -- the basic theme of both songs is identical, though. The music is more prosaic than that of the previous track (which may have been deliberate) with the exception of an odd detour in the middle. Still, the chorus is fairly catchy once repeated frequently enough. By its own standards, a decent track.

"People You Were Going To", a re-adaptation of an early VdGG song, continues the story by focusing on Nadir's domestic isolation after the depature of those close to him. The narrative is quite gripping, and the guitar stabs (though not "punk" at all) eventually add a fair degree of musical measure to the pieces. The organ, drums, and saxophone entries later in the piece contribute to this pattern as well. The Beatle-esque harmonies towards the end are a fairly nice touch.

"Birthday Girl" is a bit of an embarrassment, mingling an overtly erotic lyrical request with a strange reference to Hansel and Gretel. The music seems unfortunately closer to heavy metal than punk. There is a certain degree of catchiness which saves the song, but not much else (though the drums are fairly good). This didn't need to make the final cut.

"Two Or Three Spectres" is, in retrospect, an ironic track in ways that Hammill could not have fathomed at the time. In this number, Nadir is rejected outright by the music industry, and is told to "come back in three years" when his ideas would be more appropriate for their marketing strategy(!). Some odd musical passages follow within the work, but the focal point of the song seems to be Hammill's condemnation of industry and press mafias determining the outcome of future musical trends (and thereby forgetting the music in the process). The song seems rather unfocused ... which, in an strange way, seems rather appropriate as Hammill rails against unseen forces within the industry. Could punk have possibly been foreshadowed in a more appropriate way?

This album is not Hammill's masterpiece, and it isn't quite the work which some legends claim it to be, but it is an interesting progressive diversion from the period. One would be hard-pressed to find too many more albums of this variety, to be sure.

The Christopher Currie

(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 13 August 1997)

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