Pawn Hearts: Van Der Graaf Generator’s prog rock masterpiece turns 50

Author Olli Lehtonen - 3.10.2021

Founded in University town of Manchester in 1967 Van Der Graaf Generator is one of the most original prog rock bands of the 1970s. Due to its relatively dark soundscape and themes it is been overshadowed by some of its more famous peers such as Genesis, Yes or King Crimson.

The band’s debut album “Aerosol Grey Machine” was released only in United States by Mercury Records in 1969. The year later their first UK release was “Least We Can Do is Wave to Each Other” by Charisma Records. The album featuring their signature sound with distorded and otherwise modified Farfisa organ sounds, David Jackson’s jazzy twin saxophone parts and Peter Hammill’s diverse vocals sang in distinctive Received Accent (RP). This concept become the group’s trademark ever since featuring also on their fourth studio album “Pawn Hearts” released 50 years ago in October 2021.

“Pawn Hearts” is one of the most interesting and ambitious progressive rock albums of the decade often regarded as a somewhat lost gem. The album is heavily driven by keyboards and saxophones and has only a little guitar parts distinguishing it from many other prog albums of the time. King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp makes a cameo on the album providing a piquant touch to its already rich soundscape. It is amazing how they came up with such soundscape with such a relatively small line-up. Furthermore, “Pawn Hearts” was meant to be a double album but the record company rejected the idea.

The original album has only three songs: “Lemmings (Including ‘Coq’)”, “Man-Erg” and an epic over-20 minutes long “A Plaque of a Lighthouse Keepers”. A fourth song “Theme One” was released as a b-side to “W” in 1972. The opening track offers the group’s songwriting at its finest with its various moods from serene parts to heavier and more complex phases. It is hard to pinpoint what really makes the timbre since everything is tied together with absolute finesse into a sonorous odyssey. Apart from Hamill’s powerful vocals varying from almost a whispering falsetto to a manic screaming the album includes some of the greatest keyboard sounds by Hugh Banton from bubbling phaser to distorded almost guitar-like sounds. Moreover, the saxophones featured almost constantly are well arranged acting as a cherry on top.

Whereas instrumental single with a catchy melody “Theme One” feels like a filler “Man-Erg” is without a doubt the best part of the first half of the album. Beginning as a soothing slow-paced ballad featuring Hammill on the electric piano it climaxes to an insane polyrhythmic orgy with almost orgasmic propotions. In the outro you can hear these two different sections molding together ingeniously .In addition, it features Hammill’s vocals in its finest and beautiful neoclassical Hammond organ spiced up with an occasional distortion.

Finally, the epic concept piece “A Plaque of Lighthouse Keepers” taking the whole second half of the original LP, ends the album to a high note, varying from a quiet piano driven parts to monumental heavy rock sections. This eventful piece telling a story of a frustrated and lonely lighthouse keeper was recorded in several small sections during the touring. There is also a kind of cycle of different parts as the first Eyewitness being the repeating theme, containing the main melody.

All and all, “Pawn Hearts” is an interesting album containing skillful songwriting and fascinating hooks and arrangements. The album has took the test of time even better than some of the so called canonized prog records. It is not the easiest record to digest but it also is part of its attraction making it a genuine yet overlooked prog masterpiece. Despite the huge popularity in Italy, it did not get the appreciation that it deserved back in its day and it was the last album featuring the band’s classic line-up. Hammill pursued a prominent solo career before the first reunion in 1976. Band did slit up again a couple of albums in 1978 but it has been active ever since their 2005 second reunion. From 2007 on the band has performed as a trio keeping the legacy alive.

Track listing:

  1. Lemmings (Including ‘Coq’)
  2. Theme One (only original USA and Canada releases)
  3. Man-Erg
  4. A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers