Tom Ripley talks to Peter Hammill about The Box for Virgin's "Eden" website

Eden: There are a number of previously unheard live performances and radio sessions on the box set, particularly some very rare ones from the first incarnation of the band. Was this a period of the band’s history that you felt had been under documented in the past?

We wanted to take about half the box set from known recordings and the balance from those which had not been out before and are representative of the history of the group. The radio performances have never been released in any form before. They zipped out into people’s transistors and were lost. I was amazed that the early ones still existed at the BBC.

In late ‘68 it is pretty brutal mono quality as things were in those days but these first tracks pre-date the release of the first album and are the only recordings featuring Keith Ellis, the original bass player. They are genuine historical artefacts though they are a bit short of sonic quality and your vocalist was a very, very young lad at the time! However it is an essential part of any historical document.

Eden: How old were you?

I was nineteen and had just dropped out of university.

Eden: Your lyric writing at the time would suggest that you were knee deep in gothic literature.

As far as I can recall I was mainly reading science fiction. My gothic era came slightly earlier and I have found that there is always a degree of lag between what one reads and what one uses. There is simmering period; discovering what something is about before even thinking about incorporating it in song.

Eden: When you were first signed to Mercury Records (prior to joining Charisma) do you think the record company had any idea what they were getting themselves into?

They hadn’t a clue what they were signing but that was a characteristic of our relationships throughout the history of the band. At that very early stage the label had Graham Bond as musical director and, wacky chap though he was, he was right on the money about what it means to be a musician so we were lucky to run into him at that stage in our development.

Eden: Was the freedom to find your own voice typical of the industry’s relationship to the Progressive scene in the late 60's and early 70's.

Yes the element of good luck on our side was that we were all left alone and given the time to find out what we were about and/or to find an audience and that’s not something that happens in the music industry at the moment. In that sense there wasn’t a music industry we were just allowed to get on with it.

Eden: There is a cliché that persists that all English Prog Rock musicians were public school boys who learned to sing in the school choir and were classically trained musicians. That and a sense that there was a deliberate policy to make a career of being taken seriously culturally in a Radio 3 (the BBC’s Classical Music radio station) sense rather than just being Rock ‘n’ Rollers.

There was more to it than that. In the world of 1968 there was the influence of the traditional romantic composers and the classical avant-garde, the universe of jazz, there was Hendrix and so on.

We’re not even talking about the same planet as today and people involved in bands at that time were not looking to make a fortune even if you were successful. You were not going to be covered financially for life. It was more a case of "we’ve got this stuff to do and we’re going to get on and do it". I can’t speak for other bands but in VdGG we rarely looked beyond the end of next week.

Eden: Were you very aware of what your contemporaries like Genesis and King Crimson were doing at the time?

Crimson we knew a bit and also Genesis because by then we were on the same label as them (Charisma) but from my point of view we were far too obsessive about our own inner workings to be concerned about what other bands were doing. Also, lyrically I was trying to make sense which was not always the case in a genre and in an era when a lot of not making sense was considered quite ok.

Eden: Were you really a Prog group per se? You seem to have had as much in common with the likes of Roxy Music and John Cale as you did with a band like Gentle Giant or Yes?

Even setting aside the issue of my lyrics, it is definitely true, when you consider the musicians involved in VdGG, that we were aside from the main core of Progressive groups. Conceding the fact that we had some of the complex time signatures and grand gestures that Progressive was known for there was also something rather more mad going on at the same time which is what the group were really about.

Eden: In an era when guitar heroes ruled the roost was the omission of a guitar player from the band’s line-up a deliberate policy in terms of defining yourselves as being outside the Rock mainstream?

Well we lucked out in finding the line-up that we did at each stage of our development but we also established early on that within that line-up soloing territory was going to belong to the horns and to the organ. Considering the material we were doing it would have been hard to slot in an electric guitar at that early stage and that became even harder when we went to a four piece with Hugh playing the bass pedals rather than having a bass guitarist.

The whole idea of making music is to look at what you know and then make some effort to go forward and learn something new and in that spirit my guitar playing only really got going between the two phases of VdGG (between 71 and 75/76). I felt that I should get to grips with guitar to give both my solo work and the band more colour. All part of the process of discovery!

Eden: Is there a danger with music this complex in a Pop context that you might be seen to take oneself too seriously?

Although there was a seriousness involved our attitude was that music could be fun and serious at the same time. We attempted to use our intellects in making the music but between the ages of 19 and 27 or 28, when the band was active, we were not exactly intellectual giants and we were having fun, sometimes frightening fun, to make this music rather than trying to make some grand academic edifice. Naturally I can’t speak for other bands but it is debatable whether much of the music of the time was worthy of the seriousness of the intent.

Eden: It was sometimes a fearsome noise that the band produced on stage. Not unlike the John Coltrane group with Pharoah Saunders & Rashied Ali, everyone blowing hard at once in what superficially seems to be a wholly chaotic fashion.

For Guy (Evans) and for David (Jackson), who came out of a Jazz tradition, this was all very much in the spirit of Roland Kirk and Coltrane. Hugh (Banton) meanwhile came from both wings of the classical world and I was much more of a Pop-Rock, Beat Group, Blues guy. We brought our personal enthusiasms to the music and then tried to enthuse the other band members with them. It was a quite natural fusion of disparate styles. The key was that we understood each other’s playing.

Eden: The Rimini concert material in the box set is taken from the ‘Worldly Men & Strangers’ bootleg isn’t it? The early 1970's was a period when the release of a live double or live triple album conferred a certain status on a band. Is there any reason why the first incarnation of VdGG was not documented by an official live album?

Well it was very expensive to record live music in those days and for us the recording studio was another instrument and we’d always prefer to spend our money there. Also we were such a damned unpredictable group that out of every five shows two would be average, two a cacophony of noise and horror and the fifth a sublime mixture of cacophony and horror. Chances are, had we recorded a show, it would have been a horrible one. People used to stagger out of our shows vowing never to have anything more to do with us. Without anything extreme you don’t get extreme reactions.

Eden: Italy was a key territory for you wasn’t it? Yet Italian audiences and the local police were notoriously volatile. Was there some connection between the popularity you enjoyed there and the cacophony and horror you describe?

I think that they got the same visceral emotional reaction from the music that we had playing the music on stage and they were reacting to it emotionally before dealing with the meaning of the words. Whereas in Britain, and especially in the States, there was the sense that they found the content of the lyrics a bit difficult and never got to the emotional stuff. The bootleg pins down the actual experience of the live show and the fury and energy of the shows better than any planned live album could have done.

Eden: Do you remember those specific shows?

If I could remember any individual nights of VdGG’s career I would be in even deeper trouble than I am already and we did a couple of two hour shows every day! It was an economic necessity. We’d play a show in the afternoon, go back to the hotel have a couple of hours off, wake up with a double espresso, a large grappa and a joint and then go and do another show. And we were glad to do it!

By our mid-twenties we were living to play and playing was what made sense. We weren’t solvent and, as you can see from the list of concerts in the box set, people don’t tour these days like we used to. We’d do a week on tour, come back, go straight into the studio for a couple of days and then off again. It was a remorseless schedule.

Eden: Was the first split more about business problems than coming to a full stop musically?

No, it was just not right for us to continue because by the end of 71 or 72 we were all quite mad. Off the planet. We had the enthusiasm to continue but the planet had gone mad, we had gone mad and we were not going to do good work if we continued. After a fortnight of debate we were of one mind to stop because none of us felt that we had ever done anything that was not entirely true to the venture. It was better to stop and kill it because to do anything fake would make a fake of the stuff that was true.

Eden: So what brought you back as a band in 1975?

We’d had time away and we had the opportunity to have control in a business sense. In fact we were one of the first acts to be self run and self motivated and there was the fact that there was something different to do musically. We weren’t picking up where we left off. We were going to be doing something different.

Eden: Were you on some level already aware of the musical sea change that was coming in terms of Punk Rock?

We were of course something of a Beat Group ourselves so when it came we were not threatened by it. We certainly weren’t interested in months of over dubbing in off shore recording studios. When it came we welcomed it and we were encouraged by it.

Eden: Punk was very threatening to some artists wasn’t it? Punk was perceived in some quarters as a genuine cultural threat to ‘real’ music yet you weren’t part of that insular, Classically trained Progressive Rock tradition were you?

Hugh had been to a certain level in order to play the organ and the bass pedals as well, but not further than grades and certainly not to music college. For Dave it was National Youth Jazz Orchestra and Guy’s background was essentially jazz as well. I think his father was in big band but I wouldn’t swear to it. And I had that Beat Group three chord trick thing going on.

Eden: You shared that directness and barely controlled fury that the best Punk Rock had didn’t you? Johnny Rotten was certainly a fan of your solo records.

For us directness was always one of our characteristics which is why people left halls in droves! We were quite frankly never in the game of gently cosseting people and deigning to dribble the product of a rigorous Classical training out to the masses.

We shared a Jazz background with the likes of King Crimson and though it might seem ludicrous for a band like VdGG, when talking about our basic musical enthusiasms, Soul and R&B was the one thing that all of the band listened to. Basic Stax and Tamla Motown and in terms of my enthusiasm for Pop there was The Kinks , The Who and The Animals. The harder end of the British groups and you certainly didn’t need a degree to listen to it.

Tom Ripley October 2000

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