Van Der Graaf Generator - Pawn Hearts [Review and analysis]

in music •  last year  (edited)


Pawn Hearts

I don't even know how to start. It lies in front of me. In a plastic box, scratched somewhat, made of plastic lick... A piece of art.

On the just over 4-inch disc, signed with the miraculous, amaranth label of Charisma Records, three of the most unusual recordings of their time were captured, especially for me - the listener. It's even hard for me to say how great and undefined the emotions are hurting me from the very sight of the unusual cover of this release. Closed figures in pawns, suspended in space above the surface of the Earth. In the background there is a curtain of sky and behind it a starry, dark space.

I can only call one feeling, and it is anxiety. I'll be honest - no album has ever done me the same as Pawn Hearts. None of them has so depressed me, ruined me and absorbed me! I must admit, however, that this took some time. Pawn Hearts was the first album of Van Der Graaf Generator that I used.After the first listening, she didn't impress me so much. I found it too contrived and chaotic I quickly fell in love in the album H To He, Who Am The Only One though, above all in the wonderful The Lost!

As I mentioned earlier, Pawn Hearts album consists of three tracks - the first two are just over ten minutes long Lemmings and Man-Erg. The third track in a row is a nearly 24-minute complex suite - A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers. I used to listen to these songs many times before. To Man-Erg I quickly found out, to the song of the first one similarly, I listened to this album mainly for a few specific, slightly stronger and catchy moments. With the elapse of time I knew when to expect them, I started to understand the structure of Pawn Hearts, I gradually got to know him, I learned.

Finally, this extraordinary day came... Pawn Hearts destroyed me! For the first time, finally I really managed to hear this music, feel it, harness it. I was swept away, the Plague of Lighthouse Keepers made me clean, spread on the walls, and at the end of the day pushed everything back into me without order and left me in total agony. I still often reach for a plastic box on my shelf with an anointing. I am constantly rediscovering Pawn Hearts, exploring his mystery, researching and emphasizing - there is really something to study, because it is difficult to find a more mysterious work!


Van Der Graaf Generator

The group was founded in 1967 at the University of Manchester. During the first 3 years it underwent numerous personnel changes and released her debut album, which, however, was not very successful. The line-up grew slowly and in 1970, with their second album, The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other, they finally achieved their first commercial success. It was only better next time. H To He, Who Am The Only One, released the same year, was a decisive step forward for the group. Both albums presented a rather dark, manic style somewhat comparable to that presented by King Crimson at the time, but richer mainly by the heavy sound of Hammond's organs and other mainly keyboard instruments, followed by Hugh Banton, an outstanding organist, now also known as the owner of The Organ Workshop and the creator of the first electronic organs.

David Jackson, the saxophonist, was the next pillar of Van Der Graaf's sound. He was a true virtuoso of this instrument. He created his own style, unique and so characteristic for the group, thanks to which it is impossible to confuse it with anyone else today. Called "the Van Gogh of the saxophone", during his playing he used mainly electric saxophones, connected to powerful amplifiers. Longhaired, sometimes hanging four instruments, small man, during the concerts could even grab two at a time and play on them simultaneously!

Peter Hammill was the leader, lyricist and vocalist. Already at the beginning of his career he declared that he will strive to do with his voice what Jimi Hendrix did with his guitar. He definitely did not overestimate his skills, his extremely emotional voice of a large scale, his whispers, screams, screams really can make the listener shiver, not to mention his dark, depressing, extremely poetic, full of symbolism lyrics. Especially in this matter he had no equal!

In effect, all these factors placed the Van Der Graaf Generator group among the biggest giants of progressive rock of the early 1970s. Well, it's! Pawn Hearts went through the UK unnoticed, many critics bending over this section often claimed that he is unable to simply understand this music. One of the reviewers of the British review Record Mirror wrote:

I have to confess complete ignorance of precisely what Van der Graaf Generator are trying to achieve.

At the time not everyone knew that after years the album would be called an undeniable "incomprehensible masterpiece" and no wonder - as I mentioned earlier - Pawn Hearts just takes time. Hammill himself quickly said after the premiere that it was probably no longer possible for him to create something better, that Pawn Hearts simply happened once, that it had no precedent and that it has remained unrivalled in many ways to this day.

However interestingly, it was not the case that this album was not successful at all in its time. For some reason, the music of the band met with an extremely positive reception in Italy, where their work climbed to the top of the lists of sold albums. The result was three concert tours around the country. The musicians have become real stars there. Additionally, the long ones, in which the group simply drowned, forced them to give three concerts one evening. Such an intensive activity exhausted the group, which soon announced its solution. It was reactivated in 1975, although in the meantime all four collaborated on Peter Hammill's solo projects.


At this point I would like to start by thanking the users from one of the Polish facebook groups, thanks to whom I could gain a lot of additional, valuable information about the album, as well as musicians. This article would not have been the same if it had not been for them. I didn't expect that after asking Pawn Hearts about their interpretation, I would have a pleasure to get to know so many different points of view and insights about the content and history of the album. Thank you very much once again!

However, to come to the substance. It is rather clear what Pawn Hearts treats in the main perspective. All three songs on the album mainly discuss the problem of loneliness of a human being - an individual, internally torn, undefined and undecided. Nevertheless, the multi-layered, extremely poetic lyrical form of the work, on the one hand, poses many difficult questions to the listener, and leaves many ambiguities, ambiguities and fields for deeper interpretation.

One of the most interesting theories I have found about the album is the one posted on by the user Inpraiseoffolly. I would like to make a strong reference to it in my analysis, because many of the observations that the author of the text has described really intrigue and make us think further.

Inpraiseoffolly argues that the work of Van Der Graaf is a conceptual album, describing the successive stages of the inner struggle of the hero - a citizen of Nazi Germany, who feels repelled at the prevailing regime in the country, as well as criminal ideology, but who feels endless, internal and external pressure to give in and follow Hitler, as the rest of society.

The first, very strong proof of this thesis could be the graphics placed inside the album cover. It presents all four musicians, heliding with each other, one of whom (David Jackson) seems to be joining the rest of the group.


The picture was taken during one of the concert tours on the premises of Tony Stratton-Smith, the owner and chief of Charism, while the musicians were playing a somewhat stupid game of their own, which they called "Crawborough Tenis. This game was to resemble a kind of table tennis, but with the use of a football ball - David keeps it under his arm. The table on which the rest of the band stands was to be used for this game. According to their statements, the gesture that the musicians perform was supposed to be a parody of one of many monuments that they had seen in West Germany. Hugh Banton admits that they chose this photo simply because it looked extremely absurd - in the style of Monty Python's cabaret group, whose musicians were great fans.

Ultimately, the name of the album is also extremely enigmatic. Pawn Hearts - Heart pawns. It is said that the name was created as a result of David Jackson's slipping of the tongue, who instead of horn parts had to say "porn hearts", which for the purpose of the album was slightly modified. The motif of the chess pawl, both in the name and on the front of the album's cover, can also strongly refer to the theme of totalitarian rule, helplessness of the person and the essence of human individualism with its symbolism.



The album begins with the song Lemmings, as it were in the lyrical layer introducing to the general theme of the work. In it, the protagonist tells the story of a society, most probably dominated by some ideology, blindly moving forward, towards an uncertain future, uniting, organizing and attracting new followers. It is their hero who calls them lemmings. He himself, abandoned, stays on top of the cliff, observing blind people from above and seeing how they are heading for potential destruction.

The clouds are piled in mountain-shapes,
there is no escape except to go forward.
Don't ask us for an answer now,
it's far too late to bow to that convention.
What course is there left but to die?

We have looked upon the High Kings,
found them less than mortals:
their names are dust before the just
march of our young, new law.
Minds stumbling strong, we hurtle on
into the dark portal;
No-one can halt our final vault
into the unknown maw.

And as the Elders beat their brows
they know that it's really far
too late now to stop us.
For if the sky is seeded death
what is the point in catching breath? - Expel it.
What cause is there left but to die
in searching of something we're not quite sure of?

Despite the rather universal tone of the text, in the light of the thesis about the links between the album Pawn Hearts and the subject of Nazism, it is impossible not to have any associations with the National Socialism movement and the activity of, for example, national militias on the occasion of Lemmings. It is possible that the lemmings of the title are in fact Hitler's henchmen attracted by propaganda, pushed by ideology and social pressure to commit crimes and corruption.

Yes, I know it's
Out of control, out of control:
Greasy machinery slides on the rails,
Young minds and bodies on steel spokes impaled...
Cogs tearing bones, cogs tearing bones;
Iron-throated monsters are forcing the screams,
Mind and machinery box-press the dreams...

...but there still is time...

Cowards are they who run today,
the fight is beginning...
no war with knives, fight with our lives,
lemmings can teach nothing;
death offers no hope, we must grope
for the unknown answer:
unite our blood, abate the flood,
avert the disaster...

There's other ways than screaming in the mob:
that makes us merely cogs of hatred.
Look to the why and where we are,
look to yourselves and the stars and in the end
What choice is there left but to live
in the hope of saving
our children's children's little ones?

What choice is there left but to live?
to save the little ones?

What choice is there left but to try?


The next track describes the protagonist's inner struggle with himself. He feels torn apart, claims to have a variety of beings in his mind - both good and bad - who control him. It is not impossible that, despite his contempt and compassion for the lemmings, he is now wondering whether he should not, however, join them after listening to the darker side of his self.

He certainly feels isolated and is unable to tell exactly who he is and what he is doing. He feels at the same time a murderer and saviour, a dictator and a refugee, an executioner and, at the same time, a victim.

The whole work was built on the basis of strong contrasts, both in the musical and lyrical layers. Hammill once gently sings the next words, with a voice that sparks a deep hope that in a moment it will turn into a scream dripping with madness and full of pain.

But stalking in my cloisters hang the acolytes
of gloom
and Death's Head throws his cloak into
the corner of my room
and I am doomed...
But laughing in my courtyard play the pranksters
of my youth
and solemn, waiting Old Man
in the gables of the roof:
he tells me truth...

And I too, live inside me and very often
don't know who I am:
I know I'm not a hero, well,
I hope that I'm not damned.
I'm just a man, and killers, angels, all are these:
Dictators, saviours, refugees in war and peace
as long as Man lives...

Man-Erg... The very title of this work remains a big mystery. A few users of the above mentioned Facebook group, directed me to the term "energumen", in their opinion, supposed to mean a person possessed by the demon. In the dictionary, however, I am able to find yet another definition. Energumen is also a "fanatical supporter, enthusiast", which in a way again fits in with the theory.

On the user inpraiseoffolly in the title of this song is looking for another trophy, which can confirm the connection of the album Pawn Hearts with the German nation. In order to find it, it suggests to change the order of the letters a bit. Who knows, maybe it is not a coincidence at all, but another circumstantial sign left by the creators?

A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers

The last position on the album - the masterful, unrivalled epic "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers" - is a story whose protagonist is a lantern. This lonely man still experiences torment while watching the crazy sea from the cliff, full of ships still crushed by the waves of cliffs. He is still haunted by the ghosts of helmsmen who have died in the depths of the sea, but he is unable to do anything. He knows that suffering will continue, and he is looking more and more at the possibility of jumping from the cliff straight into the raging waves of the sea. He sees that in the giant, brutal ocean of darkness, he is the only light - the lighthouse - in which no one is sailing. Soon he becomes mad and loses hope for good...

Where is the God that guides my hand?
How can the hands of others reach me?
When will I find what I grope for?
Who is going to teach me?
I am me / me are we / we can't see
any way out of here.
Crashing sea, a trophied history:
chance has lost my Guinevere...

I don't want to be one wave in the water
but sea will drag me deep:
one more haggard drowned man.

I can see the lemmings coming, but I know I'm just a man.
Do I join or do I founder? Which can is the best I may?



The protagonist faces a difficult choice. He can choose his dignity, remain in the lighthouse, condemning himself to further suffering in isolation from the rest of society, and he can mislead his ideals and join the lemons shattered by the waves, leaving the last lighthouse and ending his suffering.

He jumps into the water, although he quickly regrets it very much.


I don't think I have to say that Pawn Hearts is an undisputed masterpiece. Unhindered in the musical and lyrical layers, not knowing the limitations and full of secrets. I invite you to listen to this music, experience it and absorb it, because it is a unique experience.

As for the choice of release, for the sake of full experience I recommend the latest remaster album from 2015, unlike that available on most websites, the release from 2005, after a considerable lifting, gained definitely dynamism and clarity. With the right sound system, Pawn Hearts on this mix offers a truly audiophile experience of the highest sort, especially listened to loudly!

In March 1972, during a short break between concerts in Italy, the only live recording of A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers was made. This is available entirely on YouTube:

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Cool! Never heard of them, but will look it up :)

I have never listened to Van Der Graaf Generator, actually I've heard the name of the band but never listened to them. I had the idea that was a "rare" band making "rare" music what un some way you confirm un this post. I've listened to some of King Crimson albums and it's not easy music for me, but after your execellent post I want to give a chance to "Pawn Hearts". I need to find the moment!
Can we consider them precursors of progressive rock? Any connection with the Canterbury scene and psychedelia?
Thanks a lot for your effort in this post!

King Crimson is great, in a month's time, on June 16th I'll be at their concert in Cracow, it's one of the few bands that sounds so good despite their age :D Here's the curiosity, I didn't write it in the post, but on the album "Pawn Hearts" the guitarist plays - Robert Fripp from King Crimson, a good friend of the band, who also played on their previous album :D

I'm looking forward to the concert. In case of Van Der Graafs As I suggested gently in this post, at the beginning I recommend "H To He, Who Am The Only One", because this album is easier, and almost as good.

Van Der Graaf Generator definitely deserves to be called the pioneers of the genre, they have pushed the boundaries of what progressive rock is.

I'll write something about the Canerbury Stage, especially that I already have a few Polish texts, which I only need to translate :) I'll try to prepare a long entry about Henry Cow, for example, which I'm currently working on. The first part of the series about this group can be found on my account in Polish :)

Thanks for your vote, thanks for a positive comment, I am glad that someone is interested in the things I am writing about :)

You can write about music as a lover..
And you're right: This album actually pulp, arouses anxiety, distracts ..
and does not let you leave her..
But you would not feel anything like this, if you not had it inside You already.
You are just the perfect sensitive medium.

I'm definitely IN!!!!

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