Peter Hammill

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Peter Hammill
Peter Hammill onstage at NEARfest, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, June 2008
Peter Hammill onstage at NEARfest, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, June 2008
Background information
Birth namePeter Joseph Andrew Hammill
Born (1948-11-05) 5 November 1948 (age 73)
Ealing, London, England
OriginManchester, England
Occupation(s)Singer, songwriter, record producer
Instrument(s)Vocals, guitar, piano, keyboards
Years active1968–present
LabelsCharisma, S-Type, Virgin, Naive, Foundry, Enigma, Fie!
Member ofVan der Graaf Generator

Peter Joseph Andrew Hammill (born 5 November 1948) is an English musician and recording artist. He was a founder member of the progressive rock band Van der Graaf Generator. Best known as a singer/songwriter, he also plays guitar and piano and produces his own recordings and occasionally those of other artists. In 2012, he was recognised with the Visionary award at the first Progressive Music Awards.[1]


Early life[edit]

Peter Hammill was born in Ealing, west London, and moved with his family to Derby when he was 12.[2] He attended Beaumont College and Manchester University, where he studied Liberal Studies in Science.[3] Hammill has stated that his grandfather was originally from Pakistan.[4]

Early career[edit]

Hammill's solo career has coexisted with Van der Graaf Generator's activities. The band was offered a contract by Mercury Records in 1968, that only Hammill signed. When Van der Graaf Generator broke up in 1969 he wanted to record his first solo album. In the summer of 1969 Hammill had a residency at The Lyceum and played weekly solo concerts there.[5] Eventually the intended solo album was released under the Van der Graaf Generator banner as their first album (The Aerosol Grey Machine).[6] Hammill's first real solo album was Fool's Mate (1971), containing songs from the early (1967/68) Van der Graaf Generator days.

Van der Graaf Generator and after[edit]

When Van der Graaf Generator broke up again in August 1972, Hammill resumed his solo career. Songs that were intended for Van der Graaf Generator now ended up on his solo albums, notably "Black Room" (on Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night) and "A Louse Is Not a Home" (on The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage). For the majority of both his solo songs and the band's songs he is credited as the sole songwriter, and some of his solo albums feature all the members of Van der Graaf Generator. In general, Hammill's solo work is thematically concerned with more personal matters, while the band's songs deal with broader themes.

Nadir's Big Chance (1975) was a major change from the preceding In Camera. Whilst In Camera is characterised by extremely intense and complex songs and even has some musique concrète on it, Nadir's Big Chance contains anticipations of punk rock. In a 1977 radio interview, John Lydon of the Sex Pistols played two tracks from the album and expressed his admiration for Hammill in glowing terms: "Peter Hammill's great. A true original. I've just liked him for years. If you listen to him, his solo albums, I'm damn sure Bowie copied a lot out of that geezer. The credit he deserves, just has not been given to him. I love all his stuff".[7]

Over (1977) contains very personal songs about the break-up of a long-term relationship.

Hammill's first solo album after the 1978 break-up of Van der Graaf was The Future Now. He provided vocals on three tracks for Robert Fripp's solo debut Exposure, released in June 1979.

With the next solo albums, pH7 and A Black Box, the sound became more compact, more new wave. On those albums, Hammill played the drums himself. What followed was the "K group". In later years Hammill would sometimes refer to the band as a "beat group".[8] The K group consisted of Hammill himself on guitars and piano, with John Ellis on lead guitar, and Van der Graaf mainstays Nic Potter on bass, and Guy Evans on drums and percussion. This group recorded the albums Enter K and Patience.

Live performances[edit]

Live concerts by Peter Hammill are characterised by a degree of unpredictability, in terms of the songs played, the arrangements and the players involved. Hammill generally does not undertake live tours to promote albums. Whenever he plays with a certain predominant line-up, almost always there will also be concerts interspersed with different permutations of musicians, so the word "tour" is not always very applicable.

From September 1981 until September 1985 Hammill played with the K group, playing raw, energetic, new-wave rock. A live recording of a number of these concerts was released as The Margin. In March and April 1983, Hammill with John Ellis was the support act for Marillion on their UK tour in support of their debut album Script for a Jester's Tear.[9][10]

From February until October 1990 he played with Nic Potter on bass and Stuart Gordon on violin. A live recording of these shows was released as Room Temperature. From April 1993 until August 1996 they were joined by Manny Elias on drums. A live recording of these shows was released as There Goes The Daylight. From October 1994 until August 1996 Hammill played with David Jackson on flutes and saxophones, Stuart Gordon on violin and Manny Elias on drums (this line-up is sometimes informally referred to as the Peter Hammill Quartet[11]).

From January 1998 until November 2006 Hammill played with just Stuart Gordon on violin. Of these shows the live recording Veracious was released.

From 1969 on, Hammill has also performed solo concerts, with just guitar and keyboards.

Fie! Records[edit]

Hammill's early records, like the Van der Graaf Generator albums, were released on Charisma Records. He parted company with them after pH7 (1979), and then released albums on a number of small labels. A Black Box came out on S-Type, a label run by Hammill and his manager Gail Colson. Enter K and Patience appeared on Naive, Skin and The Margin on Foundry and In A Foreign Town, Out of Water and Room Temperature on Enigma Records. In 1992 he formed his own label, Fie! Records, on which all his albums since Fireships have been released. The label's logo is the Greek letter phi (Φ), a pun on PH-I. Ever since the 1970s he has also had his own home recording studio, called Sofa Sound. His website was later named after the studio.

Later years[edit]

In 1991, Hammill released the long-awaited opera The Fall of the House of Usher. He had written the music and Van der Graaf Generator co-founder Judge Smith the libretto, and the two of them had been working on it since 1973. In 1999 he released a reworked version, The Fall Of The House Of Usher (Deconstructed & Rebuilt).

Hammill survived a heart attack in December 2003,[12][13] less than 48 hours[14] after having finished the recording of Incoherence. He was awarded the Italian 'Tenco Prize' for songwriting at the end of 2004.[15]

In 2005, Hammill announced the reformation of Van der Graaf Generator. In 2004 they had recorded a new album, Present, which was released in April 2005, and from May until November 2005 played a series of well received concerts. Between 2005 and 2007 Hammill oversaw the remastering of almost all of his pre-Fie! releases, and also carried out similar work on his more recent catalogue. The last of the Charisma remasters was released in September 2007. Hammill's solo career did not end because of the Van der Graaf Generator reunion. He released an album Singularity in December 2006.[citation needed] It was the first solo album he completed after his heart attack, and for a large part it deals with matters of life and (sudden) death. In 2007 several gigs by Van der Graaf Generator as a trio (minus David Jackson) took place in Britain and Europe; their new album Trisector was released in March 2008. In the summer and autumn of 2008, Hammill did a tour of solo dates in the U.S. and Canada which included a performance at the progressive rock festival NEARfest. He also played his only ever professional "parlour gig" at a private residence in Holland, Michigan.[citation needed]

In the summer of 2009 Van der Graaf Generator toured the U.S. and Canada, which occasioned Hammill's triumphant return to NEARfest. Thin Air was released on 8 June 2009. This was followed in October 2011 by a live double CD Pno, Gtr, Vox, recorded at performances in Japan and the UK in 2010. An extended 7-CD box set, Pno, Gtr, Vox Box was released in a limited edition of 2000 in February 2012.[citation needed]

Consequences, a solo studio album was released in May 2012. Again Hammill played all the instruments. The lyrics deal with conflicted characters in various scenarios. Other World, a collaborative album with guitarist Gary Lucas, was released in February 2014. The album features Hammill's vocals, Hammill and Lucas on guitars, and Hammill's sound treatments, and is a mixture of conventional songs with extended avant-garde instrumentals. In 2019 In Amazonia was released, a collaboration album with progressive rock group Isildurs Bane. Early 2021, Hammill announced the release of his first covers album,In Translation. It features songs by Astor Piazzolla, Leiber and Stoller, Gustav Mahler, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Gabriel Fauré among others.


Musically, Hammill's work ranges from short simple riff-based songs to highly complex lengthy pieces. Mainly because of the diversity of his compositions there is much debate amongst his admirers whether Hammill is to be considered a part of the progressive rock scene. In many interviews, however, Hammill has stated that he does not want to be put in the progressive rock music label, or any music label at all.[16][17] Despite this, he has received recognition as a visionary artist from the progressive music world.[1]

Hammill's output is prolific. Many different styles of music appear in his work, among them artful complexity (for instance Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night), avant garde electronic experiments (Loops and Reels, Unsung), opera (The Fall of the House of Usher), solo keyboard accompaniment (And Close As This), solo guitar accompaniment (Clutch), improvisation (Spur of the Moment), film music (Sonix), band recordings (Enter K), and slow, melancholic balladry (None of the Above).[citation needed]

Hammill exerted significant influences on punk rock and new wave music.[citation needed] Over the years he collaborated with musicians and song-writers such as Le Orme, Robert Fripp, Peter Gabriel, Ayuo, Herbert Grönemeyer, Judge Smith, The Stranglers, David Cross, Moondog, Premiata Forneria Marconi, Tim Bowness, Jakko Jakszyk and The Amorphous Androgynous.


Hammill's voice is a very distinctive element of his music. He sings in an emotional, often even dramatic way. As a former Jesuit chorister, his delivery is usually Received Pronunciation British English — notable exceptions are his Afrikaner accent on "A Motor-bike in Afrika" and his Cockney accent on "Polaroid" — and ranges in tone from peacefully celestial to screaming rants (which are nevertheless highly controlled). Singing in registers from baritone to high falsetto, he growls, croons, shrieks and shouts in ways that have drawn comparison with the guitar playing of Jimi Hendrix.[18][19]


Hammill's lyrics are another distinctive feature of his work. He has visited a number of recurring themes including love and human relationships, ageing and death, human folly, self-awareness and introspection, politics, and religion. His lyrics often include scientific, literary or historical references. For example, the Norse names mentioned in the song "Viking" on Fool's Mate (co-written with Judge Smith) are characters in the Icelandic Saga of Eric the Red.

The science fiction themes of Van der Graaf Generator's lyrics are mostly absent in his later work, but there still are many science references, especially to physics (for instance in the song "Patient"). In 1974 Hammill published a book, Killers, Angels, Refugees (Charisma Books, London), a collection of lyrics, poems and short stories. This was later reissued by Hammill himself (Sofa Sound, Bath) and was followed by a sequel Mirrors, Dreams, Miracles (1982).

In 2000 Dagmar Klein published Shouting down the passage of time: The Spaces & Times of Peter Hammill, an analysis and interpretation of Hammill's lyrics along the lines of his dealings with "Space", "Time" and "Journeys".[20]

Personal life[edit]

Hammill is fluent in Italian.[21] He has been married since 1978 to Hilary, who is credited with taking the picture for the cover of In a Foreign Town. They have three children, Holly, Beatrice and Phoebe. Holly and Beatrice Hammill sing soprano vocals on one track of Everyone You Hold and on two tracks of None of the Above. Holly Hammill wrote the song "Eyebrows" (on Unsung) and co-wrote "Personality" (on Everyone You Hold).


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Masters, Tim (6 September 2012). "Genesis honoured at Progressive Music awards". BBC News. Retrieved 30 March 2016.
  2. ^ Hasted, Nick (26 June 2004). "Peter Hammill: Heart attack music". The Independent. Archived from the original on 15 April 2015. Retrieved 31 July 2016. The Jesuits' blandishments were balanced by the equally fierce pull of pop, playing nightly in the clubs of 1960s Derby, where Hammill's family moved when he was 12.
  3. ^ Christopulos, J., and Smart, P.: Van der Graaf Generator – The Book, p. 5. Phil and Jim publishers, 2005.
  4. ^ "Peter Hammill: Heart attack music". 26 June 2004. Retrieved 24 November 2018.
  5. ^ Christopulos, J., and Smart, P.: Van der Graaf Generator – The Book, p. 37. Phil and Jim publishers, 2005.
  6. ^ Christopulos, J., and Smart, P.: Van der Graaf Generator – The Book, pp. 32–44, 58. Phil and Jim publishers, 2005.
  7. ^ "Fodderstompf - Press Archives - Johnny Rotten Capital Radio, 1977". Retrieved 23 April 2016.
  8. ^ Album notes by Peter Hammill for The Margin +, expanded reissue of CD The Margin (2001). Fie!
  9. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 3 November 2009. Retrieved 27 January 2010.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  10. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 16 May 2009. Retrieved 19 December 2009.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  11. ^ "Learning Curves". Sofa Sound Newsletter. March 1995. Retrieved 31 July 2016.
  12. ^ Hasted, Nick (26 June 2004). "Peter Hammill: Heart attack music". The Independent. Archived from the original on 15 April 2015. Retrieved 31 July 2016. When Peter Hammill collapsed in the street with a sudden heart attack last year, it didn't make the papers.
  13. ^ "25/Dec 2003". Sofa Sound Newsletter. December 2003. Retrieved 31 July 2016.
  14. ^ "26/Mar 2004". Sofa Sound Newsletter. March 2004. Retrieved 31 July 2016.
  15. ^ "27/Mar 2005". Sofa Sound Newsletter. March 2005. Retrieved 31 July 2016.
  16. ^ "Peter Hammill: Prog Rock's Unsung Hero". NPR. 6 November 2008. Retrieved 23 April 2016.
  17. ^ "34/December 2008". Sofa Sound Newsletter. December 2008. Retrieved 31 July 2016.
  18. ^ Album notes for Sometimes God Smiles – The Young Person's Guide To Discipline, compilation CD (1998). Discipline Global Mobile.
  19. ^ "Peter Hammill May 16th, 1999 at Sandweiler, Luxembourg". 19 August 1999. Archived from the original on 13 May 2008. Retrieved 18 August 2008.
  20. ^ Dagmar Klein: Shouting down the passage of time: The Spaces & Times of Peter Hammill. Libri Books on Demand 2000. ISBN 3-8311-0881-1
  21. ^ "Incontro con PETER HAMMILL". YouTube. Archived from the original on 12 December 2021. Retrieved 3 March 2017.

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