Thanks are needed to Richard Metzger at Dangerous Minds for stumbling on some fascinating and rare footage of the classic lineup of Van Der Graaf Generator in 1972 performing their opus 'Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers' , released as side two of their near mystical creation and 4th album Pawn Hearts. Originally intended to be part of a double album with the third and fourth sides being the groups individual projects the idea was eventually abandoned to the production of side one and two only. Although Pawn Hearts was their 4th LP it would be better known by their fans as part 3 of the trilogy that began on their second LP, The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other (1970), H to He, Who Am the Only One (1970) and a year later with Pawn Hearts (1971).
Side two's Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers is best described as split into a succession of farely short movements - "Eyewitness", "Pictures/Lighthouse", "Eyewitness", "S.H.M.", "Presence of the Night", "Kosmos Tours", "(Custard's) Last Stand", "The Clot Thickens", "Land's End (Sineline)", "We Go Now", with the overall composition a magnificent tour de force of Peter Hammill's songwriting and vocals alongside the bands highly imaginative and uncompromising approach to progressive rock. And if ever that term had been invented for a purpose it was to describe Van Der Graaf Generator who had taken the 60's evolution of rock into a completely unpredictable form that few groups ever came close to achieving outside of King Crimson, no surprise there when Fripp was to guest on a couple of their recordings. Such was Van Der Graaf's assault at gigs audiences were either running for the doors or screaming with joy and disbelief at what they were hearing. There was no half way with Van Der Graaf.
Also by the nature of part improvised and complex arrangements it was if the band needed to have an almost inspired moment every night to make this behemoth of a concept fall into gear smoothly. If technical faults crept into a performance, as they were inclined to do in the early 70's sound systems, it could be agonising listening to hear them fight their way to a conclusion and sometimes even then just not managing to ignite the Generator. On nights where the compositions flowed they became legendary performances amongst fans.
Even today their music is a continual challenge of textures and themes, switching time signatures, high and low dynamics, crescendo and decrescendo. The lyrics sometimes sound coded or symbolic allegories from Hamill's psyche but they scan as if they hold a deeply personal message to the human race. Consequently they kept many a 70's acid head in a state of bewilderment or near enlightenment. The Lighthouse Keeper, as solitary a musing of mortality or a beacon of hope for mankind? It's left up to you to decide.
Despite their lack of commercial success, although always revered in Europe, Van Der Graaf have inspired as diverse an artist as John Lydon to Bruce Dickinson, to a long line of Goth bands in the 80's.
For Belgian TV to capture 25 minutes of the band at their peak in 1972 says much about the lack of inhibition the programme makers had at the time.
It's impossible to think it could happen today.