Live in Italy 2005 DVD – Guastalla article


On the 4th of October 2005 I flew to Verona, with John ‘Fury’ Ellis and Michael Ward-Bergeman, for a gig taking place in Guastalla four days later. I didn’t publicise the show on this site, or anywhere else, since it was to be a private party, with tickets by invitation only.

Our client was Emilio Maestri, who is, amongst numerous other things, an eminent medical Doctor, and the founding father of the sonorously titled ‘Peter Hammill & Van der Graaf Generator Study Group’. This remarkably active and dynamic organisation of music enthusiasts, mostly Italian, but with a sizable international contingent, is the world’s primary appreciation society for the music of my old band, and the music of its present and past members.

Emilio recently married his longtime partner Marina, and the concert was to be a celebratory event for their friends and family. It would be our first performance as a group since the London show at the Cobden Club on the 6th of May, and we were planning to add to our line-up Italian percussionist Gigi Cavalli Cocchi, who was unknown to us, but was highly recommended by David Jackson, and ‘The Full English’ label-boss and mix-producer Marco Olivotto. So we were certainly going to need some serious rehearsal. I also wanted to move-up a gear, if possible, from our Cobden Club show, so I had asked Marco if he would play Bass on a couple of the more rocky numbers.


At the age of 57, and having done little live performing for many years, I had found myself running out of puff during the Cobden gig, so I realized that I would have to prepare myself for this event with more care. For a month before we left, I ran a couple of miles every day, and sang through the entire set. Running is a bore, but my voice gradually toughened up, my stamina improved and the lyrics became increasingly hard-wired into what is left of my brain.

I’m not scared of flying, but for some reason I always get spooked at the check-in desk, and on this occasion I was more than usually jumpy since our luggage was seriously overweight, as it included John’s Guitar, a keyboard in a flightcase and Michael’s mighty electric accordion. However, our Mr Check-in guy turned out to be a music enthusiast and all was cool. (Memo to self: Always have a CD ready to hand out in such circumstances.)


At Verona, we were met by the ebullient Emilio, whose big Mercedes swallowed us, our gear and our bags without even trying, for the hour’s drive to Guastalla. This is a wholly delightful little medieval city on the banks of the River Po, well off the tourist routes, unspoilt and civilized.

Our hotel was in the centre of town, next door to the house of our hosts, which occupies two sides of a stately courtyard. Emilio and Marina, like many Italians, are seriously serious about food and drink. Marina is a spectacular cook and Emilio is a fully-qualified sommelier. His cellar is extensive; which is just as well, since we ate with them every evening, and each meal was accompanied by at least three wines, all extraordinarily fragrant and complex, and as unlike the supermarket Italian plonk that I drink at home as I can imagine.


The food Marina served really defies description, but every dish of our four or five course meals was new to us, unpredictable, delicious and intensely flavoured. Some of the more exotic creations included succulent meatballs, that turned out to be made of horsemeat, and some kind of apple/pear hybrid cooked in mustard; but however exotic the menu, everything was, apparently, typical cooking of the Reggio Emilia region. Many dishes used the traditional balsamic vinegar, which is taken every bit as seriously here as the wine. We were given individual drops of the stuff from Emilio’s collection that were a hundred years old, licked off the back of the hand to give a head-filling, sweet/savoury experience like a taste-bomb going off in your mouth. That first night, after slices of crunchy Parmigiano cheese smeared with black balsamic, and candied chestnuts with crystallized violets, Michael entered a state of high Zen meditation, and appeared to be about to levitate.

However, we were there to work, as well as to eat, and the next morning we were driven to the larger city of Reggio Nell’Emilia about 25 km further South, where we would be rehearsing in the studio of our new percussionist. Potentially the situation might be difficult, because Gigi could apparently speak no English, and we could certainly speak no Italian.

Gigi turned out to be a tall, distinguished looking guy with a grey goatee beard and kindly eyes, every inch the successful and senior rock musician he is. He lives in the large and beautiful building where he was born, and which has been in his family for several hundred years. On the top floor is his studio, with huge, ancient beams supporting the roof, and the comforting collection of high-quality music kit which tells us clearly that this will be a fine place to rock-out.

Within a few minutes I discovered, firstly, that Gigi also speaks fluent French, and secondly that John, ever the dark horse, speaks very serviceable French himself. (He puts this skill down to having a psychotic French teacher at school who made life unbearable for anyone who didn’t excel.) Under pressure, I also found that I was able to remember quite a lot more French than I’d given myself credit for. Our communication difficulties now over, we soon realized that the impression we had that Gigi was ‘a percussionist’ was misleading. Gigi is a full-on rock drummer, with a long career in Italian ‘prog’ bands.


John, Michael and I ran through an up-tempo number once, on our own (the first time we had played together since May) and then invited Gigi to do his thing with us. When we finished, we had big grins on our faces. This was going to be fun!

Gigi is that rare thing, a drummer who only wants to do what is best for the song. He plays crisp and tight, with excellent time, and with great taste, but he still knows exactly when to turn on the elemental thunder.

I have always been very wary of using a drum-kit when there is no Bass player in the frame; whenever the drummer hits the Bass-drum pedal, it can sound like he’s making a major artistic statement. A twinkle-toed organist like Hugh Banton can carry it off, by playing Bass and Keyboards simultaneously (the VdGG in their current incarnation certainly don’t lack for clear and articulate Bass lines) but it remained a worry for me.

However, I had reckoned without Michael’s musical savvy and prodigious keyboard skills. Magically, he seems to be able to conjure-up punchy, fat Bass lines with one hand, groovy pads and complex chords with the other, and top lines and funky fills with a third hand which appears from somewhere; a truly awesome musician. And as for what he can do with the accordion… before meeting him, I had no idea just how rhythmic, or how powerful this instrument can sound. One thinks of a squeeze-box wheezing out polkas or French café waltzes, but in his hands it can become something primal, untamed and at times downright scary, a truly rock’n’roll instrument. He’s a lot younger than both John and I, but we tend to defer to his musical judgment.

With the addition of drums on the more rhythmic numbers, John was now free to play in the choppy, slash’n’burn style that makes him such a great rock Guitarist. We wanted to expand our set slightly, and I suggested adding two very old numbers, each with a Peter Hammill connection, ‘Been Alone So Long’ and ‘Viking’. Both seemed to be suitable for the Accordion-plus-guitar treatment, and John and Michael found new depths and different angles on both songs. ‘Viking’ in particular blossomed into a primeval, shamanistic arrangement, featuring John’s unique E-bow technique, which felt so climactic that it seemed impossible to find a song to follow it with.


Rehearsals proceeded in an efficient and business-like way, and after a day or so, the set was starting to sound hot. For years now, my policy has been to find the best musicians I can, communicate the music to them in its simplest, most stripped-down form and see what they do with it. If you’ve found the right people, you can just stand back, get out of the way, and listen to your simple ditty become something extraordinary. On this gig, I hardly had to do anything except sing and pour the tea (Gigi provided quite passable English tea, a minor miracle in this part of the world, and us Anglos tended to go easy on the ubiquitous Italian espresso, the crack cocaine of the coffee world.)

How nice it is to do rock’n’roll when you’ve grown-up! The ego-wrestling and horn-locking of the bands of your youth are long gone, because the awful angst of trying ‘to make it’ (whatever that meant) isn’t a factor any more. The precious record contract and the longed-for article in Melody Maker, that used to seem so important, have long since been revealed as phoney, plastic prizes. Now you’re free to do music for music’s sake, do your very best and have a damn good time doing it.

At lunch time we would go across the road to a pizzeria. How different in style and substance is the real Italian pizza to its mutant British offspring, and how much more pride, style and class is apparent in the way it’s served. The same could be said of the music shop we needed to visit at one point. Gleaming, clean, laid out with care, and staffed by knowledgeable, friendly adults, it made a stark contrast to the grubby, down-at-heel retail experience the musician-customer endures at home. In fact, it was quite sad how often we found ourselves comparing the quality of life in Italy and the quality of life in the UK, with Italy coming out the clear winner.

On the second day of rehearsals we were joined by Marco Olivotto of Labour Of Love Records who was going to be filming the show for a possible DVD release, he was also going to play Bass Guitar on two numbers, and this would be our only chance to rehearse with him. All went well; he’s a good musician, and, as an experienced vocalist in his own right, I was able to persuade him to add some badly-needed backing vocals to ‘I Want Some Of It’. For a lead singer, it’s both an invigorating and a relaxing sensation, to be able to ‘lean back’ against the blast of a full rock-band, and it’s a sensation I feel I’ve enjoyed far too seldom over the last quarter-of-a-century.

It wasn’t all work; on our way to rehearsals or on our way home, we were shown some fascinating sights, including an exhibition of the remarkable work of the impoverished and mentally-troubled artist Ligabue, shown in the colossal ‘great hall’ of an ancient palazzo. We also crossed one of the last of the local traditional floating pontoon bridges still in place across one of the many waterways that crisscross this flat, fertile landscape, and we were taken to meet Marina’s father, a handsome and charismatic gentleman of 83, by the name of Rocco di Roma. (I’m sure my career in music would have been more successful if I’d had a totally cool name like that.)


Rocco has established a wonderful museum of ancient machinery and tools that he repairs and restores, and it records the many vanished crafts and skills of this rural area. Poplar trees are still one of the main cash-crops of the region, and plantations are everywhere. In the past, the timber had many local uses, but one of the most unlikely has to be for the manufacture of hats. Rocco showed us a machine that cuts thin strips of wood from a poplar log, strips which were plaited into long braids and then sewn together to make splendid hats.

As we drove in and out of Guastalla, in the persistent heavy rain that lasted for most of our visit, we often caught glimpses of Emilio and Marina’s grandest project, the Bosco Profundo, or Deep Forest. In modern times, ill-advised dredging of the Po has lowered the water-table to the extent that the unique wetland forest that had always surrounded the river was dying, with the loss of its special wildlife. Emilio’s response was to start a charity that has excavated the ruined areas of forest, lowering the ground level by as much as 4 metres, thus restoring its original relationship with the water-table, and then replanting the forest with its original mix of trees and plants. It’s a colossal and continuing project, and more than 75 acres of forest have already been sunk in this way. The charity is also heavily involved in education, as being an integral part of the conservation process. It’s a quite remarkable achievement, but then our hosts are quite remarkable people.


My girlfriend Fiona flew out on Friday evening, (all by courtesy of our princely client), and on Saturday morning the band set up its equipment at the gig, the Ruggeri Theatre in Guastalla. This is an eighteenth century gem of a building, built as a miniature copy of the La Scala opera house, with a horse-shoe shaped auditorium complete with tier-on-tier of boxes. Quite magical. For the first time in my life I was to have the luxury of a PA with a separate monitor guy to look after the on-stage sound. For a band, hearing what the other guys are playing on-stage is always difficult, and often quite impossible, but our engineers, Isaac, Francesco and their boss knew what they were doing, and they were also enthusiastic and encouraging (virtues not always found in sound-engineers, in my experience). Michael declared that the Grand Piano was a good instrument, and in tune, so altogether the omens seemed favourable.

Our sound-check ran either side of lunch, a typically jovial feast for more than a dozen people, with people we’d never met turning up to join the festivities, bringing with them yet more steaming bowls of food. The guy busily opening the wine turned out to be Barnardo Lanzetti, the singer of PFM, perhaps the most successful Italian band of all time, and a charming fellow he is too. On the subject of charm, I had told Fiona that I was sure she would like Gigi, but on seeing our charismatic drummer in his stage gear (bare feet and leather trousers), a dreamy smile settled over her face for the rest of the day.

I had decided that it would be a nice idea to introduce the numbers in Italian, since this would not be a normal rock audience of young people who might be expected to understand some English. Marco had translated my little intros for me, and I would be reading them off a clip-board, written out phonetically to help my pronunciation. This was going to be more scary than singing the songs; and that’s scary enough, believe me.


The band retired mid-afternoon for a rest, and Fiona, who is a professional complimentary Therapist qualified in Therapeutic Massage, gave me a great, tension-busting, upper-body Massage (using my shaving-oil as lubricant). It seemed unfair for me to be the only band member to be so lucky, so Fiona went off to deliver the same service to John and Michael, and they too were left draped in towels and groaning slightly. It wasn’t until afterwards that we realized that knocking on doors and offering gentlemen ‘a relaxing Massage in the privacy of your hotel room’, might, in other circumstances, be open to misinterpretation.

The nervous pre-gig, back-stage bit is always horrid for me, but I did have a new stage outfit to ponce about in, a crimson two-piece purchased for next-to-nothing in a rave emporium in Glastonbury, and modified on Fiona’s sewing machine. However, it wasn’t until this was accessorized with red shoes, a red beret, a red towel and shades that I looked at myself in the dressing-room mirror and saw a grotesque from a Fellini film leering back at me. Oh well, that was quite appropriate under the circumstances; there were times when we all felt as if were caught up inside one of Fellini’s wonderful evocations of Italian communal celebration; exuberant, convivial, voluble, full of zest for life.

Fortunately, we were not the only act of the evening. A niece of Marina played a fine piece of French music for solo flute, there was a reading from Emilio’s book of short stories about the Bosco Profondo (yes, he’s a published author too), and there was a splendidly dramatic performance by Max and Paulo from the Study Group. What it was about I cannot tell you, but it involved a masked Piano player, a candelabra and tremendous passion.


We knew that about forty members of the Study Group would be in the audience, and we had been delighted to find that Seán Kelly, David Scoffield, and Alan and Lesley Hutchinson had actually come out to Italy for the show. (I can’t believe how supportive these guys are!) However, the rest of the three-hundred in the audience (aged from six to ninety, and including the mayor of Guastalla, and other dignitaries from the city and regional authorities) would have no idea who we were, or have any particular reason to enjoy our stuff, so I was uncertain what kind of reception we would get.


Then Emilio introduced us. My outfit got a laugh, so we were off to a good start. If you have material like mine, which is a mixture of humorous and serious, sometimes all in the same song, I think it’s easier to get people to laugh first, and then ask them to take something seriously, rather than start all serious, and then, later on, expect them to realize that you’re now trying to be funny. Audiences seem to need permission to laugh. Our clients had printed Italian translations of most of our lyrics on the invitations to the show, and had distributed copies of ‘The Full English’ CD as party favours, and I’m sure that these typically grand and thoughtful gestures helped get the audience on our side.


I don’t remember too much about the gig itself, and, as I write, I haven’t seen or heard any of the three-camera video recording made by Marco, so I don’t really know how well we did. However the audience really seemed to be having a good time throughout, which was a great relief to me and very pleasing to us all. I think I enjoyed it. John and Michael always spark off each other, and they were certainly up and rocking together on this show. My Italian announcements seemed to be more or less comprehensible to people, but the sheets of my script fell from the clip-board at one point and got muddled-up, and in the confusion, I ended up announcing one number twice. Michael tells us that we all made mistakes; I know I did, though I don’t recall hearing any goofs from him or Gigi. We finished the set with a full-throttle rock-band version of ‘Advance The Spark’, and encored with ‘Viking’ which justified our faith in it as being a Big Finish. A proper bow, all together at the front of the stage, and off. Phew!


A couple of minutes later I was in the dressing-room, changing out of my sweaty kit, wearing no trousers and one sock, and desperate for a stiff drink, when a large gentleman in a suit and wearing some sort of insignia suddenly appeared and advanced on Fiona and myself, beaming silently. Reaching in his waistcoat pocket he produced a small dropper-bottle. What on earth was going on? Then I realized; it was the balsamico! We held out our fists in the approved manner and each received a black, viscous drop of the magic elixir. Yum! Apparently the rest of the band had also just been accorded this unusual accolade.


We joined the party going on in the Theatre bar and drank lots of excellent Italian champagne, and ate Italian wedding cake (it’s cake, but not cake as we know it, Jim) until one in the morning. Our clients seemed very happy with their concert, and this was what really mattered to us; doing a good job for them was the only way we could repay their amazing hospitality. A gratifyingly large number of Emilio and Marina’s guests wanted to say hello, and I seemed to have gone down particularly well with ladies of a certain maturity. But then, of course, older women do have excellent taste. One charming young person did come up, with her mother I believe, to talk to me in perfect, un-accented English. I complimented her on her language skills, and asked if she was studying English at university. “Oh no!”, she protested, sounding quite shocked, “I’m only fifteen.” Fiona, passing by in the crowd, just caught this last line, and arched one lovely eyebrow at me.

As we said our goodbyes, we met the gentleman with the dropper-bottle again. He turned out to be the head of Emilio’s particular Order of sommeliers, some of whom had been on duty, serving the drinks for the party. He is also one of the vinegar experts who taste, approve and classify each year’s production of balsamic, and when we shook hands he palmed me his little bottle. All I could do was look in my Italian dictionary for the word ‘eccessivo’, ‘too much!’

The next day, John, Michael and I were due to attend a meeting of the Study Group for a question-and-answer session. Their meetings are held in a Youth Hostel building in the woods outside the town, where some Study Group members, including the English contingent, were staying. The Study Group are a splendid bunch of people who are very knowledgeable about the music they support, and who ask sensible, interesting questions. John’s time as sideman with both Peter Gabriel and Peter Hammill was of particular interest to them. Fortunately Marco was there to act as interpreter.


John and Michael had all their luggage and instruments with them, as they would be going on to the airport, and towards the end of the session, Michael whispered to me that we ought to offer to do a number for them. ‘Viking’ seemed to be the obvious choice, as we could do it with just voice and accordion (there was nothing to plug John’s Guitar into). Our proposal went down well, but we were asked if we could clear the room when we’d finished, so that the tables could be set for lunch.


We did the song and as we reached the closing refrain of “Now we’re going home” it seemed natural for us to leave the building, and do another chorus as the audience clustered on the steps outside. Spontaneously, we then set off down a woodland path, still playing and singing, as if we were indeed going home. After a moment, the audience began following behind us. Our improvisation continued as we headed into the woodland, the path becoming muddier and more indistinct. “How far are we going?” I murmured to Michael. “All the way, man,” he replied.


Then, as if by magic, we rounded a corner, and there before us was the mighty River Po, its grey waters swollen by the recent rain, trees and debris sweeping by on the flood. We had no idea that we were anywhere near the river, but it might have been put there just for this occasion. We went down the river bank, right to the water’s edge, and sang and played at top volume, projecting the music out across the river, over those ‘grey waves racing before us’. This was a very special moment for us; one of those unplanned, unpremeditated ‘happenings’ that sometimes just work out right. We just went with the flow, and it was a fitting, and surprisingly emotional, closing act of our trip.


The crowd made their way back to the hostel, and the primordial, Viking mood continued with a magnificent ‘festa’ served on long tables. Food was carried in on mighty, four-handed bowls and platters, like something out of a Brueghel painting, and we feasted on two kinds of pasta, risotto, rolled pork, cheese and cakes washed down with the fizzy local Lambrusco. (Interestingly, despite a week of stuffing my face with food and drink, I found, when I got home, that I’d actually lost three pounds.)


John, Michael and myself (and Fiona) had an extraordinary time in Italy. It was an overwhelmingly positive and life-affirming experience, which we owe to the generosity of our clients, Emilio and Marina Maestri. If they and their guests had half-as-good a time at our show as we had in their country, then we will have done a very good job.

JUDGE SMITH. October 2005
Photographs by, and reproduced by courtesy of, John Ellis, Judge Smith, Michael Ward-Bergeman, Seán Kelly, Szabo Laslo & Fiona Lindsay