Although Van Der Graaf Generator had never been averse to the occasional extended epic, the instrumentalists had long shied away from vocalist/lyricist Peter Hammill's ambitions to create a side long opus - so much so that initial plans for the Pawn Hearts album called for it to be a double, with Hammill's masterwork balanced by another side's worth of solo spots by Guy Evans, Nic Potter and David Jackson. (The putative fourth side would comprise live in the studio renderings of earlier material). This plan was eventually abandoned, but the marathon remained, to emerge as A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers.
Writing the song had occupied Hammill for some months although, by the time he was finished, even he acknowledged that it was too long, and the pieces didn't fit together as well as they could have - it would be another six years before he was able to remedy this failing, when he described the similarly epic "Flight" (from his A Black Box solo album) as an effort to perfect what he'd attempted before. By that time, however, "Lighthouse" was already firmly established as a classic, a 23 minute journey through ten separate movements, both lyrical and instrumental, and a genuinely stunning creation.
Opening with the foreboding "Eyewitness" ("I prophesy disaster and then I count the cost"), the piece moves into the darkly evocative "Pictures/Lighthouse" passage - an opportunity for every effect in the band's battery, from crashing waves to lonely foghorns - to come into play. Returning to "Eyewitness" for a final melodic coda, tensions then build through "SHM" and "The Presence Of The Night"/"Kosmos Tours", from whence another lengthy, and effects-laden passage preludes the absolute placidity of "(Custard's) Last Stand". The melody rates among Hammill's loveliest; however, it also stands among his most deceptive, for it is still echoing as we enter the nightmarishly convulsive "The Clot Sickens", the instrumentation crashing and howling like the storms which whip the words. And then - sudden calm once again, total and all-embracing, as "Land's End (Sineline)" and the stately "We Go Now" ride a melody vaguely reminiscent of the Kinks' "Celluloid Heroes", and make sense of all the chaos that has gone before.
It is a devastating piece, the band's performance at least as gripping as Hammill's. Neither, despite its length and complexity, were Van Der Graaf Generator afraid to perform it live - indeed, a 1972 Belgian TV audience was held spellbound by a full-length (albeit two-part) rendering of the piece, and mesmerized by the barefoot Hammill, stalking the stage with a glass of red wine.