“The Defector - An Appreciation Of Steve Hackett” by Andrew Whiteside.
Steve Hackett is the great “bit part” player in the Genesis story. Who can imagine Supper’s Ready without its inevitable prelude: Horizons? His former colleagues have all gone on to great things : Gabriel became the world’s hippest stadium rocker. Phil Collins the all-conquering cheeky chappie, chat show hosts’ dream. Mike has his Mechanics and even if Tony has yet to make a noticeable solo impact, he rests secure in the eknowledge that he is the beating heart of the modern day band. Excluding a couple of early drummers who went on to become consultant orthodontists (!) or beach bums in Australia, Hackett is the former band member history forgot. Hang on a minute, you say, what about Anthony Phillips? Well, a few years ago I would have agreed with you, but the CD reissue programme and the sterling efforts of a bunch of chaps involved with this august journal have redressed the balance somewhat, and it is now definitely the “other” ex-Genesis guitarist who needs some of the world’s attention. This article focuses on the solo albums of Steve Hackett and I have erm, “borrowed” Q’s five-star rating style in order to adjudicate between them.
Voyage Of The Acolyte (1975) ****
Repprtedly recorded partly out of anger when the press wrote off the band after Gabriel’s departure and a desire to prove them wrong. Voyage… was the first solo album by any member and thus created Genesis history. It is also a pretty wonderful album. Largely instrumental, it is a concept work based on the Tarot (each song reflects a particular card) and this is also reflected in the album’s cover art which was painted by Brazilian-born Kim Poor, who went on to paint almost all of Steve’s subsequent album covers as well as becoming Steve’s wife. Often dense and fairly impenetrable (such as the murderous sound collage in A Tower Struck Down) which utilises Nazi rallies and elecrtonic white noise in its evocation of chaos, there are nevertheless many moments of astounding beauty in Hands Of The Priestess and Star Of Sirius, the latter featuring one of Phil Collins’ finest ever vocals, as well as some wonderful Wakemanesque Mellotron. The only weak spot is the closing Shadow Of The Hierophant which builds from a simple glockenspiel refrain to an interminably pompous lament that seems to go on for hours.
Please Don’t Touch (1978) ***
Steve’s first album on leaving Genesis is a bit of a strange affair, featuring a bewildering plethora of guest vocalists and musicians, perhaps betraying a lack of confidence in his own talents. Paradoxically, despite being his most eclectic album, it is also where the beginnings of a recognisable Steve Hackett “sound” would appear. In collaboration with keyboardist Nick Magnus, Steve began to experiment with guitar synths, particularly on tracks like Racing In A and The Voice Of Necam and the strange dreamy sounds they produced would find full fruition on his next album. More characteristic of this record were songs like How Can I? which was a pretty acoustic ballad with vocals by Woodstock veteran: Richie Havens, and Hoping Love Will Last, a gorgeous soul ballad with vocals by Randy Crawford. I am sure this would have been an enormous hit if it had been released as a single, and I can’t believe that Genesis turned down the chance to record it for the Wind & Wuthering sessions. Another noteworthy track was the acoustic piece: Kim, a charming duet between Steve’s guitar and brother John’s flute, dedicated of course, to his wife (actually his girlfriend at the time - Steve and Kim did not tie the knot until 1981 - AH). Finally the album contains what may be Steve’s strangest ever tune - Carry On Up The Vicarage. This is a macabre “tribute” to Agatha Christie, replete with multi speed vocals and talking dolls - it highlights the very English sense of whimsy that f=often crops up in his work, and marks him down firmly as having been in Genesis.
Spectral Mornings (1979) ****
After the release of Please Don’t Touch, Steve got a band together and took them on tour. He retained their services for the recording of his next album, released in March 1979. The result was Spectral Mornings undoubtedly Steve’s finest hour. Kicking off with the urgency of the riff-dominated Every Day through the other-worldy ballad- The Virgin & The Gypsy and the atmospheric epic: Clocks - The Angel Of Mons, the first side is only spoilt by the George Formby-like jokiness of The Ballad Of The Decomposing Man, with its then fashionable anti union sentiments. Side two is a masterpiece of mood and melody with the strangely dramatic acoustic piece Lost Time In Cordoba giving way to the awesome dynamic of Tigermoth, which tells the unforgettable story of a spectral World War One airmen to the accompaniment of some of Steve’s most powerful music. All of these are eclipsed by the album’s title track however, one of the finest instrumental pieces ever recorded. It is a showcase for Steve’s guitar playing - yet at no point does technique subvert melody. Every Genesis fan should have this album.
Defector (1980) ***
Steve and his band proved a great success at the 1979 Reading Festival and they continued to tour heavily into 1980. Defector was written to capitalise on this new found audience, and indeed it gave Steve his only top ten LP to date. However, whilst the material was basically sound it could have undoubtedly done with more time spent on development, either at the writing stage or in the studio, as the eventual album sounds bare and even rushed in comparison to its predecessors. Side one was another concept piece, loosely based on the Cold War and strangely enough, defectors (!). This is a good idea, however it needs fleshing out more, particularly as three of the tracks were instrumentals and as such cannot give more than mental impressions. It must be said though, that Slogans is successful in conveying images of vulgar propaganda. Of the vocal numbers Leaving (which tells the tale of a prisoner exchange) is at times almost unbearably haunting, with it ghostly harmonies and forlorn guitar chords. Two Vamps As Guests and Hammer In The Sand take the instrumental honours - the former another melancholy guitar showcase such as Steve was making his own, the latter an untypical gift for keyboardist Magnus, a doleful piano number that may just be Steve’s most haunting ever. Like Spectral Mornings,, the track The Show was also used as a TV theme.
Cured (1981) ***
At first glance, the most striking thing about this album is the fact that instead of the regulation ghostly Kim Poor cover, there’s a sleeve photo that actually has Steve sitting in the sun smiling! Seen in this light the title take on a new meaning. Cured from what we wonder? There are more surprises on playing the album too; Hackett regulars like Dik Cadbury and Peter Hicks and John Shearer are missing; all music is played by Steve and Nick Magnus, apart from a couple of guest solos. And no real drums at all! The resulting music is more intimate in a lot of ways, but the sparseness of the arrangements also highlights a perennial Hackett problem: the weakness of his vocals, and in retrospect, ditching the band was probably a bad move. Having said that, the album is not without a certain charm; The Air-Conditioned Nightmare is a powerful instrumental in the Please Don’t Touch mould. A Cradle Of Swans is the obligatory lovely acoustic number and Overnight Sleeper is an effective, if shrill mini epic.
Highly Strung (1983) ****
Taking a well-advised break after the disappointment of the pervious album, Steve stormed back after almost two years with the album that stands with the best of his work. Camino Royale, Cell 151. Always Somewhere Else, and Group Therapy - all were powerful modern day progrssive rock songs with a hard hitting edge, helped no doubt by the powerhouse stick work of Ian Moseley, who shortly afterwards went on to join Marillion. Meanwhile, Give It Away and Weightless retained the poppier edge of Cured and if there were no overtly acoustic pieces on the album, India Rubber Man ensured that the plaintive side of Steve’s song writing was not ignored. Incidentally, readers contemplating buying this album are recommended to get the CD as it features the 12” version of Cell 151 (which actually gave Steve his only ht to date) with its Abacab-like extended instrumental fadeout. The last classic Hackett album.
Bay Of Kings (1983) ***
Hackett fans wondering about the dearth of acoustic material on Highly Strung had to wait only a few months before they found out the reason why. A change of record company saw Steve realise one of his long-term ambitions to record an entire album’s worth of acoustic material. Withonly the occasional synth or flute for accompaniment, this is Steve’s most truly “solo” work thus far. It also gave him the chance to re-record a couple of his best known acoustic numbers that he wasn’t happy with - namely Horizons and Kim but in truth, they add little to the original. Some may find this album a bit TOO much of a good thing. Like living off the strawberry creams in a box of Black Magic but there’s no denying the beauty of numbers like The Journey, Marigold, Black Light and Second Chance(which once again became a TV theme).
Till We Have Faces (1984) **
Or “How to lose the plot comprehensively”. The politest thing that
can be said of this album is that it lacks direction. The rudest couldn’t
be printed here! Steve’s first proper “rock” album for the
new label proved to be a major disappointment after Highly Strung. The best
tracks were those that echoed past triumphs such as Matilda Smith-Williams Home
For The Aged (a carbon copy of Camino Royale) and A Doll That’s Made In
Japan that sought to recapture the strangeness of say, Tigermoth. Much too much
time was wasted con unimaginative filler like Duel, Let Me Count The Ways and
The Rio Connection. Only Myopia and especially What’s My Name, a hypnotic
percussion driven drone showed any invention or originality. The most interesting
thing about the album was the sleeve, a Kim Poor painting that originally appeared
in her book of illustrated Genesis lyrics for Silent Sorrow In Empty Boats.
GTR (1986) **
After the universal revilsion that greeted his previous LP, Steve kept his head down for nearly two years. Tantalising rumours floated around that he was working with former Yes guitarist, Steve Howe and anticipation was high that a major work would appear from a collaboration between guitarists of two of the Seventies; greatest bands. I can still feel the crushing disappointment I felt on hearing the LP, a cynical attempt to recapture the enormous success of the first Asia album. Pompous, unimaginative US FM radio fodder, it did indeed become a reasonable commercial success with both the LP and single reaching the US top fifteen, but in truth it did nothing for the reputation of either guitarist, nor did the petty squabbling over who owned the name following the inevitable split. Musically only Imagining showcased any of the possibilities of the collaboration; more typical was Hackett To Bits which, as the title suggests, bludgeoned a medley of some of Steve’s finest moments beneath turgid axe-wielding that has always been an anathema to his style - a disaster.
Momemtum (1988) **
Leaving just before Genesis really began to break big in the States, Steve
had never had a big audience in the US. However, with GTR, Steve suddenly found
himself a sizeable market for his music and had he chosen to record a rock-orientated
follow up a-la Highly Strung pretty quickly, chances are he may have had a decent
seller on his hands. Perversely he chose to record another all-acoustic album.
We can only ask ourselves why as whilst the paying was as excellent as always,
the material lacked any of the charm and warmth of Bay Of Kings.Released on
the tiny START label the record sank without a trace. It needn’t have
been that way. With the right marketing, Steve could have “done a Wakeman”
and gone for the buirgeoning and lucrative “New Age” audience. He
toured in support of the album and once again the gigs were a joy. On meeting
Nick Magnus after one of them he told me that a “rock album featuring
many guests had been recorded” and was simply waiting to be released.
That was over three years ago! Steve has only surfaced since then to make an
enigmatic reappearance on the Genesis documentary and to do a couple of shows
so low key I know of no one who went to them! Rumours of personal problems abound
but as for any hard news, nothing. Perhaps he has become The Hermit of his first