"The Defector Speaks Out" - Continuing the in-depth examination of Steve Hackett’s solo career, we focus on Spectral Mornings, Defector and Cured. Interview conducted by Alan Hewitt. Photographs by Alan Perry, Roger Salem. Memorabilia: TWR Archive.
TWR: What are your memories of recording Spectral Mornings?
SH: Spectral was recorded at the beginning of ‘79. It
was very, very cold, sixteen degrees below zero and very little sleep! I used
to come in at 3am and the maids used to start making up the rooms at four! (laughs).
There was a lot of banging and crashing. I was very spaced out for the whole
thing. It was like making an album in a bubble really. We didn’t venture
out that much at Hilversum which was basically doubling as the radio station
and headquarters for Polygram. It was a very big studio. The whole experience
was absolutely wonderful, we seemed to be out of our brains most of the time!
(laughs). It was the only way to survive really but it was great fun. There
were a whole bunch of crazy characters…
Yes, I can remember some of their antics on stage. I shudder to think what they were like in the studio…
Some of the best performances of course were backstage. Some of that could have been performed live and we had one or two resident comedians that were absolutely hilarious.
TWR: I think that that band is still seen as the one that many people think of as being the “classic” Steve Hackett band. What struck me about Spectral Mornings is that many of the songs are very direct, they actually focus in on one particular subject. For example, Every Day, was that about the problems of drug abuse?
SH: Yes, it was an anti drug song. I was involved with someone who had become a very big drug user and it seemed that the more you put into that person the less you got out. I was always trying to prop her up emotionally, always trying to get her to value herself and she was hell bent on slow suicide. With the erosion of personality it was something that was very hard to watch from the sidelines because I couldn’t be involved the whole time. I had seen what hard drugs could do to somebody.
TWR: I think that track has become something of a trademark. With the slightly eccentric track; The Ballad Of The Decomposing Man, the view seem to be that that song is not so much an anti Trade Union song but more of an expression of frustration, especially with things as they were at the time with the Winter of Discontent…
SH: It was really a straight George Formby parody; probably a very bad impression of George Formby but nonetheless it was meant to be humorous. I really wasn’t thinking about any deeper meaning for the song. I basically let it write itself with lines that seemed to rhyme and so on. It is fairly cynical. I think that if there’s a track that doesn’t fit on the album it is that one. There come times when you want to do that but I don’t want it all to be seen as serious as that. You would never believe it from some of the interviews but I DO have a sense of humour! When I am talking about work I am pretty honest about what sparked it off in the first place. I think having a sense of humour is important.
TWR: I am aware of the story behind the second part of the track Clocks - The Angel Of Mons. Had you heard the story of that incident before you wrote the track?
SH: Yes, I had heard two versions of the story, one of which was that it was something which had literally happened and the other that it was in some way something that a journalist put the story in.
TWR: It’s a very dramatic way to end a live show.
SH: Yes, it is a very optimistic track. It used to close the stage show and it made the perfect segue. In fact, the band used to have a joke that the set would end with a number and then it would be “and into Clocks!”.
TWR: There was another piece that you used to do live although I don’t think it has ever been recorded, around this time. Correct me if I am wrong but was it called The Octagon or The Optigon…?
SH: It was called the Optigon. I used to mess around with this thing which once again, I found in Holland while we were recording the album. I found this machine which was designed for lounge use in Holland at a place called Relight Studios which was where we did Wind & Wuthering. It was an amazing machine, the height of kitsch in other words. On one side of the keyboard it would give you pre-recorded riffs with discs that you used to insert in order to achieve them. I used it then and I used it again later in a Country & Western setting. Again, it was supposed to be a moment of light relief. I ended up using it on Defector on Sentimental Institution doing the “Big Band” sound, which was produced to sound like an old 78 record. In fact it is one of my favourites because it is a send up of something traditional unless you listen to it closely and hear that the lyrics are a total send up.
TWR: That brings us very nicely to Defector. When you came to do that album, did you have the concept of the Eastern Bloc as it was then? You were one of the first Western artists to go there…
SH: It started to take on that idea I think. Albums do, don’t they? If you are lucky they start to take on a life of their own.
TWR: By the time it came out the dreaded “Concept Album” tag was one definitely to be avoided and yet as an album, it works. Especially with the explanation you gave for the album and the character of the defector coming to the West from the East and is astonished by the fact that everyone dreams in colour. I think that that is am marvellous idea because it was something that people hadn’t thought about; the fact that Eastern Europe was, at that time, very grey…
SH: Yes, in fact we find that when we toured later and went to Estonia in what was then the Soviet Union and there was a limitation of colours. There were two colours that the buildings were painted and the rest was concrete. Now, obviously, things are changing. I found that the inside of churches were the only places where there was any imagination and any colour and it was the only places where any kind of decorative eye had been allowed to run riot. So I could see why the attraction was there to the churches and it felt like a real sanctuary in the midst of all this.
TWR: Some of the song ideas, especially Time To Get Out seem to have been written about the whole East/West situation at the time…
SH: I think that at the time there was a feeling that it was going to explode. I know that I felt very depressed about the way the world was at the time but I can’t remember specifically. I was living for a time in New York when that was written.
TWR: You hadn’t been to Eastern Europe at all before the album was written?
SH: No I hadn’t. I suppose this was a much more cynical version. I just felt that everyone should get the hell out of there. It wasn’t a particularly rounded political solution or anything. I don’t stick my head into politics too often. I think it was very apolitical. I hadn’t formed any opinions really. I just felt that in the face of corruption, a mass walk-out seemed the best way and eventually they broke off the chains but one wonders if people don’t want to get shackled up again with the state of things now. It worries me but shall we move on to lighter things…?
TWR: Moving on to the next album Cured. A lot of people want to know why you chose that title for the album…?
SH: I think that was when I started to get very interested in fitness. I had some health problems during the period of Please Don’t Touch where I actually ended up in hospital with ulcers. Around the time of Cured I thought “ I really want to be healthy”. When I went to Brazil I was there for three months, writing the album and I was doing a fantastic amount of exercise every day. I think I was doing two hours’ worth every day. I was really thrilled that when I got home I had managed to lose a tremendous amount of weight and I had become a runner again. As far as I was concerned I had become an athlete.
When I was at school I used to be in the school gymnastics team but the years of touring had taken their toll what with running the gamut of poisons I suppose and so I really wanted to clean up my act in a big way. I wanted to become healthy again and to maintain that. I have still got that thing to this very day where I think that if I do a certain amount of exercise every day, time permitting, of course, then I will get more out of myself in the long run. Psychologically if you have been for a run at the beginning of the day you feel that you have achieved something and given your body a service.
TWR: Can you extend the metaphor of getting yourself fit, if you like, to paring down the band for this album?
SH: Well, there was that. Unfortunately what tended to happen was that it was very rosy for the first album and then there was the second album, although I wrote the occasional track with the band, they wanted to have much more creative input and they wanted to write songs. So there was some resistance to some of the ideas that I had on one level. On the other level it was impossible to maintain weekly wages. I had this conversation with Bill Bruford funnily enough at the same time as I think I was about to disband. Anyway he actually said; “My band are driving me to the poorhouse”. I think he had band for about two years and managed to keep it together.
You see, the nice thing was that I was doing a fair amount of festivals and a fair amount of gigs at the time and touring regularly in Europe and in the States so it made sense to me if someone said me; “Can you do a gig in Paris next week?” and I would pick up the phone to the band and say; “Right chaps, we’re off… “ I was thinking along the lines of a much more traditional band leader. In other words it was like; “Come on boys, follow me, we’re off to conquer the Hun or the Frog!” (laughs). That was great but it meant spending a lot of money and at the end of the day the gods of business have to be appeased. A shame really. The carpet was always pulled out from under you that way.
TWR: The main piece of adverse criticism from the fans about Cured which they don’t tend to say about the previous albums is that it was more commercially orientated. Was there any direct pressure on you to do that or was it your own decision?
SH: Well, at the time I was learning to sing and trying to develop a vocal personality which at times ran contrary with my musical leanings. The point whereby some people were doing Jazz Rock which I didn’t feel particularly comfortable with. It wasn’t a conscious decision to start writing commercial songs. I think one or two of them came out that way because of the use of the early type of drum machine. The album had a more lightweight feel. In a way it was more of a duet between myself and Nick Magnus. Yes, if there’s an album which I don’t think is up to the standard of the others, it would have to be that one.
TWR: I think for the floating voter it is certainly the one that they will pick up first.
SH: I remember putting a band together for that which then went on to record most of what became the next album; Highly Strung. I was learning to sing and that coloured it. I was working with the limitations of my own voice rather than with people who had cast iron voices and so I think it wax an album of finding my way.
TWR: The thing that surprised me was that despite the fact that the singles were a lot more catchy, they didn’t, in this country at least, attract any chart success.
SH: With the following album I had single success. I think that people missed the band basically.
TWR: The interesting thing about the new band wa sin the two members you drafted in - Ian Mosley whom people obviously know from Marillion, and Chas Cronk who has worked with Rick Wakeman. How did you actually meet these guys?
SH: It was mainly through working at a studio called Reedan Recorders which is in Queensway, not to be confused with Kingsway although I often do! (laughs) where Whiteleys is now. There was a rehearsal room at the back of the studio and there used to be a lot of cross flow between various places - we used to meet in the kitchens! I met all sorts of weird and wonderful people there and Ian and Chas were just two of them.
TWR: Ian certainly gave you an edge in live performance. I wouldn’t say it was lacking before but he made, and in fact still does make everything look so easy when it is not!
SH: Yes, he is a very fast drummer and powerful too. When we used to play the old songs with Ian at times he used to set an incredible pace. He used to really go at it and in that way he really made the band very dynamic I think.
TWR: I have particularly vivid memories of seeing Mr Mosley from the centre front row at the Liverpool Empire on that tour, watching him attack the drums. There was so much energy and power on stage during that tour. It was incredible having seen you all the way from the start to see how it had all built up and for what at first sight seemed like a lightweight album.
SH: By then I had three albums to draw from and anything that might be coming from the following one, so it started to get easier. I try to keep the surprises, pulling the rabbits out of the hat and I think that I always wish that I had more rehearsal time but that has come at a premium in a way.
And there we leave it again folks, until next time. It only remains for me to express our thanks once again to Steve and Billy for giving so much of their time and help to us here at TWR.