"Steve Hackett: From Genesis Sideman to Solo Success (or) How One Guitarist Twisted My Mind Forever!" (Part Two) By Vincent Asaro
Continuing Vincent's look at Steve Hackett's career from our last issue.
Part Two: Solo years....
I am not going to cover every solo album only those which have had an influence on me as a musician and a music fan. "Voyage Of The Acolyte" was released before "A Trick Of The Tail" and as it presaged Steve's solo career I will use it as the springboard for my observations on that particular branch of his work.
What is most striking about "Voyage..." is that it does not fall into the trap of the guitar players' solo album. Having known many guitarists and followed the careers of many more, I find that axemen ten to fall into a rut when it comes to songwriting, particularly when they get a chance to branch off from their regular group. "Voyage Of The Acolyte" defies all the prevalent cliches: there are no songs about motorcycles; no slow instrumental named after a girlfriend, no "show case" piece designed to show off Steve's chops, no throw away "party" song and nothing pertaining to anything Michael Moorcock has ever written! Perhaps the most shocking deviation of all! Instead, Hackett crafted a debut akin to Tommy Bolin's, inventive and challenging with the accent on song craft and composition.
"Ace Of Wands" is a rollicking instrumental with frequent mood swings. The apocalyptic instrumental "A Tower Struck Down" is book-ended by the elegantly acoustic "Hands Of The Priestess part One and Two". My personal favourite track has always been "The Hermit" which sounds exactly like the lost theme to some '70's Rankin and Bass cartoon, perhaps an out-take from their "Return Of The King"! Steve's sad and lyrical vocal, the strange atmosphere and evocative lyrics weave a dense tapestry of articulate sounds. Side One is rife with audio tricks such as backward recording "found sounds" such as the coughing and animal noises, and colouration in the form of chorusing, distortion, reverb and delay effects, applied to various instruments and voices. "Star Of Sirius" is adorned with some very poetic lyrics and a catchy refrain and some wonderful fusiony leads on the tag, once again recalling John McLaughlin - a nice tuby chorused tone also. The all-too-short instrumental "The Lovers" gives way to the album's centrepiece "Shadow Of the Hierophant". This long composition is somewhere between Fairport Convention and early King Crimson. Beyond the marvellous melodies and thundering central motif, this piece is novel in its use or abuse, of volume control; the end section of the song is mixed with the main instruments so low as to be inaudible - then what would normally be background instrumentation is mixed louder than would be expected, and finally, the percussion tracks are pulled up full tilt with startling impact! A brilliant touch and a sure sign of Steve's penchant for sonic experimentation
Steve followed "Voyage..." with "Please Don't Touch" a more sophisticated and cogent disc. An interesting note is that upon hearing "Voyage..." for the first time I could not help but think of C S Lewis' "Narnia" books, which I had not read in many years. "Voyage..." captured the peculiarly English vibe of that fantasy epic and sent me back to re-read the entire series, converting me into a lifelong C S Lewis fan. You can imagine my delight upon finally locating a copy of "Please Don't Touch" ($2 pristine vinyl pressing - still have it, still sounds great) and seeing the song entitled "Narnia"!
On "Please Don't Touch" Steve ventured further into his sonic experiments. Found sounds such as children at play and fairground noises adorn "Narnia" and "Carry On Up The Vicarage" respectively, while the latter makes ingenious use of vari-speed, producing both piping 'midget' voices and loping basso voices, yet this is no mere gimmick, the voices perform astonishing harmonies and counterpoint! Elsewhere we find the plaintive and lonely "How can I?" which features Ritchie Havens on vocals. A myriad of altered electric guitar tones underlie the basic acoustic rhythm track, creating a unique tableau of tones. This is one of my favourite Hackett songs, one very rich in atmosphere. The second side is programmed so that many of the songs overlap. The side kicks off with the soulful ballad "Hoping Love Will last". The title track, a rollicking instrumental later to be revamped as "Hackett To Bits" is a strange brew indeed, indulging in more of the odd level settings which made the last section of "Shadow Of The Hierophant" so memorable. The album closes with the proto-heavy metal of "Icarus Ascending" also with Ritchie Havens on vocals. Tricky time changes, schizophrenic mood swings and a myriad of unique guitar tones label this a trademark Hackett composition. Thus "Please Don't Touch" closes, a wild sonic ride covering more ground than some musicians do in their entire career.
"Cured". OK, here we go, Steve's single most controversial record. Are the lyrics profane, blasphemous? Is the cover art offensively sexist or racist? No. It is simply... a pop music album! What could be more offensive to die-hard prog rockers than a thirty-minute collection of catchy pop tunes? Well... nothing actually. Yet "Cured" has become my favourite Steve Hackett album. Let me clarify that: I do not think it is his best, nor do I believe that it best exemplifies his work. But sentimentally it is my personal favourite. And I'll tell you why. There is something intimate about this album, even more so than "Bay Of Kings". Perhaps it comes from Steve playing most of the instruments and the amount of his singing (still an experiment at this time) which gives "Cured" the exact charm of a well-recorded homemade four-track demo. In fact, when I first heard this album I was convinced that it had been recorded on home studio eight-track equipment. It wasn't, it just has that unique mix between spontaneous energy and intimate atmosphere that usually only comes from home recorded albums (Paul McCartney's first solo record and Phil Collins' "Face Value" are good examples of what I am talking about).
The tuneful "Hope I don't wake", "Picture Postcard", "Can't Let Go" "Had A Funny feeling" and ""Turn Back Time" are usually the tracks singled out for harsh criticism. But I love them! There are strains of Country music in "Hope I Don't Wake", one can discern a deep Police influence on "Can't let Go" and the layered vocals and ringing Stevie Wonder vibes make "Turn Back Time" a simmering ballad. "Cured" has its proggy moments as well: the avant- noise instrumental "The Air-Conditioned Nightmare", the Genesis sounding "Overnight Sleeper", the introduction to "Can't Let Go" and the nylon stringed "Cradle Of Swans" one of Steve's finest instrumentals ever. This odd mix of eclectic sounds makes "Cured", to my mind, the perfect little album. It always makes me happy.
"Highly Strung" contains my personal favourite Steve Hackett song of all time; "India Rubber Man". A touching ballad sung to the accompaniment of a piano and not much else, it is an elegant composition and a truly wonderful vocal and lyric.
"Till We Have Faces" is another fan-divider, and as usual, I come out on the side of the album - I think it is great! Recorded entirely in Brazil, it features prominent percussion sections and a surreal atmosphere by now familiar to Steve's fans. Yet the juxtaposition of these elements left many of those fans confused and put off. Go figure. But the wild vibe of "Myopia" the bizarre epic "What's My Name" and the catchy "Matilda Smith-Williams Home For The Aged" makes this a keeper. I could live without "A Doll That's Made In Japan" and "Let Me Count The Ways" but I certainly couldn't give up "Taking The Easy Way Out".
As I stated earlier, I am something of a GTR fanatic, it being a seminal rock album in my musical development. Even now the record sounds crisp and inspired. "Period" touches such as the ultra compressed production quality and outmoded, glassy/glistening '80's synths have acquired a certain charm and do nothing to rob the album of its musical worth, which cannot be said of many other rock albums from that decade. Since this is something of an obscure record now, I will simply urge you to seek it out and give it a few honest listens. I think you will agree with me that it is simply one of the most inventive, engaging and musically valid albums to come out of the 1980's.
Steve's "come back" album; "Guitar Noir" proved to be his strongest solo album since "Highly Strung". Variety seemed to be the theme of this collection, along with stretching the frontiers of sonic experimentation into the "Digital" age. "In The Heart Of The City" is a cinematic sound-fest with some of Steve's best lyrics yet; dense clouds of synths give way to impassioned stabs of electric guitar as the whole composition keeps building to its climax. "Sierra Quemada" is easily one of my favourite Hackett electric instrumentals. It has a similar anthemic feel as "Spectral Mornings" but is far more dynamic. "A Vampyre With A Healthy Appetite" is a humorous romp which would not be out of place on "Please Don't Touch" with bullhorn vocals, tons of atmosphere, a catchy Deep Purple riff and a bevy of solos you have a latter-day prog rock classic. "There Are Many Sides To The Night" shows Steve stretching both as a composer and a lyricist. A wordy but touching poem painting a sympathetic picture of a prostitute-out-of -necessity is recited over deft classical guitar and dense patches of synthetic strings - an instant classic in Steve's catalogue. "Dark As The Grave" is my favourite track from the album a deep and moody atmosphere and excellent lyrics slowly stack, carefully building tension, until that tension is broken by cascading splashes of choir. This piece seems heavily constructed from sequences and samples. In the old days it would have been an expensive production, entailing the hiring of an orchestra and choir, or would have been given a boxed-in sound by heavy reliance on Mellotron and early synthesiser tones. The immaculate reproduction of voice and string sounds achieved by sampling (recording a sound digitally to be restructured via synthesiser) gives the composition a breadth and depth heretofore unattainable without the real thing. "Paint Your Picture" is perhaps Steve's finest love song, with a strong vocal and unique song structure. The CD also contained a bonus track; "Cassandra" a team up with Brian May. This is a really fun song. Actually it sounds exactly like GTR! If anything showed that Steve was ready to climb new mountains, "Guitar Noir" was it. All that remained was... what next?
"Blues With A Feeling" showed Steve reaching back into his roots. Like Steve, I also started out playing harmonica only to take up guitar later on, so naturally I was looking forward to hearing this album. Somewhere between middle era Yardbirds ("For Your Love" meets "Love Of Another Kind") and Robyn Hitchcock, "Blues With A Feeling" has Steve doing an impeccable imitation of John Mayall and the '60's British Blues-Rock scene. Standout tracks are the non-stop guitar instrumentals; "The Stumble" and "Footloose", the harmonica driven "The Thirteenth Floor" and "So many Roads". Compositionally the surreal and apocalyptic "Tombstone Roller" is reminiscent, lyrically, of the old Gospel song "John The Revelator", "Big Dallas Sky" is a lucid, David Gilmour-esque ballad. The Zep groove of "Solid Ground" is irresistible. "Blues With A Feeling" reminds me of "Cured" in many ways. It is short, has an off-the-cuff home studio feel and is buffeted by good humour. And like "Cured" there is much more guitar than the initial listen implies - a fun record.
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" is my favourite Steve Hackett recording of all time. It is a cross between the Mediterranean vibe of Rodrigo and the ponderous middle European sounds of Bruckner and Sibelius. From the rousing opener "The Palace Of Theseus", the melancholy melodies of "Set Your Heart At Rest" and "In The Beached Margent Of The Sea" and triumphant "Celebration", to the Wagnerian density of "Mountains Turned Into Stone", "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is a masterpiece. Warmly received by the Classical world, it deserves a place in the collection of any Genesis or Steve Hackett fan. Listening to this symphony always urges me to final break down and study formal music theory.
"Watchers Of The Skies" ["Genesis Revisited" here in the UK - AH]: "For Absent Friends" in a full orchestral arrangement featuring Colin Blunstone on vocals - 'nuff said!
And so I close this sentimental journey. As you can tell, hardly anyone has had as much influence on my song writing and recording practices as Steve Hackett. And hardly anyone else's music means as much to me personally. We are living in an era of canned ideas, endless retreads and sloppy, boring music. Steve has always refused to be a part of that trend and he continues to buck the status quo. So this is my way of saying "Thanks Steve, you're the best damn guitar player ever". And perhaps I have turned a few sceptical readers on to Steve's music, or shown an old fan a new way of looking at it. My ultimate fantasy is that somewhere, at this very moment, some fourteen year-old kid has put aside this article and is now lining up tape players to try his or her very first overdub... may the Gods of Recording smile upon that child!