Steve Hackett has been almost 60 years in the scene, releasing six studio albums with one of the greatest bands of all time, as well as some 28 solo albums, besides featuring in a super-group and various other projects.
His style should not be just confined to prog/symphonic rock; nor should he just be remembered as a member of Genesis, as there is so much to fathom in his solo projects which have shown his love for classical styles, like Elgar and Satie, as well as ethnic styles. In short, he is a complete, erudite talent, even in his conversation.
In around 30 minutes, I realised that I was talking to a quintessentially English artiste, who is also very much aware of other world cultures.
Genesis Revisited: Seconds Out + More is Hackett’s current world tour and, during the interview, he was pretty much happy with the proceedings:
“Since lockdown, I have been touring continuously since last autumn. I do half an hour to 40 minutes of solo stuff and then it’s the Genesis stuff. The song that is attracting the most interest is Shadow of the Hierophant. It has a big crescendo factor. It finishes the first half and during the second half, it also builds up with the Genesis stuff. Dance of the Volcanoes and Los Endos have been the most appealing and, indeed, we have been at our busiest at this moment in time whereas others have retired to health or other reasons. As a team, we have been having this train rolling and though so busy, I have never been so happier.”
The early years of Genesis
Genesis have been known for their long, articulate songs but have also been known for shorter but nonetheless articulate and striking songs. There was I Know What I Like in 1973, Carpet Crawlers in 1975 and the Pigeons EP, the latter landing Genesis their first UK Top 20 single in late spring of 1977.
Steve had a very important role in these three songs all of which had a great hook. He wrote the song that became their first Top 30 hit in the UK. Eventually, Genesis, reduced to a trio, made further changes which kept their trademark sound but appealed to wider audiences and eventually becoming hugely popular.
“Genesis was firmly an albums-oriented band, but there was the dichotomy of burgeoning interest of singles-oriented bands, that was facilitated by MTV, and at the same time there were fans that wanted musical odysseys and audio adventures, so what best-served media did not always best serve the fans.
"Thus, there were two Genesis factions, like those who loved Supper’s Ready just as they loved Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, where they could be immersed in it, but then there was this new direction which won Genesis new fans but also disoriented old fans. But then, the pan genre approach that interested fans from eight to 80 years and this is what really interested me to reach out to my audiences who are into classical, jazz, world and soundtrack music even though I may have only ended up selling half of what Genesis sold.”
Peter Gabriel and the early 1970s scene
Foxtrot was Genesis’ fourth album and it was their first album chart hit in the UK. Next October, it will turn 50. Hackett will be promoting this album by a special tour. Then, at 22, he played a pivotal role.
“Seems like so long ago. When I joined Genesis, they were more of an acoustic band then, and during live sets, interest was marginal except towards the end with songs like The Musical Box and other heavier numbers but with Foxtrot, we won a new audience. I wanted to get the band to have an increased value in terms of audio and visual appeal.
“We got a new mellotron and Peter Gabriel himself realised that he had to adopt a personified visual style to complement the album’s theme, just like David Bowie and Alice Cooper were doing. I was largely responsible for Supper’s Ready, a long song which, at the same time, became the most favourite progressive song of all time even though it is the furthest away from pop music. Both can have enormous power and appeal.”
If Foxtrot was a watershed album, Selling England By The Pound proved to be even more popular, and to date has sold more than 4.6 million copies worldwide. Hackett recalls with much satisfaction his artistic contribution.
Moreover, the album had more social commentary about classism, and also the sale of British assets to foreign corporates, something which remains even nowadays, like the recent sale of a huge swathe of public brownfield land to a UAE company.
“I was given more space to play and stretch out. The social commentary was spurred by the then Labour party manifesto of the corner shop giving way to the conglomerate; the idea that one can have two types of government - one in favour of the business and one in favour of the people. This album addressed these quandaries and Dancing With the Moonlit Knight, which is my favourite of all Genesis tracks goes through so many changes.
"It starts off with a Scottish plainsong, then it delves into some hymn-like, Elgarian, romantic, English romantic land of hope and glory aspect, and then it gives way to what can only be described as fusion, but it’s fusion with a hint of Mozart, a hint of Prokofiev, big band influences with accentuations and syncopations, and then it gets into a section where there is a change of time signature in every bar. It is a restless but the most cohesive of any Genesis song, but it ends in a peaceful style, reflecting a sense of resignation to the situation in question.”
Hackett as a multi-instrumentalist
Hackett is also a prolific musician with a vast knowledge of other instruments. When asked about how this shaped his style over the years, he answers: “First of all, I was a harmonica player and, as an untrained young child, I wondered for years as to what would give the best direction, and these were chords and harmony. I would come across instruments that I would love the sound. I ended up recording them not to a virtuosic extent but just to include them in my works.
I used to worry that listening to classical music was a guilty pleasure and that it would have no relevance to the contemporary- Steve Hackett
“There is, for example, the Vietnamese dan tranh which is related to the koto family; it has five pentatonic scales and three octaves at that. If tuned properly, it can create beautiful tunes. There’s also the oriental harp and the Peruvian charango, which belongs to the lute family and again, once tuned well and played, it conjures images of the Andes.
“Some of these instruments can be played in interesting ways, like the vibraphone that I played on the album Lamb Lies Down On Broadway which was played and eventually tapes were reversed to give atmospheric passages. I don’t really consider myself to be a multi-instrumentalist but the more one allows himself playing different instruments, the more one can gets to the idea of composition and also drift away from the idea of being the soloist for anything, especially if one comes over virtuoso like my band members Rob Townsend, who plays saxophone and flute and all the brass and woodwind abilities that he possesses, or even Christine Townsend (no relation) who can play the violin and the viola.
“All the best writing comes out of the notion that there is no such thing as an irrelevant instrument. They just have to find the right place in the song. Even the humble triangle plays a vital role in the orchestra. Thus, sometimes one has to think small in order to think big.”
Hackett faced challenges when he was behind the mixing desk on Seconds Out back in the late 1970s. “I was not completely satisfied with the end product. I felt the music was very strong but the production was extremely compromised. I was very keen, having already done one solo album to continue doing that and so on doing more solo albums; the band was not prepared to have me undertake a parallel solo career. Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks told me we don’t think you are giving everything to the band. I said that if they allow to use all my ideas or at least a proportion of them that would be fine.
“But there was no assurance about that and so I felt that they wanted to control it and at the same time, I thought that I would be forced to being an employee and I wasn’t prepared to have stillborn children.
"So, even though I think Genesis was the best band in the world, and I had no argument with the music the internal politics was becoming stifling, so I did the only honourable thing and I left, though I reserved the right to honour the music as I saw fit because the tunes are marvellous. Genesis were virtually retired at this point but I find increasing audiences whenever I present their music along my solo works which is not exactly solo as the musicians involved show verve and experience which make these concerts so invigorating.”
World Music, the classical music influence and film soundtracks
Hackett also took part in WOMAD, the celebrated World Music Festival, a brainchild of former Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel. He has been a very important figure in world music not just for this initiative but also for including ethnic sounds on his solo releases, especially his third and fourth albums.
Others, like David Bryne and Paul Simon, also helped this highly creative genre to reach wider audiences, especially in Europe. And of course, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, the latter during their Brian Jones era back in the 1960s. Hacketts adds that there are also contemporary soundtracks, often of historical films, many ethnic instruments, especially in many soundtracks, particularly historical documentaries.
“Soundtracks have become a broader canvas to enlarge whatever one is watching on the silver screen. Often one gets a bleak landscape but one one also gets the language being conveyed by the music itself. I did a wide range of recordings of people from India to Tajikistan and Azerbaijan, Armenia, people from Israel and Palestine working together and producing something astonishing and exquisite. Recently, I worked with some Ukrainians and again, delivered something that broke socio-political boundaries and delivered an alternative message to all this conflict going around. Music creates harmony and is a very natural ambassador as it can heal differences between people, and I am very proud to be involved in music in its widest sense.”
When asked about his most satisfying solo release, he answers: “That is a very difficult question. When one has a pan-genre approach and is involved in different styles of music. If I am involved in rock and roll which is dynamic and fiery, that would be just one aspect. There was however another side of me in the sense that my record collection features discs from Jimi Hendrix to Andre Segovia.
“I used to worry that listening to classical music was a guilty pleasure and that it would have no relevance to the contemporary. But then, towards the mid-1960s, to the end of the 60s and into the 70s, musicians who were thinking in a like-minded way realised that for music to be truly inclusive and to be truly integrated and to broaden rock music’s shoulders, perhaps what was needed was to include classical music. I would eventually do the same with the works of Erik Satie and J.S. Bach. I did different styles electric and acoustic and nonetheless, both are powerful.”
Hackett will be releasing a live version of Seconds Out. “It sounds ironic to say a live version of a live album but Seconds Out in the first place was a selection of some of Genesis’s strongest songs from the early 70s until 1977 and I think that the sound of the album we have done has all the production values of the original album and is powerful. It will not knock the original edition off its perch but privately, I would listen to the other version and think in terms on how the songs evolved and helped make it a true classic,” he concludes.
Steve Hackett will be performing on Thursday, August 4, at The Malta Hilton Grandmaster Suite. Concert will start at 8.30pm. Tickets can be purchased from here.