By Ralph Chapman
Since his departure from Genesis thirty-eight years ago, Steve Hackett has produced an extraordinary body of work, fearless in scope, humbling in breadth, inspired in sound. While many of his contemporaries have faded in to the proverbial woodwork, Steve’s output, if anything has increased, with the guitarist enjoying a late period creative roll matched only by the likes of fellow legends Richard Thompson, Paul McCartney and a handful of others. Currently touring in support of his latest album, Wolflight, he is also celebrating his own past with a first set that is peppered with some of his early solo work from the 1970s, while a second set shows him continuing to honor his days in Genesis. This past summer, Esoteric Records re-issued, in deluxe form, the sole studio album from the band that saw Steve joining forces with Steve Howe back in 1985, GTR. It is that re-issue that forms the basis of the following interview with Ralph Chapman conducted in Toronto, Canada on the 29th of November 2015.
RC: In 2015, it seems to be a real good time to be a Steve Hackett fan.
SH: Yes. There has been a lot of touring in recent times and a lot of new releases, and a lot of re-releases, all ends of the spectrum, different styles: my latest, Wolflight, the GTR album, the Premonitions box set, which is the Charisma Records years of my solo career, ’75 to ’83.
RC: Up to and including Highly Strung…
SH: Yes. After that, I went through this period where practically every record I was signed to a new label over here, such was the nature of the 1980s where it just worked out that way. At one point it was Phonogram, and Polygram and then Arista with GTR. Currently, it’s Premonitions with Universal, and with Wolflight, it’s Inside Out.
RC: I guess you haven’t felt label pressure in quite some time…
SH: No, I haven’t felt that, that’s right. It was different in the 1980s where there was a considerable amount of label pressure usually oriented towards a hit single or several. Some vehicles were easier at achieving that than others. It was easier to achieve a hit single with GTR in North America. It had been possible to have a hit single in the UK with a song from Highly Strung. But you’re quite right, I don’t feel any label pressure at the moment with Inside Out; basically the dictum from them is, really, they’re interested in progressive music first and foremost which means a pan-genre approach seems to be what fits the bill there. They’re not particularly keen on blues, but I always manage to slip some in there.
RC: I suspect you haven’t had to think about earning back record company advances.
SH: No, I haven’t had to worry about that. It’s been very good working with Inside Out, I have to say. It was great working with Cherry Red on the Squackett project, with Chris Squire. So, it’s a very good time for me right now. People are willing to accept pretty much whatever I do. It was a very different scene in the 1980s. I think now is closer in spirit to what happened with Genesis in the 1970s where we made albums and the record company released them. There was no talk of ‘Well, guys, I guess you should go back in to the studio and concentrate on a hit single.’ But the goal posts had shifted in the 1980s.
RC: GTR, and your involvement in that project, made sense to me at the time, as I always saw you as a writer who had a distinctly accessible side with songs like ‘Cell 151’, ‘Every Day’, ‘Hope I Don’t Wake’, even going back to ‘I Know What I Like’ with Genesis. It made sense for you to do be involved in a band like that from a songwriting point of view.
SH: Yeah. The idea of GTR was born in a time before artists really had their own record labels. So, most of the time I was auditioning once again to an industry that had decided that at thirty-five, that was the cut off point. You didn’t sign acts older than that. So, I got in by the skin of my teeth with GTR; I was young enough, I was bankable.
RC: You put out Till We Have Faces in 1984. Did you feel that you were loose ends after that, wondering what you were going to do next?
SH: I also put out Bay Of Kings that year, and the two were poles apart. One was a little bit closer to world music, while Bay Of Kings was pure and simple an acoustic instrumental album, which probably wouldn’t have been out of place on the Windham Hill label. At that time, yes, I could have continued going on my own sweet way, but I felt I was trying to prove a point with GTR. It was a vehicle for me that had all the necessary qualifications to prove to both myself, and the industry, that it was no accident there was success with Genesis. I was very well aware that if I continued going on my own way that I would sign to smaller and smaller labels. As I say, the goal posts had shifted and the perception was, ‘This guy might do some weird and wonderful stuff but there is obviously something wrong with him, because he can’t get a hit single.’ So, in a way, I was proving a point to, I think, myself, and the other Genesis guys. After GTR was released, there was an article in Time Magazine that had noted that all of the guys in Genesis, the class of ’71 to ‘75, had something either in the American top 20 or top 30. We were all in there with something, so there were a lot of people on the ‘I told you so’ list that had to take note of that...
RC: You had been with Pete as a singer, then Phil, then Pete Hicks, then finally, yourself, did it feel like a step back working with a singer again?
SH: Well, I had proved with Highly Strung and ‘Cell 151’ that I could have success with myself singing and that was fine. I suggested Max Bacon to Steve Howe. I didn’t think I would garner a sufficient marketing budget under my own steam to lead the charge. Yes, I probably could’ve come up with the music and I could’ve come up with the personnel. I think what our manager, Brian Lane, was selling with GTR was two known quantities in Steve Howe and myself, but, I suspect that Clive Davis at Arista was less convinced about our songwriting abilities, which is where Geoff Downes came in to the equation, and I think the deal was done and signed on the basis that we would do one of Geoff’s songs which was ‘The Hunter.’ Initially, Clive felt that was the hit, he hadn’t really heard anything else recorded to that standard, and Geoff had the song, he had the Synclavier and he had Max singing it, and I think it came across with a certain amount of slickness. Ironically, the hit turned out to be something that Steve and I wrote together, ‘When The Heart Rules The Mind’.
RC: A lot of those GTR songs strike me now as almost lost songs. There are some great tracks on that record like ‘Toe The Line’, but other than your instrumental and Steve’s instrumental, they don’t get played live anymore.
SH: So, why aren’t we performing them?
SH: Funnily enough, there is always something else on the agenda, which is normally one’s latest album, or my first band, or big band, and that’s Genesis. At the moment, I’m doing a show where I’m doing my solo material, then we take a fifteen minute break then come back and do the Genesis stuff, so we are really two bands in one, but it takes quite a lot of rehearsal to do this kind of stuff. It’s no easier just because I played it at one time.
RC: Do you have an emotional attachment to any of those GTR songs?
SH: I tell you what, I think ‘When The Heart Rules The Mind’ is a tremendously good song and I would like, at some point, to play that live. Having said that, it means you’ve got to have a band that is prepared to play it, and sing it, rehearse it, and do this anomaly on top of everything else.
RC: Do you like the GTR album?
SH: I like parts of the album tremendously, but I like that song, ‘When The Heart Rules The Mind’ in its entirety. I think it’s a lovely song that bridges this tremendous gap between rock and pop. When I was growing up listening to The Beatles, yay, even The Monkees, I felt the divide had been healed, fused. So, I think it is possible to produce a type of music that really satisfies both urges. In the main, I think people tend to head in to one or the other, and you can tell there is a prejudice at work. I’ll go for a good melody every time. If you can stretch that out to a concerto or symphony, good luck to you. Equally, if you can write a two minute pop song that thrills me as much as ‘Eleanor Rigby’, great, or, Roy Orbison, this sweet, soaring voice, heartfelt love songs beautifully performed, music that wasn’t hi fi dependent, that sounded good on tinny little radios. There was something real about that. I’m not a Luddite, but songs that I heard growing up, like ‘I Am The Walrus’ that I heard on the family radio, one speaker, in the kitchen, probably one of the worst sounding pieces of equipment ever, and the song still sounded massive. How many acts are capable or brave enough in fact, to pull that off?
RC: I think ‘brave’ is the key word.
SH: It is, isn’t it.
RC: Great art is courageous.
SH: It is. There has to be risk, and you have to face potential failure.
RC: When I met you in 1992 after a show at the El Mocambo in Toronto, I may have come across as just another oddball fan cornering you in the men’s room for an autograph, but I asked you then about GTR, and you were distant about it. Have you reassessed the project over the years?
SH: Yes, I think so, with the passing of time. Steve Howe and I have talked, and there is no ill feeling. I very recently saw Jonathan Mover, and I hope there is something in the future with him. I think we did well, we gave it everything we could, we didn’t see eye to eye all the time, but that perhaps wasn’t the point. We were trying to produce the best album that we could at the time. I remember having this conversation with no less than Pete Townshend, who said he thought that GTR shared enormous promise, and I said ‘Yeah.’ So, basically, I’m proud of it. Steve and I thrashed it out, and we thrashed it out with the band with Churchill-ian resolve. But after that first album, I felt that for any subsequent aspects the only way was down. Plus, we had a manager who tended to enjoy dividing and conquering, so the atmosphere could become quite strained.
RC: Are you choosing your words carefully?
SH: I’m trying to be diplomatic, yes. Having said that, in Brian Lane’s defense, he was a hell of a salesman, and still is. But, you know, with a band, you do need someone who is there to heal rifts. Short-term gain can be shortsighted, and I think GTR could’ve been a very successful band that would have had a long and prosperous career, but that was not who was in charge of the purse strings at the time…
Steve Hackett’s ‘Acolyte To Wolflight’ tour currently runs until June of 2016. See http://www.hackettsongs.com for details.
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