There are many longtime fans of the beloved British progressive rock band
Genesis who claim the band lost some of its soul when front man Peter Gabriel
left the fold in 1976. But the real death blow, they say, occurred the next year
when the heart of the band – guitarist Steve Hackett – departed for a solo
career, enabling the Phil Collins-led unit to veer toward mainstream pop success
in the following decade.
For the 62-year-old Hackett, the ensuing decades
of music-making, in which he’s mastered virtually dozens of different styles and
genres, may not have resulted in Genesis’s wall of gold records, but it’s
fulfilled his adventure-seeking spirit.
“I guess somewhere between the
classical approach of Andre Segovia and the sound of Jimi Hendrix is where my
influences lie. It’s a narrow span,” joked the veteran guitarist in a recent
phone call from his studio in the Tottenham neighborhood of London. “I guess you
could call it a pan-genre approach to music.”
That approach has served
Hackett well over the course of six Genesis studio albums, including the band’s
career-defining Selling England by the Pound and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,
dozens of solo albums drawing on his love of the blues, jazz, classical and
world music and collaborations with artists as diverse as Yes’s Steve Howe and
Chris Squire, Queen’s Brian May, Roxy Music’s John Wetton and the Royal
Hackett is even credited with inventing a style
of guitar playing – tapping – which was universalized by Eddie Van Halen and
countless metalheads and speed rockers. Genesis fans still swear that Hackett’s
solo in Selling England’s “Firth of Fifth” is one of the most majestic in all of
recorded rock, and it would be hard to find many dissenters.
emotional and technical range on the guitar emerged after teen years spent
idolizing the blues heroes of the 1960s, whom he would travel to see perform at
Eel Pie Island on the River Thames.
“I saw John Mayall and Paul
Butterfield quite a bit, as well as Peter Green, who then went on to form
Fleetwood Mac,” said Hackett, who will be performing on May 5 at Hangar 11 in
Tel Aviv as part of the White City Music Festival.
“That was the sound of
my heroes in those days – they were all immersed in the blues. I was already
learning to play the guitar then.
I took it up at age 12 but I didn’t
graduate to chords until I was 14. I was playing tunes on only one string,
something between a bass and lead player. I found it very confusing having all
those extra strings when one did perfectly fine.”
began using all the guitar strings, as well as every inch of the fretboard, and
before he was out of his teens, he was playing in a band called Quiet World that
included his younger brother John on flute, that got signed to London’s Pye
Records and released one album.
NOT SATISFIED with the direction of the
band, Hackett departed and placed a classified ad in the popular music newspaper
Melody Maker seeking musicians “determined to strive beyond existing stagnant
music forms.” He got a response from Peter Gabriel, the vocalist of a young band
named Genesis who had recently lost their founding guitarist Anthony Phillips
after releasing their first two albums.
“I hadn’t really heard of them,
but I went along to an audition with my brother,” said Hackett. “We played a few
tunes for them – three different styles, one pastoral, another more atonal and
dissonant and then some blues with harmonica. They said, ‘we can use that first
style, the other two we’re not sure of.’ So I joined the band, and within a
couple years, by the time of Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, we had started using
that atonal approach.”
Hackett thinks he reached a peak with Genesis on
Selling England By the Pound, with the solo on “Firth of Fifth” especially
filling him with pride.
“It has this kind of shimmering quality to it. It
was originally written on piano, but when I played it on guitar, it took on
another dimension,” he said. “I thought Selling England was one of the best
albums we did, possibly the best to date.”
However, Hackett’s input into
the band’s material began to diminish over the next couple albums, leaving him
frustrated and unsatisfied. Owing to his general geniality and his genuine
fondness for his band mates, he didn’t lay the blame at their feet,
“Sometimes, working with a team of very proficient songwriters
and musicians, it can be hard to find sufficient relevance for a rock lead
guitar to bring to the table. On Selling England, the guitar was essential to
the plot, but when I listen to stuff like Lamb Lies Down, it seems like a tug of
the ears between vocals and keyboards with me trying to sneak a lick in here and
there,” he said.
“There were too many intelligent voices in one band,
vying for supremacy, and all with firm ideas of the way the music should sound.
Many bands are built on similar fault lines, and sometimes the ones that endure
stay together because one guy writes everything and everyone else goes
Hackett decided to go along by himself, and left Genesis in 1977
after participating in two more albums – A Trick Of The Tail and Wind &
Wuthering. His first few solo albums were heavy on progressive rock, but the
early 1980s saw him branching out into albums of classical guitar
In the mid-80s, he formed a short-lived supergroup with Yes
guitarist Steve How called GTR that resulted in a gold album. And in 1997 he
released the neo-classical-influenced A Midsummer Night’s Dream, accompanied by
the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, an album that spent several weeks in the Top
10 of the UK classical charts.
Hackett’s most recent albums, 2009’s Out
Of The Tunnel’s Mouth and last year’s Beyond the Shrouded Horizon have been
among his most popular solo albums, a development that delighted the
“When albums are selling less and less, mine are selling more,
which is very heartening,” he said. “There’s a misconception that people have
about downloaded music constituting most of what is listened to these
That may be the case for younger acts, but people like myself
luckily come from an era where we were used to fold out sleeves, virgin vinyl
and quality sound. What I try to do is to make each album special in some way –
extra care in the packaging, design and photos, and excellent audio. I’m
focusing on quality in a disposable era. I still feel passionate about albums
and passionate about performing live.”
Featuring a crack band of top
British musicians, Hackett’s live show is, in his words, “a 40-year overview”
that includes Genesis material and much of his recent solo work.
being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with Genesis in 2010,
Hackett is not ready to be enshrined in a history “It was great to be together
with the guys and be honored, but don’t put me in a museum yet,” he said. “There
are lots of things worth preserving, but there’s a whole world of new stuff that
I think is worth checking out. In my show, I try to bounce between stuff that’s
totally nostalgic and other material I like to think is cutting-edge. I’m
actually getting better at making albums and at playing live.
you know, it can often be difficult to convince people that the ‘70s were only
part of what it was about, and that the ensuing decades had merit. I’ve played
with a lot of stunning musicians and orchestras beyond Genesis. It’s like if you
were talking about Jeff Beck or Eric Clapton and only focusing on The Yardbirds
– that’s a part of them, but it’s not the whole story. Guitar heroics have their
place, but beyond that, a good tune helps.”