Exodus from Genesis a boon for Steve Hackett

The one-time guitar master for the British progressive rockers has enjoyed a varied, fulfilling solo career.

Steve Hackett 370 (photo credit: Courtesy/PR)
Steve Hackett 370
(photo credit: Courtesy/PR)
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 Philharmonic Orchestra.
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.
His 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.”
Hackett eventually 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, though.
“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 along.”
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 music.
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 musician.
“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 days.
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.
Despite 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.
“But hey, 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.”