Perfect Sound Forever

What's Guinness Got That We Ain't?- Episode Two

Steve Hackett by Armando Gallo (courtesy of the Steve Hackett website)

More Prog to the Rescue: Steve Hackett and Gary Green
Part 1 of 2 by Mark S. Tucker
(February 2006)


For those who didn't catch the first installment, addressing Robert Fripp, now available in the PSF archives, this is a continuing series correcting the various gatherum tripelines Guitar Jackasszines spew into the mainstream press: collations by dweeb scribes fawning over trend-favored fretpressers, showcased to move product, not spotlight the highest accomplishments of composer, player, and instrument. The thesis statement is this: in the rush to eat toad for labels, celebrities, and advertisers, critics have buried some of the most brilliant and innovative guitar players, relegated many to near-anonymity, favoring the flow of product and capital over aesthetics.

For those who haven't figured it out yet, despite forests of sacrificed trees in muckity reviews and three gigaskillion repetitions on endless CD's: Eric Clapton's a pretty fucking good player. Make a note of the fact. Good, now we can move on. This pantheon will feature those who've been passed over. From Fripp, we switch to the next gent logically in line:


Why Hackett's so indelicately trod over is not easily explained. He's consummately flash, hugely dexterous, deeply accomplished, highly influential (certainly far more so than, say, Steve Cropper or many of the guitarists so bafflingly idolized otherwise), and shows such a degree of creativity that half the pros on three continents would have to hang their heads in shame when held up in contrast. Hackett took Anthony Phillips' spot in Genesis after only the second LP, and, while the backstory on that may still be open to conjecture, peddled in socially decorous niceties, the difference between the two wasn't immediately apparent. As Phillips had served imaginatively and honorably, his replacement followed in the exact same sound base. Once ensconced, Hackett readily shared in the compositional spotlight, being a musician who hit the ground running, strutting an ingenuity that, along with Tony Banks' frightening genius, would inspire God only knows how many fledgling players. Much more than most, he possessed a broadly colorful sense, as well as an ability to switch up styles and techniques fluidly, standing shoulder to shoulder with the splashy keyboards he was doubling with. A master in crafting phantasmagorias behind the strange prosody flowing from Peter Gabriel's coolly fevered dementia, Hackett's was not an easy task. Never a grandstander, the audience half the time barely saw him lurking in the shadows, wailing on epics like "Supper's Ready" and "Watcher of the Skies" (1972), simultaneously producing strange compelling sounds not attributable to any keyboard but mutated so deftly that one wasn't entirely sure they issued from a guitar either.

One of Hackett's manifold ace cards, then and now, has been the sheer malleability of his constantly varied approach. From the beginning, the gent could toggle between howlingly burning leads, light-filled floating blazes, stuttering coughed-out growls, and roaring chords, all to power up the juggernaut pace of the ensemble. When the moment was appropriate, he'd tone down to classical lutelike baroquities, fingerpicking intricate patterns, casting a skewed Yepes shadow on the modernity of the group's refined tunes, as in Selling England by the Pound's "After the Ordeal" (1973). In this, he hadn't unseated his predecessor's example; Phillips, too, understood the leavening powers of such interludes (clearly enunciated in his solo work, which began emerging four years after his exit).

The orchestral fundament of Genesis' grand architecture was what invoked the need to be a chameleon, but the artistic training the British receive during elementary and secondary schooling left an imprint most pointedly suggesting his task. Bending an ear to the early oeuvre, it becomes obvious Hackett was not only conjuring up the cerebral far reaches of psychedelicism but also the shoe-leather necessities of an symphony's brass tacks. Banks covered the string section (mellotron), colliding it into the flanking artillery, but couldn't catch everything, leaving the guitar to vamp the oboes, cornets, cellos, and remaining gunnery, which is why Hackett chameleoned his role so constantly. Most guitarists won't budge from a single narrow position, Steve weighed every choice, dedicating each measure to atmosphere. In fact, everyone in the ensemble was devoted to the integrity of the compositions, a trait vaulting them well above the competition. Genesis eventually spawned many imitators but not one got within spitting distance of this subtle and all-important factor (save perhaps the imperishable Airlord). However, only two members could brandish the palette necessary to paint out the strategy: Banks and Hackett. Drums, bass, and vocals hadn't a prayer, irretrievably shackled by natural limits.

This provided the rostrum for Hackett's full voice though it must be noted that Banks' full partnership was indispensable. The reverse, however, not coincidentally, was equally true and goes far to explain why Genesis and the guitarist, once separated, would never again achieve the sound that once nailed their star to the headiest reaches of the artistic firmament, no matter how hard each strove. While that rainbow yet shimmered in the progrock sky, the two fit like hand in glove, Banks providing unlimited pastures to gambol in, Hackett complementing with more keyboardy a sound than any other axewiedler had a hope of imitating. The entire panoply of the duo's vast abilities came singing out nowhere better than in the group's defining song, "Supper's Ready", Steve providing a classical prelude ("Horizons") setting a genteel bracer for madnesses to come, caressing the listener in a lullaby-ish sedative. As the song commences in Gabriel's quavering vocals, Banks and Hackett immediately cue what will occur, shading the vocalist with extreme subtlety, Banks so quiet as to be invisible but equally locked into Hackett's presence. The duo track in doubled harpsichord and lute lines meant to disguise each another, then split off to populate separate functions, letting the segment swell and recede as the singer re-enters. Banks lies back into the string setting while Hackett floats wah-wah'ed cries behind the vocalist, keening tones that glint and coruscate.

Gabriel momentarily joins the orchestra by producing a flute and both players fade until roaring thunder's required. Hackett jumps up with power chords, diminishing as drums and bass step to the fore, allowing him to stir in subtleties and coloration. The line maintained, he sprints back with riveting leads, dragging the ensemble into the clouds for achingly brief moments, plummeting like Daedalus back to earth. Where frets had set the pulse, Banks replaces a repeating figure while the guitarist pulls off attackless incidentals. An invisible adjunct, and one that must be appreciated to understand how much work is going on, is the use of various pedals to switch timbres constantly. Like Steve Howe, the only other guitarist who ever functioned this completely in so cerebral a role, Hackett's operating a dauntingly complex role, executing it as naturally as drawing breath, the rarest of gifts from a musician.

The pounding rocker role is assumed from the outset of "Willow Farm" (from Foxtrot), forsaken as Gabriel gathers the foreground to himself for the narrative. Hackett lays back out and Banks goes to work, guitar sliding in again as the song collapses into a segue. He lays a Frippian backbuzz to the mellotron and Gabriel joins the orchestra in another delicate flute solo, purposely pushing Hackett into a soft musicbox role, readying for the climax. Pulse established, Banks intones slow skies in the background, atmospheres becoming a shifting plays as he takes the solo, then re-emphasizes, forming a hypnotic baseboard. Adamant in his role, providing brilliant ostinato while the keyboardist trots out a rainbow of voices, the whole culminates in an insistent crescendo, guitar marching along in place. Others would have demanded to leap forward but Hackett knows the power of what he's doing and remains stolid.

As "Apocalypse in 9/8" (also from Foxtrot) closes, the staccato colonnade ceases, drops out, then sneaks back, to combine with Banks, putting an edge on, slowly walking backwards until becoming a lamentative wail in the far reaches. "As Sure as Eggs is Eggs" seamlessly adheres a burbling cluster, erected to sound the last gasp in the denouement, quickly drawing the song back into a fading sun. During the closing minutes, the guitar is adjusting volume constantly, flowing between mid-, back-, and foregrounds. When the song's over and the listener sits back in contemplation: an argument might be attempted regarding dubbing, but Genesis could pull all this off live. The reason for the success of "Supper's Ready" lays in esoteric understandings between keyboardist and guitar player. As said, neither would again, after the breakup, scale these heights, though Hackett would far surpass Banks as a solo artist.

The band, however, hit a new high in the later The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974), where keyboards and guitar reprised their mind-numbing subtleties and pyrotechnic interplay. Gabriel, though, had had enough (not coincidentally, the group was going broke carting elaborate staging around with them) and took the A Train. Genesis would survive, but not as the unit it was meant to be, for the singer's absence somehow put a slow strain on Hackett, who carried on the trademarks... minus the burning passion Gabriel had inspired, or perhaps the gig was just getting tired, suffocating, or any of a dozen good reasons to change pace. Wind and Wuthering and Trick of the Tail (both from 1976) were the aftermath: pleasant, worthy, often pretty, but demonstrably below standards. It became obvious the new hetman, Phil Collins, was taking the group elsewhere and Hackett was in the way.

He exited before the incredibly disappointing And Then There Were Three (1978), well ahead of the gawdawful Duke (1980), happy to be rid of what ultimately became Collins' run-up to insipid, sappy, solo "blue-eyed soul". As Genesis spun down to the beginnings of a mainstream hitmaking machine, Steve decided that music, not money, remained the grail. He issued the breathtaking Voyage of the Acolyte (1975), the only possible antecedent to which could have been Peter Banks' Two Sides Of (1973). Acolyte recaptured the thunder, mystery, science-fiction, and surrealism of early Genesis. The LP alternated between beautifully stripped-down metal and lyric gentility, the entire work a continuous song cycle telling a zodiacal tale. Even with scads of brilliant playing, the compositions were more stunning still. Though it stands as one of prog's highest moments, the concept's essence hasn't been much repeated in the intervening years - musicians just don't think like that any more.

Hackett's ace card had always been texturing and he spared no contrasts here, thrashing power chords to one side, angelic interludes to the other. The blood-and-halo milieu, however, was immediately overthrown as the he went forward, flirting with pop-prog on Please Don't Touch (1978), boasting two unusual picks for vocalists: Randy Crawford and Richie Havens (as well as Kansas' Steve Walsh, to the side) - both of whom would never command the audience respect they deserved, here or elsewhere, though Havens had managed a brief moment in the spotlight during the original Woodstock and for a short while thereafter. *Touch* was Parsons-ish and not entirely in Hackett's voice, but quite attractive, so he repeated the process in Spectral Mornings (1979). and again with Defector (1980). "Clocks" began to bring back Acolyte but with velocity, as did "Tigermoth" and "The Steppes." The guitarist wasn't lacking for virtuosity, nor was he exactly sitting on home fires, yet there was a small something that was a bit off-center.

One thing was becoming clear: a huge segment of Genesis' heart had been ripped out with his departure. Much of the classicalist backbone, it was abundantly obvious, had been Steve's and would never return as the Collins Semi-Motown Machine churned out chart-monster after chart-monster, intolerably distanced from the old days. Hackett had taken the last vestige of the old group's bottom line. Gabriel, for his part, had also tucked away a good deal upon his own exit but quickly shed it all in favor of quirked-up Steve Winwoody tunes. These revelations alone indicated where a surprisingly large percentage of the venerable ensemble's elder roots had originated: Hackett. Huge swaths, especially of Selling England, surfaced again in his oeuvre, well away from the birthing ground. All that really remained in the old used-to-be, as it trudged beneath Collins' commodity manufacture, was Banks' peculiar genius, unsupported. This understanding zeroes in on the most subtle aspect of Hackett's immense powers, no matter how Mike Rutherford or Daryl Stuermer might later scramble on guitar (listen to the solo work of either for broad clues...well, falling anvils, actually): he'd elevated every aspect of Genesis' most celebrated mainstays and tropes. He now went so far as to pick up bizarre new Gabrielisms, as in "Sentimental Institution", which could've fit into Kubrick's barroom flapper fantasia in The Shining.

Cured (1981) issued and, because it was a much mellower showcase, still in the mood of the previous three releases, became a convenient stopping point for reconsidering the full implication of the musician's standing. The LP, while lacking the punch and definition of earlier work, is full of compositional trademarks and personal touches, mainly because it's a duet, just he and Nick Magnus, a surprisingly (Larry) Fastian gent. The album‘s far from a masterpiece but still rather a unique look into the musician's nerves and brain cells, a blueprint underscoring patterns and fortés. Fairly weak, it nonetheless repays the attentions rendered it.

However, Hackett couldn't keep this particular stripdown and sell well, hence the beef-up on Highly Strung (1983) and Till We Have Faces (1984), the latter including Marillion's drummer, Ian Mosley. "Duel" shows where Steve's shapeshifting nature revivified, screaming through multiple voices in the solo. Succeeding releases would jump all over the place, between classicisms oft favored, high-powered takes, reprises of Genesis materials, and live barnstormers, even odd attempts of semi-neoclassicalism. Time Lapse (1992) came as close to Voyage as anything he'd ever again do, being a live gatherum mostly of metalline prowess, but nothing matched that marvelous initialization or the school-chum days.

One star shone like a nova through all this, though: the fascinating Tokyo Tapes: Live in Japan, where the vet gathered a top-notch outfit (John Wetton, Ian MacDonald, Chet Thompson, and Julian Colbeck), to tributize Genesis and King Crimson alongside his own solo compositions. The beautifully filmed concert is the best exposition yet of a one-night one-band prog gala and a staple for any who worship the genre. Visually, you can see the guitar player's entire history documenting a worthiness of being a fixture in the Pantheon.

See part two of the article- Gary Green

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