The last time Steve Hackett played New York’s Beacon Theatre, it was April 1976, and Genesis had been on their first tour without frontman Peter Gabriel for a mere two weeks.
They’d just promoted Phil Collins from drummer to singer, but they were very unsure if audiences would accept the change. "Everything is clear in hindsight," says Hackett. "But we didn’t know if we’d be accepted by audiences that wanted us in the batwings playing ‘Watcher of the Skies.’ It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that this would work."
It worked better than anyone could have ever dreamed, and during the next decade, Genesis went from theaters to arenas and eventually football stadiums. Hackett jumped ship in late 1977, prior to much of that success, but he’s spent the last few years on a series of Genesis Revisited tours where he plays classic songs from the band’s catalog along with a set of his solo tunes. He’s spent the last few months playing their landmark 1973 LP Selling England by the Pound in its entirety all across Europe, and on September 12th, he’s kicking off a North American tour that wraps up on October 20th. It includes a September 25th return trip to the Beacon, which will be his most high-profile New York show since he left Genesis 42 years ago.
We spoke to Hackett about the Selling England by the Pound tour, what compels him to keep playing this music when his former bandmates largely don’t go anywhere near it, and the ever-dwindling prospects of a Genesis reunion.
Tell me how the idea came about to do Selling England by the Pound straight through on tour.
In recent years, I’ve been doing 50 percent solo stuff and 50 percent Genesis stuff when I tour. I figured those are well-known songs and I’m entitled to do that. A lot of it rates high in the affection of fans and I’m happy to do that. I’ve always cherry-picked what I thought was the best of all the eras, but if I had to look at a favorite album I’d say it was Selling England by the Pound.
Funny enough, in 1973 when we did that album, we could barely get a gig anywhere in the States. We were a young and struggling band at that time and John Lennon gave an interview and said Genesis was one of the bands he was listening to. I was particularly proud of that album which coincided with that. It still didn’t mean we could get gigs anywhere, but that’s how it was in those days. The information revolution had yet to happen. You were on one coast or another and the other coast was another planet.
It was a tricky time, but it gave us hope that if he liked it that others might follow. It was high in my affections. I think it’s the best Genesis album, at least the best one we did with Peter Gabriel as lead singer. Phil was starting to develop as a singer on his own. He did one of the tracks on his own, "More Fool Me." He was lead singer on that and did his own harmonies on it.
We do authentic versions of these songs, plus we include an extra track that was supposed to go on the album but didn’t happen. It was a track written by Peter Gabriel and me called "Deja Vu." I include that like a sort of director’s-cut/deleted-scene idea. We’ve been playing that live and it’s going down very, very well with audiences. There’s something particularly stirring about the melody that we originally came up with on that. I’m proud of all that, so that’s the Selling England side of the story.
It has led you to play many songs you haven’t done in 45 years, like "The Battle of Epping Forrest."
I hadn’t played that for a very long time. Nad Sylvan, who sings it, said it took him three months just to learn how to sing that song because when your first language is Swedish and you’re dealing with the nuances of those characters that Pete was doing, it becomes very difficult. It’s a difficult song to play, too. It’s typically proggy and, like many of the tracks on that album, it’s in a tricky time signature. But there’s something about it. It works in a very idiosyncratic way and goes down very well with audiences.
It’ll also be cool to hear "After the Ordeal."
Yeah. That works so well live and I extend it a little at the end to do a solo. It’s an interesting tune. It originally started off as an electric number and it didn’t really work until we did an acoustic version of it. I think Tony [Banks’] piano part was very inventive. It ended up being group-written in the end. It was mainly my tune, but Mike Rutherford kicked in with a bit at the end. It’s a good thing. It’s instrumental.
"Aisle of Plenty" is another song the group never did live.
That’s right. We never did that live. We’re doing a very authentic rendition of "Cinema Show" and I think when we did it live before it didn’t sound as authentically close to the record as the way we do it now. You had to utilize sped-up 12 strings and all that, but now you can generate extra octaves on guitar. We have three different instruments chiming away to create those moments and I love being able to mix it up with what the lights do, which is something very sparkly.
Tell me what you remember about creating the "Firth of Fifth" guitar solo, which is one of your great moments in Genesis.
Tony wrote the song and originally that was going to be played on piano, and certainly it worked like that. Pete doubled it on flute originally and I thought, "Well, there’s an acoustic moment." But then I started playing it on electric guitar. I just got the equipment I’d use for the next few years. There was the Echoplex, so suddenly I’m working with an echo unit. And it happened to work particularly well with the pedal I had and the fuzzbox I had back in the day. Fortunately, most of the time it would feed back on a high F sharp when I hit that, so it sounded as if the notes went on forever. And it was a particularly good melody played on guitar. Played on piano, it sounds like a French Impressionistic thing. But when played on guitar, it’s got something Egyptian or Middle Eastern. Once I started playing it on guitar, Tony was like, "Oh, let’s do it as a band. Let’s do it with big keyboards."
The song "I Know What I Like" was the poppiest thing Genesis had done up to that point. Were you trying to make a hit or did it just come out that way?
I had this guitar riff that I used to play with Phil. I remember Mike [Rutherford] said, "It sounds too much like the Beatles and George Harrison." However, we persisted with it from 1972 to 1973 and the band jammed along and came up with some lyrics. It ended up being a very short version of the song. The version we used to do live was something like six minutes long. I was very pleased it came out the way it did. It became a singalong chorus and our first hit. But I don’t think the album was full of would-be hit singles. It was still an album. I think we didn’t compromise anything to produce the album. It just so happened there was this little ditty on it called "I Know What I Like."
We didn’t expect it to be a hit, but when I talked to journalists, I used to say, "Have you heard our new hit single?" As if that would sway public opinion. I joked about that and the joke ended up being a reality. I think everyone should do that whenever they release a single. "Have you heard our hit single?" And just hope that scam pays off.
You turned down the chance to play Top of the Pops. Most bands would have jumped at that chance.
I have a feeling we were in America at the time. We weren’t able to do that. Although at the time there was an enormous prejudice. You were either an album band or you played Top of the Pops, and it you did that, you sold out. That was how it seemed. Of course, we had a video, even though people weren’t calling them videos in those days. But we had something we shot at a soundstage at Shepperton [Studios], and it was pretty much the whole live set in front of an invited audience. That thing still shows up.
Do you think you at some point might do Nursery Cryme or A Trick of the Tail, or something? Are there other albums you want to play in the future?
I think the album I have attacked most is Foxtrot. I have played most of those songs live, probably with the exception of maybe one tune. I have never played "Time Table" live, but at various times I have played the whole of it, though never in its entirety. So I think that’s probably the other album that fans think of as a continuum. I think that’s probably because of the journey that is "Supper’s Ready" because that takes up most of Side Two.
The other one I have played most of is Wind and Wuthering, though not every single thing. I have played what I think are the strongest things from it. I’ve never thought of playing the whole of Nursery Cryme. It’s certainly possible, but it’s not a priority to me right now. That’s not to say it won’t happen at some point. I think Selling England has the strongest ideas.
The 50th anniversary of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is coming in 2024. It would be a pretty heavy lift for you to do the whole thing, though. That’s a lot of music.
Believe me, it’s been suggested to me by fans, by musicians, by promoters and they’re all prepared to put it on. But I tend to think that it’s very much Peter Gabriel’s baby. When I say that, the story is his, but the music is all of us. It’s probably legitimate for me to do it, but I tend to think of it as an album very densely packed with dense keyboard lines and very dense lyrics. And so I’d be in competition with that’s going on there. It’s hugely embellished from the word go and there’s not as much room to move on guitar, for instance. I think its predecessor, Selling England, is the one where guitar gets to fly. And that’s not just on "Firth," but on other tracks as well like "Dancing With the Moonlit Knight" with tapping and the stuff that was prototype heavy-metal playing.
But live we don’t just do Genesis stuff. We do most of Spectral Mornings from 1979 and three tracks from At the Edge of Light, which is the current album that has charted in 12 countries. I’m proud of that. So first half I do solo stuff, and second half, the museum doors are thrown wide open and those exhibits come out, the Genesis ones.
Do you feel a sort of obligation to keep these songs alive because nobody else in the band is really playing them?
I’ve noticed that most people in the band tend to distance themselves from these things. But when Phil was out there with his big band, he did "Los Endos," because it’s still a good tune. And Mike might do a little bit from "Firth of Fifth." But I think what fans want is the full picture. I want to honor that stuff in full. I don’t want to just be like "here’s a note from it" or "here’s a line from it," crumbs from the table. I don’t want to do that. I want to do what I think people want, which is to not just do authentic version of those things, but sometimes to extend things as well.
I saw your last two New York shows and both times I sat near Bruce Willis. I had no idea he was such a fan.
Isn’t that extraordinary? I met him backstage at one of those shows. Then the other night I found myself watching one of those Die Hard movies and thinking how very good they are, of a genre. They are very entertaining. I think he does that very well. He was very modest when we met. I was talking to him about the fact that he does music and he said, "Yeah, I shout in tune." He’s quite dismissive, but he’s a mean harmonica player himself. Sweet guy.
How was the experience of creating that Genesis BBC documentary? I’m sure it was cool to have all five of you in the same room again.
Yeah. It’s always great to meet up with the guys. I think that Genesis is a very competitive band, and there’s still that tension. There are always elephants in the room that don’t get mentioned, but at the end of the day, I honor the music politics-free. That’s meant I have increased my audience size. We were just playing in Italy to twice as many people as we did last time. It was one of the main town squares to 4,000 people. Sometimes there are 12,000. I’d be happy to play free in those places.
I spoke to Phil’s son Nic a couple of years ago, and he said his dream was to play with Genesis. Have you seen him play?
No. I haven’t seen him play, but I’m sure he’s really good if he’s a chip off the old block. I think any reformed Genesis would be a massive success, but we have yet to do that soon for various reasons and there has been resistance within the ranks to do that. There are various versions of Genesis that could tread the boards, but I don’t know if that competitive streak … Mike is certainly competitive, so I don’t know if he’d want anyone else to play guitar up there, probably least of all me [laughs]. He’s got my number. Meanwhile, I’m playing the music politics-free.
I saw Yes last year and it was basically just Steve Howe and new people and the place was packed. Even without Peter and Phil, you guys could create a more credible version of Genesis than that and draw big crowds.
There is that. If it were that simple, believe me … I’m sure that everyone is aware I’m out there playing this stuff. I think this stuff should not be afraid to die. I’m not just doing the Genesis stuff. I’m doing other stuff as well. But 150 million albums worldwide is hard to beat, the logistics of that versus what everyone does in terms of solo success. But the last time we did an album together was the greatest hits and individual tracks from our solo careers. Compilations abound, don’t they, but ideally people want new stuff. I’ve been used to having my own way in my solo career, as has everyone else. That makes it that much harder since we are all used to running our own shows.
That’s why this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often. That’s why Nick Mason is out there doing his version of Pink Floyd and he may be the only person that goes out there doing that. All of them legitimately can do that as Robert Fripp can go out and be the only original King Crimson member. The same with Steve Howe. I think if you’d done sufficient work under the brand name, it becomes credible.
On the Peter Gabriel–Sting tour a few years back, Sting sang the opening section of "Dancing With the Moonlit Knight" every show of the tour. On the final night in Vancouver, Peter finally sang it. It was the first time in decades he’d done any part of a Genesis song in public. It was this tiny crack in his wall of resistance.
I don’t have any such armor myself. I don’t feel threatened by my past. You’ve got to incorporate the lesson of the child and move forward with your new self and be fully integrated. That’s my take on it. If people want to hear that stuff, then I won’t deny them the opportunity. I think it’s only sensible, and for instance with Crimson, the fact that they do the whole of the history is an important thing. People want to hear that stuff. It’s iconic. Why would you not want to do your own iconic songs? It makes no sense whatsoever.
How do you feel about turning 70 next year? It seems like you’re in pretty good shape.
Yeah. I’m in pretty good shape for 70. Famous last words! I could fall over tomorrow, but I don’t feel 70. I think I’m getting younger all the time. I’m certainly getting better at it, whatever "it" happens to be. My fingers can do things today they couldn’t do then. And I’m still learning all the time.
Are you working now on your next record?
Yeah. I’m working on the next one. That’s going very well already. I’m working on some of my stuff and stuff with other people, like my sister-in-law. I’ve worked on a couple of things that she’s written and they sound really good. Sometimes I just get called in as a harmonica player and that’s fine with me.
You tour every single year. Are you ever tempted to take one year off, or do you like this pace of touring?
I like the pace. I like the idea that if I get up onstage the audience can say, "He doesn’t look any older than he did last year." But if you leave it for five years, you might need a new chest wig or some teeth. I think the clock is ticking and I’m passionate about all this, so I want to be the best at what I can do. I don’t want to be wheeled onto the stage. I was thinking about certain people who do that sort of thing, B.B. King. He worked until he absolutely dropped. I have tremendous respect for that.
© RollingStone, by Andy Greene