Steve Hackett thought his goose was cooked in 1972. Foxtrot was the 22-year-old guitarist’s second album with Genesis but he harboured misgivings about Supper’s Ready, the 23-minute opus that scampered through seven movements on side two.
"I thought the game was up," he says of the piece that’s become a classic of the progressive rock genre. "I thought [the record label] was just gonna say, ‘I don’t know what the hell you’re thinking, boys, but we can’t put this rubbish out’. But my instincts were so wrong."
Back then, you see, "the business was yet to catch up with what musicians were doing. I think for a short while, maybe a five-year window, a band was allowed to be exactly what it wanted to be. Albums reigned supreme. An album was a pilgrimage for the faithful."
A bit like Frodo Baggins with his Morgul blade wound, those pilgrims felt a deep-seated twinge of adventure when Hackett announced his 2020 visit to Australia. Among other epic works, he and his band will perform Selling England By The Pound in full.
The album that followed Foxtrot is considered by many the jewel of the Genesis story. Peter Gabriel was still out front, Phil Collins on drums. And Hackett had managed to claw a creative foothold between bassist Mike Rutherford and keyboard player Tony Banks.
"It was an album where I got more than a look-in," he says. "There were moments that I was very proud of where I thought, ‘I’ve gotten away with it! I’ve got some space at last’.
"The idea was to come up with as many riffs and licks as possible rather than fully formed songs, because then you’d come up against the competitive element of the founder members … So I acted like a guitarist, strangely enough, and I think that worked."
Few guitarists worked like Steve Hackett. Guitar nerd legend says he inspired Queen’s Brian May to develop that harmony-solo trick. He showed Eddie Van Halen how to finger-tap. And whatever sweep-picking is, he did that first too. You can hear at least two of those techniques in Dancing With the Moonlit Knight, the opening track of Selling England.
The fact that he’s rarely mentioned as a pioneer of the instrument is probably rooted in the Pimlico virtuoso’s own definition of guitar hero. "People talk about Hendrix and Clapton and as fabulous as those players were at that time, my heroes sprang from different soil," he says.
"Yes I listened to all the blues players; loved it, but I was listening to [Andres] Segovia at the same time and what an extraordinary thing that was. Classical music was kind of a guilty pleasure for me and I remember, in that climate, thinking what a shame that rock didn’t really encompass any of this."
That would change inside that five-year window of anything goes. Hackett mentions the Moody Blues, King Crimson and Procol Harum among Genesis’ classically inspired peers. "It showed that it was possible to have a line back to Bach, but at the same time, if you wanted to use jazz influences, that was OK too," he says.
Not to mention the pastoral thrum of the harpsichord. Hackett reckons he got the job with Genesis mainly because he arrived with a 12-stringed guitar.
"Even if I’d been John McLaughlin, I think I’d have failed the audition if I’d turned up with an electric. There was such a strong folk feeling … at the beginning of Dancing With the Moonlit Knight, I remember Pete saying he wanted an allusion to Scottish plainsong," he says, laughing: not a common request in the year of Slade, Sweet and Gary Glitter.
A few years later, both Gabriel and Hackett had moved on from Genesis, leaving Collins to lead the brand into its MTV-friendly iteration. As that rather less remarkable business boomed, the guitarist’s post-Genesis albums documented ever-expanding parameters.
Spectral Mornings, which will also feature heavily in his coming tour, was a heady mix of Genesis elements from music hall to synths, but woven with Chinese, African, Latin and filmic elements that predated the "world music" trend of the 1980s.
"I’d been trying to get hold of a Chinese koto for years," he says. "It was harder to tune than to actually play but once I got it working, I loved it. In a way it was subscribing to some ideal of a world music, broadening the shoulders of rock music to be able to take on some other things.
"It seemed to sprout wings of an unlikely kind, that album. I got told recently that David Bowie liked it, though of course I have no way of confirming that now ... I used to get things from the [Performing Rights Society] saying ‘300 filmmakers have used music from this album’ and I'd never seen one of these films! That’s an extraordinary thing, isn’t it?"
Combined with selections from his 25th album, At The Edge of Light, that word will doubtless apply when Hackett makes it to Australia next May.
"You do have to be on your mettle," he says of the technical demands of the music. "You have to concentrate. You can’t do it if you’re drinking or slightly stoned. Even though it’s familiar territory for me, you’ve gotta stay on the horse.
"I love going back to this music now. Selling England was the highlight of my time with the band. It didn’t come wackier than that. There’s a certain madness. It goes its own way. It was music for a time when music was at its least constrained, and I’ve taken that forward with anything that I do now.
"When you’re a new kid on the block, a 19-year-old with two chords to his credit, you have more chance of getting a hit single than someone like me," he reflects without rancour. "But I think if you’re going to stick around … the alternative is to make sure that you’re really good at it."
© The Sydney Morning Harald, by Michael Dwyer
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