Steve Hackett Celebrates Musical Legacy With ‘Selling England By The Pound & Spectral Mornings'
Steve Hackett’s latest release offers a look back at two of his finest moments as a recording artist, his work as guitarist with Genesis on the 1973 LP, Selling England By The Pound and his 1979 solo effort, Spectral Mornings. Titled Selling England By The Pound & Spectral Mornings: Live At Hammersmith, the effort arrived in multiple formats on September 25, including Blu-Ray and DVD.
Joining Hackett is his touring band of Roger King (keyboards), Jonas Reingold (bass), Rob Townsend (saxes/flutes), Craig Blundell (drums and percussion) with Nad Sylvan on vocals. Special guests for this performance were his brother John Hackett (flute) and Amanda Lehmann (guitar and vocals). In addition to full performances of the classic LPs, the erstwhile Genesis man included material from his most recent studio album, At The Edge Of Light and Genesis favorites “Dance On A Volcano” and “Los Endos.”
Though he left Genesis in 1977, the era in which he was a member of the band yielded some of the group’s most ambitious and memorable works, including Foxtrot (1972), The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974) and the live release Seconds Out (1977).
In the 1980s, he formed GTR with Yes and Asia guitarist Steve Howe and enjoyed mainstream chart success via the 1986 hit “When The Heart Rules The Mind.” Since GTR’s disbanding he has worked primarily as a solo artist, pausing to collaborate with late Yes bassist Chris Squire on the LP A Life Within A Day (2012) as Squackett and serving as a frequent guest with the Hungarian jazz-rock outfit Djabe.
In addition to his recorded work, he is also author of the 2020 autobiography, A Genesis In My Bed. He recently spoke with KMUW from his home in England.
When did the idea of performing Selling England By The Pound in its entirety present itself?
It had always been my favorite Genesis album from the time when John Lennon said that we were one of the bands that he was listening to. I’d been doing a lot of shows recently where half of the material was Genesis and the rest was solo material. It was going to be the fortieth anniversary of Spectral Mornings, which was a favorite solo album for fans and for me. I thought we should really do a grand slam show: I could do a favorite Genesis album, a favorite solo one and pepper it with a few other things from other times and places.
There’s a couple of things from [Genesis’] A Trick of the Tail (1976) and material from the last solo thing I did, At The Edge of Light (2019). We got a surround sound mix from Steve Wilson [Porcupine Tree, solo artist] who, funnily enough, really liked the new material. Basically it was a very happy evening. The band were on fire for that show. I’m very pleased with how it came out.
It’s fitting that this is coming out at a time where you can't really go and connect with audiences in different territories in the flesh.
We were halfway through an American tour when things started closing down. We were going to do Yes’ Cruise To The Edge and then suddenly that wasn’t going to happen. My wife and I got the literally the last flight back from Philadelphia and went straight into lockdown in the old country where I am right now.
But it’s been a very good time for recording. I’ve been tracking various projects, lots of things from different directions, working with lots of people.
I’m assuming that with Spectral Mornings there was material you hadn’t played or maybe even thought about in some time.
It was very nice to do certain songs that I had not really done live. There's a track called “The Virgin and the Gypsy,” for instance, which I tried doing years and years ago but the technology wasn’t really there to be able to do it justice. But now finally we can go and perform it. On that night we had rather a larger number of harmony singers, which made it possible to do the answering harmonies on it and made it really work plus we had two flute players on the night.
On the original recording, my brother did two wooden flutes, sounding very much like ethnic flutes. So, we had that within the capability of the team, augmented by my brother, John, and Amanda Layman.
It basically casts a spell. That was very hard to do in the old days, whether it was Genesis or my band doing these massive 12-string things that was very much part of the early sound. That didn’t always work with audiences back in the day. But if you give them a kind of a kind of Disneyland, it makes it sparkle and reflects what's going on in the music. So I think you know, you can see that with the film of the night. Favorite venue in London, a great gig.
When you go into a situation like that, where you're going to be filming and it's going to be an album, does that increase the pressure? Do you have to take a moment and say, “OK, it’s still a show, and I can't let that other stuff become a distraction to performing”?
Playing music live has always been a case of remembering that your relationship first of all has got to be with the music, you’ve got to be at one with yourself to be able to perform the music. Doing an album is a very different thing. You can practice the same thing, or you do 100 takes on something if that's what it requires, but you've got once to get it right live.
So there's always the pressure, that's why you rehearse, that's where you train for it and you have to suspend your own disbelief that you will screw it up, mightily. The best thing is to go out there and enjoy yourself. So you've got to be able to do that and think that people are not there to fail you they're there to enjoy themselves. If you enjoy yourself, that communicates and I certainly had a ball on the night.
You mentioned the technological element of these performances and you’ve always embraced new technologies. But I imagine there were challenges, early on, with things breaking down or costing an exorbitant amount of money to cart around.
Yes, none more so than the than the Mellotron! The old Mellotron, the kind that the Beatles had, the Mark II, took two men to life it. You had to have a guy on each corner. I often compare it to pallbearers at a funeral. There was also the possibility that the machine itself wouldn’t sing on the night. So it's great to have the cleanest sounding Mellotron samples imaginable plus thousands of other samples.
I did a little bit of work for Mellotron a while back. I did some notes for them so that they could use it on their on their sampler so you can get these sort of long notes in the guitar sounds. They said, “How do you want us to pay you?” I said, “Could you give me the original violin tapes before they go through the machine?” They said, “Yeah, we can do that.”
I had a DAT made up of that. So we've got the most super clean, Mellotron ever, Roger King and I. It’s the Mellotron strings, the most popular of all the Mellotron sounds, quickly followed Mellotron brass and Mellotron flutes, as made famous by The Beatles with “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the famous introduction.
But technology now? Let’s put it this way: You can do masses more things, replace whole orchestras and choirs. It’s fantastic. But every now and again, a computer will blow up, it will just go bang. It takes a certain amount of time to reboot it. So we do have those moments live.
I think the last time I was playing Paris, somebody said, “Oh, he's great. He went into a blues in the middle [of the show].” Either I've got to come up with a whole speech or a letter from my grandmother that goes on several pages. I prefer to just do something on the hoof and just play something that is the first thing that comes into my head.
“Play some simple blues!” is the easiest thing to shout across the stage to your bass player. It can be a lot of fun, believe me, because you're playing it for laughs, you're playing to the gallery, you're just keeping it going. You're keeping it on the boil. Some of those things can be some of the best moments ever.
We should talk specifically about Selling England By Pound. I’m struck, in listening to it, how relevant it remains. Just on the lyrical front alone.
I think there was a fair amount of social comment, particularly in the first song “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight.” That had a certain gravitas, and I think, is probably my favorite Genesis song of all time. And simply because it goes through so many changes, some of that starts out with one thing, and that ends up something entirely different, and travels through everything from Scottish plainsong to Edward Elgar, then it transitions to something more fusion-y.
There’s a hint of Mozart’s Requiem in there, there we’re into something that was a kind of prototype, heavy metal guitar solo way before its time tapping, octave jumps, sweep picking. People weren't doing that at that time. I think it was nice to be part of a band that was cutting edge for things that are, you know, the glossary of terms was expanded at that point. It became the kind of language that shredders were going to get into, but not just that, not just the metal side of things.
But not just that. You had these odd length bars. If Phil Collins hadn’t been such a great drummer, I doubt that stuff would have swung at all but because he was intelligent enough to realize that in order to make something that sounds a bit like Prokoviev sound like it swings, you’ve got [to do something extraordinary]. You’ve got jazz drumming backing up all these things, binding all these schools of thought together. It was a very forward-looking track. I don't think any band has really done anything quite like that.
So you're quite right, you know, with the social comment. There was a lot of humor in there as well, of course, wordplay. When you've got stuff like “The Battle of Epping Forest,” it's almost like a pantomime, and the kind of news story that people read at the time, but there's a kind of Gilbert and Sullivan aspect to it. It’s an operetta, somewhere between that and pantomime. Very prog-y and very British. Lots of different time signatures. It took me months to relearn it, frankly.
Did you did you ever have conversations with your younger self saying, “Why did you have to make it so difficult?”
I often do. I think that all music that's worthwhile is difficult certainly at first; it's very rare that there isn't some kind of difficulty, even with the simplest song. If something is simple, you want it to sound great. Simplicity doesn't mean that you won't run into problems with it. It's just that if you're a detail freak, you realize that the devil is in that detail, that's the thing that's going to make the difference to the equity that you're making.
I've loved basically every record I've ever made. I think, is the first lesson to learn is, is to love it. And if you don't love it, then perhaps you should replace it with something else, whatever section you're working on, but you kind of know when it's right. There's always been that small voice that says, “Yeah, this is good. This feels good. This works.”
"Déjà Vu" appears on this album and was started while you were writing Selling England By The Pound. I’ve read that you believed very strongly about that tune.
It's a song that had something like a 45-year history. The version that we do now has taken about 45 years to write. That's because it went through a lot of changes. It didn't get finished originally in rehearsals at the time of Selling England By The Pound. That's 1973. In the mid ‘90s, I did a version with Paul Carrack singing. The version we do now is heavier and works better live because there’s a moment for me to stretch out and take it to the mountains. I’m very proud of the fact that fans seem to like it so much. I am very proud of it.
You’ve also published your autobiography, A Genesis In My Bed. Is it strange to think that your life to this point fits between the covers of a book?
I had a lot of fun doing it. I did do a lot of rewrites. You read back and think, “There was more going on that that. I’ve got to get into it. Maybe there’s some humor that I can imbue it with.” It doesn't want to be you know, po-face prog, dead serious. It's important how a few laughs in life. It’s got a lot of humor in it. So I'm pleased about that.
Do you think that people have finally caught on to the humor in the first wave of prog?
I think you could be forgiven for thinking that [there wasn’t much humor] because the music required a certain amount of dedication to be able to write it and perform it. I think, for all those bands who were pursuing some sort of degree of excellence, you might well miss out on the humorous side of things.
Genesis was a very humorous band. Lots of jokes. Tracks like “The Battle Of Epping Forest” and “I Know What I Like” [had that]. I remember when I first heard Peter Gabriel sing the section of “The Battle Of Epping Forest” where he’s playing the Vicar. The accent that he used was absolutely dead right, impersonating an English Vicar and doing it whilst singing, no mean feat.
There was a lot of humor in a lot of bands. Certainly in King Crimson. I got to know members of King Crimson and Robert Fripp could be serious but also very, very funny and very irreverent.
Don’t forget, we were signed to the same record label that Monty Python was signed to and managed by the same guy, Tony Stratton-Smith, who signed up the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. It was not all straight. If you think of the originators of prog, it was The Beatles and there was a lot of humor in there. I’m all for humor, believe me.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.