Londoner Steve Hackett (born February 12, 1950) is best known as the lead guitarist for the legendary English progressive rockers Genesis, along with Phil Collins/drums, Peter Gabriel/lead vocals, Mike Rutherford/bass, and Tony Banks/keyboards. Today we will look at his formidable career as guitarist, songwriter, singer and composer that has spanned nearly 50 years.
His musical background was at first classical, playing the recorder, with influences like J.S. Bach, and opera, through Mario Lanza, citing them as still a part of his compositions. He didn’t pick up the guitar however until he was 12, after listening to Brit blues greats such as Peter Green, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers and Danny Kirwan, then there were the Beatles, King Crimson and of course Jimi Hendrix, playing a role.
His first step into professional music was in 1968 with 3 different bands, Canterbury Glass, Heel Pier and Sarabande, all of whom were into prog/psychedelic rock. He was also called on for session work, helping Quiet World with their debut album The Road in 1970. Later that year his fortunes would spike upwards considerably when he posted an ad in the weekly music mag called Melody Maker, looking for similar prog-rock players. It read, “Imaginative guitarist-writer seeks involvement with receptive musicians, determined to strive beyond existing stagnant music forms”. Peter Gabriel of Genesis answered and they were off to the races. He first appears on their 3rd studio album called Nursery Cryme (‘71), where he managed to convince them to get into the mellotron (an electric-mechanical polyphonic tape replay keyboard) which helped shape their big orchestral sound. It can be heard alongside his solos on tracks like The Musical Box and The Return of the Giant Hogweed. His remarkable playing style and range was evident; he was one of the first to use the tapping technique, largely credited to Eddie Van Halen, but in fact it was Halen who says he first saw it used by Hackett at a Genesis concert in the mid-70s. On Foxtrot (‘72) he displays his classical craft on the track Horizons, a solo composition based on Bach’s Suite for Cello, likely with his beloved 1973 Yairi nylon acoustic.
Their ‘73 album Selling England by the Pound has Hackett using a tapping and sweeping technique on the minstrel sounding Dancing with the Moonlit Knight, with his Fernandes Monterey Elite, which he likes because it controls “the tyranny of volume nicely”. The album’s Firth of Fifth track features one of Hackett’s most popular solos, and was still played even after he left the band. The recording sessions for their 6th studio album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway was fraught with personal problems among the band’s members. It would be the last recorded with Gabriel. According to Steve, “Everybody had their own agenda. Some of us were married, some of us had children, some of us were getting divorced. And we were still trying to get it together in the country”. It was around this period when Hackett released his first solo record called Voyage of the Acolyte, while still in the band, it was cut in ‘75 and sounds very Genesis with Collins and Rutherford contributing. Even so, the strains were starting to show and Hackett stayed on for his last 2 albums A Trick of the Tail (‘76), with Collins singing lead, and Wind & Wuthering was his last with the band (‘76).
His first effort after Genesis was Please Don’t Touch!, where he sings for the first time, but also had help from other known singers such as the legendary folk/soul pipes of Richie Havens, Veronica “Randy” Crawford of R&B fame, and Kansas vocalist Steve Walsh. This was a departure from the past, with a more carnival approach as on Carry On Up the Vicarage, where Hackett’s voice is sped up to sound like a fairytale creature; vocal effects were a part of his repertoire as well. He also brandishes his 1957 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop Electric which he says, “For me, the Les Paul’s tortured cry, but it’s strength as well, spoke to my heart and gave me the strength to carry on”, and a Roland GR-500 guitar synthesiser throughout the record.
So after releasing 2 solo albums he had to put a band together and hit the road. It would be the same outfit who recorded his 3rd release Spectral Mornings, including Pete Hicks/vocals, John Shearer/drums, and his brother John Hackett on flute and keyboards. The album was yet another slight change of style, featuring Hackett on koto in The Red Flower of Tachai Blooms Everywhere, reflective of Japanese culture, (the mellotron imitates a Japanese singer to a flute/gong percussion).It is still his favourite solo album of all to this day. The band put out another album Defector in 1980 which was the highest charting album of his career, slotting at #9 on the U.K..
His interest in pushing the boundaries and venture into exciting areas was growing after spending 3 months in Brazil. He recorded Cured in 1981 without his band, except for contributions from keyboardist Nick Magnus and his brother. It is an easy-listening set with Steve singing al the vocals, and instead of a drummer he used the revolutionary electric Linn drum machine. He went on promotional tour of the album with in new lineup featuring Chas Cronk on bass and Ian Mosley on sticks, along with Magnus and his brother John.
The 80s were a time of soul-searching for Hackett, although he was prolific in the studio, his success with Genesis wasn’t matched by his solo output, even though he released twice as many albums than they did between ‘71-’77. His 1982 record Highly Strung found some success with the hit single Cell 151, and then a completely different approach with an acoustic record called Bay of Kings, which comprised 15 tracks of entirely classical guitar pieces. In 1984 he got back to rock with Till We Have Faces, blending his guitar to Brazilian percussion and world music, but it was never put on tour. The next boost of life came from his partnership with former Yes guitar wizard Steve Howe, forming the supergroup GTR, and released a gold-selling eponymous GTR in ‘86 containing the hit When the Heart Rules the Mind, which got plenty of radio cover in the U.S., reaching #14 on the Billboard Hot 100. Curiously, they played just 2 live shows then broke up, (too many chefs in the kitchen?).
The 90s presented Steve with even more challenges and adventures, beginning with a charity concert for Asian refugees refused entry into western countries called Rock Against Repatriation, featuring the Rod Stewart hit Sailing, performed by guests like Brian May, the Moody Blues, Mike Rutherford, and Paul Carrack among others.
In 1993, now with his own studio and label, (Camino) he released the dark Guitar Noir, his 10th solo effort, with the track Walking Away from Rainbows, describing his aim of leaving mainstream music and just doing what he wants. He gets back to his roots with the release of Blues with a Feeling, a collection of Chicago blues covers and original numbers on an exciting record. He also got back to his Genesis roots for the following package Genesis Revisited (‘97) which brought fresh ideas to his old music. They played 2 shows in Tokyo to promote it, with a new lineup including bassman John Wetton, drummer Chester Thompson, multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald and keyboardist Julian Colbeck, which was made into a live album and film called The Tokyo Tapes (‘98). Later the same year he put a neo-classical acoustic take on the comedy A Midsummer’s Night Dream together with his brother John and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
His first experiment with soundtrack material came on the score of the documentary Outwitting Hitler, with some tracks destined for his following guitar/orchestral Metamorpheus, recorded in 2005 with the help of the Underworld Orchestra.
Over the following years, the music got certainly more sophisticated yet still powerful, from the tense darkness of Darktown and Wild Orchids, to the colourful trip of time and space of To Watch the Storms. What fans and critics consider his finest work, 2009’s Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth, presented legal troubles from his ex-manager Billy Budis over copyright issues but was resolved in Hackett’s favour, still, he had to record it in his flat, not a studio.
On March 10, 2010 Genesis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a crowning recognition of their body of work and influence, much of which was with the Hackett touch.
His 24th studio record was Beyond the Shrouded Horizon in 2011, then another collaborative album with bassist Chris Squire of Yes, called A Life Within a Day, under the name Squackett. His Genesis Revisited II was met with global acclaim, featuring the old hits with a variety of players such as, Nik Kershaw, Jakko Jakszyk (King Crimson), and Nick Beggs (The Mute Gods). They played 3 worldwide tours (2013-14-15) due to popular demand.
Steve Hackett is not one to sit still for very long, the 2015 release of Wolflight debuted at #31 on the U.K. charts, considered to be one of the Best Classic Albums of the year by Ultimate Classic Rock. Then came The Night Siren in 2018 which was even more expansive, reaching the top 40 on 6 international charts.
In January of this year, Hackett put out At The Edge of Light, a record of exceptional quality and writing, exploring the many styles his has given us over the decades; from the sweeping Beasts in Our Time to the melodic Hungry Years, from the epic arabesque Fallen Walls and Pedestals to the sharply intense Conflict and hard-driving opener Under the Eye of the Sun.
Steve Hackett has been a massive force behind some of time’s most recognisable prog-rock sounds, which all started that fateful day in 1968 when he strapped on a guitar. He is the embodiment of creativity, dedication, prolificity and raw talent; a visionary and guitarist extraordinaire that keeps going strong with no signs of slowing down. True grit.