Saturday, March 2, 2024

Interview: Steve Hackett – Foxtrot At Fifty      

October 2022 sees the fiftieth anniversary of Foxtrot, the fourth album by Genesis. Foxtrot was the first to make it into the UK album charts, reaching #12 – to celebrate this landmark, as part of his ongoing ‘Genesis Revisited’ project, Steve Hackett will be taking his band on the road to celebrate the anniversary, playing a string of dates across the UK, though it’s debatable whether vocalist Nad Sylvan will emulate Peter Gabriel and wear a red evening dress and a foxes head onstage! 

Foxtrot saw Genesis spreading their wings, tackling difficult social situations with tracks like ‘Get ‘em out by Friday’ described as “part comic opera, part prophecy”. They’ll also be recording their first 23-minute epic, ‘Suppers Ready’ a story of good v evil, and a track consistently voted one of the greatest and most influential prog tunes of all time. Foxtrot, despite Hackett’s initial concerns about whether the album would be “too far out for the listening public”, is an album of its time but one which has definitely stood the test of time.

Prior to touring, Steve Hackett agreed to talk to RAMzine and I began by asking him what was it about Foxtrot which makes it such a special album for him?

Steve Hackett (SH): “Foxtrot was a hybrid of a lot of different styles. At the time, Genesis were a band pulling in a lot of different directions as we all had so many different influences .. Tony Banks was into Vaughn Williams, Phil (Collins) was interested in big bands, Gabriel was into soul music, Rutherford was into folk and Led Zeppelin and I was into blues and baroque music. But, somehow, being Genesis, we managed to pull it all off and, in the middle of all that, we got Foxtrot. There’re no other albums out there which sound like Foxtrot. I think it’s a good album and there’s very little on it I don’t like. I listen to it over time and, if there’s one piece you don’t like, it quickly moves on to something else. We were a young struggling band without much in the way of a clear sense of direction, but knowing we wanted to do something exceptional, and I think we pulled it off. Foxtrot was a terrific achievement for Genesis at the time. There’s not one weak track on the album, they all have their strong points and I’m looking forward to performing the whole album ‘live’.”

Foxtrot was recorded whilst the band spent most of 1972 touring. Fortunately, the band had no shortage of really good new material to work on and the songs just flowed. The band also had Tony Stratton-Smith at Charisma behind them, and he allowed them to go where their muse took them. But, it was a wonder the album was ever recorded, given how many gigs the band played in 1972.

SH: “Yeah, because we largely recorded the album piecemeal. Up to then, we’d had the luxury of being able to go into a studio and record a whole album in one go, as we did with Nursery Cryme, but by this time our schedules didn’t really permit this.” 

“I remember flying back from Italy while the others came back by road. This had to be done because I still had to finish my guitar overdubs at the end of Suppers Ready, but it meant I had a clear run in the studio without anyone peering over my shoulder saying, ‘yeah, that’s good here, Steve, but maybe not so good there,’ so it meant I had a clear run and was able to go at it with a whirl, which was nice in a way.

Around the time Genesis were recording Suppers Ready, there was a tendency for bands in the now evolving ‘prog genre’ to record lengthy ‘one side of an album’ pieces, notably bands like Yes, Jethro Tull, Van der Graaf Generator, Caravan and Rare Bird. Was writing Suppers Ready Genesis’ attempt to keep up with other bands ?

 SH: “I’m not quite sure about that .. but I do remember seeing King Crimson at the Marquee in 1969 and they linked a whole bunch of tunes together, things as different as Cliff’s ‘The Young Ones’ one minute and something from Holtz’s ‘Mars’ the next. So you got pop and you got classical, and the idea of linking separate sections and passages together was something which wasn’t lost on me. I said to Genesis we could do a long haul thing, but it’d have to be presented with a light show and bells and whistles if we’re going to keep people’s attention. Gabriel agreed with me .. we had to really go for it, and I got as far as talking Genesis into getting a mellotron and a light show. But Peter decided to go one further and decided to personify the song and become a central character. It hadn’t occurred to him to do this before, he hadn’t wanted to be the Watcher of the Skies, but he went for it in a big way. I think this also paralleled Bowie and Alice Cooper, who were making their name at the same time, where the performer is also the pageant.

Was Suppers Ready specifically written to be a twenty-three-minute piece or did it just unexpectedly evolve to this length?

SH: “Well, the idea for the long piece was mine as I’d seen others pull it off ‘live’. Suppers Ready was written in two weeks, and we realised it would take up one side of an album in those days, and even then we were pushing it because the ideal length for vinyl at the time was around twenty minutes, but fortunately, with Genesis, there were quite a few quieter acoustic passages which didn’t take up as much space on the grooves. By the time we got to record ‘Selling England’ .. there was now something like twenty-nine minutes on one side of a vinyl album, which was considered artistic suicide!

Foxtrot was also the first album where Banks, Gabriel and Rutherford had to record without any input from original member Anthony Phillips (who’d left the band prior to recording ‘Nursery Cryme’) who’d contributed to the songwriting, as there’d been a few of his ideas leftover and used on Nursey Cryme, but there were none on Foxtrot.

SH: “I wasn’t aware of this. I’d spoken to ‘Ant’, and he’d said things like ‘this piece was mine,’ and ‘that piece was mine,’ and he should have had a share on the last album, but he’s a nice guy and it hasn’t all ended up in fisticuffs or in court.

“Was it a challenge? I knew I had big shoes to fill, as ‘Ant’ was the prime songwriter and mover and the sonic architect of the early Genesis sound, and when you look back at the early Genesis songs, although they’re all credited to Genesis from Trespass onwards, they’d clearly lost their main writer, so I’d big shoes to step into. But there was an established way of doing things and to walk into this was difficult at times because the other three had their own procedures, and they’d all been at Charterhouse together since they were 11, and Phil and I would sometimes throw our arms up in the air and gasp at some of the arguments which occurred, but we jostled along and found a level. I mean, I was even going to leave before Foxtrot because I wasn’t sure I could stand all the political manoeuvring, but Mike and Tony sat me down at the start of recording and said, ‘no, no, we like what you’re playing and we want you to stay,’ which was interesting because, up till then, I’d no idea they even remotely liked anything I did. So this was good news and I’m glad I stayed.

As if artistic temperaments weren’t enough, at one point during the recording of Foxtrot, the producer, Bob Potter, walked out of the session, didn’t he?

SH: “Yeah, he did. He found it very difficult to work with the team. I mean, I worked hard trying to get along with him, and he and I were largely responsible for coming up with ‘Horizons’. It took a while but I nailed it on the fourth take, and we fed it through a couple of Leslie cabinets and he gave it a nice reverb. It’s a little bit noisy when you go back to it, but it’s developed wings because fifty years on they’re still playing it, it’s wormed its way into the cafes and beyond, and when I hear it played in Café Nero, it’s always the noisy version they play.

Is there any truth in the story you only managed to get ‘Horizons’ onto Foxtrot because the producer was exasperated at Rutherford taking too long to restring his 12-string guitar?

SH: “Well .. there were moments when Mike was playing when he’d decide the strings on his guitar were old and want to restring it .. and restring a guitar in the middle of things ….?

“It seemed as if Genesis didn’t have any method of going ‘well, over to the next one then,’ you know, like a relay team, so it all ground to a halt at that point, God knows why as there could’ve been other things to do, you know, well okay, you do that and I’ll go here and do something else. It seems unthinkable now. It was George Martin who said, ‘musicians often do things inside the studio when they should do them outside,’ and restring a 12 string during recording seems to be one of these things, when you have limited time, so I think Bob was frustrated at the leisurely pace we seemed to be working at.

Was ‘Shadow of the Hierophant’ ever seriously considered for inclusion on Foxtrot?

SH: “Well, funnily enough, we rehearsed part of it at the time of Foxtrot, and I was very sad we knocked it on the head because it seemed so strong. Peter responded by saying at the time it struck him as having a Greek tragedy feel to it and, when I talk to my wife, who’s very much a Greek scholar, she said it would’ve been perfect for Peter Hall’s version of the Oresteia. So, it came close to being used for various things but no one really picked up on it, so I make it a tour-de-force ‘live’ at the crescendo section, and playing it onstage in a Greek amphitheatre, which I’ve done, seems absolutely perfect and the audience keeps clapping. It’s one of the things which should have gone on Foxtrot and, after I’d recorded it, Tony Banks said ‘we could have used that for Genesis,’ but it’d been laying dormant with Genesis for three years, and I thought we’re never going to get around to using it, so why don’t I go ahead and stick it on a solo thing. (It finally appeared on Hackett’s first solo album, Voyage of the Acolyte). And I’m still playing it, especially when Amanda Lehman’s around as it does need a female vocalist to help pull it off.

Foxtrot occupies a revered place in the hearts and minds of Genesis fans, so how proud was Steve of the album and of his contribution to it?

SH: “Well, tell you what, I really like the guitar parts because I played them in time and in tune. When I revisit early albums I think, as a player, it was what was done at the time, but I think ‘Watcher Of The Skies’ was done a little too fast, it works better when it breathes a little bit. Doing it ‘live,’ we’ve slowed it down a bit. There’s a decent version of ‘Watcher Of The Skies’ on Genesis ‘Live’ and on a couple of other things. But, yeah, I’m proud of the album, though you want to get in there and make changes.

Steve Hackett Band photo by Lee Millward.

Hackett is indeed fortunate in that when he goes out to perform Foxtrot later this year, he’ll be supported by a phenomenal band of musicians, which includes players of the quality of Craig Blundell (drums) and Jonas Reingold (bass), plus the vocal prowess of the mighty Nad Sylvan, amongst other top drawer players. So, given the other commitments these players have (Blundell with King Crimson, Reingold with The Flower Kings, etc) how difficult is it to keep this band together?

SH: “Well, I’ve managed to keep this touring band together for much longer than I thought I’d be able to. Craig’s got an awful lot of other commitments, but he’s been with us for a few years now, and we just seem to go from strength to strength. Same with Jonas and the others. I don’t think Jonas is with the Flower Kings anymore…

It was pointed out Jonas was on the Flower Kings most recent album By Royal Decree.

SH: “Yeah, he did that, but he’s not touring with them. He’s a fabulous player, a phenomenal player. He can play Bach on a bass guitar. I just love working with this team, what can I tell you?”

Will Amanda Lehman be performing full-time as part of the Foxtrot touring band or is she just an intermittent presence?

SH: “No, she’s intermittent, she walks in and out. She’s certainly on most of the album. She has other commitments, as she’s just done one solo album, which has done quite well, and she’s currently working on another one, so much as I’d love to have her as one of the full-time band, there’s also the aspect of it being a ‘boys club’ when we go out to revisit Genesis, and I’m not sure how comfortable she feels being part of that. She tends to be part of the solo section, but I like having her in there and I think it works really well when we play ‘Shadow of the Hierophant’.

“I’d not played this song for years. I thought this is dated, it’s of its time, it’s very proggy and it’s ponderous, but Steven Wilson said to me in recent years when he was playing ‘live’ with us, can we do that one? So I said okay because he thinks the song works so, though it’s typical of its time, it’s so different from anything modern and there’s no one doing anything remotely like it.

We concluded what had been a fascinating talk by my asking Steve, given how prolific he’d been since 2017, with four studio albums and four ‘live’ albums, plus a number of extensive tours, how much longer does he think he can work at this pace?

SH: “I don’t know, and I wonder about it on a daily basis! But I seem to be getting faster at some things and slowing down with others, and I’m a different kind of player to the one I was back in the early days. But I still lean towards all these different genres, which’re all equally disparate. If I’d just been a heavy metal player, it might’ve made it easier for people to pigeonhole me ..’ah, that’s what he does,’ .. like the guy who wears the shorts and the cap and plays screaming guitars, and I love all that, but other people have said to me ‘you could be so much more than that if you billed yourself, not so much as a guitar hero, but as a composer, and the word does sound pretentious, doesn’t it?

“But the truth is I love working with acoustic instruments, and I like diversity. I remember Tony Stratton-Smith saying about ‘Please Don’t Touch the first solo album I did after I left Genesis, and he said, ‘his diversity is both his strength and his weakness.’ So this is the conundrum which goes on for years and years .. what version of yourself are you going to put in front of people? But I wouldn’t want to be without all of those different albums and different things. I do love music and whether you’re doing a blues album, rock album, prog album, or jazz album, it’s a challenge. I’m still a fan of the Beatles, and what extraordinary work they came up with as a band. I remember an interview Nigel Pearce mentioned with John Lennon, where Lennon said there were two bands he was listening to who were true sons of the Beatles. One was ELO, who’re kind of like a love letter to the Beatles, and the other one was Genesis, and he used to get all the albums from ‘Nursery Cryme’ onwards sent to him in New York. Of course, we had no idea he was listening to us at that time, so it was great to know this was the case.”

Laurence Todd
Laurence Todd
Took early retirement after many years as a teacher in order to write books as well as about music. A long-time music obsessive, has wide and eclectic tastes but particularly likes prog rock and rock in general. Enjoys going to gigs and discovering new acts.

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