There might be less Genesis than I expected in guitarist Steve Hackett’s pacy autobiography, but the ‘other stuff’ is just as interesting. Any prog fan will enjoy this – and it is so easy to keep re-reading.
Beginning this book, I was looking forward to some background stories about making classic Genesis albums and some insight to the workings of a band that plainly had its share of tensions. What I hadn’t expected was the sheer historic nostalgia that Hackett creates in the descriptions of his early life.
I am a decade or so younger than him, but can clearly envisage many of the scenes he vividly recounts, whether that is the tail end of the post-war greyness or the 1960s radio fare: “even in that rigid time of bowler hats and cloth caps… you could hear Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’ alongside ‘The Blue Danube’ and Glenn Miller’s ‘In The Mood’ on the same programme”).
Although my early years were spent in a hillside village, rather than Pimlico, I can identify with him in so many ways: growing up where rich and poor live side by side; being able to play ‘Oh, Susanna’ on harmonica as a kid; fearing a head teacher; and finding release through music (including going to the legendary Marquee club in London’s Wardour Street). Even references to Asti Spumante and Titus Groan brought on the nostalgia, and later experiences – such as failing at water skiing – rang a bell too.
Through the late’60s, when “love songs were now standing side-by-side with songs concerning humanity,” Hackett intersperses his political views and humanitarian concerns with his observations on music’s development, highlighting classic songs like King Crimson’s “Epitaph,” Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and Pink Floyd’s “On the Turning Away.” It’s in places like this that he writes alongside us, sharing the thrill of the music that many Genesis fans also love.
You don’t have to enjoy Genesis deeply to appreciate many of the stories. When the band were unknown enough to play Eton College, at first I thought that the “imperious twit of a potential future prime minister” was that imperious twit, but on re-reading, I spotted the word ‘potential’. Still, you never know…
Genesis fans will enjoy the story of Hackett meeting his bandmates (when Peter Gabriel’s father set light to himself at the dinner table) and the nerdier ones will appreciate nuggets like his part in the band getting a Mellotron from King Crimson. In passing he describes Gabriel’s early attempts at crowd-surfing.
Many bands seem to have played foreign gigs amid riots at times of political unrest; faced Hell’s Angels and broken bottles on the stage; had equipment held hostage; experienced venues on fire and band members running for survival. Genesis had this too (as well as skidding planes and vans).
The background of making albums with the band is low-key, but fascinating all the same. It’s easy for us to forget how young they were and what a new world was opening up to them. Also, for a band who credited all members on all songs, it is an insight to discover who actually wrote some of the music (and to find out, for instance, that “I Know What I Like” was “the previous year’s reject”).
Most readers will probably wish to focus on the Genesis years, but in reality, these were few – only seven – and the book evenly traces his life without undue attention to the band. It is no worse for it, as there are plenty of interviews that cover the musical side of the band; this book gives us an excellent context, and is highly readable.
Hackett takes the reader systematically through all his varied solo material, albeit at pace, so those unfamiliar with these recordings may find it slower going at this point.
Hackett’s prose has a beautiful flow and he can veer conversationally into interesting side-alleys, such as when – in just nine lines – he naturally leads from Richard Branson anonymously driving the band to describing a spell on Concorde’s cockpit during a night flight.
Spiritually, he shows an interest in the paranormal, with ghosts, the haunted Headley Grange (where they recorded Lamb Lies Down) and Jill Gabriel’s premonitions getting a mention – although sadly he seems to have had bad experiences with Christianity.
What’s missing? Not much. Surprisingly, there is no mention of the offer to form a band with Keith Emerson and Jack Bruce, and he could have described in greater detail the radical differences in approach between the two Genesis Revisited albums. He often skims over situations of conflict – splitting up from his second wife is just mentioned on and off over 3 pages, despite apparently significant legal complications; and he is diplomatic about tensions within Genesis (both during and afterwards). Those expecting some dirt-dishing will be disappointed.
What is missing it a little more detail; there could be more of the same, if you like: more of the well-known characters he worked with; more of the influences behind the songs; more of the workings that created musical history.
While he does allow himself to be vulnerable and is open about his mental struggles, he rarely lingers on any one situation and so the overall book does feel like it has given a clear, rounded account of his personality: quiet, introspective, with loves of detail and experiencing new places, both geographically and sonically.
This was a thoroughly interesting read that only slowed at the very end, when background colleagues seem to be getting obligatory namechecks and (like this review) the writer seems a little uncertain about how to draw things to a close.
Altogether, this is a highly readable musical autobiography, which is great for more than just those few key Genesis years.
Postscript: on a more personal note, reading through the hardback, I am chuffed to find quite a few bits that are spelled properly, because I spotted a lot of typos when reviewing a pdf. They didn’t all get corrected, but most did. Made my week.