What does it sound like?:
The Genesis narrative is a familiar one. A band of gauche public schoolboys with a charismatic front man lose two of their number early on, but then make two key signings. Drummer Phil Collins replaces John Mayhew, while Steve Hackett takes over the lead guitar stool vacated by Anthony Phillips, launching the band into progressive rock’s premier league. A stunning, if short era of lawnmowers and Slippermen ends with the abrupt departure of Peter Gabriel in 1975. Noodler in chief Hackett follows in ‘77, and the band, reduced to a 3-piece, abandons its progressive sensibilities, reinvents itself as a global distributor of shiny pop wallpaper, and retires on the winnings. That’s all.
Or is it?
The distance of time brings fresh perspective, and a sunny, mountain-top view of a different course. Steve Hackett was the first member of Genesis to release a solo album. More than thirty albums later, ‘Under a Mediterranean Sky’ rises over the bleak days of January, a welcome and exotic sight, like the return of a migratory bird. From lockdown, Hackett has sent us a collection of mostly acoustic instrumentals inspired by his travels and experiences around the Mediterranean region. It is a portrait of a musician completely at ease with his craft, the music an appealing mix of widescreen orchestral drama and intimate acoustic asides, evoking light, landscape, culture and history.
Compared with Hackett’s previous acoustic outings, ‘Under a Mediterranean Sky’ offers more ethnic flavours. A variety of lutes (including the Iraqi oud and the Iranian tar) and the duduk – an Armenian woodwind instrument – add Eastern atmosphere to Hackett’s six and twelve-string guitars. Roger King and Rob Townsend – the core of his excellent live band – are also on board. King’s sumptuous orchestral arrangements draw comparisons with Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia soundtrack, or some of John Barry’s more lavish moments, and add colour and shade to Hackett’s potent fretwork.
Hackett’s time with Genesis, from ‘Nursery Cryme’ (1971) to his live swansong, ‘Seconds Out’(1977) revealed an inventive guitarist, comfortable in a variety of styles. He was adept at intense but controlled dynamics, and was a master of his sustain. Even so, he seemed an unlikely front man when his debut solo album, ‘Voyage of the Acolyte’, emerged in 1975. But Gabriel’s departure clearly unsettled the band, and Hackett was already making plans for the future. ‘Voyage of the Acolyte’ featured guest slots from Phil Collins and Mike Rutherford, and sounded like the kind of album Genesis might have made had Tony Banks (unaccountably) got lost on his way to the studio. It wasn’t as well rounded or as melodically satisfying as that year’s group effort, ‘A Trick of the Tail’, but it was a clear statement of intent. Mostly instrumental, the album was imbued with a stately grandeur and a sense of huge power in reserve.
Collaborations with Richie Havens, Steve Walsh and Randy Crawford on his 1978 follow up, ‘Please Don’t Touch’, showed Hackett was keen not to be pigeonholed by his past. He was also proving to be quite prolific. ‘Spectral Mornings’ (1979) and the following year’s ‘Defector’ showed he was neither short of ideas nor shy of taking his complex music into the New Romantic decade. By the ‘80s he’d added his own, more than decent voice to the mix and was busy expanding and extending his musical horizons. Acoustic guitar albums such as Bay of Kings (1983) and Momentum (1988) eschewed rock altogether as Hackett embraced folk, flamenco and classical traditions. In 1997 he unveiled an acoustic instrumental album inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with full orchestra. What could have been pompous and unwieldy turned out to be a hugely accomplished set, with Hackett displaying great finesse and style.
By the ‘90s he seemed to have completed some kind of transition. He was now a musician first and rock star second, and was content to go wherever the muse took him. A series of duets with flautist and brother John resulted in the tribute album ‘Sketches of Satie’ (2000); an ongoing musical friendship with Hungarian ensemble Djabe pointed him in the direction of jazz and world music; his 2007 album, ‘Tribute’, featured one of the Byrds – the English Renaissance composer William – alongside Bach and Barrios on a collection of classical guitar pieces. Frets were still under threat – independent hook-ups with Yes men Steve Howe and Chris Squire could satiate an itch that needed scratching – but essentially Hackett appeared musically unrestrained, independent and free.
Or was he?
While Hackett was happy to forage far and wide for his musical fixes, he couldn’t escape the gravitational pull of his Genesis years. For his 1996 album ‘Genesis Revisited’ he was thinking of using new technology to capture the live impact of Hackett-era Genesis classics in the studio. The results, featuring guest vocalists John Wetton, Colin Blunstone and Paul Carrack, were mixed, but the album was a template for a succession of Genesis Revisited projects that continue to this day. Spurred on, perhaps, by the live success of some of the excellent Genesis tribute bands, Hackett set about reclaiming his musical past with great gusto. Ably assisted by keyboard maestro and orchestral arranger Roger King, Hackett gathered together a superb collection of musicians more than capable of reigniting some classic old. Their 2019 live version of the 1973 Genesis album ‘Selling England by the Pound’ at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall sounded as good as I’ve ever heard it.
This diversion down memory lane could have signalled a creative dead end. But the commitment to high musical standards seems to have carried over into all areas of Hackett’s work. Recent material like ‘Wolflight’ (2015), ‘The Night Siren’ (2017) and 2019’s ‘At The Edge of Light’ are exciting, self-confident rock albums, that rank among his best.
The pandemic put paid to Hackett’s hopes of touring the Genesis live album, ‘Seconds Out’, at least for the time being. But he seems to be a man on a mission, with little time to waste. Another new rock album is, apparently, half completed. In the meantime, we can pull up our sun loungers for this musical Mediterranean holiday in the head.
The album opens with ‘Mdina (The Walled City)’ and a blast of bombast, as Roger King turns his John Barry orchestrations up to eleven. The music moves like a series of upheavals, echoing the Maltese city’s turbulent history. Half-way in, there’s a musical full stop before Hackett starts anew with a brief guitar motif that sounds like a subliminal nod to ‘Looking for Someone’, the opening track from the 1970 pre-Hackett Genesis album ‘Trespass’. From there, a sense of order and harmony begins to emerge, as the music swells into something rich and romantic. It’s an album highlight.
‘Scirocco’ begins ominously, whipping up tension in the interplay between Hackett’s guitar and King’s orchestrations. The song resolves beautifully with a strong and stately melody driving you to the top of windswept and desolate dunes. You can shake the sand out of your hair on the bouncy ‘Joie de Vivre’, before a lone violin introduces the sombre and subdued ‘Memory of Myth’. Hackett adds a bit of Baroque with a Scarlatti sonata – the only non-original on the album – before the sweet and sentimental ‘Casa del Fauno’. The song features Steve’s brother John on flute, and when he lays down a cascading melody on a bed of orchestral strings, you get about as close to a pastoral Genesis sound as you can on an album of classically influenced instrumentals. By contrast, the wild and slinky ‘The Dervish and the Djin’ is free-form jazz in the Fertile Crescent. A plaintive call from a duduk above swirling atmospherics becomes a frenetic march over which Rob Townsend’s soprano sax can soar.
There’s a melancholy, somewhat reflective quality to ‘Under a Mediterranean Sky’, and Hackett succeeds in summoning the spirit of place from the cradle of civilisation. The penultimate track, ‘Andalusian Heart’, brings my Genesis fandom full circle, because it’s here, in Andalucia, that I decided to make my home. The music is both intimate and expansive, but the prevailing mood is one of absence and longing.
What does it all *mean*?
When I saw Genesis at the Hollywood Bowl on their 2007 reunion tour (Hackett and Gabriel were notable absentees), Phil Collins seemed keen to distance himself from the progressive music he made in the ‘70s, as if it was some kind of penance for the pop star he was to become. My heart sank at his sheepish preambles to some of the old songs, including the gorgeous ‘Ripples’. Banks, Collins and Rutherford weren’t exactly disowning their past, but it felt as if they were forfeiting their right to custody.
Those early Genesis albums communicated something meaningful to a teenage me that can’t be erased by time. More than forty years later I am struck by Hackett’s energy and ambition, and the high musical standards he continues to set as he enters his eighth decade. Demand for his Genesis Revisited tours shows that I am not alone, and it has become impossible to escape the conclusion that Steve Hackett is the true custodian of the Genesis legacy. While his solo work continues to develop and evolve, the careers of Banks, Collins, Rutherford and even Gabriel seem moribund by comparison. ‘Under a Mediterranean Sky’ may not win him many new fans. But it serves as an important marker of who and what he is. Long may it continue.
Goes well with…
G & Ts on the terrace, uninterrupted views of the Acropolis, teenage Genesis obsessions
Might suit people who like…
Anything Genesis related, classical guitar music, film soundtracks, fans of Anthony Phillips and Andrew Skeet’s 2012 album Seventh Heaven.