Steve Hackett on Genesis’ “Firth of Fifth,” GTR’s “When the Heart Rules the Mind” + others: Gimme Five

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Former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett, who’s readying a new collaboration with Yes co-founder Chris Squire, discusses how joining Genesis spurred him to a series of memorable inventions on his instrument. He also talks about how one of these pioneering moments would one day help create a signature part of Eddie Van Halen’s high-flying solo sound. Go inside the brief and stormy collaboration with Steve Howe in the mid-1980s called GTR, and Hackett’s genre-busting return to prog rock in 2009 …

“FIRTH OF FIFTH,” with GENESIS (SELLING ENGLAND BY THE POUND, 1973): Featuring one of Hackett’s most memorable interludes, this rhythmically complex Tony Banks track finds the guitarist echoing Peter Gabriel’s flute melody and then building upon it – creating a stirring, violin-esque narrative. In the intervening decades, “Firth of Fifth” has become a staple both in Genesis’ and the guitarist’s live repertoire. It has, in fact, appeared on three of his albums – most recently in the expanded version of 2009’s Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth. For Hackett, who likes to craft brief bursts of imagination within a larger song structure, this remains one of his longest-ever recorded solos.

STEVE HACKETT: I think it can support that, though, because it’s thematic. Basically, it’s the same melody played three times with minimal variation. It’s done like jazz, with the statement of the theme then you go off and improvise, and then return to the theme. On “Firth of Fifth,” when it comes back, it’s a larger arrangement. It’s the tune as written, then ‘let’s take this to the mountains,’ to a certain extent. I was playing it on electric guitar, then it struck me that it had certain similarities with other melodies that I had been playing that I liked. It ended up with aspects of Eric Satie, and aspects of King Crimson. The song had an aspect of blues, an aspect of gospel about it. It had something of English church music – but it also had an aspect of something Oriental or Indian, almost. So, it was a fusion of influences. But at the time, we weren’t using the word fusion and we were using the word progressive. It would eventually be described as progressive, which was a catch all phase covering an awful lot of bases.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett talks about collaborating with Chris Squire, the deep impact of Bach and a lasting passion for his old band.]

LAST TRAIN TO ISTANBUL, solo (OUT OF THE TUNNEL’S MOUTH, 2009): Hackett’s first prog-rock project in three years was a turbulent, layered outburst of creativity, capped by this exotic album-closing track featuring violinist Ferenc Kovacs. Hackett, who was emerging from a broken marriage, traversed a dizzying array of styles, influences and textures as he worked out what must have been a torrent of emotions. Also included are two songs recorded with Yes co-founder Chris Squire (“Fire on the Moon” and “Nomads”), giving a preview of what will eventually become a full-scale collaboration on the forthcoming Squackett.

STEVE HACKETT: That was the first project that I really did after my divorce. That had been a very dark, difficult period for me to get back on my feet. I did the album in my living room, although it doesn’t sound like that. It was a difficult, traumatic time – and one where I realized that I was clinging to music like a life raft. I had a lot of personal experience to draw from with that. It traversed a number of styles, and I wanted to be able to do that. I always wanted to be able to do what the classical players could do, and the flamenco players. And I wanted to be able to do blues at the same time. That’s what progressive music does, at its best: It doesn’t stick around in any genre long; it’s changing styles. It’s travelogue music, really.

“THE MUSICAL BOX,” with GENESIS (NURSERY CRYME, 1971): Hackett joined Genesis in time to make some influential contributions on Nursery Cryme, Genesis’s first project with the classic five-piece lineup of Tony Banks, Phil Collins, Gabriel, Hackett and Mike Rutherford. The album would reach the Top 40 in England and shoot all the way to No. 4 on the Italian charts on the strength of standout tracks like “The Musical Box.” Originally an instrumental by the newly departed Anthony Phillips, this track eventually emerged as a band collaboration with lyrics based on a Victorian fairy tale courtesy of Gabriel and a eye-popping turn by Hackett. The guitarist fashioned a completely new sound through the use of a new fretboard technique – now simply known as “tapping” – that later reached a broad audience through the fiery soloing of Eddie Van Halen.

STEVE HACKETT: When I joined the band, the song “The Musical Box” was already written. They were performing it live. They said to me: ‘As soon as you join the band, we’ll share all of the writing.’ So, I came up with guitar parts on top of what they had written. I was trying to come up with something suitable. I thought: ‘I wonder if it is possible to use both hands on the fretboard?’ You could play extremely fast on one string. I quickly realized that the sky’s the limit for anyone who wants to use that technique. Eddie has, of course, acknowledged the influence. I came up with the technique, and he gave it a name.

“WHEN THE HEART RULES THE MIND,” with GTR (GTR, 1986): A one-off supergroup that saw Hackett collaborating with fellow guitarist Steve Howe of Yes and producer Geoff Downes (Asia, the Buggles, Yes), GTR’s lone release went gold with a big assist from “When the Heart Rules the Mind” – a song that somehow remains Hackett’s only Top 40 charter in the U.S. His turns here are as concise as they are creatively dense; listen closely, and you’ll hear Hackett quoting both 1980’s “The Steppes” and 1984’s “Duel.” The band, which also featured drummer Jonathan Mover (Marillion, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai), bassist Phil Spalding (Mike Oldfield) and ex-Moby Dick singer Max Bacon (who provided an REO Speedwagon-esque AOR sheen), soon splintered however over creative differences and financial woes.

STEVE HACKETT: We had a hit album in America, and a bankrupt company in England. The price of success was very high, indeed. I think, also, there’s the aspect of novelty value. Being able to sustain a band at that level, it was a case of high finance. At the end of the day, a group is like any company. It has to make sense economically. I mean, I loved “When the Heart Rules the Mind.” I thought it was a great tune. That was the best of the band, straightaway, on that first track. It sounded great on American FM, because that compressed it and made it sound much more powerful. I was very pleased with lots of it. A lot of what GTR did, however, didn’t make it onto records. We did so much in the rehearsal rooms, but you can’t take people there. You just have to say that’s what it is; that’s what it was – a studio album, recorded totally live. What you see is what you get: A completely honest, live album. It’s got to be 27 years ago now – or was it a mere 26? And I thought I was getting on a bit in the business then! I was only 36. Looking back now, I’m about to hit my 62 birthday in February. I think it was a very fruitful collaboration.

“DANCING WITH THE MOONLIT KNIGHT,” with GENESIS (SELLING ENGLAND BY THE POUND, 1973): A crescendoing, Mellotron-driven epic that moved from accapella reverie to brawny rock bravura, even as Hackett employed both his tapping technique as well as an interesting sweep-picking sound. Selling England, named after a lyric in this song, was at that point a commercial peak for the group – reaching No. 3 in the UK and going gold in America.

STEVE HACKETT: That tune started off with the influence of a Scottish song, then it moved into something that I think of in a more elegiac way – something nostalgic and wistful, and common to a lot of Genesis tunes. Then it bursts forth, it fights off its shackles – really takes off like a rocket – into another section, which seems to borrow from something that sounds more Russian in a way. It’s European, but then at times, it turns into the jazz that I liked originally – but big band, with the accents. The same idea would get served up several different times, and it will be different each time. I think Genesis was quite fond of doing that with melodies – making a statement of it one way, then a vocal melody and then repeating it. It’s kind of European music, though, isn’t it? It’s not really rock ‘n‘ roll, in the sense that it’s derived from American black music. It’s not really that. But without that influence, we wouldn’t have the electric guitar – so it’s like going to the opposite end of the pond. What I was doing was something that was akin to a violinist’s bow technique, where you are picking across the strings and then back again very quickly. That’s called sweep picking. Again, I didn’t name the technique, but I seem to have invented it. It was just another way of playing very, very fast. Violinists, J.S. Bach, they all would have been there first, of course. I think it was Bach’s sound that I was trying to play on the guitar. It worked particularly well on that album.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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