‘The price of success was very high': Remembering Steve Hackett and Steve Howe’s ill-fated GTR supergroup

May 1986 saw the debut release from a one-off supergroup featuring two of prog rock’s most recognizable guitarists. What could go wrong, right? When it came to Steve Hackett and Steve Howe’s GTR, almost everything.

Howe, it seems, had left Asia in a quest to move away from synth-focused music — though, curiously, he brought along as producer on the GTR album one Geoff Downes, keyboardist with Asia. Nevertheless, the focus for this project would be guitars, to the point that any electronic sounds were made with Roland pickups, which created MIDI signals via riffs. They’d also make an effort to capture a live feel, very much in contrast to the times.

GTR was completed with the addition of Jonathan Mover, ex-drummer with Marillion and later with Joe Satriani; Phil Spalding, who’d served as bassist with Mike Oldfield; and Max Bacon, perhaps best known for his stint singing with Moby Dick. The resulting album rose to No. 11 in America, and eventually went gold, while spinning off a No. 14 hit in “When the Heart Rules the Mind” and a heavy-rotation video for “The Hunter.”

Trouble loomed, however, even then: “We had a hit album in America, and a bankrupt company in England,” Hackett tells us, in an exclusive SER Sitdown. “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.”

Hackett certainly gave GTR his best effort. “When the Heart Rules the Mind,” still his only Top 40 hit in the U.S., includes quotes from “The Steppes” (1980) and “Duel” (1984). But some reviewers dissed the AOR sheen that Bacon brought to the music. Perhaps-inevitable comparisons with Hackett and Howe’s better-known earlier work with Genesis and Yes soon followed. Rumors mounted that GTR’s two stars were bickering over the direction of the band. Others thought the rest of GTR didn’t compare to its singles.

All of that criticism coalesced in a one-word critique by J.D. Considine for Musician — “SHT” — that made a now-infamous play on the band and album title’s abbreviation for “guitar.”

They mounted a tour but, by the end of it, GTR was no more — a supergroup that came as quickly as it went.

“I loved ‘When the Heart Rules the Mind'; I thought it was a great tune,” Hackett confirms. “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.”

Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock 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 nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • http://www.popdose.com/ DwDunphy

    It was that kind of era, where we also got Emerson Lake & Powell and 3, and we had Yes and ABWH…There was a lot of casting around. The truth is that only two or three of the GTR songs work. The rest befit the one-hit-wonder status.