Steve Hackett is the most underrated member of Genesis.
Stoic in stature yet virtuosic in performance, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer will undoubtedly be best remembered for his seven-year tenure with the band, particularly as backup bandmate to both Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins. Yet what’s most important to realize (and I’m kicking myself for taking this long to do so) is that Hackett’s solo output is just as impressive as any of the work he contributed to the prog powerhouse. Voyage of the Acolyte (1975), Spectral Mornings (1979) and Highly Strung (1983) are essential listening.
For me, the primary goal of my voyage on Cruise to the Edge was to meet Hackett and focus some of my questioning on his stellar second solo album, Please Don’t Touch! This is arguably the most important album in Hackett’s catalogue for two reasons: it’s where his singing voice starts properly developing, and it includes the participation of many diverse musicians – some who fit comfortably within the progressive genre, and others best known outside of it.
Said musicians include Steve Walsh (who sings on the terrific “Narnia” and “Racing in A”) and Phil Ehart of Kansas, jazz vocalist Randy Crawford (“Hoping Love Will Last”) and perhaps the greatest of them all, folk icon Richie Havens.
After first hearing this album months back, I became transfixed by its closing track “Icarus Ascending,” featuring Havens in perhaps his most inspired performance since Woodstock/“No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed” (the latter having been covered by Yes on Time and a Word). Reaching deeper into his already throaty baritone, Havens takes Hackett’s composition, inspired by transcendental meditation, into the stratosphere from the opening lyric, “There are many things that I would rather do…,” as he transports the tale of the Greek mythological figure into the present day.
(For reference, Hackett is not the only one to bring Icarus to life through music. In 1975, Kansas included “Icarus – Borne on Wings of Steel” on their third album, Masque.)
During our face to face CTTE interview, Hackett eloquently described how he came to meet Havens— an Elmore favorite who passed away four years ago this April– and ultimately collaborate with him.
“We were all huge fans of Richie Havens– all the Genesis guys. He had such a huge voice and such power. He was a guy who only really ever needed an acoustic guitar because the power of his voice was extraordinary,” he told me. “I befriended him when he was supporting us at Earl’s Court. I met him and invited him to my home to have some dinner and he suggested that we work together. I was over the moon with the idea.”
Our 40-minute interview covered several topics, but eventually we came back to Havens. Hackett’s recollections proved so terrific, I feel it’s best to let his words speak for themselves:
“I phoned him up about three months after we’d had dinner together. I said, “I’ve got a song here, Richie, that I thought you might sound nice singing.” He said to me, “I can hear it already, man. It sounds great!” The funny thing was I was meditating… and I was trying to imagine what words he might sing. I literally heard these words that popped into my mind. It was great. It was wonderful. He was so positive about it.
When we did [“Icarus Ascending”], he wanted me to be out on the studio floor just a few feet away from him to kind of direct him. I thought, “I’m directing the greatest singer in the world here.” I just was giving him enthusiasm. He was deferring to me. I don’t know whether it was because we were both Aquarians, or what, but there was something brotherly that went on.
When we were working together, he was naturally larger than life, but very unstarry. And after we did the first tune – it’s about three in the morning – he said to me, “Have you got any others?” I said, “Well I’ve got this other one” [“How Can I?”]. He said, “Well, why don’t we just put down the backing track.” He played percussion while I played 12-string [guitar]. He just made both songs sound divine. It was quite wonderful to watch him bring these songs to life. He sounded like he had been singing them all his life.”
Please Don’t Touch! turns 40 in 2018. It’s worth getting a hold of for “Icarus” alone, which demonstrates how Havens is a master of music, regardless of genre. It also shows how Havens has the power to help another legendary artist find his true voice, which is still going strong two dozen albums later.
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