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Written by on April 11, 1978

As genial an English rocker as you’re ever likely to meet, Steve Hackett
continues fielding interview queries over a bit of late afternoon dinner at
New York’s Drake Hotel. The better part of the day has already been spent
entertaining a host of journalistic types eager for any new scoop on Hackett’s
recent and highly publicized departure from the depleting ranks of
Genesis. But the guitarist is just as eager to talk about “Please Don’t Touch”
(PDT), his second solo recording and one which he hopes will establish for him
an identity separate from the art-rock axioms binding his former group.

“I now think of myself much more as a writer, not just a guitarist,” he
ventures between slices of room service steak. “And I want to be able to work
in other areas than just what my instrument is capable of doing. That’s why I
am pleased that people are telling me that this new album sounds different,
that it is something they hadn’t expected from me.”

The emphasis Hackett places on his new album’s intrinsic element of surprise
is forcefully underscored by the startling eclecticism on display throughout
its ten surprisingly commercial selections. For someone who was often
characterized as the quietest of Genesis’ generally Faceless Four, Hackett has
recorded an exuberant, extroverted record full of infectious melodic hooks
that is still a marvel of typically English classicality. No one song would be
out of place in the Genesis stage or studio repertoire. But as the sum total
of Hackett’s diversifying musical interests, PDT marks a step similar to that
signaled by Peter Gabriel’s first solo album. What might not be accepted as
part of the Genesis scheme of things says a lot for Hackett as his own man.

“A very large proportion of it,” says the guitarist, referring to the album’s
song material, “had been written before I left Genesis. Because of the
importance I placed on the material, I really wanted it to be recorded. With
the band in the past, I found that certain things found favor and certain
things didn’t, the result being that I ended up scrapping a huge percentage of
my material. But I felt that all of the songs on this album really deserved an
airing. So my impatience, combined with the desire to work with some other
people, brought me to the necessary turning point.”

That point was Hackett’s decision to leave the group in which his distinctly
personal style of contemporary rock guitar had been a cornerstone for well
over 5 years. His was the intense, studied solo on “Firth of Fifth” and the
sinewy drone characteristic of his pedal-altered sound often dominated the
Genesis soundscape more than the gargantuan keyboard set-ups of Tony
Banks. But Hackett denies the implication that he jumped ship just as the
group was on the verge of mega-stardom because what he had to say was better
said alone.

In fact, Steve Hackett’s first solo effort, 1976’s Voyage of the Acolyte,
could not, he says, have been completed without the inspirational and
instrumental help of Genesis players Michael Rutherford and the impish Phil
Collins. “I was really grateful that they, and all of the other people who
played on it, helped me with the first album. I remember the first session. I
walked into the studio and there it was, laid at my feet. I had the red carpet
and didn’t know what to do with it.”

What eventually resulted was a spacey, ethereal work that, despite the Genesis
connection, sported a far more spontaneous, atmospheric feel contrary to the
rigid arranging disciplines associated with the epic Genesis sound. This time,
the guitarist deliberately set out to collect an album’s worth of songs that
were, in his words, “short, sweet, and accessible…something with an instant
vibe. To me, the first album was very important, although THAT it was was much
more important than WHAT it was. This time around, I decided there were going
to be great performances or the people playing just wouldn’t be on that
album. And I ended up scrapping a lot of tracks as a result.”

What remains says a great deal for Hackett’s abilities as a songwriter and an
arranger, talents not immediately recognizable within the collective Genesis
conscience, the suggestion of which triggers an immediate reaction.

“The common bond between the people who played with me on PDT is that they
liked playing spontaneous music as much as arranged stuff. I was after people
who could do both. The brain is as important as the wrist and that’s a quality
I feel was lacking in Genesis, whereby the whole thought-out process of making
music locked everybody in, as if everything had been worked and raked over the
coals. And sometimes we ended up with charred remains instead of a blazing

“It was a weird thing for me. When I first joined the group (in 1971 for the
recording of Nursery Cryme), I’d say ‘well, they must know better. They’re the
group.’ But it ended up with a thing where I would sit down and write a solo
in the rehearsal room. I would then play it for everybody and they would say
‘hmmm.’ And they never looked pleased. They were very unresponsive people and
most of the time I racked my brain to try and please them.

“I confess it worries me when I’m asked about the Genesis thing. I’m forced
either to disappoint the fans by letting the cat out of the bag or I’m
dishonest by saying, ‘yeah, sure, we got on all the time.’ The truth is that
there were ego problems and eventually it came to a point where I could do a
solo album or I could do a Genesis album. But I couldn’t do both. So I
thought, well, if that’s the way it is…”

If Hackett held any doubts as to the success of a solo career, they have been
totally dispelled by PDT and the intriguing combination of frantic guitar-led
instrumentals and finely-tuned-and-produced pop songs. There are also the
unlikely collaborations between Hackett and members of Kansas (the dramatic
but tuneful “Narnia” and “Racing in A”), a sultry songstress with a smooth,
smokey voice in Randy Crawford (a superb R&B-tinged ballad called “Hoping Love
Will Last”), and the seemingly incompatible Richie Havens (a soft acoustic
“How Can I” and the regal if uncharacteristic setting of “Icarus
Ascending”). Hackett says he saw Ms. Crawford singing in a Chicago night club
and he knew, on that moment’s notice, that she was right for the song.

In the case of the gravel-throated Havens, he admits with a straight face that
Havens is his favorite male singer — “He transcends color” — and that he
wrote “Icarus Ascending” with him in mind. “How Can I” was written “off the
top of my head. I played it for Richie and he took it from there. Sitting in
the studio and hearing him sing that song was really something. I felt very
privileged to have my own private view of that performance and then for him to
be doing my song as well.”

The case for Kansas is particularly curious considering that band’s reputation
as a typically American clone of things European. Hackett himself maintains
that the idea of using vocalist Steve Walsh and drummer Phil Erhardt (sic) was
rather fascinating, “that I would use musicians designated Genesis copyists as
opposed to the real Genesis on my album. But basically, what defines Kansas on
those two tracks is the vocal color. To me, that’s Kansas, not what they
aspire to in terms of European influences. To me, it was an ideal opportunity
to cash in on a really amazing singer and a drummer with a fresh, youthful
approach. I wanted the album to sound young and frisky as opposed to
studied. And I got a unique cooperation out of them because they were so into
what I’ve done in the past.”

As one who has been primarily recognized up to this point as a major innovator
on guitar, Hackett is aware of possible criticisms that he has forsaken the
musician’s spotlight for the producer’s chair. Not so, as he points out that
there is, in fact, more guitar on this album than on Voyage of the Acolyte,
disguised to sound like other instruments, but there nonetheless.

“Also I don’t think I’m gonna lose people who want more guitar. I’ll actually
be taking people who are interested in songs and introducing them to more
guitar, which admittedly is the roundabout way of doing it. But right now, I
am more interested in the songwriting and production end of things because
they are areas I have yet to attain recognition in. People think of me as a
guitarist, yet they don’t realize that half of my time is really spent writing
a song on guitar, not writing figures for it.”

His dinner finished, Steve Hackett sits back and takes a moment to collect the
various points he has made in the course of the conversation, hoping to
summarize them in the proper perspective.

“It gives me,” he finally says, “much more pleasure to hear Randy Crawford
sing a song of mine with so much passion that I know it’s going to move a lot
of people as opposed to playing guitar which, by itself, has a lot more
limited appeal. It’s not enough to be a great guitarist.

“But then again, the next album could be all guitar. I don’t really
know. Where I’ll go next depends pretty much on how this one does. If this one
does extremely well…”

And here he shows off one very mischievous smile.

“…then I’ll never do anything like it ever again.”

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