Ask any seasoned Genesis fan about their favourite Genesis era and they invariably speak of those golden years in the 70s. With the likelihood of Genesis ever performing live again close to zero, it remains for guitarist Steve Hackett, who left the band in 1978, to carry the flame for this treasured musical catalogue to be experienced in a live setting. And now Hackett is about to venture out on tour again, including a visit to Edinburgh’s Usher Hall, and is also set to release a 2CD plus Blu-Ray digipak entitled Genesis Revisited Band & Orchestra: Live at the Royal Festival Hall, a live souvenir his extraordinary 2018 tour.
‘This is probably the one and only time I’ll ever tour with an orchestra,’ Hackett had told me ahead of the tour. The decision to undertake the tour was cemented following the critical success of the previous year’s one-off US performance and the chance to fulfil a long-held ambition of Hackett’s to perform this music with an orchestra.
‘I started to get interested in orchestras when I was a kid,’ Hackett explained. ‘But I never wanted to go the route of the conservatory and the academy and study piano. Guitar was always a symbol of freedom, so I always came to it instinctively. Pete [Gabriel] had something special, and [when he departed] I missed him greatly, yet at the same time it gave one more space. I was starting to write more and more, and having more of a hand in the direction of the band.
‘But I wanted to take it a stage further. I wanted to have a parallel solo career but that wasn’t on offer at the time. I had a choice to make and I had to see where my own personal development would lead. I was leaving not because I was at odds with the Genesis music – far from it, there was so much really great stuff. I had hoped that the band might one day become an orchestra, instead of getting smaller and smaller. You play yourself into a corner that way.’
Forty years on from his departure, Hackett finally realised that ambition with an 8-date UK tour including The Royal Festival Hall, London, where the soon-to-be-released live masterpiece was recorded on 5 October 2018. The concert featured Hackett’s regular touring band of Roger King (keyboards), Gary O’Toole (drums/percussion), Rob Townsend (saxes/flutes) with Nad Sylvan on vocals and Jonas Reingold (The Flower Kings) on bass, together with special guests John Hackett and Amanda Lehmann, and augmented by the 41-piece Heart Of England Orchestra conducted by Bradley Thachuk.
The tracks themselves need little introduction. This is the classic Genesis-era but with a rich texture and power that could only come from a live orchestra. The album opens with Hackett’s distinctive notes from Dance On A Volcano and continues with a mix of classic Genesis tracks from Hackett’s time with the band, including the epic Supper’s Ready, and a well chosen selection of Hackett’s best solo work.
‘When we first had the idea of doing the orchestral tour I had a few sleepless nights,’ Hackett says now, looking back, ‘thinking “am I going to founder on the rock of ambition here?”‘
It worked out fine and nobody lost their shirt on it.
‘It was wonderful. The orchestra was great, it was well received and it was enthusiastic on stage and in the audience. It was rather extraordinary and, I have to say, the product from it, which is largely nostalgic material, is one of the best DVDs I’ve done. The sheer power and precision of a very large band is something I have been dreaming about for a very long time.’
I wondered how the experience was for Hackett, on stage. Was he able to appreciate the majesty of the band and orchestra performing these classic Genesis tracks, or did it come from listening back to the recordings afterwards?
‘There is an element of that, because when you’re on stage you can’t hear all those people absolutely clearly. Even when you have a rock band you’re only getting a sense of it. What you tend to do is to monitor to prioritise what you’re hearing yourself because you need to be able to play in time and in tune, to concentrate on your own part. Ideally you should be hearing that above everything else. I could hear some of what was going on but hearing it back is a whole different ball-game, something like they will have heard out front.
‘I was told by various people how extraordinarily powerful and loud it was, and I can only guess at that. I worried that if it gets too loud at the front, the orchestral players won’t be able to hear themselves acoustically on stage. They were set back behind the band, drums screened off, as is the way, so that the orchestra is not being killed by the sound of the drums acoustically.’
‘I am very proud of it,’ he adds. ‘It was a very big bunny to bring out of the hat.’
The live CD and DVD includes I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe) and Firth Of Fifth from the Selling England By The Pound album which Hackett says is his favourite Genesis album. And Hackett is to celebrate this by performing the album in it’s entirety on his UK tour in November.
‘The tour we’re doing this year is different, the whole of Selling England By The Pound and most of Spectral Mornings and some of (his latest studio album) At The Edge Of Light. It’s the 40th anniversary of Spectral Mornings but why Selling England…? It’s just my favourite Genesis album! Plus there’s an additional track that didn’t make it onto Selling England… but was rehearsed at the time.’
Hackett goes on to shed a little light on the making of Selling England…
‘We were writing in a house in Chessington, writing from scratch. That lasted about a week before the neighbours complained and we had to move out – the usual thing for Genesis!’ he laughs. ‘Then we were in Shepherd’s Bush at Una Billings’ dance school rehearsing in the basement. We were still rehearsing there when Bill Bruford joined us in ‘76 for the Trick Of The Tail tour.
‘I remember when we worked there things tended to get written very quickly. I remember writing and rehearsing the whole of [the 23-minutes long] Supper’s Ready [from the previous album Foxtrot] there. We’d written Supper’s Ready in two weeks there but in the Selling England… sessions, we were doing what became Dancing With The Moonlit Knight and Cinema Show. Originally those two pieces were joined together, heading towards another kind of Supper’s Ready. I was worried that the blueprint of having very long pieces was going to become a little bit stale, so I was very glad that we separated them out into digestible chunks.
‘I think Selling England…, as an album, doesn’t really falter, I don’t think there’s a bad moment on the album. It goes its own way. Even some of the shyer tracks, somehow there is a surety about it. Genesis’ music was full of digressions and breakdown sections where you take away everything and produce things that are tinkly and rely less on bluster, such as More Fool Me and After The Ordeal, those pallet cleansers between the epics. They serve their purpose because you don’t always want to hear conjoined epics.
‘I’m not knocking conjoined epics by any means. At that time the average time for a Genesis song seemed to be about 11 minutes long. We wouldn’t be seen dead doing anything less than nine minutes! But this was an era before radio play for the band. Ironically, Selling England… spawned the first hit single and I love doing I Know What I Like live because we get off on a bender with the instrumental section which we take into jazz-rock and it seems to work really well for audiences. There’s something about the energy of playing that again. You get the friendly song but then you get the work out in the middle of it. I’m really pleased with the way that’s developed. And After The Ordeal, we take that further, too. We also get to do Deja Vu, which was rehearsed up, a song by Peter. It wasn’t finished but the band and I finished it years later with his blessing. Live, you get a sense of what it was then and what it is now.
‘We’ve just come off the back of a two-month tour of the US and Canada which went very well. We seem to have doubled the audience since last time, which is great, and doing many of the venues that I’d done with Genesis so it’s been really good.’
I put it to him that this shows the enduring love for the music of the early Genesis and his own music now.
‘I think that’s the point, isn’t it? Yes, whatever it was, whatever it is and whatever it will be in the future, it’s got to do with all of those times. The calling card is probably whatever is oldest because it was the success early on. Beyond that, the new stuff seems to sell just as well and is as well received. It’s lovely to be able to do Under The Eye Of The Sun, for instance, because that really comes to life live and sort of hurls through. I’m so proud of it.’
Genesis Revisited Band & Orchestra: Live at the Royal Festival Hall is out now.