Supper’s Ready Again – Revisiting Genesis Revisited

500-742618Ever got the feeling that most of your favorite bands have been reduced to the status of brand names?  That a passing muso only needs to have once dropped in on a session to feel he (or she) has the inalienable right to “pick up where the lads left off…”; to “reawaken the spirit of the original band…”; to “let a whole new generation finally experience what they missed.”

More than one hallowed name from our past now tours the world with not a single member in tow; more than one battered solo artist has reawakened the band that made his name in the hope that more people will queue to see the Legend Reborn, than they would if they knew it was just Fred Bloggs again, with his usual bunch of anonymous sessionmen.

So full marks and a thousand hosannas to Steve Hackett who might be touring beneath the old Genesis banner; and might be playing the old stuff with more fire and aplomb than Genesis themselves managed in decades.  But who is honest enough to let everyone know that this is not and never will be Genesis.

It’s Genesis Revisited, and if you like your prog with a grin and a grind, and not just a bunch of pretentious horseheads grimacing their way through one more funeral in 24/7 time, step this way.

A magnificent five disc box rolls down the highway.  Genesis Revisited: Live at Hammersmith comprises a DVD concert film, three CDs worth of music, a “making of” DVD, and some of the most spectacular 5.1 sound you’ve ever heard from a live show.  Eighteen tracks that hit just about every high the band itself smacked while Hackett was a member (which itself rounds up what most fans regard as their most crucial era, from 1971’s Nursery Crime to 1977‘s Wind and Wuthering); plus a nineteenth pulled from Hackett’s first solo album, the ultra-epic “Shadow of the Hierophant,” a song which stands alongside any of the earlier epics as the quintessence of British prog.  And gorgeous packaging, too.

So, basically it’s a tribute band?

In a way, yes.  Albeit one that is dignified by the presence of an original member.  The actual playing is flawless, both technically and in terms of recapturing every song (almost) exactly as it used to be played.  Roger King’s keyboards are Tony Banks’s doppelganger, Nad Sylvan’s vocals are exquisitely poised somewhere smack between Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins, and so on.  But Hackett not only replicates old guitar lines, he embellishes them with… sometimes, they’re the tiniest flourishes, but they make sufficient difference to remind you that this is the real thing.  The rearranged conclusion to “Supper’s Ready” is spellbinding, and if the rendering of “Wardrobe” does miss the boogie conclusion that used to be part of Hackett’s rearrangement, “Firth of Fifth” soars higher than ever.

It’s not perfect.  Returning to “Supper’s Ready,” the “Apocalypse in 9/8″ section in no way captures the sheer portentous magnificence of its studio counterpart, the young Phil Collins playing like an octopus and reminding even the most jaded “Sussudio” listener that yes, once, this man was one of the greatest drummers in rock.  But live recordings of the original Genesis prove that they rarely hate the same heights themselves, so cut Revisited some slack, why don’tcha?   Besides, the work-out O’Toole embarks upon through “Shadow of the Hierophant” more than makes up for it.  One of the finest marathons in prog history just became ever finer.

We could probably live without the dirge-like “Blood on the Rooftops” with a lyric so lousy that even lovable cockneys could feel patronized by it; n the fifth disc “behind the scenes” DVD probably won’t repay too many plays.  But overall, it’s pretty damned good, andif you still don’t believe it, a short US tour will be bringing the show to these shores in late March.  Genesis Revisited: Live at Hammersmith merely whets the appetite, all the more so when you file away the three CDs over which the audio portion is draped, and go for the full 5.1 experience.

The visuals… okay, the visuals are fine if you want to spend three hours watching a bunch of more or less static gentlemen strut their stuff, while a parade of special guests join them for one song or another.  (Nik Kershaw is probably the best known, so don’t get too excited.)

It’s intriguing to discover that Phil Collins is not the only singing drummer with whom Hackett has performed, and Gary O’Toole does a fine job with “Fly on a Windshield,”  even as Hackett reminds us just how filthy were the guitar lines that riffed through the song. Indeed, watching Hackett is an utter revelation, as we finally get to see close-up how he played all those fiddly little lines and squawks that so characterized his playing in the day.  Singer Sylvan is fascinating, too, a spooky scarecrow apparently animated wholly by his superbly sculpted eyebrows.

Compared to “old” Genesis, then,with Gabriel in full costumed glory, the whole thing’s not much more exciting than watching your Foxtrot 8-Track play.  Except for the bit where Sylvan flourishes a quill, and indulges in a spot of frenzied air penmanship.  But the audio is exquisite, the surround sound surrounds, and with the whole show crammed onto the one disc, the three CDs can stay in their trays forever.

Genesis Revisited is not, of course, a new venture.  Hackett first started coming to grips with the group’s past back in the mid-1990s, two decades into a wilfully individual career that ranged from the blatant pop of Cured, through a 1986 union with Yes guitarist Steve Howe, in GTR, an all-out AOR supergroup, and finally, into an arena where, he proudly declared, “I don’t need to compete with any other artist.  And that is incredibly liberating, because you can just get on with what you want to do.  And the moment you do that, the moment you say to yourself you’re no longer competing, record sales start to go up.  In 1983, I moved to Twickenham with an idea of semi-retirement in mind.  Instead, the reverse has been true and I found myself working harder than ever.”

Not all of his activities won the full-blooded approval of his audience.  They did, however, scratch itches that he himself needed to relieve.  In 1986, he raised many a wry smirk when he agreed to appear at a charity concert being staged in London by Marillion, and even joined the headliners on stage for a version of “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe).”

That same year, he scrapped an already-complete new album cut with Queen’s Brian May and vocalist Bonnie Tyler (subsequently issued as Feedback), and undertook GTR instead, “just to prove to myself that it was possible to play the game according to the existing rules, and make a hit [“When The Heart Rules The Mind”} that way.  Once I’d done that, I realized I was perfectly capable of being an team player, I was perfectly capable of understanding it, and it no longer held any interest for me.  So I now just make records that appeal to me, and I don’t really mind if they sell or not.”

In fact, he continued, sometimes a piece of work prospered from obscurity.  “It’s important to allow yourself to fail, to do things you know are going to fail in the rock arena, but which have never been brought forward.”  He reflected happily on a catalog of crazy paving that stretched behind him, alive with acoustic albums, orchestral performances, blues, classical recordings, duets for guitar and flute (Satie, a duet with brother John on the music of French composer Eric Satie) and so much more.

“None of these pieces are MTV material. But they are Performance Channel material and, to my audience, that might be the most important stuff.  There’s no machiavellian game plan, I don’t approach [my career] like a general….  Whatever one is motivated to do, one should do.  At the end of the day, it’s all about energy and honesty and passion and commitment.  I love music, and I cannot really imagine myself doing anything else full time. I did a year of charity work and I almost became a film director at one point… I was at the top of a shortlist for one or two things….  But really, I’m glad I didn’t get sidelined and get voted to become Mayor of Carmel or something, because it would slow down one’s output for a while.”

At least part of Hackett’s freedom has been confirmed by his own ability to keep one eye firmly on his own musical roots.  Although he purposefully distanced himself from his Genesis past throughout the early years of his career, by the mid-late 1980s, he was ready to begin embracing it once again, beginning in 1987, when conductor David Palmer and the London Symphony Orchestra undertook a string driven tribute to Genesis, the amusingly-titled We Know What We Like.

Appearing alongside bassist Mo Foster and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson (Palmer himself was Tull’s arranger across a number of their early albums), Hackett was one of the stars of a soaringly ambitious effort that drew commendation from no less an authority than George Martin: “[Palmer]’s orchestral coloring has brought out a richness in [Genesis’] music that I had not fully appreciated,” Martin wrote in the album’s liners.  “Listening to his scores, I want to go back to the original Genesis tracks, to hear them again.”

We Know What We Like spent most of its time investigating Genesis’ late 1970s output, before soaring towards a closing salvo of “Horizons” (Hackett’s first ever solo composition for the band) “Can Utility And The Coast Liners” and, most impressive of all, “Supper’s Ready,” all three from 1972’s Foxtrot album.  Deferring to Genesis’ own roots, meanwhile, Palmer also recruited the Charterhouse School Choir for a couple of numbers, but Hackett himself found his own creativity somewhat stifled by the surroundings.

“I was a hired gun on the David Palmer stuff. (Hackett also performed on Palmer’s Pink Floyd orchestration).  He approached me with the idea [and] even when I was able to give him exactly the original guitar part, he would often argue with me that he knew what the part was, and that it should be played thus… Really, you just join the orchestra and you’re just one of many. At the end of the day, the umpire’s decision is final as they say. So, I did what kept David happy. I don’t think it’s the best of my playing. I don’t think it’s me at my best, but I think that’s largely because David turned a deaf ear to my many suggestions, which is why I prefer not to do that kind of thing for a living. So, I occasionally guest on other people’s things, but I’m lucky I don’t have to make a living that way… Thank God!”

But “Horizons” became an integral component within Hackett’s ever-captivating live show, while 1996 saw the guitarist convene what many fans might agree could have proven an exquisite alternate reality for the band itself, as he linked with eGenesis’s own Chester Thompson, bassists John Wetton and Alfonso Johnson, former King Crimson vocalist Ian McDonald, keyboardist Julian Colbeck and Zombies singer Colin Blunstone, for a full-fledged collection of rerecorded Genesis classics, Genesis Revisited.

Hackett and Colbeck were on an acoustic tour of Italy, when the idea first hit.  Hackett explained, “I was at my hotel and a friend phoned me and said would I mind signing these albums for a chap who’d come all the way from Sicily. So I went down, and signed all these Hackett albums, and then this chap reached round his girlfriend and sheepishly asked if I’d sign all the Genesis albums, too. And it made me think that maybe my fans felt that I’d rather the whole (Genesis) thing hadn’t happened.

Of the catalog, he admits, “I didn’t play it for the first twenty years of my solo career.  I was in denial for a very long time, and the great problem for me is, the longer you play live the more other people’s memories catch up with you and after a while there’s a certain amount of capitulation over what they want to hear.

“I suddenly realized that maybe it was time to go back and claim my birthright, so to speak. I spoke to Julian about it on the flight back and he said ‘Why not do it live?’ But in the back of my mind, I thought that a studio album would be nice. And I could get to apply the production and other techniques that I had acquired over the years.”  From the moment of conception, as Hackett began lining up the guest musicians, it became obvious that a full Genesis Revisited project would – in logistical terms, could – never make it out on a conventional tour.

Colbeck remained an avid cheer-leader for some kind of concert documentary, however, finally prompting Hackett to arrange a pair of  shows, staged at Tokyo’s Koseinenkin Hall over December 16 and 17 1996.  By now, however, Hackett’s ambitions had far out-stripped simply revisiting Genesis.  “One of our fans observed that “great music is timeless and not affected by changes of style, haircuts or even revolutions. We wondered what it would be like if occasional members of bands like Frank Zappa’s, Genesis, King Crimson, Asia, and Weather Report all got together for one night?

“I’d been talking to John Wetton about putting a band together, and we also talked about getting involved with Ian MacDonald. So I mentioned the chance of doing this Japanese thing and did they fancy doing it?”  Each one of the invited players, he explained, “has literally stunned me by his brilliance and versatility over the years, [and] I always wanted musicians who felt at home, no matter how far from their original routes they strayed.”

A live set fell into place with ease.  “We tried to cover the more salubrious moments of the chaps’ history,” Hackett explained – Ian McDonald reprising his King Crimson days with “I Talk To The Wind” and “The Court of the Crimson King”; John Wetton serving up an acoustic version of Asia’s “Heat of the Moment,” which – as Hackett put it – spoke “so much more eloquently than the blockbuster original”; a handful of solo Hackett favorites, and finally, the promised Genesis Revisited favorites.

Filmed for a dramatically satisfying home video release, the concerts proved as successful as anybody could have hoped, but still they could not prepare audiences for the main attraction.  From the outset, Hackett was adamant that Genesis Revisited was never going to be a mere hotch-potch of rerecordings; the bulk of its contents did indeed revisit pastures past… “Fountain Of Salmacis,” “Los Endos,” “Dance On A Volcano,”  “For Absent Friends,” “Your Own Special Way,” “Firth Of Fifth” and “Watcher Of The Skies” were all on board.

But one “new” song, the vast instrumental, “Valley Of The Kings,” arose to suggest some of the passages that Hackett had seen discarded by his bandmates’ back in the day; while another, “Déjà Vu,” finally brought to light one of the silent legends of Genesis lore, a number Peter Gabriel first wrote around the time of Selling England By The Pound, but which had lain untouched and, apparently, unmourned ever since.  Hackett, however, recalled it with affection and, linking up with Gabriel, “Déjà Vu” was finally completed.

That unexpected treasure aside, there was no further involvement from any other Genesis alumni. Tony Banks, apparently, expressed interest in appearing on the new version of “Los Endos,” before backing out; but, hand-on-heart, Hackett found no reason to mourn these particular absent friends.

Indeed, he professed himself singularly impressed by the manner in which songs hitherto associated only with the vocalists who debuted them – Gabriel and Collins, of course – emerged in the hands of another frontman.

“All the Genesis and other songs worked very well. With all respect to Pete and Phil, I think John [Wetton] sounded so perfect singing ‘Watcher of the Skies.’ That’s just my point of view, but Genesis [became] so many things since I left. A successful Pop group, and I don’t think I’m denigrating any of them by saying that, but what was lost along the way was a tremendous amount of detail and atmosphere.”

By restoring both attributes, Hackett in many ways restored the very concept of Genesis, a momentous mood that continued on through 2012’s  Genesis Revisited II, a two CD set this time, that set the stage for the tour.

The majority of the set, he says, comprises “mainly ones I had a large part in composing.  I consider them to be if not entirely, then in a large part mine, ‘Firth Of Fifth,’ [for example], I do that one because I think it was my best known electric guitar solo with the band; it was my interpretation of Tony [Banks]’s melody, and it’ll always be twinned with me.  I still enjoy playing that, it’s a great melody for guitar.”

Why does the early Genesis material resonate so greatly?  For all the success of the later, 1980s-era band, one simply cannot imagine either Tony Banks or Mike Rutherford setting out to storm the world’s stages with a set made up entirely of songs from And Then There Were Three on.  We do not need to hear John Wetton sing “Abacab,” or Amanda Lehmann do “Mama,” and the sad fate of the band’s final line-up, with Ray Wilson replacing Phil Collins for one final album and tour, is all the proof we need of that.

Hackett reflects: “I think the band was falling between two stools really.  On one hand, you had this rock symphonic approach; on the other, you had the pop song sensibility which they really embraced after the departures of Peter [Gabriel] and myself, but it was the earlier period that attracted me more, which was the kind of musical odyssey where a song would start out and you weren’t really sure where it would end up after everyone had contributed a little bit to the writing of it.

“A five man writing team produces some very strange quirky, unlikely, twists and turns, and I think this idea of the musical journey was made possible by each of us running with the baton, writing almost as if it was kind of a relay race.  There was plenty of room for writing at that time in the band, and then I found I would be writing more and more things, particularly after [his first solo album] Voyage of the Acolyte, and I felt now I’ve switched the tap on, I must not switch it off.”

Two years on from that tentative first solo step, Hackett quit the band, knowing that “by the time I’d done Wind & Wuthering, I’d probably written as much material for that, as I would for any solo album.  I’d put things to one side and I thought well the band aren’t going to do this, but basically this idea is strong and I’m going to use it.  Like the title track of Please Don’t Touch was something we worked up as a band, and that became sidelined and I felt there were weaker things on the record, and I felt well, this band is heading in a different direction, its no longer embracing the spirit of fusion… real fusion, not jazz….”

So he quit, and almost forty years later… well, he’s not back.  And he’s not pretending to be back.  But Genesis Revisited is exactly what it says on the tin, and exactly what you’d want it to be as well.

Supper’s ready again.

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