With the last months of 2016 dominated by a maniacal flurry of “essential” box sets, with Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, the Stones, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Ian Hunter and even Adam and the Ants all unleashing art-form defining anthologies, it was strange to see perhaps the most definitive of them all slip by with barely a mainstream headline to its name.
Yet, on any level you choose to look, beyond the realms of commercial success, the twenty-two discs that comprise Steve Hillage’s Searching for the Spark collection effectively represent a gold standard that few… if any… other acts have yet to attain.
You want the back catalog? It’s here; eleven CDs that begin at the very beginning, with his teenaged Uriel and Khan collectives, then trace Hillage through to the first System 7 album in 1990.
You want unreleased material? Four discs trace demos, out-takes, rehearsals and roughs between 1970 and, again, 1990, and effectively include alternate versions of almost half the finished LPs.
You want live recordings? Seven discs include two BBC In Concert broadcasts, four gigs from the late 1970s, and Hillage’s Gong Unconvention performance in 2006.
You want oodles of reading material? Two books - one a 180+ page hardback biography, the other a 60 page scrapbook of press cuttings and the like. And then there’s posters, lyric books, a button and even a plectrum that doubles as a tool for digging the CDs out of their compartments.
Frankly, it’s astonishing, and it is everything Hillage himself dreamed it could be.
“I’d already had an idea that if I ever did an anthology or a box set, I wanted it to be all encompassing, and cover my full story, at least up to the point where we ended up with this box set. I didn’t have a concrete plan, but then I was at the Prog Awards in 2013 [where he received the Visionary Award, celebrating “the spirit of independence and… those who make their own niche in a progressive direction”] and I noticed that one of the other award winners was Snapper Records for their Family box set, Once Upon a Time.
“I thought ‘ooh, these guys know what they’re doing’… I took note of that and, interestingly enough, the next year they contacted me about doing a box set and they wanted to know what my ideas might be. And that’s when I said I wanted to do a full career-encompassing thing.”
Aware, however, that many of his fans already own some, if not all, of his albums-so-far, he was adamant that“I didn’t want to sell people back what they’ve already got with fancy packaging - that’s a bit dishonest really. So we had to balance the fact that we were needing to use the already released records with as much unreleased stuff as we could coherently add. Then we decided we were going to do a really good book. The whole aim of the thing is to tell my story, how we got from A to Z, so that was the main artistic motivation for the thing.”
It’s an aim at which all concerned succeed beyond most collector’s wildest expectations. So many career-spanning box sets, after all, cram the stuff we want (as opposed to the albums we’ve got, or can pick up for pennies in previous incarnations) onto a few bonus discs at the end. Or they bulk themselves out with blu-ray repetitions of what’s already on there. Or… or… or.
The idea that an artist can sit down with his catalog, and then double it in size with unreleased material which, for the most part, sounds just as good, and is just as essential, as the regular albums themselves, is one that too few folk have entertained, and that includes such box set behemoths as Dylan (“oh thank you, Bob, an entire disc of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ try-outs) and the Floyd (“Yeah, I can see why you chose not to issue this at the time. Shame you changed your minds now.”)
But there’s not a wasted moment to be found on the Hillage box - as he discovered, much to his surprise - as he compiled it.
“Going back to the old stuff was very interesting. When we did the remasters for the regular albums in 2006, I supplied some bonus tracks for those CDs, digging into the collection, and I then that realized I had a lot more stuff. I thought one day I’m really going to have to go through this, heavily and deeply, and obviously doing the box set was a chance to do that.
“What was most interesting was with some of the reel-to-reel quarter-inch tapes, it was not noted on the boxes what was on them, so a lot of the time I had no idea what was there. So I sent a big box full of tapes to a tape restoration studio and the guy did the baking, as they normally do, and then transferred everything to CD and hit it back to me.
“And that was a really interesting moment, because I found some stuff I’d completely forgotten about and that was really good. Stuff I heard from cassette, I had a better idea about because that was better noted; I did a bit of archiving in the 70s while everything was going on - it wasn’t all chaos, I kept fairly good records.
“But there were certainly some good surprises, the whole Munich gig (1979) which I’ve included in the box set, I’d completely forgotten I had that. “
He’s also wildly enthusiastic about the a Cappella Echo Guitar recordings that wrap up the first of the Sparks discs. Recorded at the Gong heouse in Sensa, France, in 1973, with lifelong partner Miquette Giraudy and his old Urtiel bandmates Dave Stewert, Mont Campbell and Clive Brooks, the seven tracks here are excerpted from “about three hours of stuff, and it was fantastic listening back to that. That’s something we could release in its entirety at some point.”
Sharp eared listeners already armed with the last round of Hillage reissues, from 2006, will pick up that the core catalog has not been remastered for the box set.
“We remastered most of them back in 2006,” he explains, “and it was done pretty well, with an engineer who specializes in remastering 70s stuff, and he went to the original analog tapes and he didn’t make them all sound bigger and louder, he kept them pretty faithful to the originals, just made them a bit better. I listened and I just thought ‘well, this stuff is pretty great, so there’s no need to fix it.’ I did some tweaks to some of them and I did some tweaks to the first System 7 album and to Khan, but nothing major, and all the other eleven albums with the live and unreleased stuff, I just tried to match it to the sound of the remastered released albums.”
Uriel’s Arzachel debut notwithstanding, the earliest track in the box, again found on the first Sparks disc, is an unfinished 1970 effort called “The Goblin”; that leads us into the first strivings of Khan, a new band formed with Stewart still aboard (before he moved on to Egg), plus the rhythm section of Eric Peachey and Nigel Griggs. The latter had left before Khan cut their sole album, but demos, rehearsals and even a taste of a live show catch this incarnation in action, while we also learn that the songs that comprised Hillage’s first solo album, Fish Rising in 1974, were originally intended for a second Khan album.
“The stuff we were doing was really good, I was really happy with it, but the business situation got really difficult. There wasn’t enough support from the record company - they hadn’t dropped us or anything, and we were still getting gigs. But it was becoming a bit of a slog and being still just 21, I felt too young for that stressful slog, so I decided to play with other people instead, and that’s how I wound up joining Kevin Ayers, eventually. So a lot of that later Khan material ended up on Fish Rising, although I’d also developed a lot of other ideas while I was with Gong and they got tried out as well.”
For obvious reasons, the two year span between Khan and Fish Rising is not a story for the box set to tell - partially because it’s been told elsewhere (various Ayers anthologies, and sundry Gong repackages - all of which, Hillage promises, will be blown out of the water when the surviving band members finally get around to compiling their own definitive box); but also because the tapes simply don’t exist.
He played for a time with Ottawa Company, an avant-garde unit that would ultimately spawn Henry Cow, and he admits that “that stuff should really belong with the Henry Cow box set. It would have been very interesting to include, but we just didn’t have anything available. In fact, I’m not sure there’s much recorded stuff out there.”
Likewise, his time with Lady June, the poet who acted as catalyst for so much of the legend of the Canterbury Scene. “Lady June’s flat in Maida Vale was very much a meeting place for musicians with a Canterbury connection in London, and I found myself spending a lot of time there. It’s where I first met Daevid Allen and Tim Blake, and where I first met Richard Branson of Virgin. It was an interesting time.”
By the end of 1973, however, Hillage was firmly ensconced within Gong and, though even the so-called “classic” band’s line-up was scarred with comings-and-goings, he and Giraudy remained on board until 1975. Finally, however, the band underwent a few new changes too many.
“It took the best part of a year, that change, but it was a problem for me, because first Tim left, then Daevid left, and unfortunately I was stuck in the studio finishing the mixes for Fish Rising, while the band was in another part of England falling apart, and I felt powerless to do anything about it.
“It was a really great pity, because it was such a great band, and a great combination of people. When Daevid left, in particular, it was a big surprise but Miquette and I decided to stick it out, keep going, and move Gong forward. But we still wanted to keep it as a psychedelic band, we weren’t so keen on it moving into the jazz-rocky thing.
But after about six months, it wasn’t really happening for us, so after Miquette and I left, and after the transitional album which was Shamal, it went fully into a jazz rock direction which was still very good, but it wasn’t interesting to me. What eventually became Pierre Moerlin’s Gong was very different to the Gong that attracted me, but he was such an amazing drummer, and we had fantastic respect for him, so hats off, it’s such a pity he’s not still here because I’d love to play with him.”
With Fish Rising giving Hillage a surprise introduction to the UK chart, and the following year’s L (produced by Todd Rundgren) hitting the Top Ten, and bringing Steve and his band to the US, there was a moment there when he really did feel poised for a major breakthrough - at least in progressive rock loving circles. Of which, at the time, there were many.
Unfortunately, he was not a part of any of them. It would, he agrees, have been easy for him to follow L with L2 (or should that have been M?) and then drift through the rest of the alphabet until he was finally forced to join Asia or the like. Instead, he took a deliberate left turn with the funk-and-electronics-fueled Motivation Radio, and he admits, “since that record, I feel everything I’ve done has had a logical progression.
“People often ask me what was my favorite record that I did in the 70s, and I find it very hard to answer, because they’ve all got good bits. I like them all. But Motivation Radio was definitely a pivotal record because it set me up on a different trajectory and it made me more my own man and I was happy about that. Maybe I’d have had more commercial success [if I’d stayed still], but when I look back now, I’m pretty happy with the general level of creativity, and what we managed to achieve.”
One more vital ingredient in the unfolding process, he recalls, was the night he walked into a club, at the height of the disco boom, and saw the audience dancing to Kraftwerk. “That was a big moment, a eureka moment. I know disco was coming on then, but you didn’t associate it with groups like Kraftwerk… now, you can listen back and you can hear the beats and you know the influence it had on hip hop and techno, and you can hear exactly where it’s coming from.
“But at the time, 1977, 1978, it just wasn’t the way you saw them. They were more associated with the other German psychedelic bands; it was something you’d sit cross legged with a big fat joint and listen to it. I saw that, though, and looking back, it was another key moment in our eventual path to System 7.”
Motivation Radio was just the first of several abrupt turns that Hillage would take over the few years - a span that included the albums Green, Open and For To Next, before he effectively retired from recording and performance, to concentrate instead on production… a roster that included the likes of Nik Turner’s Sphynx, Tony Banks, Robyn Hitchcock and, most surprisingly - and, perhaps, rewardingly - of all, Simple Minds.
Newly signed to Virgin after three albums that effectively went nowhere, Hillage and band concocted the sound and a style that would propel Simple Minds across the next decade and more, and astonished the label, too, when instead of delivering the expected single album, Sons and Fascination, they turned in a bonus second, Sister Feelings Call, too.
Of course the media of the time had a wonderful time puzzling over this collision between a culty, spikey, electro-dance band, and a former pot-head pixie who was last heard of insisting that cabbages were a higher form of life. (He didn’t, but you know what the press are like for misinterpreting stuff.)
But what Simple Minds knew, and Harry-the-hack presumably didn’t was that Hillage was perfect for the job; that his last few albums had shifted through many of the changes that they themselves envisioned, while one in particular - 1979’s Rainbow Dome Musick - all but blueprinted what a later decade would describe as ambient music.
The album was originally commissioned for the upcoming Festival for Mind-Body-Spirit, staged at London’s Olympia exhibition hall in April 1979. It was a vast concourse of new age vendors and exhibitors, and Hillage explains, “we had a lot of laughs. The whole idea of the Rainbow Dome was to provide a non-aligned relaxation space that wasn’t pushing some kind of spiritual philospohy or crystals or pyramid or product. We never actually did it, but we had this idea… we were going to get these badges made with ‘spiritual supermarket store detective’ printed on then, and my friends and I would then go round to all the stalls pushing dodgy philosophical tracts and practices, and saying ‘ooh, I don’t know about this. I wonder if this would pass the trade descriptions act, sir.”
The music itself, played continually throgh the exhibition inside the Rainbow Dome, “was an improvised project. We made the record because we had the commission to do the music for the exhibition, but in order to make it work, for the time and effort we put into it, we proposed that we also put it out as a record and we managed to persuade the record company to go along with it.
“But it was just what we thought was right and appropriate for the exhibition. And we had a lot of inspiration and we were really happy with it but how it would pan out for the future we didn’t know. We just did it.
What that future brought, of course, was an ever more growing interest in dance music, DJ-ing, electronics and mood, a fascination that finally culminated in the foundation of System 7 - the project which still engrosses Hillage and Giraudy’s attention today, but whose roots can most visibly be discerned by playing through the fourth and final volume of Sparks…. but which, you also realize, is also, simply, the ultimate outgrowth of the music that began, twenty-two discs earlier, with Uriel and “The Goblin.”
“When we had the idea of doing System 7, after quite a few years of gestation if you want to put it that way, that’s what we wanted to do, combine our trademark sounds with dance beats, we thought it would be an interesting project, we’d have our own distinctive sound and be able to make a mark, that was the idea.”
But what neither he, nor we, realized was how seamlessly, and exquisitely, that mark would be made, and continues to be made today. Quite simply, Hillage pulled off one of the most coherent career trajectories in rock history - and Searching for the Spark tells only the first half of the story. It closes with the release of the first System 7 album, back in 1990; there’s been a quarter of a century of regular releases since then, although he doubts we’ll ever see a second box devoted to them.
“Probably not. We tend to release everything we do, so our mine of unreleased tracks is not as large. We’ve got loads of gig recordings, but it’d be a different kettle of fish.
“We have got one idea that might be interesting, though. This year, a fantastic psych festival in Portugal booked us to do a special exclusive gig; they wanted us to play a full version of Rainbow Dome, so we put together a quite interesting concoction and it worked, really well.
“We did it with a surround sound system and I’d like to record that; I think people would find it interesting to hear our new take on the album… it’s the same stuff but we play it differently, it’s live, and we also thought we could do 5.1 mixes of it, and then I thought we could take it and put it on blu-ray and get someone to do visuals, and also rerelease the original and have a special package, a special edition. That’s something that might well happen….
“It’s interesting, though, because over the last ten years, particularly since the Gong Unconvention event which we include in the box as a postscript looking back… that was the point where I started reappraising the ‘70s stuff and getting to a stage where I can go to work on System 7 and live rock stuff. I feel comfortable with both, and thats how we ended up doing some more stuff with Gong during 09, 10, and I wouldn’t rule out doing more live rock stuff in the future.”
You can read more of our interview with Steve, including his thoughts on vinyl, glissando and Jimi Hendrix, in the January 2017 edition of Goldmine magazine, available in stores from December 1.
Searching for the Spark can be purchased from retailers everywhere.