This is going to be a review of Steve Hackett and Genesis Revisited. But before we go dancing with volcanoes and moonlit knights, I want to take you on a different, perhaps unexpected, trip down music’s memory lane. Back in 1983 when Nick Beggs was playing bass in Kajagoogoo, at the time one of the biggest selling boy bands in Britain, he could have been forgiven for thinking that life didn’t get any better. True, he had to sing harmonies with a man calling himself Limahl, who resembled a cute, two-tone hedgehog, the kind of creature you’d find on a Forever Friends autumnal condolences card, but with a million selling record in the bank, Nick must have thought that his pop star future was secure. Kajagoogoo had arrived.
Only they hadn’t. Limahl was too young, too pretty. And pretty soon, the voices started. You’re better than this, son. You could express yourself so much more as a solo artist. And maybe less bluntly, ditch the showy bass player who keeps trying to sing lead and the other muppets (whatever their names are) that no one fancies. Cue some fairly bitter recriminations in the pages of Smash Hits and faster than you can say Strawberry Switchblade, it was over.
Limahl re-invented himself with a shorter haircut singing the title track for the film ‘Never Ending Story’. Sadly for him, it wasn’t. And Nick and the others, who opted to shorten their name instead of their hair, had a couple of hits as Kaja before calling it a day. The dream was over.
Or was it? There’s a reason for dwelling on the crash and burn of a boy band with an even sillier name than ‘Return of the Giant Hogweed’. For tonight isn’t the only re-run of yesteryear being performed in Glasgow tonight. As I walk past the gigantic, bubbled walls of the SECC, which is a cross between a Michelin man and a building, I see large crowds lining up to go and see The Big Reunion, a TV-inspired gathering of boy bands from the Nineties, squeezed onto a single billing like a super-dense, poptastic black hole left behind by the collapse of so many fading stars.
As we know, nothing in the world of entertainment travels faster than nostalgia, but surely not even copious makeup and yesterday’s jeans can escape the inexorable pull of showbiz gravity, where everyone, artists and audience alike, is both older and wiser.
But who am I trying to kid as I stride across the gusty square that separates the SECC from its more austere counterpart, the Clyde Auditorium. With its gable arches sweeping severely above the entrance, even the architecture seems to be making a point to its brash young cousin next door. If buildings could talk, this one would say ‘Acoustics, darling’ in the tone of Craig Revel Horwood. Am I not going to see a concert that shamelessly bills itself as Genesis Revisited, which in terms of mining the seam of yesteryear is not so much a deep pit as one of those open cast shale gas excavations you can view from space. And instead of fossil fuels, here we have one of the original dinosaurs, Steve Hackett, who in the absence of the more commercial lineup of Genesis, has been quietly keeping the gas flare alive for most of 2013 and 2014
But yes, I hear you say, all well and good. But what about Nick Beggs? What’s he doing here? Surely if a strand of Kajagoogoo DNA were to be found anywhere this evening, it would be across the way where Blue and 5Alive are trying to persuade everyone that Scotland is not just still a part of the Union but that we’re all Cool Britannia. But here the paths of pop and prog have diverged on the low and high roads en route to tonight’s performances in windswept Glasgow. For the tall, blond bass player, with waist length hair on stage with Hackett tonight, is none other than Nick Beggs himself, transformed from 80’s wannabe pop starlet to bona fide 70’s prog god with mane and double-necked bass all present and correct. From ‘Too Shy’ to ‘Supper’s Ready’. It’s a transformation that no one watching Top of the Pops in February 1983 could ever have foreseen, certainly not the 14 year old author who spent hours meticulously practicing how to draw a perfect copy of the Yes logo and poured rightful scorn on the teen idols adorning his sister’s bedroom wall.
But here’s the thing. You might think that going to a gig where Steve Hackett plays classic tracks with other musicians is like watching the world’s ultimate Genesis tribute band, albeit one where the lead guitar actually was once in Genesis. But for all the merits of a copycat act – and I saw a very good one last year in Barcelona run through the whole of the ‘Lamb Lies Down In Broadway’ – stepping up to the plate to perform classic tracks from the firmament of progressive rock requires a certain level of musicianship not normally associated with boy bands.
Simply put, you can’t kinda play prog.
Try taking on ‘Apocalypse in 9/8’ without the chops (which, for the uninitiated is not just a time signature but a fiendishly complex piece of rhythmic virtuosity in the middle of ‘Supper’s Ready’) and you’re going to be handed your ass.
Even Musical Box, a bunch of guys who clearly live, eat and sleep early Genesis struggled to hold some of the trickier parts of the Lamb together at Sala Apollo last year. But whatever he was up to in the Eighties, these days, Nick Beggs has a prog CV that is second to none, performing not only with Steve Hackett but being a core member of Steven Wilson’s live band. And when we’re talking about Steven Wilson, we’re talking about full-fledged contemporary prog royalty, both as a sought after producer/remixer and also driving force behind Porcupine Tree and his own stellar offerings like ‘The Raven That Refused To Sing’.
It has to be said, however, that whilst the other members of Genesis gradually became more and more mainstream, with all the trappings of stadium-level success, Steve Hackett took a different path. Always the quiet one, shy and – if interviews are to believed – strangely lacking in confidence around the other band members, he ploughed a distinctive and richly creative furrow during the decades that followed, maintaining a core following of diehard fans and the respect of his peers. Like Jaco Pastorius on bass, or Simon Phillips on drums, Hackett is highly regarded by other players, a true guitarists’ guitarist. On the evidence of this evening, his ability, feel and awareness remain of the highest order. This stuff is bloody difficult to play but under Hackett’s direction, it still sounds as fresh and as taut as when it was first performed in the 1970s. And with an original band member at the helm, the emotion of the music is well to the fore. Sometimes with a tribute act, the technical challenge of just trying to keep up can overwhelm the feeling, like a water skier grimly clutching the rope, determined to remain upright. But in Beggs, Ned Sylvan (vocals), Roger King (keyboards), Gary O’Toole (vocals and drums) and Rob Townsend (sax, flute, percussion) he has assembled a team who can do the material full justice. The Clyde Auditorium is in for a treat.
The show opens with ‘Dance On A Volcano’, which is an ideal warm up as Hackett, Beggs and King trade sharp patterns and quicksilver riffs with the speed and precision of a Swiss watch. After warmly dedicating the evening’s performance to Jack Bruce, the Cream bass player and vocalist whose death was announced earlier in the day, the band launch into a brilliant rendition of ’Squonk’ in which the superlative acoustics of the auditorium make all the elements shine.
With it’s heavy drumbeat and epic, rhythmic pulse, this is one track that could just collapse into a gigantic lumpen mass of thud, but tonight it’s clean and clear as the album.
I’m sure one of the reasons why ‘Genesis Revisited: Live At The Albert Hall’ is already being talked of as a classic live recording is because the performance benefited from being held in a theatre built for sound as opposed to a modern arena built for as many bums on seats as possible. The Clyde Auditorium has the same advantage. I think of the screaming masses across the way and wonder whether they are having as much fun as we are. It’s a point I’ll come back to later.
Introducing ‘Dancing With The Moonlit Knight’, Steve apologises for bringing up that album title in the heart of Glasgow (it’s ‘Selling England By The Pound’, of course) and do I detect more than just a little gusto in the way the crowd sings that particular lyric? Three songs in, it’s interesting how the onstage pecking order inverts the traditional relationship between audience and band in that Ned Sylvan, the lead vocalist, always stands slightly behind Hackett who is front and centre of the stage. This is slightly distracting for me, since the key feature of the early Genesis material written and performed with Peter Gabriel, is that the singer and lyricist has a dominant role in proceedings both vocally and theatrically.
I suppose when it’s your band and your show, you can stand anywhere you like, and in fairness to Steve Hackett, he seems to be a very generous musician in allowing the other band members space to play and take their solos. Maybe it’s Sylvan who is happy to perform two steps back. Whilst he is clearly a very talented singer, and probably better performing his own material, in such high powered company with such landmark songs, he is perhaps the least convincing of the quintet. He sounds plenty enough like both Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins but doesn’t quite have Gabriel’s power or Collins’s range so that once again, you appreciate just how demanding some of this music is, even for the non-instrumentalist. Lest this sounds like damning with faint praise, I still think he gives a great performance, but in this company the bar is set very high indeed.
Ironically, the most jaw dropping vocal of the night is from Gary O’Toole , the drummer, who assumes lead duties for ‘Fly On A Windshield’ and ‘Broadway Melody’ from ‘Lamb Lies Down On Broadway’. I don’t know if Phil Collins ever sang these songs in concert whilst sat behind the kit or let Chester Thompson do the skins work. It’s not just that you have to be able to hit some pretty high and powerful notes, but you have to do it whilst belting out some of the most forceful and exacting rhythms Genesis ever recorded. The only concession to this remarkable double duty is an ever so slight tendency to take the vocal on the beat, rather than letting it flow more spontaneously, as a solo singer would, but this would be to nitpick over what is one of the highlights of the evening. The applause for band and drummer at the end of the song is long and well deserved.
Thereafter, the ‘hits just keep on coming’. Musical Box triggers another thunderous ovation from the Clyde Auditorium but every one of the mostly ‘Trespass/Nursery Cryme/Foxtrot’ set list is greeted like a long lost friend. Not having done any research to retain my sense of surprise as to what comes next, I’m hoping for something from Wind And Wuthering (I’m to be disappointed!) but even without some of my favourite pre-‘Duke’ Genesis tracks, I spend most of the first ninety minutes beaming from ear to ear.
And then the opening notes of ‘Supper’s Ready’ ring out and I find myself struggling with a lump in the throat and eyes that seem determined to glisten as that song, heard on countless, restless teenage nights, echoes through the halls of my memory where so many things that once were, that aren’t any longer, come alive again before my eyes. I glance around momentarily and find that I’m not the only middle-aged guy (or girl, for there are a few) lost in reverie. Genesis is not the only thing being revisited by this audience this evening.
And it’s a truly brilliant performance of what is perhaps the most famous early Genesis song of them all. The “Lovers Leap” section is sung to the rafters and then Ned Sylvan comes forward and does a sterling job of navigating the tricky highs of “The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man”. By the time the band lock into the fearsome groove of “Apocalypse in 9/8”, I’m in seventh heaven (or should that be 7/4?) Since the song makes use of so many religious motifs, it’s fitting to say that this is probably the riff of riffs as far as progressive rock is concerned. It starts jauntily, an impish keyboard refrain establishing the infernal pattern to follow. And then it keeps building. And building. And building. It’s a relentless monster of a piece of music that must be hellish and exhilarating to play. Hellish because you. Absolutely. Have. To. Keep. Your. Shit. Together. But exhilarating because when you look across the stage at your fellow band members, your eyes meet and you know that you’re all just on it, you must get a fabulous sense of comradeship and togetherness. Hell, I feel it and I’m only playing air guitar, drums and keyboard!
Steve’s closing solo of the final section, As “Sure As Eggs Is Eggs”, is as good a piece of guitar work as I have ever seen live. It’s a beautiful, soaring, melodic thing of towering loveliness and the perfect way to bring the evening to a close. We do, of course, get an encore with ‘Watcher of the Skies’ and the obligatory ‘Los Endos’ (where I take the opportunity to rush the stage with the front rows like a teenager at, well, a boy band concert, and from where I snap the photos posted with this review) and then it’s over. We zip up our coats, fold up the memories, and head into the squalls and the rain.
Outside, the Big Reunion has already finished. They started after we did – and finished before – I think smugly before giving myself a sharp, metaphorical poke in the eye. I look at the lengthy lines of (almost exclusively) women and girls queueing for taxis and realise it’s irrelevant as to who had the best trip down Memory Lane. Those nine or ten bands inside the SECC tonight were just as important to those ladies as Genesis were to me and their dads. Although if there’d been an Eighties revival tonight, Nick Beggs could probably have played both crowds and been received with equal fervour.
Whether your affections are for Five or ‘Firth of Fifth’, it’s not just that they’ll never make ’em like they used to, but that we’ll never be the way we used to be either. The prog geeks amongst you will recognise this as a sentiment from a lovely Genesis track buried on one of their Hackett-era albums (and there will be a prize of some random thing or other if you can tell me which one I’m thinking of). These concerts do more than just rehash hits and refill bank balances; they recover something buried deep within ourselves, so that maybe my earlier reference to mining wasn’t such a bad metaphor after all. I’m certain that’s why all of us are leaving with our memories recharged and eyes shining with glee through the darkness in a rain we can’t feel. But for the prog crowd, one final thought lingers. What if Steve Hackett might yet one day be joined on stage by messrs. Banks, Collins, Gabriel and Rutherford?
Now that truly would be a Big Reunion worth waiting for. If they can get Atomic Kitten back on stage, anything is possible.
Dance on a Volcano
Dancing With the Moonlit Knight
Fly on a Windshield
Broadway Melody of 1974
The Return of the Giant Hogweed
The Fountain of Salmacis
The Musical Box
I Know What I Like
Firth of Fifth
Watcher of the Skies
Los Endos (including Slogans)