Genesis’ Steve Hackett: ‘Phil Collins doesn’t deserve what’s happened to him’

Former Genesis guitarist, Steve Hackett
Former Genesis guitarist, Steve Hackett - Tina Korhonen

“It was a fraught time.” In the living room of his modest house in suburban London, former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett is talking about one of the defining albums of the 1970s, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, a 94-minute opus recorded 50 years ago.

He says: “The band was growing up and suddenly it was all wives and babies. My [first] marriage had broken up, there was a child involved and I was still trying to come to terms with that. I was drinking too much, in the midst of this personal maelstrom.”

The album itself featured a surreal, complex and somewhat baffling narrative involving mythical creatures, grotesques and dismembered body parts. Did Hackett understand it?

“Well, not really… If Pete [Gabriel, the band’s gifted and exacting frontman whose concept it was] had said at the beginning this is a straightforward story of redemption, then I might have done.”

It is easy to picture Hackett as the quiet man of Genesis, pressing patiently on as his bandmates vie for creative control. Now 74, he is a gentle but assured figure, still with the dark, shoulder-length hair of his younger self.

He talks with affection about life as one fifth of the classic line-up of a band that would go on to sell 150 million albums over five decades, not to mention phenomenal commercial success with assorted solo projects.

Genesis in 1975: (Left to Right) Peter Gabriel, Tony Banks, Phil Collins, Steve Hackett, Mike Rutherford
Genesis in 1975: (Left to Right) Peter Gabriel, Tony Banks, Phil Collins, Steve Hackett, Mike Rutherford - Jorgen Angel/Redferns

Hackett was just 21 when he joined Genesis, staying for six years between 1971 and 1977. His songwriting and intricate guitar work contributed layers of texture and imagination to the band’s classic early albums. “I’m very proud of what we did together,” he says. “We were a knockout team.”

He stuck around for another three years after Lamb before leaving to pursue solo projects. Today, he is on civil terms with what he calls the “core” – Gabriel, guitarist and bassist Mike Rutherford, keyboardist Tony Banks and drummer Phil Collins. “Yeah, we still talk,” he says.

Hackett last performed live with Genesis in 1982, but missed more recent reunions including what was billed as their final performances in 2022. That seems to sadden him. “Genesis is a strange band,” he says, clearly struggling to talk about it. “They ask you, and then when you say yes they say…  surplus to requirements. It’s so competitive.”

But Hackett, who lives with his third wife, the writer Jo Lehmann, has never stopped working. This month, he releases his 30th solo album, The Circus and the Nightwhale, and from next month will be performing tracks from Genesis’s 1972 album, Foxtrot, as well as recent solo material. In October comes a 16-date UK tour with a set including highlights from Lamb, culminating in a gig at the Royal Albert Hall.

Hackett: 'I choose to celebrate Genesis’s classic work with a band that relishes it'
Hackett: 'I choose to celebrate Genesis’s classic work with a band that relishes it' - C Brandon/Redferns

Revisiting classic material with a new band can be a later-life win for veteran musicians. Hackett’s fellow progger Nick Mason, 80, the former Pink Floyd drummer, has recently built a live phenomenon with Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, a new band reworking his old band’s canonical tracks.

Hackett says it can be a liberating tactic: “I choose to celebrate Genesis’s classic work with a band that relishes it,” he says pointedly.

There may be an appetite for revivalist live performances. But they also demand artistry. How does Hackett stop such shows from descending into nostalgia?

“I’m able to do more than I could in Genesis,” he says. “I have woodwinds, brass, extra keyboards… I play phrases people might recognise but then add a new guitar solo at the end.”

Genesis were always a brainy band, driven by high concepts, formal education and music steeped in classical rigour. The first iteration was formed by Gabriel, Banks and Rutherford in the late 1960s at Charterhouse boarding school in Surrey. Hackett and Collins were recruited later through music-press adverts and both were working-class boys. Their class differences with the Charterhouse members were clear – and made them natural allies.

“One had to form alliances in order to get ideas through,” says Hackett, who attended an inner-London grammar school. Collins went to the Barbara Speake Stage School in East Acton, where his mother, June, was the booking agent, and he had a budding career as a child actor.

Hackett once described Genesis as “repressed” and I wonder if he felt pressure to prove himself. “I hadn’t realised I was joining a team that was very competitive and would often try to unseat each other’s ideas,” he says. “I imagined joining a songwriters’ co-operative meant we were going to co-operate.

“But they’d known each other since they were 11. I think they were privileged but brutalised. That [Charterhouse] system was designed to produce the next viceroy of India, the next prime minister, and competitiveness was bred into them. You have to remember it was a different time.”

Steve Hackett: 'I wanted to make music that was the antithesis of Lamb – that sounded English'
Steve Hackett: 'I wanted to make music that was the antithesis of Lamb – that sounded English' - ARTCO-Berlin/ullstein bild

Hackett’s departure, shortly after Gabriel’s, meant he missed much of the band’s hit-making era of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Collins took over as frontman. Hackett insists he has never regretted leaving.

“I wanted to make music that was the antithesis of Lamb – that sounded English, would wear its classical influences proudly.”

Nearly 50 years later, things have changed. The Circus and the Nightwhale shares elements with Lamb: both are concept albums (though Hackett prefers the word “narrative”); each tells a surreal story about a young protagonist’s fall and redemption. It even features a mythical creature (though no dismembered body parts, as far as I can tell).

Much of Hackett’s narrative is set in the post-war reconstruction of London, in which he grew up. It is an “autobiographical” tale.

Hackett was born in 1950. His family lived in the vast and socially progressive Churchill Gardens housing estate in Pimlico, built in the late 1940s to replace bombed-out housing.

He recalls a happy childhood. “My father [Peter] was a very talented guy, a commercial artist. He started selling paintings at weekends and made enough money to become professional just when I became a musician. But he wasn’t ambitious. He had all these capabilities but he never owned his own TV or flat, and only had a few possessions.”

Peter was proud of his son’s achievements: “He once said very touchingly to my mother, he thought that he was enjoying my success vicariously.”

We talk about modern pop music. Hackett despairs at what he sees as its formulaic quality: “Songs that have got an awful lot of vocal embellishment,” he says, with barely disguised disdain. “Find a note, embellish it, repeat it endlessly with no variation.

‘Pop music is not grown-up any more – sorry if I sound reactionary’
‘Pop music is not grown-up any more – sorry if I sound reactionary’ - Tina Korhonen

“Pop music is not grown-up any more.” Then he checks himself. “Sorry if I sound reactionary.”

Despite what I sense is a strained relationship with Genesis, Hackett’s allegiances from 50 years ago are still strong. He shows visible emotion when I ask about Collins, who, in the 1980s, forged a wildly successful international solo career with multimillion-selling albums, number one singles and countless Grammy awards. Collins’s health has faltered in recent years, with a recurring spinal condition that has left him unable to play drums or perform live.

“I mean, my God. I’ll always love Phil.” Hackett falls quiet. “Sorry, I’m without words. He doesn’t deserve what happened to him.”

Hackett is aware of how fortunate he is to be fit, creative and working as a musician for an appreciative audience. “I don’t think of it as work,” he says.

Then he pauses and adds a touch of modesty: “It was a gift at a very early age. I think of it as an absolute privilege.”

‘The Circus and the Nightwhale’ is released on February 16 via Inside Out Music. Steve Hackett and band’s UK tour ‘Genesis Greats, Lamb Highlights & Solo’ starts on October 2. He plays the Albert Hall on October 23;