“I’d never attempted to write a whole record on my own. I wasn’t feeling confident. I was concerned I might end up with a load of outtakes and waste the money”: How Steve Hackett made Voyage Of The Acolyte

Steve Hackett
(Image credit: Press)

Recorded while he was still the guitarist in Genesis, Steve Hackett’s debut solo album Voyage Of The Acolyte – and its commercial success – gave him a confidence he had previously lacked. Along with what he saw as winds of change blowing through Genesis, it helped him to soon make the decision to follow his group “pal” Peter Gabriel out of the band.

Some solo careers are born of turmoil; a sudden, dramatic rift between an artist and the band in which they made their name. Steve Hackett’s solo debut album Voyage Of The Acolyte wasn’t born like that. After its release in October 1975, the Genesis guitarist made two more albums with them: February 1976’s A Trick Of The Tail and December 1976’s Wind & Wuthering. Indeed, Hackett wouldn’t bow out of Genesis until after their May 1977 EP Spot The Pigeon.

“You have to remember that my experiences in Genesis were largely extremely positive,” Hackett says today. “In fact, when we were touring Selling England By The Pound, a bit of Foxtrot and a bit of Nursery Cryme, I felt like I was in the best band in the world. For me, Selling England is the epitome of the form. It’s got elegiac lyrics and hugely accomplished songwriting. I was thinking, ‘This is it. This is where I belong.’’’

It was while making the follow-up to Selling England, the double album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, when that sense of belonging began to falter a little. The Lamb was his fourth album with Genesis, and the one after which singer Peter Gabriel – who had brought Hackett to the band after seeing his ad in Melody Maker – left the group.

“I’m surmising here,” says Hackett, “paraphrasing, perhaps, but my memory of making The Lamb Lies Down is that Peter didn’t really want to be part of Genesis any more. Composition by committee had become anathema to him, and his first wife, Jill, had had a difficult pregnancy. On top of that, William Friedkin, the director of The Exorcist, had approached Peter about writing a screenplay, and I think Pete saw that as a new world of multimedia possibilities.”

To further complicate matters, when Friedkin sensed that his screenplay offer might spell the end of Gabriel and Genesis, he didn’t want that on his head. “So he dropped the idea,” says Hackett. “Then Peter came back and agreed to tour The Lamb Lies Down and promote it. He also made it clear he’d leave the band after doing so.

“Maybe what Peter really wanted was to take some time off, be a family man and resume with Genesis later,” Hackett reflects. “But I wasn’t party to that information at the time. That was more a conversation he had with Mike [Rutherford] and Tony [Banks], who were his fellow founding members.”

The crux of it all, perhaps, was that old chestnut ‘musical differences.’ Within the very competitive confines of Genesis, Banks’s keyboard-playing around the time of The Lamb was becoming increasingly virtuosic, and Gabriel met this with what Hackett describes as “a similarly intensified approach to vocals, equally dense with lots of imagery. So you had this claustrophobic thing going on: two guys locking antlers within the band.

“Once we were losing Pete and everybody was at loggerheads over space in the music, everything got much more difficult,” he continued. “True, I made another two Genesis LPs with Mike and Tony after Pete left, but what was being born in my mind was something where instrumentals were as important as vocals. That’s why you’ve got Voyage Of The Acolyte.”

Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel had quite similar voices. I remember they could impersonate each other

With each of its eight tracks based on a different card from the tarot, Voyage Of The Acolyte was an esoteric, art-for-art’s-sake affair, rather than something governed or grounded by commercial appeal. Its delicate, Chinese watercolour sleeve art was the work of Hackett’s then-partner, Brazilian artist Kim Poor. The cover depicts a travelling spirit carrying a fortune-teller’s crystal ball. The inner gatefold shows a cave-dwelling, sackcloth-clad hermit. Genesis circa I Can’t Dance this was not.

Hackett had written some of the material in US hotel rooms while touring The Lamb (something he found to be a useful distraction from his stage fright), but the recording of Voyage began back in the UK in June 1975. Still on good terms with his Genesis bandmates, he enlisted Mike Rutherford to play bass guitar, bass pedals and fuzz 12-string, and Phil Collins to play drums and sing lead vocals on Star Of Sirius.

The flute-playing that might otherwise have fallen to Peter Gabriel was by Hackett’s younger brother, John, a classically trained virtuoso who featured on many Steve Hackett solo albums from that point on, and became part of his elder brother’s touring band until 1983. “It was an incredibly exciting time for John and I,” says Hackett.

“We were working very closely together and I was living at home with my parents again. I was given a very decent advance of £20,000 by [label] Charisma, and we worked so quickly that I had money left over at the end. That was pleasing, because I’d never attempted to write a whole record on my own before and wasn’t feeling terribly confident. I’d been concerned I might end up with a load of outtakes and waste the advance.”

Voyage was recorded at Kingsway Recorders in London’s Holborn. Famously the hatching ground for such tracks as The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s cover of Hey Joe, it was a studio in which Peter Green – one of Hackett’s early guitar heroes – had worked with Fleetwood Mac.

“Kingsway was actually in the basement of a building called Aviation House,” recalls Hackett. “You couldn’t make any noise until after 6pm, but after that you could make as much racket as you wanted – and we did. You’d sometimes hear London Tube trains when you were in the echo chamber they had there, but that just added to the special subterranean character of the place. It was bit like being down in the war rooms or something: ‘Here we are with mighty forces at our disposal!’”

Statements of intent don’t come much more bold than the album’s astonishing opener, Ace Of Wands. In the tarot deck, that card symbolises inspiration, potential, fun and growth –all things someone embarking on a solo career might hope for. “Yes, that’s it precisely,” says Hackett. “One of the many books about the tarot I was reading at that time described it as the beginning of a new venture, so with Ace Of Wands and what that card means, I thought what could be more apropos?”

Other players on the sometimes classical-sounding Voyage Of The Acolyte included Robin Miller on oboe and English horn, cellist Nigel Warren-Green, John Acock on all kinds of keyboards, and Percy Jones of jazz-fusion band Brand X on bass. Phil Collins also played in Brand X, whose debut album Unorthodox Behaviour would be released the following year. 

Hackett confirms that Jones came to Voyage via Collins, but the bassist was also recommended to Hackett by Brian Eno. “Percy would always do something spontaneous and brilliant,” says the guitarist. “That anarchic fretless part on A Tower Struck Down is him. Percy wasn’t a ‘follow the riff’ kind of guy.”

Elsewhere, it was bassist John Gustafson (then with the Ian Gillan Band) who played on the brilliantly arranged Star Of Sirius, his inclusion likely somewhat serendipitous, since Kingsway Studios was by that point owned by Gillan together with Deep Purple producer Martin Birch.

The Death card is not meant to be taken literally… Not that I decided to write a song called Death. I thought that might be a bit much!

Of Collins’s lead vocals on Star Of Sirius (he also played drums and vibraphone on the song), Hackett says: “Phil was only really singing back-up to Peter Gabriel prior to that, but I knew he had this really great voice and I asked him to do it. Phil and Peter had quite similar voices. I remember they could impersonate each other.”

If Hackett seems just a little cautious when asked about his burgeoning interest in the tarot around the time, it’s perhaps understandable. Occult practices and rock music are not always happy bedfellows, and the innocuous has sometimes been sensationalised. Still, Prog wants to know more. Would Hackett have tarot readings done back then? Would he do readings for others? “Yes, all of that,” he says. “I was beginning to be drawn to spiritualists and messages from beyond. I also felt that naming each song after a tarot card would give the album cohesion.”

In the tarot, the Tower card represents upheaval and destruction, hence the instrumental A Tower Struck Down feels edgy, ominous. The fabulous B-section riff that first appears at 1.17 was composed by John Hackett. Elsewhere, operatic voices played on Mellotron have shades of Carl Orff’s devilish 1935 cantata Carmina Burana. A Tower Struck Down’s malevolent feel is cemented by its sinister soundscape section, which includes an archive recording of Nazi Party supporters chanting ‘Sieg heil!’

As someone who had grown up in the post-Blitz bombsites of London, it was natural for Hackett to document destruction; but Prog wonders if, circa Voyage, he ever felt uneasy drawing inspiration from some more foreboding cards? “No,” he says. “Because tarot, for me, symbolises a number of possibilities. And when you read the various analyses of the Death card, say, it’s not meant to be taken literally. I think it’s most aptly described as symbolising the end of one way of life and the beginning of another. Not that I decided to write a song called Death. I thought that might be a bit much!”

Perhaps we’ve all seen too many movies where the Death card proceeds someone copping it? “Yes,” Hackett agrees, smiling. “It’s made for it, isn’t it? Like in the tarot scene in Live And Let Die.” He adds: “I only ever took the tarot metaphorically. I saw it as an extension of other philosophical ideas.”

So tarot was part of his interest in other esoteric subjects? “Yeah. I remember reading [Scottish psychiatrist] RD Laing’s The Divided Self: An Existential Study In Sanity And Madness, for example. Years later, I wrote a song about it [2012’s Divided Self, by Hackett and Chris Squire’s side-project Squackett]. I’d get hold of the most perplexing material and try to understand it; start at the top of the mountain and work my way down. I’m a bit of an extremist that way.”

There is, as Hackett acknowledges, a beautiful melancholy to much of Voyage Of The Acolyte. Or, as he puts it, “a kind of autumnal aspect.” It’s there in the almost baroque arrangement of Hands Of The Priestess – Pt. I, it’s there in the delicate Spanish guitar intro of The Lovers, and it’s certainly there in the cello-and-flute-ornamented The Hermit, where, some 16 minutes into Hackett’s solo debut, a vocal finally arrives. It’s Hackett himself we hear, singing in rich yet unassuming tones: ‘The mantle of attainment weighs heavy on his shoulders.’ What was behind that intriguing lyric?

“It was one interpretation of the Hermit card that I’d read, so I borrowed it,” he says. “That song has a very young lyric by a very young me, and the young me was not very self-confident. I felt I still had all these things to do, all these things to achieve.”

The last of the three tracks with vocals is Shadow Of The Hierophant. Based on a piece of music Hackett had previously rehearsed with Genesis while the band were looking at possible new material, the Voyage version features Sally Oldfield, younger sister of Mike Oldfield, on pristine lead vocals. Hackett had been a long-time fan of the Oldfield siblings’ 1969 LP The Sallyangie, and acknowledges that its charming, chamber-folk sound of flutes and harpsichords and 12-string guitars might have been a subconscious influence on Voyage.

Peter’s departure hit me very hard. I’d had this pal in the band, and now he was gone… I felt we were in danger of retiring into things that were too familiar

“I always loved that record, and so I got in touch with Sally and asked her to work with me,” he says. “She did an incredible job, and I believe her solo career blossomed not too long after that. Sally was a real go-getter with lots of self-belief.”

Hackett agrees that the Mellotron, as used in The Hermit, was an important part of the album’s overall sound. The none-more-prog instrument had been a favourite of his while still in Genesis, and although Banks had used one on the band’s 1970 pre-Hackett LP Trespass, it was Hackett who campaigned for its continued use as part of Genesis’s arsenal: “I was always banging on about Mellotron, always trying to get them to use more.”

Thus, when Fred Munt, who worked in the office at Charisma Records, told Hackett that King Crimson were selling one of their Mellotrons, Hackett went to meet Robert Fripp, taking Banks with him. “The short story is we bought one: a big, double-stop one like The Beatles used. King Crimson seemed to have a few of them to offload. Then Tony started doing brilliant things with it, and became possibly the best Mellotron player ever. Listen to his intro on Watcher Of The Skies. Listen to The Fountain Of Salmacis.”

Hackett took the Mellotron with him for Voyage and used it to add spectral, plaintive textures that deepen the LP’s exquisite melancholy. Where did that mood come from? “The autumnal feel might have reflected my sadness at losing Peter Gabriel,” muses the guitarist.

“Peter’s departure hit me very hard. I’d had this pal in the band, and now he was gone. Peter was a constructive radical within Genesis, and after he left I felt we were in danger of retiring into things that were too familiar. Acolyte allowed me to try new things. I had nylon-string on The Lovers, for example. I was trying to get this Cinderella instrument to the ball.”

Did Hackett play Voyage Of The Acolyte to Gabriel at the time? “He did hear it, yes. Tony Stratton Smith [Charisma Records founder/ Genesis manager] said to me, ‘You’ve got two new fans: Peter and Jill [Gabriel’s then-wife].’ I don’t ask for sanction from other musicians, but that was lovely to hear.”

And what of The Fool, the fabled extra track Hackett reportedly recorded for Voyage Of The Acolyte? In press interviews from the period, he described the song as sounding like “ELO meets The Who.” It didn’t make the cut, and has never been heard of since. “It does sound tantalising,” he says, “but I have absolutely no memory of recording it!

“Perhaps I rejected it because The Beatles had already done The Fool On The Hill. There was another extra track for Acolyte, too, something that I was calling Seven Of Cups, but that eventually resurfaced as The Virgin & The Gypsy [from 1979’s Spectral Mornings].”

Hackett’s working title for his solo debut was Premonitions. Tony Stratton Smith wasn’t keen on that, though, and suggested Voyage Of The Acolyte instead. “I think the implication of my original title wasn’t lost on him,” says Hackett. “The idea of things to come and me possibly abandoning Genesis, which I hadn’t yet done, of course.”

In the end, Hackett was happy to go with Stratton Smith’s suggested title. “I felt very lucky to be making a solo album with Charisma’s backing, so there was an element of loyalty there. Tony had been very supportive.”

Voyage Of The Acolyte was a bit like the story of the ugly ducking… It’s a fairy tale told to give children self-confidence, and Acolyte gave me confidence

And so it was that, against all odds, Steve Hackett, Genesis’s quiet partner and last man in, became the first member of the band to release a solo album. Peter Gabriel’s self-titled debut wouldn’t arrive until 1977; Tony Banks’s A Curious Feeling was released in 1979; Mike Rutherford’s Smallcreep’s Day in 1980, and Phil Collins’s Face Value in 1981.

Better yet, when Voyage Of The Acolyte was released in October 1975, it quickly reached No.26 in the UK. Was Hackett surprised by that? “Very surprised,” he says. “I don’t think anybody expected the new boy in Genesis to have a hit album, and I was very proud of getting a silver disc for it. The record company recouped their advance; everybody was happy.”

What did Hackett learn while making his solo debut? “Maybe that trying to write ‘like me’ songs is an oversubscribed club. You’ve got to do something that you really like yourself, and if you’re lucky people will buy it and you’ll be able to continue. Voyage Of The Acolyte was a bit like the story of the ugly ducking, really.

“As Danny Kaye sings in that 1950s song, the ugly ducking eventually becomes a swan – but he only realises he’s a swan when he sees his own reflection. It’s a fairy tale told to give children self-confidence, and Acolyte gave me confidence.

“I came to realise that the star of the show has to be the music, and the music’s got to be fun, too,” Hackett concludes. “You don’t have to be like me, burying yourself in a beard and glasses for the first five years. I was very introverted; I don’t know why. Strut your stuff! Do your thing!”

James McNair

James McNair grew up in East Kilbride, Scotland, lived and worked in London for 30 years, and now resides in Whitley Bay, where life is less glamorous, but also cheaper and more breathable. He has written for Classic Rock, Prog, Mojo, Q, Planet Rock, The Independent, The Idler, The Times, and The Telegraph, among other outlets. His first foray into print was a review of Yum Yum Thai restaurant in Stoke Newington, and in many ways it’s been downhill ever since. His favourite Prog bands are Focus and Pavlov’s Dog and he only ever sits down to write atop a Persian rug gifted to him by a former ELP roadie.