Steve Hillage - Searching For The Spark album review

A box set of 22 CDs, plus extras, from the 70s prog rocker turned 90s dance alchemist

Cover art for Steve Hillage's Searching For The Spark

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There aren’t many musicians who began their recording career in the hippie era and became leading lights of the British house and ambient techno movements almost a quarter of a century later. In fact, there’s only one: Steve Hillage. Searching For The Spark doesn’t just chart this one artist’s trajectory – in a way it’s an alternative history of UK music from the late 60s to the early 90s, as Hillage, keen to not stand still, mirrors the music’s developments in real time, moving from psychedelia to progressive blues to prog to funked-up rock to neo-electronica and beyond.

Hillage’s journey from heavy blues band Uriel, aged 18, and Canterbury scenesters Khan, through his work as a solo musician, up to System 7, is comprehensively charted on this limited-edition (2,500 copies) behemoth. There are glaring omissions – notably, his tenure with Gong, collaborations with Kevin Ayers and Mike Oldfield, and production for everyone from Simple Minds to The Charlatans – but there’s enough to cement his status as a rock Zelig.

You get Uriel’s 1969 album Arzachel; Khan’s 1972 album Space Shanty; his eight solo albums; 11 albums of live material, demos and archive recordings, many previously unreleased; and System 7’s 1991 debut album of trippy disco. In addition, there’s a hardback, 188-page book, a further 60-page booklet comprising press clippings, photos and commentary from Hillage, plus three period promo posters, two lyric booklets and even an enamel badge.

Those solo albums, now with bonus cuts, provide the meat of the matter: 1975’s Fish Rising; 1976’s Todd Rundgren-produced L (and Hillage is nothing if not the Brit Runt, with a similar chameleonic streak and abiding fascination for technology); 1977’s Motivation Radio, with Stevie Wonder’s producer Malcolm Cecil at the helm and jazz trumpeter Don Cherry on astral parps; 1978’s Green, knobs twiddled by Nick Mason; 1979’s Live Herald (and Studio Herald), Open and the proto-chillout Rainbow Dome Musick; and 1982’s For To Next (and its companion And Not Or).

Beyond his skills as a musician and producer, Hillage also has a reputation as a pothead with a penchant for cosmic buffoonery. But it takes concentration to be this good: leafing through the book, you’ll come across an advert for L, bearing the quotation from a Melody Maker review: “Steve Hillage has it in him to become, conceivably, the most important improvising guitarist since Jimi Hendrix.” He might not have realised that promise, but he definitely needs reassessing, and as more than an adept stoner.

You might want to use this sumptuous box to skin up on, but one doubts any intoxicants were used during the making of this mercurial, madcap and often pyrotechnic music. Before and after, sure.

Paul Lester

Paul Lester is the editor of Record Collector. He began freelancing for Melody Maker in the late 80s, and was later made Features Editor. He was a member of the team that launched Uncut Magazine, where he became Deputy Editor. In 2006 he went freelance again and has written for The Guardian, The Times, the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, Classic Rock, Q and the Jewish Chronicle. He has also written books on Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Bjork, The Verve, Gang Of Four, Wire, Lady Gaga, Robbie Williams, the Spice Girls, and Pink.