Steve Hillage - Searching For The Spark album review

Steve Hillage’s full Omty, from Fish Rising to System 7 with bells, whistles, books – and a badge too

Steve Hillage - Searching For The Spark album cover

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It seems ‘you’re talking bollocks’ bizarre now, but at the beginning of 1975 when the Rolling Stones were casting their net to find a guitarist to replace Mick Taylor, one of Britain’s big three music weeklies profiled the handful of contenders who might conceivably land the job. And among them was Steve Hillage. A joke? Unlikely; you didn’t get that kind of humour in music papers back then. But you had to laugh at the idea of the bobble-hatted, hippier-than-most Hillage, of Flying Teapot/Radio Gnome fame, on stage as Keith Richards’ sidekick, his Strat now slung several strap notches lower, chugga-lugging the likes of Street Fighting Man, Brown Sugar and Gimme Shelter. Stranger things have happened in rock’n’roll, of course. But not many.

On the other hand, maybe it wasn’t so daft a notion. By 1975 Steve Hillage had made quite a name for himself – albeit mostly on the ‘underground’ scene – as a talented guitarist of repute via his band Khan’s still-wonderful-after-all-these-years Space Shanty album, his solo debut Fish Rising and nods of appreciation and approval (and invitations to play guitar for them) from, among others, Kevin Ayers and Mike Oldfield.

Thankfully Mick and Keith didn’t come a-knocking. Instead he continued to paddle his own canoe, and that early promise was not misplaced. Over the next 40 years he delivered guitar heroics that put many so-called guitar heroes to shame, beautifully crafted songs draped with gorgeous melodies and peppered with shit-kicking riffs such as on The Salmon Song and the aptly named The Glorious Om Riff, on a raft of gem-studded solo albums. Right from the beginning he hit a purple patch that went from Fish Rising in 1975 to the particularly melodic and entrancing Green in ’78. And sandwiched in between was the magnificent L. Great covers of George Harrison’s It’s All Too Much and Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man notwithstanding, L was a perhaps a surprise UK Top 10 hit at a time when the No.1 spot was changing hands between Rock Follies, ABBA’s Greatest Hits and The Best Of The Stylistics. In fact more hits would very likely have followed had Hillage decided to put commercial concerns above musical integrity, and enter the mainstream rather than continue to oxygenate underground watercourses. Thankfully he didn’t.

More diverse studio and live records followed (Live Herald, Open, Aura), each with something alluring and each becoming particular sets of fans’ favourite. There was also Hillage’s longstanding involvement and with Gong, of course, none of which is included in this box set, although it would be churlish to moan about that; a line had to be drawn somewhere.

And then came the extraordinary and extraordinarily successful change of direction, change of pace (and probably change of drug) and the fast lane to ambient/techno/dance/rave culture aboard System 7. With the full-throttle, warp-drive likes of Coltrane or Desir Hillage wasn’t just rolling up a trouser leg and dipping a toe in the water, it was clothes off, goggles on and a forward dive with pike and a full twist into the deep end. And what a glorious splash he made too, with a sizeable, varied and impressive catalogue that includes full-tilt, boggle-eyed techno, electro rock and dreamy ambient soundscapes.

Its all here in this wonderful 22-CD, limited-edition (only 250 copies worldwide) box set that brings together Arzachel’s sole, self-titled, album, Khan’s Space Shanty; Hillage’s eight solo albums – Fish Rising, L, Motivation Radio, Green, Live Herald (and Studio Herald), Rainbow Dome Music, Open, For To Next (and companion And Not Or) – plus bonus tracks; Live In Deeply Vale (1978); two BBC performances recorded in 1976 and 1979; and eight CDs of recordings taken from Hillage’s personal archive, including live performances from 1977, 1979 and 2006 (the latter the Steve Hillage Band Live At The Gong Family Unconvention) and four discs of previously unreleased tracks, demos and alternative takes. These, titled Sparks Volumes 1 to 4, will be of particular interest to Hillage fans: unpolished gems in the shape of simple, almost bedroom demos, such as the 90-second, solo-guitar “Ooh, here’s an idea” The Dervish Riff; a skeletal early knock-up of It’s All Too Much; intriguing sub-two-minute System 7 demos of Hendrix’s Spanish Castle Magic and Floyd’s Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun; live and rehearsal recordings by Khan MkII… All together they’re a treasure chest of delights to explore and pore over.

The sweat-and-blood feel of a proper labour of love.

By the way, we can say categorically that Steve Hillage will not be doing a tour on which he plays Searching For The Spark in its entirety. That would be daft.

Non-audio content includes a 188-page, large format book written and painstakingly assembled by Hillage and Gong expert Jonny Greene containing loads of rare and previously unseen photographs and cuttings; an engaging and entertaining 60-page scrapbook containing more photographs and cuttings; posters, posters and a signed certificate of authenticity. And a Sky Drunk Heartbeat Band badge!

Whereas many box sets these days are sometimes nothing more than a bunch of CDs and/or vinyl LPs all readily available separately, chucked in a box with ‘cash-in’ and ‘sucker’ written on it in invisible ink, Searching For The Spark has the sweat-and-blood feel of a proper labour of love. The audio is a fabulous archive of an often unsung but hugely talented musician, writer and producer, and in terms of packaging it’s difficult to think of any way in which it could have been improved upon, save perhaps for the inclusion of a breeze-block-sized slab of Moroccan Gold and a sheet of chemically enhanced blotting paper.

At just over £200 it’s certainly pricey, but feel the quality and the width. It really is stunning.

Steve Hillage Discusses His New Searching For The Spark Box Set

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Paul Henderson

Classic Rock’s production editor for the past 22 years, ‘resting’ bass player Paul has been writing for magazines and newspapers, mainly about music, since the mid-80s, contributing to titles including Q, The Times, Music Week, Prog, Billboard, Metal Hammer, Kerrang! and International Musician. He has also written questions for several BBC TV quiz shows. Of the many people he’s interviewed, his favourite interviewee is former Led Zep manager Peter Grant. If you ever want to talk the night away about Ginger Baker, in particular the sound of his drums (“That fourteen-inch Leedy snare, man!”, etc, etc), he’s your man.