Perhaps this is overkill. We’re talking a lavish, stuffed-to-the-gills box set, some 22 CDs deep, for Steve Hillage. Who is not a guitarist on most people’s radar these days. But still: Madfish’s new box is expensive, only available in limited quantities and is easily the final word on the peak years of Hillage’s music.
Which begs the question: who is Steve Hillage? And why does he deserve a set of this magnitude?
Hillage was born in England in 1951 and as a teenager, was part of a psychedelic rock band called Uriel. They released a single album (Arzachel) before Hillage split. With his old bandmates getting critical – if not commercial – success with Egg, Hillage went on to join Khan, a progressive rock band where everyone had a lot of hair. They too recorded just one album: 1972’s Space Shanty, another wildly psych-rock album with themes of outer space and lots of guitar pyrotechnics.
Eventually, Hillage found his way into Gong, a group with a similar mind for space-themed rock, often with weird sense of humour and generous helpings of recreational drugs (see: his credit for “lewd guitar”). He contributed to three of their seminal mid-70s albums (playing alongside Bill Bruford and Daevid Allen) before finally going solo, releasing several albums in the late 70s before gradually transitioning into production. In recent years, he’s had something of a comeback with the dance music crowd: as part of System 7, he’s released several albums of electronic music, while also occasionally playing with Gong (or solo at Gong-related festivals).
Although the new box includes stuff from all these periods of Hillage’s music, it’s focus is on his solo years of 1976-1980.
When he first went solo, he simultaneously went backwards and forwards: his cover of Donovan’s folkie tune “Hurdy Gurdy Man” became a droning, jammed out space-rocker, paired with the Hillage original “Hurdy Gurdy Glissando,” a song he sometimes introduced by saying he found it in an ancient manuscript (still gave himself the songwriting credit, tho). At the same time, he was looking out to space: “Electrik Gypsies” and “Lunar Musick Suite” are downright cosmic, right down to the unconventional spelling and out-there lyricism.
Of the studio albums here, the first three solo records are the set’s highlights. Fish Rising, L, and Motivation Music are cosmic, jammed-out records dominated by trippy lyrics and Hillage’s distinctive guitar playing: it’s reverb and echo-heavy, a little similar to David Gilmour’s sound, but played much differently. At his best, Hillage could shred with the best of them; throughout these three, it’s frequently on-point. Personally, I think L is the strongest of the bunch; it’s also the one where Todd Rundgren produced and brought in Utopia to back Hillage.
By the Motivation Radio, however, his songs were getting shorter and more concise. By 1978’s Green, things had generally calmed down (there’s still a lengthy closing track) and on his next few records, there was a nice balance of jam-rock and shorter, poppier songs. Open, for example, mixes the long jams of “New Age Synthesis” with short, driving rockers: “1988 Aktivator” sounds like a sci-fi version of the Clash, while “Getting in Tune” could fit in nicely along late-70s The Who.
Key to this period, however, is his album Rainbow Dome Musick, comprised of two side-long tracks.
They’re very spacious and gentle compositions, complete with nature sounds, swooning keyboards and Hillage’s guitar chiming away in the background. At times, they sound very New Agey: the droning flute-like sounds on “Four Ever Rainbow” wouldn’t be out of place on one of those CDs you get at the health food store; at other times, it’s reminiscent of albums like Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays’ As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls or Brian Eno and Robert Fripp’s No Pussyfooting: long, almost ambient sequences, where the music slowly builds and dissolves.
Indeed, it was this record which helped fuel his comeback in the 90s: after hearing it played in a nightclub, Hillage and Miquette Giraudy, his longtime partner musical collaborator formed System 7. At the same time, Hillage has argued he’s been more of an electronic musician than a rock musician for over 30 years now. Whatever the reasons for this group, their first, self-titled album is included here; it’s fine, although comes across as a little dated, but it’s also a logical endpoint, capping off his career as rock musician.
All the original albums are offered here (with a couple exceptions) with a generous selection of bonus tracks, ranging from backing tracks to live cuts to alternate mixes; they’ve all been available separately but it’s nice to have them all in one package.
Joining them are a wide range of live albums. There’s two separate BBC concerts, his famed set at Deeply Vale in 1978, a handful of other 70s tapes and his 2006 appearance at the Gong Family Unfestival. There are nice moments throughout all these sets: an acoustic version of “Crystal City” on the Deeply Vale disc, a long, jammed-out version of “Searching for the Spark” on Live at the Brighton Dome and a smoking set from Munich. Some of this has been released separately – BBC Radio 1 Live was a mix of the two shows here – but largely, most of this is officially unreleased.
And finally there’s the real meat of the box: four discs of demos, odds and ends and other tracks that don’t fit.
Of particular interest are demos for most of L and Fish Rising, and an album’s worth of unfinished material from the early 80s. There are also some interesting loose tracks from System 7 to finish the box out.
In sum, it’s a hefty box, complete with a hefty book, but it does what you’d want a super-deluxe box like this to do: it examines Hillage’s music in depth, showing it from multiple angles – from home demo to finished album to live performance – while also covering the scope of his career, from young psych rocker to 70s space guitarist through to his current incarnation as techno elder statesman. It’s probably more than enough for anybody, but this box more than achieves it’s goal of being the end-all, complete document of Steve Hillage.
It’s not the place to start, but it’s a good place to finish.
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.