My link to… Steve Hillage

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At the tender age of 16, life was simple: buy albums, go to rock gigs and find a girl to come along. The only drawbacks were studies and a grim Saturday job that funded everything. But it was worth it – especially for the Steve Hillage Band.

Steve was highly regarded as part of the ‘Canterbury Scene’ – a loose collective of trendily dishevelled eccentrics, such as Kevin Ayers and Daevid Allen who made willfully obscure music in a style that blended rock, jazz, psychedelia and dottiness. (At the time, I was too young to realise it was mostly drug-inspired.)

Their most famous band was Gong, whose classic line-up featured Steve on guitar, though he’d been in lots of different ensembles, including the band that played the live versions of Tubular Bells at the Royal Albert Hall. When I saw him, his Steve Hillage Band (SHB) were touring to promote the album ‘L’ – which was well-received critically and selling well too.

Steve’s success was strangely-timed

This was the era of punk rock – loud, fast, amphetamine-driven two minute anthems about urban alienation by The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned were all the rage. But somehow, Steve was gaining attention, even in trendy music papers which otherwise teemed with pimply, spiky-haired teens.

The thing was, SHB’s sound was strikingly new and original. A large, Anglo-French ensemble featuring exotic instruments (such as glissando guitar) and even a girl playing keyboards – progressive in a different sense, though she turned out to be Steve’s long-time partner Miquette Giraudy.

I taped one of their songs off a TV performance (on my portable mono cassette recorder). It was a dreamy new age soundscape was as much ahead as behind its time, though contemporary hipsters couldn’t see past the hair and the clothes.

But it was a great show and thanks to St George’s Hall’s legendary acoustics, we heard every nuance of their complex sound. My other impression was how much Steve looked like Jesus.

Fast forward twelve years and my band Dubh Chapter needed a producer

We’d signed a record deal with EG/Associated Virgin Labels and we were all set to record our debut album ‘Silence, Cunning & Exile.’ We’d seen a few guys but remained underwhelmed and were even wondering if it would be too cheeky to ask Kate Bush.

Then our guitarist, Sean, had the idea of calling Steve, who had now reinvented himself as a producer, having done an impressive job for Simple Minds on their Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call album. To our astonishment, he said yes and a lunchtime meeting was lined up for Saturday at a restaurant in Notting Hill.  It all felt thrillingly glamorous.

Meeting Steve was a trip

The whole Jesus look had been replaced with a rather more conservative look of black jumper, levis and Doc Martin boots. He was a very open and friendly fellow with an unmistakeable Essex twang. His hair was much shorter and  I was still young enough to notice such things.

We ate pasta, drank wine and enjoyed one of those legendary days that everyone deserves to have once in a while. The business was concluded: he would produce the album and we would get to work with one of our heroes.

Check back and I’ll tell you more about how it all went.

2 Comments

  • Andrew Hibben says:

    My cousin Gill, was married to a musician/art teacher/poet named Roger Stevens. Roger played in a band ‘Rubber Rhino’, based in Dudley, near Birmingham, and were equally influenced by Captain Beefheart & Bonzo Dog. They played a gig at a London college supporting Gong, or maybe the other way around? Either way, John Peel was the compere, (and championed Steve Hillage a few years later.)
    There was a fair bit of roller skating on stage from a Gong member or 2, and it was a memorably zany evening.
    Rubber Rhino were nearly signed by the upstart label ‘Virgin’, but decided, in their infinite wisdom, that once Tubular Bells bubble burst so would Virgin.
    Next opportunity for RR was playing at Robert Plant’s birthday party at a pub in the midlands, where they were angling for a record deal with Zep’s label…alas, a barrel of beer disappeared at the end of the evening, prompting a call from RP next morning & another record deal out the window…

    • brentropic_f4uefc says:

      Wow Andrew,

      Nice to hear from you.

      That’s quite the story. But years in the music biz have taught me that it’s the crazier stories that are usually truest.

      Steve shared a few of the stories from Gong who were deeply unfashionable at the time, but who now seem to get cooler every year.

      Love your use of the word ‘upstart’ for Virgin. We were actually signed to Virgin via their subsidiary Associated Virgin Labels (our actual label was called EG).

      Anyway, hope you and Maria are keeping well.

      Best,

      Brendan

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