It seemed a match made in progressive rock heaven: Seventies guitar gods Steve Hackett (Genesis) and Steve Howe (Yes) together? In the same band?
Sign us up!
But GTR were a different band for a different time. 1986 called for musicians with MTV eye appeal promulgating radio-ready anthems with catchy keyboards, memorable guitar riffs, and vocals befitting the gods of Valhalla. The pastoral jams and cosmic guitar musings of the ‘70s were vestiges of a bygone age.
For a while, anyway.
Searching for a new collaboration following his (first) departure from Asia (“Heat of the Moment,”) Howe tapped Hackett through Yes manager Brian Lane and talked up the concept of a sort-of super-group with mass market appeal. Hackett—already a popular (if esoteric) solo artist ten years removed from Foxtrot fame—was up to task.
So the shredders recruited singer Max Bacon (Nightwing), bassist Phil Spalding (Mike Oldfield, OMD), and drummer Jonathan Mover (Marillion, Mick Jagger) and started tracking at The Townhouse in London (sometime-studio home to Elton John, Phil Collins, and Duran Duran) as GTR (taken from the abbreviation assigned to guitars on a mixing console).
The resulting eponymous album—the band’s only album—cracked the Top 20 in the United States thanks to smash “When the Heart Rules the Mind” and minor hit “The Hunter.” But creative tension between the two Steves meant that GTR were DNR when they wrapped their promotional concert tour.
Thirty years on, GTR still polarizes fans—many of whom had hoped for a smorgasbord of adventuresome music with virtuosic playing and zero time limits. Others argue that the record delivered on Hackett and Howe’s promise of a polished, modern-sounding arena rock aesthetic.
What everyone learned later was that the guitar titans had in fact intended to more thoroughly marry their prog-rock leanings with the slick production values of the ‘80s. But the record company discouraged the winding, wandering passages of old in favor (relatively) of shorter, more marketable songs with familiar progressions and memorable hooks.
In some ways I was lucky: Too young to appreciate Howe’s finer contributions to Yes, and only vaguely aware that Hackett hailed from the same unit that gave the world Peter Gabriel (Security, So) and Phil Collins (Face Value, No Jacket Required), I was free to enjoy GTR for what it was when it was, sans any lofty expectations.
This autumn, those classic rock curators at Esoteric Antenna will release an expanded, 2-CD remaster of GTR in digipak format (with blessings from Messrs. Hackett and Howe), replete with bonus cuts, expanded notes (by Kerrang! scribe Malcolm Dome), dozens of vintage photos and ephemera, and a disc’s worth of in-concert recordings.
Yeah, the music sounds a little dated: In order to live up to the band moniker, Hackett and Howe employed cutting-edge Roland guitar synthesizers, eliminating the need for a full-time keyboardist. But why slam the door on keyboard players only to spend half your time emulating one? The mix tends toward the tinny, and suffers from high compression. We’re not sure if producer Geoff Downes (Asia’s keyboard pal from Yes / Asia) and engineer Alan Douglas are entirely to blame; Arista execs may have insisted on the glossy approach.
But there is sufficient shredding on board to justify the hype that preceded the album’s release: This was (and remains) the fruit of a guitar co-op featuring two of rock’s most talented players at the top of their game (in their 30s). The arrangements are smart, the performances sterling, and the restored packaging (with Ian Miller’s distinctive GTR logo and pastel lime and pink hues) sublime (even if it skews toward the sterile, as opposed to Roger’s Dean Yes surreal paintings or Hipgnosis’ trippy Genesis cover art).
Revisiting “When the Heart Rules the Mind,” one is reminded just how bad-assed a singer Bacon was, his stratospheric tenor a British analogue to that of Styx’s Dennis De Young. The song’s mirthful arpeggio theme still grabs you, its propulsive rhythm hooking you in. And the matador guitar break (we’re guessing that was a Hackett contribution) still evokes an excited Ole! response.
“The Hunter” rivals some of the ‘80s hits by Yes’ Howe-less 90125 lineup, and certainly some lesser Asia numbers (hello, “Wildest Dreams”) too. “Jekyll and Hyde” is a schizophrenic musical romp that taps the talents of both ax-men, Hackett lends a delicate acoustic intro to “Imagining,” and so-called fillers “Here I Wait,” “You Can Still Get Through,” and “Reaching Out (Never Say No)” aren’t half-bad, either.
Thirty years on, the two instrumental solo pieces are still our personal favorite GTR entries: Howe shines on the pretty “Sketches in the Sun” (a track he’s since recreated on stage and in studio), and Hackett gives a nod to his own “Hackett to Pieces” (from 1983’s Highly Strung) with vigorous workout “Hackett to Bits.”
The refurbished disc wraps with a GTR mix for “The Hunter,” and single edits for both “When the Heart” and “The Hunter.”
The expanded set’s second disc contains the whole of GTR’s July 19, 1986 show at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles.
Recorded for radio broadcast and pressed later as part of the King Biscuit Flower Hour series, the concert demonstrates that Howe, Hackett, Bacon and friends were just as effective in front of an audience as they were behind studio glass. The set boasts almost all of GTR (with “When the Heart Rules the Mind” reserved for the rousing finale), but also draws material from the guitarists’ respective pasts: The ensemble offer respectful versions of Yes hit “Roundabout” (from 1971’s Fragile) and Genesis classic “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” (from 1973’s Selling England by the Pound). Hackett augments “Bits” with his own “Spectral Mornings,” while Howe brings his 1979 guitar-laden romp “Pennants” to the table.
If you picked up GTR on tape or vinyl back in the day but skipped the initial CD pressing, now’s the time to ante up—particularly since this Esoteric package represents the sum total of the band’s output in a one bargain-priced digipak.
GTR 2-CD Deluxe Expanded Edition at Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/nwalpfb