Steve Hillage is an electric guitar player who started off playing electric blues in the style of the young Eric Clapton. His solos were called 'paint-blistering' by fellow musicians. In the course of his musical career, he developed his own recognisable brand of playing, spiced up by lots of echo and delay, sometimes playing 'canon' with himself. In some of his solos, Hillage started playing a phrase and the exact echo fell in a few seconds (or fractions thereof) later, making it a phrase in two (and often more) voices. His style of playing won him much acclaim, especially during live sets.
Steve Hillage is perhaps the only direct link from rock music (in his case 'progressive' or 'space rock' music) to the ambient house and techno scene.
Steve Hillage was born on 2 August, 1951, in England. He played in his first band, Uriel, from 1967 to 1968, with bassist Mont Campbell, drummer Clive Brooks, and organist Dave Stewart.
In 1968, Hillage left for university to study history and philosophy. During his three years at Kent University, Hillage was musically silent, except for some jamming. Afterwards, however, his musical odyssey began.
In 1971, Hillage teamed up again with Dave Stewart in the band Kahn, and recorded a 'prog rock' album, released in 1972 and titled Space Shanty. Kahn split up soon afterwards. Kahn has been described by British critics as 'an obscure footnote of early 1970s British art rock', and part of the 'Canterbury school of British prog rock'.
The Gong Era
After the split, Hillage played and toured with Kevin Ayers (ex-Soft Machine), and joined the band Gong. Gong was started in the late 1960s by another ex-Soft Machine member, Daevid Allen (a beatnik already well known as a beat poet), and his wife Gilli Smyth, with an ever-changing line-up of musicians. This phenomenon of changing the line-up of musicians in one band has re-emerged in the techno scene with bands such as Massive Attack.
Gong, which incidentally was the first band ever to use lasers in its light show, has been host to some great musicians, including Gary Wright (does anyone remember Dream Weaver?), Robert Wyatt (again ex-Soft Machine, later a brilliant solo artist, although paralysed due to a drunken accident) and Mike Oldfield1.
Gong created its own mythology in its songs. The songs tell stories about the peaceful 'Planet Gong' where 'Radio Gnomes', 'Octave Doctors' and 'Pot Head Pixies' live. Steve Hillage joined during the recordings of three separate albums about the earthling 'Zero the Hero', who finds the Planet Gong and gets educated in its mystical philosophy in order to convert Earth. These albums are later called the Radio Gnome Invisible Trilogy, consisting of Flying Teapot, Angel's Egg and You. It was during his time with Gong that Hillage developed his own special style, one which he consequently became famous for. After You, Hillage left the band, and so did Allen and Smyth, the original founders.
The Solo Era
In 1975, Steve Hillage released his first solo album Fish Rising. Dave Stewart collaborated again, and this was also the beginning of his long partnership with keyboarder Miquette Giraudy, who also happened to have played with Gong for a while. On the album, he reworks a long guitar solo that he had done for Gong, a kind of duo with himself; the song 'Meditation of the Snake' would later become 'Meditation of the Dragon'.
The following year, Hillage (and from now on, constant musical and life-partner Giraudy) recorded L in New York with help from Todd Rundgren (producer), Rundgren's band Utopia and jazz giant Don Cherry2. The album includes a cover version of Donovan's 'Hurdy Gurdy Man' and a cover version of 'It's All Too Much', a Beatles song written by George Harrison.
1977 was the punk era and musicians like Steve Hillage were 'out', but Hillage couldn't care less and recorded Motivation Radio, an album filled with weird but melodious synthesiser bleeps and his own brand of guitar work, including a cover version of the Rock'n'Roll classic 'Not Fade Away', made famous by the Rolling Stones.
Green, released in 1978, could be described as a hybrid of Pink Floyd and David Bowie's experimental outings with Brian Eno. The album was actually produced by Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason. This was certainly not fashionable at the time, but critics were forced to admit that 'like his other albums, the musicianship is top-notch'. On this album he completely reworked a Gong song ('Master Builder' from the album You), and this could be considered the first remix in the sense that 'remix' is used today in dance music.
In 1979, Hillage released three albums:
Rainbow Dome Musick is a precursor of modern ambient music (see below).
Open is the album on which Hillage starts to experiment with the dance music of the late 1970s: punk, funk and disco (the song 'Definite Activity' sounds like a Prince song, long before Prince started recording). Open also includes another Beatles cover, 'Getting Better', and 'Earthrise', an adaptation of an Arabic traditional tune.
Live Herald is a double live album (an excellent showcase for his live guitar work), on which the fourth side features new, funky studio tracks3.
Apart from For To Next / And Not Or in 1983 (originally released as two albums), Steve Hillage now turned to production, because apparently nobody was interested in his music anymore. He became an in-house producer with Virgin Records, and in that function produced, among others, Murray Head, Cock Robin, Robyn Hitchcock, and the breakthrough album for Simple Minds, which included their hit single 'Love Song'.
By the end of the 1980s, Steve Hillage seemed to have completely disappeared and was mostly forgotten.
In 1989, during a night out clubbing, Hillage went to the chill out room of a club, and recognised his own Rainbow Dome Musick. This piece had become a modern ambient classic in some clubs and Hillage started a conversation with the DJ, who turned out to be Dr Alex Paterson, the driving force behind The Orb.
Very soon Steve Hillage started collaborating with The Orb which led to the formation of Hillage's own dance project, System 7, again with partner Miquette Giraudy and which, like Gong, is a collective of ever-changing musicians, producers, remixers and DJs. Hillage's typical guitar experiments keep their prominent role, however, and they blend in perfectly with the hard dance beats and techno synths.
The System 7 Era
In 1990, System 7's debut single 'Sunburst' was released, followed in 1991 by the first album, called simply System 7. On this album there are collaborations with some of techno's biggest names, including Dr Alex Paterson and Derrick May, one of the Detroit techno pioneers.
Due to legal problems in the US about the name 'System 7' - Hillage was forced to name his band 777 in the States, which causes lots of confusion for European fans - Hillage released a few UK-only singles as System 7, before releasing a mini-album called (confusingly enough) 777, completely different from the US-released album 777, which was the American title for the album System 7.
In late 1994, Steve Hillage surprised everyone yet again, releasing on the same day System 7.3: The Fire Album and System 7.3: The Water Album. These two albums are sometimes referred to together as Point 3.
Basically, both albums contain the same songs (only one 'exclusive' track on Water) in a different order. The Fire album is techno based, while the Water album is ambient based. Ironically, in the light of Hillage's roots, the Fire album is the first techno album ever to be called 'progressive house'.
Hillage's guitar takes prominence again, especially on the 25-minute version of 'Alpha Wave' on Water, but besides the obvious synthesisers, instruments from traditional Indian music - sitar and tablas - are also used, and the result is majestically calming, flowing music, even on the harder techno album. Guest musicians included, once more, Derrick May.
1996 saw the release of Power of 7, an even harder techno album, with guests like Dr Alex Paterson, Derrick May and Carl Craig. Tracks include 'Interstate', based on a sample from the German band Can, whale noises in 'Davy Jones' Locker', and stomping tripped-out techno like 'Hangar 84' and 'Chicago Indian'.
System Express of the same year is a singles collection with remixes by some techno and drum 'n' bass heavyweights like Marshall Jefferson, Carl Cox, Plastikman, David Holmes (on whose album This Film's Crap, Let's Slash the Seats Steve Hillage co-wrote a track and played guitar), Doc Scott and Jacob's Optical Stairway.
Golden Section, released in 1997, is more of the same, although the music becomes even more psychedelic and there is a more noticeable influence from drum 'n' bass (percussion), but the album is especially remarkable for a 'posthumous collaboration' from Don Cherry, who recorded his 'collaboration' during Hillage's recording of L in 1976. Don Cherry's music is used in the song 'Don Corleone', which also features guest musician Talvin Singh.
Also, in 1997, a peculiar double CD was released, titled You Remixed, Phase 1 and Phase 2. It is a collection of Gong covers (only from the album You) by various artists, including System 7, but also some big names from the dance-music scene like The Orb, The Shamen, Youth, Total Eclipse, Astralasia, 808 State, Doof, and others. The song 'Master Builder' is covered four times.
At the time of writing, System 7 have been touring the world extensively, and a new System 7 album, Infinity Boulevard, is announced for release on their website.