THE MISSING LINK
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 developped 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 the only direct link from rock music (in his case progressive or space-rock) to the ambient house (or techno) scene.
Steve Hillage was born on August 2, 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 (who later became the bearded half of the Eurhythmics, famous in the 1980's).
In 1968 Hillage left for university to study history and philosophy. During his three years at Kent University, Hillage was silent (musically), except for some jamming with others, but afterwards, 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-70's British art-rock", and part of the "Canterbury school of British prog-rock" (visit the Canterbury Music Family Tree for more information).
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 60's by another ex-Soft Machine member, Daevid Allen (a "beatnik" already well-known as "beat-poet"), and his wife Gilli Smyth, with an ever-changing line-up of musicians (a phenomenon which has made its comeback in the techno-scene and with bands like Massive Attack).
Gong, which incidentally was the first band ever to use lasers in its lightshow, has been the 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 Oldfield (who made his debut with Kevin Ayers, and later became famous for "Tubular Bells", which was finished in 1971, but only released in 1973, and was used as the soundtrack for the film-version of "The Exorcist". Steve Hillage played in the first live performances of "Tubular Bells".).
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 seperate 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 developped his own special style, and became famous for it.
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 keyboardist Miquette Giraudy (who also happened to have played with Gong for a while). On the album, he reworks a long guitar-solo he did for Gong, a kind of duo with himself: the song "Meditation Of The Snake" will 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 Cherry (today better known for his offspring Neneh and Eagle Eye). 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 synthesizer 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 (it was produced by Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason) and David Bowie's experimental outings with Brian Eno.
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 re-worked 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 releases three albums:
"Rainbow Dome Musick" is a precursor of modern ambient music (see also below).
"Open" is the album on which Hillage starts to experiment with the dance music of the late 70's: 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.
"Live Herald" is a double live-album (an excellent showcase for his live guitar-work), of which the fourth side are new (funky) studio-tracks. (The cd-version of "Live Herald" contains only the three "live-sides" of the LP. The "studio-side" can be found on the cd-version of "Open".)
Apart from "For To Next / And Not Or" in 1983 (originally released as 2 albums), Steve Hillage now turned to production, because apparently nobody was interested in his music anymore. He becomes one of the record-label Virgin's in-house producers, and in that function produced (among others) Murray Head, Cock Robin, Robyn Hitchcock, and the breakthrough album for the Simple Minds, which included their hit-single "Love Song".
By the end of the 80's, Steve Hillage seemed to have completely disappeared and mostly forgotten.
And then, in 1989, during a night out clubbing, Hillage went to the chill out room of the club, and suddenly 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, which turned out to be Dr. Alex Paterson (the driving force behind The Orb).
Very soon, Steve Hillage started collaborating with The Orb, which lead to the formation of Hillage's own dance-project System 7 (again, with partner Miquette Giraudy), which, like Gong, is a collective of ever-changing musicians, producers, remixers and DJ's. 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" is 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 (obviously) Dr. Alex Paterson, and Derrick May, one of the "Detroit techno pioneers".
Due to problems in the U.S. about the name "System 7" (Hillage is forced to name his band "777" in the States, which causes lots of confusion for European fans), Hillage releases a few U.K.-only singles as System 7, before releasing a mini-album called (confusingly enough) "777", completely different from the U.S.-released album "777" (which was the American title for the album "System 7").
In late 1994, Steve Hillage surprises again, releasing on the same day "System 7.3: The Fire Album" and "System 7.3: The Water Album". (These albums are sometimes simply called "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, whilst 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 synthesizers, instruments from traditional Indian music (sitar, tablas) are also used, and the result is calming majestically flowing music (even on the harder techno-album).
Guest-musicians include Derrick May (again).
1996 sees 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 single-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 is 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" (remember Hillage's album "Green") is covered 4 times.
System 7 have been touring the world extensively, and a new System 7album, "Infinity Boulevard", is announced for release on their website.