Of Acolytes, Geese, and Ghosts: Genesis’ Steve Hackett and Anthony Phillips

The album journeys taken by Genesis' Steve Hackett and Anthony Phillips in the mid-'70s are remarkably similar.
Steve Hackett
Voyage of the Acolyte

This year marks the 40th anniversary of early Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett’s debut solo album Voyage of the Acolyte. It’s also been 40 years since the bulk of recording for original Genesis guitarist Anthony Phillips’ first solo album, The Geese and the Ghost, was completed. A new special edition of that album has recently been issued by Cherry Red Records, while Hackett is set to embark on a tour titled “From Acolyte to Wolflight”, celebrating his career from that debut album to Wolflight, his most recent.

Besides including contributions from other members of Genesis, Voyage of the Acolyte and The Geese and the Ghost are striking in their similarities. In many ways, they’re unintentional companion albums, recorded in different places at different times, and helmed by two different musicians. Those two musicians, however, are both masters of composition and adept at various musical styles.

Phillips quit Genesis in 1970 after the band’s second album, Trespass, due to stage fright. Hackett, as his successor, was hardly more of a “guitar hero”, preferring to sit on a stool towards the side of the stage with his head bowed intently over his guitar when the band performed. Phillips had begun the project that would eventually be The Geese and the Ghost with bassist Mike Rutherford while he was still in the band. Even after leaving Genesis, Phillips would continue to work off and on with Rutherford on songs for their project over the next few years. This was a stop-and-start undertaking, however, as Rutherford’s main commitment was Genesis, whose fortunes were on the rise.

Phillips still maintained musical links with his other old bandmates as well, and in 1973 he recorded a one-off single (unreleased until 2008) called “Silver Song” featuring Phil Collins. This was one of Collin’s first lead vocal performances, long before he took over vocals in Genesis. A few years later Phillips played keyboards on the demos for what would be Peter Gabriel’s first solo album.

In 1974, fate intervened when Hackett injured his hand, which temporarily put a halt to the band’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway tour. This freed up Rutherford to spend more time working with Phillips, and as a result a good chunk of the recording for The Geese and the Ghost was done that fall. With things back on track, the majority of The Geese and the Ghost was finished the following summer.

Meanwhile, Hackett was getting restless within the confines of Genesis. When Gabriel departed, he set to work on a solo album which, in the end, would often be looked at later as the “lost” Genesis album. The overall sound was not a big departure from the band, and Rutherford and Collins were guest players on the album, with Rutherford also co-writing “The Lovers”. In fact, “Star of Sirius” would feature another early Collins lead vocal, which helped pave the way for him to take over lead vocals now that Gabriel had left. Collins was also recording vocals for Phillips’ album, still underway, and appeared on two songs: “Which Way the Wind Blows” and “God If I Saw Her Now”.

So, at this point, both Rutherford and Collins were appearing on both Hackett’s and Phillips’ albums. But the similarities between Voyage of the Acolyte and The Geese and the Ghost were just beginning.

Both Hackett and Phillips sing only one song on their own album; Hackett’s was “The Hermit” and Phillips’ was “Collections”. A guest female vocalist appeared on one song on each album; Sally Oldfield on Hackett’s “Shadow of the Hierophant” and Viv McAuliffe dueting with Collins on “God If I Saw Her Now”. Furthermore, Hackett’s flautist brother John appears on both albums. Each album was issued by the Charisma record label — well, almost. Voyage of the Acolyte came out on Charisma, but The Geese and the Ghost was ultimately released in 1977 on a label called Passport, even though Charisma had financed most of its recording.

Though Voyage of the Acolyte has more variety from song to song, both albums share a very British, pastoral feel. Each has roots in history as well, with Hackett’s songs drawing from the Chinese Tarot (in another synchronicity, The Geese and the Ghost has a song called “Chinese Mushroom Cloud”) and Phillips’ from Olde England with “Henry: Portraits from Tudor Times”. There’s a duality on each album between the grandiose (Hackett’s “Ace of Wands”, “A Tower Struck Down”; Phillip’s “Henry: Portraits of Tudor Times”) and the understated (Hackett’s “Hands of the Priestess”; Phillips’ “God If I Saw Her Now” and “Sleepfall: The Geese Fly West”).

The similarities don’t end with the music and the musicians, as the album cover art shared themes also. Both picture hills and mountains receding into a sunset distance, with a faraway castle. A floating mystical female figure is the focus of each.

Artist Peter Cross says he took his inspiration for the artwork of The Geese and the Ghost from the music itself and from sunset photos that Phillips had taken:

Ant used to take all these photos of sunsets (with the occasional coconut palm thrown in). We would sit for ages going through these photos analysing the various hues of alizarin crimson or discussing the properties of purple lake. The trouble with Ant’s sunsets was you could never be sure which way up they were meant to be. After hours of this we would repair to the pub to sink a few pints. By the next morning I would have forgotten everything! (The Geese and the Ghost 2008 re-release liner notes).

The cover of Voyage of the Acolyte was painted by Hackett’s future (now ex) wife, artist Kim Poor. Poor walks us through the painting on her website:

Through bone and fire the sightless priestess foretells the future. Her eyes are denied the usual sight, but she represents events foretold: precognition, premonition and the road of the tarot are her stock in trade. The hands of this gifted seeress, and feminine intuition, allow the drawbridge of consciousness to be lifted for her, immediately becoming an open door. It is a Chinese watercolour in her background which tells of past lives… the tower about to be struck down… the balloons of colour that must be snatched and fully grasped in order to move forward, representing the artist herself.

Both albums were significant new chapters in the careers of each artist. The success of Voyage of the Acolyte lead to Hackett leaving the band two years later and embarking on a long and varied solo career. Though it took Anthony Phillips seven years to put together that first solo album after departing Genesis, after The Geese and the Ghost he has been prolific in both film music and with his own solo albums.

With two such simpatico musicians, one wonders why they’ve never worked together. Phillips did provide a little guitar on Hackett’s 2009 Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth, but don’t look for a full-fledged collaboration anytime soon. Phillips said earlier this year, “My own feeling is that, again, we’re maybe too similar in some respects and we might cancel each other out. I have another fear as well, which he knows about: He’s a lovely guy, and I’m very fond of he and [Steve Hackett’s wife] Jo,” Phillips adds, “and I wouldn’t want to risk our friendship by a possible collaboration that might not work because, when you work with people, there’s always disagreement, there’s always some tension. You can’t escape it when you’re co-composing. People have their own style, they have their own way — one is not right and one is not wrong — and I would be nervous about it, I would hate anything that might impinge on our relationship. So that’s why I’m wary of it, I think.”

Two well-regarded albums that have only grown in stature over time, sharing uncanny similarities. This is the year to discover, or maybe rediscover, Voyage of the Acolyte and The Geese and the Ghost.