Steve Hillage: Woggle head

Steve Hillage was a prime groover on the Cambridge psychedelic scene of the Seventies and still makes far-out trance music today. So why do people insist on calling him a prog-rocker? And did he really see a UFO when he was five? Nick Coleman enters his techno-lair to find out
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The Independent Culture

How do you make the trip from Seventies hippie space-rock to Nineties techno, in three pixie steps? Two rules: you have to go through the worm hole marked "Stevie Wonder" and you need to begin in 1975 and work outwards in concentric circles. It's easy if you have the mind for it, one that works in ripples.

In 1975, everything in music was up for grabs, pretty much. Which is another way of saying that the music world was in recession, economically and creatively. Old vinyl was being recycled to make new records while most of the ideas rock had ever had were being tortured to death. To generalise: denim-clad Angelenos with puffy hair set one creative agenda, puffball English prog-rockers set the other. Popular music had no edge at all, other than the sort you fall off.

The following autumn, a toothy hippie in a woolly hat released a second album under his own name and toured the English provinces. The Steve Hillage Band reached my East Anglian hometown in November and the usual regiment of middle-class wastrels and fen grebos loped off to the local Corn Exchange to lie on the floor in their rancid greatcoats. As we lay there, wondering what it would take, sonically speaking, to cause the filthy glass roof, 50 feet above, to loosen in its soft lead moorings and drop like a thousand guillotine blades on to our supine bodies, the SHB did their thing.

Their thing was hard to nail. Their songs were long and large and rejoiced in such titles as "Solar Musick Suite". Like Boschian fish, they enclosed within themselves smaller songs, entitled "Hiram Afterglid Meets the Dervish" and "Glidding". These were often elaborately arranged: ornate yet not weighty, complicated but not grand. Quite the opposite, in fact. If anything, they were light and floaty, like passing clouds. The songs seemed to work their way through your system without touching the sides. This was neither music of the body nor of suffering - it depended for what poke it had on Hillage's effects-drenched Stratocaster, which he would play in loopy bursts. He even did a version of Donovan's"Hurdy Gurdy Man" which was psychedelic pop of the purest kind. The only appropriate response to it all seemed to be to lie back and go woooo!

Hillage was good that night and the glass ceiling did not fall. Two weeks later, "Anarchy in the UK" came out and one felt obliged to buy it and cut one's hair.

"I am very uncomfortable with being called 'prog-rock'," says Hillage, almost exactly 30 years later in his Ladbroke Grove techno-lair, fixing his interlocutor with a basilisk stare. He is recognisably the same chap - much shorter hair of course, but the face is the same long, lean thing it was and his eyes are still pagan. He leans forward. "Even though we played a lot of chord changes and time signatures, which people might say fits with the prog definition, there's something that Miquette and I share with Daevid Allen about the prog mentality... It's overblown. We may have dressed like we were part of it, we may have sounded like we were part of it. But we didn't feel like we were part of it."

So there you have it: Hillage Not Prog. And he has a point. He, and the band from which he sprang, Gong, did not conform to the basic precepts of proggery. They were far too far out for that. But why does he care? Why not laugh and be done with it? After all, following years of production work in the field of spacey rave music, not to mention the continuing health of System 7, the techno unit he operates with his partner from Gong days, Miquette Giraudy, no one out here gives a flying fish whether Steve Hillage is a recidivist progster.

Then again, it must feel odd having to publicise a passage of life that belongs so remotely in your past, especially when your great preoccupation is inhabiting the present as cogently as possible. But whether he likes the idea or not, the complete Steve Hillage Band oeuvre is coming out again in two batches over the coming weeks, starting with the debut album from 1975, Fish Rising (pictured right, with Rainbow Dome Musick and Motivation Radio). It's a body of work which has no firm footing in the 21st century, except in the way it forms connecting tissue between the past and the present, between psychedelia and chillout, between rock formalism and rock postmodernism. It's slippery music. Yet in the mid-1970s, Steve Hillage had hit albums. Top-20 hit albums.

"It was exhilarating," he says. "The whole decade was a rush. And we kept it going until the end of '79, when we stopped. By then we'd done what we wanted to do, said what we wanted to say, and there wasn't the same excitement anymore. We wanted to look at new things and new ways of working."

What had he wanted to say? "Well, it's hard to put into words. The records were what we wanted to say. For more than a decade, I'd had a musical vision, a mass of sounds in my mind..." The eyes widen and strain slightly in their big lids.

Hillage grew up in Chingford on the edge of Epping Forest, the son of a social-worker/magistrate mother and a father who worked in the economics department of the Bank of England. Childhood in the Fifties was "not bad", although he went through a disconnected phase as a small boy. "Maybe I saw a UFO when I was five," he says. "But actually I think I was just that way inclined. My mother has pointed out that there was a period when I was five or six when there was a lot of illness in the family - both my brother and my grandmother - and I was left on my own a lot for a few years. I became an introspective and quite poetic sort of person then - though I'm no introvert. That might have something to do with it. I don't remember suffering but I do remember going for long walks in Epping Forest and thinking a lot."

Long forest walks and thinking. It is of course a feature of the Northern European Romantic tradition that troubled boys go for thoughtful walks in woods. And how many Anglo-Saxon Goethes, Müllers, Friedrichs and Schuberts must there have been in the Home Counties as post-war austerity retreated in the face of the onrushing consumer boom of the 1960s? A thick undergrowth, if early-Seventies rock music is anything to go by.

Hillage went to university in Canterbury already armed with the experience of having seen Jimi Hendrix at the Marquee "in February '67 - six feet away from the man. I got it completely. I was blitzed." He was also armed with the Fender his father had helped finance on the basis that he went as far as he could with his education. He lasted four terms of his Humanities degree.

Four terms was enough to refine his psychedelic sensibilities, however, and he quickly fell in with the rapidly coalescing "Canterbury Scene". This fabled, rather florid, often twee musical micro-society still stands rather unstably as perhaps the high-water-mark of English psychedelia - the little local world of Soft Machine, Caravan and Egg (keyboards by Hillage's school chum Dave Stewart, later of Hatfield and The North). Here was a parochial English mysticism to echo that of William Blake and Samuel Palmer, if not in reach, solemnity and refinement then certainly in its capacity to see visions. Hillage will not be drawn on specifics - a vision is a chap's own business. But it was through the workings of the Canterbury Scene, and discomfort with the pressures of leading his own band, Khan, that our man met and fell in with another woggle-headed visionary, Daevid Allen, co-founder of the Soft Machine, then de facto leader of the communal Anglo-French hippie-surrealist band Gong. They met, they jammed, Hillage played on Flying Teapot and in due course he became a full member.

"I got to join my favourite band," Hillage says, laughing for the first time. "Life in Gong was very intense, full of ups and downs. People kept leaving and joining and in the end I left." But not before he'd formed a partnership with one of the Gong ladies, Miquette Giraudy aka Bambaloni Yoni. "It was a true community. But everyone accepted that Daevid was the founder and had the vision, the pre-eminent role. We simply had ideas and he Gongified them..." And so, in exemplary communitarian style, when the break for solo territory came in 1975, Miquette went with Hillage and most of Gong played on Fish Rising.

It was the third Hillage album, Motivation Radio, in 1977, which suggested its author wasn't living in a hippie vacuum, oblivious to what was going on in the unvisioned world. Here were chunky, even funky riffs, and fewer fish. The "iconic hippie Aunt Sally who needed to be shoved in the stocks and have tomatoes thrown at him" (that's what he says. See, it's all coming out now!) wasn't listening to the Voidoids and Television, as one suspected, but to Bootsy Collins, Funkadelic, Parliament, Earth Wind & Fire and "The Commodores, before Lionel Richie went all schmaltzy".

Hillage got the funk. This did not mean that he suddenly took to landing on The One like James Brown and wearing spangly pants on the outside of his trousers, but it did mean he engaged Malcolm Cecil to produce the album - the same boffinesque Malcolm Cecil from Tonto's Expanding Headband who'd programmed Stevie Wonder's Innervisions synthesizers half a decade before...

Hillage doesn't play much guitar these days. Indeed, he owns only a single instrument, one of those strange stubby carbon-fibre affairs without a headstock. He points to it in the corner, where it rests in its case, an undifferentiated piece of studio kit. "The perfect techno guitar." Presumably that was the thing he played at the recent Gong reunion held in Amsterdam, where he even squeezed in a short SHB set, the first since 1979. "It was great fun actually. Really great. Might even do it again."

Alternatively, he could always complete his course at Canterbury. "Technically, I could have gone back to university, cos I only left on a sabbatical in case everything went pear-shaped. Maybe I still can. I think I should study psycho-politics in the 21st century; do a thesis on neo-conservatism and media manipulation." He laughs for a second time.

Watch this space.

'Fish Rising', 'Motivation Radio', 'L' and 'Rainbow Dome Musick' are reissued tomorrow on Virgin EMI