Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

GTR – GTR (1986)

You know how now (with now being 2008), all of the major phone companies and wireless companies are merging together and buying each other out, so where before maybe you paid Southern Podunk Bell for your local line and ABC Wireless for your cell phone, and now you just make one check out to some huge monolith like Verizon? Well, basically the same thing was happening with prog-rock groups back in the mid-eighties, with all of the loose members of Yes and Genesis and Marillion and Asia and whatnot being all rolled together into big megagroups designed to succeed on the corporate level. GTR is an example of one of these prog-supergroup things. It’s also, unfortunately, a good example of how that doesn’t work, and indirectly, why Verizon is evil, but I’ll stick to the music part here and leave the phone company stuff for another forum.

Okay, so GTR was the meeting of Steve Howe (from Yes) and Steve Hackett (from Genesis), both guitar virtuosos. (Get it? GuiTaR -> GTR?) They got together with unknowns vocalist Max Bacon and bassist Phil Spalding, and session guy on drums Jonathan Mover. I’ll get the nice things out of the way first. This album went gold really fast, and a lot of people liked it, for about ten seconds, which dumbfounds me. I’m not saying that it’s total shit; I’m just saying it’s weird that they had a song get up to like #14 on the pop charts. That one song, “When the Heart Rules the Mind” had a lot of hook to it, but that’s it. Anything good you can say about this album is immediately negated by its problems.

As for problems, first of all, this album sounds like shit. Maybe this was before they learned to get that extra 7dB out of a CD or something, but seriously, it’s mixed together so compressed and tinny, that I seriously thought I got a defective one when I re-bought this recently. It sounds really bad. I’m sure the mixing is great, and if you listen to the original pressing vinyl or sat in a control room with the masters it would be like Dark Side of the Moon on a uranium disc. But the One Way reissue I have sounds so bad, it’s like you had a cheap tape and the felt thing inside the head part of the shell broke off.

Second, this is a classic example of “too many cooks,” because in every song, Steve Howe tries to totally bogart the sound stage with his weird Asian-sounding (no pun) scales and solos, and every once in a while, Hackett breaks in with his own weird style of noodling. They don’t alternate solos, and they don’t alternate songs; they just collide. I think if it was one or the other of them and just some lackey studio axe that laid down a steady rhythm, this would sound much more straightforward, especially if you’re going for the arenas, which these guys were. I think they spent all of their energy working back and forth against each other, and in the process, the band ended up being a low-quality clone of Asia. The other issue is that these guys basically just bent over and did every single thing their image people told them to do, as far as creating a totally homogenized 80s pop record. Both Hackett and Howe are talented guys, and I think if they would have been at a label that said FUCK MTV and fuck the radio and everything else, just get out those guitars and throw down as many notes as you can on the page in the coolest melody possible, they could have produced a completely kick-ass record. But, that isn’t what happened.

As far as the lyrics, I am not going to completely piss on Max Bacon, because I’m sure he just did what he was told so he wouldn’t get fired. Rumor has it he was so scared the whole thing wouldn’t work, he kept his day job as a milkman during the project. But I can’t not say anything about his delivery, because everything is sung very sweetly, and there’s no real breaks between phrases. I wish I could describe music theory a bit more to explain that, but imagine how someone in church choir would sing “haaaaalleeeeeeeiiiiillluuuuuuiiiiaaaaa” and then how someone in a punk band would sing “FUCK! THE! PIGS!” and compare the difference in phrasing. Maybe I’m thinking about this too much. Actually, I’m still thinking about who the fuck is still a milkman in this century. Do English people drink that god damn much milk?

I might also complain about the bass and drums, but you totally can’t hear them, at least on my CD. So good job, guys. I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you were playing like motherfuckers and I just couldn’t hear you.

There are a couple of interesting spots on the record. First, Hackett recorded the song “Hackett to Bits,” a guitar solo number, from a solo album. I had that album (Highly Strung) and loved it, so the new version was a treat. The final track, “Imagining,” isn’t bad, either. Otherwise, it’s a pretty mediocre disc, with a couple of the tunes (“The Hunter,” particularly), being really bad.

The band toured for a year after this release and then self-imploded. (Hackett was the first to quit, followed by Mover.) It’s interesting to note that they have a few other music connections that they made as they were in their downward spiral. First, Robert Berry, who was in England working on the 3 album with Carl Palmer, was pulled in to songwrite and cover guitar, although he clashed with Max Bacon and caused more turmoil within the band. Also the drummer’s throne was briefly taken by Nigel Glockler of Saxon. The band recorded part of a second album, which was never officially released. Howe is allegedly sitting on the masters, but the songs appeared on bootlegs and are rumored to be out there on a Japanese release called Nerotrend. Also, derivatives of the songs appeared on the Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe album.

This is, unfortunately, one of those records that I remember really liking 20 years ago, when I bought up anything that was somehow related to Rush, Genesis, or Yes. I remember my friend Derik being completely mesmerized with this album, learning “When the Heart…” and playing it on drums all the time. For whatever reason, I seriously didn’t hear this album at all for two decades, and got excited when I saw the reissue on CD. Unfortunately, it totally didn’t hold up. It’s too bad, because I still love the old Steve Hackett solo material. Oh well.

Rating: 4