The Water Bearer’s Jar :: The Esoteric Jazz Rock of Steve Hillage

Among certain sectors, Steve Hillage will always be known as the “exhibit A’” cosmic hippie rock guitar virtuoso. But part of what made his 1970s work so original was the degree to which his band cross pollinated guitar with synthesizer. That these albums found any success without pandering to commercial interest—at least from today’s standpoint—is one of those mysteries up there with the origin of ley lines. Yes, this music was totally reflective of Hillage’s ability at composition, but also of his choice of collaborators and of esoteric interests in crystals and outer planetary life forms, an expression of his desire to create a “New Age World Electrick Temple” through space synth jazz rock. 

Todd Rundgren, coming off the release of his own synth-heavy tirade on Initiation, produced Hillage’s 1976 album L. The record was recorded with Rundgren’s Utopia band and Don Cherry even shows up in the midst of the breakdown of cosmic raga “Lunar Musick Suite.” L is also where Hillage began collaborating closely with Miquette Giraudy, his musical life partner who he met when they were both members of Gong. 1977’s Motivation Radio followed, produced by master synth innovator Malcolm Cecil of Tonto’s Expanding Head Band. Then came 1978’s Green—probably the peak culmination Hillage’s lyrical exploration into mysterious connections with the natural world and unseen phenomena. Then in 1979, Giraudy and Hillage went on a fateful, all-instrumental trip called Rainbow Dome Musick, conceived as a sort of soundtrack to the Mind-Body-Spirit Festival in London. But anyone looking to set sail that day for a three-hour tour found themselves drifting out past the normal limits of song structure into the vibrating patterns of uncharted interstellar waters.

All of this can be contextualized by Steve Hillage’s interest in marine life. His personal insignia, which first appeared on the 1975 solo album Fish Rising, is of two overlapping circles forming the shape of a fish in the center. This is the album where Hillage’s philosophy and musical vision first came into sharp focus, where he emerged as someone wielding a fishing rod like a six string guitar and vice versa, pulling up riffs like rainbow trout from the cosmic soup of time space. 

And if that metaphor sounds too shallow consider that Hillage is one of the original Canterbury freaks who rode out the first swell of psychedelia, then joined Gong and swam far enough out to sea to watch from a distance as the utopian shores of hippiedom were torched by napalm, only then to resume his musical journey up a spiritual tributary toward some ultimate source, while chanting the mantra of Fish Rising

“Salty Solomon Salmon Soul of Man

Sun-Moon Salmon Salamander Solomon

Salty Solomon Salmon Soul of Man

King of the Fishes”

Inscribed on the lyric sheet below this tribute to salmon (but not audible on the album) is Jimi Hendrix’s famous quote, “You’ll never hear surf music again.” Indeed, by the time side two ends these fish are so far up river that the beach is just a distant memory in their/our collective instinctual mind. 

When Hillage entered this realm he’d already been in a band called Uriel with future Groundhogs drummer Clive Brooks, made the organ-laden record Space Shanty with the band Khan, and was playing lead guitar with former Soft Machine member Kevin Ayers’ band in France, which is where he landed at the Gong house. Gong, the Canterbury/Parisian collective founded by Australian Daevid Allen (another Soft Machine member) would become synonymous with 70’s prog, but the group’s communal attitude and interests in free jazz and dadaist sound experimentation were far looser than the glib mannerisms that would later define the prog scene. Gong  taunted the square world by re-inventing themselves as characters in their own mythic play. They lived in a world populated by flying teapots and elves, in which they engaged in weird spell casting and the wearing of funny hats.

Hillage came onboard just before their famous series of albums known as The Invisible Gnome Trilogy, the apotheosis of which was 1974’s You, an album with deep connections to Fishing Rising. Not only were they both recorded at the same time but Fish Rising features almost every then-member of Gong except Daevid Allen. The prevalent Gong saxophone disperses under the heavier guitar work of Hillage, but both albums share the phased out, time-stretched space synth which would eventually become such a major facet of Hillage’s solo career.

Gong were the harbor from where Hillage set sail into the 1970s. For many, this was an era that launched new interest in lost cities, UFOs, pyramids, mysterious stone formations, and how they were all connected. Whether they were or not, in Steve Hillage’s world they worked as talismans. Signifiers of possible origin for humanity. At least for those humans connected by the spirit of the salmon, the King of the Fishes, waiting to be “guided from Atlantis to the water bearer’s jar.” | a ganderson

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