STEVE HOWE SETTLES IN A POP GROOVE WITH GTR

Rock guitarist Steve Howe immersed himself in his favorite fantasy.

"I'm a dreamer," he explained somewhat sheepishly. "I like this fantasy. I can almost hear it. It's a very sensual thing. This will be real one day."

His fantasy is to make what he calls the Ultimate Guitar Record. He certainly has the talent to do it. Formerly with Yes and Asia, and now co-leader of the hot new band GTR, Howe has been one of the top rock guitarists since the '70s.

As best he could, Howe described his dream record: "It's a solo thing. I want to formulate a mirage of guitar possibilities. I'd play acoustic guitar and not use overdubbing techniques. There would be no trappings of rock groups. I'd be like nothing I'd ever heard or done before. Some parts seem so vivid to me now.

"The record I'm fantasizing about may not be the next one I make. I may take a long time to record it. I want to produce it myself, to write it myself. I want it to be highly personal. The atmosphere in a normal studio wouldn't be right. I have to build my own studio first. I don't feel pressured to do it. What happens is that instead of doing this album, I get distracted by things like GTR."

Howe, 39, must be storing up anything esoteric or innovative for his fantasy album. He certainly didn't invest any of these elements in GTR, his new band featuring Steve Hackett, the former Genesis guitarist. GTR, which just began its first tour, will make its local debut July 19 at the Wiltern Theater.

"This is a pop album," Howe said, referring to the Arista debut, "GTR." "We did what we set out to do."

If you're expecting intricate guitar duets or screaming, '60s-style solos, you'll be disappointed in this album. It's straight, middle-of-the-road pop/rock. Even more surprising is that Howe and Hackett, though chief composers of the music, are largely background figures on the album, back there with drummer Jonathan Mover and bassist Phil Spaulding. Unless you have an unusual knowledge of guitar styles, you won't even know it's Howe and Hackett.

"We didn't want to make a typical guitarist album," Howe said. "We could have done an album of solos but there's no future in it. Flashy guitar solos aren't what people want to hear. Those long guitar solos were relevant back in the '60s but not now. Now they would probably be considered self-indulgent."

When the news about the formation of GTR leaked out, the first thing everyone wondered about was how these two superstar guitarists would be able to work together. Their egos, it seemed, would destroy the project.

"Two guitarists like us in a group often doesn't work," Howe explained. "Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page (in the Yardbirds) didn't have an easy time of it. But Steve and I tried to be intelligent about it. Musically, we stayed out of each other's way and gave each other space. If egos get in the way, nobody wins."

The real star is singer Max Bacon, who sounds like Journey's Steve Perry and Styx's Dennis de Young, sporting one of those high-pitched, sweet, yearning voices.

So far fans seem to like the album, which is No. 15 on the Billboard pop chart and likely to crack the Top 10. The first single from the album, "When the Heart Rules the Mind," just entered the pop Top 15.

Still, most critics will probably trash this album, raging about expectations unfulfilled and excessive commerciality. But judging from Howe's attitude, this veteran wouldn't really care what the critics say.

Oddly, GTR--the abbreviation for guitar--was organized by neither Howe nor Hackett. Howe's manager, Brain Lane, was the original organizer. At the time, Hackett was deep into a streak of solo albums that were musically substantive but weren't clicking with the public.

"Steve went to Brian and said he didn't want to be solo anymore," Howe said. "At the time, I was ready to be in a group again. The timing was perfect."

Howe has fond memories of Yes, the band he left in 1981. "Actually, I was one of two people (Geoff Downes was the other) left holding Yes," Howe recalled. "Everybody else decided to leave."

Howe joined Yes in 1970 at 22. At the time, he had been playing guitar for 10 years. Yes, Howe contended, was more delicately balanced than most bands. "The art of Yes was striking a balance between (bassist) Chris Squire and (singer) Jon Anderson. I helped be that balancing factor.

"We certainly had our problems. There were antagonisms. We pulled each other's hair out and tipped glasses of orange juice over each other."

During its peak in the '70s, when keyboards player Rick Wakeman was a member, Yes was playing that grandiose, Wagnerian rock as well as any band. By the end of the decade, fans had tired of the pomposity of progressive rock. Yes disbanded and has reformed with some of the old members, switching to pop-rock.

Howe is mixed about the new Yes, speaking glowingly about the work of producer Trevor Horn but somewhat negatively about guitarist Trevor Rabin. "I want to be a guitarist who doesn't play like everybody else," Howe said. "As good as Trevor (Rabin) is, he does play like everybody else."

After Yes, Howe also gravitated toward pop-rock--in a band called Asia, which he formed with John Wetton in 1981. The music in Asia--tepid pop-rock--was considerably less interesting than the behind-the-scenes squabbles.

For one thing, the two founders--Howe and Wetton--didn't get along. "John thought I hated him and I thought he didn't like me," Howe recalled. "A lot of it was paranoia. But we really didn't support each other."

Outside interference from various sources didn't help. "Certain people said the 'Alpha' album' (the band's second album, a 1983 release) was too much of this and too much of that before it came out," Howe said. "They picked it apart. We went back and recorded tracks that were totally inferior. The album was a disaster."

Howe's role shrunk after the first album. "I was fighting for every bit of space on the records," he complained. "My parts kept being edited out."

Disgruntled, Howe left Asia in 1984 and didn't do much of anything until GTR started last year. A strange factor in Howe's Yes-Asia-GTR experience is keyboards player Geoff Downes, who has been with him in all three groups. Downes produced the "GTR" album. What's strange is that Downes and Howe were adversaries in Asia.

"When I left Asia, I didn't want to see him or any of those people again," Howe said. "But Geoff and I haven't held grudges against each other. We can work together in this band. At this point I do what I have to do."

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