Sunday, 31 August 2014

Glenn Cornick 23 April 1947 – 28 August 2014

Glenn was one of the first of the few genuine rock stars I ever got to know properly. I had met a lot of "names", but it was always a face to face interview - in and out in minutes - or over the telephone. Glenn and his family stayed with us in the UK twice. I also arranged for him to do a gig, and given its limited scope, it went down a storm.

What was he like?  He had simple tastes. When he came over here, often his first port of call was Devon and Somerset, where he would lay in several flagons of Scrumpy. He had a collection of guitars somewhere (I can't remember where) and would visit them, as you do someone in hospital. He would always try and visit Cumbria and Barrow in Furness. For food, he craved fish and chips and pies. I once made the mistake of serving him and his family chilli con carne. A mistake because his wife, Brigitte, is something of an expert at making it. They were very polite about it! More about Brigitte, later.

When I saw him, he was still living in Los Angeles, though he did talk about moving to Hawaii. His only real connection with the UK was a house in Barnes that he bought for £6000 at the height of his Jethro Tull fame. Oddly enough, it had a sitting tenant in it and therefore was not much use as an income stream when the royalties from the Tull albums became little more than pocket money.

Like all people, Glenn was a collection of sometimes conflicting traits. He was open and often generous, thoughtful and really quite modest. And yet he could get into a foul temper
and managed to fall out with most of the other ex-members of Tull (regardless of what they now say in public) He had poor relationships with his sons and four wives are a testimony to his lack of success in marriage. Brigitte was and is a bit of a saint. She understood Glenn and did her best, even when he was sent by the local authorities to anger management classes, after a particularly unpleasant episode.

The big question, the one that everybody asks, is, "Why did you leave Jethro Tull?"

One evening, over a drink (he really did not drink much at all, despite the liking for cider) he told me that it still hurt him after all these years. Glenn learned he was no longer in Jethro Tull whilst waiting to board a plane for home from America. The then manager, Terry Ellis, handed him his ticket. Glen asked where the others were and he was told he was out.

That is how he told it to me. He was grateful to Ellis that a deal was done pretty soon after that to get a band together and record an album. This resulted in the formation of Wild Turkey.

Glenn always found it hard to be pleasant about Ian Anderson. He occasionally copied me in to emails from Anderson, when Jethro Tull was having one of its periodic get-togethers. The fact is, there was no love lost between them and Glenn was justifiably aggrieved when the original members were brought together for a recording, with no chance to rehearse properly. (Glenn said acidly that Ian was more concerned about dyeing his beard)

I have to say that I never got to know Glenn well, but I suspect nobody did. He brooded over Tull for the rest of his life and the subsequent fall from fame (where else but down?) was something that no man is equipped to deal with. He did however, attend fan conventions with a great deal of enthusiasm, and enjoyed doing them. When I put on a gig for him, local musicians and fans were ecstatic. He was a great performer and musician.

Musically, and this is where I came in, Glenn's contribution to Jethro Tull was absolutely pivotal. His mischievous, melodic bass lines gave early Tull a sound that was matchless, and it made a novel and unique transition from pure blues to something wholly other. His favourite Tull album was Benefit. This is where he was able to excel artistically, as far as he was allowed. My personal opinion was and still is, that he was one of the most inventive bass players of all time.

In my attic there are piles of demos, many of them early workings for his last Wild Turkey album. In is kindness, Glenn went to a great deal of trouble to share the process with me and we enjoyed a long and fascinating correspondence over the years. I was aware of his health problems. It is sad that the situation clearly worsened.

Latterly, our correspondence declined. Recently, I thought I would drop him a line, but never did. All I know is, that despite the occasional hiccup over certain things, Glenn would have replied.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Hard Times

There are a couple of surprise albums that came under my radar recently.

The first is Chas and Dave's latest and it is called, "That's What Happens". For those who thought C&D were a cockney sparrer novelty band, think again. This is music from two musicians whose musical integrity and delivery put them in in the category marked enduring" The album is a keeper. There are plenty of reviews elsewhere, so go check them out.

Another Dave - this time, Dave Clemo. Dave has been on the scene since the days of vinyl, and for all I know, wax cylinders. There is a truism, called something like the "10,000 hour rule" which states that it takes about 10,000 hours to become good at anything. I'm pretty certain Dave has done his 10,000 hours. It is the art of making good music without you noticing. Hard Times is not Clemo's first album by any means, but it represents an artist at the top of his game.

To describe the style will limit it, but that is the lot of a reviewer. I can tell you what comes to mind; Van Morrison, Eddie Spaghetti, Lonnie Donegan, The Pretty Things and there are echoes of the Fabs and Johnny Cash. (Dave also does an uncanny cover of the Cash song, Ring of Fire on another album called "Other People's Greatest Hits"). Dave Plays mandolin bass and a selection of other guitars. His son Chris sits in on percussion. The production values are excellent.

Hard Times is the kind of logical artistic progression of an artisan who has listened and learned and synthesised. And by synthesised, I mean artistically, not electronically - this album is cruelty-free, fairly traded and unplugged.

Picking out tracks that I like is not going to do much for another listener, but you can preview them on the various platforms. I would grab the Skiffle gem, I Fought the Battle, Any Road with its easy, mesmeric lick and the the ultra cool Glide, if I could only pick three, but there isn't a duff track in 42 minutes.

And for some previews and where to buy

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Pete Atkin

Mr Pickwick sat at first taciturn and contemplative, brooding over the means by which his purpose could be best attained. By degrees his attention grew more and more attracted by the objects around him; and at last he derived as much enjoyment from the ride, as if it had been undertaken for the pleasantest reason in the world.

Great Expectations? Pete Atkin has enjoyed a long and fruitful partnership with Clive James. There is something almost Dickensian about this duo’s ability to capture quintessentially English mores and picaresque characters. Not only that, it is an authentic voice that speaks to the heart as well as the head; at least it does if you are a man of a certain age, living a life of quiet desperation, perhaps as a session musician, secret drinker or a Mafia Don.  Lest I start making further, perhaps spurious analogies about Philip Pirrip and Abel Magwitch (I’ll leave you to decide who’s who) I’ll begin.

It begins, as a lot of music does, with John Peel. At least, this story begins for me with that champion of things brilliant but ill-considered. It was an album called Secret Drinker. Peel played it, several tracks, more than once.
Who were they? A latter-day Flanders and Swann or the progeny of Tom Lehrer, but gone to the dark side? Tom Waits or Randy Newman?
The lyrics, provided by Clive James were perhaps more along the lines of poems set to music. Or were they lyrical poems? Pete Atkin could write in any style from East Coast Soft Rock to a slidy, smoky tuxedo bourbon-stained jazz style. There were songs of love that could not fail to resonate with those who love, songs of paranoia for anyone who really does have people watching and waiting, songs of lament and elegy for the tiny dead of the concentration camp but also songs of parody and satire, largely about the hand that momentarily fed them. They were “eclectic” – but more on “eclectic” later. Their star shone for longer than might have seemed possible in the days when you had to have a deal and you had to have a hit. 


PA: With hindsight, I can easily see that we never did fit in, although at the time (late 60s, early 70s) I think we thought that we might be able to barge in and occupy an interesting corner. It's hard to remember now, but in those days the album was only just beginning to be thought of as something in its own right, something more than a collection of singles and fillers - thanks mainly to Dylan, even more than the Beatles.

One of the things that Clive and I had in common was a sense that pop songs could be about pretty much anything at all, certainly more than we were hearing most of the time - hardly a radical view, even then, but don't forget there was as yet no Randy Newman, no Tom Waits - and that there was no reason why the words shouldn't be just as interesting as the music. It may be our downfall that we have always written songs that needed to be listened to. I don’t think any of our records work particularly well as something that’s playing in the background. It’s always been a case of writing music that presents the lyric in the best possible way and makes the most sense of the lyric. That doesn’t always mean following the mood of the lyric. Sometimes it means going directly against it. Early on, in our early days of writing, Clive would hand me a lyric and say “I think this one is a this or that sort of song.” What it suggested to me rhythmically was something different, but if the rhythm works for the words it almost doesn’t matter what the tune and the harmonies do. An early example of me going against it was The Last Hill that Shows you All the Valleys. He handed it to me as a kind of lament and I thought, ok but when I started out looking into how I could work with it rhythmically it became something quite different – a heavy, R&B rhythm. Clive stopped making those suggestions after that point and let me get on with it!

The more our writing relationship went on, the more to and fro we got with it but usually we would start with a lyric and sometimes I would simply go away and write the tune and that would be that. I might suggest a repeat of a line or shifting a chorus or asking Clive for a middle eight. With the later songs there might not be a song at all – the shape of it was too raggedy, too irregular and then I would look at it and find that actually there was a song. Sometimes a lyric is a poem rather than a song because of the grammar and syntax. Or it might be just too personal to Clive and I can’t find a way into it emotionally. I have to imagine myself singing it.
I was never aware of writing in any particular style. It’s a bit of a handicap. It’s handy to be able to tell people what it is you do, but I treat each song on its own merits. That ends up being easy to describe as “eclectic”, which is often used as a pejorative term.
On the other hand, because of that our stuff was never trendy at the time. It never fitted in.
RL: Well it was critically acclaimed. Kenny Everett played it and John Peel played a lot of the songs and recorded sessions with you.
PA: We were on the verge of getting somewhere with it. We were very economical with recording. I knew early on that I was never going to command big studio bills. I knew I had to get the album done in four sessions.
RL: So did RCA just lose interest in you?
PA: Well the first albums were done through Essex Music and they leased them to Phillips and Fontana. Then A King at Nightfall was leased to RCA and that was enough of a success that they took on the re-issue of the first two. Then I signed direct to RCA for another three albums.
The Road Of Silk was my first (direct) RCA album and I put together a band and rehearsed and went on a month-long university tour only to discover afterwards that they hadn’t pressed enough copies so that they'd all gone in the first week and we were touring with nothing in the shops (it took 3-4 weeks to re-press LPs, unless you were Jim Reeves or David Bowie). RCA promised this wouldn't happen again, but exactly the same thing did happen again with Secret Drinker, the next album. (The re-recording of the single version of I See The Joker in order to re-promote it was RCA's kind of an apology.) And so I didn't believe their further protestations, and Clive and I decided not to give them our next bunch of 'proper' songs, but to record the jokey things that we'd been accumulating over the years (and which there was a certain amount of audience demand for, I have to say) as a kind of contractual fulfillment album. That did give the two of us the chance to tour relatively cheaply and to cash in a bit on Clive's growing media fame, but in recording terms and with hindsight it probably wasn't that great an idea.
We had all the songs ready for the next album and the idea was we would go somewhere else. This was 1976. Punk arrived like a hurricane. Punk had more of an effect on the record companies than we now remember. We were still in thrall to the record companies. You had to have a deal. They didn’t know what to do with anything that wasn’t Punk. Nobody could see what more they could do with our stuff than had already been done. That was coloured by the fact that what was happening was something quite different. Punk was a good thing, not only for the business but for music in general. Stiff put out material that still stands up today. It was a very much needed, huge infusion of energy. The rocky bits had become staid and lacking in imagination and safe. The general feeling was that something needed to happen.
RL: Your back catalogue has since gathered an enormous amount of interest, with copies of albums on eBay and hundreds of pounds.
PA: It’s frustrating that some of it wasn’t available so I was really pleased to see Demon records do such a good job on the re-issues but I can’t be bothered to put huge amounts of energy into keeping it available. I’m glad that it’s there but much more interested in now.
RL: Do you think we are on the cusp of a very profound change in the way people hear music?
PA: We’re not on the cusp, we are already there, I think. Our generation probably covers what will prove to be the only time in history where music was a primary source of home entertainment. I don’t think people sit and listen to recorded music anymore, the way they would have done twenty, thirty or forty years ago.  It’s not that people don’t do it, but people have music on, or they are listening on personal players, but the days of actually sitting in your living room and putting a record on as if you are in a concert, are pretty much gone. Music has receded to be a much smaller part of home entertainment.
RL: Vinyl is the only growth area in audio currently. HMV have said they are going to stock it again.
PA: I can’t believe that is going to be a major factor again. For most people, that doesn’t matter very much. At one time the industry was all about getting better and better quality, from 78s to LPs to CDs; it was all about increasing the quality. What the MP3 revolution has shown is that most people don’t care about that. We have reached a peak and we are sliding down the other side.
RL: Does that mean that performing live has become much more important?
PA: Performing live continues to be something that is different from all the other elements. There is still, I am pleased to say, an appetite for it. People still recognise that there is something special about it. In the broadest sense it is theatre and it is unique event and that sense you get of liveness and actuality is something you can never get from a recording. People respond to that. They don’t necessarily think about it in those terms, but the big stadium bands – the live gigs, that is where people make money now. There is no big money to be made from selling CDs. Plenty of bands give the things away at gigs.
RL: A while ago you did a live gig with Clive James at St George’s Brandon Hill, Bristol. How did that set the scene for your performance format of words and music?
PA: Clive and I did a sort of proto-gig there. I was on the board of trustees due to my BBC connection and managed to persuade them to let me and Clive do a gig. We’d done a few ad hoc things where I would give Clive a list of songs and he would introduce them and out of that came the two-man show. In those days he wasn’t doing any readings or anything. It was the reason we brought together some musicians and that led to the Midnight Voices album. It was great playing there with the trio, not the least because of how liberating it was not to have to sing and play at the same time. When I’m singing and playing I am neither quite playing as well as I can or singing as well as I can. It splits your attention. Classical pianists are amazed that anybody can sing and play at the same time and yet singing and strumming a guitar is seemingly one of the most natural things in the world.
For those who want to know more, this writer suggests getting “Clive James & Pete Atkin Live in Australia” or indeed “Secret Drinker” The first has readings from Clive and notes about the songs as part of a live performance. The second is a studio album. Not a word wasted and never a tune out of place. James and Atkin have secured their place in the rock legacy.

POSTSCRIPT: Although Clive James was unavailable for comment for health reasons, he has maintained an interest in this article and has linked to it on his own website. Clive, I wish you well; you are and always will be a writer whose phrases I plagiarise with glee.

The Emporer's New Clothes - a tale of the modern music industry

It is not often I permit myself a comment but I have mulled it over and I will. I became aware of an incident that to me sums up the parlous state of high-end commercial music product.

There is an artist called Lana Del Rey. It is a made-up name. She was probably called Cynthia Mole but hey, Harry Webb and Reg Dwight did it to great advantage but they had the talent to live up to Cliff and Elton. Lana/Cynthia has had a hit single and won several awards already. Her latest album has just been released with a lot of dollars behind it.

The latest news is that a 30-date tour has been cancelled. Why? It is all down to an appearance on Saturday Night Live which, to say the least, did not go down well.

Saturday Night live goes out on a Saturday night and it is, well you guessed it, LIVE. Not a good move for someone who is the essence of a commercial music construct, for Lana's deficiencies were laid bare.

I don't really blame Lana. She is not what her management have made her out to be. She even admits she looks nothing like the image in her videos. All of a sudden the suits are backtracking. There are no longer any big stadium tours planned and Lana herself wants to concentrate on small intimate gigs.

I wish her well. I don't think she realised what the business was going to do to her. To me, the baddie in this is the management, who saw a million bucks plus in the Next Big Thing and failed to understand that at the heart of music is - music.

Friday, 13 January 2012

John Wetton

A player who can bridge the gap between ABBA and King Crimson,via Roxy Music. That is the high-fidelity first-class traveling section; that elite group of artists who will figure in your album collection if you have been buying them for the past four decades or so, He has been in Family, Uriah Heep, Roxy Music, King Crimson, Asia and a lot more. Prog Archives says, with a very reasonable claim to being accurate,  There is hardly any other progrock musician with a more impressive curriculum vitae than John Wetton!  His solo output, together with a number of significant collaborations, has guaranteed that Mr Wetton is a part of the fabric of our Rock Legacy, as will become clear from what follows. John Wetton has been on a life-journey like that of a spring tide - high highs and low lows. He is coruscating and frank about both, but as with many interviews of this kind it is right to begin with asking about musical influences. In some ways, I found his knowledge of music and favourites surprising, and then again, not really because all musicians who last as long as he has approach music with an open, inquiring mind and a delight in the work of their peers. 


JW: God Only Knows turned a light on in my head, not only for the lyrics but sonically it is absolutely beautiful. I could see me thinking in colour instead of monochrome. The Beach Boys, vocally, are absolutely fantastic. It seemed to me that all of the good stuff, up until about 1972, was coming out of Southern California. Obviously there was a lot of good stuff coming out of this country, with The Beatles, etc., but the Californian sound was absolutely sublime. Joni Mitchell changed the way I thought about lyric writing. On Blue, it was the confessional lyrics. Then there was Marvin Gaye’sWhat’s Going On”.  I felt that rock music was completely one dimensional up until then, with no substance and two chords. The Beatles were fantastic because they wrote their own songs and played their own instruments and they didn’t have one bloke stood at the front.
I came from a church music background. My brother is a church organist still. Everything I heard musically came out of a church. The Beach Boys were coming at music from a completely different angle. We had post-war austerity; they still had rationing when I was growing up and it was grim up North. I never realised, until I got to California, why Paul McCartney wrote songs like Back Seat of My Car. I heard that on the radio, driving down the Pacific Coast Highway and I thought, “Ah ha, I get it!” And that was what you got from The Beach Boys; another world. You can hear classical music and church music in Brian Wilson’s songs. 

I had a choice in the early days. My brother was already leagues ahead of me in the church music department and I was never going to catch up. The alternative of rock music did not appeal because there was nothing there that was going to give me any kind of satisfaction. Then The Beach Boys, The Beatles and Procul Harem started working for me.
RL: Your last album, Raised in Captivity begs a lot of questions about your early life.
JW: It concerns absolutely my upbringing – really the first ten years of my life in the Midlands of post-war Britain. There was no emotion shown in my house. Everyone was grim and tight-lipped. No one ever mentioned love and no one was ever touchy-feely. It was like that game, Asteroids where you are floating around in the same space and only when you collide with someone is any emotion shown and it’s usually anger. I would then run off and sit in my corner for a while; go to my room or go for walks and commune with nature. Looking back on it that was my glimpse of a higher power. I wasn’t getting anything from my home life.  My grandmother lived just across the street and going into her house was different. It was a little cottage full of love and she adored me. I dawned on me that it didn’t have to be like it was at home. Battle Lines was a story of how I would have liked it to have turned out.

Hold Me Now from Battle Lines (1994)

Here ends another day
My emotions locked away
And my darkness is complete as the midnight sky
You steal my confidence
My smile is my defense
And I turn my face, so you won't see me cry

How can you be so cold, and so out of control?
As you pour salt into my deepest cut of all
My shattered heart, in pieces now
And I'm gazing at the fragments of my life

Hold me now, maybe just pretend I could be someone that you might have loved before
Hold me now, and let me believe in a kiss that means nothing to you…
'Cause it means the world to me

I didn’t speak with my mother for 15 years but we are closer now. At any rate it is considerably better than it was.
(In the early 1970’s George Martin took John under his wing and presented him with a variety of projects.)
JW: I needed some cash. He kept suggesting things for me to do, and Larry Norman was one of the albums I worked on, which went on to be the Number One Christian album of all time (Only Visiting This Planet, 1973).  I worked with George for about a year.
RL: You have this belief in a higher power – I can’t think of anything that exemplifies that more than God Walks with Us.
JW: Absolutely. I was just starting to glimpse that again when that song was recorded. There is no doubt in my mind that when you pick up a drink, you un-plug yourself from that. Your drink becomes your higher power. It seems to do all the tricks to start with; even for years and years it works and then your best friend turns its back on you. The last two years before I stopped I was physically addicted to the stuff and it wasn’t working. If I stopped all Hell would break loose and I was insane, literally round the bend.
RL: When was your point of decision?
JW: I was going to die and I chose life. It was a fairly simple decision but not an easy one. Giving up was horrendous and I never want to be in that position again.
RL: Were there relationships that had to be repaired.
JW: Absolutely. One of my main focuses is to try and make amends and repair relationships with people that I had just pushed out of my life. Some people don’t want to know but I try and make things better.
RL: Where did you draw your inner strength from?
JW: I ran out of ideas. I had nowhere left to go. It brought me to my knees before whatever I believed to be the God of my understanding.
RL: Going back, you were thrown out of Asia.
JW: That was 20 years before. Such is the arrogance of the functioning alcoholic that it was unthinkable that they would want to get rid of me. The fact is I was a liability. The way it was done was really unpleasant. Part of believes now that I deserved it but I wouldn’t treat someone else like that.
RL: It is not as if you had the confidence to change anything at that point. Your upbringing didn’t provide you with the capacity to deal with it, did it?
JW: It’s probably why I drank in the first place. The drink took away my inhibitions and enabled me to do what I could not do. Alcohol was the piece of the jigsaw that was missing from my life.  When it wasn’t doing what I wanted it to, then I was in trouble.
RL: I don’t want to harp on about it too much..
JW: Well, it’s good to get it out because it possibly only then that one can understand God Walks With Us and Raised in Captivity. Raised in Captivity is all about that. In fact the last 6 or 7 albums are in some way about celebrating what I have now. Phoenix is about creating a new life out of the ashes of the old.
(John Wetton’s life came into sharp focus once again when he was deemed to need major heart surgery)
JW: They did the angiogram and the next morning it was done. A six-hour operation. One side of the hospital looked out over Abbey Road and the other side over Lord’s cricket ground and I thought that this is a fitting place for it all to end if it does end. The surgeon came round the night before and said that I might die and how did I feel about that, and I said “I’m ok with that”. If I finally meet my creator I’ve got a lot less explaining to do than I would have done five years ago. When I meet my maker I hope I shall be meeting an old friend, not saying “Oh my God, I wasn’t expecting this!”
RL: This year you were guesting with Steve Hackett, no responsibility, you just turn up!
JW: I can’t go wrong. I go on and I sing Firth of Fifth. The audience are die-hard Genesis fans. Steve and I have history on that song anyway. It’s preaching to the converted!
RL: You have this incredible dialogue on your website’s guestbook.
JW: Not that many people know about it. I will talk to anyone on the guestbook. Some have been there for fifteen years and I sometimes bump into them. They introduce themselves and I place a name to a face. Sometimes people come on to the Guest Book and they are drinking too much and they ask, “How did you get out of that one?” I’ll PM them and try and refer them to someone.
RL: King Crimson?
JW: Fantastic, it was like going to university. It was extremely demanding in terms of mental alacrity and actual muscle. We did an awful lot. We’d play a two-hour set of which about 70% was improvised. You had to think on your feet. I was surrounded by people who were extremely good players and I had to hold my own. Robert Fripp is actually a really good friend now. He comes round for tea and we just talk and talk and talk.
RL: I have heard stories of people who couldn’t cut it with KC because of the discipline.
JW: Yes, it’s a pretty high bar. For me, nobody could knock my musical credentials after I came out of that.
RL: Returning to The Beach Boys, if I may, there are a couple of songs on the latest album which are kind of drenched in the Beach Boys sound, such as in Goodbye Elsinore and New Star Rising.
JW: If I get the opportunity I always put in a little paean to Brian Wilson. There’s one on an Asia Record, Voice of America – a complete lift in fact, from Good Vibrations. There’s a vocal chord and it’s so Beach Boys it’s ridiculous! I don’t mind that because I am just saying, “Thanks, Brian”.
RL: Did you ever meet any of the Beach Boys?
JW: I met Brian. He was almost asleep. I was sitting next to him and there was a long boring monologue going on and by the time I had plucked up the courage to speak to him during the break,  about how much he had influenced me, I turned around and he was asleep.
RL: And then there is ABBA!
JW: I’m a big fan of Agnetha – Anna – as she is known to her friends. I did write a song for one of her solo albums. Geoff (Downes) and I went over to Stockholm to record it. It’s called We Move As One, on Eyes of a Woman. She’s lovely. Absolutely adorable. Geoff and I were huge fans of ABBA and we still are. As good as they are they would have been nothing without her voice. I just melt every time I hear Name of the Game.
RL: You enjoy Classical Music?
JW: I rarely listen to anything else. One of the best experiences for me was that I hopped on a plane to Copenhagen and then on the Helsingor – Helsingborg Ferry. I was on my way to see Vilde Frang. She is fantastic. We have been waiting for a superstar violinist for a long time now, and she is the one. Out of that came Goodbye Elsinore which I began to compose on the Ferry.

Thankfully, John is alive and well and still gigging after all these years. For details about his  extensive 2012 diary, please visit and bookmark

Here's a track from Raised in Captivity. John is in remarkably fine voice throughout the album, but here he is sharing the work with Dutch Goth Rocker, Anneke van Giersbergen:


Monday, 12 December 2011

Nick Beggs

It can sometimes be depressing when interviewing rock stars. Occasionally one gets the impression that they are only interested in themselves. Moreover, they do not listen to other music and they really have no concept of a bigger picture. Not so Nick Beggs. Beggs is articulate, musically literate and passionately interested in sharing his experience. Nick Beggs moved on from the Smash Hits stardom of Kajagoogoo in the 80s to becoming a man whose stage presence and virtuosity you have to have if you are going on the road. His CV is a Who's Who of Rock and Pop aristocracy. Of late Beggs has become a player of the intriguing instrument called the Chapman Stick. He seems to be perpetually on tour with one band or another and is currently working on a prog rock album with such luminaries as Steve Hackett and Thijs Van Leer. His credibility extends to reeling in Robert Fripp to guest on his albums.


RL: Looking back on your career of over 30 years, being in so many bands and the fact that you can articulate it so well, it struck me that you are the kind of person who could share their experience with those who are just coming into the music business. Do you feel comfortable with that?
NB: Well actually it’s what I do. It’s part of what I do. One of the secrets to being in the music industry, most of all of being a player, is diversity. You cannot make a living from one aspect of the music industry, not unless you are inordinately successful.  I worked out very early on, after being, in brackets, a “successful pop star” that even after that I had to look at being something else. Either a session player or a teacher or a lecturer or an A&R man – I was an A&R man for Phonogram for a period of time. Then I was a producer and then a writer and all these things. That’s why it looks as though I have had a very busy career. The diversity is the secret for me.
RL: A guitarist called Ray Fenwick, who also lectures to college kids said, to paraphrase him, not to go for lead guitar but to play something else. He told me that he knew cello players who were never out of work.
NB: He was in the Gillan band and is a very influential player. I hear what you are saying but try and play as much as you can. Part of the reason I play the Chapman Stick is because nobody else plays it and if I had an opportunity to use the Chapman Stick on Top of Pops in the 80’s, in Kajagoogoo, - you get noticed, as a session player, if not a pop star. I was trying to create alternative revenue streams and avenues to work within.
RL: There are obvious reasons why people might pick up the phone and want you to be in the band. One of them is the incredible look!
NB: You are very kind.
RL: Let’s be fair, it upstages some of the people you play with.
On tour with Kim Wilde
NB: I have never been one to shrink from a challenge and I think that when people want me in the band it is usually because they want me to bring something to the stage presence. That’s one of the first things they consider and if I am lucky they want me to play on the records too.
RL: Going back to the academic side of things, you have a lot of experience lecturing to young aspiring musicians. What appeals to you about that?
NB: First of all and to be completely mercenary about it, there is an income to be generated. A small percentage of my income comes from teaching, although I have not had any one-on-one students for years because it is very time consuming. But actually talking to 21 year-olds or teenagers about their future is quite a responsibility. When I started out I was a very vulnerable, painfully earnest individual who was dreadfully concerned about how I was going to make my way in the world. I had fallen on very difficult times. My parents separated when I was ten and my mother died when I was 17 and I had a 15 year-old sister who I had to look after. I knew I wanted to be a professional musician even though I had acquiesced to everybody else’s directives and taken a degree course at art school. There is a sense that is if any of the kids are going through adversity, and some of them do, there is an element of counselling involved. The sense of responsibility is something I take quite seriously.
RL: Well, let’s face it; there are a lot of casualties. Do the students just want to be famous?
NB: If they have actually applied to getting themselves into a position within the college these days they are a lot more thoughtful. The zeitgeist is “fame” is the vehicle. Well, fame isn’t the vehicle, it is a very destructive thing without the accompanying capabilities and it is true to say that a lot of people think they can become famous for being famous. The kids I talk to at the ACM (Academy of Contemporary Music) and the AMS (Academy of Music and Sound) are more savvy than that. They know they are there because they have talent or a talent they want to develop. They are still children – I had massive responsibilities when I was still a child but I see them at the ACM or the AMS and they have a lot more savvy about them because they have bothered to enrol and take exams. They are thinking it through. So I empathise with them.
RL: How do they react to you? Presumably they are not really aware of Kajagoogoo?
NB: No. Not at all. Most people aren’t really, to be honest. It’s a bit of an anachronism. But I start off by saying “My name is Nick Beggs and the reason I am here is because you are where I started and I can tell you what you can expect and maybe I can give you some advice after 30 years of doing it.” There are things you must do, things you absolutely must do and if you don’t do them you are going to be in trouble. First of all, develop and accounting head-space. You have to work out how much money you are going to be paying in tax. That’s one of the first things. Working with people you can trust and getting a good overview and sense of who a person is, judging characters and trying to work out whether this person is going to rip you off or whether they are trustworthy. I tell people they have to get a job, outside of the institution, to work and do anything - I did. I left Art College to bring up my sister and run a band, but I was a dustman, a rubbish collector. I could then go on to automatic pilot and earn money whilst conceptualising the future. So all the time I was collecting rubbish bags from 5am to 12pm I was thinking about the project I was working on which was the early stages of Kajagoogoo. So I tell the students they must have a job. First of all your parents will respect you more for that and then you will learn about the ethos of working outside the music industry.
RL: Did this early experience of being a dustman etc., set you up for Kajagoogoo and the attendant stardom?
NB: It’s hard to quantify that but I am sure it did because I knew what I wanted because I had no choice. In the band we were very unified in our overall goals. We were singing from the same hymn sheet. I remember we entered a competition to get a deal with a record label and we won this competition. It was in a local radio station. Once we realised we won it we thought, well hang on what have we done? We don’t want this. If we take this it is going to stop us being taken seriously further down the line. So we turned it down. Every step of the way we considered what we were doing. In retrospect Kajagoogoo was a cheesy pop band that had a relatively short shelf life but when I think about that material we wrote, nearly 30 years ago, it’s still selling! And it sold nearly 3 million in the first year and it has sold more than that since. So that material is still paying for five families.
RL: Kajagoogoo is still current...
NB: We had an EP out a little while ago and we did stuff but there are no plans to do anything right now because I have other plans that are keeping me quite busy.
RL: Care to elucidate?
NB: I have my own project which I am doing very stealthily which is quintessentially a progressive rock band.
RL: Well, you were in Iona and I gather Robert Fripp contributed to it.
NB: Robert Fripp contributed to two of my projects, as a guest and as he put it, as a “gift”. One of them was Ellis, Beggs and Howard and the other one was Iona. He played on a few tracks and contributed soundscapes and came into the studio with us and did some recording.
RL: Iona was quite a departure from Kajagoogoo.
NB: Yes, but so was Ellis, Beggs and Howard. It had to be. You can’t really repeat yourself. Iona wasn’t my project as such – I was asked to join the band. They had already done an album. To me it sounded like an amalgam of Yes and Clannad. It was an amazing hybrid which I loved. I thought it was important musically so I did three albums with them and I loved the people.
RL: Let’s return to this project of yours, which sounds a bit under wraps, so perhaps I can wheedle it out of you!
NB: It’s got a working title of Lifesigns at the minute. I don’t know if it will stay that, it may do, it may change. It’s basically me and another guy called John Young who has a very good pedigree as a progressive keyboard player. He actually plays keyboards in The Strawbs at the moment. He played for Carl Palmer and was in Asia for a while. He played keyboards for The Scorpions and is a solo artist. I think his day job is playing keyboards for Bonnie Tyler! We are neighbours and good friends and John has been trying to get me to do a project with him for a long time. About two or three years ago he played me some material that he had come up with and I said it was really strong and he said do you want to develop it with me and make a band. As time went on we were file-sharing and I’d do a bit and he’d do a bit and then we would go in the studio and do some recording. We got Frosty Beedle on board, the drummer from Cutting Crew and he loved it and said it was some of the best stuff he had heard in years. So we spent about four days recording Frosty’s drums on our tunes and he did such a manful job. Then I played it to Steve Hackett and Steve said he would really like to play on this. Of course I said I would be honoured. So Steve played some guitar on it and then a good friend called Jakko Jakszyk .
RL: What is the state of play then?
NB: Thijs Van Leer is going to play some flute on it for us. He’s going to come over and do some of that. We still have some vocal parts because John and I are sharing the vocals and there are some additional bits of tweaking. I don’t know how close we are yet but we’ve got some very strong rhythm tracks done but it’s the nuance that is waiting to be added which will make all the difference.

RL: Presumably the Chapman Stick features on it somewhere?
NB: The Chapman Stick has got some very nice features on it. There is one track that opens with a searing Chapman Stick solo.
RL: What’s your introduction to the Chapman Stick when you explain it to students?
NB: I say, “If you want to play this instrument it will change your life.” Because it changed mine, and I say it’s a self-accompanying stringed, tapping fret board. It’s got ten strings and you hammer on to it with the tips of your fingers. There is very low action which enables you to get good articulation on the frets – imagine a piano technique but transposed into an upright fret board where you are tapping on to the strings. You are arpeggiating melody and bass lines with separate hands and you can play counterpoint or lead lines with the right hand.
RL: When did you first hear about it?
NB: About 1977.
RL: It seems as if your original technique lent itself to it?
NB: I would agree in as much as my percussive technique involves slapping and because I have always said that the Chapman Stick is a percussive instrument in the same way that a piano is – you are using something to hit. But I had to develop a technique for playing the Stick as anyone does. You have to find your own voice on it. Few Chapman Stick players as there are, everybody plays it in such a different way because it is such an idiosyncratic instrument.
RL: It seems versatile.
NB: Mine is retro-fitted with a Midi set-up so when I played for John Paul Jones I was playing orchestra and Hammond organ and brass patches.
RL: As an instrument it is at the beginning of its evolution.
NB: Tony Levin has done a tremendous amount of work in creating a public understanding of what the instrument does. Having said that I think it’s going to be mind-blowing what people come up with later on. We are just about circling the Earth with the Stick and I think we are going to populate the solar system with it!

Monday, 5 December 2011

John Hackett

John Hackett (born 1955) is the younger brother of Steve (see below). He has not only been lucky enough to be in London at time when creativity and energy made it the centre of the universe, but he has lived and grown up around the best musicians in the business. Even given that, it is perhaps surprising that a classically-trained serious flute player can deliver a rock album that I cannot begin to praise enough.

We talked about John's career, his association with some crucial musicians, and the way to succeed at being both a classical and rock musician at the same time. John Hackett has indeed succeeded. There's a new flute and guitar record out and he tells me that work has started on a  new rock album.

John Hackett

JH: It was a very exciting time to grow up. I remember being at school when Sergeant Pepper came out and it seemed to be the most exciting thing on the planet.  Steve was five years older than me. He was always listening to lots of blues albums and guitarists, so I started guitar when I was about 12. There were a lot of excellent players who at the time were very young – Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck and people like that.  My memories are of listening to those guitarists and then later on, Hendrix. You could feel an energy. We lived very close to the King’s Road though it might have been just as exciting had we lived somewhere else. I look back on it as a very optimistic time when you thought that everything was possible, both in terms of music and politics. Now of course you see the world with a perhaps more pragmatic view.
RL: This conveniently leads us into Checking Out of London.  It’s the best album I have heard all year.
JH: Really?  It was very much a group effort. A very close friend of mine, who I was at school with, Nick Clabburn, wrote the lyrics for all but one of the songs. They inspired me. Obviously we are different people and we come at life from different angles but I found there were things in his lyrics that led me off down creative paths I didn’t  know I had.  I have spent most of my life playing the flute and a bit of guitar and have done some writing before, but it was the first time I had attempted a rock album. Nick Magnus did a tremendous amount of work on the album; a lot of arranging and production work and did a fantastic job on that and then of course my brother came and played some stunning guitar solos. Tony Patterson took on some of the lead vocals on the album and also did some great harmony work. You get inspired by other people. I envy someone like Nick Magnus, who has tremendous production and keyboard skills and can produce highly polished professional stuff himself.  Also, Nick Clabburn’s lyrics. If it was left to me I’d probably write lots of drippy love songs.
It’s a direction I would like to explore much more and I do have another rock album in the pipeline.
RL: Checking Out of London seems to have appeared fully formed, as if all the influences over the years were ready, just at that moment, to arrive as an album.
JH: I do have very eclectic tastes. I am from two backgrounds, the Rock background, in that I started off playing blues guitar, then growing up with Steve and going to all the Genesis concerts and then playing in his band. Then there is also the classical side. I studied classical flute playing and did a music degree.
RL: Presumably you started on a transverse flute and then went over to the vertical flute?
JH: That was only in recent years. I had a car accident and after that I found it very painful to play a normal flute. I nearly gave up because it was just so bad. The vertical flute has been an absolute life-saver  for me because it is just so much more comfortable.
RL: The flute doesn’t appear on Checking Out of London.
JH: Nick Clabburn thought it would be a good idea not to include flute. I didn’t take him at his word, in that I did try some flute on some of the tracks but really it was almost like a different side of my personality. Generally the flute is a sweet-sounding instrument and on Checking Out of London, and particularly numbers like Ego and Id, which is much more of a rock number..
RL: You didn’t go down the Jethro Tull route?
JH: I have done that at other times. With Steve we do a piece called, “Jazz on a Summer’s Night” where I do do that scat singing through the flute and there is a little bit on my latest disc, Moonspinner.
RL: The riff on Ego and ID – did that just come to you?
JH: I do sort of thrash around. I’ve got a Telecaster. It’s incredibly simple; harmonically it’s probably the simplest piece on the whole album. The other ones have more complex chord changes and more structure and Ego and Id, in a way is just a bit of a blow.
RL: Moving forward to Whispers. When I heard it it reminded me of Genesis!
JH: I consciously wrote that in the style of Genesis, there is no question about it. And it’s got Tony Patterson on it.
RL: I think you are playing them at their own game and winning!

JH: I don’t know about that. (mutual giggling ensues)
RL: Choosing a favourite on Checking Out of London is like choosing children but I forced myself, and it was More. That’s got you singing on it?
Track 10 - More

JH: Yes, I sing on that and Tony does the choruses.
RL: It’s a sort of Rock/Reggae/Baroque..
JH: (Laughs) The Reggae, there’s no question about that.
RL: It has all the hallmarks of a Bond Theme to me.
JH: I would be very  pleased if it was. The Reggae feel was there right from the beginning. But of course, Nick Magnus was able to realise that for me. I gave him my sketches of it and he did a lot of the arranging to bring it to life. And of course, coming towards the end of the album I wanted something that was quite grand, so it does have a big landscape.
RL: How would you react to the “concept album” label?
JH: It’s not a concept album as such but it was written in one go. From that point of view it does all hang together. If you look at the lyrics there is a theme of alienation.  The lyrics are quite poetic at times in that it is not always absolutely obvious what they are about.  The title track is a kind of hidden joke in that I moved out of London some years ago and I think that was Nick Clabburn having fun with that. The lyrics are quite dark at times.
RL: Let’s move on to Moonspinner – something completely different.
JH: The thinking behind it was to do something pretty much self-sufficient. Checking Out of London was a big project and I wanted to do something that was easy to produce and something that took the classical style and the kind of things I was doing with Steve.
Moonspinner has a classical style but also it is an album with a bit more edge to it, in terms of the rhythm. What I have always loved in both classical and rock is the virtuoso style – someone like Steve or Jeff Beck, playing the guitar really well. I have always loved flute concertos – somebody like Jean-Pierre Rampal, my flute hero when he was alive.  What I wanted to do with this album, and in a sense it is a classical album, I wanted to give it a more rock edge so I used a bit of scat singing through the flute, which is the signature of someone like Ian Anderson.
RL: Witchfinder comes to mind.
JH: Certainly, and tracks like Appassionata – they use the classical technique of double-tonguing but the chord sequence is one we used on Voyage of the Acolyte. Then it goes into some uneven time signatures. The track after that, Red Hair – I was trying to push that into a slightly different area, influenced by a Vivaldi flute concerto using typical Baroque devices.
RL: It brings me back to a question I asked Steve which was the relationship between classical music of the 19th Century and symphonic prog. What’s your feeling on that?
JH: There are some tremendous similarities. With bands like Genesis, what I have always liked about their music is that they don’t always go for the straight C Major chord. It may have an added 7th or a 9th in there and that’s what it has in common with the music of people like Satie or Debussy.
RL: In another interview, you quoted Holst, who said, “Never compose anything unless the not composing of it becomes a positive nuisance.” You said that you knew exactly what he meant by that. Care to elucidate?
Track 1 - Witchfinder

JH: It’s absolutely true and in fact, Moonspinner is very much a case of that. Apart from the classical tracks and Thoughts turn Homeward, it was all written in about three weeks. I’d been busy doing other stuff and been wanting to do some writing and it was just bursting to come out. When I finally got the opportunity and cleared the decks and took the phone off the hook, it came pouring out in virtually one go – or over three weeks, which is a relatively short space of time I think.
RL: You are doing another rock album?
JH: I am about to start on it. It’s been written for some time actually – been sat there in the can, but of course it isn’t a can anymore! Most of the songs I wrote in about 2006 after Checking Out of London and it never got done. Now it’s a bit like what we were saying; the dam is about to burst and it’s got to come out. I have already talked to Nick Magnus about recording it and that will be happening very soon.
RL: Do you have a method of working that you apply every time?
JH: I am not very good at multi-tasking and dipping in and out of projects. When I did Checking Out of London we set aside a certain amount of time and went for it. Generally speaking it has to be done without too many breaks. I can’t work piecemeal – I can’t hold it in my head.  One of the problems I have is that because I am a flute player, in order to keep your standard of playing up, you have to practise regularly and it’s quite difficult to switch from playing the flute to picking up a guitar and then singing. It can be done but I find it difficult.
RL: Is there anything  that popped into your mind while we were talking that we never got around to?
JH: When we first had a conversation you were talking about the influence of classical music on  progressive music, and I was looking back at some of the albums I did with Steve, such as Voyage of the Acolyte, where he was using orchestral instruments such as the oboe and the cor anglais  and cello and of course me on flute.  I’m very proud of that work and Steve did some fantastic work in producing those albums because there are some unusual combinations of instruments.