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!