TR+ Extended Version – Welcome Back: The Mute Gods

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Nick Beggs first found fame in Kajagoogoo – whose single Too Shy topped the UK chart in 1983 – before going on to play bass for artists as diverse as John Paul Jones, Belinda Carlisle, Howard Jones, Gary Numan, Cliff Richard, Kim Wilde and Tina Turner.

He also worked as an A&R man for Phonogram during the 1990s. More recently, a mastery of the Chapman Stick has made Beggs the go-to guy for progressive rockers Steve Hackett and Steven Wilson. His own group The Mute Gods features alumni from the backing line-ups of both.

How do you look back on those days as a pop hero in Kajagoogoo? The mushroom cloud coiffure and hair-braids?

If you’re asking whether I’d have done things differently and planned things out better in the long term, then yes. But short term, I’ve no regrets. I was 21. I’d had some very difficult teenaged years and set my mind on being unashamedly commercial. I aimed to get as far up the mountain as quickly as possible, hoping to get lucky and have a career that would last a few years.

In fact, the baggage of that pop past would ultimately scupper the chances of your next band, Ellis, Beggs & Howard.

I suppose that’s true, and the things one does and says will always affect perception of you. I can’t blame people for judging me on that [pop] stuff. But at the end of the day that catalogue still brings me quite a significant income. It might not sound very credible, but as a musician it’s always useful to have a kind of pension fund.

Were you a secret prog fan while in Kajagoogoo?

I suppose it was a secret, yeah, because during the 1980s that term was persona non grata. But the sound of Chris Squire’s bass was what crystalized all of my ideas about the future, at the age of 15.

The skill with the Chapman Stick has created quite a demand for your services within prog sphere.

Well, Tony Levin [King Crimson, Peter Gabriel] has more of a lineage than I. His standing is far greater. But all of us in that band [Kajagoogoo] were fans of King Crimson, particularly the Discipline album [1981] because it was such a credible reinvention of progressive rock. I once told Robert [Fripp] that between Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) with David Bowie and Discipline by King Crimson he had completely revolutionised modern guitar playing, and he looked at me like it was the first time he’d heard that suggestion [chuckles].

I first picked up the instrument when the band was looking for a new lead singer and they told me, ‘If you take on that role we’ll have you a Chapman Stick made’, and that’s what happened.

Possibly you could be considered Levin’s deputy?

Well, maybe – and people do respond well to that instrument. But it’s not universally liked. When I met Lemmy in the 1980s he asked to try it out. He poked around at it with those massive fingers of his, encrusted in silver rings, and thrust it back at me saying, ‘That’s not rock ‘n’ roll!’

Was there a moment when you found yourself able to get a proverbial foot in the door and become a respected part of the prog-rock scene?

Well, I really don’t like idioms. Music is music and all music is valid. Most of the time I listen to classical music but to me categorisation is a bit Neanderthal. And yet still we insist upon pigeonholing things, which I experienced as an A&R man. People were always falling over themselves in an eternal quest to create the next looky-likey.

Given that loathing of compartmentalisation, should we even ask whether The Mute Gods are a cross between the two styles that you’re known for – pop and rock?

It’s really not for me to decide. When I wrote the album, all I was looking for was material that I considered strong.

Okay, well we’ll say it: It’s intelligent, stately pop music, with a dark, cynical lyrical outlook.

I’m quite angry at the world. Maybe you become more cantankerous as you grow older, as your vision becomes clearer. And I suppose I’m heartened that the progressive world has embraced me because, for wont of a better term, I suppose I’m one of them. After so long out in the cold it’s nice to be welcomed by anyone.

You have also written a children’s book called Dangerous Potatoes?

There was a series of 13 of them, which I wrote and illustrated. In my teens, before becoming a member of a pop ensemble, I had trained as an artist. When I met Roger Dean recently I shook his hand and told him I went to art school because of him, and dropped out of it because of Yes.

You’ve said your childhood was difficult. Its devout religiousness might be seen as contrasting with some of Mute Gods’ themes?

After my mother died I became a militant born again Christian. My faith helped me to put a sticking plaster on a whole bunch of stuff I was unable to process. Since then I’ve come 360 degrees, I don’t believe in God anymore. Even if there is a God, I don’t think it matters. We have to be who we are, and I challenge any god to say differently. I’m going to be me, you should be you and fuck any god that says you cannot.

How would you compare the man management styles of the two Steves – Hackett and Wilson?

They’re both very different. Put succinctly, Steve Hackett knows exactly how something should sound, and he lets you do it until you get it wrong, and then he will point out the flaw. Steven Wilson will make sure you know every note before you leave the house. I love both ways of working. A professional musician must be able to fulfil a brief. Within the Steve Hackett band and the Steven Wilson band, I am not an artist – I’m a musician and I’m being paid to do a job.

Are you planning to tour the Mute Gods album?

No. I’m going to wait until the second album, which I’ve started working on, and see whether there’s an audience. If people are interested, that will have to be shown in sales or response to the material. It’s all very well making a record but I don’t want it to be a vanity project.

Classic Rock 221: News & Regulars