– Who you were primarily influenced by as a guitar player?
My earliest influence was Italian opera which was regularly played at home. Apparently at the age of two, I could sing many of the arias in Italian. As a result, I tend to play the guitar as if it is speaking. In fact, unless there is something to say I regard it as irrelevant. In UK we had a band called The Shadows. Hank Marvin, their lead guitarist used a Fender Stratocaster. I was about 11 years old when I first heard this and I loved the sound of it. It took me ten years to save the money to buy my own Stratocaster, which I still use today.
– One of you first groups was called THE VOSTOKS. Was it time of the space boom?
THE VOSTOKS were founded in 1961/62 in response to Yuri Gagarin’s flight in Vostok 1 in 1961.
– Quite a little is known about BEGGARS OPERA. Could you shed some light on the band?
I founded BEGGARS OPERA in 1969 with a view to exploring music in an open minded way. The development of musical ideas was arrived at through democratic means. In fact, the whole band experience was, for me, an interesting experiment in democracy and was a great learning ground, where the operation and relationship of personalities could be abnormal at close quarters. The close proximity of the band members during extended periods of time and under various levels of stress, overwork and sleep deprivation, revealed interesting patterns of behaviour. Musically, the band was an interesting mix of influences.. There was a strong classical influence from Alan Park and Virginia Scott. The drummer, Ray Wilson, was like a wild man and wore a Scottish kilt, a long beard, a large hat and nothing else. He was an admirer of Ginger Baker. The first bass player, Marshall Erskine, was widely experienced in popular music as was his successor Gordon Sellar. Our first singer, Martin Griffiths, admired Frank Sinatra and enjoyed putting a lot of drama into his singing, to good effect. He was very theatrical. His successor Pete Scott had completed many years classical training, but his big love was blues in which he was an expert, having toured the USA with Savoy Brown. Liinie Paterson followed Pete and he was a rock singer. He has since sadly died. When we started playing in the winter of 1969 we quickly gained success. We became Scotland’s fastest rising band. This success was followed in Germany at the Great British Rock meeting in Speyer and spread through Europe. We lived in London and when we were not touring Europe we played in London and enjoyed a strong following.
– Why did you choose the name BEGGARS OPERA?
We all sat at a table. An open dictionary lay on the table. Marting Griffiths closed his eyes and stuck a pin in the dictionary. The pin landed on the name Beggars Opera, This was a opera written by John Gay. From this we took the name.
– What other BEGGARS musicians are up to now?
Alan Park is musical director for Cliff Richard. Gordon Sellar is a session bass player. Pete Scott runs his own gardening business and regularly sings the blues in the Manchester area. Marshall Erskine lives in Amsterdam with his family and regularly plays bass locally. Virginia Scott paints. Our house is stacked with canvases. She composes contemporary scores, and of course she and I are a song writing team, the fruit of which we record. She sings and plays keyboards. I do not know what Martin Griffiths and Ray Wilson are doing.
– Why, on your opinion, the band didn’t hit the big time as GENESIS, COLOSSEUM and others of the kind?
For some reason we could not get to the USA and of course our material was not commercial, so radio staions did not really play it in UK.
– You and Virginia Scott have been working together for some 30 years. What makes your collaboration so special?
Mutual respect for musical ability and invention.
– Were there many invitations for you to play after BEGGARS OPERA broke up?
I became a record producer and concentrated on that.
– How did you get in touch with David Bowie?
Virginia was working on a pilot of her Rock/Space opera with Tony Visconti and I had played some lead guitar on Tony’s solo album, so when Tony went to Paris to produce what became “Low” for David Bowie, he suggested that I should play guitar. So David phoned me and invited me over to Paris.
– Was it easy for you – to shift from progressive rock to the quite cold “electronic” Bowie stuff?
I was well versed in slow material but on the “Low” album the band worked on the songs on side one, As far as I know side 2 involved David, Brian Eno and Tony Visconti with a contribution from Tony’s little son Morgan.
– Could you tell some stories from the famous Berlin stint?
I don’t think so.
– How Bowie and Iggy Pop were to work with? Which of them gave you the most freedom?
David and Iggy were very easy to work with and the concept of freedom did not come into it. We all made our contributions without difficulty.
– Did you meet Robert Fripp while working with Bowie?
– “Lust For Life” is considered to be Pop’s masterpiece. Are you proud of your contribution to it?
Yes, “Lust For Life” benefited from a lot of spontaneity and was largely recorded as the moon was waxing towards full. The song “Success” epitomizes this jubilant energy and the album on the whole shows imaginative qualities consistent with this rising lunar energy. There is a point of note on the last track of side two. On this track, I play drums, Tony Sales plays guitar and Hunt Sales plays bass, David on keyboards. We were taking a break and just jamming and the machines were recording.
– Your famous riff on the “Passenger” – where did it come from?
“The Passenger” is a very successful song and I am grateful to the world for that. It originated in a very interesting way. After “The Idiot” tour of UK and USA was over, I returned home in springtime. At the time I lived in a house situated in the middle of a walled garden which had at one time been part of a large country estate. I was out walking with my guitar in a field near my house, one lovely morning in May. The apple trees were in bloom and I was doodling on the guitar as I gazed at the trees. I was not paying any attention to what I was playing. I was in a light dream enjoying the glorious spring morning. At a certain point my ear caught the chord sequence ….which became “The Passenger”. The riff is exactly as I caught it that day. It was the gift of a glorious spring morning under the apple blossom.
– What were Ms Scott’s duties as the Pop’s tour astrologer?
As the tour astrologer Virginia made herself available to those persons on the tour who wished to consult her on various topics.
– Were you in touch with Pop and Bowie through the years?
Our people keep in touch over business matters.
– What was the main point of the KUMARA project? And surely what is “Kumara”?
I had spent some years studying the writings of Alice Bailey and in parallel with that had been studying composing music which specifically did not use drum machines. I found the relentless insistent non dynamic beat of the drum machine of that period very irritating and uncommunicative, musically speaking. Interestingly, your great teacher of orchestration Rimsky-Korsakov regarded percussion as the least important of orchestral forces (how things have changed though). Anyway. Kumara was an experiment in maintaining a spell, over a considerable length of time, which would have an underlying intensity together with moments of release and beauty and no drum machine, Trevor Stainsby did use the computer and sampler in constructing the percussion which is heard on the album. The name “Kumara” comes from the “Sanat Kumara”, which is the name of the Spirit of the world. Sanat Kumara is the Spiritual being who inhabits his physical body which we call earth.
– Why did you decide to re-record “Passengers” on your album?
We did two different versions of “The Passenger” for the album. There many ways of interpreting the riff and we may do more versions in the future.
– I cannot remember any other musicians exploring the Holocaust subject. Indeed, the thing is very tragic and serious. How did you come for you to write “Auschwitz“? Why did you use Dante’s verses?
The 20th Century was host to the severest agony the world has ever known and the Holocaust was a major part of that. My teenage years were spent in the suburbs of Glasgow which was also the home for a considerable number of Glaswegian Jewish families. At my school around a third of the pupils were from Jewish homes. Therefore, I grew up with many Jewish friends and was familiar with many of their customs, humour and stories that made up Jewish life. Later, when Beggars Opera first travelled Europe, I was driving into Germany with my long time Jewish friend and when the Autobahn entered the forest, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. All the stories we had heard about the 2nd World war took on a vivid meaning. My father had been a fighter pilot in the RAF, so travelling through what had recently been enemy territory produced powerful feelings. I hasten to add, that playing in Germany has always been a happy experience and I have a great liking for Germany. This sets the background for the piece of music which came to be called “Auschwitz”.
One day I was working on some guitar sounds and was running one of Virginia’s keyboard back tracks. A little way into the piece I started to realise that something special was happening. I realised this because, since there was no rhythm or beat for me to know where the chords were going to change, I was surprised at the level of sinchronicity between the track and what I was playing. Bear in mind I had no idea what was coming next. As the piece proceeded and developed, I was just aware of watching myself playing and staying out of the way so as not to interfere with the process. About half way though I became aware of a powerful feeling and a vision dropped into my mind of thousands of people gathering together from all over the world. I concentrated on remaining detached and keeping myself out of the music until it was finished. At the end I felt a real sense of peace. I then went downstairs and heard on the news that Jews from all over the world were gathering for the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I realised the that the piece of music must be called Auschwitz.
– What can we expect from you in years to come?
More songs and whatever musical projects life places in my path.
Photos by Virginia Scott