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Dave Wakeling of English Beat – Making Party Music For Crying Out Loud

Updated: May 8


Dave Wakeling of The English Beat at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia, PA on June 22, 2014. Photo copyright 2014 Shana Bergmann.


Dave Wakeling of English Beat

Making Party Music For Crying Out Loud

by Jay S. Jacobs


Right on the tail end of the punk scene, England was seized by the 2 Tone revolution.  It was an explosion of ska – the rougher, rock-tinged cousin of reggae – mostly made up of bands who recorded for the record label which gave the movement its name.  Bands like the Specials, the Selecter, Madness and the Beat stormed the British charts and changed life and fashions on the Isles.


The Beat was a six-piece made up of Dave Wakeling (vocals, guitar), Ranking Roger (vocals), Andy Cox (guitar), David Steele (bass), Everett Morton (drums), and Saxa (saxophone).  Their 1980 debut album I Just Can’t Stop It just couldn’t be stopped, containing smash hits like “Mirror in the Bathroom” and an upbeat cover of Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown.”


As they gained more world-wide attention, the band had to change their name to The English Beat in the United States, to avoid confusion with another band also called The Beat.  (That other band also changed it’s name, to Paul Collins Beat).


Two more albums in two years – Wha’ppen? and Special Beat Service – continued to spread the buzz, but the band was starting to feel some internal turmoil.  Essentially, the group split in two when Cox and Steele wanted to take two years off to work on their new band Fine Young Cannibals.  Wakeling and Roger were not willing to wait, so they formed General Public.  Both bands topped the charts through the late 80s and 90s, with General Public having the classic hit “Tenderness” and a later hit with a cover of the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There.”


However, Wakeling has been living in the United States for decades and Roger was still in Europe.  They resurrected the Beat in the early 2000s and eventually agreed to split the band – Wakeling would carry on with The English Beat in the US while Roger would lead the Beat in England.


After a definitive box set in 2012 and several years of touring, The English Beat are finally back in the studio, working on their first album under the band name since 1982.  The new album will be called For Crying Out Loud, and is being financed by fans via Pledge Music (see the bottom of the story for a link to contribute.)  Wakeling and his band also played two new songs exclusively for PopEntertainment readers to give you a taste of what to expect of a new millennium’s Beat.


We recently caught up with Wakeling before a Philadelphia show to discuss his long, interesting career.

Dave Wakeling of The English Beat at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia, PA on June 22, 2014. Photo copyright 2014 Shana Bergmann.


How did the Beat originally come together?


Oh, drifting back…  Back a millennium, not just decades.  That’s a whole previous millennium.  Me and Andy [Cox] went to school together.  Started playing guitars.  Went to the Isle of Wight to build solar panels (ed. note: Cox’ brother-in-law ran a solar panel business at the time) in 1975 or 1976.  Met David Steele.  Came to Birmingham and started the Beat in ’77.  Met [drummer] Everett [Morton] in ’77.  Did our first gig in March ’78.  Added [saxophonist] Saxa and [vocalist] Ranking Roger.  We were Top of the Pops number six on the charts by Christmas of ’79 (ed. note: With an upbeat cover of Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ “Tears of a Clown.”).  From March of ’79 – the first show – to October, that was our paying our dues…


Your band was a huge part of the revolution which ushered in the new wave of ska.  What was it about the style that you think resonated? 


The 2 Tone movement, they used black and white squares, a checkerboard, which interestingly enough at the time was the English police uniform.  Still is.  On the hats.  They have a very similar thing in Australia, but it’s dark navy blue and white checker.  There were difficult racial politics, as it’s called, but of course remember there is only one race… homo sapiens.  We call it racial politics.  Ethnic politics, perhaps.  The police were always heavily involved in that.  So, in a way 2 Tone were trying to show unity between white and black members of the public – a bit like taking the police’s flag and waving it back at them.  For a different reason, with a different meaning.


The band always had a bit of a political bent, with stuff like “Stand Down Margaret” and “Two Swords.”


We did.  We absolutely meant it.  We were coming on the back end of punk, which had been overtly political.  It was what everybody was talking about in every coffee bar, every pub and every bus stop.  It seemed a little odd to us that you could get a little popular and then all of the sudden stop talking about everything that everybody else is talking about (chuckles), because “we can’t have that in a song.”  But music goes in waves, doesn’t it?  It has waves of social commentary – or what likes to think of itself as social consciousness. (laughs)  Then you have waves of pure entertainment.  They’re both valid.  They’re both out there.  You can imagine that after the horrors of World War II, you wanted something soothing after that.

The English Beat at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia, PA on June 22, 2014. Photo copyright 2014 Shana Bergmann.


The Beat had several big hits in your native England, but “Mirror in the Bathroom” is probably the one that has become most of a modern standard.  When you were recording it, did you ever imagine it would have the kind of lasting impact that it has?


No.  Not at all.  I didn’t even imagine I would.  I was working on a construction site and I’d forgotten to hang my clothes up to dry.  I woke up in the morning a little worse for wear.  I realized that my jeans were still wet to the knee, so I decided to hang my clothes up and put them in the shower room, so at least the steam would warm them up before I had to put them on.  As I was doing that, I thought I’d take a shave.  I was shaving and I started talking to myself in the mirror.  I could see in the mirror a little too black.  I was like, “Go on Dave, the door’s locked, it’s just you and me in here, mate.  We don’t have to do this.  We don’t have to do this.  We don’t have to do this.”  But we did.  We did have to do it.  So the shave was done.  Shower, put on the clothes, then I was on the motorbike to the construction site.  On the motorbike, the words came back.  (Sings)  “Door is locked, just you and me.”  I thought, that’s really quite good.


But you can’t have a song called “Mirror in the Bathroom.”  That’s stupid.  (sings again)  “Mirror in the Bathroom….”  Stupid.  But then David Steele got a tune (scats the tune) in 2/2 time.  Very original, still to this day.  You don’t hear much like it, that rhythm and time.  And the words kind of fitted it.  It inspired me.  It became… the song meant more about reflecting on self-obsession.  Reflecting on looking at yourself too much, you know?  And then watching other people doing it.  I started to become an observer of it.  I saw people on High Street pretending they were looking in shop windows, but they were checking themselves.  One was a guy and a woman.  He thought she was smiling at him, but she was smiling at the mirror behind him.  (laughs)  Checking how she looked and smiling.  Oh, she’s delightful.


Possibly the English Beat’s biggest hit in the States was “I Confess,” which also had sort of a different sound for you, more keyboard based.  Were you surprised by how that caught on over here?


[Dave] Blockhead [Wright], the piano player wrote it.  It’s got a kind of salsa-y Caribbean lilt to it.  He’d lived there for a while and learnt to play calypso piano while he was there.  So he was the lead instrument, because he wrote the tune and wrote it around his part of it.  There wasn’t very many songs, actually, that was written by a pianist of this type where that was the lead.  But it was such a terrific tune, it became the backbone, if you will.  Skeleton for everything else.

The English Beat at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia, PA on June 22, 2014. Photo copyright 2014 Shana Bergmann.


The Beat also always had a good way with a cover, you had a big hit with “Tears of a Clown” and also a favorite in “Can’t Get Used to Losing You.”  General Public even had a big hit with “I’ll Take You There.”  How do you go about choosing a cover?  Are they easier or harder to do than a song you wrote?


One of the best things about looking for a cover song is: is it fun to sing it for you in a range which seems comfortable and would be popular?  You get to sing your favorite songs.  I have a couple already that I’d like to try.  “Here Comes My Baby” (ed. note: originally by The Tremeloes).  That would be a good one.  I’ve done a demo of that and a demo of “Elusive Butterfly [of Love]” (ed. note: originally by Bob Lind).  It needs to have this sort of lilt I’m going for, but it turned into a slightly on beat, offbeat pop reggae cusp.  So you get the opportunity to do a fresh new take on a song that already has a lot of familiars to people and you can play on that.


Speaking of covers, Pete Townshend covered “Save It For Later” from Special Beat Service.  How cool was it to have one of the biggest rock stars on Earth playing your song?


I know!  Ridiculous.  Because he was a hero when I was a kid, you know?  Well, he still is.  Nobody does the windmill (ed. note: grand guitar arm movement) like him.  He phoned me up.  I didn’t believe it was him, I thought it was somebody else, joking.  It turned out it was.  He said, “No, this is Pete Townshend.  I’m sitting here with Dave Gilmour (ed. note: leader of Pink Floyd) and we’re trying to play your song ‘Save It For Later,’ but we can’t work out the tuning.”  (shakes his head)  No!  Like two demigods of my childhood asking me one finger where do they go for the tuning?  Where I’d been trying to get a John Martyn tune in DABGAB, and old traditional blues tuning, and I messed it up and tuned the G string up to an A.  Which is good advice to all you kids out there: don’t tune your G string up to an A, or Pete Townshend will call you.


The English Beat then sort of broke in two, with you and Ranking Roger forming General Public and David and Andy starting Fine Young Cannibals.  Had you guys started working on a fourth album for the Beat?


There were some fledgling ideas.  But some people wanted a couple of years off and that made perfect, logical sense to them at the time.  And it worked for them.  Me and Roger didn’t want two years off.  We had just started families and frankly couldn’t afford two years off.  So we wanted to carry on.  It was this six-month transition as it sort of morphed into General Public.


Of course, you didn’t really miss a beat with the new band as “Tenderness” ended up being a bigger hit in the States than anything that the Beat had done. 


Mick Jones from the Clash was playing on it.  That’s the secret ingredient.

Dave Wakeling of The English Beat at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia, PA on June 22, 2014. Photo copyright 2014 Shana Bergmann.


I heard there was talk of Mick being part of General Public, but then he decided to start Big Audio Dynamite.


No, he always wanted to start Big Audio Dynamite.  I think Roger just wanted him in the group, just so he could say he was in a group with Mick Jones.  He went and joined Big Audio Dynamite for a minute so he could.  I always knew he was going to come and guest.  If he could play for us and when he could play for us, he would.  Then he’d got his own project, and that was part of the deal.  He would go and sing and suggest different melodies.  He said he’s got a ton of lyrics and a ton of music.  He’d got a certain array of melodies and wanted to get inspired for certain ideas.  So he did for a couple of hours, la la la, stuff we thought of listening to on cassettes.


We also had to get him a stage carpet for his new band, which had to be green Astroturf, marked out as a soccer pitch.  So when we were down in the studio he had a soccer pitch outside at the park.  We played soccer, then he did some la la las, then we played soccer.  It was fantastic.  You have to pinch yourself now.  Hanging with someone from the Clash.  Giving them ideas for songs and then playing soccer with him.  You dream about that.  Make your hair go pink, a dream like that.


After a couple of General Public albums, you went solo for a while.  I still love your title track to the movie She’s Having a Baby, which is actually one of the great soundtracks of all time.  How did that come about? I’ve always heard that John Hughes was very involved in his soundtracks.


He met us over “Tenderness.” (ed. note: That song was used in Hughes’ movie Weird Science.)  In Orange County, at a concert, he came backstage and burst into our dressing room and said, “Anyone who has got the cojones to put a bassoon on a pop record and get on the charts is my kind of guy.”  Shook my hand, introduced himself and we became friends.  Went to his house a couple of times.  With She’s Having a Baby, I had just, and he had just, and we were bemused and somewhat bemoaning.  (laughs)  We’d been the baby of the family until then.  What happened to that?   “All changes, having a baby.  You love your kids like you miss your wife.”  (laughs again)


So we shared ideas.  Before the internet, we did it like a postal game of chess.  He sent me a few ideas.  I sent him a few lyrics.  He wrote back on them.  I wish I’d kept them.  There was about four or five exchanges of letters.  In the process of that, he was making the film and realized that he was making the film for an older demographic than he thought.  Some of his visions through the eyes of the actors were too much, he felt, through the eyes of the people of The Breakfast Club, rather than where they would have been in a few years after.  So that was an interesting tweaking and redrafting of the lyrics as he wanted it moved from old pubescent to young adult.


I don’t know, it was engaging, anyway, as he always was.  I went to his house and he had one wall covered in albums.  About the size of this (points out the long wall he is by).  All the way down, it goes for miles.  He made me play this game.  “Name a band!  Name a band.”  I don’t know, Soft Cell.  He ran over and said “Soft Cell.”  Thompson Twins.  (scoffs)  And he knew where every record was.  I didn’t catch him once.  They weren’t alphabetical, they were all where he thought they fit in the pantheon of music.  It was very interesting.

The English Beat at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia, PA on June 22, 2014. Photo copyright 2014 Shana Bergmann.


Speaking of soundtracks, General Public had been broken up for years when you were approached to reform to do a version of the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” for the movie Threesome.  Why did you decide it was the right time to get back together?


Magical, I would say.  The week before, Elvis Costello had played down in Orange County.  I was working at Greenpeace.  Greenpeace had a table at Elvis Costello’s show.  I said in the office, “Oh, I know Elvis Costello.  We used to be mates, we did.”  [They said] “Could you introduce us?”  Okay, no, yeah.  So we went backstage, me and a crocodile of Greenpeacers.  16 people, some of them playing hacky sack.  I found Elvis and said, “Declan, these are my friends from Greenpeace.”  He said, “It’s all well and good what you’re doing, Wakeling, but I could bang yours and Jerry Dammer’s (ed. note: member of the Specials and founder of 2 Tone Records) heads together.  Your place is on the stage, Wakeling, and you know it.”  All my office mates thought it very funny.  They teased me all back the next week.  (Sing song)  “Elvis told Dave off.  Elvis told Dave off!”  That’s the last time I introduce you to any of my famous mates.  I’m not risking it anymore, you know?


And then the phone rang and this guy said, “Would you be interesting in contacting Ranking Roger to do a song – ‘I’ll Take You There’ or ‘Stuck In the Middle With You?'”  There was a couple of others as well.  I said, no, I’m not doing “Stuck In the Middle With You” for Threesome, but “I’ll Take You There” is really interesting.  It bore a very striking resemblance to an instrumental called “The Liquidator,” a very famous piece of reggae history.  It was also used, as we were growing up, as the theme song to two local football… soccer… teams – West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers, The Wolves.  Both of whom claim the song as theirs and actually get quite nasty with each other, which is a shame, because they’re only about 10 miles away.  It can get brutal.  This solid thing, used to calm the skinheads down and as a theme song to bring the team home, they’re very similar songs.  We had great fun marrying the two bits of it together.


And it went to number one in the dance charts.  The Billboard dance charts.  Whoa!  Then President Clinton used it in his election campaign, and he won.  Then President Obama used it in his campaign, and he won.  (laughs)  We were like: Whoa!  All that because of Elvis Costello teasing me.  None of the rest would have happened if Elvis hadn’t jived me in front of [my friends].  He has a way with the words, old Elvis.  Changed history.


When did you decide to get the English Beat back together?


It kind of morphed whilst I was still working at Greenpeace.  The General Public thing started up.  We did an album.  It was very difficult having the two leaders in a band 6,000 miles away.  It cost $10,000 just to have lunch.  In light of that, doing rehearsal or just hang, it was just impossible.  It didn’t work.  We decided to go our separate ways and do our own thing.  I started up with a four-piece that I called Bang.  It grew from bars to clubs and [added] more and more English Beat songs in the set.  The set got longer and longer.  Then I’d get there and they’d say “The English Beat and Bang.”  Or they’d say “The English Beat, General Public, Bang and Dave Wakeling.”  (laughs)  There’s four bands on.  But the place is sold out and the show goes down great.  You’d start to look a bit surly if you were like, “You can’t call me that.”  So it really evolved, I’d say over a period.  We turned into the English Beat, because that was the majority of the songs that people wanted to hear and were being played.

The English Beat at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia, PA on June 22, 2014. Photo copyright 2014 Shana Bergmann.


A couple of years ago, Shout Factory released an English Beat box set and greatest hits CD.  What was it like looking back over your legacy like that? How involved were you in the making of the sets?


What a stroke of luck.  They are like two miles from where I live in Los Angeles, on the west side.  So I could pop in there all the time.  They were very kind.  Invited me in a lot.  Had my involvement and took it very seriously.  With all the other members of the band, too, even the ones that were a long way away.  Between us I thought we came up with a really decent package.  The mastering was great.  The order that we all came up with, it was great.  Shout Factory had done it a number of times, so they made it easy for us.  They came up with suggestions that we could squabble about, the fine details.  They did such a great job that we argued more and longer about the photographs than the music, which I take as a testament to how well Shout Factory did their part in the job.  When we finished arguing about the photos, we then spent like two eons dissecting the liner notes.


What do you think of the current state of the music business?  The label system The Beat came up in is obviously broken, with low sales, piracy and ridiculously small streaming royalties.  Do you think that a band like The Beat could have gotten an audience in this atmosphere?


Well, yes.  I’d like to think so.  Because what gets me up every morning is the notion that a good song prevails.  You let the song do the talking, you know?  I’ve seen them come and go.  If you can write a song that really moves you, the hairs go up on your neck.  It excites you.  It makes you want to cry.  You actually cry while you’re writing it.  If you really mean it to the point that it’s a bit uncomfortable.  Where you manage to express it in a universal enough way that people know that it’s kind of confessional, but they feel it. “Oh, yeah, I’ve had that.  Oh, yeah.  That happens to me.”  You can make your heart touch other people’s hearts with that song.


You are making the new album through Pledge Music.  Do you think social media sites like that and Kickstarter may change the way music is made?


I think so.  And at the perfect time, I think.  The perfect time for us to make a record.  It cuts out the middle man and allows a creative connection between band and fans that hadn’t been possible before.  I rather like the notion of this.  It’s exciting at the moment.  I think we just hit like 35% of our goal, which is quite good news.  We’re still out there in the first week of it, so we’ve got another six or seven weeks.  I don’t know, I imagine maybe it will slow down or whatever, but there seems to be growing interest in it now that people are joining and hearing the demos.  You have got videos of those ones, and we can put them up on the pledge page.


What can people expect from a new millennium English Beat album?


It’s going to be as back to roots as possible, and as contemporary as possible.  It’s going to be like walking on two tight ropes, which happens to be great fun.


Copyright ©2014 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: July 2, 2014. 


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