brent johnson has a wide-ranging conversation with Dave Wakeling, the leader of British ska-pop legends The English Beat …
Dave Wakeling is a musician who can talk about much more than music.
Not that there isn’t plenty to say about his work. Wakeling rose to fame in as the lead singer and rhythm guitarist of The Beat, one of the most popular bands of the 2 Tone movement that swept the U.K. in the late 1970s and early ’80s. The genre melded Jamaican ska with pop melodies, and its bands — The Beat included — often featured both black and white members. Along with The Specials and Madness, The Beat helped bring the music to the top of the British charts with string of fun, infectious, danceable singles: ‘Hands Off … She’s Mine,’ ‘Mirror In The Bathroom,’ ‘Twist & Crawl,’ and a memorably bouncy cover of The Miracles’ ‘Tears Of A Clown.’
In America, they were known as The English Beat (another band was already using their original name) and found airtime in the early days of MTV with a catchy single called ‘Save It For Later.’ In 1983, they split into two different groups. Wakeling formed General Public and scored a hit with ‘Tenderness.’ Guitarist Andy Cox and bassist David Steele formed The Fine Young Cannibals and released two No. 1 singles in the U.S.: ‘She Drives Me Crazy’ and ‘Good Thing.’
But Wakeling can talk about politics, too. Which isn’t surprising, since one of The Beat’s best songs was ‘Stand Down Margaret,’ a 1980 plea for Margaret Thatcher, then Britain’s controversial prime minister, to step down.
He can also talk about America. Wakeling moved to California in the mid-1980s and has lived here ever since.
He can talk about the environment. In the 1990s, Wakeling worked for Greenpeace and has been outspoken about global warming.
And he can talk about longevity. Wakeling, now 55, still tours constantly with a modern version of The English Beat, though he’s the only original member. They bring their energetic, hit-laden show to Maxwell’s in Hoboken, N.J., on Saturday night.
Pop-Break’s Brent Johnson was lucky enough to talk with Wakeling about all these topics during a funny, sharp and engaging phone interview this week.
Pop-Break: How long have you lived in the U.S.?
Dave Wakeling: About 25 years. In ’86 really, I came over to make a record and then settled in the next couple of years following that, going back and forth between England and America for a little while. But I feel like I’m a 25-year dude at this point.
PB: How different is it to feel American than British?
DW: It’s a big difference. If you see somebody drive by in England in a big Mercedes, you go, ‘What did that bastard do to get that?’ If you see somebody drive by in a big Mercedes in California, you say, ‘What do I have to do to get one of those?’
PB: And of course, your band goes by different names in Britain and America. Does it matter to you anymore that you’re The Beat in your home country and The English Beat here?
DW: We had to come to terms with it pretty early on, because there was a band started by Paul Collins in San Francisco that was called The Beat. They were managed by [legendary rock promoter] Bill Graham at the time, and so we had to come up with another name.
There were a lot of suggestions. The Beat U.K. was the first. The record company put all their creative skills together and came up with The Beat U.K. I said, ‘I’d rather not be in a group called The Beat U.K.’
We wanted to call ourselves The Beat Brothers in America, because we thought it sounded like a Philly soul band. And the record company said no … because it sounded like a Philly soul band. So, back to square one.
We had a meeting with the record company in New York in a deli. We hadn’t been to very many. It was still exciting. It had a menu the size of a book. We noticed English muffins — which, of course, are not called muffins in England. They’re not called English muffins — just like French fries aren’t called French fries in France.
But we got the idea that although the word ‘British’ over here meant those red-coated bastards that you got rid of, ‘English’ meant something to do with tradition and connection and family. So we went into the record company and said, ‘Oh, what about The English Beat?’ The creative department all fell off their chairs. The difference between Beat U.K. and The English Beat was stunning. And so that’s what we did.
With the exception, I think, of the Australian record company, who really couldn’t be bothered to wait. They decided to call us The British Beat. Which is why I’ve still never been to Australia. [laughs]
PB: I grew up a big Beat fan. And the first song that really caught me was ‘Can’t Get Used To Losing You’ — which I thought was fantastic. I later was shocked to find out it was a cover of a song by one of my mom’s favorite artists: crooner Andy Williams. How did it come about that a British 2 Tone band covered an Andy Williams song, of all things?
DW: My dad really loved the song. At some point, he said to me, ‘You know what you should try some day, Dave? That “Can’t Get Loose To Using You.”’ [laughs] I thought it was funny how he got the title mixed up. But it did suit the reggae beat incredibly well. So we started playing it.
Then, we got to the studio, and it was halfway between my own voice and a comic impersonation of Andy Williams. I didn’t really know where to go with it. I kept singing it and singing it and singing it until they said they’ve had enough, and they put the best bits together, and that was it.
Stunningly, a magazine in England last year had some sort of poll, and it got voted the best reggae cover song of all-time. I was like, ‘Really? Okay, yes, that’s right!’ [laughs]
PB: One of the many notable things about the band was that you sometimes had political messages in your songs. Do you ever have friends from Britain call you and ask about the political unrest you’re seeing in America?
DW: No, they have enough troubles in England. England is ahead of the pack. England is going to implode before America. English society is crumbling, from the top down.
PB: You think it’s worse than America?
DW: Oh yes. Much worse. Because everybody’s accepted it now. There is no will to change. Everybody hates one another. It’s all resentments and entitlements and misery. You’d like to say it seems more like a developing nation, but it seems more like an undeveloping nation, frankly. Shocking. It’s quite shocking to go there. You should visit.
So they’re not too concerned about America. I am. It seems like we may as well start learning to sing ‘Auld Lange Syne’ in Mandarin. It seems like everybody just gave up, haven’t they?
But I don’t think they want teamwork. I think the people opposing Obama are not really interested in America. Most of the people who set up big companies that do very well in America, they’ve now shifted their money and their employees out of America. People with the money are just trying to control the money from whatever position they can. It seems as though the dismantling of the American middle class is going on ahead quite well.
PB: I know you also worked with Greenpeace a while ago. And lately, it seems like more and more politicians are questioning whether global warming is real. Does that bother you?
DW: I asked myself a simple question in 1994 in Los Angeles: Do you think putting the smoke of 13 million cars into the air all day, every day helps or not? It does not. So, it doesn’t really matter to me whether global warming is a trend of nature — a natural cycle of nature. It doesn’t matter to me whether it is caused primarily or caused in the final analysis by human activity. And I don’t care whether this is God’s will or not. Because if it is God’s will, he didn’t ask us to heat it up any further. And there’s no doubt about it that our activities are heating it up further.
So, whichever way you want to look at it, we need to clean up our act. It’s like a child looking for excuses not to clean his bedroom. ‘Oh, the science isn’t in yet.’ It’s rubbish. Carbon dioxide in the air affects the atmosphere. Duh. It’s all nonsense. It’s just a way of getting out of it to make more money.
PB: Getting back to music, I read that you wrote one of your biggest hits, ‘Save It For Later,’ as a teenager. Is it amazing to you that you’re still playing it today?
DW: [laughs] What’s even worse is that one of the first songs I wrote turned out to be one of the best.
PB: Has it pretty much stayed the same as you wrote it?
DW: The lyrics stay the same, but the song has evolved endlessly because it’s only three chords. It’s evolved endlessly over the years. But I still play it, and it’s still probably the showstopper. And it’s my favorite to play because it’s only three chords, and I don’t have to look at the guitar when I’m playing it. [laughs]
PB: Well, that was my next question: What’s your favorite song to still play?
DW: That one. And the one that’s my least favorite to play is ‘I Confess’ because I have to hit six falsetto notes every night. [laughs]
PB: And those were your two biggest hits in America.
DW: I suppose they were. Well, ‘Mirror In The Bathroom’ was probably there with them. I like singing that one. You can’t actually breathe at all in the second verse. You sing along with the second verse — there’s no gap for a breath. You have to take a deep breath at the beginning of it and start feeling oxygen-deprived by the end.
PB: Is there ever a chance the original Beat lineup will play together again?
DW: Not from my perspective. Only because it’s been such a miserable experience for The Specials. I wouldn’t dream of doing it after seeing the pain and agony their lot have gone through. It’s not worth it just for the money.
PB: I read an interview with you a few years ago where you said you didn’t own an iPod. Is that still true?
DW: Oh yes, I wouldn’t have one. They sound crap. I think the iPod, you listen to it for convenience. But a couple of years ago, when my son told me, ‘My iPod’s broken,’ I said, ‘Good.’ [laughs]
For tour dates and more information on The English Beat, visit Wakeling’s website.