This past summer, I had the chance to sit down with Dave Wakeling, lead singer and songwriter from second-wave Ska legends The English Beat, backstage at Riverbend, where the band (Wakeling is the only original member) opened for 311 and Matisyahu. For a former teenage Ska addict, it was a "Make a Wish" moment. I wrote about the interview in this week's CityBeat, in anticipation for tonight's show by the band at Bogart's. Below is the complete transcript from the interview.
CityBeat: How long has The Beat been out with 311?
Dave Wakeling: We’ve done 11 dates. Nick (Hexum) and I have become great pals over the past few months, discussing philosophy. I have become firm friends with the rest of the band and their crew too. We were just offered the middle support slot for a later tour leg so we can play after the crowds come in.
CB: What’s it like to hear from bands like 311 and how much they loved you growing up?
DW: It’s good, actually. Just having another musician tell you how much your songs meant to them while they were deciding to become a musician, you just can’t put a price on it. I’ve heard from people like Johnny Marr and even Pete Townshend, telling me how much my songs meant to them. Because, like any songwriter, (when you’re writing) you’re just groping in the dark and you’re like, “How about this? No, it’s awful, it’s awful.” But then sometimes it turns out that someone who you really admire really admires your songwriting. Priceless. That’s the word I use.
CB: Writing the first Beat album, did you ever think down the line that people would be coming up to you 30 years later telling you how much it meant?
DW: No, I was just writing. It was an alternative to going to jail. This is much better.
It was a funny time because Punk had just started and up until then concerts were at these huge venues and guys had permed hair blowing in the wind, the bands were named after American cities and you didn’t even know if they came from there. Surprisingly, in England, something called “Kansas” sounds really exotic.
So it just seemed like in a different world, Punk. The (other stuff) was for stadiums. You’d see the Clash and the Pistols and think, “Hey, I know three chords. I can do this.”
CB: How did the Ska come in?
DW: The Punky Reggae party was the start of it. We had two DJs at the party, one in that corner and one in that corner. If you played all Punk songs, people would be like (makes swirling noise), then burn out. If you played all Reggae 12-inches, people ended up leaning on the wall, nodding, dancing on the inside. But if you mixed it up, a Reggae 12-inch, then a couple of Punk ones, then more Dub — mix it up like that, it was like a vortex and the floor got wilder and wilder. So the two styles tempered each other. The Punk injected some energy and the Reagge smoothed out the burned-out edges of the Punk.
We were sitting on the floor at one of the parties and Andy (Cox), the guitarist from the Beat, said “What if you got the two elements in the same three-minute Pop song. And the Punky Reggae party was born. We read that Bob Marley and Lee Perry wrote “Punky Reggae Party” about us and The Specials (sings a line).
So that was our notion. We started practicing the songs and I found that mixing Reggae and Punk and developing this throb (imitates the trademark chunky guitar grind of “Twist and Crawl”), it was insistent and slightly kind of manic.
From the early ’70s, late ’60s when we were football, soccer fans, that was during the first Rude Boy … I suppose “first-wave” Ska, (those songs were) really the theme songs for the soccer games, with the skinheads and the Rude Boys. That was really the first time where black and white guys hung around and had something in common — music and football.
CB: What happened when you went into your second album, W’happen?
There’s more of a Pop influence and some other exotic influences on
DW: The whole idea was to mix Punk, Reggae and Ska with ’60s Pop, like the Buzzcocks or the Untouchables did. Straight in, two and a half minutes, get the fuck out.
When we started the second album, we found this record shop, which at the time was a vacuum cleaner repair shop with spare parts and the guy would sell records in the back. It later became Stern’s really, really famous African Record (Centre), but at the time it was a vacuum repair store. They sold these Nigerian records in the back and we started listening to them while we were putting together the second album and it influenced us like crazy.
It wasn’t meant to be too much of an experiment, but I think it was a reaction to us (being afraid of becoming) the Pop flavor of the week, whereas we were trying to be subversive anarchists sugar-coating revolution. So we thought we’d do something totally unexpected.
CB: With (the third album), Special Beat Service, you seemed poised to break really big in America.
DW: We’d stopped being Pop darlings in England and started to become a quite serious shed and stadium act in America. Some people in the band thought, “Well that’s it, we’ve just become some big American Rock band.” We were selling 17,000 tickets a night. (sarcastically) Yech. How crap is that? How vile! So some people wanted a couple of years off. And they did have a couple of years off and then they came out with the Fine Young Cannibals.
The reason (given) at the time was that there were more planes than busses. But me and Roger had started families and we loved singing live, so General Public was born. We had some of the songs ready to go (for the Beat), but no one was ever ready to rehearse them. The steam had gone out of it. Me and Andy had promised each other … it seemed magical the way it was put together. The only person who ever played in that original lineup was the first person we ever met who played that instrument. I thought, “Well, this is charmed.” And like anything charmed, the magic wears off.
So we promised each other, if it ever gets shitty, we have to have the nerve to pull the plug. Because we did know people in our record collection and in our peer group, there were some people whose hearts weren’t in it, but who carried on making records anyway. And you look back on their collection and you think, “Oh, I wish they hadn’t made that.” Even some of the most successful Bob Marley records, when they were aimed at America. Now, some of (those artists) would turn around and come back 10 years later and make a great record. So it’s not like you’ve got three great records and then your doomed. But if the spirit’s not there, it’s best not to do it.
CB: Well, you’ve got three great records in your discography and not a crap one. That’s good percentages.
DW: Five or six years ago someone wanted to do a “best of” and we thought, “Oh no, all the songs are crap.” Nobody had listened to the records in years. So Bob Sergeant, the producer, sent us copies of everything and said, “You’ve all got to listen to it and pick songs for the ‘best of.’”
Everybody tried to put it off and put it off and finally he forced everyone to do it. We all got together on this conference call and everyone was amazed — “It’s not shit, is it? In fact, I quite like this one.” Then the conversations got really enthusiastic — “These two are great! I think there might be enough for a ‘best of.’” And we ended up with 18 songs that everybody quite liked. Now, some of them could have been played better — there was a lot more invention than rehearsals. There was a lot of youthful enthusiasm. It’s a bit like the story of the young bull and the old bull — “Let’s run down the hill and fuck one of those cows” (is not as good as) “Let’s walk down the hill slowly and fuck all of them.” We could have took our time a bit more. But it is what it is I suppose.
CB: You obviously get to get your “live performance” itch scratched out
on the road. What do you do creatively these days, as far as
DW: I’ve been writing some songs with Thievery Corporation, Johnny Marr. I’d really like to write with Greg Alexander from the New Radicals. That was great. He had one hit record and just said, “I don’t want to do this, I want to make songs for other people.” I admire him for that and it turns out he likes me too. We were in contact, but then he just kind of disappeared.
I have a ton of songs written and have even found two or three songs that were written back in the day that I’ve never finished. They're good. There’s enough to make an album, so we’re hoping to make one over this winter.
CB: Will it be released as “The English Beat”?
DW: Well, I’m going to make the record first. I’ve been agonizing over it. If it sounds enough like The English Beat to warrant being called The English Beat, then that’s what I shall call it. And if you look at the difference between “End of the Party” and “Two Swords” there’s a lot of scope. (laughs)
We’ve established that we are the English Beat for live purposes so it would make sense to bring the record out with the same name of the band that’s out promoting. However, if it sounds radically different and friends and family go, “It’s great, Dave, but it doesn’t sound like the English Beat,” then I’ll bite the bullet and call it Dave Wakeling.
Although, had I known I was going to be in this game, I would have called myself Steve Danger. Too late to change it now. It’s gotta ring to it. David Steele was right — Dave Wakeling sounds like a grapefruit wholesaler. Citrus fruits await!
Let’s pretend for the next couple of questions that I’m Steve Danger.
CB: OK, Steve. The Beat had a huge political element and you did and
still do a lot of work for charities. Looking around, people are
very angry in America now, but the music doesn’t seem to reflect that
much. Who’s writing the good protest songs today?
DW: I will be. It’s different times and different tactics.
I still can’t resist (politics). During shows I’ll go “I’ve got one word for you: Barrack Obama.” I’ve started getting a little bit involved with (the Obama campaign).
CB: Are you a U.S. citizen now? (Wakeling lives in Malibu with his family.) Can you vote?
DW: No. I never voted in England. In fact, I had this poster in my bedroom that said, “Don’t vote, it only encourages them.” (laughs) That’s half the reason we called the band General Public. Margaret Thatcher, every time she was lying, she’d take advantage of the situation and say, “The general public has made it quite clear …” And I was like, “No they didn’t.” But she’d keep saying it enough, she’d get away with it. So we got free advertising every time she said “general public.”
I have this wonderful notion for (Obama) rallies, of doing covers of all the great songs that have “Rock & Roll” in the title and changing it in to “Barrack and Roll.” (Sings Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Pt. 1” in the Obama style, as well as “Solid Like Barrack” and “I Wanna Barrack With You.”)
I like the idea of quantum change. I think of myself as an American, I’ve lived here for 20 years. It’s my home and I don’t feel at home anymore. I would like it to be the highest common factor instead of the lowest common denominator. The rest of the world looks up to America and we have so much more potential. You get the government you deserve. If everyone closes their eyes and doesn’t vote, guess what? Somebody will take advantage of your ass, especially if there’s money in it.
It think it’s becoming more and more clear that it is one world and we could spend the next 50 years setting up proxy wars between the Arabs and the Chinese. Or we could decide that we’re going to sink or swim with this together.
(Maybe) global warming will make us go in the right direction the next 50 years, who knows? A good drowning, that works. I’ll drown some sense into you!
So there are still burning issues, but different strokes for different times.
CB: But you had the Vietnam War and great art came out of that. The Iraq War seems even less popular.
DW: There’s a big change. These $50 homemade shoulder-fired missiles can take out a million dollar tank. The whole nature of warfare has changed. Not even subtle, dramatic. It means you can’t go into someone’s backyard too long or guess what? Somebody’s going to raise $50. (laughs)
It may be that we’ve come to a time where you can’t subjugate a people on their home ground. Might not be a bad thing.
I think the time may have past when anyone can get a distinct advantage by killing somebody else’s children. And America is a great model for that. I know we have our violence, but in L.A. and most other major cities, you’ve got Israelis and you’ve got Iraqis, you’ve got people who are interminably at war with one each other in their own countries. But guess what? Nobody feels the growing need to blow each others kids up on the way to work. Why? Because they have better things to do. Raise families, send kids to college. So you could look at America and say, “There’s a great model.” We have people from all over the world and for the most part, we all get along. It’s just evolution. If anybody says evolution doesn’t exist, they’re right … but only for them. (laughs)
CB: I’ve always wanted to ask — why didn’t The Beat sign with Two-Tone Records?
DW: When we very, very first started, (Two-Tone) said, “Would you like to make a single?” We said, “Yes we’d love to.” They said, “We’d really like to do that “Mirror in the Bathroom” song, that’s a cracker.” So Chrysalis, who was behind Two-Tone sent a message to us through the Specials saying they’d have the rights to the song for five years, so we couldn’t have it on our album. So we said fuck that. So we didn’t want to have an album on Two-Tone because we thought Chrysalis was being snidely. So instead we talked to the Specials and we said we’d rather have our own nonsense than deal with Chrysalis. So we made Go Feet (Records) with Arista and we asked the Specials’ lawyer, “If you had a chance to do the Two-Tone deal again, how would you improve it.” So he did the Go Feet deal that way.
The idea was that if you were your own entity within a label, you’d have the right to bring out your own singles and albums each year and it was our own choice, we didn’t have to deal with A&R. They just had to sell it. It didn’t work that great. You could insist they put it in a bag, but you couldn’t insist that they actually sell it. If you push them too hard they don’t sell it. They just go to sleep — “Told you it wasn’t a hit.” So the idea was, you put your head in the lion’s mouth but they can’t bite you. And they didn’t. But over the years they slowly closed the mouth and suffocated us. (laughs) But it allowed us to get away with a lot of things they would have nixed, some of the best stuff we did.
They’d say things like, “We’re not sure about this idea, Dave.” And I’d say, “Wait a minute, gotta talk to Go Feet Records.” Run around the table, talk to yourself, come back to the table and say, “Talked to the bloke from Go Feet and he said bullocks, fuck you.” And we got away with it for a certain amount of time until they got pissed.
We did get to put out The Heart of the Congos, our favorite Reggae record of all time, and got it digitally remastered. It still one of the Top 3 Reggae albums of all time.
CB: Have you been approached to use your old songs in commercials?
DW: No, but I’m hoping. I don’t know. I probably would at this point.
I’m going to do some acoustic songs at lunchtime for some huge ad agency in New York who all grew up as Beat fans, so we’ll see what happens. There’d be certain parameters.
CB: So would you do a hamburger chain commercial?
DW: I would probably not want it used for anything that is inherently harmful, so I probably wouldn’t fancy a hamburger ad. My only rule when using (my music) in films is that it doesn’t support anything (involving) killing. They can use it in any other scene. Generally, if it’s something that’s about reconciling differences with the use of fatal violence, then I don’t want my song in that film. I’m intrinsically opposed to that notion.
Everybody (in the band) had a couple of rules that we gave to our publishers. I think there was something about use with meat products because a couple of people are still vegetarian.
The world has changed from the late ’70s when there was Punk and the corporate world and now those lines are very much blurred. I’d like “Save It For Later” to be used for a pension (company). (Sings) “Sooner or later … Your kid’s going to college … Save it for later …” And then it could pay my pension. I think there’s something beautifully circular and ironic about that so I would do that.
“I Confess,” they could use that to raise money for all those lawsuits on the Catholic Church – “Father, I think I might have sinned … (sings) I confess.”
CB: I have always wanted to ask someone involved in the second wave of
Ska what they thought of the third wave of Ska in the ’90s.
DW: The best of it was great and the worst of it was crap, just like anything. It comes down to songs. Have they got a song? I hate anything that is style over substance. (Sings cheerily): “Everyone was skanking, Skank, skank, skankity skank.” They were all Heavy Metal bands three weeks earlier. So that was rubbish. No Doubt had some songs. Mighty Mighty Bosstones had songs. There’s a list of bands that had songs and those were great. And the rest were just bandwagoning.
What they seemed to do, to me, was take our Punky Reggae party and mix it with Punk again. So it was Punk-squared Reggae party. So it was frenetic. It was faster and harder and had this thrash edge to it. So they mixed Two-Tone with Punk without knowing Two-Tone already had Punk in it. Double the Punk! Less groove. Harder to have sex too.
CB: Do you get into other newer music?
DW: I have a 14-year-old and a 12-year-old so I can only listen in the car what I’m told I can listen to. It’s good. They’d heard Amy Winehouse before she was all over the place. My son just informed me he needs DJ gear, wants to be a DJ now. He’s got a little studio and he does dope beats. He can play the drums great. He can play all the Beat songs, all the General Public songs, all the Green Day songs.
Now he drops dope beats and sells them to white kids at school.
CB: That’s better than selling drugs!
DW: Yep. His mom is black as well. We had to stop sending him to one school because the kids kept trying to sell him weed. He’s into basketball and music, so he says, “Everybody knows drugs are bad for athletes, Dad.” And I say, “That’s right, son.” “I mean for kids.” “You were right the first time — I raised you proper.”
CB: Do your kids’ friends know who you are?
DW: Yes, and growing more so now. There’s a fourth-wave Ska with the Aggrolites and Westbound Train and a few other bands. So some of the kids, the teenagers, in California are into that.
We have a soccer team called The Rude Boys. I got some Specials shirts with Rude Boy written on it. I’ve even got the parents going, “Rude boys! Rude boys!,” without any idea of the heritage of it.
This one kid was a real pain. We couldn’t get him to do nothing and then he started messing around, bothering everything. He had long hair and was into music and after training one day he goes, “Is that right, you were in a band?” And I go, “Yeah.” And he goes, “The English Beat?” And I say, “Yeah. What about it?” (And he goes,) “Cool.” No trouble the rest of the season.
CB: What do you think of the fourth-wave Ska bands?
DW: I like the Aggrolites a lot.
CB: It seems like it’s going back now. They’ve taken a lot of the Punk out.
DW: Yes, they’ve gone back and taken their roots from even before Two-Tone. They’re a mixture of original Ska and Two-Tone. So they’re somewhere between ’69 and ’79 — like ’74 (laughs). I haven’t heard many other bands (from the current wave). Who knows what will happen. That’s the mystery of Ska.
— Mike Breen