Dave Wakeling,
The TVD Interview

Dave Wakeling, the charismatic frontman and songwriter for the ska revival pioneers known in the States as The English Beat, once famously said every great band has only three good albums in them. The Beat disbanded officially with its third, Special Beat Service, 35 years ago.

But after stints in General Public and various bands reviving that sound and the music of the Beat, here’s the fourth album, Here We Go Love, out today, powered by the politically charged single “How Can You Stand There?”

We caught up with Wakeling, 62, recently while the band was on tour in England, He happened to be in his hometown, Birmingham, “sitting at the breakfast table at my sister’s house.’’ He talked expansively about the rock legacy of that industrial town in the West Midlands, his adjustment to California where he’s lived for nearly 30 years, the rise of reggae from punk halls and soccer stadiums, and of course, vinyl.

Your new album is out very soon.

Not sure if the vinyl is coming at the same time, it might be…

People are sort of buying it again, vinyl, which is interesting. My daughter was playing her vinyl copy of the first Bob Marley album and the whole house was vibrating beautifully with analog sound. I got to enjoy shouting up the stairs, “Do you really need to play it that loud?” I got the answer back: “Yes.”

So there’s a difference you think.

Yes, there is a difference. There always was. And anybody who said there wasn’t was just hoping. I could always hear it. I read a little bit how analog recording had been designed around capturing the emotional quality of the instruments of the orchestra, and those instruments themselves had taken hundreds and thousands of years, ending up in really odd shapes, in order to produce sounds that directly affected human beings’ emotional centers, or chakras, as they’re called.

It’s why the hair goes up on your neck when you listen to an orchestra. Analog recording was designed to try to capture that and in doing so, it captures resonances. People always say “it sounds warmer.” But I think it’s more geared to human absorption. You turn things into zeros and ones and send them around the world, and pop them back up and use those zeroes and ones to recreate that sound, it probably does it perfectly—for computers’ chakras.

What specific record was influential to you early in your life?

Well, a number of things. For better or worse, my first single was colored vinyl—though I don’t think it was vinyl, it was plastic. It was “Little Brown Jug,” on a red toy plastic record player. [Sings, with gusto:] “Ha ha ha, He he he, Little Brown Jug don’t I love thee? Ha ha ha, He he he, Little Brown Jug don’t I love thee?” Not knowing it was going to going to turn me into an alcoholic later in life, I just thought it was just a pleasant little brown jug. Who knew?

So that was my first record. Then I became an avid singles collector in the late ’60s and the early ’70s. Some of my favorite records: “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” [by Jimmy Cliff], “All Right Now” by Free, that was a great single. “White Room” by Cream, that was a good one. “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix, that was a cracker. “Don’t Walk Away, Renee” and “Bernadette” [by the Four Tops]. They were on the Tamla label in England. Not Motown, Tamla. And they were all very, very important to me.

So what was your first album?

I don’t remember. Because they sort of came as a flurry once they started. I would say probably the first Black Sabbath album, because they were local heroes, you know.

The first two live bands I saw were up and coming local acts, Black Sabbath the one weekend and then, the following weekend, some other lads, Led Zeppelin. Nobody was quite sure if either one of them were going to go all the way. But we were proud of them because they were local lads—not realizing we were right there at the birth of Black Country rock. We had no idea.

I think the first Black Sabbath album was probably my first album, although probably about the same time I bought the Trojan Records’ Tighten Up, volume one and two. There were four of them altogether, which were complications of ska, rock steady, and bluebeat singles of the ’60s—and they all had kind of dirty lyrics as well—that went along with my obsession with skinhead girls at the time.

What was that connection of ska and reggae to Birmingham? How did that occur?

Oddly enough, it was used quite a lot in late ’60s and early ‘70s on the football terraces at the soccer games in order to stop the skinheads from fighting. They tried to get them to dance instead of fighting, so they played dirty reggae. They played Tighten Up volumes one through four.

The instrumental, “The Liquidator” [by the Harry J All-Stars], a song that eventually got made into the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” was used as the theme song for two local teams, the Wolverhampton Wolves and West Bromwich Albion, the Baggies. They both used that song to take to the field with their team. And then I think Chelsea, the team in London started using the song too.

So there was always sort of an association with football games and ska, and at the same time a growing Caribbean community in England, and you’d hear windows vibrating with bass. “What’s going on in there?” So you had plenty of music just pouring through he brickwork.

Ska was being recharged when The Beat began, right?

What happened really was it was the punky reggae party that Bob Marley sang of. Punk bands and reggae bands were treated kind of similarly in England at the time, so most pubs would have a thing on the door: “No punks. No rastas.” They were equally banned from most places. And they had similarities. Both them were singing about social inequality, or social upheavals.

You’d quite often get on a punk show, and you’d have a reggae band like Aswad or Steel Pulse. They almost took the place of a chill out room at a rave. You’d have three or four breakneck speed bands and then you’d have one slow one, to catch your breath. Then it’d be back to breakneck speed again.

So there were very similar politics going on. So fans of reggae and fans of punk liked each other’s styles more and more. And about the same time The Specials and The Beat would have these lovely house parties going on with two DJs—one playing punk 45s, and one playing reggae, dub 12-inch slates.

If you played all punk songs, the dance floor would be packed but it would wear out quick and they’d disappear—they’d all go out and cut themselves with beer can tops or something. And if you had all reggae slates on, you’d have people leaning up against the wall, nodding. Which we call dancing on the inside.

But if you had a mixture of the two DJs alternating, one of this, two of that, one of that, two of the other—the dance floor would stay packed all night ’til 3 AM, and there were a lot of great people out there on the dance floor—Boy George… some of UB40, some of Duran Duran, some of the Au Pairs, Fashion, and even some of Dexy’s Midnight Runners, but they weren’t allowed to say they were there, lest they’d get in trouble.

During one of those parties, Andy [Cox], the other guitarist in The Beat that went on to be in Fine Young Cannibals said “What a great party.” But I said, “What if you could get the elements of both DJs in the same three-minute pop song? What would you have then?”

That was when the light went off above our head, and that was when The Beat was born really, at that moment. We all had different flavors; mine was, I was imagining the Velvet Underground jamming with Toots and the Maytals. And I got to be Bryan Ferry, Van Morrison, and Tim Buckley if I wanted to. That was the idea.

How was that accepted initially?

Yes, it seemed to go down a treat. Because it had the urban angst of living in Birmingham in a post-industrial society and lots of unemployment, lots of tension, and it also had the syncopation of the reggae side to remind us that although life was painful, it was also noble and endearing.

People used to think that reggae was happy music, and it kind of does make you feel cheerful, but I thought it was more than that. It seemed to me, music maybe instead of dinner—not necessarily music for after dinner. It was something that kept people going when nothing else could keep them going. It was a beat that seemed to have a lot of dignity involved in it. Even if you were downtrodden you could feel that your spine was straight when you were moving to a reggae song. There was something connective to that.

And I liked that, I liked the combination of that. So in our songs, we could sing about some of the urban grief and dysfunction, but we could add a soothing, calming, opening, accepting sort of beat that made the tough news a little easier to hear. Kind of, for me to be honest, in the way the Talking Heads did with Remain in Light.

We toured with them that tour. We were their opening band for the whole of that tour in America, and we joked with them that they finally caught up. That was the Two Tone Talking Heads, because you could sing about stuff like “Psycho Killer,” but you could do it with a groovy beat. And everybody would dance to it then—not just the weirdos.

So that was something that we were trying to get, and something that was all-encompassing. We noticed that you’re never really 100 percent happy or 100 percent sad at any one time. It’s always this fluctuating balance, 70/30, 60/40, sometimes 90/10, but it’s very rare that you’re completely sad for any huge amount of time, or completely happy.

It’s always this odd balance. We wanted to try to get that into the music as well, so there were happy elements and sad elements at the same time—a cheery tune and a dire warning in the lyric, or something.

You seem to have kept this going for the new album. Have these songs been around for a while or are they all newly written?

Some of them have been around for a good long time. I started off with 40 songs, whittled them down to 20, and then we whittled it down to 13 thinking one would drop off on the floor on the way, like a baker’s dozen and we’d end up with 12 good ones. We took great care over them and we didn’t drop one, so we ended up putting all 13 on the record.

But while some of them are very old songs indeed, some of them were so new they hadn’t really been finished by the time they were chosen to be on the album. That was a bit scary for me. But they were more or less there, and the point was being made to round the story off properly. And I suppose because they were a nice choice of songs, some got left behind, because they weren’t quite finished, they weren’t quite ready. They were going to take more work or it was a bit more complicated than felt that I was up for at the time. There’s one that I think could end up being a winner, but it needed too much work. Some of them I think we’ll take a look at next year. But it gave us a nice spread of songs between fast and slow ones, although I don’t think we did it on purpose. But by the time we tried six or seven different running orders, we ended up with one where people say it sounds like a story. Good. Well, it’s not.

Was it important to you to reflect the specific current times?

I think more than anything else was the obscene similarity between many of the social issues of the late ’70s to now. The stuff that we were railing about as young post punks now seems to be on the same list of troubles, problems, whether real or not. Now, all of a sudden, we’re thinking about nuclear war again, unemployment, health care, and education, they’re impossible. Why? “Oh it must be the immigrants again.” Remarkably similar.

And it does beg the question, we didn’t really deal with them in the late ’70s, so it’s come back to bite us in the butt now; the reimagining of capitalism at beginning of the ’80s with Reagan and Thatcher, that was going to solve everything, but oh look, it hasn’t trickled down.

Look, it’s exactly the same issues being presented. That I find interesting. It was more like revisiting some of the things that we found unequal and inequitable at the time and you would have hoped had done a better job. But I think that’s probably the case for people my age who have lived through the hippie revolution and the punk revolution and thought, clever young things that we were, we were going to leave the world in a much saner place than our parents had. That doesn’t look like anything remotely true now. So there’s a bit of a disappointment now, I think. Probably some rethinking has to be done on that one.

Is it difficult to present new songs for audiences that come to hear the old hits?

We were just touring England, and the one song, “How Can You Stand There?” has gotten a lot of national radio play, so they know it. We start playing it, and they all bounce around straight away like it’s a hit. So that’s useful.

In America we’ve been playing three or four of the songs for a couple of years now. How we started with the record is that I put some of the songs in the set, I’d put them in sound checks just to work them out, just for fun really, and then do them with the band and I started putting one or two in the set really just to make the set more exciting.

Also, when there’s a song that you don’t know coming up, it makes everybody focus that much harder on all of them. So I’d throw these new songs in the set just to wind them up, after we’ve been through town a few times, people start asking for the songs by name at the merchandise counter: “Hey, can I get the CD with that song on it?” And then the people selling, they’d say, “They keep asking for this song,” I thought we’d better make a CD then. And that turned into a pledge campaign, which took about year to get the funds going, and then we started recording. So it was nice, really.

I thought I was going to keep these new songs in my head forever. I thought they were going to be my reserve. And I wasn’t altogether sad with idea, really. I thought it was quite nice that I had a couple of songs that I thought were a couple of the best songs I’d ever written, and nobody was ever going to hear them. But now we’ve spoiled that.

After all this time here, do you consider yourself an American now?

A Californian, more so than an American. I probably would say that I’m more American than English. I’m saying that here in the city I was born in.

But I know my way around American cultural responses better than I do than current English responses, and I’m eminently more comfortable in California than anywhere else. I know exactly where I fit in. I know exactly how polite or offhand I can be. And I know how to move comfortably. I keep finding myself on the wrong foot here sort of in England. But if you lived somewhere 30 years and looks the same but it’s not, there’s many a misinterpretation made.

But it must be nice to be back in Birmingham.

It’s very nice to visit. It’s lovely to visit. And there are some parts of it that are forever in my heart and some parts I could visit forever. But I’ve never liked the monarchy. I always thought it was daft. I still do. And I think it’s stopped England from growing up.

I know Prince Charles and Diana are all swinging and groovy, but it’s a pyramid, and it makes everybody at the bottom of pyramid stay where they are. And I never liked that, and I still don’t like it. If you’re looking for a society and culture that works, I’d say England is falling to bits. It lost the script in the ’80s, the city centers don’t look like they belong to the people who lived there anymore. They seem like an operation in laundering Russian money, building student apartments and luxury flats for people who are not going to be in that city for very long—just long enough to strip some assets and get out.

That’s what England looks like, and I suppose that’s the challenge for America, because the decline of the British empire is probably only some decades ahead of the narrowing of the American empire. So I think there are good lessons to be learned, and hopefully people in America developed more of that sense of individual rights. You’re citizens in America, we’re subjects in England. Subjects of the royal family. Eventually you just get up and do as your told. That’s kind of what they’re doing here really. It’s bit sad to see. I think there’d be less of that acquiescence in America. So hopefully we might be able to carve a more realistic post-capitalistic society.

The English Beat’s brand new full-length release, Here We Go Love, arrives in stores today, June 15, 2018—on vinyl.

The English Beat Official | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text