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Dave Wakeling just can't stop the English Beat

1:03 AM, Nov. 3, 2012
Dave Wakeling brings the English Beat to Vinyl Music Hall on Saturday. / Bryan Kremkau/Special to GoPensacola.com

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• WHAT: The English Beat in concert.
• WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday.
• WHERE: Vinyl Music Hall, 2 Palafox Place.
• TICKETS: $20 at the Vinyl Music Hall box office. All ages are welcome, but there is a $5 surcharge at the door for those younger that 21, and those younger than 16 must be accompanied by a ticketed adult guardian.
• DETAILS: Visit www.vinylmusichall.com.

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If Dave Wakeling had never been more than a member of the Beat, his place in musical history would have been secured.

Known in the U.S. as the English Beat because of a naming conflict with an American band, the Beat were a key part of the 2Tone scene, the late-’70s ska revival in the U.K. that mixed the Jamaican rhythms with the energy of punk. Alongside bands such as Madness, the Specials and the Selecter, the Beat enjoyed a huge success in the UK and found some popularity in the U.S., as well. The sound influenced hundreds of bands that followed; the spirit of interracial cooperation and battling oppression continues to this day.

After three strong albums filled with now-classic songs such as “Save It for Later,” “Mirror in the Bathroom” and “I Confess,” the Beat split into two bands that both became well known internationally. Bandmates Andy Cox and David Steele, with singer Roland Gift, became the Fine Young Cannibals, while singer/guitarist Wakeling and toaster/singer Ranking Roger started General Public with a who’s who of the ‘80s post-punk scene. International hits such as “Tenderness” followed, but General Public would prove to be short lived — though a short regrouping in the mid ‘90s would yield the band’s biggest hit, a cover of the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There.”

Work from both of Wakeling’s bands has been featured in a number of films, from the chase scene in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” to the closing credits of “Clueless.” Wakeling in particular had a long association with filmmaker John Hughes, producing the soundtrack to his film “She’s Having a Baby.”

In addition to a 1991 solo album, Wakeling — who now lives in the States — spends much of his time today touring with a U.S. edition of the English Beat, which will bring him to Vinyl Music Hall on Saturday. The current band plays songs from throughout Wakeling’s long career, which he discussed at length during a telephone interview.

Q: Talk a bit about the start of 2Tone and your place in it.

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A: It’s rather accidental how it all came about, but it is one of the things I’m most satisfied and proud of, my connection to 2Tone. It stepped outside of just being pop groups and actually had a tangible social effect. Young people had gotten a lot of trouble and controversy at the time and were being dragged in many different directions. It had the effect of drawing people together, and once they’d had a good night dancing together, it’s difficult to start a race war the next morning with the people you’d been dancing with the night before.

Q: What was the environment at the time?

A: There was a number of different reasons that it happened when it happened, but the social circumstances were very similar to the way we feel in America right now. The politics were starting to become very divisive, driving people against each other, a lot of unemployment so a lot of scapegoating, you know, “it must be somebody else’s fault why you haven’t got a job.” And there was quite a lot of attention and money put in by very far right wing groups, paramilitary groups in the main part, to try to recruit disaffected white skinheads from soccer games, soccer terraces, to try to make a bit of a right wing thug army. Kids were going off to training camps on the weekend, learning how to fight. And 2Tone was a reaction to that in many ways. People were sick to death of the society getting tougher and tougher and everybody looking for someone else to blame and nobody working together.

I must say, I’m proud, when I visit England now, 2Tone — especially since Facebook, because everybody who was ever into 2Tone has joined pages now, and the whole thing seems bigger than it was at the time — but that same spirit is still there. It’s a tolerant spirit. It’s not unintelligent, but it’s not naive, either. We have to work together. We can either paddle together or we can drown together.

So how lucky was it to have all that thinking, and you got to play in pop groups at the same time? It made all of it that much more satisfying, really. You got to be a pop star, just like you dreamed when you were a kid, but you also found yourself getting to do something that was socially useful, that’s actually lasted for quite a long time.

(Page 3 of 9)

Q: Why did you all gravitate to ska music?

A: I think that when there were a lot of punk shows in the middle/late ’70s, quite often reggae music was used as a sort of chill out zone. As you might have a chill room at a rave, where there’s something a bit slower, reggae used to fill that bill. And also, it fit socially, because punks and rastas were equally banned from most clubs. So I think there was some kind of connection by being equal outlaws, but also, I think a lot of punk music and a lot of reggae music discussed social issues, especially issues of oppression and stuff like that, so there was a lyrical and social connection. Coming out at the end of punk, which like most movements, had started to get a bit nihilistic, the idea came that you’d have the energy of punk with the seductive slide and backbeat of reggae, and reinvigorate it. Because people still wanted to dance, but they didn’t want to do it at a thousand miles an hour. After about five years of pretending that you’re taking amphetamines — or five years of taking amphetamines — it’s time for a change. (Laughs) So adding a bit of reggae to it allowed everybody to stop grinding their teeth.

Q: You mentioned that you see parallels between that era in England and America today. Talk a bit about that.

A: Well, I suppose it’s the post-empire tribulation that probably every country goes through. You can see that the established white power base in America are terrified that they’re losing control of the world and they’re losing control of what they consider to be their country. I saw my dad go through it with the British Empire in the 20th Century. He was born at a time when England owned so much of the rest of the world that they could say quite safely that the sun never set on the British Empire. The sun was shining somewhere on something we owned 24 hours a day. He grew up with that idea, and when we cleaned out his house, he was the only white person that lived on the street; everybody else was Muslim. It was a difficult thing to accept that the world was changing around him, and I think that’s all that’s going on here, particularly brought to light when the sitting president is black.

(Page 4 of 9)

It’s a genetic fear, a primal fear, and of course, the people who have had the social advantage over the last few decades have really taken advantage, haven’t they? So now they’re terrified, what happens if they’re not the majority? They fully expect that people will treat them as they’ve been treated, as they treated people. That’s what they did so that’s what they’d expect everybody to do. So you see in states — Arizona’s the most interesting, isn’t it? — where the majority of people over the age of 50 are white, and the majority of people under the age of 30 are not. And so they’re quickly trying to cobble together whatever it can take so they can remain in power, and so can their children and grandchildren, long after they’re not the majority.

And that’s all that’s going on, really. It’s just desperate tribal gerrymandering, doing anything possible to not give up power because of the fear, I suppose, of retaliation. I actually think America has evolved a bit past that, and these opinions are old fashioned and don’t do America any great favors, because this is the 21st century. But it’s very difficult for people to give up what feels like natural advantage. White people have had a distinct social advantage in their favor for decades, and that’s a very difficult thing to give up.

It’s the only thing that explains to me why half the women in America are considering sacrificing their own reproductive freedom in the land of liberty, wherein individual liberty is the most prized possession. As we’re told, “give me freedom or give me death,” but it doesn’t seem to include the women in America, they don’t have to be free. (Laughs) I mean, the contradictions are just rife, aren’t they? That’s what fear would do to people, of course.

Like most people, Obama didn’t do everything that I’d hoped he was going to. He probably tried as best as he could. Probably got as much of it done as he could, but it wasn’t enough for me. But the alternative is ridiculous. I mean, whatever else, the 21st century is going to be in 3-D, and two-dimensional promises that don’t add up are not going to solve anything. But we shall see. I don’t vote, I’m not a citizen so I don’t vote. I exercise my first amendment rights to shoot me mouth off, but I don’t vote.

(Page 5 of 9)

Q: Do you see a musical or a social movement in America today that is comparable to 2Tone?

A: No, not really, but it’s a bigger place, America, a more diverse place. So I don’t know whether you’d see, I don’t know whether there’d be an opportunity, though there might be ... it’d probably start somewhere like Detroit if it were to happen.

I always felt that 2Tone started in the Midlands of England for a particular reason: It was the car manufacturing center of England, and people of all colors had been working on the track at the car factories for a long while, and so in an odd way, it was actually far more integrated than other parts of the country. For example, in the south, black and white people still led fairly parallel lives. It was odd, really, because it was industrialization that actually had forced integration in the midlands. It wasn’t like people had gone out of there way, “oh, let’s go have a word with those people who are different colors from us.” It wasn’t that at all. (Laughs) It was that you happened to be standing next to the bloke for 8 hours a day and eventually you started chatting, and found, of course, that you’ve got far more in common with each other than any of the differences that were used for political gain on the TV news.

And that’s what you find in America. I’m very lucky, I get to travel America, I see more of America than most Americans, every year I go to probably every state — I don’t do a show in every state, I probably drive through a couple — but I probably see more of America than most Americans, and the one thing I’m happy to report is that they’re incredibly tolerant and friendly bunch of people when you meet them one on one. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a red state or a blue state, you can just start talking to a stranger, and they’re very interesting I don’t find the country to be as poisonous as it gets from the politics that you watch on the television. I don’t find Americans to be that way at all. They live with people who speak all sorts of languages, different cultures, they have them all around them and they manage to get on. By the time you get to the television and the news, they’ve managed to work on the extremes so much that it appears that everybody in America hates each other. But I’ve actually found that they’re far friendlier and more tolerant than most other places in the world that I’ve visited. So it’s a shame when you see reports about America outside the country that look down on us as though we’re just animals clawing at each others faces all the time. Which has not been my experience at all.

(Page 6 of 9)

Q: To what extent do you consider the Beat a political band?

A: Well, I consider everybody to be a political band. I mean, you are the sum of your social upbringing and your geography. In the late ‘70s, when there was so much turmoil politically, and unemployment was rife and demonstrations in the street, so much going on, I actually thought that if you could of come out with an LP of 12 songs and not mention politics, that would actually be a far stronger political statement than just mentioning in your songs what everybody was talking about in every bar and every bus stop.

So I don’t think you can escape politics, you either integrate it or you consciously ignore it. And you can say that about the times now or the times then. It’s the same thing. It’s all there for us to see, the choice is do you put it in your song or not? Sometimes people don’t put it in their song because they think it will be bad for their career, which I think is probably one of the most political things you could possibly say. “I’m not talking about the real world, it might hame me.” OK, I see where you’re coming from, then.

Q: When the Beat split, it was with a notion that no good band has more than three good albums. Do you ever consider what would have been if you’d gone for a fourth?

A: I don’t think it would have been any good. We might have had some decent songs, but the spirit wasn’t there. I was the one who pulled the plug, but I really wasn’t the executioner, I was just the messenger. The Beat had been finished for a few months, really. There wasn’t the same enthusiasm and will as there had been at the beginning. We couldn’t stop coming up with great ideas to start with, nobody ever wanted to go home, we’d just be at work all the time. All of a sudden, it became very difficult to arrange a rehearsal where everybody would actually have time to be there. We could have made an LP just because that’s what we did, but we promised each other that if it looked as though we had stopped meaning it as a unit, we wouldn’t burden everybody else’s ears with a record that wasn’t done with full spirit. So we knocked it on the head and it was the right thing to do.

(Page 7 of 9)

I think, as well, because the Specials had split up the year before, we probably thought there wasn’t that much to 2Tone groups. (Laughs) They only lasted two years, at least we got three albums. We thought we’d done very well to get three albums out. (Laughs)

Q: Does that have something to do why you’ve never had a reunion that included everyone? It seems there are always one or two holdouts in any regrouping.

A: From what I’m told, when the Fine Young Cannibals finished, they didn’t finish on the best of terms, and Andy and David won’t work with each other. So that’s the main reason why both of them have always been missing from Beat reunions, is that they won’t work with each other. They both seem, at least in conversations and emails, they both seem to have a surprisingly high regard of the Beat and are quite proud of the legacy. In fact, they’re quite protective of the legacy — I was surprised, I didn’t think they’d care either way, but it turns out they do. They’ve never been involved in anything, but I think it’s as much to do if not more to do with the fact that they had some troubles at the end of Fine Young Cannibals that never really got resolved between them.

Q: What did you and Roger take with you from the Beat to General Public?

A: A little of the chemistry, but it didn’t last as long as I’d hoped. Roger was starting to write a lot of really good instrumentals. He was coming up with really interesting, simple, almost naive tunes, but really, really catchy. The music to “Never You Done That” was a good example. The combination of his instrumentals and my lyrics, and then him adding to the lyrics toward the end of it, was starting to create some really nice songs. But it didn’t last for long because he started fitting his own lyrics, then got a home studio and his instrumentals had quite quickly turned into fully recorded songs of his own, and the lyrics were not really that good. I mean, he was a great toaster, but never really a great singer. I don’t really know that many people who are great toasters, rappers and singers; they’re different skills.

(Page 8 of 9)

So we ended up with quite a lot of songs where normally I’d have started writing the lyrics or picked a couple of his best lines and started again from there, but very quickly, he was like, “no, no, no, these are the words.” “Oh, OK.” Instead of it being Lennon and McCartney, it started quickly to become Lennon on one side of the record and McCartney on the other. That was really the demise of it. We didn’t focus on what we could do best together. It started to become a bit competitive. So he ended up writing substandard lyrics on tops of good tunes, and I ended up coming up with not as adventurous music to match my lyrics as could have been done if I had a partner to work with.

Q: Throughout your career, you’ve had quite an association with John Hughes. Talk a bit about that.

A: Well, I spent a little time with him. We met in Orange County, in California, at a show. He came backstage to the dressing room, I didn’t know who he was, he walked straight into the dressing room and said, “anybody who’s got the balls enough to put a bassoon on a pop record and have a hit is my kind of guy.” And I said, “hello, and you would be... ?” (Laughs)

I went to his house, we talked a lot. He had a wall full of records, like a whole wall of a long room, right up to the ceiling -- a bigger record collection that most people who think they’ve got record collections, it was stunning. And he knew where every record was, and they weren’t alphabetic — he just knew where every record was. And so he had me playing a game where I had to come up with three albums, and he would just run to the other side of the room and pull it straight out of the rack, it seemed like. At least 10,000 records — I don’t know how you count records, but I mean, three or four shelves full to the ceiling down the end of one side of the room, 20 or 30 feet long.

He said he’d always wanted to be in a group, which shocked me, because I’d always wanted to be a millionaire film director. (Laughs) “What a coincidence, let’s swap!” So he always wanted to be in a group, and he wanted his films to make the same sort of emotional impact as he thought he might have been able to do had he been in a pop band.

(Page 9 of 9)

I was so sad, I read it in the paper when (he died). I’d lost touch with him, I never heard from him, never heard about him. Time rolls on, and stuff, and then of course, you don’t think about things until they say it’s too late, he’s dead. “What? He was my friend.”

We wrote the lyrics of “She’s Having a Baby” together, before computers — or before we had them, anyway — like those chess games where you used to make a chess move and write it down and mail it to the person. (Laughs) So I would write some lines down, send them to him, he wrote some lines underneath and sent it back, and we would share rhyming couplets, and it went back three or four times until we got the gist of “She’s Having a Baby,” the song — and the film, really, because both were changing as he was making it. And I had some very interesting discussions with him about how your life changes once you become a parent — which I suppose was the general thrust of the film. So that was a very interesting experiment, and great fun, as well.

Q: Do you think that association has contributed to your music’s longevity?

A: Well, I mean I certainly think it’s no harm done. If you were going to be in any films with your music or posters and pictures of you on the wall and such, John Hughes was a particularly great choice. (Laughs) To be all over John Hughes films, I mean, there’s going to be, a “Ferris Bueller” slot machine is coming out with our song on it soon, we just got asked about a license for it. So to have that happen and then to have “Tenderness” be on the outgoing credits of “Clueless,” that’s about it, really. That’s all you need. (Laughs)

It’s very fortunate. Music gives you generational staying power, I suppose, and we’ve been very lucky, I think, in the films that our music got used for that many of them are still played fairly regularly on the TV still and have become classic movies of the genre.

Q: Where do you hear your influence today?

A: I don’t, really. Now, I mean, I say I don’t, but in the widest of generational terms, look how much reggae gets used on television commercials now -- that offbeat, that sort of happy reggae offbeat -- particularly now in children’s TV commercials. When I first arrived in America in the early ‘80s, there were very few people that knew what reggae was, and even fewer could dance to it comfortably, but now that beat has become part of everybody’s everyday life, really. So I think that’s a huge influence and difference that I’ve seen over 30 years. Which is a nice, gentle way of drawing different types of people together for a common experience.

Q: What do you still enjoy about going out and performing?

A: It’s taken a bit too long, perhaps, but after 30 years, I’ve actually got the hang of singing now. (Laughs) I don’t get sore throats anymore, I can sing every night for a couple of hours and I’ve managed to learn how to do it in a way that doesn’t rake my throat. So that’s one of the things, I really enjoy singing the songs now. It used to be, for many years, I’d know when there was a chorus coming up that was challenging, and I’d be a bag of nerves as I sang up to it, wondering whether I was going to hit that high note. But now I know I can hit all of them. It’s weird. So that part of it I really enjoy.

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