The Return of the Beat: A Conversation with Dave Wakeling

By Julia Simon

August 15, 2016

The English Beat returns to Charlotte August 27 at the Underground at the Fillmore, their fourth appearance in the Queen City, and three years after their last show at the Chop Shop in April of 2013. One of the longest running ska/reggae/new wave acts ever, the Beat (as they’re known on UK home turf) were central to ska music’s second wave. Its accompanying political movement, known as Two Tone, is where punk rock and Jamaican ska stylings mingled in late ‘70s England. So did many British youth, decisively rejecting the Thatcher-era race/class war teeming just under the surface in working class cities in favor of Unity and the Two Tone “We Are All One” ideology. The English Beat’s hits “Mirror in the Bathroom” and “Too Nice To Talk To” topped pop charts in England and led to several world tours with well known artists such as David Bowie, The Clash, and the Talking Heads between 1980 and 1983

The band’s original lineup consisted of Dave Wakeling on vocals and guitar, Andy Cox on guitar, Dave Steele on bass, and Everett Morton on drums, later adding Ranking Roger on vocals and Jamaican-born saxophonist Saxa (famous for his time playing with Desmond Dekker during ska’s first wave). On the current tour, Wakeling is the remaining original member and is backed by a group of ska all-stars, playing old hits from The English Beat, General Public (a group he started with Ranking Roger after The Beat disbanded in 1983) and The English Beat’s latest album, to be released next month. Their brand of upbeat, infectious ska and fundamental importance to the genre make this a show not to be missed.

clture - dave wakeling - the english beat
Dave Wakeling photo by Eugenio Iglesias

I got up with Dave Wakeling for a fantastic chat, wherein we covered some Two Tone history, race relations in the states, what a paradigm shift looks like, Ska’s current incarnation, and their new album, Here We Go Love.

CLTure: So, first question; who’s been a big musical influence on you? Is there someone who’s lasted over the years?

Dave Wakeling: As I think of some classics I’ve held onto for a long time, Toots and the Maytals would be one of them. There was just something about the spirit of it, the negative space of it. It was never overplayed– the holes and the drops were as musical as the notes. And there’s something about the nobility of life in their songs for me. People think of reggae sometimes as happy music– but I’ve often thought of it more as music of survival and music of resistance. Like, music instead of dinner, instead of music after dinner. And because of that, yes there was a happiness and a joyfulness in it, but there was something pointed in it, and about survival.

And also, The Undertones and the Buzzcocks always remind me of how those ‘60s perfect three-minute pop singles faded out, leaving you singing and wanting more. And Elvis Costello! Whom I got to meet and befriend, in a sort of a mutual admiration club. That’s been remarkable, really– I’ve ended up with some of my heroes covering the songs that I write. So I must have been copying them really good!

The English Beat perform in Portland Oregon at McMenamins Crystal Ballroom. Portland OR December 4, 2006 © Jackie Butler / Retna Ltd.
Photo by Jackie Butler

CLTure: I’d love to hear you speak about the Two Tone movement. That was some of the first music I heard as a kid that talked about people of all races and creeds getting together and creating something. I didn’t grow up in a particularly diverse area but I could hear you sing about it, as well as the Specials, and Madness, and it shaped the way I viewed the world. Did you, at the time, have a sense of how influential that movement would become?

DW: So many people have said that, and I was excited and to be involved in it at the time. I had no idea, and I don’t think anybody did, that it would be an opportunity for an entire generation to look at things in a slightly different light than their parents, and that they’d got compatriots that felt the same way. The more people you have saying “I think we’re all one” the more it becomes true [laughs]. It’s mass consciousness. The paradigm shifts. We’re seeing it now with gender politics, not quite so much with race politics, but things inevitably change. You see the old habits, loathing and blaming and dishonesty (toward a particular group of people) fade away. And once NASCAR and the WWE get on board, well then, it’s American!

CLTure: Totally.  It’s such a great legacy. You’ve had a hand in shaping the way several generations think about race and being human. I think it’s beautiful, and I hope you’re proud of it!

DW: The shame about it is though, of course, that people aren’t taking immediate action like we did in the ‘80s. (Modern) Two Tone fans are being a bit more pragmatic about it. Just because you don’t see the political rationale for something doesn’t mean there isn’t one. That might actually be PROOF that there is one! If you’re not feeling that sense of oppression or lack of opportunity, you don’t feel the need to riot. But if you’re seeing thousands of people that DO feel that way, you should think about it.

As young people, we wanted all this change straight away because we felt like living like that was unbearable. And then 30 years later, things have moved in the direction we were hoping for, a little bit. When I first arrived in America and played clubs in the south, when I would go out to a nightclub afterwards, the crowds weren’t diverse at ALL. But now, you go to clubs on the side streets and it looks like a (United Colors of) Benetton ad, and nobody notices, and nobody minds, and everybody’s fine. And that’s remarkable. In one lifetime I’ve seen remarkable differences.

dave wakeling - clture - the english beat
Photo by Eugenio Iglesias

CLTure: As someone’s who’s been involved with the music since day one, what do you think about ska’s current incarnation?

DW: Well it’s all cyclical and every time it comes, it carries a little more of the local flavor, whether it’s been punked up or jazzed up. Sometimes it goes through waves– just songs about having a good time, and other times (as it seems this last year or two) there’s an interest in social commentary and political awareness. But you have to remember it’s a stage, not a soapbox, and there’s a thin line there. A few times on our new record, I’ve decided not to gild the lily. I’m gonna make it as simple as I can, kind of say what everyone’s thinking. Like on one of our tracks, I sing “if killing worked, It would have worked by now” and it’s as simple as that, really. Thirty thousand years of killing each other’s children hasn’t changed anything, and it’s time to try something new. And I have a feeling if we just stopped doing that, incrementally– tried to kill less this week than the last– that cracks would open up like on the sidewalk, and plants and flowers and new ideas would grow up out of them.

Catch The English Beat at the Underground August 27

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