'80s - The English Beat (2010)
'I Confess! The Dave Wakeling Story'
The Beat (known in North America as The English Beat) were a major part of the 2 Tone ska music revolution of the late 70s and early 80s, alongside their stablemates The Specials, Madness, and The Selector.
Their songs fuse ska, pop, soul, reggae and punk rock, and their lyrics deal with themes of love, unity and sociopolitical topics.
The Beat released three albums: I Just Can't Stop It (1980), Wha'ppen? (1981) and Special Beat Service (1982), and became a musical juggernaut with international ska-infused pop hits like, 'Mirror in the Bathroom,' 'Too Nice To Talk To,' 'Can't Get Used To Losing You,' 'Hands off She's Mine' and 'All Out To Get You.'
I recently had the opportunity to speak with original co-founder and lead singer Dave Wakeling about the early days, about the origins of 2 Tone, about the bands name, and, of course, penguins!
Taking it from the top, and being that The Beat was formed in the UK in 1979, during a period of high unemployment and social upheaval, what did you want you music to achieve back then? “One of two things. Either a good dance on the way out or, perhaps, it just blew the embers enough that there would be some sort of way through this. People did feel very bleak about it and not just the recession part of it. But even more so the vague, and ominous nuclear spectre. Like, somebody’s gonna let one off in a minute. A sense that you were on the S.S. Great Britain, which was an American nuclear aircraft carrier that was just parked outside Europe,” he laughs.
“So, for any number of reasons you were damp dynamite and a target. And a book came out - and the Third World War started with a bomb going off above Winson Green Prison. Which was a mile away from where we call lived at the time! Right where we lived. We were quite pleased though when that book came out because it had felt like that for ages! I feel better now.”
“So, we thought as there was nothing to lose you might as well have a dance and see what came up out of it. People were still angry, like they had been during punk, but how boring to go on another Right To Work March for jobs that nobody wanted anyway.”
“But, us mixing punk and regaee suddenly got wrapped up in racial politics. Although I still won’t go along with that because there’s only one race, isn’t there: Homosapians. It’s really odd how we stretch the words we use to try and make a point in that direction, really. Like white people aren’t white, and black people aren’t black. But if you had to have a race war between pinks and little-brown people it would be hard to get a race war going, wouldn’t it,” he laughs.
“The scene, in the industrial Midlands, was that people had been forced together in factories for years, so they were quite used to drinking in the same pubs together. It wasn’t unusual, or unheard of. And there was quite a lot of music in pubs and all sorts of people would be in there listening to it. So, when we went in to watch Saxa playing the saxaphone in the Compton Pub in Handsworth, we didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. As we perhaps might have done, in other parts of England at the time.”
“It was finally that the industrial deprevation that was put on everybody actually helped people break down those cultural barriers and get on with each other a little better. And we, as the next generation on walked into that. And so quite a bit of the work had already been done on the factory lines, in the dole queues, and in the bars.”
“But that’s because it’s not true. Which is interesting. They made a big fuss over nothing. But we got involved then, by default, because people would see me and Rankin’ Roger singing on stage together. And some would like it, a black geezer and a white geezer … and some … just didn’t.”
Is that where the whole name of 2 Tone came from - a band featuring both races? “Well, yes, but also the police wore black and white checker boards as part of their insignia. And women, in particular, had those horrible black and white cravats. And I always thought it was like taking the flag off the enemy and waving it back at ‘em … with a different meaning.”
And so, with the want to get everyone on their feet dancing, is that where The Beat, as a band name, first originated? “Yes, and I was stunned that nobody had used the name before! I liked the Beat Writers from the ‘60s, like Jack Kerouac … I read all his books … and I had a notion of enjoying what the Beat Generation had done for their Post War lot. It was alright for us, I suppose: drop out, tune in, turn on, but we hadn’t just had 15 years of filling in mass graves of our unknown relatives; like our parents generation had. So, we didn’t have quite so many horrible things to have flashbacks about. So, for the Beat Generation to go out exploring in a time where, only ten years before half the war had been in compfligation was courageous.”
“So, I was looking in Roget’s Thesaurus, I looked up Music and there was one whole page: one side was Discord and the other side was Harmony. I looked on the Discord side and immediately I saw CLASH! And on the Harmony side BEAT stood out as big as the CLASH thing did. The Beat … why hasn’t anybody called themselves, The Beat? I bet it’s because of The Beatles. You can’t call yourself the bloody Beatles … people’ll think you’re The Beatles, won’t they!”
“So, I immediately got the lettering from Ringo’s drum, got rid of the ‘les’ on the end and used his writing to create The Beat! So, we quickly became The Beat.”
And what can you remember of your first gig as The Beat? “We had a Pirelli calendar poster for the first one, because we were opening for the band, The Au Pairs. They were a very political punk band. Two women, two men. I had to go and ask, ’cause Lesley, the singer was a bit scary, if we open for them. But she did catch me out! ’Got any women in your group then?’ And, because we didn’t, I had to say no. I asked her if it was obligatory. She said no, it wasn’t and we got the gig. I then reported back to the lads and Everett said, ’Oh, you should have told her at least you gotta darkie on drums’,” he laughs. “That would have probably been worth something, Dave!”
“I don’t know why we felt so offended by it, but just to be bloody minded we did Pirelli calendar posters with The Beat tattooed on the arms of the Au Pair girls - and put them all up around Moseley. Then, her and her manager arrived at like 8am on a Saturday morning with every single one in their hands and threw them at us. ‘These posters are all over Mosely … everybody’s talking about it.’ But, I thought that was good. You didn’t like ‘em then,” he laughs. “We were just havin’ a joke.”
What was the next evolutionary step for The Beat after that incident? “Everett then said that what we should do was a really dirty regaee song! Something like ‘Wine & Grind’ … just really filthy Prince Buster song! We should go all Jamaican on her ass,” he laughs. “And the song went down fantastic. To the point were you felt a bit guilty singing such an overtly filthy, patronizing, crowing song. And so, to recompence for that we started writing ‘Stand Down Margaret’ to the same tune - to counterbalance it off. And it ended up overtaking and completely obliterating the fact that we’d done it on the back of ‘Wine & Grind’.”
“And so, people ask me, What made you do ‘Stand Down Margaret,’ Dave? And I tell them that they don’t really want to know - ‘cause, it’s not what it should be at all! It was so the drummer could get the singer of The Au Pairs back with a dirty regaee song,” he loudly laughs. “It became the theme song to a revolution!”
But, over here in North America you actually have to go by the name The English Beat - due to another American band known as The Paul Collins Beat! “I got a phone call at my flat in Hands worth … ‘Hi, Dave. This is Bill Graham.’ I was like, wow, the bloke that knew the Grateful Dead! He was like, ‘I hear you’ve got a group called The Beat? Well, you’ve got a problem then and so do I. I manage this fellow called Paul Collins and his band’s called The Beat here in San Francisco; and it’s been going for a few months. But, I hear you’re pretty good. Have you got management yet?’”
“I said we hadn’t, so he said, ‘if you’re interested in management, I think I could help you with the name.’ I then got all punky and said, ‘Oh, that’s nice. I suppose if next week another band called The Beat shows up and they’re even a bit better than us you’d do us in like you’d do your mate, Paul Collins!’ I never heard from him again,” he laughs.
So where did the ‘English’ part of the band’s name originate? “The moment the record company said that they hated our idea of us calling it The Beat Brothers! We thought it sounded like a close harmony Philly soul band. And the record company said that was exactly the reason why we couldn’t call the band that. The whole record company marketing department then had a Think Tank in New Zealand for ten days, to thrash it out - and they came back with Beat UK and The British Beat. Which one would we like?”
“At that point, hearing that, I thought that I’d just rather not be in a group than use either of those,” he laughs. “So, we were really upset, really worried, and had no idea what to do. Then we had to fly to New York to meet some people from the record company. We had signed in England, but they were just trying to sort out who we’d be with in America. And while there I saw some English muffins on the counter in a deli.”
“It’s funny, because the word ‘British’ still suggests the empire that was kicked out, that kind of thing. But ‘English’ … it’s like, ‘Hey, you might know my grand dad’s, second uncle’s brother, Steve! He’s from England. Do you know him?!’ Dark hair, two legs … oh yeah, I know him! Steve! It’s like no, never heard of him,” he laughs loudly. “But there is this sort of longing on that side of things, with regard the word ‘English.’ So, I said let’s call it The English Beat, that would be better. Well, the marketing department all fell off their chairs and pretended they’d all thought of it!”
But didn’t the first album STILL get released in Australia under a different name?! “Yeah, they liked British Beat anyway so they put the first album out as British Beat! The first run of the record over there says British Beat.”
How did that sit with you after all you had gone through to (help) choose the name? “Well, I said f**k you, we won’t be going there to tour, and I still haven’t been, mate!”
30 years on and you’ve still never once toured Australia?! “No. I’m getting over it now though Thirty years … I don’t hold a grudge … just thirty years and now that’s it … now let’s move on!”
The Beat only released three (3) albums 1980, 1982 and 1983 before they, well, didn’t any more! What happened? “Too much touring. Incessant touring - which some of us liked and some of us didn’t. And each side didn’t really know that the other side felt that way about it. It was just what we did. I still really do enjoy it. I like singing songs, in the moment: Troubadouring.”
All these years later, what does singing these famous songs mean to you today? “The songs mean the most to me when I’m singing them live. The version you do on the record is smashing, but for me, that’s just how I sang it to that backing track of the song that afternoon. For better or worse you don’t have any control over it … other than what your bit is. Live, singing a song, once you’ve got the hang of the song, and the hang of your own voice it’s like, put the band behind me boys, here we go: follow this. So now we kinda do orchestrated versions of the songs and it’s like that’s how it was meant to sound.”
OK, taking 3 of your hit singles and dissecting them, what can you tell us about what was going on in your life around the time they were recorded - and how did they lyrically come about:
Mirror in the Bathroom - “Not what everybody thought, although it became prophetically true some years later. I was working on a building site, had a bit too much to drink, and had forgotten to hang my clothes up. So, they were wet, which I didn’t notice until I got into the bathroom and I was about to shower. Everything, wet up to the knee with sand still stuck to them. I then put them on the coat hanger, hung them up, and warmed them up with fresh steam from the shower going on.”
“So, now I’m having a shave in the mirror and noticed the catch on the back of the door … and I started joking with myself, ‘We don’t have to do this at all. It’s just me and you. The door’s locked.’ But, we did … ‘cause we had to get some more sherry! But, the more you stare at yourself and the more obsessed you become about your feelings, the more you start thinking along those terms, the more isolated you become. And the more that happens you end up in that narcissistic state that the more you stare at each other the more you’re removed from everything else - and the only thing for you to love is yourself and now you’re stuck!”
“I then thought about where else you would see that … and it was a restaurant. A poor guy, as well. I think he thought he was doing great, but she was looking at her own reflection in the mirror of the table all night. It was one of those glass tables with that polished steel cocaine architecture and all that and she was like checking herself out. And he thought she was just being demure and looking down,” he laughs.
“And then, she’d got this thing where she looked as though she was looking at him, but in fact she was looking over his shoulder … ‘cause there was a mirror another three tables back! And she was checking how the silhouette of her hair was going as well. So, she’d got the long view going and the short view and he just thought he’d got her riveted!”
Too Nice to Talk To - “Barbarella’s Night Club in Birmingham on Broad Street. You could go there and dance the night away. But, at twenty past two, all the lights came on, and all the dreams you had been living - like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna have a word with that bird’ - suddenly came to a crashing halt! So, that was the start of it: ‘It’s too late now, it’s twenty past two, I’ve spent all night just watching you. I watched you dance, I watched you move, I kept really still and watched you move away’,” he laughs.
Hands Off She’s Mine - “Me and another chap … school uniforms involved … with lingerie … stockings … being picked up from school on a motorbike! Yeah, so that was worth fighting over, wasn’t it,” he laughs again.
Have you see her since those days? “Yes, a couple of times. She’s married … and married to somebody with a last name that now makes her sound like somebody really famous!”
After The Beat ended came a stint in General Public … was that as successful as you had hoped it would be? “It was more than I’d hoped it would be. I was hoping it would’ve been a little bit less. I had a simplier vision of it, but we got caught by synthesizeritus! One-finger wandering. I thought, having the drummer that played on ‘Geno,’ the piano player that arranged ‘Come On Eileen,’ the bloke who played the bass on The Specials songs, I’d strum some guitar, and Mick Jones, from The Clash said he’d like to play the guitar! I thought that would be smashing.”
“But then Roger had about 17 ideas for keyboards on most songs, and we both came from The Beat, that kinda made it a partnership. So, my partner insisted on playing everything he could bloody think of,” he laughs. “Some of it was great. Most of it made the record sound a little clostrophobic and dated - from a distance. Too many of the tunes ended up sounding more like a catalogue of sounds available on synthesizers in the years ‘83 through ‘85. Whereas, with The Beat, we got away with it because Bob Sergeant wouldn’t let us have anything like that on it. If it was an organ it was a B3. If it was a piano it was a Steinway. If it was a guitar it was a valve amp.”
And so things between you quickly become frayed "It just spun out of control, in the end. Once we’d become equal partners, Roger just got thoroughly excited and would just end up doing demos where there were already 40 tracks of one-finger keyboard, percussion, vocals, harmonies, backing vocals, chanting, shouting bits. He’d ask me to take a listen and tell him what I thought. I was pretty good at that. I’d done it well in the past. I’d pick out the best bits and tell him, ‘Here’s ya bread an’ butter. Here’s yer lil’ pearl in the oyster right here, Rog’.”
“The trouble is, pretty soon you’d finish all the bloody songs and every part of it had become personal to you. Now you love every one of the 40 tracks on it. So, all I can now do is listen to it, tell you it’s bloody great, and give it you back - as you ain’t gonna like anything I suggest,” he laughs. “The last song I managed to get in on was a song called, ‘So Excited.’ Roger had this instrumental that I thought was attractive and I managed to catch it before there were any words added. I then came up with a lyric and a melody, but we never resolved it. And Roger kept on doing the more panoramic demos and I was less and less involved. It looked at it’s best that it was going to be a Lennon and McCartney album … with one each side … rather than a Beatles record. “
“So, he started going on about a solo record and that all his best songs would be on that record. But we had to choose which three, out of the crap ones that we’d got left, that we wanted for General Public. And I was like, this is just not gonna work. So, it all caved in. He did bring out a solo record and the last song I’d managed to get the lyrics onto was the one he picked as his single! Which I thought was hilarious! Radical Departure, the record was called, and the first single was ‘So Excited‘.”
“And I thought it was funny because it was about condoms, which I don’t think he knew at the time! ‘You got me so excited. I’m gonna wrap it up and give it all to you. You got me so excited.’ I dunno, maybe he did, but it was still a nice song. So, some of General Public was great, moments of it in the mixes were absolutely wonderful. Some of the 12” dance mixes we did with the likes of John 'Jellybean' Benitez were great. But some of it was a bit too dense and claustrophobic. But, I liked it live, because you can’t play that many keyboard parts at the same time.”
Over here we have your version of the band, The English Beat, but back in the UK there’s Roger’s version, still simply know as The Beat. Can you even tour back in the UK with your version of the band? “Well, it’s gonna come to something soon, isn’t it. We haven’t had to face it, as yet. We said that if we were gonna work over the pond from each other, we would work with each other. But, it hasn’t come to that yet. So, we’ll see. I don’t really mind going as The English Beat. I think it would be amusing. It would be a bit silly back in Birmingham, that I understand. We were meant to do one show where Roger was meant to join us, but it fell through. But that happens a lot.”
Word has it you have been recording new English Beat songs for a 2010 release. How did this all come about, after all these years? “I had to do the demos first, then give them to a few people, and ask them what they sounded like. And I was surprised as a lot of them said ‘that sounds like early Beat!’ I didn’t expect that. I was wondering if it would sound like The Beat or if it would sound like Dave Wakeling. So, I was happy then. I knew I was doing shows as The English Beat and that had been an evolving thing.”
“And they do seem to work for the live shows. And we do General Public songs, as well. So, only the most linear of historians bothers about that. We stick ‘em in different places in the set. I think when we get back we’re gonna start recording them and hopefully we’ll have them with us when we start touring with Squeeze in August. If not, they’ll be ready in September when we go touring with Bad Manners.”
With ‘80s tours such as Regeneration, Rewind, and Here & Now as successful as ever, why has there never been a Two-Tone tour put together? “Well, I’ve been talking about it and I think that there might be one planned soon. The Specials have just started up again and I think they’re talking about next year packaging bands together like that. I’ve always thought of something like Specials, Madness, English Beat, Selector, Bad Manners, Bodysnatchers. It would be great. It would be a lovely summer tour and I hope to be part of it next year.”
Finally, Exclusive Magazine love penguins … do you? “I have a favorite penguin,” he states, all matter-of-factly. “The Emperor penguin. I love Emperor penguins. ‘cause they’re the ones where she lays the egg and she then sods off to the ocean to try and get some food. And he has to stand there, shuffling around it, keeping it warm, for a long time. And it’s that cold that they have to shift. They can only do twenty minutes to half an hour on the outside of the circle. And then they go into the middle of the circle. The penguins would die within two hours if they stayed on the outside of the pack. Just because of the wind. But the egg would die within an hour. So, there’s this amazing rotation of it and even though they’re like huge, brooding, sulking, hulking beasts, with wind and ice flows coming at’em, they manage to operate in amazing tandem with each other.”
“So, I often use that illusion to the band where at times of trouble between us, I tell them, ‘We’re just like Emperor penguins here lads. Shoulder to shoulder for the glory of Ska. If you’re feeling a bit cold f**k off into the middle of the pack. Watch that egg … don’t break it. It’s not worth breaking eggs over. Just get in the middle of the pack and shut up’,” he laughs.
Interviewed by: Russell A. Trunk
Click here to read the latest English Beat in concert review!