July 10, 2012

An Interview with Dave Wakeling of the English Beat

That a conversation with Dave Wakeling ostensibly about music soon shifts to matters of sociopolitical concern shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with the man’s career, most notably his stint as the principal songwriter, singer, and guitarist for the English Beat.

Formed in Birmingham, England in 1978, the English Beat (or the Beat, as they were more commonly known outside of the States) emerged as a seminal exponent of the era’s vibrant ska-punk movement. The band, which along with Wakeling (vocals/guitar) included Andy Cox (guitar), David Steele (bass), Everett Morton (drums), Lionel Augustus Martin AKA “Saxa (saxophone), and Ranking Roger (toasting), earned both popular success and critical acclaim with hit singles like Mirror in the Bathroom, Stand Down Margaret, and Save It For Later, often chronicling and, at times, decrying some of the most contentious issues of the day.

Released on Tuesday by Shout! Factory as a five-disc boxed set, The Complete Beat collects the band's three-album discography along with two supplemental discs — one of extended and remixed tracks, and another of select live material and archival sessions recorded on legendary DJ John Peel's BBC Radio 1 program. A one-disc retrospective, Keep The Beat: The Very Best of The English Beat, is also being released.

The English Beat’s original lineup broke up in 1983 — Wakeling and Ranking Roger went on to form General Public (“Tenderness, Taking the Day Off), while Andy Cox and David Steele co-founded Fine Young Cannibals (She Drives Me Crazy, Good Thing) — though Wakeling, who for nearly the last 25 years has lived in California, keeps the old moniker alive on the road.

Like much of the music he helped create three decades ago, he remains as incisive and unflinching as ever. Says Wakeling, “You’ve got to be willing to put yourself on the line.
The music of the English Beat certainly had a political context to it. Do you think there is still a place for that in music today where it can touch a nerve in the — no pun intended — general public?

I know people are terrified over it because they think it might ruin their careers. It’s amazing how many times people are quite vociferous backstage but they won’t say “boo” to a goose in case it harms their career. I find that disappointing. For us at the time, we didn’t think we were doing anything special, frankly. We were just singing about what everybody was talking about in every bar and at every bus stop. It didn’t seem appropriate that just because you got to be in a pop group you had to stop talking about what was on everybody else’s lips.

How does your early work as a songwriter resonate with you now?

I haven’t changed my mind on much of it. Some of the painful experiences that everybody will go through over a number of decades give you a few more dimensions on it. Most of it I would still stand by. A lot of it, when you haven’t heard a song for ages… I was listening to “Cheated” and “I Am Your Flag.” I’d forgotten some of the lyrics because they’re not songs that I always sing that often. So it’s, “Oh, that’s a good one. You were on a roll there, Dave!” There’s not many places where I wince looking back on them.

What did it mean to you to have Pete Townshend cover “Save It For Later”?

Probably one of the most exciting moments in my life, really; that and having Elvis Costello sing “Stand Down Margaret” on tour. … I got to meet Pete Townshend and talk to him for a few minutes. He told me that songwriters were the luckiest people in the world; it just didn’t always seem that way. [Laughs]

Some songwriters say that songwriting can be the loneliest job in the world.

It can be terrifying, but unless you’re willing to go there by yourself and have the pen in hand, shaking with laughter or shaking with fears, pacing the room in fury and feeling the hairs up on your neck and your arms… Unless you’re willing to go there you’re not going to write a song that’s going to connect to people when you’re playing it in front of them. It has to draw out those big emotions. You have to be really moved during the process.

You can do it other ways. You can just sit there and academically write out some witty double-entendres — I could probably write 30 songs a day — but I only bother to write and sing songs that move me, that I think I’ll be able to connect directly with people when I sing them. They’ll not only understand the words but they’ll understand the emotion of where I was trying to come from.

Is that process as you describe it daunting to approach? There must be times when you think, I just can’t go there today.

Oh yes, you have to pick your moments. You’ve got to be in the right mood for it to go there. There’s no doubt about it. And you usually can’t push it; you wait ‘til it comes. It’s usually a combination of things. Either something’s been playing on your mind or something on the news joins the dots and you suddenly feel something really strongly.

Tonight, in fact, during the night — I always sleep with the television on — there was a lot of Obama and Romney to-ing and fro-ing. I must’ve kept waking up and going back to sleep, and it was sort of playing on my mind and playing in my dreams. And it occurred to me that Obama’s seeming willingness to compromise is a very honorable thing, although it’s taken as weakness, I believe. Whereas Romney’s only sense of compromise is to compromise himself about what he said in the past. There’s compromise in both of the candidates; one of them I find honorable, one of them I find dishonorable.

The problem is Obama has been willing to compromise but his opposition has not.

Yes, that’s right. Sometimes you can offer an olive branch and it comes back as a shillelagh. … I was expecting a more open approach, [however]. It seemed old politics to me to have Rahm Emanuel in there just getting in everybody’s face. It seemed to piss off the Republicans right from the kick-off. It didn’t seem like as much of a hands-across-the-aisle [spirit], which it should’ve been.

More than that it just disappointed me because I’m a big fan of America, always was when I was a kid—“e pluribus unum” and all of that. It’s a pity that Americans seem to loathe each other; it’s split right down the middle. I enjoy my Facebook debates sometimes, but sometimes people are so vitriolic. I’m like, “Are you sure you’re talking about the right country? Because how can you love America and hate 100 million Americans?” That doesn’t make sense.

As far as Obama, he needs to stand his ground more.

It reminds of something my dad used to say, which I wish Obama had said from the first year along. He’d say, “Dave, I’ll play ball with you if you’ll play ball with me, but let’s not forget whose fucking ball it is.” I wish he’d have done that, like, “Fuck you, I’m the president. Show some respect.”

I grew up in England under the Labour Party that was ostensibly a socialist government. And this ain’t nothing like it. I grew up under the British national health system. And Obamacare ain’t nothing like it. They’re just buzzwords for [people], I think. It’s understandable that people get angry. There’s a changing dynamic in America.

In certain parts of the country more than others, a certain class of white people has been in charge of things for a few hundred years. And they’ve not been very kind the way they’ve kept that power. But for them to feel that they might lose power they immediately think that they will be treated as badly as they treated people when they were in power. So you can see why they’re terrified. You can see why they’re becoming so reactive.

Some people have a very idealistic view of the past.

There is that sort of thing; people want to go back a couple of generations: “I wish it was the way things were—the good old days.” I remember the ‘50s and ‘60s. There were kids going to school walking up a hill with metal calipers on their legs because they got polio. Everybody had a friend with a clanking leg. “The good old days.” Somebody’s mum would go into hospital with cancer on a Monday and she was dead by the Wednesday. “The good old days.” I think the idealism is they just want to go back to the last time that they were the only people ever saying anything, when the likes of Obama were meant to avert their eyes if they walked by. Well, guess what? Those times are gone.


The shame about it as well, though, is even amongst some of the people whose opinions I find to be a bit shallow and spiteful there is also a great deal of common humanity. You can sit and talk in a bar or a truck stop, find whichever American you sit next to and have a pretty open conversation. You can share quite a lot of information. You can focus on what you might have in common and share stories. You don’t know what party they support; they don’t know what party you support. I’ve found that just in terms of general human kindness people are very open in America.

Florida, there’s a good example. You break down on the side of the freeway in Florida in the pouring rain, you might only sit there five or 10 minutes before a complete stranger parks his car and strolls back to you — and gets soaking wet in the process — to ask you if you need any help. We’d do that in England and it’d be like three years later somebody would phone to say, “I think there’s a skeleton sitting in a car.”

There’s something terribly open about American people that it’s a shame that the political process seems to drive them — at the moment at least — to such mean-spiritedness and hatred toward one another. That’s the bit that disappoints me most. You see a great American sports team at the Olympics, all different shapes and sizes and colors, probably different political affiliations as well. But they work as a team and they’re often the best in the world. And even though I’m not a military man myself it must be said that the American Army seems to draw from all sorts of different types of people, and when they work as a team they are capable of kicking some ass. What is it about America that makes us forget that we make a good team?